How I Traveled Around the World with Just a Carry-On
I traveled through three climates in three weeks and didn't check a bag. Here's how I packed.
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A few months ago, I was waiting at the boarding gate at my home airport in Redmond, Oregon, feeling pretty proud. In 20 years of working for Outside, I’d done my share of traveling on assignment, but this was the first time a series of jobs would take me all the way around the world. The plan called for a week in the sweaty Fijian jungle, followed by ten days in autumnal Sweden. To break up the 25 hours of air time it takes to get from Nadi, Fiji, to Göteborg, Sweden, I added a 27-hour layover in Doha, Qatar, where the forecast called for clear skies and a high of 115 degrees. All in all, I was looking at three climates in three weeks, with four airlines, ten airports, and multiple activities that ranged from hiking and running to paddling and biking.
The proud part? I’d checked zero bags. Everything I needed was in a tidy carry-on and personal item. Both were so small, in fact, that I could easily fit them in those diminutive overhead bins you find on puddle jumpers.
Baggage is the bane of the adventure traveler. Commercial airlines in the United States likely collected more than $5 billion in baggage fees in 2019, according to the Department of Transportation. Worldwide, the figures are staggering. In 2018, some 4.36 billion travelers checked more than 4.27 billion bags, says SITA, a Switzerland-based airline-baggage-tracking firm. While the chance of your suitcase never making it to baggage claim has actually gone down over the years, airlines are charging more for the schlepping service. The price for checking luggage on many of the nation’s carriers leapt 20 percent last year, from $25 to $30 for the first bag.
Saving coin wasn’t what had motivated me, though. Nor was it the fear that even a delayed bag on such a complicated itinerary would almost certainly mean never seeing it again. Rather, a few simple tricks and techniques I’ve used to perfect my packing over the years, combined with some smart but easy clothing choices, left me with shockingly little—about 25 pounds total. And that’s from a six-foot-seven, 200-plus-pound middle-age dude whose outfits quite possibly carry twice the volume of yours.
How did I do it? Let’s break it down.
Choose Clothes That Do Triple Duty
No matter what you bring, the idea is to pack items that can work in multiple situations. This is deceptively hard. It means you may have to leave behind the expensive pants you bought specifically for hiking in favor for some less rugged ones that could also work at a sit-down stübli.
For relatively nicer button-up shirts, I go with ExOfficio (starting at $31), since its apparel is quick drying, easy to clean in a sink, and acceptable attire for interviewing officials. For warmer trips, I like Columbia’s Silver Ridge 2.0 shirt ($40), because it includes UPF 50 sun protection. The Renegade pant from Kühl ($85) is the definition of triple duty: I’ve worn mine hiking, skiing, and even to a wedding once. A light sweater or black base-layer top makes it look like I’m mixing up outfits. ExOfficio’s Give-N-Go briefs ($26) are the best thing to come along down there for men since the fig leaf. Except for a few pairs of black socks, everything I pack dries quickly.
Granted, as a shaggy non-fashionista, I get away with some things that maybe others can’t. My toiletry kit is a brush each for teeth and hair, some contact solution, toothpaste, and a small vial of Ibuprofen. I rarely need formal wear. Two pairs of shoes—trail runners and sandals—generally see me through.
Fold or Roll?
Some traveling friends prefer to roll their clothes like scrolls. Others fold them flat like a sales clerk might at the Gap. I find rolling shirts doesn’t cut down on as much bulk as I’d like, and a simple fold doesn’t do it at all. So I combine the methods—folding, then sort of rolling—which is basically what Marie Kondo, the Japanese anti-clutter czar, teaches. This works great for almost everything except button-up long sleeves, pants, and sweaters.
For those, I rely on Eagle Creek’s Pack-It folders ($35), the only packing-specific items I’ve ever bought, and they’ve lasted me nearly a decade. They have a rectangular, flexible plastic bottom and four nylon flaps that wrap around your clothes with hook and loop closures. You fold your shirts and pants flat, stack them on the open folder, and wrap and compress the pile using the flaps. This method definitely saves on space, and clothes arrive mostly wrinkle-free.
Eagle Creek’s Specter Tech Compression Cubes ($40) are another must. Not only do you cut down considerably on bulk, but it’s super easy to keep everything organized, which makes repacking quick when you’re always on the move. I put shirts in one cube and socks and underwear in another. I make a third cube my activity cube, with workout clothes, a heart-rate monitor, a headband, and everything else I need for morning runs in one grab-and-go package. You can see through the fabric well enough to tell what cube holds what, but with so little stuff, it’s easy to remember.
I put all of my chargers and cables (bound together with rubber bands or coiled up in Humangear GoTubbs), as well as notebooks, pens, spare batteries, a voice recorder, and other travel-writer tools, in another sack. Use Ziplocs if nothing else.
Use the Best Carry-On
I used to be a roller-bag kind of guy, and I still use one when the hard-adventure component is low or I’m checking a bag anyway. But these days, I’m all about bags you can carry comfortably on your back. Anyone who’s ever dragged a wheeled duffel up the cobblestone streets of Lisbon, Portugal, would agree with me.
Cotopaxi’s Allpa bag ($200) is a game changer. It now comes in three sizes—42, 35, and 28 liters—but the 35-liter version strikes the perfect balance between size and function. Even fully loaded, it still fits in the tiny overhead bins on planes that fly into the smaller adventure towns you probably want to visit. Yet it’s big enough that it could easily hold everything I brought. It has a TPU-coated polyester exterior that sheds water and won’t wet out when you dump it on a rainy sidewalk in Stockholm. The backpack harness distributes weight well.
But it’s the little things that make the bag so rad. It opens up clamshell style to reveal mesh compartments that make it easy to find what you packed. There’s a laptop sleeve you can access from the outside. The zippers all have this ingenious loop of fabric that you can slip the zipper head under, which makes it nearly impossible for a thief to surreptitiously open the bag while you’re wandering through the souk.
Since my round-the-world jaunt, I’ve taken the pack across the country twice, most recently out to Utah to get some of that five feet of snow that fell. I had to check my skis, so I put my bulky jacket, pants, and gloves in with them, and I used the Allpa for everything else. Once again I had so little that I could breeze through security, get on and off planes quickly, and waste no time getting up to and out of my hotel room. That meant more time doing what I’d come to do.
For a personal item, almost anything will work, like a small backpack or laptop bag. I see a lot of messenger bags coming down the aisles, but I’m lukewarm on them. You want something boxier, with maximum room for minimum space. Think Fjällräven’s Kånken series of packs. Ideally, it should be big enough that if you, say, buy a bottle of rare rum and need to put it in the Allpa and check it to get it home, the personal item can easily hold the overflow. Just in case, I always stuff a small, collapsible backpack into my bag that can haul kit around on city missions and double as a second carry-on should I buy too much and need to check the Allpa on the return home.
Eagle Creek used to make a larger cube-shaped overnight or gym bag that opens up clamshell style, with mesh flaps that I still use as my preferred personal item. It holds everything I may want to get at in-flight: headphones, books, a water bottle, pens.
Here’s the List of What I Actually Packed
- 3 pairs of pants
- 2 long-sleeved button-up shirts
- 1 short-sleeved button-up shirt
- 1 llama-wool sweater
- 1 thin hoodie
- 1 sun shirt
- 5 T-shirts
- 2 shorts (with “gear loft” for a comfy commando)
- 2 base-layer tops
- 1 base-layer bottom
- 1 pajama bottom (that I also wore on that 18-hour flight from Auckland, New Zealand, to Doha)
- 1 rainjacket (very light, can stuff into its own pocket)
- 8 pairs of socks
- 10 pairs of underwear
- Hiking/running shoes (black, so I can get away with them at dinner)
- A Buff, a beanie
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- Neck pillow
- Books, notebooks, a laptop, Kindle, pens
- Chargers, cords
- Dirty trucker hat
- Water bottle (and a UV stick for purifying tap water)
- Small collapsible daypack
In the end, what I packed made it all the way around the world without much issue. I have a rule that says: if I bring it, I must wear it. The ten pairs of underwear made me break it. Even in rainy Sweden, clothes dried quickly after a wash in the hotel sink, so five pairs would have been just fine. I didn’t pack enough toothpaste. I had to buy a razor. I also got great at answering one question over and over: “Is this all you brought?”