Packing for Southeast Asia – Minimalist Style

Here it is... everything I packed in my 33L backpack for ~4 months in SE Asia.
Here I am with everything I packed in my 33L backpack for ~4 months in SE Asia. Yep, that’s it.

After a long summer road-tripping, Adam and I are officially off on our wildest adventure yet. Southeast Asia, here we come. We started in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on September 15th, and we’re hoping to visit a few other countries over the next four months before returning to the USA. I wanted to start with this packing post so it’s clear why we’re wearing the same three outfits in every future picture of our trip. It’s also an excuse to put a hot celebrity on the blog. 

Here's Adam and all his luggage for a four month trip.
Here’s Adam and all his luggage for a four month trip.

Being married to someone who’s turning out to be an extreme minimalist has it’s ups and downs, but it always keeps life interesting. When Adam decided HE was going to Asia with only his tiny 15-liter backpack (more on that later), I knew I better pare down my stuff pretty quickly or I’d be tromping around behind him, dragging my giant bag, sweating profusely, and swearing like a sailor while he lightly frolicked from place to place.

Aside from my moderately competitive nature, there is certain logic to traveling extremely light. For one, it does make getting around a lot easier. I can carry my backpack everywhere, and hopefully won’t need to check it, even on short flights. The second pro is that it really simplifies everything. I only have a few outfits, with a lot of wicking, wool, and quick dry fabrics that shouldn’t get stinky, can be washed in the sink, and will dry quickly. Third, especially after camping, we realized there were things we packed that we rarely used. This happened most with extra basics like shirts and underwear. We also found it’s easy to find laundry when needed. So why not leave the extras at home and save some more space?

Finally, packing light gives me a great excuse to put Brad Pitt on my blog. Like  this:

Thank you, Tyler Durden (from Fight Club)

On the cons side, I am very uncomfortable leaving almost all my “just-in-case” items at home. I’m not sure I will want to wear the same clothes day after day especially after mostly washing them in the sink. I will very likely be under-dressed for something in the next few months. I might get cold or sick or wet or blistered, but I hope these potential negatives will be outweighed by the convenience and simplicity of traveling light, plus SE Asia has some of the cheapest clothes on the planet, so we won’t break the bank if we need some new outfits.

Many of you may think this is crazy. I don’t blame you. I thought it was pretty nutso at first and I still find it a little stressful, partly because I have no idea if it will work.   But I am giving it a try, and am hoping it will at least be an interesting follow up blog post.

I started planning with a 15-liter target because Adam and I already own matching Osprey Farpoint 55-L Travel Packs, originally purchased for backpacking. These bags have a big pack and a small day pack that zip together and can be used either together or separately. Since he already had this small day pack, OF COURSE Adam was going to figure out how to use it. (Side note, we both loved these packs and I’d absolutely recommend them for backpacking, just not for traveling.)

It didn’t take me long to realize that 15-L was entirely too ambitious for me at this point, so I upsized 2x to a medium 33-L backpack. It’s still pretty small and light, and it achieves most of the goals of being easy to carry around, simple, and allowed on all but the smallest planes as carry-on.

So here’s what’s in that not-so-big backpack:

Clothing, Accessories and Toiletries – This is about half of my bag:

        • Tops – Two short sleeved t-shirts, one icebreaker wool and one magic poly-blend, and one long sleeve REI polyester shirt to keep sun and bugs away. I’ve already fallen in love with this tech light crew t-shirt from Icebreaker after wearing it every other day for two weeks before we left the US. I’m also planning to pick up a tank top as soon as I see one I like.

      • Dress – I brought one black Ex-Officio sundress which I love, in case we do decide to go somewhere moderately nice in the evening. It’s a pretty heavy cotton/poly blend, so it’s my one splurgy item, as I’m not sure if it will be comfortable or will ever dry in the humidity and it takes up a lot of space.
      • Bottoms – Three Khaki camping pants, travel skirt with cargo pockets, running shorts. Of these, I would wear these pants every day if I could – they are functional, cute and comfy. Unfortunately I think it will be too hot. They could also use slightly bigger pockets but I will make it work.

    • Shoes – Flip flops (from Target, of course) and really beat up old Nike sneakers, plus two pairs of socks.
    • Underwear – I have two bras and three pairs of underwear.  I’m going to try the wash-in-the-sink route and see if that flies. If not, I may end up buying a few more pairs to get from laundry day to laundry day.
    • Other Clothes – One bikini and one Hipknoties – Scarf / 30-way garment – a scarf-like garment that promises it can be worn as a top, dress, or skirt. I’m hoping it will work as a scarf and a beach cover up and we’ll see about the rest.
    • Other Accessories – Sunglasses in a hard case, a small umbrella, and a small pocket that clips to a bra strap for cash or credit cards. I used this one (shown right) in Brazil and I loved it. It was easy to keep cash safe from a pickpocket but not too hard to access if needed.
  • Toiletries – All the basics you’d expect, in travel size, plus a few meds like ibuprofen, pepto, and a handful of sleeping pills my sister-in-law recommended. We also have hand sanitizer wipes and goo, a small bottle of 100% Deet, and sunscreen. Somehow I ended up carrying all these because Adam thinks they’re unnecessary.

If you want to see all the pictures and links for the clothes, check it my board on Pinterest.

Electronics – This is the other half of the space in my bag:

  • Dell PC and charging cord
  • Camera – Small, and old but amazing Canon camera with case, boxy wall charger, and transfer micro cable
  • Android phone (On wifi mode  for now) with USB mini charger and headphones
  • Kindle (uses same cords as android)
  • Other small things: Small Flashlight, Converter, and Emergency USB charging power pack (Same cord as android), all packed in zip lock bags in case my bag gets wet

Aside from clothes and electronics, I have a plastic folder with a few papers, including a bunch of copies of our passports (to give to anyone who wants our passport), the visa-on-arrival approval letter we need for Vietnam, and more passport photos. I think I have three pens.

Finally, I have my fairly giant copy of Lonely Planet’s SE Asia on a Shoestring. Adam cannot believe I packed this because it’s large and you can find a lot of this information on the internet. We’ll see if it’s worth it’s weight.

Here’s some things I thought about and decided not to bring:

  • Small purses or a day-pack – I’m hoping to get by with my pockets or use Adam’s small bag in a pinch
  • Rain Jacket – I brought an umbrella and plan to buy a cheap poncho when needed
  • Hat – I left my beat up baseball cap at home, so I might splurge for a straw hat at some point if we start spending a lot of time in the sun
  • Towel – Many packing sites recommend a small towel in case your hotel or hostel doesn’t have one. This felt like something we could get locally if needed.
  • Silk sleeping bag / sleep liner – I have one of these packed away in Chicago, and while some packing sites recommend one for really dodgy sleeping conditions, I don’t think we’re going to be sleeping this far down the food chain.
  • Sweater or other warm layers – Since we are planning to only be in tropical climates, I’m hoping the long sleeved / long pants combo will be enough.

So, overall, while I am nervous about not having the right things, I’m loving my small bag. I’m hopeful I can go buy anything else I need for cheap. I’ll definitely blog (complain?) about if it works in a few weeks. I hope this inspires others to pack a little lighter on their next adventure. And in the meantime, when I get nervous, I’ll just keep telling myself that I am the Tyler Durden of backpacking Vietnam, just without the fighting and anarchy and the soap.

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