No, you didn’t read that wrong.
Sure, there are asterixes that must be factored into such a declarative statement. But when all is said and done, no asterix invalidates the convenience of hauling oneself across time zones and countries with only hand luggage. I have become the most enthusiastic advocate for travelling light. There’s something immeasurably satisfying in condensing an entire life down to the essentials. No stiff shoulders from hunching under the burden of an enormous pack, overencumbered like an Elder Scrolls character. No “what if they lose my baggage?” panic attacks at the airport baggage claim. No separation anxiety for a long and rickety bus ride across rural India as your bag is stowed out of sight, and unsecured. If the latter example sounds somewhat bitter, it’s probably because I am.
I’m a peculiar traveller: equal parts whimsically avoidant of anything resembling commitment, and utterly Type A. I like to be organised, schooled up on where I'm going, and have my affairs in order before I land. Departing Australia indefinitely comes with its own benefits, one of which is definitely the freedom that comes with no defined return date, and thus, no obligations. Spontaneity is what I'm all about.
I don't much like to have my hostels booked in advance, or exact lengths of time in one place mapped out day-by-day. Packaged tours are my idea of a perfect hell and I’d rather check out and back into one venue a dozen individual times than risk feeling locked into a commitment on the road. Travelling carry-on only frees up my energy to duck and weave as I please, both physically and psychologically. But I'll know how to say "please" and "thank you" in the local language before I land. I'll know a bit about the country's history. I'll have my vaccinations sorted and made sure my First Aid kit is bulging at the sides.
No surprise, then, that I researched the everloving heck out of every potential bit of gear to bring with me. The Travel Fashion Girl packing lists were sublimely motivational in my decision to commit – because let’s be frank, it is a commitment – to minimalistic packing. I packed and repacked too many times to count, assessing the value of each individual item before I would permit myself to hold onto it. The old travel mantra of “pack half as much stuff and bring twice as much money” has never been interpreted so literally.
I booked the cheapest possible flight through arguably the most stringent Australian airline when it comes to weighing bags meticulously, and penalising overpackers with a measured, indifferent brutality that makes the experience sting just that little bit more.
Jetstar, like Ryanair, does not suffer optimists lightly. The measurements of a bag must not exceed 56cm x 36cm x 23cm. The weight is seven kilograms. Seven.
So, in lieu of being irritated, I rolled with it. Admittedly, the final weigh-in of my bag did see the weight run slightly over, but I made peace with sacrificing dignity for the principle. I was fully prepared to histrionically latch all my bras over my clothing if the poor attendant at the check-in desk gave me a hard time. This would likely not have made much difference to the final weight, but that's not so much the point by that stage. Then, it's only about ensuring you don't balk.
I plumped for Travel Fashion Girl’s enthusiastically endorsed backpack of choice: the Osprey Farpoint. However, rather than sticking to her modest 40L, I plumped for the 55L (sized for Small-Medium physiques, as the bag comes with two options). The additional 15L is comprised of a day pack that can be latched to the bag’s front, with a cushioned, in-built laptop sleeve. This alone renders the 55L pretty much the mecca of everything an author on the road needs for peace of mind.
But Scarlett, I hear you ask, Doesn’t the attached day pack throw your dimensions out, given all pieces of hand luggage are measured together?
You’re not wrong. But the inside of the 40L has nifty little straps that allow me to strap the daypack into place, provided it’s not bloated with anything bulky.
Thus far, I am absolutely besotted with the Farpoint. The usability is perfect for my needs. Its compartments at the inner front of the bag allow me to roll and squeeze essentially all of my clothing into the space, leaving the main bag perfect for stowing away electronics, toiletries, and my bulky but ultimately necessary hiking/running hybrid shoes.
So, with the logistics of the bag out of the way, what does one take when they only have seven(ish) kilograms of stuff?
My packing list is as follows:
I have broken the Travel Fashion Girl rule about “colour stories”, which dictates that clothes should be symbiotic in colour and texture so they can be mixed and matched. But even domestically, I'm a huge proponent of power clashing, so that was never going to be something I could pull off.
Whilst carrying only one of any garment is a risky decision, I have found that mixing and matching individual garments has saved me a world of hassle. The only item I refuse to skimp on is underwear, and justifiably so: whilst wearing a smelly or stained shirt when desperate is necessary, recycling underwear has its own health and hygiene risks. It's simply not worth the squeamishness, regardless of what judgemental "authentic travelling" statements tumble from the lips of that one bearded white fella everyone seems to know. You know the one. Who’s lost a couple of months in rural Laos and thus sees himself as not an expat, not a local, but definitely not a tourist. Gag.
Electronics have undoubtedly been where the bulk of my baggage weight has been attributed. For a solo traveller, a selfie stick is more than a marketing gimmick; it’s a necessity that I will justify until the end of time. It's foolish to entrust an expensive camera with a stranger who reluctantly agrees to snap an awkward photo in front of something picturesque. The exchange is rendered all the more uncomfortable given the omnipresent fear that perhaps the one person we have chosen will be morally dubious enough to run away with it. I purchased a GoPro specifically for this trip. This was done for two reasons:
My iPhone has been a godsend, particularly in Thailand where SIM cards with 4G access put my own Telstra reception back home to shame. Leaving my Macbook Air behind was never an option that I considered. I can’t write books on a phone or an eReader, and more to the point, it's my portable safe place for when I feel the need to create something. Without it, I’d likely become a bundle of anxiety in no time.
I couldn't justify the weight of an external hard drive, but perhaps that's because I’m still salty over my last one accidentally breaking in my suitcase during my last trip abroad. Instead, I have a modest 8 gigabyte USB. Then, of course, come the chargers for each individual appliance. One adaptor is sufficient for my needs. When the time comes to leave Asia, I'll pay it forward for another tourist to use.
Toiletries are less heavy than irritatingly bulky. On the upside, I find myself becoming increasingly diligent in taking my medications on schedule, because I want the bottomless sack to eventually thin out. For a trip of my length, sickness is inevitable, and so having the right medicines handy is a must. But that didn’t stop me from writing out a cheat sheet listing purposes and dosages for each item, so I could throw out the bulky boxes in which they came.
A small kitbag with a miniature hairbrush, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask and earplugs is kept separate from my toiletries bag for easy access, and portability into hostel bathrooms. Whilst I doubt a scheming fiend would have much interest in swiping my Travacalm, it never hurts to be too careful, and if this bag is stolen, what of it? The highest-value item they've scored is a toothbrush.
I haven't had to use my dry bag for its original purpose yet, but it's been handy for storing dirty laundry. I don’t love that it traps air if I don't seal it just so, but that really says more about my technique than anything else.
I have a little handbag, purchased at an Op Shop in the days immediately preceding my departure. I've used it daily when out and about, and I love that I can have access to a little bit of cash, my phone, sunglasses, and my GoPro easily. Whilst I love the Osprey daypack, it demands a permanent lock affixed to all zips, or that I constantly watch my back as I walk. Never a fun feeling.
There are a few things I opted not to bring that I don’t regret – sunscreen being one of them. My sensitive skin freaks out at conventional formulations but Asian skincare is generally geared for a market of faces as sensitive as my own. I picked up a Biore 50+++ PA bottle for a couple of dollars. I also purchased some citronella spray that has been decent for keeping mosquitos away.
There are things that would have been nice to bring, but I haven’t needed them thus far. I’d love to have a dress or two, my Converse high-tops, a few more shirts, and a pair of jeans… but those are things I can pick up from the road if I ever truly feel the need to get them. I do wish I had a second pair of shorts, because they're my most comfortable thing to wear and with all my pants and skirts being washed on laundry day, I'm obligated to swan around in a dress that, too, should probably be washed.
If you asked me in all honesty whether travelling carry-on only is worth it, I wouldn't hesitate to endorse it. I’d rather buy not one single item more than I already have if it means I can move with this ease forever.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.