Ian’s Guide to Packing Light


My work with Alma means I spend quite a bit of time traveling. The majority of the time these are one or two day trips to visit the communities we work in, throughout the Cusco region. However, we also have projects in the Peruvian Amazon, the Bolivian Amazon, and in La Paz. Wherever I go, and no matter for how long, I try to keep my belongings within the limits of one regular school-sized backpack.

I noticed on my recent week-long trip through Bolivia that many people commented on how little I bring. I was in both La Paz (high altitude Andes: cold) and in Trinidad (Amazon jungle: hot) during the week and therefore had to make some careful choices about what to pack in order for it to fit in my backpack. Here are some of my packing essentials!

  1. 1. Ear plugs and hat: Whenever I travel I always bring these two items. The hat is obviously useful for the sun, but I use it during long bus trips also to cover my eyes when trying to sleep. When coupled with the earplugs, no book lights or loud snorers will ruin your travel rest!
  2. 2. The safety sock: This is an oldie but a goody. The safety sock is a security tool I use to protect my cash, credit cards, and identification. It is, as it sounds, a sock…but with a hole towards the ankle that can be slipped around your pants button and the buttoned into place. Some say that the safety sock has been replaced by the travel waist packs, but I still prefer the sock. You don’t have to tie something around your waist and no one can see it even if your shirt is pulled up.
  3. 3. Toilet paper: For those that have traveled in South America before, you know that TP must be brought with you as many bathrooms don’t provide their own. To save space, pull out the cardboard tube and flatten.
  4. 4. The towel: Towels, like pants, are big and bulky. In many hostels in South America towels aren’t included with the room, so it’s safer to bring your own. To get around this I bring the smaller hand towels. It works just as well to dry off and doesn’t take up nearly as much room. In extreme cases, a t-shirt can be used to replace the need for a towel completely!
  5. 5. Clothes: Clothing is always the biggest space eater on any trip, but I have a few suggestions for keeping clothing to a minimum. All it takes is a selective eye and some acceptance that the standards of personal hygiene from you regular, sedentary life will be knocked down a peg or two! And don’t forget, in worst case scenarios, you can always use a bathroom sink and shampoo to wash your clothes!
    1. a. I’ll start with the biggest problem: pants. Pants are big and heavy – no good for light packing. One important thing to remember, however, is that when traveling with only a small backpack you actually have two places to store your stuff: your backpack and your person. Pants fall into the person category. Therefore, you bring the pants you are wearing, and that’s it. No extra pants. Will they get dirty? Yes. But go with dark colors, a sturdy material (ex: jeans), and don’t worry – pants are far enough from nose-level that you shouldn’t have a problem!
    2. b. I stick to t-shirts because they can be used in any weather and are easy to layer on top of. For a better fit in your bag, try stacking them together folded and then rolling them into a tube shape.
    3. c. Traveling through different climates makes jackets either a necessity or a burden. I like to bring two light jackets so they can be layered when it is cold and securely tied onto the backpack when it is hot. To be prepared, make one of those jackets a rain jacket. They are light weight but still keep you warm and dry!
  6. 6. Water bottles: It’s nice to have a bottle of water with you when traveling, but they can be kind of bulky. To deal with this, I gradually crush the bottle as I drink it. This makes the bottle more compact as you go, and when you are ready to refill, just blow into the top and it will pop back into its original shape.