Travelling Light & Taking Your Reusables Is Achievable! Here's How
Domestica's Justine Law enlightens us on the art of travelling light - why it is important, what it has to do with being sustainable and how to do it!
Travelling with carry on only or just light is an art that is generally honed over a number of trips and is it is usually only mastered after making a few mistakes. And trying to reduce waste while on the road as well as wanting to pack light for your travels requires even more planning and know how!
Why travel light in the first place?
Choice magazine published an article in 2017 stating that "flying economy from Sydney to London produces the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as running the average air conditioner in the living room during the day for 7,133 hours". Yikes!
In an ideal world we would not fly and would travel by land instead – but living in Australia makes this somewhat more difficult. Plus, it’s kinda nice to sometimes see other countries!
You can reduce your impact of flying though by doing things like choosing an economy seat, opting for the most direct flight to avoid more take off and landings, and taking reusables to use on the plane. You can also opt in for purchasing carbon credits which most Australian airlines now offer (there are more details on this in the Choice magazine article linked above).
And you can reducing your carbon footprint by travelling light as every extra gram in your bag adds to the flight’s fuel burn and emissions.
Other benefits of travelling light include not needing to check a bag – this will not only often save you baggage fees, but also means if you have a connecting flight, the chance of your bag being lost is much less! You can also take advantage of offers from airlines to give up your seat at the last minute if the plane is overbooked (you can be generously rewarded for this!).
In addition, you won’t have to lug a heavy bag up flights of stairs, over cobblestones, or on and off trains, which can get super tiring. On a recent trip to the US, I took 5kg of historical papers to donate to the National Archives in Michigan, so there was no way I could do carry on and boy, was it heavy at times, so I say this from experience!
Top tips for packing efficiently
Below are my top tips for generally packing efficiently and light while still staying true to zero waste ideals. It will never be perfect – and there will be times when you get insanely frustrated while on the road like, when I was travelling on a Amtrak train (the US national rail carrier) and they refused to use my reusable cup for my cup of tea due to hygiene reasons. Even worse was the fact they didn’t recycle their plastic cups – the entire table setting was just wrapped up and thrown away! But trying to do the best you can is still worth it. As Anne-Marie Bonneau of Zero Waste Chef says: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
One of the first things that’s helpful is look at the airline carry-on rules that apply to your trip. They vary so wildly between countries and individual airlines that it is easy to get caught out. For example, you are (as a rule) limited by weight flying out of Australia, but once you are in countries like the US, you are limited by bag size versus weight. This can make it tricky and some people choose to check their bags on the way out of Australia and to then do carry-on on their next leg which has less strict weight limits. My goal is always around 10kg, but at times it’s still tricky to get there and I often still end up with closer to 12!
Don’t forget that the physical weight of your bag counts towards your limit too so remember to take it into consideration when deciding on what works for you in terms of the bag you'll be taking. As a rule, backpacks are lighter and have more packing space as hard exteriors, wheels, and handles take up precious space and weight.
The easiest way to pack less is to create a capsule wardrobe. There’s a tonne of resources out there on how to do this. Essentially, you want to take minimal pieces of clothing. Whether the trip is a week or a month long, you want to aim for around 12 to 15 pieces (excluding your smalls and outerwear) that you can mix and match, that are multi-use and that are able to be layered. I personally find taking natural fibres best – fabrics like cotton and linen in summer and merino wool and silk for warmth (and layering) in winter. You can also get multiple days of wear from merino items and I find they handwash and dry very well.
Wearing your clothes more than once also allows you to travel lighter. Most clothing (excluding underwear and unless it's super-warm/sweaty weather) can be worn at least twice and pants can often be worn three or more times. Washing clothes too often not only uses more resources (water, detergent, and sometimes a dryer), but it also puts unnecessary wear and tear on the items, meaning they will need to be replaced sooner, placing even more of a burden on our landfills.
Washing while away is key to reducing the number of clothing items you take on your trip. You really only need to pack for seven days and wash weekly. I did this for eight weeks on the road and, apart from a few thrift store purchases to fill some gaps, I found it worked well and I had what I needed for the most part.
Having good-quality basics in a colour palate that works for you is fundamental. This way, you can change up your look using accessories such as scarves and shoes. Speaking of shoes, three is said to be the magic number – one casual pair for sightseeing/daily wear, one for activities, and one dressier pair.
When it comes to packing your clothes, packing cubes are the key to keeping the contents of your bag not only compact, but organised as well. They are seriously the best way to maximise your space. If you have never used them before, they will change your life! There’s a range of shapes and sizes on the market and I've found that aiming for something light and smaller is much more useful than larger and that rolling your clothes tends to work best for packing cubes.
If you really want to get loads in, use compression packing cubes or cells like these (US/CAN) or these (AU). They work really well and I found the one I used to be great for knitwear as I travelled in winter and thus had more bulk. My favourite cubes from the ones from Alex at Travel Fashion Girl as they are designed to fit into a carry-on sized bag. Her site also has a wealth of packing tips for carry-on travel and I have to give credit to her and the community she has created for what I now know!
Toiletries and makeup
Never take full-size anything! This applies even if you are travelling for months on end as you can get by with decanting into travel size bottles or by using smaller sizes of your favourite brands. I tend to try and avoid these from a waste perspective but will make exceptions for a product like Dr Bronner’s (AU here and US/CAN here) which I know I will continue to refill for years. Weigh up the pros and cons and decide what you are comfortable with! The exception to this rule of avoiding full size is sunscreen if you are going to need it daily and have a specific brand you prefer.
Aim for products that are multi-use, for example Dr Bronner’s castile soap (AU here and US/CAN here) can be used as a body, hand and face wash (it can be a little drying on the face though), a shaving cream, and even shampoo. You can also wash dishes and do laundry with it! It comes in both a bar and liquid form. Shampoo bars can also be used as a body wash, shaving soap, and laundry bar. Jojoba oil can be used as a face and body moisturiser, makeup remover, and hair tamer.
If you want to avoid liquids (due to either packaging or airline restrictions), opt for solid bars. You can get them for most things now – shampoo/conditioner, moisturiser, and laundry. For those in the US/CAN, Well.ca stocks a large range of soaps, while examples of good Australian brands are Ethique, The Source, and Beauty and the Bees.
Limit your use of disposable wipes as much as you can and use microfibre or cotton makeup remover pads such as those by Face Halo (worldwide), Norwex (worldwide), Öko Creations (US/CAN), The MakeUp Eraser (US/CAN), and Enjo (AU). Etsy (worldwide) also has a good range to choose from. Some do argue that we need to reduce our reliance on microfibre however and, to a point, I do agree, but personally, I would rather use one of these hundreds of times and wash it in a fine mesh bag than contribute to landfill by using disposables. It also dries super fast in between uses.
Don’t take up precious space with a toothbrush container – rather just use the cap to protect the head. I have even taken a child-size bamboo toothbrush before as it was about 100g lighter than the adult size – it all adds up!
You will be surprised at how much product you actually use on a trip. Many seasoned travellers know how much of a certain product they will use in a week, etc. You can test this if you have time before you go! If you are only away for a few days, contact lens cases make perfect containers for small amounts of lotions and makeup.
Consider paring down your beauty and hair routine while away. Do you really need to wear as much makeup or straighten your hair? Can you opt for more of a wash-and-wear style to reduce reliance on extra products?
Often it is not realistic to take all of the reusables you want to take and all of what you would normally use to reduce your waste day to day.
When considering which reusables to take on a trip, again, look for items that can serve more than one use. For example, on my trip, I took my Klean Kanteen insulated wide-mouth bottle (AU here and US/CAN here) and used it for hot drinks, soup, and smoothies. I cooked a lot due to food intolerances and these made perfect meals for long train and bus trips. I did take a separate water bottle and opted for my sturdy polycarbonate one over my stainless one due to weight. It also has a handy loop closure, meaning it can be attached to the outside of a bag if needed.
Other items I took with me on my trip that I found useful were: two cloth shopping bags, a set of produce bags, a plastic food container/lunchbox, a small stainless snack container, utensils (sporks are excellent for eating on the road!) and a straw.
Instead of cloth napkins, I took three ‘blueys’ – the blue cloths used in operating theatres that are often thrown away after one use. I am lucky to have access to them and found these amazing to use as napkins, for drying off wet bags, as a mini tablecloth on trains, and as a hand towel when I wanted to opt out of using a dryer or some paper towel (or when there were none!).
You can order these recycled cotton towels – the proceeds of which go to the OTIS Foundation, which provides a network of retreat accommodation at no cost to those living with breast cancer – via Little Blue Towels’ website.
Lastly, other items that, in the bigger picture, allow you to pack less are things like small amounts of washing detergent, which enables you to do your handwashing in bathrooms, a travel towel for wringing out excess moisture in clothes after washing (it also helps hair dry fast without a hairdryer), compression sacks to physically reduce an item's size, and a universal travel adaptor, which is better than taking multiple ones if you are going to more than one destination.
It may take a few goes to reach your packing light goals – I am most certainly a work in progress! – but the freedom gained from travelling lighter is worth it, not only for your own benefit, but also for that of our earth.
*** Guest article by Domestica's Justine Law, who is a genius at uncluttered, low-tox, low-waste, conscious living and home-making, as well as seriously knowledgeable about travelling light. If you need someone to help you unclutter and organise your home, which is what she does as a living, she's your girl! You can find and follow her here: www.domestica.com.au / @domesticahome
And one thing I'd like to add to her article is borrow items you don't own and will only need for a short time while you're travelling. Justine kindly lent me her packing cubes and collapsible silicone bowl to use on my own travels – and I agree with her that these are extremely helpful items for packing small! – and she offered to lend me a universal travel adaptor (but I already had one). Items like these are better borrowed than bought if possible.
For more minimalist travel inspiration, read our good friends Sustainable Jungle’s Minimalist Travel Meets Project 333: ‘His and Hers’ Packing For a 6 Month Adventure Across 4 Continents article. And we share how to create less waste when camping in our Leave No Trace or Trash: Tips for Zero Waste Camping Trips article.
Happy light and low impact travels! ***
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