A Complete Guide to Zero Waste, Minimalist Packing to Travel Light

image: Paravel

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Minimalist Packing for Easy, Sustainable Travel

Traveling is often unsustainable, and although some people choose not to travel at all, most of us cannot or simply do not want to. And that is okay! 

There are things we can do to mitigate our environmental footprint while traveling, including packing light and choosing to bring items that will help us reduce our waste on the go. 

However, while leaving for a trip is usually very exciting, packing can be both annoying and stressful when we don’t know what to bring with us. It is especially true if you are someone striving to live more sustainably and you also want to reap all the benefits of traveling light!

Thanks to this guide, you will learn how to pack only the essentials to enjoy your trip and lower your impact on the planet at the same time.

Also see How to be Sustainable on Vacation: 10 Easy Ways to Travel Responsibly

image: Solgaard

Why you should travel light

Traveling light is one of the best ways to ensure you will have an enjoyable and stress-free vacation. 

When you travel with several suitcases and backpacks full to the brim, getting to your destination is usually very unpleasant and tiring. The weight of your luggage is exhausting and can become a burden for many reasons. 

Imagine yourself hauling all this weight from plane to subway, needing to carry it multiple times on stairs. Having a heavy load to lug around is not how I like to start my vacation! 

Plus, when you have extra suitcases while traveling by plane, you have to wait after your flight to get them back. And if luck is not on your side, the airline might lose your luggage, leaving you stressed-out and without your things for at least several days. 

Many airlines also make you pay to bring checked luggage on the plane, and if some of your suitcases are overweight, you might have to pay even more. The costs of traveling with heavy baggage quickly add up! 

On the other hand, when you only bring the essentials with you in a simple backpack or carry-on, everything is so much easier! You save time and money, and the whole process of traveling becomes a lot more hassle-free. You worry less about your things and get to enjoy your vacation more. 

Packing light is also better for the planet! Having fewer and lighter suitcases on the airplane directly reduces its weight, thus increasing its fuel efficiency: when the airplane becomes less heavy, it needs less fuel to fly a given distance. 

According to Finnish airline Finnair, when you reduce the weight of your luggage by 5kg, you reduce your carbon footprint by approximately 5%. While the impact might not be huge for a single individual, every little action for the planet is worth it! 

Finnair also calculated that if each of its passengers had traveled with 1kg less in 2018, the total fuel savings would have covered 20 flights from Finland to Japan. So when all the individual actions add up, packing light truly makes a difference! 

And if you are traveling by car, packing light also increases fuel efficiency, meaning that you will consume less gas, which saves money and the environment. 

So next time you prepare for a trip, remember that packing light will make traveling not only more enjoyable but also better for your wallet and the planet! Ask yourself if you really need to bring a big suitcase, or if a backpack or a carry-on is enough. 

image: Anchal

What luggage should you travel with?

Depending on the kind of trip you are going on, how many days you will stay at the destination, how you will be traveling and what you need to bring with you, you will need different types of luggage.

Where to find sustainable suitcases and backpacks?

Whether you choose to travel with a backpack and a carry-on, a checked suitcase, or a simple duffle bag, always use what you already own. Buying a new backpack or suitcase when you already have one at home is not sustainable. 

However, things can get damaged while traveling, so you sometimes need to acquire new travel gear. You can do it in a sustainable way by borrowing a backpack or a suitcase from a friend or getting it second-hand. And you can also purchase it from eco-friendly brands that sell high-quality, sustainable luggage.  

If you are looking for a new suitcase, backpack or duffle bag, Paravel has everything you may need! It is a climate-neutral brand that creates luggage using recycled materials and Oeko-Tex certified fabrics. 

Solgaard’s suitcases and Samsonite’s Eco Advance carry-on are two other eco-friendly options made from recycled plastic. And if you need a new backpack or duffle bag, Lo & SonsO My BagAllégorie and Anchal all have a nice selection of sustainably and ethically made bags that are worth checking out! 

We have an entire blog post about our favorite sustainable luggage brands on Sustainably Chic if you need more ideas! 

Other useful travel gear

Whenever I go on a trip, I usually pack my clothes in packing cubes. These are great suitcase organizers that help keep everything tight and compact, which saves a lot of space. It always blows my mind how many things you can fit into a single packing cube! 

However, most packing cubes we can find on the market usually break very quickly and they are made of synthetic materials. 

Fortunately, some sustainable brands like Northern OliveKathmandu and Patagonia sell practical models using eco-friendly materials, like organic cotton and recycled polyester. 

And if you need a new toiletry bag to pack all your make-up and beauty products for your next trip, read our full blog post about where to find sustainable make-up bags. For instance, Mayamam Weavers and Terra Thread have some cool, eco-friendly travel cases that will fit all your beauty essentials!  

image: Lo & Sons

Packing the essentials for a zero-waste, minimalist trip 

Only bring what you will really use

If you want to travel light, you cannot pack things for every occasion that may arise on your trip. If you do so, you will end up returning home and only having used half of your stuff. 

But at the same time, you have to make sure that you’ll have enough so that you won’t need to repurchase anything at your destination. 

It can be hard to know exactly what you will need, but the key is to be realistic with yourself. If you never wear dresses in your everyday life, you are very unlikely to start wearing them while traveling. 

Look at the weather forecast at your destination to know what type of clothes you should pack. If it will be sunny all the time, you can leave your rain boots, raincoat and umbrella at home. Alternatively, if it will rain during your whole trip, do not pack a sun hat or sunglasses. 

Also, think about what activities you will do. Will you be hiking in nature all day? Walking in the city? Are you going on a business trip? Depending on what you plan to do, you won’t need to bring certain items of clothing. You can also decide whether you will wear a lot of make-up or if you want to go without. 

I always plan my outfits in advance before packing a suitcase. Choosing which clothes I will wear on which day helps me determine exactly what I will need. I sometimes pack an extra t-shirt or pair of underwear just in case, but that is it.  

I also recommend that you check if the place you are staying at provides towels and a blowdryer. If it does, you won’t need to bring yours. 

If you are traveling abroad, your passport is an absolute essential to have. But you may also need to bring a power adapter, so bring yours to avoid buying another at your destination. These do not take up a lot of space! 

And do not forget to think about what you will do during your free time when you won’t be visiting. Be realistic with yourself and decide whether you want to bring a book or a computer. If you are traveling with kids, only pack a few toys you know they love so that they do not get bored, but don’t bring too many of them. 

When you are on the fence about something, always ask yourself: can I do without? What can I use instead? These two questions will help you not overpack and be more intentional with what you bring on your trip. 

Pack versatile and multipurpose items 

When packing your suitcase, you will have to assess how many pieces of clothes you need to bring on your trip. Unfortunately, there is no magic number. It all depends on the weather, how many days you are staying, and if you will be able to do laundry during your trip. 

For instance, if you are leaving for a week and will have access to a washing machine, you can easily pack three or four tops and it should be enough.  

To limit the number of clothes we bring on a trip, one of the most important things to do is to pack versatile and multipurpose pieces. It means that you should choose clothes that complement each other and that can be layered and mixed and matched. 

For example, whenever I’m traveling, I usually pack a few neutral-colored bottoms so that each can easily be worn with all of my tops. And I avoid bringing clothes that can only be worn with a single piece. 

Multipurpose clothing can also be worn for multiple occasions. For instance, if you are going on vacation in the summer and want a cool, relaxed outfit for the day as well as a more dressed-up option for going out in the evening, you need to pack a little black dress in your suitcase! 

If you plan to walk a lot during your trip, a simple pair of sneakers might be enough for you and you may find you do not need to pack bulky hiking boots.

I also recommend that you roll all your clothes instead of folding them. Doing so usually keeps them wrinkle-free and saves more space.

Do not forget your zero-waste essentials 

I find that whenever I am traveling, I usually create a lot more waste than when I am at home. It is more difficult to find zero-waste options when we are in a place we do not know, especially if it is abroad. 

We do not necessarily know how to say “no plastic bag” or “no straw, please” in a foreign language. So if your goal is to reduce your waste when traveling, having a zero-waste kit with you is essential. 

First of all, if there is safe drinking water at your destination, you should always bring your reusable water bottle with you. You will be able to refill it at the place you're staying or at a restaurant. 

Some cities even have public fountains with drinking water, so there is no need to purchase plastic bottles! While these can usually be recycled, it is harder to find recycling bins when traveling and they are very wasteful anyway. Tap water is free so you’ll end up saving a few dollars each day, which you will be able to spend on something else. 

If you are used to ordering food or drinks on the go, you might also want to bring a reusable coffee cup, a cutlery set and a reusable straw. Plus, if you rarely finish your meals at the restaurant, consider having a reusable container to store your leftovers. 

A few cotton napkins and tote bags also always come in handy when traveling! Having a reusable napkin with you means that you won’t need to use the disposable ones at restaurants. 

And you will find that tote bags can be used for many purposes! For example, you can go shopping with them instead of using single-use plastic or paper bags. You can also use them for storing your dirty clothes or even for keeping your recycling until you find a recycling bin.  

This one is not for everyone, but if you can sew, pack a small sewing kit in your suitcase. It might be useful if you get a hole in your clothing or if a button falls off your shirt. 

Of course, you do not have to bring all these zero-waste items on your trip. Only choose those you know you will use. If you never drink coffee or tea on the go, there is no point in bringing a reusable to-go cup with you. 

Bring some zero-waste beauty products 

Many brands and stores want us to think that we need travel-sized beauty products when we are traveling. Yes, bringing a tiny bottle of shampoo with us may be convenient, but it is also extremely wasteful to buy such products!

Travel-sized products almost always come in plastic packaging, and we can only use them a few times before we run out of them. Hotels, and even Airbnbs, also regularly provide their guests with tiny bottles of shower gel, shampoo and conditioner.  

As an eco-conscious traveler, you can easily say no to all those wasteful products. If you already have samples you got in hotels in the past, use them up, but do not accept them anymore in the future. 

Instead, go for solid bars whenever you can: you can find a solid option for many products these days, from basic soap to shampoo and conditioner to lotion and deodorant! I highly recommend the brand Ethique, which is a certified B Corp that sells all kinds of solid bars for the body and hair. It even has some smaller bars specially made for traveling!  

For oral hygiene, bring a simple bamboo toothbrush as well as toothpaste tablets or toothpaste packaged in a metal tube. If you will be on your period during your trip, do not forget to pack a menstrual cup or some reusable pads. 

You might also want to bring a natural, reef-safe sunscreen, a reusable razor, and a few reusable make-up remover pads with a small container of coconut oil. The sustainable brand Kind Humans has almost all of these products, so you should check it out! 

And if you need to stock up on make-up before leaving, take a look at Elate Cosmetics: it has a great selection of cruelty-free, eco-friendly make-up! 

Final thoughts 

Traveling light truly enhances the whole experience and helps you enjoy your trip even more. However, if you realize that you’ve packed more than necessary or created some waste along the way, don’t beat yourself up. No one is perfect!  

With each trip, you will get better at packing and only bringing the things that you need and use and that will help you reduce your waste while traveling.

About the Author:

Eva Astoul is a French freelance writer, specializing in content related to sustainability, simple living, and a growth-focused healthy lifestyle.

She runs her own blog, Green With Less, to inspire people to live a more minimalist and sustainable life.



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