Is It Possible to Pack TOO Light?

We're planning to make our next trip to Europe (this July to London, Germany, Austria, Switzerland) the lightest ever. We usually pack light, one carry-on each and a day pack for the two of us, but we're determined to push the limits this time. Wondering if anyone has ever packed too light and regretted it?

Posted by Karen (Leigh)
Missouri
434 posts

I have regretted packing too heavy, but never too light. If I realized I needed something that I didn't pack, I would just buy it there. That said, I guess if I decided to pack nothing, I would regret it! So sure, it's possible, but not likely if you plan well and really think about what you will need based on what you needed on past trips.

Posted by Frank
Tresana, Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
13055 posts

I think it is possible depending on your preferences. I go with two pairs of packed pants and wear one (obviously). There have been a number of trips when the second pant was barely worn. So, decided to go with two pair. On the second or third day the pants I was wearing was damaged beyond wearing or repairing. Didn't think it was safe to travel for another two weeks with only one pair of pants so spent a half day finding an expensive replacement. Now back to packing two pair. But I am sure I could have gotten by with one pant for the balance of the trip - but who knows. Never had a problem before and nothing since.

Posted by Edgar
Medford, OR, USA
1500 posts

Our Nordic ski club members debate this question every winter. How much do you or I have to carry. In a perfect world, you carry everything we may need and I nothing.

The two questions that need to be asked and answered to answer the "pack too light " question are:
1. What is the probability of an event(s) occurring that would necessitate the item(s) to be packed in question?
2. What are the consequences of the improbable event(s) occurring and you not having the item(s) in question?

For most tourist destinations and activities, the consequences of not having stuff are annoyance, inconvenience and/or economic. For most tourist activities during summer travel months one could simple pack passport, cash, credit and debit cards and their security neck or waist pouch and get on the aircraft. Buy whatever you need and give it away when you leave or don't need it. Just carry a day pack for your purchases, but you can buy the pack in urban Europe on arrival.

On the other hand you could be in trouble in you need to spend the night out on a treeless Norwegian plateau in February without a wind sack and snow spade during a blizzard. What is the probability and what are the consequences? Those are the questions. What are your answers?

Posted by hcota
Las Vegas
21 posts

Thanks for the advice! We'll be sure to pack a credit card and see what happens. I like Edgar's philosophy -- although I've never packed an extra pair of glasses, for instance, I would be severely inconvenienced if the pair I brought were to break. And yet, in all my travels, that's never happened. Same with shoes -- usually don't even bring an extra pair, but it would be a real pain to try to get a new pair quickly if the one pair were to be, I don't know, covered in mud or worse. Maybe the key is to quit thinking about what COULD go wrong, and assume everything will work out. It always has. Oh, and thanks Frank, for the Rolf Potts link -- that was very inspiring!

Posted by Sarah
St. Louis, MO USA
1673 posts

I always bring a spare pair of glasses and my current prescription, just in case. I can technically see without my glasses but everything is really blurry and there's no way I can make out street signs or read a map without holding it 2 inches from my face. I take precautions with stuff it would be very difficult to replace, like glasses or prescription meds.

Posted by Kristen
Chicago
620 posts

I would think the only thing you would regret is if you forgot something you couldn't get easily abroad-prescription glasses, some prescription medications, your credit/debit card. But for the most part, it is easy to find a way to do laundry, buy a new camera, pick up new walking shoes etc.

Posted by Wray
Boston, ma, usa
348 posts

I am a person who has said 'next time I'll bring more', because I wasn't happy previously with the comfort level so I keep enlarging. However, I think my list might still be lighter than those who use a 22 inch bag. I find as I age, I want more comfort. My go to bag now is a 20 inch expandable carry on. I pack enough not to have to do laundry for ten days, to have business casual clothes, and to always have a perfectly clean outfit for the flight home. So yes, I believe comfort is important. And let's face it, wheels make travel easy and one rarely has to lift their luggage. My bag now runs 22 to 25 lbs. But as long as I can lift it into the overhead, I no longer have an issue with it. Although, my trip in July will require a 22 inch bag due to my trekking poles and will be checked. Pack what you want and be comfortable. Packing is not a contest. Do what you need to do.

Posted by Cindy H
San Jose
127 posts

It's certainly possible to pack "too light" for you. Technically all you need is a credit card. Realistically, there is time lost on shopping for the items you left behind. This is especially true for hard-to-get things like prescription items. If it pushes your comfort level to the point you are unhappy, then you've packed too little.

I often get disgusted by the "my bag is lighter than yours" mentality. There is a huge difference between "good enough" and going to extremes just to get chest thumping boasting rights.

Yes, I've packed 6.5 kg to make the Lufthansa limit. It was for a 3 week trip in shoulder season. That said, I would now bring an extra shirt or two (I brought 4 only). It was very hot the entire trip and I had to wash my clothes every day. And yes, every time I travel I try to see if I can pack lighter. But that has to be coupled with my needs for the trip. When ultra-light impacts my enjoyment of the trip, I've packed too little.

Posted by hcota
Las Vegas
21 posts

Thanks for the input, it's really helping me set my packing priorities. I don't think I was looking at packing light as a contest or looking for bragging rights, sorry if I came across that way. I was just imagining how great it would feel to walk on board a plane with a single small bag instead of a backpack or wheelie to haul around. But then there's laundry to consider and convenience of having the things you need. Just like everything else, it's a balancing act.

Posted by Rebecca
Nashville, TN, USA
1149 posts

"I was just imagining how great it would feel to walk on board a plane with a single small bag instead of a backpack or wheelie to haul around." Then do just that! You're on the right track. It does feel great not to haul around a ton of clothes with you, 3/4 of which you won't wear. Laundry is no trouble at all. Take some travel size packets of Woolite with you, and you can wash a couple of underwear pieces and a pair of socks in your hotel sink. Rinse, hang up to dry on the bathroom towel rack. Likewise for a T-shirt or pair of capri pants. Use the same pieces over and over, different combinations. I take 2 dressy T-shirts, 2 pair of capri pants (unless it's winter; then I take long pants), and I also have the outfit I wear on the plane, with a windbreaker/rain jacket with hood either worn onto the plane or tucked into my carry-on. I also take travel size toiletries, a couple of small bottles of everything I need, plus prescription meds.

As Edgar said, it depends upon whether or not you will have a special need on your trip, such as several sweaters for a cold climate. Also, some people need to take a bicycle (taken apart) in a large suitcase for a ride, or something like that. Others are going on a business trip, or going over on the QE2, so they must take many more changes of clothes for everyday or formal occasions, but that is not your typical tourist.

Pay no attention to those who say that those of us here who advise travelers to pack light have a "my bag is lighter than yours" mentality, or that we compete for "chest-thumping boasting rights". That's pure nonsense, and rude. We have all been to Europe and struggled with several heavy bags when we were younger, and thought, "Why in the heck did I take so much stuff?" That's why we try to save you from the same mistake by saying "Pack light."

Posted by Barb
Andover, MN, USA
210 posts

As a veteran of 13 trips to Europe, I have always used the same size bag - even for a 3 month trip. The amount IN the bag has shrunk. My husband and I are planning our 1st RS trip to Eastern Europe in September. The time of the year makes such a difference weather-wise. Last year we went to Rome, Sorrento, Croatia, and Slovenia. I had been to these places before and it was HOT at that time of the year. Last year it was very cool in southern Italy at that time. I was very glad that I had not left my jeans at home - wore them almost every day for the first 10 days as well as a sweater and a windbreaker some of the time. I don't want to spend my precious vacation time shopping for clothes so I cover my bases with a variety of clothes and still keep the weight under 25 lbs including cosmetics. I also have 3 pair of shoes - one I wear. It all fits in the bag.

Barb

Posted by Barb
Andover, MN, USA
210 posts

Oops - forgot say that my bag is a 22inch rollaboard. I did buy a new lighter one last year My "small bag is a canvas in which I carry papers, travel books and the like, We managed to carry our bags on the planes except on the stricter European airlines. This is our 1st time to take a tour - we have always traveled on our own. We are in our early 70's

Barb

Posted by christa
alameda, ca, usa
360 posts

I only travel for 10-14 days and had previously taken enough so I'd only have to wash my jeans a couple of times, but on my upcoming trip I'll be taking a train for the first time and will be making an effort to lighten my load. Washing undies and tops won't be a problem, so I'll pack less. I like to wear clean clothes when travelling and don't want to spend precious time (and money) buying something to wear, etc. It was bad enough that I had to replace my suitcase last year in Tallinn--full price, at a Nordstrom-like store called Stockmann. Ouch.

Posted by Cindy H
San Jose
127 posts

"Pay no attention to those who say that those of us here who advise
travelers to pack light have a "my bag is lighter than yours"
mentality, or that we compete for "chest-thumping boasting rights"

I never equated the two, and that is an extreme stance. That said, go to any travel light forum and you'll see people boasting "only 5 pounds". Uplink, we had a "no bag challenge" referenced. That's the sort of thing I was referencing. Look at what was sacrificed. Mr. Potts had to wear ugly zip off pants in Paris, as well as his hiking boots. He had to wash his clothes every day. While that isn't troublesome, it is an inconvenience. A lot of sacrifices were made for the sake of uber-light travel. Yet many times you'll see people making that the holy grail of light travel. I'm not so sure it is. Choose that if you must, but make sure that you know what the sacrifices and inconveniences are going in. Every person is going to make different choices.

Is it possible to travel with just a single bag under the seat? Yes, I've done it plenty of times, and written about it. It is very freeing, but it comes with a cost. If that is what you want, then great! Just make sure you are going in with eyes wide open, because you can pack too lightly for your comfort. Only you know what that is.

Best wishes no matter what your choices are!

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
3266 posts

I travel fairly light with a carry on bag, but I also need photo stuff as I am a photographer. While I would love to ditch most of the stuff and just travel with my camera, toothbrush and makeup it won't happen... so I try to balance it the best I can. I do care what I look like and find it fun to have a nice travel wardrobe and I often buy some things I may need and didn't anticipate... however, just remember that while you may be traveling light on your trip over to Europe, if you buy a lot of stuff that you still need once you arrive you are then hauling it around the rest of your trip anyway. So, take what you are sure you need and buy if something unexpected comes up. I never carry an umbrella and now have an array of souvenir umbrellas from a few trips:))

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
5691 posts

Terry Kathryn makes a good point. The suggestion of not taking things from home such as toiletries, and buying them there in order to pack light doesn't make sense to me. From home I can take small sizes of products I like. If I buy those things in Europe I will probably have to buy larger quantities at a higher price, then I will have to find room in my bag and tote them around. Not to mention having to take the time to shop for those things. I try to bring what I need. So far I've only had to replenish toothpaste on a 4 week trip. I try to pack lightly and have always managed with a carry on bag and a tote bag of some sort, but some take it to the extreme.

Posted by Edgar
Medford, OR, USA
1500 posts

Andrea's note that "[t] suggestion of not taking things from home such as toiletries, and buying them there in order to pack light doesn't make sense to me" brings to mind our experience of shopping for toothpaste in Prague. We inadvertently brought one of those small dentist visit samples for two of us on a three week trip. We found out that Czech supermarket-like grocery stores do not sell toothpaste. Neither do pharmacies. I don't remember where we finally found toothpaste but it in hindsight shopping for toothpaste in Prague was a cultural learning experience.

Posted by Joseph
Laflin, PA, USA
44 posts

I have packed too light in the past, but was always able to buy anything I needed while traveling (toiletries, socks, underwear, shirts). I have also packed too heavily (even after reading RS guidebooks, forum posts, and using the rule of "if you cannot use it three times, do not bring it" and always regret my excess packing. The only extras I would always bring are eyeglasses and ibuprofen as I understand this is difficult to obtain in Europe (never tested, just was told). I dont bring photocopies of credit/debit cards, ID's or passports, but leave digital copies with family and friends in case of an emergency.

Perhaps during some future travel, I will be brazen enough only to pack my carry-on and daypack EMPTY and buy everything I need oversees. Sounds like a fun challenge!

Have fun on your next European travel!

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
5691 posts

"I have packed too light in the past, but was always able to buy anything I needed while traveling (toiletries, socks, underwear, shirts)."

I just don't understand the point of this. Maybe I'm missing something, but shouldn't the point of packing light be that it enables you to travel light? If you are just going to buy all those things when you arrive, why not bring them from home? It's a little more understandable with liquids if you want to carry on, but clothes?

Posted by Ginger
TX
233 posts

Andrea, I wondered the same :)

I pack as light as I can, but not obsessed with it. Pointless going there to shop for stuff I could have brought with me.

There are things I need that I take from here, and we keep bags down to one each with hand luggage (backpack or day bag). And with wheels. Those backpack type bags that RS uses is really not always workable. Not with bad backs.

Posted by Frank
Tresana, Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
13055 posts

.... He had to wash his clothes every day. While that isn't troublesome, it is an inconvenience......

That is a judgement call. We rinse our clothes (except pants) daily and don't consider it an inconvenience at all. Part of the routine of brushing your teeth at night. Adds maybe ten minutes to our night time ritual of preparing for bed. At one time we often did wait until everything was dirty, then it was inconvenient, time consuming and troublesome finding hanging space. We do try to find a laundry every 7 to 10 days so everything can be completely washed.

Posted by Ginger
TX
233 posts

Joseph, why don't you take only your money, ticket and passport, and buy your carry on bag in Europe? Now that's traveling light! Lol

Posted by kareljune
1 posts

I lost my prescription glasses on a waterfall trek last trip. Had to buy a pair of readers just to be able to see for the duration of trip. I will be bringing an extra pair this time! One carry on and a small day bag is all I bring. It is fun to purchase some items, if needed.

Posted by kerwin.gray
3 posts

I just got back from a month long trip with an emphasis on Switzerland. I debated whether to bring my down jacket (it is extremely light--8.5 oz, and packs down to the size of a softball). If I had not had that jacket, it would have seriously detracted from my enjoyment of the trip. As it was, I was completely comfortable outside in 18 degree weather. My entire kit include two of Rick's books was 20 pounds.

Posted by orv
edina, usa
85 posts

Just remember to pack dental floss for Paris. At 7.5 Euros a box worth remembering

Posted by phred
Los Angeles
749 posts

"how much is too much" varies by person and situation. Also by time of year - you can more easily pack for a warm trip than a cold one. And let's face it, not everyone wants to do laundry on their "vacation" (I don't mind, but my wife does). So you have to do a real self-assessment and decide the minimal level of "stuff" that will let you relax, be comfortable and enjoy the trip. Rick always say you can just buy what you want when you get there, and to a large extent that's true, but you won't get exactly what you want. I spent/wasted some time trying to find deodorant in Paris and a luggage cart in Florence, it didn't kill me but it was not a great use of time.

Posted by hcota
Las Vegas
21 posts

Well, I certainly have my answer. It IS possible to pack too light. We'll still keep it light, bigger backpacks (Jansports) that are smaller than the RS classic wheel-less pack. But we'll bring spare eyeglasses this time (thanks, kareljune). And dental floss (thanks, orv). And if we forget or need more whatever, we like to shop and won't mind skipping a castle or a church to visit a supermarket or drugstore. I love these forums, a lot of good advice and interesting opinions.

Posted by Kay
Berkeley, California, US
193 posts

Yes. I cannot tell you how frustrating it was for me to drive around the outskirts of Paris looking for a small duffel bag so that I could return to the US with things I purchased in France. Ditto for my immersion heater. Finding one in Sicily was not easy. I finally found one (larger than I would've preferred) with only a British plug. I then had to find and purchase a British plug to European plug. I now bring a much more reliable travel teakettle, purchased in the US but with (go figure) a British plug and a short cord. My husband has since fashioned in a small extension cord to accept the British plug with an American plug on the other end to which I can add a European plug. It also was not fun to lose my one and only pair of prescription sunglasses in Tuscany. The key here is to figure out what is really important and difficult/time-consuming to replace. Regarding clothing: I never travel without a light weight raincoat and good walking/hiking shoes for the rain. I've been to France and Italy any number of times, always in spring or fall and have always been grateful for those items. To their regret, my in-laws didn't believe me when I told them to pack something for the rain in Venice in fall. My husband and I were comfortable walking around in a heavy downpour which sent the in-laws back to their room. Aside from that and in regards to clothing, less is almost always more. One pair of jeans. One pair of lightweight quick drying travel pants. 3 short-sleeved T-shirts, 3 long sleeve T-shirts, a warm sweater, underwear for 7 days. This is for 4 to 5 weeks of travel. I used to be able to get all my stuff into a largish carry-on but I find that as I'm getting older I have the need for more paraphernalia. Last but not least, MAKE A LIST. Pack early. Put the list, highlighted with everything you cannot pack early in the suitcase. Check it before leaving.

Posted by phred
Los Angeles
749 posts

As long as we're talking about packing ... the standard suggestion is to do a packing dry run a few days before you leave. See and feel exactly what you'll be bringing with you, stare at it for a while. See anything you now think you can live without? Take it out. Forgot something, like umbrella or a hat? Stuff it in.

You also need to look at the composition of what you're packing. I wear all cotton in real life but when travelling I shift over to poly and microfiber blends. Why? Because when you do a sink wash and hang them on your funky little rubber clothesline, they'll be sure to be dry by morning. Cotton is not only heavy to pack and carry but when it gets wet, game over. Same on the clothesline.

Posted by dmae
62 posts

In general, my answer is, "No."

I only travel with a small, under 13 pound carry on. I was an ultralight backpack fanatic in my younger days and believe me, when you carry all your stuff over a few mountains, you start cutting of the handles of your toothbrush! Now I am a 65 year old woman who travels solo and those skills are even more important.

I find that the longer my trip, the less I pack! I can spend three months in a foreign country with the tiniest of bags but if I travel to visit my family for a few days I struggle more.

I usually rent an apartment and use that as my base for day trips or short stay/overnight trips around the city. I don't pack small sizes of much in the line of toiletries. I do pack toothpaste and deodorant. I have had trouble in finding those items I like. Instead, I buy standard sizes when I get there.

My clothing is simple - besides my travel garments, I pack one pair of pants, one skirt, four to six light weight tops, one pashmina wrap, one pair of shoes, one pair of flipflops, and undies for four days. I wash out almost every night, hang to dry, and get on with the day.

Travel is an experiment in your adaptive skills. Packing is just one of those adaptive skills.

Posted by Rosalyn
Berkeley
1489 posts

One thing that hasn't been mentioned is how shopping (for things you thought you wouldn't need, but do) differs from shopping in the U.S. In every European country I've visited, otc medicines, even aspirin, are available only at pharmacies. Usually, the prices are much higher than we are used to paying. I, too, have paid $8 for dental floss and $10 for bandaids for a foot blister. My husband had to shell out $20 for sunblock, also available only at a pharmacy. In many places, shops are closed on Sundays or for several hours mid-day. We once spent a morning walking around Brussels looking for cheap replacements for the reading glasses he lost. Now he carries 2 pairs. Then there are differences in sizes. Do you know what size underwear or socks to buy in France? I would rather be prepared for most possibilities than to spend my money and travel time obtaining something I could have brought from home. And just for the record, I get along with a 19" expandable suitcase, checked and a carry-on wheeled tote.

Posted by Rebecca
Nashville, TN, USA
1149 posts

hcota, you had this sentence in your original question, but you have removed it: "I was just imagining how great it would feel to walk on board a plane with a single small bag instead of a backpack or wheelie to haul around."

If you really feel that way, go for it. As long as you have the clothes you want to take, toiletries, meds, you'll be okay. It really ruins my trip to pack 20 extra pieces of clothes for "what if" this or that, and drag it around with me. I dress fashionably, but I just take half the clothes I used to. A couple of beautiful scarves for an accent take up no room at all. No need to sacrifice or do without; just carefully think through what pieces of clothing you will need most. No need to buy more clothes once you get there, just choose wisely when you pack at home. My carry-on is the maximum size allowed, not what I would consider small.

No, I have never packed too light and regretted it.

Have a great trip, regardless of how many pieces of luggage you take!

Posted by dmae
62 posts

Rosalyn has some good points. It is nice to have things you are comfortable with when you want them. I enjoy spending time in stores, looking at various stuff. If I needed some socks or undies, I would probably figure it out!

I want to share a story with you: One of my son's high school friends decided to visit me for a time while I was in Rome. When he got of the plane at FCO, I saw he was only carrying a magazine. I thought to myself, "Well, I told him to pack light."

It turns out that he decided to check his carry on bag and never saw it again. I got a quick lesson in shopping for clothes for a early twenty-something. I contacted a friend who lives in Rome and she gave me a run down of where to find the department stores. He built up a "Roman" wardrobe, complete with this really cool rolling backpack (which he refused to roll as he didn't want to get it dirty - I really liked that little suitcase and continually look for a similar one).

Talk about expensive! Thank goodness he had sufficient funds to outfit himself from the inside to the outside. The only thing he didn't need was shoes. His visit was one of my more memorable stays in Rome.