Category Archives: Ultralight Travel

Traveling for years living out of a backpack the size you carried to pre-school. Light feet, light mind, light heart.

Thailand On One Shoulder

Sometimes you find yourself staring into an abyss and something, a quiet voice inside, whispers at you, encouraging you to jump in and see how far you can go. I was standing over my bed, frozen for a moment as I lost myself looking deep into a tiny green bag. I had just pulled it out of its mushy brown mailing envelope. The nylon seemed tough and light and crinkled slightly in my hands. I opened it up and held it there, peering into the darkness. It seemed vast. Slowly the thought formed. What if… What if instead of having this be a tiny crushable day bag that fits into my pack… what if it was my pack? What if, for my entire trip to Thailand, I risked carrying only what would fit inside a bag that was supposed to roll up inside of a “normal” bag?

I’ve already done quite a bit to squeeze my life into a little book bag. All I had to do was trim back a little bit more and still have enough to survive. Of course, if I was just going to Thailand plenty of people survive with a pair of shorts. But nothing is ever that easy. On the way back, I had a ten hour layover in Korea in the middle of winter. This bag was going to have to carry enough gear to travel all through Thailand and survive temperatures down to 14 degrees F.

Little ULtralight Parrot Bag REI Flash 22

First things first: the backpack I started with was an REI “Stuff” Travel Daypack. It’s a great little bag, but as I considered it holding everything I thought about not just the size, but also the weight. I grabbed the nearly identical REI Flash 22, which has a waist belt. I figured that it might save my aching shoulders if I found myself hiking for hours (I spend a lot of time lost) and had managed to somehow make this thing super heavy. You never know what kind of alluringly beautiful river stones you might find along the trail.

(Side note: sadly, it looks like they stopped selling this thing in this parrot green color. It was perfect for Thailand!)

What Changed To Make This Possible

The collection inside wasn’t that different from my older kit, but the changes were significant.

First is the discovery, since then, of this incredible change to my life: Wool: Edible Ultralight Clothes. (My blogged page of praise not unlike what you’ll find slathered all over the internets.) It’s pretty much all I wear now in “normal” life and served me perfectly over a wide range of temperatures there too. I even broke out the little beanie in the mountains and, in fact, I’m wearing it right now as I look out over chilly, rainy San Francisco. OK, I need to stop typing or I’ll write another entire giddy page about this stuff.

These have been with me quite a while, but really proved themselves again: Ultralight Sandals. I wore these things through much of Thailand when I wasn’t literally barefoot. They slipped thinly into a pocket of the Parrot Bag.

(Long time readers will also now realize why I kept writing gear posts over the last week – they were all in support of this one! I promise the next will be more personal.)

Everything I Needed in Thailand

The Big One: No Laptop

This was the biggest change and, yeah, a tough call. As a scribbler I really like being able to write longer things. But I went with a moleskin and an iPhone instead and for 2.5 weeks, it worked out fine. The iPhone is basically a little pocket computer, capable of almost anything I needed. (I should note that it’s unlocked: I payed a premium up front but as a traveler I want to be able to grab a $10 sim card anywhere in the world and run with it.) If I go any longer in the future, I’ve considered picking up a folding bluetooth keyboard. Since I’m primarily just wanting a keyboard for writing, this may actually carry me pretty far in travel mode and it’s $30 instead of $2000 for a laptop. That’s a big difference if it gets destroyed. If I camp out on a beach somewhere to finish one of my book projects, though, I’ll definitely want my Mac Air. It would add weight, but would also just squeeze into the back of this bag. (The power supply weight would actually be the bigger issue.)


I brought along some of these really cool Eagle Creek compression sacks. These are basically giant ziplock bags with valves at one end. Lay clothes inside, zip, roll out the air with a little ppphhhhhhttt and they stay ultra compressed. I loved these things and they worked great but, in the end, I probably didn’t need the extra space they gave me. I really was amazed at how much room I had in this 22L bag.

How Freakin Heavy Was It?

It turns out the whole thing, stuffed with food, was a little over 12 lbs. That’s it. Most of the time I wore one strap over my shoulder, sometime two, and never once did I use the hip belt. I should point out that the hip belt is removable, so if I wanted to I could have ditched it at any time.

No shame gloating in the customs lines every time a guard asked, “is that it?”

Chico Day BackpackIt turns out that the Parrot Bag had so much room left, I was able to pack another crushable day pack in for recursion points: the Chico packable day pack
. (Here is a good overview of packable day packs by another ultralight guy.) It wasn’t necessary, but certainly nice to be able to throw my water bottle, jacket and Nook into the “day” bag as I headed out without having to empty the main bag. With a day bag I love being able to take layers on and off, knowing I’ll be comfortable no matter what comes, without worrying about where to put them. I’m also a bit hypoglycemic and vegan so I like to have food and water with me at all times. Nothing worse than wandering around realizing I’m hours from food I can eat and so cranky and bent up from low blood sugar that I can’t find a way back.

The Cold

Yep. No problem. From the picture of all the gear you can see that I have made the switch to carrying both the Montbell Jacket and vest and no warm long-sleeved shirt. I could pop through any combination and hang in any range of temperatures, and with the North Face jacket over the top I could evade rain and snow too! This combination was amazing, and I didn’t miss the long sleeved Patagonia at all. I am really happy with this set up. Always comfortable. Note: I also went snowboarding in this same outfit in -7F a while back.

The Pile

Backup battery! This flashlight/iphone battery backup was awesome and works as a flashlight as well! Great when I started using the iPhone as my camera and map.

I didn’t link to everything, like the harmonica I now carry or the moleskine, but here’s the rest of the pile with links. For questions about what’s worked out after 3 years of living ultralight, check out the post (yet to come) on 3 Years in the Same Pants. (Yeah, the pants, for one.)

Edible Ultralight Clothes

I’ve been working on lightweight living for a number of years now, and I’ve finally found the perfect fabric. Like most of the things you find for this kind of living, they’re insanely expensive but you only need two. In this case, these shirts are breathable, quick drying (sink wash and overnight dry-able for the essential ultralight quick turnaround) look good and, strangely and most amazingly, smell great forever. Here is a guy who blogged his way through two weeks without washing it. The company even has a blog dedicated to epic smell free weeks of spills and secretions.

kai return flight in blue icebreaker

As a kid hiking through the rockies my dad went on and on about how, “wool keeps you warm — even when it’s wet!” But what I remember was trying to see how long I could stay in one of those sweaters as terrifying itches crawled all over my skin. Now thanks to years of fiber hacking someone else did for me, I can hardly get myself out of these things they are so comfortable. I’ve been living pretty much exclusively in Icebreaker wool shirts since winter 2012 and still wearing the first ones I bought.

A Helpful Death

I also love that now I wear clothes that can return to the earth with me. Here’s what happens when you bury an Icebreaker shirt for a few months. Of course, this also means that they are full of delicious proteins and I now have a competitor, a nemesis, who loves my shirts as much as me and has no respect for property rights: moths! Fortunately as long as I’ve kept my shirts clean and out of their way I’ve been fine the last few years.

Buttery Underwear

kai return flight in blue icebreaker

Thanks to used sales on ebay I’ve been able to afford to collect a few more things including a delightfully smurf blue hoodie that is my only warm long sleeved shirt, a crazy light, breathable and warm pocket beanie and two pairs of underwear that are like wearing butter (well, ok, but they’re just so soft!) The underwear is also, I should add, much lighter and easier to wash than ExOfficio boxers, although the ExOfficios are so much cheaper they’re still most of my gear. (And, I should add, very durable. Haven’t given up on a pair yet.)

My synthetic ultralight shirts have long ago become so stinky or pilled that I abandoned them. (With the exception of one North Face shirt that they stopped making years ago… why?!) For shirts I’m completely sold on the Icebreaker wool from here out.


One note on weight: the tech lite t-shirts aren’t much heavier than most of the synthetics and are completely worth it. The pocket beanie is tiny. The underwear are much lighter than anything else. The hoodies and long sleeved things… are noticeably heavy enough that I wouldn’t travel with them, at least not for extreme ultralight. For that I’m sticking to the insanely amazing Mont Bell UL Thermawrap, still one of my favorite pieces of clothing of all time. More on that in the Thailand Next Level Ultralight Challenge post, where I attempt to travel in temperatures from 95F to 14F in a backpack designed to be small enough to hide inside other backpacks.

icebreaker hoodies

icebreaker t shirt

icebreaker underwear

icebreaker pocket beanie

Other People

One guy’s fond farewell to an icebreaker t-shirt after 1400 miles of hiking.

Open Foot Sandwich

“I don’t know what those are,” my girlfriend said, leaping to her feet, “but you need them.” She dashed towards a guy crouching down to scoop water from Austin’s Barton Springs. (Note: Please don’t go to Austin. It’s terrible there. And full. And Barton Springs is bitterly cold.) She jumped into some excited rambling with this guy and returned triumphant. Apparently the tiny strips of rubber on his feet were “sandals” and she knew where to get some. “If you aren’t ordering a pair the minute we get home I’m buying them for you.” I ordered the do-it-yourself kit and made my own little sandals out of rope and rubber and I’m still wearing them more than six years after that relationship wound up. (Although Silona Bonewald is still around to gloat about how right she was.)

Minimalist Sandals
Minimalist Sandals
Minimalist Sandals
Minimalist Sandals
Minimalist Sandals

I mentioned them as part of my ultralight living collection but haven’t dedicated a serious blog ode to my Xero Shoes just yet. I loved them for their portability then, but since that time they’ve carried me so much further. Now that I’m through the break in / strength building period I’ve worn them hiking on rock, desert, forest and, just now, all over Thailand.

The rock, in particular, seemed insanely intimidating. The first time I tried hiking I brought my hiking shoes as a backup. After several hours I was not only doing fine, I was in love. I could feel the smooth rock under my feet. Walking over earth and small stones was like getting a continuous little massage. It actually seems to have loosened up some of my particularly tight foot muscles.

Why They Aren’t For You

These things are absolutely not for everyone. For one thing, there is definitely a warm up period. They provide no, none, zippo support of any kind so your feet and ankles need to learn to do what they were designed for all over again. This takes a little while, and so at first you can only wear them for so long. Of course, once you’ve gotten through this period you’ll notice that your calves and ankles are stronger. Odd things happen, like discovering suddenly how easy it is to be on your toes.

They also require a fair bit of fiddling to get them lined up. The newer versions have taken care of this with fancy ties, but there’s still a bit of tweaking and adjustment to get them just right.

Did I mention no support? Also, no padding. So you actually have to learn to walk differently in these things. This takes time too. You can’t go falling forward on your heel like you would in padded shoes. Again, it’s how humans used to walk for thousands of years, but we’ve spent our whole lives (except for my friends who run around barefoot) doing something else. I’m a freaky, goofy, enthusiastic human who loves trying new things. You might not be.

Why They Are For Me

So here they are, some photos from a few road trips. Walking around Arches National Park was absolutely incredible. There is this sense, if I may hippie out for a moment, of being more connected to everything. There was so little barrier between me and the earth, and my feet could breathe. I felt myself wanting to move slower and really notice the sand, the flowers, the stone, and the sky.

I love being barefoot, so for me this is one step better: all of the barefoot without any of the pointy things to bother me along the way.

Where They Are

I recommend the minimal DIY kit because I’m hardcore, of course. They are also the best for slipping into a minimalist packpack because they are so… minimal. I muttered and worried about the thickness: get the 6mm “Contact”. The 4mm is just too thin.

Here’s a link if you want to check them out (and it’s an affiliate link so I get a percentage if you do – thanks!)

Xero Shoes Huaraches.

Other Cool Barefoot Info

Harvard Study with cool graphics

One Bag: What If It’s Really Cold?

When everything you own has to fit in one tiny bag, on the chilly beach…

layer 1 on chilly beachlayer 2 on chilly beach

layer 3 on chilly beach

…it’s about ultralight Layers!

note: many links are affiliate links

kai and the tiny bagI’m glad the previous post about everything I own was so useful (and controversial). The astute may have noticed something, though, being that I’ve been up in Chicago part of this time. What if it gets really cold?

Well, I’ve had classes all week in San Francisco and this place always feels like winter to an Austinite. Fortunately I have a few simple extensions to the one backpack plan. The first is now my favorite piece of clothing I’ve ever owned: the Mont Bell Thermawrap. This jacket is not quite 10 oz and stuffs into a tiny sack. At the same time, I can wear it down to about 40 degrees with just a t-shirt underneath. It’s absolutely amazing. As with most of the ultralight kit, spendy, but well worth it. I’ve been wearing it every day in foggy, chilly SF.

Add a Patagonia Capilene 3 zip neck shirt and the tiny Icebreaker Pocket Beanie to the collection (beanie stuffs into the sack with the Thermawrap and I can’t even tell it’s there), and I can hang out at freezing temperatures. Fantastic. All still in a tiny backpack.

Now, I have been able to fit the rolled up Capilene into my tiny North Face Recon backpack and strapped the Thermawrap to the side. (The Thermawrap also makes a great little pillow on the airplane.) But this week I was feeling over the top luxurious and also discovered that I’d have to carry large notebooks to class. (At least, until I have a chance to scan them to a hard drive and ditch them.)

In any case, I upped my space a touch by experimenting with a new backpack. It’s a North Face Overhaul 40. I believe they might be discontinued already, but it’s a bump from my 30L pack to a 40L pack. Not massive yet, by any stretch, but definitely spacious. After what I’ve been using for so long this thing feels like it could carry three people’s life works. I’ve modified it a bit by adding two compression straps so that it takes up as little room as possible and better balances the load. So far no problem sliding it under the seat on the airplane and it definitely makes sliding things in and out really easy. Oddly, though, it also feels kind of loose and sloppy to me. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed having tight, tiny little places for each item where they tucked in just so.

So this pretty much handles 32 degrees and a variety of things in between. If I were to add anything else to the mix it would be a Themawrap vest which would provide crazy versatility for another 5oz. I’ve even thought about getting the vest and ditching the Capilene, but I think I’d miss having the mid level soft longed sleeve thing.