How to pack with the 80–20 rule

Make packing decisions get under 20kg and not miss anything

The counter attendant at Luang Prabang’s airport got up and walked around the counter just to check that I didn’t have a suitcase when I said I had no check-in luggage. I had so little that my trusty 25 litre backpack wasn’t even full.

It just has space left because I’ve packed everything I strategically needed (and some extra).

Check out my full 30+ day packing list is public on Google Docs, and everything fits into my super lightweight Arcteryx Cierzo 25 Backpack. This is what my bag looks like:

Packing follows the 80–20 rule.
20% of the weight is from essentials (ID, cash, etc.)
80% of the weight is from EXTRA clothes, gadgets, toiletries

It’s just 5 categories.

No matter how much or how little you have, they fit into these categories.

  1. Travel Documents & Essentials: The things you need to go there, have a roof over your head, purchase food, and get you home.
  2. Clothes: Enough to stay warm or cool. Packing less clothing makes an immediate difference to your weight. For most people, it’s 50% of their luggage, and for me it’s about 20–30% for both tropics and winter.
  3. Personal Items: Toiletries mostly, and the odd book.
  4. Gadgets: Laptops, Cameras, chargers, etc.
  5. Smartphone Apps (Optional, but helps a lot)

The trick is to know where your weight is coming from, and minimise a little everywhere. Below, I have some questions for you to ask yourself so you can make decisions based on your own travel needs.

Please credit Athena Lam when you share. Thanks!

Travel Documents & Essentials
(5% total weight)

The things that get you out the door, and back home again are all very light. That’s great because you can keep them on you and relax. I keep them in my windbreaker jacket. It is empowering to not have to worry, about whether your bag will arrive or about your small purse when you finish your coffee. I generally think of travel essentials in two sets — what stays on me, secure, and what should be in the safe.

Set 1: Goes with you for peace of mind. This is the set that goes into my light windbreaker jacket (refer to my packing list) because it has 2 zip pockets at the front, and 2 inside pockets that fit my passport and my envelope of extra cash. The inside ‘pockets’ are actually the flip side of the normal zipper pockets, and mine happen to be sown in such a way where it creates a pouch inside (steal-proof!). Into my pockets I have my wallet, keys, tickets for travel that day, smartphone, passport, and spare cash.

Set 2: The stuff that should be kept safe. This is the stuff I put into a small ziplock bag (lighter) or a travel pouch / bag, preferably waterproof. This it stuffed at the bottom of my backpack past my shoes, so a thief would have to work for it! In this would go additional booking printouts / tickets, phone numbers, photocopies of ID, and more cash (USD & local currency).

Medicine counts as essential. Make sure you have something for indigestion or anti-allergens. You want to make sure you can enjoy your trip and not be stuck indoors recovering! The heaviest thing in ‘essentials’ is probably your medicine bag.

Make everything else non-essential.

Pack what you won’t miss: the comfy faded t-shirt that’s practical and not presentable in your modern city-life, the shorts with frayed ends that you were thinking of throwing out.

(20–50% Total Weight)

Use vacuum sealer clothes bags. They save you a lot of space and weight.

I want to make decisions on what to do, not what to wear. Packing few clothes doesn’t preclude packing nice clothes. I appreciate people who take care in their presentation, and if you want to bring your dresses and dress shirts, by all means. Just prevent yourself from debating for 2 hours in the morning on what to wear by bringing 2–3 options instead!

2–3 of everything is enough. Bring enough clothes to buffer before you do laundry. I usually wash my clothes every day or other day. Otherwise, drop it off at the coin laundry close by.

Your repeat shirt is a new shirt for the next place you go. Especially for women, there is incredible pressure to wear something different (i.e. to the office), but when you’re on vacation, give yourself a break. No-one will know, or mind, if you wear a shirt twice!

Bring layers. This is especially true when you’re going to cold places. Pick your 1–2 of your warmest and most comfortable sweaters, and then a long-sleeve under that, t-shirt under that, and tank top. No matter how many layers you wear, people will only see one — so don’t stress on bringing matching stuff!

If you really want to bring one more piece, wear another layer to the airport.

Personal Items
(10–30% total weight)

Bring less, and buy more later. When we’re at home, we have unlimited storage for the toiletries we need to look great every day. Sometimes, it’s easier to just buy things where you’re going than putting them through airport security, or wrapping them securely in your check-in.

Bring travel-sized bottles. I usually have refillable shampoo and bathing gel, toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste. I have a travel micro-towel and lots of travel-sized bottles of sunscreen because I’m outdoors often.

Bring less, use less. For skin lotion, I bring one or two small tubes, and use them sparingly. I don’t bring face wash and I don’t wear any make up. It saves a lot of weight (the bottles!), time packing, and daily prep before you go out to explore.

(20–50% total weight)

Tech is heavy. Try to live without it. That includes laptop, camera(s), and phone. I’ve travelled for years without cameras, and learned to focus on using all my senses, committing everything to memory because I don’t have a photo to do a quick snap. A smartphone is invaluable if you have preloaded offline maps like (free) and expect to be somewhere with reliable wifi to do bookings. A Kindle may also be great if you’re a bookworm. If you must work, consider getting a cheap, light-weight laptop.

Smartphone Apps

A short list is below. I don’t have much space on my phone, so I usually keep a map, two booking apps on my phone, and the usual messaging and social media ones I have at home. The rest I search online.

Navigation: Google Maps, Baidu in China, (great offline maps)

Translation. Google Translate (and you can download the offline dictionaries), Pleco (a great Chinese dictionary)

Bookings:, Hostelworld / Hostelbookers, AirBnB, Agoda, Couchsurfing

Flights: SkyScanner, CTrip for China, Kayak

Other Tools: XE Currency Conversion, Trip Advisor (for things to do), Foursquare (for local places to go), OpenRice (Hong Kong & parts of Asia), Dianping for China / Local Restaurant App (for food)

What are your packing tips and tricks?

You can check my packing list at this link.

And please share and help your friends on the road! Thanks.

Also, a shout out to Canva, a great tool for creating visuals.

Original post on

Thinking about the intersection of social justice and tech, with a LGBTQ and POC lense.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store