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Journey with less: Woman who never travels with more than 5kg

It is hard to believe that Susan Miller is in her fifties. Her lifestyle and spirit of adventure keeps her young.
She has been travelling since she was 18 and has never returned “home” to live. She is an expert in travelling light and moving all her 5 kilos of worldly belongings from one new home to another, and she only buys one-way tickets! But how does she do it?
packing light freedom luggage
She is heading to Africa in a month’s time, so I decided to catch her before she leaves and find out a little more. Her bag is already packed! She says that leading up to any trip she accustoms herself to living with the bare essentials kept in one small shoulder bag. She often heads for the most obscure and unlikely destinations, and stays long enough to make a contribution, but without getting too comfortable and settled. She likes living on the edge and testing her ingenuity at adapting and surviving in challenging locations.

Travelling Light

What she packs in her bag is really what she needs for the journey, plus a few items which she considers essential or difficult to find in some parts of the world. Clothes take up a lot of space, so she limits herself to 1 of everything. She wears her trousers, shirt, jersey and shoes and packs another smart shirt and dress. These along with her underwear are all rolled tightly around more delicate items as protection.
A sarong is essential as it has countless uses: to sit on, as a cover for your body or head, as a towel, a makeshift bag and ofcourse an extra item of clothing.
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She takes two clothes pegs to hang up the sarong as a screen for privacy as well as some unwaxed silk dental floss which she says is so strong that it can be used in multiple situations… along with the pegs and sarong to make a tent for example!! Pegs for securing all manner of things and floss for tying are two essentials, along with black electrical tape which she says can be difficult to find but which is incredibly useful for emergency repairs: cabling, bags, clothes and even shoes. It is both resistant and semi-waterproof.

Her philosophy is simple:

Why take changes of clothes when most of the destinations she heads to sell t-shirts for a dollar.

Buying things from locals is a good way to support the community and get to know people. sustainable necessitiesDressing like everyone else means that you don’t stand out as a foreign newcomer. Footwear is heavy and bulky, so she wears her only pair of shoes and if necessary buys another once she gets there. She doesn’t travel with a phone, but buys a basic model for about 10 dollars in the first week. This is going to be the first time she takes a mini laptop with her. She seems reluctant at carrying something so fragile, concerned that it might break and she’d be stuck with a cumbersome piece of plastic! She has packed a notebook and pen as a way of recording information just in case. A Leatherman mini-multi-purpose tool was one of her favourite travel companions, but unfortunately it was confiscated at a border control. Having a small pocket knife is incredibly handy– provided that it is legal to carry around within a country, however you can’t carry them in your hand luggage.

As far toiletries go, she packs them neatly into a compact zipped bag.
Her sole possessions count as hand luggage, so she has to be careful about more than 100ml of liquids, creams and pastes. She agrees that little packs of multi-purpose soap leaves could be a good solution, however she sees these products as luxury extras which won’t last long so it is better not to feel dependent upon any of them. She knows that once she arrives at her destination she will do what the locals do, this applies to any basic medical treatment she might need. She packs tweezers, toothbrush and paste as well as a small bundle of cotton buds which are seemingly scarce in many parts of the world. She carries a needle and thread too, but remarks that in many third world countries it is quite normal to buy items in small quantities…even one needle and a small length of thread to suit the purpose. Perhaps as travellers we should remember that we don’t need to be prepared for all situations if we are going to any inhabited place! If the locals get by there, then so can we!

travelling light

Susan’s bag: slightly bigger than Time magazine but smaller than a cushion!

Apart from her passport she takes a limited amount of cash (200 dollars) just to help her get started. I asked her if she had any emergency measures and she smiled and pointed to her gold tooth! Gold is valued the world over and she used to travel with small lightweight gold chains which she could sell if she needed to. She also carries a number of unisex necklaces in a pouch, gifts from friends ready to be handed out as spontaneously to people she comes across on her travels. In fact she has made a pact with herself that any item that she is given is surplus, so she if she decides to keep something she needs to throw/give away the item it has now replaced.

It has often been said that “Our necessities are few, but our wants are endless” and travelling can be a way of re-evaluating exactly what those necessities are. Having to carry the things that you are so attached to around day in day out, may make you feel differently about their appeal. To leave some of your old self behind and start experiencing life from a whole different standpoint is far more rewarding and informative in the longterm. Whether it is what you use to clean your teeth to how to dress in the morning, Susan is an inspiration to us all to be brave and ruthless whilst packing. We may not be able to match her 5kgs, but most of us could halve the weight of our psychological and physical “baggage” by taking her travelling light philosophy on-board instead!

44 replies
  1. Stephen Kempa says:

    If you’re going to be around people and civilization all the time, then you really don’t need so much. Once you start adding in sleeping outside, possible extreme weather, having to cook/treat dirty water, etc. Thing start to add up!

    Reply
  2. Shaz Za says:

    A few decades ago I spent a few years in Oz. I travelled around it and en-route back to the UK with a small backpack. My sis then took me on a package holiday to Spain where the travel rep commented that her make-up bag was bigger than my backpack lol. It helps being tiny 🙂

    Reply
  3. Hilary Whitford says:

    Toothbrush, spare knickers, a loo roll and an extra jumper; what else d’you need?

    But I’d defy her to go on a two-week ski holiday with only 5kg of baggage – skis and boots alone weigh more than that. If you’re going to buy/rent everything on site, you have more money than sense to not use your full baggage allowance.

    Reply
  4. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    I love this! I’m also one to pack extremely light when travelling on short trips. But most of the time I’m travelling on a one way ticket with everything I own because I don’t have a home so I carry everything in a big back pack. Does she have a place where she leaves all her belongings when she’s travelling or did she literally get rid of absolutely everything except for one of every piece of clothing?

    Reply
  5. Stevie on the Move
    Stevie on the Move says:

    Travelling light is the best to be free from worries! But like Teresa said, in some countries you need warm clothes. I’m travelling in Arctic Norway now and also I’m a low budget traveller. So if you’re not willing to pay for accommodation all the time and travel in countries where you don’t get invited every night you need a warm sleeping bag and a tent.

    Reply
  6. Dee
    Dee says:

    It seems a bit wasteful to me, buying cheap phones etc ( when phones are so small anyway), just for the sake of not packing much. It’s not always possible to find what you need in shops overseas. I travel light but I think this is extreme

    Reply
    • Deborah
      Deborah says:

      I can’t speak for Susan, but when I went to Turkey it was way too expensive to use my minutes internationally, and my phone didn’t have the option of getting a SIM card there, so I, too bought a phone. I think I spent 12 or so, and when I left the country I donated my phone at the Atlanta airport to the USO for the Cell Phones for Soldiers program. As far as everything you need not being available overseas, my feeling is that if you can’t find it you don’t really need it.

      Reply
  7. dean
    dean says:

    Travelling light is the way to go…when i was a kid i had a backpack, not very big but it still got in the way…for most of the last 18 years or so i travel with a shoulder bag, room for camera, spare pants and socks, tape and knife and thats about it. wherever i go i feel involved and unobtrusive! whether its running to catch a boxcar in texas or wandering around dark alleys in africa, i can move quickly and easily and i rarely get bothered by hustlers or touts. who needs 35kg on their backs?

    Reply
  8. Mike
    Mike says:

    How long is she actually traveling in one stint? What if you don’t have the money to buy things once you reached the destination? And sometimes you change climate within shorta distance and you need to have warm clothes with you. What about a tent and sleeping bag?
    Everyone’s situation is different so it’s not always possible to travel light…

    Reply
  9. bikes_bics
    bikes_bics says:

    I love this. I hate carrying stuff and always try to keep it to a minimum when bike touring. Unfortunately, tools and spare tyres take some weight although Workawaying can mean no tent required. 6 week 2000km round Portugal border trip planned for 2017 so shall take inspiration!

    Reply
  10. Amy Klimek says:

    I have stopped taking toiletries with me if travelling via an airport. Why bother taking up valuable luggage space/weight limitations when there’s usually a chemist/pharmacy in the departure lounge?! Sun cream etc (I have fussy skin & would rather stick to what I know). Might as well make use of that duty free allowance.

    Reply
  11. Anita
    Anita says:

    Gosh great story. I’m just back from a Around the World Trip with my two sons. ( 16. 25 ) for 1 year. 20 countries 6 Continents. .. I’m annoyed at myself for Not travelling light and buying a Lot of stuff along the way …one son mastered his stuff into 2 smallish back packs. Other son pretty good also …we had to carry 3 sleeping bags as 80 % needed. ..a lot of room taken up with laptop maps. Electronic gear batteries first aid clothes lines small tools. …my weaknesses was retail. …I am writing a book on our travels * I Touched A Tigers Testicle * many many stories of action adventure dramas Tinder. Police Chase Deportation fights crashes thefts plus a Lot More. …any whoo. My failure was over packing and yes my boys carried some of my bags but they were NOT HAPPY …..

    Reply
  12. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    I love the idea that if the locals can manage then so can we. I’m NOT a light traveller, I know I can buy things when I get there but like to know I have enough for a few days until I find my way around. I don’t want to be stuck without food and water and clean clothes for as few days. Climate will hugely determine how much luggage you need and the less you carry the more money you will need.

    Reply

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