I learned the pleasure of traveling with minimal luggage while backpacking around Europe during college. While I’ll probably never want to travel again like I did then (hostels, picnic meals, and doing laundry in sinks, all for just $25 a day!), learning how to pack one bag for three months of travel was a great lesson, and has stuck with me. I rarely travel now with more than what I can carry on the plane with me.
And while I won’t fault anyone going on a vacation with two big, checked bags, it’s a great feeling to have everything with you on the plane and zip through customs, need no assistance hopping between taxis and hotels, and not having to worry about lost luggage. (It doesn’t happen often – probably to about 1 out of every 300 of our guests at Isla Palenque – but when it does it can be a giant headache: a few months ago a honeymooning couple didn’t receive their luggage until their third day with us, waiting for half of their vacation to be over until it was delivered from God-knows-where-Delta-had-it.)
The reality is that, even if you want to partake of a wide range of activities and adventures while staying with us at Isla Palenque, and/or are planning an active 1-2 week vacation in Panama or elsewhere in the tropics, it’s not difficult to pack everything you need in a small backpack and a roller that will fit overhead. Just follow a few basic principles, and use my money-back guaranteed, patent-pending list below. (Some of this advice may run counter to my other “Packed for Palenque” posts, as those were about getting ideas for lots of things to bring, while this is about paring down to the essentials.)
Basic Principles & Tips
- Repeated Wearings: Plan to wear things more than once without washing (underwear and socks excluded). If you keep just one or two sets of clothes for hikes, or wear already dirty clothes on those hikes you know will get especially sweaty, for example, you can keep your other clothes clean for longer.
- Mix-and Match: Use layers to change out a look from one day to the next without changing all your clothes, and make sure that (almost) your clothes have colors that work together: never take something that doesn’t “work” with the majority of the other things you are bringing.
- Darker Colors: Dark, or at least “darkish” clothing will be better for hiding any small stains or dirt you may get in your travels.
- Use Layers: Use layers to adjust your clothing to the temperature over the course of the day, and to switch out a look from one day to the next without needing an entire new set of clothes.
- Roll Your Clothes: Instead of folding shirts and pants, roll them; it lets you pack more into the same space, and reduces wrinkles.
With those principles in mind, below is a packing list that will easily allow you to enjoy a week in Panama, or more if you have laundry done partway through your trip. Everything here can be taken with you on a plane without the need to check anything: either you’ll be wearing it, have it in a small backpack, or in a carry-on sized suitcase. I’ve listed items by where you’ll want them while on your days of air travel, along with a few more tips to make those travel days as easy as possible, at least with respect to your luggage.
Firstly, please note what is NOT in the below list: there are no coats, scarves, winter hats, gloves, etc. Even if you are traveling from a cold climate to us, it is not worth bringing any winter clothing. You are probably only going to be outside for a minute or three during your trip to the airport, and it’s much better to be slightly uncomfortable during that time than to deal with a bunch of heavy clothing that will be absolutely useless for 99% of your travels. (The one exception to this would maybe be a knit cap, which you can stick in you backpack and does a lot to keep you warm without taking up too much space.) So, what do you want to be wearing on that plane ride down and back?
- Jeans or Chinos: These should be you go-to pants for your trip, reasonably heavy duty, and usable for travel, a nice-ish dinner, etc.
- Casual Shoes: Wear the same ones you’ll be wearing to dinners, etc. (See the P4P Lounging post.)
- T-Shirt: This is part of the layering concept, and helps keep your other shirts/tops clean.
- Long-Sleeve Shirt: You’ll probably want to shed this once you arrive in the tropics, but since airports and airplanes have widely varying temperatures, you’ll probably want to wear it for most of the plane ride.
- Jacket: If you expect to look dressy for an evening or two, bring a tropical weight jacket or sportcoat; this also works as an extra layer if you are coming from a cold climate. (See the P4P Lounging post.)
- Miscellaneous: In addition to the obvious underwear and socks, you are probably keeping a smartphone and passport wallet on you as well. (Make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months, which Panama and many other countries require.)
Your backpack or daypack should have everything you might need for the day, all handy-like, so that you don’t possibly need to open your main suitcase until you finally arrive at your destination. In addition to holding those layers you started off wearing but are likely to shed upon arrival in the tropics (so make sure it is large enough to hold some extra clothes), other items you should keep in here include:
- Sunglasses and hat: It’s likely to be bright and sunny when you land. If you are only bringing one pair of sunglasses, make them heavy-duty. (See the P4P Ocean post.)
- Kindle/Tablet: Bring books if you must, and while I held on to my analog ways for awhile, the truth is that – especially for travel – the kindle (or kindle app) is so absolutely perfect and lightweight, it is insane not to use it instead of lugging multiple books. Plus, you can have a kindle app on your smartphone as well, and so long as it is synced to the cloud, you can switch between your phone and tablet for reading a book without losing your place, which comes in handy when standing in a long security line or otherwise wanting to read something without pulling out a big tablet. (Living in Panama, where waiting is a fact of life, I probably get half of my book reading done on my phone.)
- Earphones: Not just good for listening to music on your smartphone but also – if you buy the noise-isolating variety – for drowning out the sounds of the plane and other passengers.
- Chargers: Keep these handy, and consider buying a battery back-up as well.
- Toiletries Kit: Since you need to get out your liquids for the TSA charade anyway, you might as well put your whole toiletries kit in you backpack and you’ll have medicine, toothbrush, etc handy in case of a travel snafu.
- Energy Bar: Speaking of travel snafus, it’s not a bad idea to keep a calorie-dense snack handy like an energy bar or pack of nuts. If there’s a 4-hour plane delay, you’ll be happy you’ve got it.
- Undergarments: If you’ve got the space, and want things really handy in case of a serious travel delay that makes you spend the night in an airport, you might consider throwing an extra t-shirt, underwear and socks in your backpack.
Personally, I’ve come to really like the hardshell cases, and the premium paid for a solid case with good wheels and strong zippers, like Tumi’s Vapor is indeed worth it, as I think they will last forever (and I’ve put mine through a lot of abuse), but anything that rolls and can fit in the overhead bin will work. In this case, you can easily fit all of the below, which would last you a week on a tropical island like Palenque. In fact, you’ll probably have room for a few more things. (But rather than fill up all the remaining space, you may want to save some room for souvenirs and gifts on the way back.)
- T-Shirts (2): With the one you are wearing, you’ll have 3, and unless you get really dirty or sweaty, that’s a solid 4-6 days of shirts, maybe more.
- Tank Top (2-3): They take up almost no room, and make you feel islandy. (See the P4P Ocean post.)
- Short Sleeve Shirts or One-Piece Dresses (2): Two is enough, especially if you layer with tees or tanks. (See the P4P Ocean post and P4P Lounging post.)
- Explorer’s Shirt (1): Expect this to be your “dirty” shirt for jungle hikes and similar adventures, and don;t worry about wearing dirty clothes if you are going back into the jungle. (See the P4P Jungle post.)
- Cargo Pants (1): Same advice as for the shirt. (See the P4P Jungle post.)
- Lounging Pants or Sundress (1): Try to keep these as your nice, clean pants; no need to be wearing them all day. (See the P4P Lounging post.)
- Shorts (2): I’d strongly consider making one these a pair of “hybrid shorts” like those by Vissla or Volcom. All the benefits of boardshorts when in the water, but they dry quick and have real pockets so that you can wear them like regular shorts as well. (See the P4P Ocean post.)
- Swimsuit (1-2): These should dry quickly, so you don;t need more than one; two, tops. (See the P4P Ocean post.)
- Crochet Top (1): For the women, if they feel the need to have a different outfit every day, this can serve double- or triple-duty. (See the P4P Lounging post.)
- Sarang (1): (See the P4P Ocean post.)
- Flip Flops (1): (See the P4P Ocean post.)
- Tennis Shoes or Water Shoes (1): There’s really no need for hiking boots unless you are doing a lot of really serious hiking (ie, 3-6 hours a day), and they take up a ton of space. (See the P4P Jungle post.)
- Socks (5): You’ll be able to wear a pair or three of these twice before they get gross, and can wash them in the sink if necessary. (See the P4P Jungle post.)
- Underwear (6): I’m not going to suggest you wear these twice (though… if you turn them inside-out…). Bring a pair for each night of your vacation.
- Other stuff: You’ll have room for more, so – especially for those small items, like tank tops, t-shorts, shorts, flip-flops, etc – throw them in if you feel the need.
That’s it: packing light is not difficult for most vacations of a week or two, but for the tropics it is especially easy: most clothing will be small and light, and almost anywhere you are going is likely to be casual. Life is easy down here, so there’s no need to have much with you. But if you have any suggestions for things I missed which seem essential to you, let me know in the comments section.