Saturday 31 May 2008

Poland 5: The Bearable Lightness of Packing

On the train from Gdańsk to Toruń yesterday, I shared my compartment with an English-speaking Polish guy who turned out to be Tomek, the head instructor at a Krav Maga self defence academy in Łódź. Krav Maga is, apparently, a hand-to-hand combat system from Israel.

All interesting, of course, but what Tomek really wanted to ask me about was how I packed so light. He'd noticed my backpack on the rack above my head, knew from our conversation that I was from Australia and was touring Poland, and his interest was piqued.

To clarify, the backpack isn't one of those huge ones that seem larger than the backpackers they're attached to. It's cabin luggage sized. And it's the only luggage I ever take with me when I travel, whether locally or overseas.

Tomek, who travels a fair bit for his business, said he wanted to travel more lightly, but the problem was in choosing what to leave behind when he finally got around to packing. To which, I laughed carelessly and shared my secret with him (and now you): the "rule of three".

After years of travel, experimenting with less and less luggage and still complaining about how heavy it all was, I finally had this vision in Italy in 2001. Not that I put it straight into practice... bad habits die hard. But nowadays I swear by it.

The solution came by finally pinning down an ideal number of items of clothing, not to be deviated from. And that number is three. I pack three of the core clothing items in my backpack (actually two, as I'm wearing the third items onto the plane), with some variation on other items.

Here's an outline of my clothing packing for this Lonely Planet trip:

  • 3 shirts (2 T-shirts, 1 with collar)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 2 pairs of trousers (1 jeans, 1 black)
  • 1 fleecy top
  • 1 scarf
  • 1woolly hat
  • 1 jacket
  • 1 pair of boots
You can see it covers all the seasonal variations for spring in Central Europe, and I have worn everything on the list at some point in this trip. If it gets unusually cold, I could wear layers, but so far it's been textbook: cool nights and mornings, sunny warm days.

The single pair of footwear is a necessary element, as footwear is so hard to pack; they're solid black walking boots but look fine in a restaurant as well. Speaking of which, that's the point of the collared shirt and the second trousers: for wear at concerts, parties or meetings at the Australian Embassy (all of which have happened this trip).

In addition to clothing, I have the following:
  • toiletries
  • ultraportable laptop computer which weighs just over 1 kilogram
  • the Lonely Planet Poland guidebook
  • folder with papers, maps etc
  • mobile phone
  • camera
  • PDA
  • leads and chargers for the above
  • stationery items
  • foldable bowl and fork/spoon
  • small satchel
As I mentioned above, several of these items are carried on my person rather than going into the backpack. If you're wondering about the folding bowl, it's a miracle of design that allows me to have a simple meal of muesli in a hotel room from time to time.

Once off the aircraft, the satchel leaves the backpack and stays over my shoulder even when moving between cities. It only goes back when I need to get on a flight. And for reading material, I download a bunch of novels from the Web to read on my PDA (either paid-for downloads, or works available free because they're out of copyright).

You'll have noticed an obvious point: if you're going to travel this light, you need to wash clothing more often. Sure, but I think it's well worth the trade-off when I'm walking with a smile and a light step to the train station, with my easily manageable backpack on my back...

[For my April 2012 update to this blog post, click here]


  1. Tim

    I was listening to the ABC this morning and caught your Rule of 3... and as an intrepid traveller my interest piqued!!

    Having resorted to travelling with all my seminar material because of the unreliability of courier services and the complete lack of accountability at hotels once they store your material, I have for years worked out how to maximise my luggage allowances.

    In Australia with my frequent flyer status I can haul around 96 kilos before having to contribute to Qantas's $1 billion profit.

    However on a recent trip to New Zealand from Perth I was OK to Sydney but from there to Auckland the rules changed. My allowance suddenly became just 35 kilos and the balance was chargeable at $24/k - a massive $1,464... more than twice the ticket!

    So, I am working on a new set of rules and will use your Rule of 3 as inspiration to develop a business version for business education presenters who travel with classroom attached.

    Wayne Mansfield
    Business Seminars Australia
    Excellence in Business Education
    Perth Western Australia... as close as you get to Paradise on Earth
    Email: visit us at
    Australia's best seminar schedule is at

    Phone: (+61 8) 9221 0922 Fax: (+61 8) 9221 0933

  2. Thanks for the feedback Wayne. I'm from WA originally, by the way!

    Yes I think you could devise a simple packing model for business travellers along these lines; I myself was travelling with a laptop and various papers, though of course I didn't have a suit with me.

    My next challenge is a conference trip to Shanghai in October, with suit and video camera in addition to the usual items!

  3. Hi there. I just came across your bog and liked the post on traveling light. Three of everything is not a new concept for packing. My mum always says to take 3 of each for clothes - one on, one off and one in the wash!

  4. I should add a 2011 update to this article, having recently been back to Poland once again for LP. I now take a couple fewer items than listed above. The mobile phone and PDA have been replaced by an iPhone, which of course does the functions of both. And I no longer take a physical copy of the guidebook with me, only electronic copies of the chapters I need. The iPhone is so much better as a document reader than the Palm PDA was in the past, that I can fairly easily access text that way while on the move.

  5. Thanks to all the replies to my topic - I've not looked at Thorn Tree forum over the past year as I've been grounded.

    It seems some folk were offended or angered by it but I hope it helped some of those who may have been hitting the road for the first time.

    And I still used the 7 kilo limit in northern climes like NE USA and in Eastern Europe while jumping trains in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania etc after the Berlin wall came down. Sure, I often had to stand in line to purchase things - a bandage (once) and new boots (once) - but as I was (and still am) healthy I never carry medicines. Now you can even buy such items by just walking into the shop - in Eastern Europe it took time. In Central and South America I never had trouble finding stuff in the remotest of places.

    And to Tim, the Lonely Planet writer who gave me a positive comment (thanks) -you are getting close in your packing! For my next trip a Kindle will stop me 'tearing up books' - what a bastard I am! However, 'tearing out pages' once helped me survive - Playboy pictures used as currency - ReadAllAboutIt here: []