Over packed and ill equipped! How I discovered frugal travelling

Uyuni is a cold, desolate (and destitute) town. It seems to exist only for one reason. It is the entry point to the world’s largest salt flat – the 10,000 sq.km vast and magnificent, Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia.

It is also the place where I got a humbling lesson in the value of packing light.

My wife and I had never been to a place this remote. We were to embark on a 3 day tour of the Salar’s alien landscape on a 4×4 with 5 other tourist (all Europeans) and a local driver (cum cook cum guide). They told us, given that 8 people’s luggage shared the car storage space along with 3 days’ worth of food and utensils, that we would be allowed only 1 bag per person. We knew that.  Had specially bought rucksacks for that reason. Naturally, we bought the largest rucksacks we could find –totalling 165 litres of capacity between us– still one bag a person though. However, the tour operators would have none of it. One look at our bags and they threatened to kick us off unless we halved our luggage.

Our 4×4 in the Salar de Uyuni salt pans. 8 people’s luggage on the carrier (covered with blue tarpaulin). The portable kitchen and all supplies were kept in the small boot space at the back of the car


Panic set in!  One rucksack between us to survive for 3 days in sub-zero locations with zero electricity and zero understanding of the principles of vegetarianism! However, we had no choice and we left behind much of the painstakingly researched gear we had sourced for the trip.

Fact is, we looked like idiots. We looked around and no other person was carrying more than a backpack – of a size smaller than my 6th grade school bag (guess that’s when we start on our over packing, over stuffing ways).

Over the next 3 days, I observed these other travellers to see how they were able to pack so light. It was an embarrassing, even depressing realization. Despite spending a bomb on pre travel shopping for this trip, we had the acute sense that we remained over packed but ill-equipped. Our brand new acquisitions couldn’t hold a candle to the travel-wise gear most of these Europeans were carrying. Got our first lessens in the art of “frugal travelling”.

Us hanging off a caxirola! The Salar really messes with your perspective, in more ways than one!


Today, it is very evident that the frugal traveller holds center stage in the world travel market. She is wooed, championed and anointed the “coolest of the pack”. A whole lot of innovations in the travel market, from websites to products, cater to this traveller. Fact is, the world is travelling a lot more than it used to and travelling on a budget is a reality for most of us. Frugal travelling is thus here to stay. It is the more sustainable way to travel, allows a traveller to blend in and focuses on spending on experiences rather than acquisition of more stuff.

Anyway, after this laborious context setting, let me come to the point of this blog (bear with me, its good stuff). My observations on how to pack and pick better for your next trip are below:

Pack Right, to pack light: Most of our packing space is typically taken up by clothes. It doesn’t need to be that way. Travel clothing has come a long way with versatile, low maintenance clothing that can be used in a variety of situations and worn multiple number of times. Think, multipocket jackets, leggings, quick dry, wrinkle free clothing, zip-off pants (that convert to shorts). Don’t think – linen shirts, bulky sweaters, formal trousers etc. They either take up too much space or are one time use only leading to bloated bags.

Don’t go crazy on contingencies: Do you pack that extra trousers or that pair of shoes, just in case? Do you take half your medicine cabinet and take multiple printouts of all sorts of documents along? That’s not planning, that’s paranoia. Taking your basic meds is obviously a good idea but don’t pack for every possible medical emergency – just take your prescriptions and be aware of what is available locally. Similarly, having documents on your google drive, email is just as good today (unless you are in front of an immigration officer).  You will find solutions to most day to day travel contingencies through chutzpah and a little money. If you have access to one or both, you don’t need to go crazy with contingency planning during your packing.

Pack for the elements: This is one area where you can’t be stingy. If you are struggling to be on top of the elements, you are not having a good time. Thoroughly study the weather till the last days before the trip and pack everything you need to be comfortable. At the same time, look for smarter packing options to manage the environment. A light poncho and flip-flops will get your through most rainy days. 3-4 layers of well-chosen synthetic clothing will overcome those chilly nights. And well, you can get away with close to nothing for a beach holiday, anyway.

Shoes: 6 pairs of footwear is just too much. 5 pairs of footwear is again too much. 4 pairs of footwear is also too much. Flip-flops or loafers and comfortable dark coloured sneakers for men. Women allowed one more pair, maybe. You are on holiday. Which means: No.1:  take care of your feet. Keep them as comfortable as possible, as much as possible. No. 2: You are not expected to wear perfectly matching shoes for each occasion.  Shoes that are multipurpose – loafers/ sandals etc are the way to go.

Cosmetics: This stuff kills, in terms of weight and space taken. If you think about it, apart from your toothpaste, you bring back 80% of what you carry here. Most of the shampoos/lotions need to be in the smallest packing size available, unisex as far as possible and cheap enough to throw/ leave behind if required. If you fall short of anything, you are likely to find it at your destination anyway.

Organize: Use packing cubes and compression bags! They are magic in packing your clothes tight and right. Well-designed bags with the right kind of pockets and access can really help in organizing stuff and keeping things tidy. The rolling technique for clothes is also an excellent way to make the most out of you bag’s real estate.

To me, not needing to check in a bag is the perfect liberating moment to start my vacation. After all, isn’t that the reason we travel in the first place.

Have fun in your travels!


Manan shouldn’t be a blogger but he runs Bragpacker.com. Hence this.

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