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Top 10 tips for PACKING LIGHT with kids: minimalist family travel

Top 10 tips for PACKING LIGHT with kids: minimalist family travel

Packing light for family travel is a challenge, trying to squeeze in everything you’ll need for a long trip without overloading both kids and parents. Whilst some families successfully travel with a suitcase, nothing beats a backpack for convenience and flexibility, but how do you keep it light enough so everyone can carry their own gear without tears and backaches?

Packed away amongst these top 10 tips for minimalist family travel, you’ll find ideas on packing light with kids, including what to bring and what to leave at home.

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1. Be selective

The hardest thing is deciding what to leave behind. We’ve all been there, confronted with a neat collection of folded clothes, each pile absolutely fundamental to the upcoming trip. What could I possibly leave behind?

Many years ago, when packing for our first backpacking trip, the Lonely Planet guide had some brilliant advice which boiled down to:

  • make two piles: pile one, everything you can’t live without and, pile two, everything you begrudgingly accept isn’t essential
  • discard the second pile
  • split the first pile in two!

Whilst this can seem quite severe, the underlying message is true. You won’t need most of the things you think will, partly because when you’re travelling you gradually come to care less about having a different outfit each day.

Check out our Southeast Asia packing list for families

2. Downsize your library

It’s important that kids continue to read whilst they’re travelling, but how do you manage to carry enough books for the whole trip and keep the weight down? An Amazon Kindle (e-book readers are available) is an essential item on your packing list, allowing you to carry an entire library in your pocket.

Plus you’ll always (internet permitting) be able to buy any new books whilst on the road, rather than relying on local bookstores which won’t have the latest and greatest your kid desperately wants. We prefer the boys having a separate e-book reader to their Amazon fire tablets, as it helps to focus their minds and avoids any distractions.

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3. Top-up as you go

It can be tempting before you leave home to try and pack for every season and eventuality, and this is often the number one reason why backpacks are bursting at the seams. This will be a particular issue if you’re travelling to a region which combines warm and cold climates.

Try to remember that, in most places around the world, it’s very easy to buy clothes and supplies from local markets. If you’re heading to a warm country which also has some mountainous areas, for example Morocco, don’t waste space and weight carrying jackets and fleeces whilst you’re in the hot cities, wait until you reach the colder places and then buy clothes and supplies locally. Better still, as the locals will also be buying similar stuff, the prices will be lower.

Nepal itinerary with kids
stocking up on warm hiking gear in Nepal

If you’re leaving one climate for the final time, consider donating some of your gear to a local charity who may be able to distribute it to those who’ll still need it.

4. Start as light as possible

There’s no point shaving every last gram off your packing list if the bag you put it all in is heavy to start with. There’s a time and place for rigid, solid and robust backpacks, but a family travel adventure isn’t going to be one of them.

Starting with the kids backpacks, find gear which is lightweight but still strong. Your bags will need to withstand a fair amount of abuse (chucked into bus luggage holds, etc) but nothing out of the ordinary. Save the polar expedition worthy bags for another time.

Check out our guide to the best travel backpacks for kids

deuter Fox 30 Children’s Trekking Backpack
  • For children aged 8 and up
  • The backpack grows with your child thanks to VariQuick back length adjustment
  • Optimal load transfer thanks to the compact hip fins
  • Hydration system attachment (compatible with deuter Streamer 3.0 – not included)
  • Variable fastening options thanks to material straps in a wide range of positions
backpacking in Essaouira, Morocco

5. Collapse and fold

One reason people end up with large and heavy bags is essential gear in the wrong shape. You could argue that a plate, cutlery and mug are needed on your trip and this way well be true. But we’ve seen people with almost a silver-service dinner set, taking up valuable space in their bags.

By all means, bring this stuff but use collapsible bowls, plates and cups where you can, and make sure you have a Spork in your life.

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6. Multi-purpose clothes

We’re big fans of clothes which have more than one use, saving on space in your bag and letting you change outfit on the go.

The boys love their zip-off trousers, allowing them to wear shorts most of the time, but then zip on some legs if they get cold or need to visit a temple.

Sarongs are brilliant for many occasions, especially when travelling Southeast Asia with kids and are lightweight. They can be used for skirts, shawls, blankets, plus many more. It’s like having five different items of clothing in one. Similarly, a bandana can be handy for a head-covering, emergency face-mask, or scarf.

7. Virtual documents

It’s important to have access to various documents with you, e.g. travel insurance, flight itinerary, copies of passports, etc but that doesn’t mean you need a cumbersome folder stuffed full of A4. The vast majority of documents can be stored online, ideally somewhere you can still easily access in an emergency.

8. Ditch the plastic

A big culprit in the weight wars are plastic containers, not only terrible for the environment but also for your back. Toiletries have the biggest footprint, particularly shampoo and conditioner bottles but also things like sunscreen and deodorant.

Wherever possible, we try to use soap and shampoo bars rather than bottles, and we’re big fans of the Green People’s range of sunscreen and toiletries.

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9. Ship the souvenirs

We all love an authentic souvenir from our travels, something to remind us of the trip once we’re back home. Don’t let your small backpack put you off buying a souvenir, but definitely consider getting it shipped back home, rather than trying to carry it across the world with you for the next three months.

It’ll likely either get broken or lost, so instead enquire about shipping costs when you make a purchase. Most of the larger shops in tourist areas can arrange it for you and, as long as you’re not in a hurry for it to arrive home, it can work out quite cheaper than those annoying excess baggage fees at the airport.

KL Petaling Street
shopping down Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur

10. Pack a camel

Avoiding plastic bottles is a brilliant idea but it can mean you need to pack your own water bottle, which can add bulk and weight to your bag.

Consider carrying a Camelbak Fusion bladder, a lightweight alternative to a hard plastic bottle that can fold into your bag easier. Make sure you pack some purifying tablets as well, or keep an eye out for water fountains. Some hostels and hotels offer free purified water to save you buying your own.

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CAMELBAK BOLSA FUSION 2L
  • Durable & Design
  • Value for money
  • Easy to use

Final thoughts

When you embark on a long trip, your backpack is coming along with you, whether you like it or not. What can seem a manageable weight at home for five minutes can quickly become an anchor when you’ve been dragging it around for six weeks.

Thai-Cambodian border crossing
backpacking in Cambodia with kids

Factor in your kids and their abilities as well, who may not be used to carrying anything heavier than a school bag, and it can quickly spoil their trip. The last thing you’d want is to put kids off backpacking before they’ve really began. Indeed, packing light is one of our top tips for backpacking with kids.

Start with as light a backpack as you can find and go from there. Even if you just follow a few of these tips, you’ll shed a few kilos. Trust us, your back will soon be thanking you.


You may also like to read:
Best travel backpacks for kids
Southeast Asia packing list for families
The ULTIMATE Africa packing list for families