The Traveling Musician Guide: How to Pack SUPER LIGHT and Still Have Everything You’ll Need!

16 minutes read

“Simplicity is complex. It’s never simple to keep things simple. Simple solutions require the most advanced thinking.”

Richie Norton

With this in mind, let’s now simplify things together and enjoy more freedom and fun on our travels.

*Originally posted in Aug 2016.

Around the world in six months, a small bag, and a guitar. These were all my belongings for six months. This pic was taken in Wellington, New Zealand, Sep '14.
Around the world in six months, a small bag, and a guitar. These were all my belongings for 200 days. This picture was taken in Wellington, New Zealand, Sep ’14.

traveling musicianHey friends,

I hope you have some travel plans on your mind soon, and if not, check this out and come back here. Inside the link is a big bag of motivators that can put some fresh travel ideas into your head, and I’ll only add that I still haven’t met a single person who regretted doing some travels.

Anyway, if you’re here, seems like you’re already planning to go somewhere, so let’s look at a smart and lightweight way to do it that will save you hassle, time and effort and will increase your freedom on your big trip.

Over the last four years I have been to a few big trips in different places around the world. (Click here to see the best music pics from one of them) In the last two big backpacking trips, I have perfected my packing routine and since then people are always surprised and ask “is that all you’re traveling with?”. The answer is yes, and on the other hand, I can confidently tell you that I also never miss anything.

I have everything I need right in this tiny backpack, and my guitar is then added on top of it.

How come? Let’s see. Today you are invited to look at the benefits and how-tos of traveling light from the eyes of a traveling musician. 

Musicians – How to Travel with Just a SMALL Backpack and an Instrument, and Still Have EVERYTHING You’ll Need:

So here’s how most backpackers look like – carrying a huge and heavy bag while they mostly use only 20-30% of what’s inside it. I’ve been there too. 

Why? I honestly never know. Do you really need those 5 pairs of jeans and 4 pairs of shorts? Do you really need 7 T-shirts and 3 pairs of shoes? Do you really need that big ass camera and the huge first aid kit? And this tent, in the summertime, why? So let’s see how and where exactly we can cut down all that unnecessary weight.

First, Let’s Eliminate the Biggest Cause of Overpacking and Hauling Too Much Crap – Unneeded Clothes

Coming to think about it, even when you are traveling in a backpacker style and around hostels, not a few days pass by without an opportunity to wash your stuff. So why take two-three weeks worth of clothing like most people do and carry all those extra pounds on your back everywhere you go? It seems like people do it just because other people do it, even though it makes no sense.

OR better yet, buy some wool clothes and increase by about 5X the amount of time you can go between washing clothes, even if it’s summer time. What’s so special about wool? Let’s see. (Read: Why Merino Wool T-shirts Work So Well?)

Wool shirts (Merino Wool is the best) will not stink for a LONG time, keep you warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and can literally replace 7-8 other shirts in your bag when you pack which will save you a ton of space and weight.

In New Zealand I used a wool shirt myself and barely had to wash it – you’ll be amazed at how it stays like new. They also look great. The only con is that they are expensive, but when you think about it, 7-8 shirts cost you more, don’t they? Read the Amazon customer reviews to get a better idea of how much of a miracle those shirts are!

Also, always remember that if you’ll really want extra T-shirts later – they can be grabbed anywhere for cheap, so give it a chance with 1-2 wool ones and you’ll see how it changes your whole way of traveling.

Icebreaker is a NZ brand that's considered one of the best. I used a long sleeved shirt for 3 months in a pretty cold time of the year and it served me perfectly.
Icebreaker is a New Zealand brand that’s considered one of the best in the wool business. I used a long sleeved shirt for 3 months in a pretty cold time of the year that turned into pretty hot later, (Aug-Nov) and it served me perfectly.

Now to pants: go to a travel shop and buy a quality hiking pair, or get one from the Amazon Best Sellers list of hiking pants to go for good stuff that has been “approved” by the public by a lot of sells.

Pants are naturally less of a problem because lower body sweat isn’t as prominent so when you get a good pair that’s made for travels you can easily go for a few days and still feel like new.

I recommend getting a good pair that can also look good enough for night outs, in case if you are doing more of a city tour and plan to hit bars and such. This way you’ll take 2 birds with one stone – pants that are good both for everyday travel and for night outs.

You can also fit another pair of jeans in the bag to have something nicer and also so you’ll have something to wear while you are washing the other pair.

A good travel pants and an extra pair of jeans will be all you really need unless you want to be REALLY fancy.
Good travel pants and an extra pair of jeans will be all you really need unless you want to be REALLY fancy.

Socks are still something that’s pretty hard to cut off, but the best choice regarding odor and saving space is thin hiking socks. They feel great inside ANY shoe, and they fold nicely into a small ball so you can easily fit 5-6 pairs at the bottom of your bag.

Underwear – no need to take more than a few pairs since you’ll always have washing opportunities. If you’re willing to invest, there are Merino Wool boxers that promise to keep you high and dry and by that – reduce the amount of underwear you’ll have to take, but I haven’t tried them myself to see if they keep the promise.

Anyway, underwear aren’t huge space-takers in your bag.

Shoes – here my friends, there’s no need whatsoever to take more than one pair unless you plan on doing some sports during your travels. I had a good pair of hiking shoes that I used every day, and also a good pair of sports shoes that I used 2-3 times a week for a workout and a good vent.

If you are traveling in urban areas, a good and comfortable walking shoes will be all you’ll need. With shoes, I defiantly do not recommend buying online unless you already wore that exact same model and size at a store.

In Amsterdam, summer '15. That was all my stuff for a couple of weeks during my <a href=

Fleece / Something Warm – if you’re going somewhere cold then this is something to consider. Well, you’re going to have the wool shirt on you, so you’ll be good with any average fleece or jacket. As long as it can fold up into something small – it’s a good choice.

I have spent 3 months in New Zealand at the end of the winter and into the spring, which is still pretty cold, and all I had was the wool shirts and a basic fleece and I did just fine.

Worst case scenario – buy an extra jacket when you’re there, but avoid the classic mistake of taking something huge that takes up half of your bag only to later discover you only used it twice in the whole trip.

Backpack – Now, you need a backpack to fit all of that inside. What you need is a small backpack, don’t fall into the trap of getting something too large that is an overkill for your needs – remember that we are trying to be wiser here than the average backpacker who takes a huge bag filled with a lot of stuff he doesn’t actually use and suffering from clumsiness all throughout his trip. Look at the picture at the top of the post and check out the backpack that I carried – you don’t need anything bigger than that.

Now which backpack exactly? The one I was using was just a spare student backpack that I had at my house – it got the job done but it wasn’t super comfy. For my next trip I’ll probably get a better one that will fit nicely and more comfortably on my back since sometimes you will really have it on your back for long walks, and you don’t want to get to the hostel with backaches.

In these sizes, they aren’t even very expensive. Check out Amazon Best Sellers of small hiking backpacks – a 40 Litre one should suffice.

travel music
I live for moments like these. That was the spot for another jam in front of some breathtaking landscape. Hell yeah!

Anything Else? A toothbrush, deodorant, some soap that you can carry in a small nylon bag. A charger too. Other than that? Think really hard…? But is there anything else essential that still needs to go in your bag? Probably not. And if there’s something that you do still feel an urge to take, look at it when your bag is already full and think with full reflection “how often will I use it? Do I really need it or will it be more of a hassle than a real use to me?”

Most of the times, you’ll find that the answer is the latter.

“And if there’s something that you do still feel an urge to take, look at it when your bag is already full and think with full reflection – “how often will I use it? Do I really need it or will it be more of a hassle than a real use to me?” Most of the times, you’ll find that the answer is is the latter.”

And this my friends, is how you already saved up at least 20 lbs (almost 10 kg) worth of stuff that you really don’t need – and will let you travel with a lot more freedom and a lot less backaches.

So now, let’s get to the good stuff!

The MUSICAL Stuff That You WANT To Take With You – Let’s Start With The Guitar

First, your guitar! I will probably never go on this kind of an adventure without the guitar.

Why? The guitar will attract people to you like a magnet. And no, not just girls, it’s way more than that. (; Some if not most of the best experiences and coolest people I have met on my travels have first revolved around the guitar being around. It is kind of a hassle to carry it on your back but it’s so damn worth it.

People will literally come and talk to you, ask you to play with them/for them, and fun social opportunities will present themselves everywhere you go – in the street, in the hostel, on the beach, you name it. Especially if you are traveling by yourself.

How does that sound for a starting point of a worldly adventure of getting out of your boundaries? definitely the best companion you can have.

Here’s a funny example of just one odd but interesting study about the subject to strengthen my case from “Popular Science” magazine: Guys – Holding A Guitar Makes You Instantly More Attractive. 

Also – remember that if for example you are spending more than one night at a city and you want to go and explore the city during the day and do not feel like carrying your guitar around, there will almost always be an option to store it somewhere safe at the hostel, just ask at the reception.

I really want to say always because I haven’t been anywhere where I couldn’t store it, but I also haven’t been everywhere in the world to know for sure of course. Sometimes they will charge a little extra but the option is there.

And besides, usually, in those cases I choose to just store my bag and take the guitar with me to the daily city adventure, even if I’m renting a bike or something. There’s always a way to take the guitar – and at the end of the day I always end up thinking it was worth the hassle.

For your guitar, I also recommend always having in your guitar case:

  • An extra set of strings, you never know when they’ll break, and it’s always good to replace them when you feel your guitar needs it. Once you use the extra, get another extra.
  • Strings oil and softener to always keep your guitar feelin’ soft, smooth and responsive. Fast Fret is the one I like best and been using for years.
  • Strap. Whenever I didn’t bring one to save the tiny extra space in my guitar case, at some point I really needed it and had to buy another one.
  • Capo. Even if you never use it yourself, (which probably is not a smart thing to do if you’re trying to sing well since adjusting the pitch is sometimes a must) you never know when you’ll run into a girl who sings beautifully but this song’s pitch is too low for her voice with the original chords.

Check out this extended article for more details about the best guitar accessories that you might want to have with you: The Best Guitar Accessories: My Favorite 14.

how to teach yourself guitar
On stage in Amsterdam with 3 amazing Dutch musicians, playing “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”. An example of some of the peculiar opportunities you can stumble upon… If you play guitar, you WANT it with you when you are traveling!

* If you don’t want to take your guitar, a very cool substitute option is a ukelele

Ukes are super light, you can just tie them to the outside of your backpack, and they are incredibly easy to play. If you can play a guitar, you can learn how to play a ukulele almost instantly, it’s just a matter of different chord fingerings. It’s also a nice choice, but remember that it will never sound as good and as full as a real acoustic guitar. I think the extra baggage for a guitar is well worth it.

Take the uke out when you get to the top...
Take the uke out when you get to the top…

If you don’t want the hassle of carrying a guitar – a uke is a fun mini-option. Guitarists can learn how to play ukes within minutes.

Other Small Musical Instruments You Can Carry That Will Make Your Day on Your Travels (And Somebody Else’s Too…!)

Egg shakers – first on the list for a reason. Always putting a surprising smile on people’s faces when you take it out of your guitar case, and the next thing they know – they are also part of the jam now and play the percussion, even if that’s the first time they’re ever doing so! Incredibly fun toy and costs less than 5$ so why the hell not.

egg shakers1

Other small percussion instruments – like the egg shaker, the genre of “pass around” instruments is full and there are a bunch of other similar tools which will add a lot to any random jam. Browse them all right here: The Top 14 Awesome & Cheap PERCUSSION Instruments – Add Rhythm And Practice Your Beat!

Harmonicas – you still don’t play the harmonica? Now will be the perfect timing to start. Click the picture below this paragraph to see why you have to! In short – they are relatively very easy instruments to become good on, they are cheap, they are the perfect match for an acoustic guitar, and they are tiny. It’s also one of the things that give you The Musical Edge™ and make people have a very memorable experience with your music.

guitarist learn harmonica
Guitarist – Learn Harmonica
My personal favorite: Feels awesome, sounds awesome, lasts for years. The Hohner Blues Harp.

Melodicas – another cool 2nd instrument to take your jamming experience to the next level. They can be pretty big though, but smaller ones that can fit in your bag / guitar case are available too. I have written in more details about melodicas in this article: Which Second Instrument Should I Pick? 57 Pros And Cons Of 9 Instruments Inside!

A customized chord book with all of your favorite songs inside it! That’s a huge point that always gives you good material to work with when you want to play with someone or for someone. I always take at least one of my books and Click the small picture below to read my short guide on how to create one.

chord books
I always travel with at least one of my custom chord books – these have all my favorite songs and are always ready to kickstart a jam with random people.

Optional: a good camera – Well ok, with all those instruments it looks like we’re gonna have some sick jams on this trip, so what about a camera to capture some of that? Well well. With today’s smartphones, the photo quality is very good and they fit right in your pocket so most of the people will be just fine with that.

A cool option that will give you some unusual pictures and videos is any of the “extreme” cameras – like the GoPro. They are super small, durable, and they take pictures with a “fisheye” point of view which makes for unique memories.

Other than that, if you are a real serious photo enthusiast so you can take a more serious camera up to even a DSLR, like I plan to take to my next trip since I now have a Nikon D5300 which takes amazing pics. If you do plan on taking a DSLR, check out this cool gadget to save you the need for a dedicated camera case and save up a lot of space in your backpack while still taking great care of your camera – it’s a strap that turns into a camera case.

Campfire night - Nelson Beach, New Zealand
Campfire night

A Couple Last Tips And Useful Reads To Wrap Everything Up

A couple of dudes jammin' the country in San Francisco, California. I took this one in August 2014.
Sometimes the street music can be fascinating. These dudes were jammin’ some beautiful country music in Dolores Park, San Francisco, California.
For those campfires you might get too – check out this list of favorites

“Own less stuff. Enjoy more freedom. It really is that simple.”

Joshua Becker

Or I’d just replace the “own” with “carry” for now…

Thanks for taking the time to read! I hope I gave you some new ideas and I am sure everybody reading would appreciate more wisdom sharing and ideas of the readers. So please share with us your traveling musician tips in the comments. Thanks!

Peace and till the next time…

Alon Cooper

Alon Cooper

Hey! I'm Cooper, and I hope I can be a helpful friend on your musical journeys. I'm a music artist based in Austin & Amsterdam, playing venues with a band / solo, and trying to learn with the most inspiring musicians wherever I go. In the last 8 years I've lived in Australia, northern Europe, the US and more.

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The Guitar Campfire Songbook

I hope this list has given you some great ideas, and if you want to have another bunch of song ideas in a fancy PDF songbook form, then feel free to download the songbook in this link.

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