Live Anywhere

The 10% Rule of Packing: Pack Better, Travel Better

Luggage lays open on the floor, with clothing, a hat, camera, slippers, and more.

As travelers, we live by the 27-32kg total luggage allowance that is pretty much a standard worldwide.

Unlike tourists, we pack our lives in our luggage, so we have to pack differently.

No matter how we pack, though, we have to live by those numbers, or pay the tolls.

Yet, while we’re abroad, the craving to buy interesting things can frequently be over-powering, and along-side it, the reality check of “well, none of that is going to fit”.

Whether it’s space or weight, something is going to limit the kinds of things you’ll be able to keep with you. Sure, you can enjoy the stuff you buy in the country where you bought it, and there are plenty of times when that’s a good idea, but how would you like to be able to carry more of what really matters?

That’s where the 10% Rule of Packing comes in. It’s an exercise in discipline, clarity, honesty, novelty, and above all else: practicality.

Some people won’t need something like this, because they travel with only the bare necessities, and buy almost everything as they go. Those types of people have taken the 10% Rule of Packing to its extreme.

For the rest of us, we stand to gain much by its implementation.

First of all: what it is.

The 10% Rule of Packing

Simply put, the 10% Rule of Packing has two possible manifestations.

For Beginners: Start with 10% of 10%

The first, is that before you leave a place (in other words, as you’re packing to go), you look at what’s still in your luggage, and get rid of 10% of it. (As a point of technicality: this also includes the things you take out of your luggage, but don’t actually use.)

The logic is simple: that’s the stuff you’re really just not using. We know that, because it’s still in your luggage. You just don’t need it, in most cases.

That’s the 10% of the 10%.

Little by little, movement by movement, you’ll begin to release a bit of your tourist-minded, sentimental attachment you have to the stuff you’re just bringing along because you have an occasional use for it, or worse, you think you may have use for it at some unplanned-for point in the future.

For my first year of traveling, I carried around (among many other useless things) a blazer and dress pants. Through South-East Asia.

Didn’t use them once.

But I thought they might be important.

They weren’t.

That’s my point.

For Experts: The Real 10% Rule of Packing

Sooner or later, the lessons from the beginners’ part of this exercise is going to click for you: your space could be much better used carrying essentials – things that are useful to you everywhere you go. There is more to be gleaned from that phase of the practice – but I won’t spoil the surprise.

At that point, there isn’t going to be anything left in your luggage after you unpack. You will be a lean, mean, packing machine – sort of.

When you’ve gotten rid of all the useless stuff that you kept lugging around, then you can begin getting the real benefits of this exercise.

To do that, you have to begin applying the 10% rule to what’s left. That means, the stuff that you use.

You can take it easy at first. Start with some simple stuff – commodities you’re sure you’ll be able to find elsewhere, like toiletries. As an example, I haven’t packed a bottle of shampoo in years, let alone body wash, or a luffa/bath sponge. (I still do pack my own toothpaste, since fluoride is a poison.)

You can then move on to some of the more difficult things: Do you have socks with holes in them? Some semi-broken stuff? Clothing that’s starting to show its age? One too many USB cables? Other things that you unpack, but just don’t use often, if at all?

Now, I can guarantee you this: if you’re dedicated to this practice, and are serious about doing it, you’re in for some tough calls. There are going to be times where you’re right on the edge. Maybe you are looking at something you bought, and thought you really needed (or really liked) at the time, but it just turned out to be impractical, or for whatever reason, you didn’t end up using it as much as you had hoped (or ever).

Those are going to be tough calls to make, but making them is going to be really beneficial. It’s in those times of tough decisions that an understanding of how you’ll benefit through this, might get you through.

The Benefits of the 10% Rule of Packing

Now, you may be saying, “But, I don’t want to get rid of some of my stuff. It’s my stuff. I bought it with my money. Sometimes I even use some of it for a few minutes.”

Probably, the more you’re attached to something you’re traveling with, be it for its sentimental, monetary, or SHTF value, the more likely you are to object.

It’s in these times when it pays to remind yourself of the benefits of the practice.

We’ll start with the most objective, and progress to the most important.

Less wasted space means more practicality

Naturally, if you’re tossing your stuff, you’re going to free up your luggage space. That’s right. By reducing the unnecessary clutter you already have, you free up space for more new stuff! That’s some infallible logic right there.

But, there’s more to it than just that.

By going through the process of identifying what you have, and its relative importance, you’ll gain an awareness of the kinds of things that are valuable to travel with – to take with you – and the kinds of things that could be left behind, or bought when you arrive. You can then exchange more of the latter, for more of the former.

There are also fringe benefits to having more useful items, that can save you both time and money. For example, packing more clothing means fewer loads of laundry.

Less junk means more souvenirs

It’s not just about having more “practical” or “necessary” things to travel with. By getting rid of things that you were just holding on to for some unforeseeable, unlikely scenario (i.e. “junk”), you free up space for more things of more importance to you – whether you maximize space for practicality, novelty, or anywhere in between.

As you go to new places, you find new and interesting things. Unconsciously, however, you know you’re full up on possessions, because you remember how much time you spent packing up last month, and how hard that was.

This limits the amount that you can buy – the amount of new, interesting things that you can get to replace your old stuff – because you simply don’t have room, and already have an equivalent thing.

When you find that really interesting, “ancient” whatsit somewhere, you have to mentally try and figure out the luggage math of whether you can logistically afford it.

“How many shirts is this going to cost me?”

Is a question you can already have answered – and it may not even cost you any shirts! Getting rid of 10% prior to your flight may have just given you an extra 2kg to play with, so that thing you’re absolutely definitely going to be using later can fit right in. (I mean, it’s probably going to get ditched in another 10% session a few months from now, but at least you’ll have scratched that itch!)

Less attachment means more awareness, control, and mental space

In addition to the 10% Rule of Packing being an effective way to optimize the gear you carry with you, it also helps you better manage the baggage in your head.

By reviewing your things on a semi-regular basis, you are in a way reviewing your mind. It’s you who was in control when you decided to take those things with you – whether that control was consciously exercised, or not.

Reviewing the manifestations of your actions (in other words, their results, if you’re allergic to the word “manifestation”), you evaluate, optimize, and hone your priorities and critical thinking. Starting with something easy – like the stuff in your luggage – especially when there additional, more objective and immediate rewards, is an entry point into this practice.

On another side of the equation, have you ever seen a hoarder’s hovel? Imagine, if you will, that a person’s outer circumstances (for the sake of not going on a tangent here, let’s say at the very least, those that are in their direct control) are a reflection of their inner circumstances. What must the inside of their minds be like?

In this sense, your possessions are tied to your mental state. The good news, is that both sides can be used as an entry point for clean-up. There are going to be some tough decisions to make, for sure, but if you make them diligently, and follow through by getting rid of the stuff that you don’t need, want, or realistically use, you will notice the benefits inside, and that is the true benefit to the 10% Rule of Packing.

In other words, by opening up a space in your possessions, a space opens up in your mind. What that means for you, and how you will experience that, varies from person to person. It could be relief, clarity, focus, energy, all of the above, or something else.

You may be thinking: all that, from ditching a blazer?

First, it was way more than a blazer.

Second, yes, you bet. Try it. It’s in both your physical and mental best interest. Even if you’re skeptical, at least you’ll throw some useless junk out, which you can then replace with more useful stuff (or newer/different junk).

How to Implement the 10% Rule of Packing

While it’s both intuitive and simple to get rid of 10% of your stuff every time you make a move, there are some things I’ve learned from doing this time and again, that may help you along the way:

Don’ts

Don’t get rid of the stuff you actively wear/use

As it relates to clothing (you can extrapolate to other things) – don’t get rid of it unless you’re sick of it or it’s old and worn. Unless you’re a nudist – and only need one set of clothes for the airport portion of your life – you’re just going to have to buy similar clothing again.

Of course, one of the first challenges people are going to come up against is that one garment that they used to like, or was expensive, but they haven’t found occasion to wear after months or years of travel. Take it from someone who traveled through South-East Asia for a year with, a blazer, dress pants, and dress shirts: just ditch them.

Don’t feel the need to always (strictly) get rid of 10%

If your luggage is 20kg, and you have 40 things, don’t feel the need to get rid of 2kg and 4 things every time. It’s a guideline.

Remember, when you’re starting out, you can try just getting rid of 10% of what remains in your luggage (i.e. what you didn’t unpack/use) to start.

Don’t feel the need to limit yourself to 10%

It’s likely that either when you start, or very soon after it, you’ll have an epiphany about all the useless stuff that’s been wasting your space, and you’ll ditch more than 10%.

Don’t throw things out that are irreplaceably, truly sentimental to you.

If something has irreplaceable sentimental value to you, you have to evaluate whether it’s worth keeping with you or putting into storage. I have a good kilo and a half of things that I keep with me, which never leave my luggage except for me to look at from time to time. They’re important mementos from my travel, that have more sentimental than monetary value. They’re not worth buying a storage or safety deposit box for, but I don’t want to get rid of them, and so they come with me everywhere.

Don’t make a day of it

It shouldn’t take long to determine what needs to go. In fact, the less time you commit to it, the easier it will be to part with some of the more useless things that you none the less are attached to, because you’ll spend less time thinking about it. Give it 30 minutes. Since you’ll be starting with what’s left in your luggage, there either won’t be that much to pick from, or there will be a whole bunch – either way, it’ll be easy.

Don’t make a week of it

While the 10% Rule of Packing applies to every time you go to a new place, this can get excessive if you’re flying every week. Perspective helps with this activity, so if you’re traveling very frequently, do it every month or so at the most. If you stay in one place longer than a month, then do it every time you fly.

Do’s

Question everything

Nothing in your luggage is sacred. Ask yourself these clarifying questions:

  • Do I need this (anymore)?
  • Do I really want this?
  • Could I get something better (either that I like more, or that’s more useful) to replace this?
  • Do I know (at least approximately) when’s the next time I’m going to use this?
  • Am I preparing for a future that’s random and unpredictable?

First, do them for the most obvious items (e.g. what’s still in your luggage), but eventually, question everything.

I was quite accident prone in my early days of travel, and a big worrier, so I used to carry around (non-prescription, non-essential) medicine, like iodine, amoxicillin, various dressings, and (embarrassingly) even normal saline. Not only could I get all of these pretty much anywhere if I needed them, but in the rare cases that I did have a use for even the lighter things like antibiotics, I found that the pills had passed their expiration date.

Nowadays, I don’t carry so much as a single bandage. What’s the point? If I’m going to need one, chances are I’ll be outside when I do, where I’ll be closer to a store than my luggage – and I generally stay close enough to stores to get to one if I happen to need one while at home (and if not, I’ll know that in advance, and be able to buy them in the country).

Opt for bonus points

When I first encountered this concept, the number was actually 20%, and that’s how I implemented it. It’s a radical shift to get rid of 20% of your stuff, especially when you’re traveling. If you want to expedite the effects, aim for 20%.

Another way to get more out of it – whether you choose 10% or 20% – try putting it into practice both when you’re unpacking after just arriving, and when you’re packing to leave. You don’t have to do 10% or 20% both times, you could split it up between them. But, take advantage of the opportunity (and fewer time constraints) of unpacking as well, to ask yourself those questions about your stuff.

Go for easy wins at first

You’ve probably thought of at least a few things that fit the description while you’ve been reading. Start with those, you’re probably right. If some cause you more uncertainty than others, you’ll be better served getting rid of them first, but if you can’t, then go for the ones that are easier to build momentum.

Decide your preferred disposal method

We all have different ethics, values, and priorities – and so do the countries we travel to.

If you feel it’s wasteful to throw away clothes, find a way to donate them, whether it’s through a charity, or directly to people. Your ability and desire to do this of course will depend on what you have, both in quantity and quality, as well as where you are.

If you care about the environmental impact of battery disposal, do so in a way that’s least harmful to the environment, especially if there is an easy way to do so where you are. With the prevalence of smartphones across the globe, more and more countries have battery recycling stations in major malls and hardware/technology stores.

If you have things of value, where appropriate, you can also decide to sell them, give them away to friends, or have somebody else sell them for you.

I don’t personally like selling things I buy while traveling, so I’ll give them away. Even large items, like motorcycles, desks, chairs, home furnishings, and so forth. In the latter case, I will sometimes leave them where I’m staying, so the next guests can benefit from them. It saves me hassle, and time.

Stick to it

I’ve found the practice of the 10% Rule of Packing to have three major phases, the beginning, middle, and end (wow). These coincide with alternating periods of difficulty and ease with which you can identify and get rid of items you no longer want or need.

In the beginning, it can be difficult, since you’re not used to it, and probably feel a bit of a hit to your ego when the stuff you thought you needed, turned out to be useless.

As you get used to it, and realize that any new endeavor (including travel) has a major learning component to it, you enter the middle phase, where it becomes easier and easier – and even fun – to figure out what’s weighing you down, and get rid of it. Plus, you get to buy a whole bunch more useless stuff to replace it!

Put the 10% practice on “Maintenance Mode”

After a while, you become adept at identifying the things that it makes sense for you to personally travel with. Your spontaneous purchases of 15lb statues slowly become less and less frequent, and with the reduced inflow of crap you’ll never use, your luggage becomes more and more streamlined. It becomes more and more difficult to get rid of things, because you genuinely use everything that you have on a regular basis.

When you reach that point – that is, when you can objectively and honestly determine that your luggage is either full of useful stuff, or your ideal mixture of practicality and sentimentality – it’ll be time to put the 10% Rule of Travel on its perpetual maintenance mode.

By then, you’ll be acutely aware of what you travel with, what constitutes a waste of space, and how to get the most return on your time and money from the things you carry around with you. It’ll be a background process in your mind, and that awareness will help you perpetually pack with perfect proportion of practicality and preference. Now and again, it will serve you to revisit your luggage as a “maintenance” activity and see if you let some slip by.

Get packing! (10-20% less)

Luggage is something you’re going to have to contend with as long as you travel. Being something so fundamental, yet so basic, it’s worth getting a handle on. By implementing and practicing the 10% Rule of Packing every time you fly, your luggage will become more and more tailored to your lifestyle, meaning you’ll be able to reduce the amount of time and money you spend buying and maintaining the unnecessary junk that most travelers schlep around, while getting more utility, use, and enjoyment from what you have.

After you’ve applied the 10% Rule of Packing, take a picture of what you’ve tossed and post it here! Tag it too: #10PercentBetterPacking