The (almost) four zones of kit for lightweight travelers4 min read

Every time I travel it seems I find some way to lighten my load the next time I go out, or improve my load out so I’m carrying the right stuff in the right place. And I’m finding it helpful to consider these load-outs into four zones.

Assumption: You never travel with more than you are allowed to carry into the cabin of the plane. No checked luggage!

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The Four Zones

The four zones I’d propose are more or less like this:

  1. What is always on your body or in/on your clothes. Think of this like a watch, money belt, passport, etc.
  2. What you usually carry on your person. This could be something like a purse or a day bag. This is what fits under the seat in front of you on the plane, and can be used as a day bag when you travel.
  3. Carry-on bag. This is what goes in the overhead compartment in the plane cabin, and usually stays in your room while you explore.
  4. Checked luggage. Can I talk you out of this?

Zone 1 – Always on you

We’re talking about things that are inside of your clothing or attached to your body (including the clothes themselves). This would include things like your photo ID, your passport, credit cards, cash, a mobile phone, etc. If someone manages to steal your bag, this is what you need to get home.

A good gut check is to ask yourself:

If somebody stole my day bag, would I be able to get to the airport and have everything I need to board a flight back home and re-enter my home country?

A common mistake is to put critical components, like the passport, into bags that are easily stolen. If someone steals that bag with your passport and credit card, your journey home is going to get a lot more complicated.

What do I use?

I really like using a money belt. I can keep a credit card, passport, and some cash inside of my pants, right up against my body, so nobody is going to get at it without me noticing!

Another one I sometimes use is a neck wallet. Similar concept, except this one hide behind the shirt instead of inside the belt line.

Zone 2 – Day bag / purse

Osprey Daylite backpack
I use the Osprey Daylite backpack extensively as a Zone 2 backpack. It’s particularly useful at theme parks or on light shopping trips!

Having some sort of day bag is super handy. The kinds of things that go in here are important enhancements to your day. It might include an extra layer of clothing (or empty space so that you can remove an extra layer of clothing and carry it in the bag). This might include your camera, a tablet or laptop.

This does not include your passport, cash, credit cards, mobile device, etc. Those are all in Zone 1 because you need those things to get home. As terrible as it would be to lose a camera or a laptop, losing those things should not prevent you from getting home.

A good day bag is going to be somewhere in the 10-20L capacity range. Much bigger and you’re probably carrying too much stuff everywhere. I’m especially looking at photographers here!

What do I use?

More and more lately I’m falling in love with the day bag concept. It’s a double strap backpack, but very lightweight. This isn’t meant to hold a lot of stuff, so don’t pack it full!

Zone 3 – Carry-on

Osprey Porter 30 backpack
The Osprey Porter 30 backpack is a great example of a Zone 3 bag.

This is usually a 21-40L (-ish) backpack. Smaller for those who can get away with it. Much larger than 40L and you’re likely to run into limits imposed by European and Asian airlines. Mostly this is going to hold your spare clothes, and the supplies you’ll need in the hotel room like your toiletries, chargers, and so on.

While you’re flying, it might be worth putting all of your Zone 2 gear into your Zone 3 bag, and then rolling up and storing your Zone 2 bag inside of the Zone 3 bag as well. A really versatile Zone 3 bag will be just small enough to fit under the seat in front of you on a plane, thus counting as a Personal Item instead of a Carry On. This unlocks some really cheap options for flying!

What do I use?

Zone 4 – Checked Luggage

Checked luggage is against the rules of this guide. So we’re not going to talk about it. Except to say that it exists, but since we’re traveling light this doesn’t having anything to do with us. I’m going to propose to you that anything above & beyond what you can fit into a carry-on is not important enough to take with you in the first place.

2 thoughts on “The (almost) four zones of kit for lightweight travelers4 min read

  1. I don’t travel frequently, but I found this guide helpful in planning for some upcoming weekend trips. I like the zone concept. My Zone 3 is an Away Carry-On. It fits one pair of jeans, clean undergarments for three days, toiletries, and a few shirts, and has a “dirty clothes” compartment.

    My Zone 2 is a Timbuk2 messenger bag. I would put my camera and ONE lens and Type 1 diabetes kit here. I need a diabetes kit.

    But I may see how well the two backpacks and the Zone 1 pouch would work for me. Thank you.

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