Carry-On Only Challenge – Attempt #1

In late-April 2012, I decided I’d try a Carry-On Only challenge, in which I would travel using only Carry-On Luggage. For the original post and details of the challenge, please click HERE.

How does one decide how much (or in this case, how little) you will really need to pack for your trip away? Of course, everyone has different needs, and the priority of items will vary based each of these. I’ve decided to challenge myself to see if I can get away with travelling for the remainder of 2012 by travelling with Carry-on Only (that’s right.. just one small day pack).

Me and my Carry-on Only Daypack at Wat Arun, Thailand

For those that know me, this may seem a bit funny, because I’ve always known myself to be a bit of a packrat. Not the kind you’ll see on some American reality (cough cough… “Reality”) tv show, but definitely the kind that just seemed to collect ‘stuff’… Just in Case I ever needed it. The same came through in my packing for trips. In the whole 15 years since I’ve started travelling, there’s been one item which I’ve brought with me wherever I went. A silver thermal blanket. It’s one of those things you wear when you’re in a car accident, say in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night. It insulates you with your body warmth. Clearly, seeing as how much of my travel has been to slightly more tropical climates, this is something necessary to lug around the world with me… just in case.

So my most recent trip was leaving the warm comforts of Chiang Mai, Thailand, to head to the intense equatorial heat of Malaysian Borneo. I had bought a one way ticket, with a max of 5 weeks at my disposal. Doing almost no research (my most exciting kind of travel), all I knew was that there was Orang-utans, SCUBA diving, jungle, beaches and the mighty Kinabalu mountain. Oh.. and Borneo’s BIG. It’s the 3rd largest island in the world to be precise (rivalled only by Greenland and New Guinea).

So the big question I needed to answer was this:

How des one pack for busy cities, hot beaches, steamy jungles and cold mountain tops into a Carry-On bag?

The answer was simple – one doesn’t. I learned quickly that my space was far too limited to really pack for 3 very different climates in one small compartment in my carry on bag. Factor in to the equation that my bag is also storing my 13″ laptop and a Digital SLR camera with two lenses. Roughly half of the bag is already claimed by my hardware. So what I really needed to figure out was this: What can I not travel without?

After much debate, thinking, packing and unpacking, here’s what I finally ended up with!


1) 13″ MacBook Pro – otherwise I wouldn’t be able to easily deliver you these stories you need and love.
2) Canon Rebel T2i Digital SLR with an 18-55mm & a 55-250mm lens  – the better to see you with!
3) Nikon Coolpix AW100 underwater camera – for visits to Davie Jones locker (used to take this picture)
4) Two portable 1TB WD External Harddrives – for back ups, storage and  peace of mind
5) Samsung Gravity phone – helps satisfy all my texting needs
6) Black Diamond Storm Headlamp – Rugged, bright… waterproof! Awesome. Great for treks in the jungle and caving!
7) Of course, all these electronics come with power cords and adapters!!


8 ) Swimming goggles – great if you want to see what you’re swimming with in the big blue sea!
9) Waterproof Medical Kit
10) Sleeping mask and ear plugs – great for disruptive dorm room patrons (don’t worry, I’m not talking about you, Anthony!)
11) PADI Dive Card and Log Book – Must have if you want to get some dives in along the way!
12) Moleskin Journal – Notes n’ Quotes. Totes! I use it to keep track of hotels, restaurants, dishes, new words, bus scheds, everything!
13) Optex Circular Polarizer and Skylight lens filters
14) Microfiber cleaning wipe
15) Plastic bag – for separating the sweet from the stinky
16) Fox 40 Sharx Whistle – known to be one of the loudest! Great for if you get lost in the jungle, out at sea, spontaneously directing traffic – or fending off mobs of love-hungry women chasing after you
17) Ray Ban Sunglasses – Fashionable and functional (Missing In Action M.I.A. while hiking in Bako National Park)
18) Tripod – only essential for this trip as I was working on a musical video project. Stay tuned! (M.I.A. – left in car on way to airport coming home! DOH!)
19) MEC Dry Bag – for trips to the beach to protect anything that can’t get wet or sandy!! A must! (M.I.A. – left in car on way to airport coming home – it was in the tripod bag.. whoops)


20) Toothbrush and Toothpaste (must be under 100ml, since this is carry-on only!)
21) Gillette Razor – not sure if all airlines allow this yet (or airline attendants of the same airline for that matter). So far so good. Look Fresh.
22) Deodorant (again, under the 100ml limit – I think this one was bigger they seemed to let it slide, maybe cause it’s almost empty)
23) Ear Drops – I ended up with a nasty ear infection just before heading off.. luckily the fine Thai med system had me almost all healed in time for my flight a week later! Cheap, fast and efficient! The Thai medical system is wonderful!
24) Muskol Bug Repellent – best way to protect against Malaria, Dengue.. and just annoying itching! Doesn’t smell terrible either.
25) ZipLock bag full of multi vitamins! Essential! Need to stay healthy, especially while on the road!


This was the tough one. Now that I’ve got everything essential packed up, I could determine how much space I actually had left for clothing. By my estimation, the amount of space left in my bag was approximately 5-7 litres. This is where I had to really figure out what was essential. I like to usually bring at least one pair of warm clothes for crazy cold Air Conditioning that some transportation companies enforce on their patrons… and with this upcoming trip, for the chance of climbing Mt Kinabalu, which is apparently quite cold near the top. One sweatshirt or a pair of jeans would have filled my bag – sadly this wasn’t happening. I figured I could rent a jacket if need be for the climb.. and just grin and bare it for any of the transportation… and possibly end up wearing 4 layers of t-shirts. These are the few articles which (barely) fit into my bag, in addition to what I was wearing

26) Cargo Shorts (wearing) – lots of pockets, very handy travel shorts! and Army green.. perfect for frolicking in the jungle.
27) 1 Tanktop, 2 t-shirts, and 1 nice button up shirt (wearing) – ready for multiple occasions
28) 2 pairs of boxers (+1 wearing)
29) 1 pairs of socks (+1 wearing) – figured I would mostly be wearing flip flop. These were just for hikes.
30) Swim trunks – Fairly essential for all the upcoming beach time and diving planned!
31) Converse sneakers (wearing) – not ideal for trekking, but good street shoes. They would have to do. Wore on plane due to space limits. (M.I.A – On my last day in Borneo I went caving and ended up getting completely covered in mud, swamp juice and guano! I know, I know.. ladies, please contact my secretary if you’d like to make an appointment with me. Didn’t have time to wash them, and didn’t want them anywhere near the rest of my stuff (or me) for the long journey back to Thailand).
32) Flip flops – hot weather’s best friend. Strapped these bad boys on to the outside of my bag.. ready for immediate wearing upon arrival.
33) 2 bandanas – for the badass look – clearly necessary
34) Black “Dubai” commando hat – I like hats (M.I.A. while on the motorboat going to our ship wreck dive site)

“The Carry-On Only Bag”

35) Of course – all this needs to go somewhere! I’ve decided to try the convenient  LowePro CompuDaypack for the carry-on only challenge. With a laptop compartment, and space for all my Techy-gear and SLR in separate compartments, this seemed an ideal choice. The only limitation is what’s left in the day trip compartment at the top. Once it’s full of all the essential goodies, there’s really not much space left for more than a few rolled up articles of clothing. Will I be able to continue with just this bag? Will I need to upgrade to something bigger.. guess you’ll need to ‘stay tuned’

The Absolute Essentials!

36) Wallet with Debit and Credit Card (and my diving license)
37) Travel Wallet with Passport, Immunization records and a very handy “If found, please return to…” card inside

My whole life for the next while, including the clothes on my back, in just 37 items!! Upon further consideration, these last 2 items are really the only thing you essentially “need”. Everything else is really a luxury item, in the grand scheme of things. If these last 2 get lost, it’s a HUGE hassle. I just ran in to a Canadian while on a bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. He was on his way to the Canadian Embassy to try and get an emergency replacement for his lost items, rather than enjoying the last week of his holidays trekking in the jungle. Big whammy, especially when on a tight time frame.

Ok so that was a probably a bit more detail than you needed – but I found that it was pretty much a perfect variety of things needed for that trip. I also wanted to illustrate just how much you can actually squeeze in to such a small space *that’s what she said*.

Travelling by the seat of my pants, and just going with the flow really, I ended up not leaving a 200 km radius of Kuching. I ended up meeting a lovely french couple expats who have set up a local french tour operator in Sarawak, and live very exciting lives. (Upcoming interview with Borneo-a-la-carte founder soon!) They introduced me to their circle of adventure seeking friends, and I got so wrapped up in fun activities there, I never left Kuching’s comfortable boundaries. So I never climbed Mount Kinabalu, but I did manage to go S.C.U.B.A. diving, caving, rock climbing, jungle trekking, beach hopping, waterfall swimming, wildlife viewing, cat museum.. um.. forget that one..  and strutting my stuff around the sleepy town of Kuching. Essentially everything I brought with me got put to use at least once (but often even more times).

What were the problemos encountered?

  • Ticketing counters. She watched with money-hungry eyes as I walked up with only my carry on bag, and the attached tripod. Frantically trying to figure out how to make a sale, she tried to get me to check my tripod at an additional cost. I asked if I could see in their policy where it said that tripods were not allowed as carry on (yup.. I was that guy), and she sent me to another counter. Rather than trying to negotiate the terms of my tripod being allowed on, I just decided to try my luck with security. Low and behold… no problem with my tripod!! I think the ticketing counter lady was just power tripping. One of those “I have the power, so I’ll make up non-existant rules” types. The funny part of that whole ordeal: I didn’t even need to go up to the ticketing counter, I had already printed off my boarding pass.. I was just walking up for moral support with my awesome travelling companion, Anthony of Man-Vs-Clock, who had a huge bag to be checked (and who has since taken on this very same challenge).
  • Liquids. Of course, with most airlines falling in line with the oddest security policy of not allowing liquids over 100 ml, this means you’re not going to be bringing any sunscreen with you, and you have to pack micro bottles of things like toothpaste, deodorant, bug spray, etc. Of course, I knew this prior to arrival, and I suppose with such a small pack to begin with, having smaller bottles is actually more ideal. Luckily all those items listed above should be fairly easy to acquire at your destination, though you may not get the same cotton candy flavoured toothpaste with sparkles that you prefer back home. Thailand, for example, has a delicious “salt” flavoured toothpaste you can try. *Barf*
  • Med Kit. Not so much a problem, but I did get the tiniest pair of scissors known to man removed from my med kit. They were in there for cutting gauze. I don’t think they could even puncture skin.. but rules be rules.
  • Storage. If you’re staying in a dorm style hostel, make sure they have lockers, if you don’t want to lug your whole trips worth of packing around with you each day. Of course, with only one bag, that will be most likely emptied out for all your day excursions as well. Luckily this wasn’t a problem. I always have a little lock with me, and didn’t have to share my room with any sketchy suspects this time around.
  • Climate appropriate clothing. Well this most certainly wasn’t an issue for me on this trip. I couldn’t seem to take enough layers off under the hot Borneo sun! Had I gone somewhere a little cooler, mind you, I probably would have liked to have a couple extra layers. Overly cold airconditioned buses and planes can pose a problem too, if you don’t like the chill. I’ll cross this bridge when I get to it.

What were the benefits of Carry-On Only baggage?

Too many to list, my friend! Here’s some of my top likes I’ve discovered from this first attempt at the challenge:

  • Packing – your bag is done in minutes
  • Airports – you can whip in and out of airports like nobody’s business
  • Transportation – ou never worry about where your bag is being stored when getting on a plane, bus, train, etc, as it can always be with you,
  • Mobility – No reservation? no problem.. walk around the streets in search of a good hotel/hostel without lugging around half your life. No sore back after those missions.
  • Simplicity – you really get to focus on what’s important, and this truly puts a lot of that into perspective.
  • Environment – less weight being lugged around means less fuel needed (for your vehicles and for you), which means less carbon imprinting on the world. As if this wasn’t sweet enough, right?

What is the future of this challenge looking like?

So sweet. I honestly think this has changed how I travel. When I returned to my apartment in Chiang Mai, I looked at how much ‘junk’ I not only accumulated since being in Thailand, but just how much I brought over. I’m looking forward to all my upcoming, light-weight, carry-on only trips I have in store!

Does travelling really need to be that complicated? Does everything need to be that planned out? So what if you haven’t prepared for one of the ‘what ifs’.. will you survive? Have you ever packed a little too much for your travels? If so.. what could you have done without?