How to Pack Mindfully

I didn’t know what I’d need for my first extended meditation retreat, and I’d never been to the Bay area in winter, so I packed enough for a year in any climate – just to be on the safe side.

After paying penance in the form of an overweight-bag fee at the airport, I lugged my 90-pound albatross up a steep hill at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

As I neared the top, sweaty and breathless, I saw the internationally renowned meditation teacher Jonathan Foust wearing no shoes and a backpack — his only bag. That was my first lesson in traveling mindfully.

About a year later, I attended a talk Jonathan was giving about letting go, and he shared a metaphor about packing that changed my perspective on preparing for travel.

“Every time I come back from traveling with one bag I’d carefully note what I didn’t [use],” he said. “I took that as a [way to ask myself] ‘What am I holding onto that I really, really, don’t need?’”

Traveling light is important for Jonathan because he spends much of his time leading meditation and yoga retreats across North America. As someone I look to for guidance on all things spiritual, I wanted to learn more about how he applies mindfulness wherever his journey takes him in life.

Here are some meaningful tips that came out of our conversation: 

1. Think about what you’ll actually need. I was so nervous and excited about the month-long retreat that I didn’t give much attention to what I’d need once I got there. Jonathan says, “When we’re not aware of the circumstances we’re going into, we tend to over-prepare.” That’s exactly what I did, thinking maybe I’ll need this, as I put one needless item after another into my bag.

Practical Tip: One of Jonathan’s simple rules: “I think of the coldest temperature that I’ll be in, and [stop packing when I know that] if I’m wearing everything I have, I’ll be fine.”

2. Make mundane tasks an exercise in mindfulness. When I was packing for the retreat, I thought that if I brought enough clothes, I wouldn’t have to do laundry, which would free me to concentrate fully on meditation. Yet seeing Jonathan carefully wash his socks in the sink throughout the month shifted my perspective; I realized I could make any activity into a sort of meditation. As Jonathan put it, “If you’re willing to make a mindful ritual out of rinsing your clothing, you can get by with very, very little.”

Practical Tip: Jonathan’s preferred laundry method on the road is converting a waterproof bag into a “six-ounce washing machine.” He puts his clothes inside with some water and a little bit of soap, seals it up, shakes it around, then repeats the process sans soap until the suds are all gone. Voila! his drying method of choice? Rolling up his clothes in a towel to wick the moisture out. The next morning, you should be good to go.

Jonathan Foust in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. (Photograph by Tara Brach)
Jonathan Foust in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. (Photograph by Tara Brach)

3. Keep it simple. Jonathan told me that he heard President Obama wears suits in two different colors so he can devote as little attention as possible to what he’s going to wear. Similarly, Jonathan tends to wear only two colors, black and white, so matching is not a problem for him. “The simplicity increased my happiness level quite a bit,” he says.

Practical Tip: Whether or not you sense that packing just two colors works for you, consider that the less you think about what you’re wearing when you travel, the more energy you’ll have to be where you are.

4. Find your balance. Jonathan says that while packing light is a priority, the decision-making process should always support a “sense of safety and preparedness.” But, as he was quick to point out, arriving at that balance is a very personal thing. He has one friend who brings a gigantic suitcase wherever he values wearing clothes that match his mood. Jonathan also knew a teacher at Kripalu who traveled with a change of shirt and underwear and not much more. It’s about being conscious of what’s important to you, Jonathan says. “When I’m really mindful about what I carry, I feel more secure — I’m more open to the unknown.”

Practical Tip: Think about what’s truly valuable to you when you’re outside of your comfort zone and make sure you pack things that support your needs.

5. Focus on what you can control. Before the month-long retreat I’d spent so much time considering the uncontrollable — what the retreat would be like and how it would change me — that I overlooked simple details, like packing a razor and shaving cream. Jonathan says, “There are only two basic categories: the things I have control over, and the things I don’t have control over.” When he has no control over something he pauses and acknowledges it, then brings his attention back to what he can control.

Practical Tip: Jonathan’s developed a method of creating modules for organizing his travel needs. For instance, his “tech module” (iPad, smartphone, camera, battery chargers, etc.) fits into a single silnylon bag and his “laundry module” (waterproof bag, elastic cord, inflatable hangers, sink stopper, detergent) goes in a gallon zip lock container. Other modules include self care, first aid, toiletries, and clothing. When you think of things in this way, he instructs, you’re less likely to forget something important.

Not long after my conversation with Jonathan I put these tips into practice on a five-day vacation, and it freed me to relax and open more deeply to a new place. Try it out in your own travels and see if it allows you to be more present on your travels.

And true to the spirit of his approach, keep exploring the practices that work for you and discard the rest.

Jared Gottlieb is a storyteller and meditation teacher who happens to work in the Standards & Practices department at National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter: @JaredGottlieb.

Do you have tips for how to be mindful and present when you’re exploring the world? Share them with the Intelligent Travel community by leaving a comment below.

More from Jared Gottlieb:


  1. Qoc'avib
    November 4, 2013, 8:40 pm

    Great atricle. I hate packing so much I always put it off till last minute. Then I have a tendency to forget important things that I don’t remember while also worrying about getting to the airport on time! It speak much easier to just start packing a few days before

  2. KeenaRules
    Toronto, Canada
    October 27, 2013, 5:34 pm

    these are all great tips to keep in mind. To keep my pack size down, I tend to wear a lot of stretchy pants and tshirts. they roll up or fold down to next-to-nothing, and not a big deal if you have to let a pair or two on the road. I also try to plan in advance where I will be for more than a day so I can get some laundry done!

  3. Sudhir Sharma
    October 16, 2013, 12:57 pm

    While travelling and trekking, i make sure that i wear light weight shoes and carry light clothes so that it doesn’t increase the weight of my backpack. Also i make sure that i carry only the necessary things only.

  4. christiane frischmuth
    Washington DC
    October 15, 2013, 10:00 pm

    Safety is indeed important so first aid and care for others is always on my mind – large plastic bags for shelter and warmth, water treatment etc. And then I always always leave things behind such as books and clothes and poems…I feel good about letting go – it is about sharing rather than possessions and owning. I feel lighter and have a fuller heart when I return.

  5. Jared Gottlieb
    October 15, 2013, 10:05 am

    re Anne, Patti, and Karen: Great tips!!!

  6. Jared Gottlieb
    Washington, D.C.
    October 15, 2013, 9:56 am

    re Carolyn B.: Love the advice of letting go of the stuff and stocking up on the money. Think it’s indicative of something Jonathan and I talked about between the difference of 5-day packers and 1-day packers. I (seemingly like yourself) tend to be more of a 1-day packer who assumes I’ll find what I need along the way. There are also 5-day packers who prepare a lot for contingency, and while Jonathan goes really light and pays a lot of attention to what h brings, he self-identifies as a 5-day packer. I hadn’t known before the conversation with Jonathan that the difference between 1-day and 5-day packers is one of the great travel debates.

  7. Patti
    Lees Summit, MO
    October 12, 2013, 8:17 pm

    When I travel internationally, I have a purse that is just the right size and goes over my shoulder. I never notice it, have even climbed mountains with it on. That one item is invaluable. On meditation retreats all I need is a few pair of yoga pants, a black jacket a few tops and my blankie! It is so nice not to have to worry about a lot of cosmetics.

  8. Damian Hinman
    October 12, 2013, 4:46 pm

    A few years ago when my brother and I visited a trappist monastery in Conyers, we found a book in the bookstore titled Journey of Simplicity.Traveling Light… The author put together a collection of various authors’, artists and others’ travel item lists which inspired me to reduce the number and sizes of my own possessions (with the idea of increasing quality of life and freeing up time, space, conciousness and budget). The first twenty pages are offered on the Amazon link above and here:, which is enough to see some of my favorites, including:

    Marchel Duchamps on Weekend Trips:

    Never a suitcase

    two shirts
    worn atop the other

    a toothbrush
    in his jacket pocket

    Last year I ordered and bought the book; Brandon has it now. May you also find some “enlightenment” from these few pages.

    Damian Hinman

  9. Carolyn B
    Washington, DC
    October 12, 2013, 2:03 pm

    I have also found it is important to trust that you will end up meeting the people you need to during your travels who will help you out if you forgot to pack something. My over-packing tendency diminishes when I set the intention to go with the flow and adapt. There are also few places where there won’t be at least one convenience store or local market along the way to getting off the grid where you can pick something up. It’s also part of the fun! I remember needing new underwear after 9 months of backpacking and I found some in a tiny store in South Africa. It ends up, it was so well made I still have it five years later!

    I also try to remember the saying that goes something like, “Pack. Then get rid of half the stuff you packed and bring twice as much money.” ;-)

  10. Karen
    October 12, 2013, 1:23 pm

    I usually think of “what’s the worst that can happen” when packing. So I don’t have enough shirts? Worst case – I’ll wash them more often. Don’t take my hair stuff – I’ll have to tie my hair up in a ponytail…etc. In the end you realize the “worst” isn’t really that bad and you end up with a lot less stuff than you initially planned on taking.

  11. Anne Stokes Hochberg
    Haverford, PA, USA
    October 12, 2013, 12:54 am

    When I was in a training and repeated packing the same things over & over, I developed a packing list so I wouldn’t have to think through what to bring each time. This has evolved into a checklist I tweak for every trip I take now, including not only my clothes and stuff like toiletries, but also a list of things I need to do before the trip (stop mail, set my email automatic message, etc.) Preparing the list can actually be fun; checking it off takes the stress out of packing.

  12. Tasmania Tours
    Tasmania, Australia
    October 11, 2013, 11:49 pm

    Completely agree, we do a lot of tours over Tasmania (it’s beautiful by the way!) and we encourage a lot of our customers to pack light and stay mobile.

  13. Olivia James
    Rye, New York
    October 11, 2013, 10:14 am

    I always travel with my Robdechi Hybrid Scarf. It’s versatile fashionable and amazing. Absolutely love it.

    -Oliva James