The Carry-on Commando

The Art and War of Travelling Light

Let’s face it  travelling (especially the actual travelling part) can be like navigating a war zone.

Travel constantly puts you into situations where you may have no idea of how to respond. That to me, is one aspect of travel that makes it is so rewarding.

To survive the mine field of exploring the world without suffering causalities, one must combine the ‘ready for action’ skills of a commando with the ‘improvising’ skills of a McGyver. Modern day travelers need to be Carry-on Commandos.

Having the mindset of being prepared for anything before you set out, is what is required to survive the travel battlefield.      

The art of surviving the war zone comes down to the 7 P’s

Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance (PPPPPPP)

The problem is how do you prepare properly if you have not already been into battle?

There are several ways:

You can go out there and get bloodied up.


Take advice from someone who has been to battle and who has survived to tell the stories.

The internet is a great forum for finding out information. However there is a lot of crappy travel advice being thrown around out there.

You know, tips that appear to be written by people who have never actually traveled and/or just scraped content off somebody else’s blog who has probably never ‘actually’ traveled.

You know, tips like:

  • Using Tic-Tac boxes to carry spices (turmeric colored clothes anyone)
  • Why travelling without any insurance is a good idea
  • How travelling on $10 a day is fun and wonderful
  • Or offering “travelling light lists” with so many items you would need a warehouse to hold it all

So why listen to me?

I, with my wife at my side, have been traveling fulltime since 2012 (8 years when this post was written).

Prior to this we backpacked together around the globe for a year in 1995.

Our travels have taken us to 75 countries on 6 of the 7 continents. We have traveled by plane, train, boat, bus and a dhabiya and have even done some hitch hiking.

I have blown through more than a few passports and have the scars to prove it.

Packing light – the first aspect of battle planning and preparation

I have often heard it said “If you can’t run a half mile with your pack on you probably have too much gear”.

I think that might be a little extreme unless you really are a commando. I personally do not like to travel in places where I think the need to run a half mile would arise.

That said I have traveled light and I have also lugged bags of Scuba gear around the globe. Believe me travelling light is better (a pinched sciatic nerves take all the fun out of it).

Considerations for packing light

As a general rule – pack less stuff – it is as easy as that!

It might be counter intuitive to think that bringing less stuff equates to being more prepared.

I know, there is something comforting about having your stuff with you, best thing to do is -get over it.

The reality is most of the time you can buy what you need when you get to wherever you are going.

The trick is to know what is mission critical and hard to replace (I have had dogs chew through my computer charging cable in the middle of nowhere).

Trust yourself – it is not about the amount of stuff you pack – it is  about optimizing what is needed to accomplish the mission.

One needs to be able to enjoy the journey and not be slowed down by a heavy load and picked off by a sniper.

With this in mind, here are 3 packing light considerations for Carry-on Commandos.

Consideration #1: Buy the best quality gear you can afford

The gear you travel with is always a compromise between size, weight, durability, and of course cost.

Durability: traveling can be very hard on your equipment, not to mention yourself. Consider the elements that your equipment is subjected to, such as; dust, moisture, temperature extremes and salt air. I am not going to even mention baggage handlers. You have to decide if it is worth the extra money to purchase rugged versions of your gear.

Cost: then there is balancing the cost of your gear, with your budget (and the potential of being a target for theft).

To illustrate the trade-offs between these competing considerations, think of a triangle with lightweight, cheap, and durable at each corner of the triangle. The truth is you can have any two at the expense of the third.

For example, if something is lightweight and cheap, it most likely will not be durable. Probability is that it will fail at the least opportunistic time.

On the other hand if it cost a little more, and is light weight, the chances are it might just be a little more durable.

A good example is Merino wool clothing, it is awesome, lightweight, naturally temperature regulating and moisture wicking to boot. But it aint’ cheap!

In my opinion it is worth every penny because it is super soft and comfortable.

As an added bonus, because Moreno is breathable and antimicrobial–you don’t end up smelling like a commando who has been is the jungle for a month, without the luxury of a shower.

When you do get around to washing your Merino, it is very easy to care for (no dry cleaners required) and has the added benefit of keeping its original shape, preventing sagging and bagging meaning it can take the punishment of travelling (even your mother in law can’t mess it up).

Consideration #2: Think multi-purpose

Whenever possible go for gear that has multiple uses.

A smart phone for example has multiple functions, including but certainly not limited to the following:

  • a phone
  • flashlight
  • alarm clock
  • portable media player
  • digital camera and video recorder,
  • A GPS
  • a spirit level
  • a document scanner
  • a voice recorder
  • a language translator …… you get the idea

Consideration #3: The Pareto Principal

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, or the law of the vital few) which in essence says that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

When it comes to travelling the law of the vital few, means that 20% of the gear you lug around provides 80% of your travel needs (or in other words you end up wearing your favorite T shirt the majority of the time). So why not pack one less?

As a caveat one must remember that some of the gear that is used infrequently just might be mission critical and end up saving your bacon, just like that extra charging cable.

Personal Preferences

When it comes right down to it, what you take on your travels and the vessel you haul it around in are very personal decisions.

For instance the whole traveling with a suitcase versus a backpack debate really depends on what works for you.

As far as the ‘carry on’ only strategy goes – that too is a personal decision based on your requirements.

I personally like to travel with a chef’s knife as well as my swiss army knife – that precludes going exclusively carry on.

The McGyver guide to going commando

The successful modern day traveler – The Carry-on Commando in my opinion also needs to channel their inner McGyver. That is unless they have a Platinum card to compensate for a lack of practicality.

The Carry on Commando needs to be prepared, be able to improvise using unconventional tactics and techniques, and most importantly always have a Swiss Army Knife at the ready.

So here is my list of travel essentials that will help you “McGyver it”.  I bet some of these you won’t have heard about before.

If I’m full of “you know what” (I was going to say crap) please let me know in the comments!

Universal sink plug

From hostels to 5 star hotels – you would be surprised how many establishments do not have sink stoppers. Sure the lack of basics can be expected in a $15 dollar a night hostel and maybe the occasional dodgy Air BnB rental.

However, we have been in many $100+ hotel rooms where there was a bath tub – but no stopper!

We talk about going ‘Commando’ but sometimes you just need to wash a few undies in the sink.

We also house sit in many places where there are no sink plugs in sight. The lack of a water stopper makes doing a proper job of the dishes or washing your hands a challenge.

20 feet of cotton string

The primary use of a length of string is for a make shift clothes line.

Some string can also replace a shoe lace if needed.

Or you can tie a piece to the steering wheel of the car to remind you to turn on the lights during the day (or otherwise risk getting interrogated by a police officer in a foreign language.)

String can also be used to truss a turkey, tie up a bundle of clothes, or hog tie a captured enemy.

Ear plugs

I will admit ear plugs are a bit of a travel cliché however– there are many places where peace and quiet is an extremely rare commodity. A good nights sleep is precious and a necessity for peak performance.

Swiss army knife

What can I say, besides that the most important use of this gear is to open a nice bottle of wine when no cork screw is to be had. Not to mention being able to slice the baget, the apple and the cheese to go with said wine.

Door Stop /wedge

Use for added security to secure your room door at night. Plus it gives you the ability to prop open doors and windows as needed.

Packing cubes

This is not necessarily gear to pull off a McGyverism with, however they deserve a mention. Packing cubes provide the following advantages:

  • More efficient use of space as they compress a lot of items into a small space
  • Better organization of your clothing
  • An additional barrier to the elements and will not spill out so easily if your bag gets damaged

Twist Ties

We use these all the time for tying up various cables. Makes packing and managing charging cables, ear buds more efficient. The best things are free!

Travel pouches

Same idea as packing cubes, except for packing electronic accessories and your McGyver gear such as door wedges, set of dice, universal sink plugs, ear plugs, Swiss Army knifes etc…

Zap Straps

Zap straps are awesome!

We use zap straps instead of baggage locks. Airports are the Bermuda triangle of baggage locks– they just seem to disappear.

If your lock does manage to make it to your destination, the problem is this. Do you actually know if the lock has been picked and re closed? With zap straps – or rather with the absence of your zap strap, you know that your bag has been opened or inspected.

We also use zap straps when travelling by bus, or when we leave our hotel room. It stops people from opening your bag and having a snoop unless they are very determined.

Note: keep in mind you need a way of getting the zap strap open when your Swiss Army Knife is zap strapped inside your checked baggage.

Gorilla Tape

No self respecting Canadian traveller would ever dream of leaving home without some of the “the handyman’s secret weapon”.

Use for quick repairs, blister protection, hanging make shift curtains, or for protecting the edges of suitcases, careful application can also makes suitcases look beat up and less attractive to thieves.

Remember as Uncle Red always said “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”

Knife Sharpener

Every traveler has a pet peeve, mine is a dull knife.

More often than not Air BnBs and homes we house sit in have kitchen knifes so dull they can barely cut butter. If any of these kitchen knifes were used as a murder weapon, the coroner would conclude the cause of death was blunt force trauma.

One solution is to carry a small knife sharpener. Keeps the swiss army Knife ready for action as well.

Zip Lock Bags

An assorted array of zip lock bags are handy for keeping loose stuff together, for spices, left over food, and protecting your gear from the elements.

They also come in handy if you need to separate damp items from the rest of the contents of your backpack or suitcase.

Dry Bag

A step up from a zip lock bag for the more adventurous. If you like to be on or near the water, having a water proof bag to keep your camera, passport and other valuables is critical.

Note: make sure you get one that is large enough to fit your gear!

Compact Universal adaptor

It ain’t much use having fancy electronic gear if you can’t plug it in.


A very handy piece of gear that weighs nothing and takes up almost no space. These gems are great for the following:

  • Hanging a hammock
  • Hanging a baseball cap off of your camera bag or backpack
  • Securing a water bottle so it does not fall out of you pack and bean your fellow commando, as you deploy from the overhead bin


A sarong has it made in spades in the light weight and multipurpose departments. Your Sarong can be used for the following dozen applications:

  1.    as a beach towel
  2.    a beach cover up
  3.    a piece of unisex clothing
  4.    a temporary curtain
  5.    a head scarf
  6.    a blanket
  7.    a picnic blanket
  8.    a lightweight towel
  9.    an emergency bed sheet or mattress protector
  10.    a tourniquet or sling in an emergency
  11.    a tablecloth
  12.    or even a privacy screen for places with no public toilets

There you have it – you are now equipped to travel in a state of preparation.

No excuses for Piss Poor Performance

τοῖς τολμῶσιν ἡ τύχη ξύμφορος”


“Luck Favours the Daring”

If you have any favorite McGyver travel gear we left out please share it with us in the comments!

Meet the Author

Michael Bauche

Being born under a wandering star, has meant Michael has spent his whole life either traveling or plotting his next adventure. At age 44 he escaped the rat race and now pursues his passions for travel, photography, Tai chi, and sampling the world’s cuisines.