Travel toiletries: pack light, pack green

by Meagan

A backpacker's guide to choosing travel toiletries which are lightweight, convenient and eco-friendly.

Packing for a big trip can be a daunting task - and travel toiletries often create the most dilemmas.

Do we lug around heavy and bulky items or do we pack light and risk running out while we are away? Do we choose "travel-sized" and disposable products which are lightweight and convenient but grossly over-packaged and wasteful? And how do we pack all those liquids without risking airport confiscations and the dreaded leak in our luggage?

Over several years of extensive travel I’ve learned how to solve all of these travel toiletry dilemmas. I've discovered that travelling light doesn’t have to mean buying those cute but over-packaged travel sized shampoos, nor relying on equally wasteful hotel freebies. With a little thought and the right products it is entirely possible to travel light and maximise convenience while minimising your ecological footprint.

Whether you are going on a short city break or a nine-month expedition through Africa, I’ll show you how to choose travel toiletries so that you can pack light and pack green with minimal fuss - and I'll introduce you to 6 or 7 super-useful alternative products, which may form the only travel toiletry kit you will ever need.

Could you pack for a long trip in a foreign country with only 6-7 toiletry items?

Think about both consumables and reusable tools for washing, drying, grooming and personal care...
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Sure! I always get by with whatever I have.
terrilorah on 03/19/2012

I could do it, but it would drive me crazy!

BrendaReeves on 02/10/2012

I'm definitely a minimalist and traveling light is a must.

Meagan on 02/08/2012

Wow, I see I’m in good company with a bunch of other minimalists! I meet my washing, grooming and personal care needs with only 7 items – to see what they are, read on… (That’s most of the time – sometimes I add sunscreen and occasionally vanity takes over and I pack a little eyeliner and mascara!)

Sam on 02/08/2012

Lol, I need less! Hair+Body Shampoo that also doubles for washing clothes etc, toothpaste, all purpose cream for face and body OR sun lotion, depending on where I go and perhaps something against mosquitoes, that's it. Makes 3 items for non-mosquito locations and 4 when there are mosquitoes ;-)

Jimmie on 02/07/2012

Yes. I normally buy shampoo & soap on site or use what is provided in the hotel. I have to have sunscreen, lotion, vaseline (petroleum jelly), mascara, eye liner, deodorant, razor, brush. Don't know if I could stay within 7 items, but I am not sure if a brush counts. Compared to most people, I'm a fairly light packer.

Lissie on 02/07/2012

toothpaste, shampoo (doubles as soap and laundry powder), suntan lotion, mozzie repellant, plug - that about covers it!

katiem2 on 02/07/2012

Sure I don't need much, I'm a minimalist.

TerriRexson on 02/07/2012

I don't think I use more than that at home, so I could certainly manage on a trip!

Four packing principles

Let's start by considering how to pack.  We all use a range of toiletry products when we are at home.  What do we need to consider to choose the best items to pack for a long trip?  Apply these four basic principles to pack travel toiletries which are lightweight, hassle-free and relatively eco-friendly.

1. Take only the bare essentials.

It's all too easy to let habit or “just in case” mentality take over and forget what the bare essentials are when deciding what to leave behind.  Think carefully about the climate and the activities you will do.  Do you really need night cream?  Blush?  Hair mousse?

2. Choose reusable or long lasting products.

Unless you know you can readily buy replacements on your journey you will want products that will last the distance.  And buying fewer replacement items usually means reducing ecological costs throughout the product life cycle and minimising the waste you leave at your destination.

3. Choose solid products over liquid.

Liquid products usually take up more space and weight, require more packaging and are used up relatively quickly.  Choose solid products and you’ll have no leaks, no confiscations at airport security and they’ll last much longer.  It’s a no brainer!

4. Choose multipurpose items.

A classic light packing technique, no less relevant when it comes to toiletries.  Choose a soap that can be used to wash your body and your clothes, a cream which will moisturise your face and protect it from the sun.  Remember, the more essential functions one item can perform the less items you need to pack.

A basic travel toiletry kit

What toiletries would be defined as “essential” is highly personal – it varies enormously as a matter of individual preference, skin and hair type, and gender.  If we pare it right back to the most essential toiletry functions most would probably agree that a basic kit should keep your body, hair and mouth clean and odour-free.  In my experience, these essential functions can be performed by just 6 or 7 items which comprise my basic travel toiletry kit.  These products are probably different to your usual toiletries but are perfect for travelling light and so convenient that I use most of them in everyday life.

1. A shampoo soap bar

Imagine a shampoo that lasts more than 6 months, weighs 50 grams and takes up less than 20 cubic centimetres.  For convenience when travelling shampoo bars are hard to beat (unless you go without shampoo altogether).  Use it as a body soap and even a laundry soap and you’ve covered most of your cleaning in a 50 gram tin!

For the serious eco-warriers out there and anyone who finds themselves stuck without shampoo keep in mind that one of the best 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioners in existence can usually be found wherever you find human settlement.  I’m talking about egg yolk.  Sounds messy and more than a little mad but don’t diss it until you’ve tried.  It leaves your hair feeling super clean and silky. It’s been working for centuries!

Instead of liquid shampoo, try these:
J R Liggett A Natural Traveler Old Fashioned Shampoo Travel Pack

J R Liggett A Natural Traveler Old Fashioned Shampoo Travel Pack

$13.99  $13.49
Hydra Soap Clarity Shampoo Bar

Until the 1950's almost all shampoo was in bar form. Superior lather of liquid products made the bar go out of style. That's all about to change. With current travel ...

Tasmanian Beer Shampoo

Tasmanian Beer Shampoo 125gr/4.4ozTasmanian Beer Shampoo 125gr/4.4oz Beer has been famed for generations for its ability to leave hair bouncy shiny and full of body, so this ...

J R Liggett Old-Fashioned Shampoo Original Formula 3.50 oz

J R Liggett Old-Fashioned Shampoo Original Formula 3.50 oz

$9.4  $9.29

2. A crystal deodorant

I was dubious about these for years.  Then I tried them and guess what?  They really do work.  In all climates.  (It’s hotter than 35 degrees Celsius and 80% humidity where I lived last year).  I find that a single crystal can last up to 2 years of daily use.  Again, no liquids, no leaks, no confiscations, minimal packaging.  And you don’t want scented products anyway – they attract mosquitoes.

Instead of liquid or aerosol deodorant, try these:
Crystal - Crystal Stick Body Deodorant, 4.25 oz sticks

A solid stick of natural mineral salts and ammonium alum, completely free of perfumes and chemicals. It leaves an invisible protective barrier against odor-causing bacteria, ...

Only $7.19
A Pair of Salt Under-Arm Deo-Bars

Pure organic chemical-free bar of Original Himalayan Crystal Salt can be used as a natural and healthy under-arm deodorant to eliminate odor-causing bacteria. When applied wet ...

Only $8.99

3. A tin of bicarb soda

A small tin of bicarb soda (also known as bicarbonate of soda or baking soda) is probably the most versatile toiletry item you could ever pack.  It serves as toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, soap, exfoliant, mouth wash… the list goes on.  Bicarb soda is the ultimate non-toxic, all-purpose cleaner and it’s antibacterial.  It can be easily purchased in most destinations where you find a few basic western products.  I brush my teeth with the stuff everyday – it leaves them super-smooth and super-fresh.

Instead of toothpaste, try this:
Church & Dwight #01110 16OZ Arm & Hammer

Arm and Hammer, 16 OZ Baking Soda, Environmentally Safe, Non Phosphates, Uses Include Acid Neutralizer, Deodorizer, Non Abrasive Cleaner and Laundry Additive.

$7.2  $4.83
Matte Silver Mint Tin, 1

Here`s a fresh tins filled with surprises make ideal bridal shower party favors and more! (Silver matte finish - round). Our versatile mint tins make cheery bridal ...

Only $5.99

4. A menstrual cup

(For the other half of the population, skip to number 5!)

Menstrual cups rock!  They prevent a multitude of potentially embarrassing situations and save you from packing large volumes of disposable alternatives.  You will never again be stuck in the awkward position of not having a tampon, desperately seeking kind faces of potential donors among fellow travelers or scouring the local shops to eventually find only supersized pads which will certainly result in visible bulges.  You won’t have to worry about finding yourself in random toilets with no rubbish bins and have no alternative but to stuff waste into your bag or pocket, wondering when you will find an opportunity to discreetly dispose of it.  Menstrual cups are empowering.  They are cleaner, safer, more comfortable, less hassle and ultimately cheaper.  Try one and I promise, even when your travel days are over, you won’t look back.

Instead of tampons or pads, try these:
The Moon Cup Size B

The Moon Cup Menstrual Cup provides you with the same benefits as The Keeper, but is made of soft, non-latex, medical grade silicone. Introduced in 2006, The Moon Cup is ...

Only $34.95
Diva Cup Model 1 Pre-Childbirth

Diva Cup Model 1 is for Pre-Childbirth and/or Under 30 Years of Age. The DivaCup is approved by the FDA (USA) and Health Canada. It is made of soft medical grade silicone, ...

Only $32.99

5. A bamboo comb and toothbrush set

A comb and a toothbrush are pretty standard items that will form part of almost everyone's travel toiletry kit.  There are plenty of plastic-fantastic folding and compact "travel" versions but my preference is to choose items made from bamboo.  They are lightweight, yet strong and durable and made from a wholly renewable and biodegradable material to boot.  On the light and green travel credentials, bamboo items are hard to beat!

Instead of plastic combs and toothbrushes, try these:
Months Toothbrush Set 4 toothbrush by Izola

You`ll never forget to replace your toothbrush every three months with this unique toothbrush set from Izola. Includes one year`s supply of bamboo toothbrushes, each with ...

Olivia Garden Healthy Hair Eco-Friendly Bamboo Rake Comb HH-C4

Olivia Garden Eco-Friendly Bamboo Comb collection features sustainable, anti-static, anti-bacterial, lightweight all-purpose combs.

Only $5.06

6. A sarong

Microfibre travel towels do the job but a sarong (or local equivalent) will also get you dry and is a far more multipurpose item.  A simple rectangular piece of cotton cloth, the sarong can do almost anything.  Use it as a sheet when the bed doesn’t appear so clean.  Pyjamas if you find yourself sharing a room.  An evaporative cooler when the fan just isn’t enough.  A preserver of modesty if you ever find yourself needing to shower in public or go to the toilet on the side of the road (it happens!)  A dress or skirt when everything else is dirty.  A headscarf when you enter temples.  A bag, curtain, tablecloth, picnic rug, baby carrier… I could go on and on.  Take one with you or, better yet, buy it at your destination and you’ll almost certainly find many uses for it throughout your journey.

Instead of a towel, try these:
NOVICA Batik cotton sarong, 'Butterfly Honor'

This bright sunny sarong from Simone Buys is rich in cultural meaning for it is dyed and hand-stamped by people from the Blue Hmong hill tribe. The men make the batik stamps ...

100% Cotton Handloom Mens Checkered Lungi / Dhoti / Sarong / Wrap

Lungi is a large tube or length of fabric, often wrapped around the waist and worn as a kilt by men. This lungi is made from 100% handloom cotton and features multicolor ...

Only $6.0
Cotton Sarongs - Traditional, Assorted - Please Select Color Preference

These unfringed cotton sarongs are traditionally used by both men and women all over Southeast Asia. They also make beautiful wall hangings. Mainly earth tones. Assorted only ...

Exquisite Fashion scarf - Cotton Pareo Horse Summer Beach Wrap scarf shawl -- green Sarong

Printed Cotton Pareo/Sarong 100% Cotton

$99.99  $25.75

Extend your travel toiletry kit

Depending on where I am going and what I am doing I often extend my basic travel toiletry kit.  If I'm backpacking in Asia for 3 months I may take nothing more than the above items.  If I'm popping over to Paris for a weekend then vanity may be more of a concern and weight and space less so - I might add a little make-up or even a hair straightener!  There are many other products you may want to include in your travel toiletry kit.  Here are some other smart choices which follow my pack light, pack green principles:

Victorinox Swiss Army Classic Pocket Knife

From city slickers to masters of the agrarian sciences, everyone who carries the celebrated VICTORINOX Swiss Army Knife finds a multitude of uses for it! The Classic is the ...

Victorinox Swiss Army Swiss Champ SOS Set Pocket Knife (Red)

3.5 in closed length with red handle and black leather pouch. Includes large & small blades can/bottle openers screwdrivers Phillips screwdrivers wire stripper sharpening ...

Only $230.0
Neutrogena Oil-Free Sunblock Stick, SPF 30, 0.47 Ounce

Oil-Free Sunblock Stick SPF 30 protects and cares for the health of your skin every time you wear it. This clinically proven formula protects against skin-aging UVA and skin ...

Only $9.91
KINeSYS Sun Protection Stick, SPF 30, Fragrance Free, 7.3 g (0.26 oz) (Pack of 2)

Solid Sunscreen. Lips, Ears, Face. Broad-spectrum protection (UVA / UVB) to help guard against the damaging rays of the sun. This unique formulation is designed for active ...

Honey House Solid Lotion Bee Bar (No Added Scent, 2 oz) New in Silver Embossed Tin Case

Only $14.48
Organic No Added Fragrance Stick Moisturizer- 70% Certified Organic

A unique solid stick moisturizer formulated with organic herbs and essential oils designed to hydrate skin and minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Created ...

Only $7.95

Nail clippers and tweezers

Choose a Swiss army knife which combines these items along with other potentially useful functions like a knife, scissors, toothpick and screwdriver.  Choose a basic version or go all out and get the ultimate multi-tool set for travelers - a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew, a torch and everything in between.

Sunscreen and insect repellent

Choose solid stick products.  Minimise your need for these items by being sun- and mosquito-smart always wearing a hat and covering your arms and legs.  Avoid wearing black or scents (both attract mosquitoes) and always sleep with a mosquito net or fan.


Choose solid stick products.  If you are visiting the tropics consider whether your skin will even need moisturising.

Happy packing!

May all your rucksacks be feather-light and leak-free!

Do you know of other great lightweight and green travel toiletry solutions?  Please share your tips in the comments section below.

More travel articles


Updated: 03/29/2012, Meagan
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Mira on 09/21/2012

Thank you for a useful article! :-)

katiem2 on 05/09/2012

A great travel reminder, thanks for the useful tips on what we really need while traveling. I always reflect on what to take and not to take when planning a flight, don't want to have useful things tossed out or wasted. The crystals are great as they keep fresh and hold up to any long term travel bags, heat and the like.

Meagan on 05/05/2012

2uesday, it's so true - sarongs are infinitely useful! Thanks for stopping by!

terrilorah on 03/19/2012

Thanks for the great tips.

Meagan on 03/15/2012

Maia, I agree that the Lush shampoo bars are excellent - these are the ones I have used for the past two years! They last forever and they lather up really well. I couldn't find them when I wrote this article but will try to add them soon.

Maia on 02/22/2012

My favorite shampoo bars come from Lush:
They also have amazing body bars, face lotions, bath bombs, all in solid form and almost all completely vegan. An excellent company with phenomenal products.

SeanMac on 02/18/2012

All of your tips are excellent but the Swiss army knife idea is very good. Nice article!

Jimmie on 02/07/2012

As a former world traveler, I can attest to the sense in these recommendations. Using products that serve multiple uses is important.

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