Planning The Perfect Travel Washbag

Planning The Perfect Travel Washbag

If you’re trying to travel light (which is what the Hand Luggage Only project is all about), keeping your washbag trim is a key strategy. But how can you do that effectively and still stay clean, healthy and presentable?

First, a disclaimer. Although any trip involving an overnight stay is going to involve some sort of washbag, I don’t think it’s possible to come up with an absolute list of stuff that everyone needs — or doesn’t. Lifehacker commenters have tended to agree, as an argument about aftershave early in the HLO project demonstrated pretty neatly. So what follows isn’t so much a prescriptive list as a discussion around the kind of broad issues you need to consider if you’re trying to put together a collection of travel toiletries.

Whatever list you come up with, one important point that most regular travellers (especially in a business context) tend to agree with is that it’s worth maintaining a separate travel washbag, rather than just grabbing items from your bathroom before you leave. This saves time on packing, reduces the odds of forgetting something, and lets you keep smaller supplies for use on the road if that’s what you prefer. Just make sure you remember to restock as needed at the end of each trip, lest you end up in Brisbane with a dried-up deodorant stick.

The bare essentials

My own ‘bare minimum’ travel kit would consist of deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, razor and shaving stick. People not fussed by facial hair could presumably skip the last two. Feminine hygiene products would feature as a compulsory requirement for many female readers.

What gets added next depends on your personal preferences and what you can reasonably expect your accommodation to provide. Even the most bargain-basement hotel provides soap; most (though not all) provide shampoo. As such, I rarely pack either.

Your destination may also be a factor; in highly sunny locations, sunscreen is an obvious essential, while if you’re heading to Australia’s north, a mosquito repellent is vitally important. Any medications you take regularly obviously also need to go in. Many people advocate travelling with aspirin or the like for emergencies, but I tend to stick to the “if I get sick I’ll find a chemist” view.

There’s any number of other things you could add — make-up, mouthwash, skincare, floss, toothpicks, lip balm, eyedrops, hand cream, spare razors — depending on your own needs. But do resist the urge to replicate your entire bathroom if you can.

What you store them in is also a matter of overall volume and personal preference. I like to keep my items in a single bag that’s small enough for carry-on, and which I can add to a largely-packed bag at the last minute. Being something of a cheapskate, I often recycle the washbags offered on international flights, though these have become much meaner in recent years.

Midget or not?

One popular strategy for minimising the room taken up by items is to purchase mini travel-sized toiletries. These are often sold at stupidly jacked-up prices at airports (if you’re budget-minded, Big W also carry a pretty large selection these days). If you want to save money, you can collect miniature bottles and create your own portables. This is fiddly, though, and won’t work for toothpaste or deodorant.

Personally, I’m in two minds about this whole approach. Quite aside from the cost factor, miniature toiletries inherently limit the length of stay before you have to replace stuff. For many categories (like deodorant), even the standard-sized options are pretty good.

Liquids and aerosols

One reason mini-toiletries have grown in popularity is because of the rules governing the transport of liquids on flights. On international flights out of Australia, you can’t carry anything in hand luggage that measures more than 100mls in size. To date, similar rules haven’t been imposed on Australian domestic flights — but you should be aware that they do apply in many other overseas destinations (including Europe and the USA).

Because I often travel to both locations, I’ve tended to apply the ‘stay under 100mls’ rule where possible, though not to the extent of customising my own toiletries. Instead, I’ve chosen non-liquid options (soap instead of shower gel; a shaving stick instead of cream; dry roll-ons instead of aerosols).

Australian domestic airports are getting increasingly fussy about aerosols. While these are still generally allowed on flights, if they’re in your hand luggage you may be asked to screen them separately, which can be a nuisance if you’ve packed your luggage precisely.

Random product secrets

As the picture shows, two of the items that feature (perhaps improbably) in my own washbag are the Mennen shave stick and a cheap generic tube of toothpaste. The shave stick — basically a specialised kind of soap that doesn’t dry up on your skin — is the most compact option I’ve found for my shaving needs, and avoids the aerosol dramas discussed above. (King Of Shaves make a similarly compact oil, but for me it just doesn’t do the job.)

The generic toothpaste has a simple advantage over all the market leaders: it has a screw-on cap, not an attached lid. In my experience, the latter are rather more prone to popping open unexpectedly, especially in a tightly-packed bag.

Got your own secrets for effective washbag planning? Share it in the comments.

Throughout May 2009, Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman will be travelling throughout Australia with just one carry-on bag for the Hand Luggage Only project. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • My advice is: plan ahead. Don’t be rushing around trying to jam in all your full sized bottles and jars into your washkit.

    Also, keeping a travel kit which is used just for travel is a great idea.

    Aveda (a mostly chick store) sells a good selection of small travel bottles into which you can transfer stuff from your big bottles.

    I take some asprin or panadol, just half of one the silver packets, without the box. I do this because the worst thing is its 3am and you have a pounder, and nothing is open. If you single, take a rubber. You never know.

    For toothpaste, I grab a half finished tube from the main bathroom, and keep it in my travel kit.

    For shaving, I splurge and use American Crew, which comes either in a tub, or a tube. Small enough to easily pack, and smelly enough to not need aftershave….

    And the biggest secret is to buy a really good washbag. The better ones will not leak if something inside busts. Eagle creek ( make some great ones. Some have a coat hook in them that makes it real easy to hang in those badly designed bathrooms with no shelf near the sink.

    Wow. I guess I’m a little obsessive about this! Although, I have travelled for about 75% of my career….

  • Woolies, Coles, and I’d assume Safeways and the other supermarket chains sell travel packs in the cosmetics aisles. It includes a small tube of toothpaste, small bottles of shampoo and a mini-aerosol of deodorant. They’re good to last probably a week or so.

  • Another good secret for the Mennens Shave Stick is that you can cut it in half and they fit perfectly inside an old film canister that photo shops still give away for free. Half a stick is enough to take away with you for most trips. The canister keeps it clean and with little mess. If camping or in a water restricted area, you only have to add a few drops into the canister for the foaming to work.

  • Nice thread 🙂

    Looking at a shaving stick for an upcoming trip: how are you lathering on the road? Brush or au naturel? Obviously wanting to go as light as possible – but my impression is that the latter doesn’t really compare with the former.

  • I second Lush for compactability (not to mention awesome products). I’m not much of products person, but with long hair, I find relying on the hotel to provide is a bad idea 🙂

    That said, my overnight essentials is different for a trip where I know I’ll have to wash my hair (otherwise I schedule around it).

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