3 CIA Travel Tips for Minimalist Packing

Andrew Bustamante | November 5, 2019

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Greetings Everyday Spy,

I was recently on an international call with my buddy Bret from Baltimore. 

Bret is a good dude working full-tilt to grow business and family. 

At least once a month, my son asks if we can go back to Baltimore to visit ‘Mr. Bret’s house.’ He loves Bret’s man-cave (long ago turned ‘kid-cave’). After the kid-cave tires him out, there is a massive backyard with a play-set, rooms upon rooms to discover inside, and toys of all types tucked away in hidden caches around the house.

Mr. Bret’s house is a special treat for my children because they haven’t had a traditional home in almost a year.

In December 2018, our family left Florida to spend 2 years traveling and building EverydaySpy.com.

  • The first 6 months of that journey was spent touring the US east coast in a 32 ft. Winnebago motor-home we nicknamed ‘Sacajawea.’ 
  • The next 6 months were spent exploring Arab culture, living in the United Arab Emirates.
  • With 2020 right around the corner, we plan to expand into Europe and North Africa until…
  • We take a massive family vacation to celebrate ‘mission complete’ in New Zealand and Australia.

And when we sit on black-sand beaches in New Zealand, or cross the back-of-beyond in Australia, we’ll be plotting our next international family adventure.

Because while the United States is our heart, the world is our home.

And everywhere we go, we take you with us. 

You, and as little else as possible.

Our time with CIA trained my wife and I to master the skill of minimalist packing.

She served in some less-than-ideal places in Central America. My work had me traveling through Europe, South America and supporting US conflict zones. We served together in Asia, where we took our independent skills and combined them together as a unit. 

We pack to move quickly, quietly, and independently.

We carry things according to weight ratios to make sure we never need help lifting, stowing, or recovering our own gear. Packing with weight and balance in mind helps maintain mobility and prevents against fatigue.

We plan our movements to and from our destination in advance and keep immediate family informed. Before we leave, we practice everything from finding important documents to entertaining the kids on the plane. And every time we cut through an airport, train station or downtown exchange smoothly – the work is worth it.

Too often, we see people traveling with unruly bags, heavy luggage, and confused family members.

People pack unnecessary items in designer (and knock-off) luggage that isn’t efficient for travel.

  • US airlines collected $5 billion in baggage fees in 2019; 450% more than they collected in 2009.
  • The average weight of an empty piece of luggage is 11.9lbs (5.4kg); 23% of your luggage allowance on most airlines.
  • Luggage and bags are a $24.4 billion industry in the United States, projected to grow 7.4% annually through 2024.

Travel is supposed to be fun and exciting – full of adventure, discovery, and enjoyable experiences.

But in reality, data shows that travel leaves people feeling the opposite – stressed, tired, and frustrated.

And when you put a few hundred stressed, tired, frustrated people on an airplane together for 6 hours (or 16 hours flying internationally), things will get worse before they get better.

More than customer service, weather delays, or low phone battery, what you carry with you has the greatest impact on your travel.

49% of travelers admit that packing is the largest point of stress during travel. 

They worry about packing the wrong things, taking too little or too much, spending money on luggage that is overweight, or having their things break or get lost during travel. 

And when all the packing is done, they worry about losing the bag they just agonized over!

That stress comes with steep consequences:

  • 67% of people argue with loved ones during travel.
  • 37% of people delay or cancel their travel plans after booking.
  • 25% of unmarried couples break-up during or immediately after travel.

Packing for a covert mission is not that different from packing for a personal trip. 

But for field operators, stress causes mistakes. And we cannot afford to make mistakes during a mission.

So we pack according to a plan.


Here is how my wife and I apply CIA packing techniques to our travel around the world with children:

  • Core vs. Crutch

There are two types of items that everyone carries when they travel:

  • Core essentials
  • Crutch conveniences

Core essentials are the things you need to complete the trip. 

Personal ID (passport), the clothes you are wearing, cash, credit cards, and important medications are all examples of core essentials. These are priority items that would literally block your ability to travel or put you at risk to be without. 

If all else failed around you, your core essentials can support you for 24-48 hours. 

It is important to recognize your essentials because they help you identify what is NOT essential. 

The stress of travel doesn’t come from your core essentials; it comes from your crutch conveniences. Those items – from your smartphone to your favorite shoes – that you think are important but don’t actually need. 

Crutch items take time and energy to consider, but they are not actually needed for successful travel. 

Your trip will be a success because you have a passport and a valid credit card. Time spent picking between the green t-shirt or black one; the flip-flops or the sandals; and building the perfect playlist is just unwanted stress.

Remember that crutches are supposed to help. When they trip you up, leave them behind.


  • Redundancy is waste

In the military, redundancy is a rule. 

Engaging hostile forces, fighting tyranny, and building nations is logistically complicated. Redundancy is important when your goal is to establish a sustainable, forward deployed environment. 

But everywhere else in the world, redundancy is just called waste.

Especially in field operations, where more equipment means more weight. 

The ideal weight for any individual to carry is 10-15% of their total body weight. 

A physically fit 180lb (81kg) person can carry 27lbs (12kg) with ease over long distances. A less fit person of the same weight can carry 18lbs (8kg) just as easily. Put that weight in a well-crafted backpack and you might even forget it’s there.

These ratios hold true for the very young and the very old alike. 

My 6 year old son can carry his own 4lb (1.8kg) bag much easier than I would carry a 30lb (13kg) bag for both of us. Add in weight from my wife and daughter and the ratio clearly show the stress of travel when one person bears the weight of a family.

When I teach others about weight ratios, the first argument I hear is that people want to pack more things than fit in their 15% ratio. 

My only question is ‘why?’

10-15% of your body weight covers all of your core essentials with plenty of left over space. It’s only when you start piling in crutch items that the ratio gets forced out of whack.

  • Want extra cloths? Buy them at your destination – you have a credit card.
  • Want to carry your toiletries? Leave them – buy local products when you get where you are going.
  • Want your laptop or a thick book? Lean on your phone or tablet instead. 

Focus on ease of mobility when you travel and you will leave all the stress behind, along with all the weight.


  • Freedom Food

Finding yourself hungry on a plane, train, or even a camel is bad news.

Hunger produces a hormone in the stomach called Ghrelin. While this hormone is helpful for encouraging appetite, it is detrimental to decision making and impulse control. 

Hunger is the body’s way of signalling that it is missing key nutrients – glucose, sodium, protein, fiber.

In addition to the risk of making bad decisions or losing your temper due to hunger, travel also puts you at the mercy of whatever food provider is in the immediate area. In many parts of the world (and the US!), local food is unhealthy, unclean, or both. And sickness is not a stressor you want to add to you trip.

Do not put yourself in a position where you must rely on uncertain food when you travel.

Instead, pack your bag with 24-36 hours of reliable, nutrient-dense food staples: dried/raw nuts, unpeeled fruit, protein bars, dried meats, granola bars, etc. Two bags of mixed nuts, 4 granola bars, 2 protein bars, an apple and a banana cover the average nutrient needs for a grown adult for 24 hours. While that menu may not sound appealing, it nearly guarantees that you arrive at your destination healthy, comfortable, and ready to perform. 

Favor water over all other drinks when you travel. 

The water will keep your system functioning efficiently – processing and delivering nutrients where they are most needed.

Let your children carry their own snacks, and encourage them often to eat.

Most of the 10% weight ratio that my children carry is their own snack food. Not only do I save myself packing space by letting them carry their own food, but I know that if we ever get separated they have food on-hand. Having their own food helps me trust that they will make good decisions and keep reasonable health for at least the next 24 hours.


Traveling with less takes practice, but once you see the benefits you will never go back to the old way.

There is a world waiting for you. And all you need to discover that world is a few core essentials and a plane ticket.

One for you, and one for each person you love.

Godspeed, #EverydaySpy


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Author: Andrew Bustamante, Founder of www.EverydaySpy.com. Andrew is a former covert CIA Intelligence officer, decorated US Air Force Combat Veteran, and respected Fortune 500 senior advisor. Learn more from Andrew on his Podcast (The Everyday Espionage Podcast) and by following @EverydaySpy on your favorite social media platform.

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