How To Pack Light in Just a Carry-On

By Stephen | September 13, 2016

how to pack light

Learn how to pack light (and smart) for any trip, long or short.

If I had my way, I would never pack light; I would totally take way too many clothes with me when I travel. But, in that fantasy world, I wouldn’t have to look after my luggage, pack or unpack it, or worry about the cost — monetary, environmental, and to my own personal freedom.

Unless you can afford a personal butler, being weighed down by luggage is a sure-fire way to limit your access to off-the-beaten-path adventures.

Here’s your How to Pack Light Cheatsheet. It’s free, no sign-up required or hoops to jump through!

A heavy bag makes it harder to hop on a bus or ferry, to navigate the crowds in a train station, or to take a detour down a romantic side-street.

Plus, if you learn how to pack light, you’ll also save money by not paying hefty airline luggage fees.

pack light carry on

Carry-on sizes vary, so make sure to do your research.

During my last six months on the road, which included winter in Europe and high summer in India, the only luggage problem I had involved having brought too many clothes. Jane’s carry-on was always lighter, less full, and able to fit in smaller spaces than mine.

It’s time to refine my suitcase situation.

It’s going to be a challenge: my next trip is a three-month jaunt that ranges between 40ºC in Hanoi and -10ºC in Helsinki. Plus, if things go according to plan, those three months will likely turn into 6 months or a year.

The million-dollar question is, how can you pack light for all weather, a flexible itinerary, and an undefined end date?

Here are my best answers to…

How To Pack Light in Just One Carry-On

how to pack light

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In the Beginning

Packing light all starts with your choice of luggage.

This is the place most people make their first misstep, especially for long-term trips. If you buy a backpack or suitcase that is bigger than carry-on size, you’re asking for trouble from the outset.

You DO NOT want to be that person dragging a suitcase that is almost as tall as they are!

You also don’t want to be one of those backpackers with a HUGE pack on their back and another big one in front.

how to pack light

You don’t want to be *that* guy.

If your travel pack or suitcase is small, it’s going to force you to pack sensibly and pack light. Also, it’s scientifically proven that your stuff will expand to fill all available space, no matter how big your suitcase is.

So limit this expansion right from the start to make packing light a whole lot easier.

If you’re curious, my current suitcase is the hard-sided Alex suitcase from Hauptstadtkoffer while Jane is going to start using her Carry-On Backpack from Standard Luggage Co on this trip.

pack light carry on luggage

Jane’s new carry on suitcase from Standard Luggage Co.

Alongside my carry-on suitcase, I bring a small backpack that is just big enough to fit my computer, wallet, phone, and other items I need on the plane, at yoga class, or wandering around a city.

So far, on flights that have a “one carry-on item per person” policy, this extra bag has never been a problem. Knock wood.

The Magic of Math

When you’re figuring out how to pack light, you don’t normally think “I’m going to need my math skills for this”. But hear me out.

The value of an item increases exponentially with each additional function it can perform.

This is best illustrated with some examples.

Sarong. It’s a changing room, it’s a blanket, it’s a bed sheet, it’s a privacy wall, it’s a lampshade, it’s a towel, it’s a bag, it’s a sunshade, it’s a papoose in case you decide you want to travel with a baby monkey.

He jumped right into Jane's arms, Nong Khiaw.

He jumped right into Jane’s arms, Nong Khiaw.

Plus, don’t forget, it’s a shirt or a dress. It might have only cost $5 on the beach in Portugal, but a sarong might possibly be the most valuable piece in your bag.

Neutral shoes. Jane and I have travelled most of the past three years with our Salomon XA PRO 3D GTX trail running shoes.

(Note: We’ll get paid a little something if you use any of the Amazon links in this post to buy stuff, at no cost to you. As always, we’d never recommend anything we didn’t use or want to use ourselves.)

Not only are they waterproof, comfortable, and warm (but not too hot) — they’re also vegan. They come in some seriously bright shades, but we decided to get neutral colours. We wear them cycling, hiking, walking around cities, and on the plane — and they’ve even taken us to the opera in two different countries.

Best shoes evah!

Best shoes evah!

Yes, it would be nice to bring eight pairs of shoes, one for every day of the week and another “just in case”. But again, we don’t have a personal butler, so our shoes have to work for multiple functions.

(We do actually pack two pairs of shoes each. Our Salomon’s and a pair of flip-flops or sandals, which help get us through the hot days on our travels.)

Pants for every occasion. I recently got a pair of Bluffworks travel pants, which are the most versatile pants I’ve ever tried. They have hidden pockets and stylish design for city slicking, but they are also durable and light enough to wear hiking. Plus, they are pretty much wrinkle free.

travel pants

The Bluffworks Tailored Chinos work in the city and out of it.

Jane owns a pair of black Lululemon Studio Pants that perform the same multi-function routine for her. They have lasted for more than 3 years of travel and are still her favourite pants to wear on the plane, on the bike, into town, or out for a hike.

Synthetics Save Space (and Animals)

Synthetic fabrics make great insulating layers and underwear. As vegans, we have had to learn to embrace synthetics, since most winter clothes are made with animal products. Synthetics aren’t ideal to my eco-mindset (I would rather use all-natural materials) but wool, down, and cotton don’t hold up well in wet weather, and they certainly aren’t quick drying.

So, for the sake of packing, comfort, lightness, quick-drying properties, and warmth, I choose synthetics.

I pack lululemon’s Metal Vent Tech shirts, which are quick drying t-shirts with sweat-wicking and anti-stink properties. It might sound kind of gross, but I can wear them to a craft brewery after a sweaty yoga class and they don’t stink. Since they are quick dry, I can wash them at night and have a fresh t-shirt dry and ready to wear in the morning.

Get our How to Pack Light Cheatsheet. It’s free, no sign-up required or hoops to jump through!

Laundry List

Speaking of laundry…

Let’s get this out of the way early and let’s get real: if you want to pack light, you’re going have to get used to washing your socks and underwear every other day or so. You can do it by hand in the bathroom sink, or if you’re a little more grungy, in the shower, using your feet to stomp out the dirt.

Other laundry duties include washing t-shirts every few days.

At least washing laundry provides immediate measurable results.

At least washing laundry provides immediate measurable results.

Pro travel tip: Roll your wet, clean clothes in a towel and twist the roll. Some of the water from the clothes will transfer to the towel meaning your clothes will take less time to dry.

You don’t need to wash your pants/trousers as often. They can usually wait until you have a washing machine available or you send your clothes out to a professional laundry service. I highly recommend this every once in a while — machine-cleaned clothes can be really exciting after a few weeks on the road!

Asian cities usually offer good, cheap laundry services, especially in the neighbourhoods where backpackers stay. If in doubt, ask at your hostel/guest house/hotel. In Europe and North America, the most budget-friendly way to get clean clothes is at a laundromat. Plus, you get the added bonus of having an “authentic” local experience. Hooray. If you Airbnb it, access to a washing machine is often a juicy part of the deal.

You Beauty!

When we stay in hostels with shared bathrooms, we get to see what toiletries other people pack. Jane often reports back to me about the mini-suitcase many women carry filled with make-up brushes, blow dryers, full-size shampoo bottles, a selection of moisturizers and god knows what else. These women tend to spend an hour or so each morning beautifying in the bathroom mirror.

Guys are less likely to fall victim to this packing faux pas, but I have to admit, my shaving kit is a major focus of downsizing for this trip. I’m getting rid of a bunch of random stuff that has collected in the bottom of my very large shaving bag over the last few years. As I said, stuff expands to fit the space available.

Jane has promised to buy me this sweet Eagle Creek Pack-It toiletry bag for Christmas.

toiletry kit pack light

My dream toiletry kit.

I’ll let Jane throw down some travel beauty advice for girls.

Hey ladies, I know you want to look good on your travels, but here’s the real deal.

You do not need to keep the same beauty routine on your trip as you do at home.

You’re not heading into work every day and being judged by your coworkers, you do not need to cover the bags under your eyes from too many late nights followed by too many early mornings, you do not need to slap a cake of make-up on to hide your wrinkles.

So cut your make-up back. Waaaay back. A complicated make-up routine will weigh you down and hold you back. Then, figure out a hairstyle that will not require a blow dryer and a curling/straightening iron.

Trust me. When the riches of Vienna or Hong Kong are calling to you from your hotel window, you will not want to spend an hour getting beautified.

Get over yourself and go outside and live your life instead!

Pro travel tip for girls: You can buy your favourite brand of feminine products almost everywhere in the world, so don’t pack more than a month’s supply. Better yet, invest in re-useable items like the ultra-compact Diva Cup and a set of re-useable pads like these amazing FemmeCloths from Etsy.

Pro travel tip: Instead of shampoo and conditioner, just bring a bar of natural soap that can be used for all purposes. Store it in a mini Tupperware with a no-leak clickable lid — you can probably find a suitable-sized one at the dollar store.

Electronic Disco

If you’re hitting a lot of countries on one trip, pack a small outlet extender that includes at least one USB slot and switches to multiple plug ends (UK, US, & EU will cover MOST of the world).

I like the looks of the Twist from Oneadaptr. It’s a multi-country adapter that also holds an Apple computer and 4 USBs. With one of these, I could cut down on several plugs and cables (and what feels like about 2 kilos of weight!).

What If!?!

Always think in terms of what you can do without — not what will be handy on your trip.

If you think you might use it, don’t bring it.

When in doubt, leave it out.

Watch out for the what if game.

“What if I go to a fancy party?”

“What if I decide to take up hiking?”

“What if I need to build a shelter in the wilderness like Bear Grylls?”

pack light

Chances are you won’t need to build a shelter on your trip.

When it comes to packing light, if it’s a “What if?” it’s a “No”.

Note: If you are doing a backcountry wilderness trip, obviously you will want to pack all the necessary safety gear!

Pack It Up, Pack It In

Finally, it’s time to pack.

One of the “extras” I can’t do without is packing cubes.

packing cubes pack light

Packing cubes make it easier to keep organized.

They compress my clothes and let me fit a little more into my suitcase. But most importantly, packing cubes help me keep my suitcase organized so it never becomes one big rat’s nest of clothes. To unpack at any stop on my trip, I just take the cubes out of the suitcase.

If I stay somewhere for more than a few nights, I might unpack my cubes completely — when it is time to pack up again, the cubes make re-packing easier. I have one cube for t-shirts, one for shorts and trousers, one for underwear etc… so it’s super simple to reorganize, pack, and be waiting for my Uber driver to arrive with time to spare.

Jane and I both use the Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter cubes. They are lightweight nylon that weighs almost nothing on its own, but they are also sturdy and come with a lifetime guarantee. We are just retiring some old Eagle Creek cubes we have been using for more than 20 years — they are tough!

Pro travel tip: Roll your clothes instead of folding them (and then put them in packing cubes). This minimizes wrinkles and maximizes space. Bulkier items (which you shouldn’t bring in the first place) don’t do well with rolling and are generally better folded flat.

You’ve Got to Carry That Weight

When you’re packing, put heavier items at the bottom of your suitcase. If you’ve got a wheelie suitcase, the heavy stuff goes at the end where the wheels are; it’s easier to roll a bag along airport hallways and bumpy sidewalks with the weight down low.

how to pack light

This is what I’m taking for 3—12 months on the road.

Always check the airline’s carry-on restrictions and make sure your carry-on is underweight — unless you want to take the chance of paying crazy fees at the check-in desk.

If you carry a daypack (or a purse or any “personal item”) onboard as well, it’s rare for it to be weighed. If your carry-on is close to the weight restriction limit, carry any of heavier items in your daypack.

Some airlines still allow free checked baggage, and I check my bag whenever possible. Just because I know how to pack light doesn’t mean I want to carry that weight if I don’t have to.

Pro travel tip: Never leave your laptop or anything of value in your suitcase when you check it. Locked or not, computers, cameras, and other valuable items can be damaged or stolen while in transit.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

When you’ve been out on the road for a while with your light suitcase, it’s time to re-assess your packing choices.

First of all, look in the mirror and tell yourself…

“Hell yeah. Well done!”

Ok, now come back to reality. We still have work to do.

It’s time to check in.

Not with another airline, but with yourself. What have you accumulated? I don’t mean emotionally or spiritually. What has been added to your slowly expanding, and harder to carry, carry-on?

Remember that every little bit of space helps. Small items you pick up on the road add weight, fill space, and turn your carry-on into a drag-on. Every week or so take a quick inventory of the extras that have found their way into your bag. You’ll be amazed at what you find.

Pack Rat

It is almost time for me to pack. I think this is going to be my best Light Pack ever and I have to say I am excited about having less stuff with me than I carted around earlier this year. As much as I’d love a different shirt to wear every day, I’d much rather have less to carry each week as I move from country to country.

How is packing going for you? If you have questions or ideas about what to bring and what not to bring, please post them below. We’d love to hear your tips for how to pack light!

Don’t forget your How to Pack Light Cheatsheet. It’s free, no sign-up required or hoops to jump through!

  Happy adventures, Stephen & Jane

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