I have been traveling my whole life and over the years I have become somewhat of a packing expert. I used to be one of those girls who brought a full-size suitcase for a week at the beach. Now I can travel for six months with just a carry on! And packing light saves me so much money and energy. I no longer have to pay luggage fees when I fly and I can easily carry all my stuff without breaking my back. No more hauling huge suitcases or backpacks for this girl!
I know it sounds almost impossible. When I first started traveling, I never would have thought that I could fit everything I need in a carry on backpack. Suddenly everything seems crucial. Clothes, gadgets, toiletries, ideally you would just take your whole house with you. The things is, each time I take a trip I realize that I brought things that I didn’t use or need. So the next trip I leave those things at home. But you don’t have to go through that long elimination process to become a great packer, you can just follow this guide to packing light!
Get a good carry on backpack or suitcase
Packing light all start with the right backpack or suitcase. After all, you pack for the bag you have. The bigger your bag, the more tempted you’ll be to fill it all the way up with things you don’t need. Get yourself a good quality bag with the exact dimensions you want and stick to that. Full is full, so you’re forced to pack smarter. I love my Osprey Fairview 40L. The dimensions suit pretty much every airline carry on policy and it fits a surprising amount of stuff. It’s also really easy to organize with different compartments.
But remember that volume isn’t everything! It is mostly about how the compartments are designed. And if you want to take your luggage as a carry on, the frame cannot be higher than 55 cm. I have never had an issue taking a backpack on a flight as carry on, or even had the size/weight checked. Unlike suitcases, you can always squish them a little to fit into the overhead compartment.
I personally prefer traveling with a backpack over a suitcase, because it makes me more mobile. Especially if you’re planning to hop around Southeast Asia or Europe, I would always recommend a backpack. For a simple city trip, a suitcase might be better. The same thing goes for suitcases, instead of looking at volume, look at dimensions!
When shopping for a backpack, I always recommend going to an outdoor/travel store. The employees at these stores can advise you and help you find the exact right one for you. Since you’ll be carrying it all on your back, you need to make sure that the bag fits you perfectly so you don’t injure yourself. Try a few out before commiting to a bag. And you can always look online to see if you can get a better deal on the bag you like somewhere else.
Don’t pack too much, you need less than you think
So when I started backpacking back in 2017, I had a hard time deciding what to bring. Suddenly everything seemed essential. Until I tried stuffing it all in my backpack and lifting that sucker. Oomph, a real wake-up call. I realized that I needed to drastically change my packing style if I was going to survive lugging my backpack around for months.
So, I followed the golden rule of backpacking:
Take everything you think you’ll need and then pack only half of that
And I still brought way too much! Even with several months of traveling around Europe and Southeast Asia, there were things in my backpack that I didn’t use once. A total waste of space and energy.
With every trip since then, I take less and less. Because I’ve realized that you need a lot less stuff than you think. And it’s better to take too little than too much, because you can always buy whatever you forget. You’re not going to Mars, there will be shops selling whatever you need (except for medication etc of course).
And let’s be fair, you’ll want to do a bit of shopping. So make sure you save space for souvenirs and shopping.
Be smart about the clothing you pack
Obviously, packing light means drastically cutting down the amount of clothing you bring. Be realistic, you know you won’t be changing three times a day. I always used to pack every cute dress I owned for vacations and ended up wearing my favorite pair of shorts the whole week anyway. We all do it. And I get it, you want options, but the trick is to pack the right clothes, not more of them.
Strictly speaking, you need about 1-2 weeks worth of clothing max. This might seem like too little, but remember: you can do laundry. Whether you are packing for a week long vacation or a two-month trip, you’re clothing needs are roughly the same. Most hostels and hotels offer laundry services, there are laundromats and in Southeast Asia there were lots of people that did laundry for a small fee. I usually spend around 5 euro a week on laundry when I’m traveling, much less than I would on luggage fees.
The downside with packing fewer clothing items is that you’ll probably get bored of them after a while. The trick is to pack items that are versatile. Pieces of clothing that you can dress up or down and that work for different occasions. Like a little black dress looks great for a night out, but is also comfortable enough to go sightseeing in or as a cover up for the beach. Choose things that you can mix and match. I always make sure that every top I take goes with every bottom, so that even on laundry day, I still look cute.
And honestly, it’s kind of nice not worrying about what to wear. You just get creative and make due with whatever is clean. I also love multi-purpose items like athleisure wear. Leggings, hiking shorts and sport tops are great for working out and hiking, but can also pass for regular day wear when paired with jeans or a cute top. And accessories and jewelry can really help you style the same outfits in a totally different way, without taking up a lot of space.
So be strict about what you really need. I always only bring one of each bottom and outer piece. So one pair of jeans, one dress and one warm sweater. But two or three t-shirts and tops. Pick items that you love, that look good and are comfortable. You’re going to be wearing them a lot!
And lastly, take a few pieces of clothing that you are willing to leave behind. Frequent wearing and washing will take its toll, so some items might not be worth taking home at the end of your trip. This seems like a loss, but is actually a blessing in disguise as it frees up space for souvenirs and shopping! Because when you do get tired of your clothes (and you will), that’s a great excuse to buy something new. I usually buy a few new pieces during my trip, like a cute top or dress. I prefer to buy things I actually need so that nothing sits in my backpack taking up space. On my last trip, instead of bringing a warm sweater, I waited for it to get cold to buy one. And these items will do double duty as souvenirs because you’ll always refer to them as “that dress from Vietnam” or “that scarf from Morocco”.
Packing light for different climates is obviously a bit of a challenge, but can still be done. Layers are key, so go for pieces that provide warmth and layer well like flannel shirts and cardigans. Invest in quality items like a merino wool sweater or thermal leggings. And consider sending stuff you don’t need home or buying them during your trip.
Use lightweight and space saving gadgets to pack light
Being more picky with what you pack is one thing, but don’t forget to pack smart as well. There are lots of gadgets and tools on the market now that can help you get more out of every inch of space.
Packing cubes are honestly my favorite travel gadget ever. They have made my life a hundred times better! Packing cubes help you neatly organize your backpack so you don’t have to everything out just to find that one sock. Seriously, packing and repacking is a breeze with packing cubes. Just pack each category of items (underwear, tops, bottoms, electronics, etc.) in their own compartment so you know exactly where everything is. They also compress your clothes so you’ll be able to fit more in your bag.
I always take a foldable backpack with me as a day pack. They’re big enough to hold a bottle of water, book, snacks and whatever else you need during the day, but take up barely any space. Foldable backpacks are so useful! They’re not big and sturdy enough to take on long hiking trips, but perfect for sightseeing or shopping. I also love foldable shoppers, which can be used to hold anything but also take up very little space in your luggage. I use these for groceries, dirty laundry, as a beach/gym bag and it also means you can avoid single use plastic bags.
Smart packing solutions also extend to your toiletries. You won’t believe the look on peoples faces when I take out my tiny Osprey Washbag and start pulling out my things. It’s like Mary Poppins bag, it fits an unbelievable amount of stuff! This bag has really practical compartments for everything (make-up, medication, jewelry, etc.) and it’s really flexible yet sturdy. Whatever I have, I can always find a way to squeeze it in there. And you can hang it up, so you don’t have to put it down on any dirty sinks or bathroom floors.
The best travel gadgets are ones that are lightweight and don’t take up a lot of space. I love anything foldable, like laundry bags, rain jackets, rain covers, day packs and totes.
Ditch the toiletries in your luggage
Speaking of toiletries: try not to take your whole beauty regiment with you. Especially if you’re going backpacking somewhere warm, you probably won’t be wearing a full face of make-up anyway. It’ll be uncomfortable and sweat right off. I’ve stopped wearing make-up altogether several years ago, which obviously saves a lot of space. But you can also stick to the essentials like a light foundation, mascara and lipstick (or whatever you want).
If you’re going on a short trip, travel size is the way to go. But for longer trips, those are really useless. So unless you have a really deep connection to a specific brand, just buy full size things once you arrive. Shampoo, conditioner etc. can all be bought on arrival and you won’t have to worry about airline restrictions for liquids either.
If you’re looking to travel more eco-friendly, invest in soap and shampoo bars rather than liquids. They take up much less space, last a lot longer and are not as harmful for the environment. I also use a bamboo toothbrush and one of those handy little compact mirror brushes.
I also recommend saving taking a small travel first aid kit. You can either buy one or make your own, with the essentials like:
- blister pads
- pain killers
- diarrhea pills
- antiseptic fluid or wipes
- ORS mix
- other medication you need
Travel Savvy has a great post on why you need a travel first-aid kit and what you should put in it. I used to carry a full kit, but now just put a few of the essentials in my toiletry bag. After all, most of the time you’ll be able to find a shop or pharmacy to get whatever you need.
Wear your bulkiest clothes during transit
The ultimate travel hack to packing light is to put as little as possible in your bag. I usually wear my heaviest and bulkiest items during transit. This means my hiking boots, jeans, sweater and winter jacket are all on me when I board the plane instead of taking up precious space in my luggage.
This rule most important when flying as they are really strict about weight and size of the luggage. For buses and trains, you can hold stuff in an additional bag or have your backpack be a little heavier. So you don’t always need to wear your warmest and bulkiest clothes. And I often tie my hiking boots or jacket to the outside of my backpack. This doesn’t work in airplanes, but is fine for bus and train travel.
Most airlines, and all buses and trains, will let you take a personal item with you in addition to your big backpack. I usually go for either a small backpack or a tote bag. That’s where I put things I’ll need during transit, such as water and snacks, a book and valuable or fragile items.
This also saves space in your carry-on, but keep in mind that some budget airlines are super strict and won’t allow this.
So, these are my top tips for packing light and traveling with a carry-on. Are you a light packer or an over packer? Or do you have any additional tips to share? Let’s talk about it in the comments.
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