The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light

Packing Light

Traveling with a carry-on only is the smartest way to travel. Packing less while traveling gives you the ability to experience more. Instead of spending time waiting at the baggage carousel or standing in the baggage check line, you could already be swimming in turquoise waters or having that last sip of local wine. Spend more time at your destination than you do at the airport.

You can also save money on some airlines by not by not having to pay the fees for check-in luggage. Most importantly, by traveling with only a carry-on, you avoid every traveler’s worst nightmare: lost luggage. It’s happened to us; it’s happened to people we’ve traveled with; it can happen to you. Who wants to spend their precious time at a new destination trying to communicate with airline customer service and wandering about trying to find clothes for the next few days? Lost luggage is the top reason why we avoid checking in luggage like the plague.  (Pro tip: If an airline does lose your luggage, check the benefits from the credit card you used to purchase the flight with.  Many travel cards offer insurance for lost luggage.)

The freedom to move about is another huge benefit of packing less. Dragging a heavy rolling suitcase (or two!) over cobblestone is quite literally a drag and it’s also the best way to call attention to yourself as a tourist (again, trust me on this one. Cobblestone streets and suitcase wheels should never meet). Hopping on and off trains, metros, tuk-tuks, buses, and colectivos with tons of bags isn’t practical.

So, have we convinced you to switch over to a carry-on sized bag? Or better yet, a carry-on sized backpack? Or, at the very least, a convertible rolling suitcase with backpack straps, like the eBags TLS Mother Lode Rolling Weekender? Without a doubt, the ability to carry all of your belongings on your back gives you the most freedom to explore your new destination.

If the idea of traveling leaving behind the security of your huge rolling suitcase terrifies you, don’t freak out! We are going to walk you through everything you need to know to make a smooth transition and free you from your baggage.  We’re talking luggage here, not emotional. I’ll leave that one up to your therapist.

The Carry-On Bag

Start with a backpack that fits in the overhead compartment. The maximum carry-on dimensions for most airlines are 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches (22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm). It’s ideal to limit the weight to 20 pounds (about 9 kilos) since some airlines have weight restrictions even for carry-on. But always check your airline’s limits before you fly because they could differ.

Make sure you find a carry-on bag that is around 40L and fits your body-size and travel-style.  For backpacks, check for a sturdy back and adjustable waist and chest straps. You may hate the look of the straps, but you will love them once you realize how useful they are for distributing the weight to your hips and sparing your shoulders. We use the following carry-on sized backpacks: Osprey Porter 46 L (Michael) and Osprey Fairview 40 L (Kristina). 

To avoid pickpockets, choose a bag with minimal external pockets that can be easily accessed and zippers that can be locked together.

In addition to the carry-on bag, you’re probably going to need a smaller bag for daily use on your trip. You will use this bag to carry your phone, camera, map, sweater, hat, etc. when exploring the location you’re visiting. It’s usually called a day pack and can take the form of a lightweight, packable backpack, tote, fanny pack or a purse. It doesn’t matter what you choose as long as it (and everything inside of it) can be stored completely inside your carry-on. It’s much easier to keep track of just one bag when traveling.

Once you have your new backpack, A.K.A your new travel BFF, you’re ready to start figuring out how much how little to put inside.

Limit yourself to taking only what fits inside your bag. Essentials only! The secret to making this work is to wear bulky clothing, like jackets and boots, on your flight. Remember, we said “essentials only.” So, unless you’re willing to wear your clunky hairdryer as your on-flight necklace, you’re probably not taking it on your trip.

What to Pack

Now, let’s talk about what to pack. We’ll share our best advice and tips for traveling with a carry-on bag and go step-by-step through the minimal essentials. 

Passport, Boarding Pass, and Money

Let’s start with the most important. You’re not getting anywhere without proper identification, some money, and your ticket outta here.

Make sure to store a photo of your passport somewhere online and make a physical copy. This will be extremely helpful if you lose your passport.  You can leave your passport in a secure area while you adventure during the day, and keep the copy on your person.  You might also need a valid visa for the country you’re traveling to. U.S. citizens can check visa requirements State Department’s website. Always bring along your driver’s license because you never know when you’ll want to rent a moped or car.

Unless your airline has an app that allows digital boarding passes, a printed copy of your boarding pass will be required. Otherwise, you will have to stand in line at a counter or kiosk to print it out. Watch out, because some airlines charge extra for this service.

You’ll want to pack some cash in both local and foreign currency. The best (and cheapest) place to exchange foreign currency is usually your bank. You’ll want to bring to bring at least two cards (one credit and one debit). Use one as a backup in case the other gets stolen and your account gets frozen.  Check out our page on Travel Savings and Budgeting for more financial tips.

Clothing

Here’s the big secret for traveling with less clothing. Regardless of the length of your trip, always pack enough clothes for 7 days max. Even if you are backpacking through Latin America for 6 months, you should only take 1 week’s worth (or less) of clothing.

Why 7 days? Because you really don’t need more than that. What happens when your first week of travel has passed and your clothes is dirty? Wash it! Yes, you can wash clothes while traveling.

It’s not as big of an inconvenience as it sounds and definitely not as big of an inconvenience as traveling with 2 suitcases full enough outfits for a month. Get in the habit of hand washing clothes in the sink and dry them overnight. If you traveling to a country where laundering services are extremely common and affordable (around 20 MXN pesos per kilo or $1 USD per 2.2 pounds), you can just drop off your dirty clothes in the morning, set out on a day adventure and come back to clean, folded clothes.

When choosing clothes, focus on fabric-type and “layerability”. First off, make sure the type of fabric matches the climate you are traveling. Warm fabrics (fleece, flannel, wool) for cold weather, and cool fabrics (linen, cotton, breathable blends) for hot weather. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget when packing. Stick to quick-drying fabrics for humid climates and avoid cotton.

Next, pack versatile, layering pieces in a neutral or similar color palette. Pack some items that can be dressed up or down. This is key to making your 7 days worth of clothing extend the length of your trip. Layout all of your outfits and make sure that every item can be used multiple times and that the colors coordinate. For example, a great versatile piece for men is a pair of shorts that double as boardshorts, like these O’Neill Men’s Loaded Hybrid Boardshort. A sarong is a must-have versatile item for women. It can be used as a scarf, blanket, dress, beach towel, etc.

Here’s a quick list of essential clothing to get you started:

  • 1 jacket
  • 3 shirts
  • 3 socks
  • 3-5 underwear
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 2 pants
  • 1 shorts (or skirt)
  • 2 shoes

Of course, this list needs to be adjusted based on your destination’s climate and the activities you plan to do there.

Toiletries

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), carry-on liquids must be in containers that are 3.4 oz (100 ml) or less in ONE quart-sized bag. This includes liquid, aerosol, gel, cream or paste: toothpaste, body lotion, hairspray. The best way around this is to opt for solids (bar soaps, shampoo bars, sunblock sticks, solid deodorants, etc) or buy your liquid toiletries (like toothpaste) upon arrival. Make sure to store any liquids in a leak-proof bag!

Electronics and Other Items

If you want to be super minimalist and want to bring just one electronic device, make it a smartphone. A smartphone is, without a doubt, the most useful and versatile item for any modern traveler. Access to a phone, alarm, camera, map, translator, guidebook, weather, music, notes, and countless more, all in one. An unlocked phone will allow you to purchase a SIM card in the country you’re visiting and save on international calls and roaming charges. You can also use it to play soothing nature sounds to fall asleep to on the plane (bring your earbuds), read a book, or play a game.

Another pretty obvious, but easy to forget item is a pen. Especially handy for filling out the customs form on the plane.

Other items that you might want to bring along are (All of the links below are for items that we actually use and love!):

Check out our page on Travel Electronics for more details on electronics.

How to Fit Everything in One Carry-on Bag

And now, the fun part! Getting everything to fit inside your carry-on bag. There are many techniques for getting this done: stuff sacks, vacuum bags, and Ziploc bags are just a few.

We think the easiest and most practical way to make everything fit is to roll your clothes up into tubes and smush them into packing cubes. Use every inch of space wisely. For example, stuffing socks and underwear inside your shoes.  Remember to wear heavy or bulky items on the flight, including jackets, boots, and hats. If you wear it, they won’t weigh it!

2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light”

  1. I take a water bottle with filter. You can fill the water bottle with local water if you can’t buy bottled water.

    1. That is a great addition! We typically take reusable bottles and fill from purified sources (anything is better than single use plastic bottles), but having a portable purification device would be perfect. We have heard really incredible things about GRAYL ultralight water purification bottles. They don’t just filter water (which may NOT remove some harmful contaminants, especially if visiting areas with questionable water sensitization methods); GRAYL bottles actually purify it and make nearly any water source safe for consumption. Absolutely worth the price!

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