What is the secret to packing light?
The secret behind packing light is… bringing less stuff!
Simple, isn’t it?
Well, not really.
Because when we’re packing for a trip, be it a weekend city break or a year long round the world trip or anything in between – we will find ourselves packing all sorts of stuff that we think we might need, but actually don’t.
That’s perfectly natural.
We’re going to unfamiliar place, we don’t know exactly what we’ll find there, and we want some kind of reassurance that we’ll have everything with us.
It gives us a sense of control over an unknown situation.
I used to do that myself in my very early days as a traveller, but quickly learnt the lesson.
After a particularly uncomfortable night train from Bulgaria to Turkey, where I hardly had space for my bags in the train carriage, I realised there was no point in carrying so much stuff.
That’s when I decided to start travelling light. Before leaving the train station in Istanbul, I sat down and made a list of all the things I actually used during that trip.
I saved the list and a few months later, when I was packing for my next trip, used it as my packing list. I ended up travelling with about half the amount of stuff.
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Light travel with a carry on bag has huge benefits
In practical terms, travelling light means you travel with one carry-on bag that you can take with you on the plane, plus an optional smaller bag, like a laptop bag.
Why is it the ideal way to travel?
Travelling with hand luggage only has huge advantages. It saves you money, stress and time, and makes your life so much easier when you travel.
Low cost airlines are getting increasingly strict about what they allow you to board the plane with.
The fees they charge for checking even one piece of luggage can sometimes be outrageous.
By travelling light, you avoid baggage fees when you fly low cost, so that your flight can be really cheap.
When you don’t check luggage, there’s no need to worry about your bag being lost, damaged, stolen or even just not arriving on the same flight as you.
It gives you some peace of mind on the flight. The same applied to trains and buses, where you always want to keep your bag with you.
When you get off the plane, you’re free to exit the airport fairly quickly, while you watch your fellow passengers wasting their precious vacation time waiting by the luggage carousel.
And finally, moving around is so much easier when you don’t carry heavy luggage.
Imagine walking to a train station or a bus stop, or searching for your hotel on the streets of a foreign city, with a heavy suitcase. It’s not appealing. You want the flexibility and freedom of light packing.
So now that we know why we want to travel light, how do we do that?
The life changing magic of packing light
In her best-selling, cult-creating book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, Marie Condo teaches a simple decluttering technique:
Lay all your stuff on the floor, pick each item and ask yourself “if it sparks joy within you”.
You can use a similar method when packing.
This is especially useful if your reason for overpacking is that you’re too attached to your things.
Instead of asking if the item sparks joy, ask: Do I really need this, or am I packing it “just in case”?
Pack only what you really need. What you will definitely use.
Remember you can always buy or hire other things later, so “just in case” is not an excuse for overpacking.
The rest of this guide has more hacks, tips and tricks to help you travel light.
I’ve divided it into four sections: Your bag, clothing, toiletries and gadgets.
Travel light: Buy a smaller bag
The first trick you need to know if you want to travel light is: buy a smaller bag. In other words, make it impossible for yourself to overpack.
With a smaller bag you will have to make those decisions as to what you really need to take and what you can leave behind or buy at your destination.
With a larger bag, you’ll most likely be tempted to take all sorts of things you don’t really need, just because there’s space for them.
How small should your bag be?
I recommend a 40 litre backpack as your carry on bag for the plane.
It’s usually a good size for a carry on bag, that most airlines will let you board with.
I’ve been travelling with a 40L backpack plus a laptop bag for about 7 years now and it’s been easy and convenient.
It’s the ideal size if you want to travel light, and at the same time have enough space for your stuff.
It doesn’t matter if you’re going on vacation for a week or on a 6 month trip… as long as you can do your laundry once a week, why would it matter?
Buy a backpack instead of a suitcase
I also recommend you buy a backpack instead of a trolley suitcase. It just gives you much more flexibility.
Going up or down stairs at train stations, for example, is not an easy task when you carry a suitcase with you (and you’d be surprised how many stations don’t have elevators or escalators…).
Walking on cobblestone streets or dirt roads with wheeled luggage is not a pleasant experience either.
With a backpack on your back, it’s much easier to use stairs, you can walk faster (or even run, say if you’re about to miss a bus… ) and both your hands are free.
Having both your hands free is so useful when you need to check maps on your phone for example, or have your take-away coffee on the go.
Of course, in some cases, a trolley suitcase is perfectly fine. For example, on a short vacation where you’re getting a taxi from the airport and staying at a resort without moving around at all.
When you choose a backpack, pay attention to a few things that will make you travels easier:
The backpack should be a panel loading or front loading bag, meaning you can open it like a suitcase (as opposed to top-loading backpacks).
It has to have a good, padded waist strap. The weight should be distributed in a way that will prevent back and shoulder pains.
Your backpack should be lightweight, not just because it’s easier to carry, but also because airlines have weight limits on luggage.
And it should have pockets. Lots of pocket. An ever so helpful feature that will help you organise your things easily.
Recommended carry on backpacks
The Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack is regarded as one of the best in its category.
It’s well padded, with front loading, a dedicated laptop compartment and lockable zippers.
Another great backpack that ticks all the boxes is the Eagle Creek Global Companion 40L Backpack.
It has lots of pockets and compartments, front loading, a rain cover, lockable zippers, a laptop sleeve and padded ergonomic straps.
Nomatic 40L Travel Bag is one of the most sophisticated travel bags around.
As you might expect from a bag resulting from a Kickstarter campaign, this is a pretty clever bag with lots of special features.
It’s water resistant, has compartments for shoes, cords and power banks, and RFID safe pocket, a quick access pocket (for train tickets for example), laptop and tablet compartments and so much more. It can even be used as a duffel bag. Check out the video here to see all the features.
Clothing – Tips and tricks for packing light
Clothes normally take up the most space in your luggage. Let’s see what we can do about that…
Wear heavy layers on the plane
Heavy layers might not fit in your backpack when you travel light.
Don’t expect them to – a basic trick of travelling light is wearing some of your luggage on you.
Whatever you wear doesn’t count as part of your carry on luggage. Use that 😉
When you board the plane, you can wear any jackets, or tie them around your waist.
If you’re bringing heavy shoes, like hiking boots, wear them on the plane and pack your lighter shoes.
Hats and scarves can also come on board with you. None of these need take up any space in your luggage.
This trick isn’t useful only for saving space in your bag – it’s also a lifesaver when it suddenly gets freezing cold on the flight.
You can put many things in your pockets when you go on the plane.
Anything small that fits and that you might need during the flight should go in your pockets, such as your phone and earphones for example.
SCOTTeVEST have taken the idea of pockets to a magnificent extreme with jackets and vests that look completely ordinary, until you realise they have about 20 hidden pockets in them!
Rolling instead of folding
This is probably the most basic tip for travelling light: When you roll your shirts, they magically take up less space and as an added advantage, crease less.
Packing cubes and compression bags
You can save more space in your bag and at the same time make sure your clothes are well organised by using packing cubes and compression bags.
Sometimes called packing squares or packing pouches, you want to use packing cubes in different sizes to organise your clothes: One cube for t-shirts, another for socks and so on. Remember to roll rather than fold them.
Packing cubes normally come in sets of 3-6 pieces and in different sizes and colours.
I recommend you use medium sized packing cubes for your shirts and trousers, and small ones for socks and underwear.
Compression bags or compression sacs will help you organise your clothes, but also minimise the space they take, by sealing them in the bag after squeezing all the air out.
When compressed, your clothes will take up much less space. This is especially useful for any bulky garments you pack.
Eagle Creek make popular clear compression bags, so you can see what’s inside.
Are packing cubes and compression bags worth buying?
If you’re struggling with overpacking and want to avoid it, or if you need to take some bulky winter clothes, then compression bags will definitely help you make the most of the space available in your bag.
If your main issue is staying organised, go for packing cubes.
You can also use either of them to separate your laundry from the rest of your clothes.
Buy quick dry clothes
A lot of smart technology is invested in making travel clothing more efficient. Make sure you use it to your advantage.
Quick dry, moisture-wicking t-shirts
These tees are popular for workout, and are invaluable for travel.
When you select your travel clothes, quick dry garments are always the best choice. Cotton t-shirts are not.
As you’re not taking too many clothes with you when you travel light, you want your laundry to dry fast.
Quick dry fabrics are extra useful in hot, humid places, as they don’t absorb the sweat and keep you dry for longer.
They are often more expensive than normal t-shirts, but you need fewer of them and it’s basically a long term investment.
Travel with jackets are perfect for keeping warm in colder climates or at night and at the same time lightweight and dry quickly.
There are heavy fleece jackets too, in case you need them for intense outdoor activities and colder weather.
L. L. Bean have a pretty stylish selection of fleece jackets for women, men and children that come in different levels of warmth.
No need to pack your fleece jacket in your backpack though – it will take up too much space. Wear it on the plane or tie it around your waist.
Quick dry trousers
Jeans are not quick to dry and can also be quite bulky, so they are not a good choice if you want to travel light.
They are made of the right quick dry materials . They will also typically be breathable and lightweight.
Quick dry underwear
You want your underwear to dry quickly as well as be odour resistant.
ExOfficio are probably the most famous brand known for making some excellent travel underwear for both women and men.
They dry quickly and smell less, so you can take fewer pairs with you when you travel light.
This packing tip is simple and will help you avoid a basic packing mistake.
Make sure whatever you pack can be colour-coordinated.
In other words, avoid packing anything that isn’t compatible with any outfit you may wear on your trip.
You don’t want to waste space packing garments that you’ll only end up using once or twice.
By colour coordinating, you can easily mix-and-match them to create many different outfits without packing a lot of clothes.
Another simple but clever packing tip when it comes to clothing is to use layering.
Check the weather forecast before you travel. If you’re going to a hot and sunny place, then don’t worry about layering obviously.
However, some places may be sunny in the morning and cold in the evening, or different parts of the country may have completely different climates.
Also, in colder countries, whenever you go on a train or enter a heated up space, like a shop, you’ll immediately feel the need to take some layers off.
That’s where layering gives you great flexibility when you travel, without having to carry any unnecessary items of clothing.
On a sunny day, you can walk around in a t-shirt, but when it gets cooler after dark, that same t-shirt becomes a base layer.
You want to pick only garments you can layer easily, so ideally they would be of similar thickness, though some can be of warmer fabrics.
A fleece jacket is super handy for layering when you travel, because it’s warm but also lightweight and can fold easily (plus it dries quickly as we mentioned already).
When it’s cold I would prefer layering two fleece jackets to wearing one big coat.
If I were to take off that one big coat, I’d have to carry it around with me, while the thinner jackets can fold easily into my day bag, or I can tie them around my waist.
What to do about shoes if you want to travel light
Shoes are a huge problem if you want to pack light. They’re just too bulky.
Flip flops are an exception – they are super useful and don’t take up too much room.
You can wear them for the beach, when you take a shower and as part of a summer outfit too.
I mentioned before that your clothes should be colour-coordinated. The same applies to shoes, so dark shoes are often a safe bet.
Also remember that you can buy shoes at your destination, so sometimes it isn’t necessary to pack extra shoes at all.
When you pack your clothing, pack for a week, no matter how long your trip is.
This classic trick is one that’s used by many savvy travellers and all it requires is that you have access to a washing machine once week.
This way you can travel forever with a small backpack.
It’s so much easier to find a washing machine along the way than to needlessly carry heavy luggage with you everywhere you go.
Find a laundromat, use the washing machine at your vacation rental or even use your hotel’s laundry service.
If you really can’t find a washing machine, there’s always the sink.
Quick dry clothes are ever so useful and you’ll be glad you bought them when you do your laundry once a week.
You can buy laundry detergent in small, travel size packets. I suggest you buy these at your destination, rather than carry them with you on the plane.
Don’t forget to bring a small laundry bag to keep clean and dirty clothes separate inside your backpack.
Toiletries – Pack less and pack solid
When it comes to packing toiletries I would advise you to first, take less than you think you need, and second, opt for solid versions.
Pack less toiletries – you can buy them later
Toiletries take up a lot of room in your bag, but they don’t have to.
If you are going to stay at a hotel, it’s likely that you’ll be provided with shampoo and body wash, so there’s no need to bring those at all.
Vacation rentals often supply these essentials too. For example, on Airbnb every listing should include info on whether they provide shampoo and soap, or you can message the host to ask.
If you wear makeup, be sure to take only what you will definitely use, not stuff that you might want to use, and definitely not anything that you might only use once.
Always remember that anything you don’t bring with you, you can buy at your destination (unless you’re travelling to the middle of nowhere).
Shampoo, body lotion, shower gel, sunblock, toothpaste, deodorant – these are things you can buy cheaply anywhere you go.
When you travel with carry on luggage, liquids and creams you take with you on board the plane cannot exceed 100ml (or 3.38 oz). This isn’t a universal rule, but it applies in many countries.
I recommend you bring small, travel size bottles of essential toiletries, or compact solid versions (more about that below) for the first couple of days, and then buy the rest later.
Get a simple folding travel toothbrush to save even more space and keep it hygienic.
If you’re used to an electric toothbrush, it will take up too much space in your luggage, so consider replacing it with its slim travel version.
Get solid toiletries to avoid flying with liquids
Whenever you can, I recommend you replace liquids with their solid versions.
This will make it easier for you to pack despite the ban on flying with liquids and creams exceeding 100ml .
Liquids might also spill inside you bag and can cause damage or just be a hassle to clean up.
Soap is easy – no need to carry shower gel when you can bring a bar of soap.
Even if you’re used to showering with shower gel at home, make an exception for your trip and it will make your packing easier and lighter.
Somehow it wasn’t until last year that I first heard of solid shampoo bars.
I started travelling with a one and I’m really happy with it! Wish I’d thought about it earlier…
The shampoo bar I use is Auromere Shampoo Bar with Organic Neem Tulsi-Spice for all types of hair, which I ordered form Vitacost in time for my last trip.
How does a shampoo bar work? It looks just like a bar of soap and it lathers up when you rub it in your hands in the shower, and then you can wash your hair with it.
Shampoo bars save space in your luggage and they last for a long time.
An added advantage is that you can use a shampoo bar as body soap too. This is useful if you want to go for minimalist packing.
There is also a solid version of deodorant, such as the one by Ethique. I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but the reviews look promising.
Gadgets – Travel light more efficiently
Gadgets can also take up too much space in your luggage. Let’s look at ways to pack more efficiently.
You’ll probably need a travel adaptor and it’s best to buy a universal one that you can use in most countries with various sockets.
It should also convert electrical currencies where needed.
This way you don’t need to carry several adaptors if you’re going to multiple destinations around the world.
To save more space, instead of taking a phone charger, get a universal adaptor with USB ports. It will let you charge your phone, tablet and power bank. You only need to bring the USB cords.
To travel light, make the most out of your phone.
It can replace quite a lot of things that there’s no need to carry anymore: books (both recreational reading and guidebooks), a camera, maps, a flashlight, a notebook, magazines… And obviously you can use it to listen to music and watch movies.
My tip about guidebooks is that you don’t need to carry heavy books with you! Lonely Planet guides have ebook versions 🙂
This will save you a lot of space and weight when you’re packing.
If you really dislike reading on your phone or tablet, get a Kindle Paperwhite.
When you pack headphones or earphones, make sure they are both compact and noise cancelling or noise reducing (useful for noisy flights or trains).
I personally use (and enjoy) Creative’s Outlier Bluetooth earphones. They have a great sound quality, take up very little space and are good for noise reduction.
A portable power bank is essential if you’re out and about all day and your phone runs out of battery.
If it runs out just when you need to check Google Maps to see which bus to take, or to check addresses, reviews, opening times or anything else – you’ll be so grateful you packed a backup battery.
Portable chargers are also useful for flights, so you can watch movies on your phone without worrying about the battery running out.
These chargers come in different capacities measured in milliamperes (mAh). The higher the mAh number, the more power the charger has.
I normally carry two, just for peace of mind, and charge them overnight.
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Hope you find these tips helpful when you pack for your next trip!
Do share this article with any of your friends who might need packing advice.
If you have more tips on packing light, do share them in the comments.
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