I’m not gonna lie, for most of my life I was a serious over-packer. But let me tell you– after dragging a stuffed wheelie suitcase along cobblestone streets in Florence while walking over a mile to and from the train station, not to mention lugging it up and down four flights of stairs in a historic Rome hotel with no elevator, all I could say is: Never Again! That was four years ago and I’ve since learned to appreciate the art of minimalist packing. Now my typical travel bag is a 29L or 40L backpack, depending on the needs/length of the trip, and a small crossbody purse. I travel with an Osprey Celeste 29 bag for shorter trips and warm weather, and the REI Co-Op Trail 40 pack (pictured above) for long-term travel, cold/variable weather, or if I need any extra specialty gear. My shoulder bag is a Vera Bradley Mailbag in basic black which I use for stashing in-flight entertainment, snacks, etc. under the seat and for walking around town once I’ve arrived at my destination (unfortunately this exact design is no longer available, but you might be able to find one on Ebay or Amazon, and really any good quality crossbody bag will work well for most travel). If I’m going to be hiking or plan to do more adventurous activities, I also pack a basic drawstring backpack that folds up nice and small when I don’t need it, but can hold a large water bottle, protein bar, light rain jacket, etc when I do. This combination has gotten me through countless long weekend trips around the United States, a week in Iceland, and is about to sustain me for four months in Africa in comfort and style. I can attest from extensive personal experience that the benefits of packing light are countless and include:
- being able to fly carry-on so that you’re not stuck waiting at a baggage carousel instead of enjoying your trip
- saving money on checked baggage fees
- never having to worry about lost luggage
- having less stuff to worry about losing/leaving behind in a hotel room on your trip
- being able to climb stairs, walk (whether on cobblestones or not), and take public transportation comfortably
So now that you’re convinced of the wonders of minimalist travel, how do you get from over-packer extraordinaire to small and travel savvy? I’ve seen a lot of posts out there on this topic with titles like “How to Pack for X Number of Days in a Carry-On” and one of the biggest problems I see consistently is that they’re all still about trying to fit as much as possible into a bag that just barely meets the carry-on requirements. But in order to do so they have to rely on “hacks”. The thing is, if you pack light to begin with, you don’t need all those ridiculous packing hacks. Sorry, not sorry but I don’t want to scrape itty bitty globs of moisturizer out of a contact lens case so that I can fit 12+ tops in my bag. Especially when I’ll only end up wearing half of them on my trip. Packing a lot of stuff in a small bag still means you have to carry the weight (and possibly have to pay $$$ for it depending on the airline’s carry-on policy), while transferring your beauty products into tiny containers, stuffing charging cords into a glasses case, and all the other “hacks” out there just take up more time and energy in the long run (and money if you have to go out and buy things like contact/glasses cases in order to do a hack). The truth is there’s no magical way to bring a massive wardrobe, a full arsenal of products, and multiple forms of entertainment on your trip AND pack small, transport it comfortably, and save time and money. That doesn’t mean you can’t pack what you need and want to travel well in a carry-on size bag. The benefits of packing light far outweigh the items you’ll leave behind! (And the secret to minimalist packing is: once you’re on your trip you won’t even miss them.) So here’s how it’s done…
Step 1: Plan Ahead
Make a list. Put it away and come back to it a few times so you have an opportunity to consider your options and make adjustments. When you pack last minute I can guarantee you that you’ll overpack. In that state of panic you’re not prepared to think clearly about what you’ll need and want so are far more likely to pack extra stuff *just in case*. You’re not going to the moon–if you end up needing something and didn’t bring it, you can more than likely get it where you’re going. The only things you absolutely need to travel are money, your means of transportation i.e. car keys or boarding pass, and your passport or driver’s license. Everything else is a bonus.
Step 2: Be Brutally Honest with Yourself
On that note: be honest with yourself about what you’re really going to wear/use/etc on your trip. I once packed 11 outfits and 4 pairs of shoes for a 10 day trip but ended up wearing 6 and 2 of them respectively. Keep in mind that you can (and likely will) re-wear clothes multiple times before washing them. (Except underwear–please bring enough underwear for each day or prepare to wash it… The rest of us thank you in advance!)
If your clothing doesn’t fit the weather, your activities, or you, odds are you won’t wear it and it’ll be taking up a whole lot of wasted space in your bag. You have to love the clothing you pack and feel comfortable in it because you’ll likely be doing a lot of walking or other activities, and taking a lot of pictures in it.
If you’re not going to be working while on the road you don’t need your laptop. Bring a tablet for entertainment or just stick with your phone. Most of them are big enough these days to surf the web, stream netflix, and update social media without sacrificing much in screen size and usability.
Step 3: Pack Items That are Versatile and Can Pull Double Duty
Make sure that every top you pack goes with most of your bottoms and vice versa. Same with shoes. You can get 8 unique outfits out of 4 shirts and 2 pairs of pants/skirts/shorts/etc. When I travel I try to stick to a similar palette for most of my tops and keep my pants neutral so they can go with any of them. My bra can easily switch from racerback to standard straps so I don’t have to pack two separate styles. A light waterproof sandal with some arch support can go from the beach, to walking around town, to keeping your feet fungus-free in hostel showers.
If you’re going to be traveling in cold or variable weather, don’t, I reapeat Do Not pack that chunky winter coat. Light layers are your friend. A basic top with a sweater and a light rain or soft shell jacket can get you through the coldest weather while packing smaller and maintaining the functionality of the individual items should you come across warmer, dryer weather.
When it comes down to it, minimalist travel is only as difficult as you make it. If you take the time to think about what you truly want and need while traveling, and select items that can function in more than one travel scenario you’ll be packing lighter in no time. And I guarantee you that once you start you’ll never go back to those overstuffed bags!
To get an idea of what I pack in 40L or less check out my packing list for Africa here.