When I was a kid, I was notorious in my family for never ever packing light.
I remember going to Florida to visit my grandparents when I was in middle school. My bag was so big I could have curled up and slept in it, and I’d filled it with a hair dryer, straightener, 5 pairs of shoes, a bazillion different outfits, 3 Harry Potter books, and I still had to sneak things into my sister’s suitcase.
Nowadays, I think some people I’ve traveled with think my bag is like the TARDIS. Or Mary Poppin’s carpet bag. But I promise you, it’s not.
When I travel now, most of the time people look at my suitcase or backpack and go “Okay, and where’s your checked bag?” or “Wait, is that all you brought?? Seriously??”
When you’ve traveled as much as I have, the checked bag fee seems like an outrageous scam. Also, I got tired of schlepping around luggage bigger than I am and rolling heavy wheely suitcases down cobblestone streets.
So I try to always live on just a carry-on when I’m on the road. To do that, I had to master the art of packing light.
Want to learn how I went on a 5 week trip with nothing but a carry on and a personal bag? Keep reading, grasshopper, and I will teach you my secrets…
Bonus: Because I’ve written this in a way that can apply to any type of trip, whether it’s city hopping, staying stationary for a while, or roughing it with a tent, you can use these packing strategies and mindsets every single time you pack.
Let’s look at how much stuff you think you need
Make a list of the gear/equipment/clothes/stuff you think need for your trip. Better yet, if you can, gather it all together and lay it all out.
Got all your stuff laid out in one place? Great!
Imagine carrying all of that stuff on your back. Yes. All of it. On. Your. Back.
Because that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Now if you’re backpacking, you were expecting that, but maybe you weren’t expecting it to total 34 pounds. It may feel fine here in your living room when you test your bag. But after schlepping it around airports and hotels and then up a mountain, it’s gonna feel pretty damn heavy. Your back will not thank you.
Ditto all of that if you’re city hopping.
“But Claire, I’ve got this great roll-y suitcase that fits everything perfectly and it’s got wheels. No one carries their luggage anymore! It’s the 21st century!”
Really? What if a wheel breaks? (Been there). What about cobblestone streets? (Done that). What if you’re running late for your flight in a full out sprint across a huge crowded airport trying to weave that thing between people at top speed? (Got the t-shirt).
Trust me. Wheely suitcases don’t solve your travel problems or save your back. Packing light does.
But don’t worry, by the time I’m done with you, you’ll be a ninja at slicing your suitcase weight in half and only taking what you really need.
Minimalism 101: Learn to Need Less
According to minimalist blogger (and frequent long-term traveler) Colin Wright:
“What Minimalism is really all about is reassessment of your priorities so that you can strip away the excess stuff — the possessions and ideas and relationships and activities — that don’t bring value to your life.”
Let’s apply that idea to travel and packing light. When I say “minimalism”, you might be thinking I mean you should sell all your stuff and live the life of a hermit in a cave. If that’s your jam, great! You do you.
What I’m actually suggesting is that you learn to need less.
When I took that trip to my grandparents’ house in Florida all those years ago, did I need to pack all that stuff? My hair dryer, for example? I used it, sure, but my grandparents had hair dryers at their house, or I could have used one of my cousin’s. Five pairs of shoes? Definitely not. I probably only wore my flip flops the whole time. Three Harry Potter books? Okay, this one is a bit of a trick question, because HP is life, and I didn’t have a Kindle at the time. But I probably could have survived with just one book instead of three.
See what I’m getting at? I packed a lot that I ultimately didn’t need.
When you’re packing for a trip, you have to reduce the physical items in your life down to absolute needs.
One pleasant side-effect I noticed when packing extremely light for my trips is that I’m more focused on my experiences rather than how I look having them.
When I packed, I made the decision that I didn’t need my usual frizz smoothing hair product, and that I would live without it. This meant that every morning when I woke up on my backpacking trip, past-me had already made the decision for present-me that it didn’t really matter what my hair looked like when I was wandering around Europe having adventures. And because I’d already made that decision, I didn’t have to re-decide every day. Suddenly, it really actually didn’t matter! Ditto for makeup!
(Now, ladies, this is how I rolled, but I’m not saying it’s how you have to roll. What I’m saying is you don’t have to take the whole palette of eye shadows. Maybe just one or two, right?)
Packing light helps you focus on your awesome adventures, rather than what you look like having them.
Actionable Strategies to Pack Light Every Time
Now that we’ve talked about the mindset you’ll need to pack light, now we’re going to talk about some actual strategies to help you make it happen. Remember that pile of stuff I asked you to make? Let’s re-visit that.
Basics: Making Your Packing List
It may seem dumb, but it’s important to cover the basics. When I went on my first backpacking trip in Europe, it was summer, so I didn’t pack any longsleeve shirts or jackets. When I got to Ireland, it was 50 degrees F. Brrr.
- Weather. Make sure you know what the weather is going to be like in your destination. See above story for reason why.
- Activities. Keep in mind the types of activities you’re going to do when you get there. Hiking, walking around the city, clubbing, and a nice dinner at a nice restaurant all require very different garb.
- Length of trip. This one’s actually a trick one. You may think the length of your trip will affect how much you can pack, and maybe a leeeeetle bit (leaving for a year? Yeah, check a bag. 3 months? Don’t you dare). But you’re going to acquire stuff on the road, and if in the name of packing light you didn’t bring something you really do need, you can buy it there. So you should actually forget this one when you’re packing. Psych!
- Home comfort. You’re going to be gone for 3+ months. That’s a long time. It’s a good idea to take something along that will make you feel at home when you’re feeling homesick.
Keeping all of this in mind, make a list of everything you need (or look at the pile I just had you make on your floor). Forgot about something you need to add, like a sweater or jacket? Go for it. If you’re looking at this pile and thinking “Claire, this hasn’t gotten any lighter-looking…” don’t worry. We’ll start trimming things down in a second.
Strategy #1 for Packing Light: Double Duty Everything
The most important rule for packing light for long-term travel: if it can’t do double-duty, it’s gotta go.
This rule has saved me so many times. Every single item you pack needs to be able to serve at least double-duty. Except your toothbrush. Obviously.
My most important travel item for every single trip I take, no matter where I’m going, is a sarong. It’s brightly colored and I’ve had it forever, so it feels homey, but it also serves waaaay more than double duty. In France, in a single trip, I used it as a scarf, purse, skirt, beach towel, and curtain. Yes, I said curtain.
Another powerful place to do double duty is in the hygiene department.
Body wash, shampoo, and conditioner all take up a ton of space, are heavy, and are TSA limited to 3.8 oz liquid. One way to double duty is to take 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner and a bar of soap. That way you won’t waste a bunch of body wash without a scrubbie thing (I think they’re called loofahs?), and you can fill a couple of TSA sized bottles with it. Bonus: shampoo makes great shaving cream too.
Want to multi-duty it even further? Dr Bronner’s Magic Pure-Castille Soap can be used as body wash, shampoo, shaving cream, laundry detergent, dish soap, even toothpaste (I’ve never tried it. Don’t really want to, personally. They say it still tastes like soap. Ew.) Pretty much anything you’re going to need to wash – including your clothes in the hostel sink (yes it will happen at least once) – this stuff can do it. Just squeeze some into 2 or 3 TSA-sized bottles, throw ‘em in a plastic bag, and you’re ready for the airport. And it comes in super nice, lovely smells, and it’s all Fair Trade, all natural, nice to the environment, which means it’s also going to be the most ethical option for outdoor travel.
Strategy #2: Pack Light By Making Outfits with Crossover Items
This is kind of an extension of the double-duty strategy, but since clothes take up a bulk of your suitcase contents, they get their own strategy section.
I used to hate planning my outfits ahead of time. I thought it stifled my creativity, and cornered me if I hadn’t packed anything that felt like me that day. But you know what? Minimalism won the day.
And besides, if your items are crossover-able enough, you should never run out of options.
Key items to help with this strategy:
- Pack one pair of long jeans. You heard me. Uno. Make sure it’s dark enough that you can go day-to-night or casual-to-fancy if you want to.
- Pack one nice-ish looking dress/skirt/shirt. This should be something that you can pair with other items to dress it up or down, depending on how you feel.
- Pack one pair of nice-ish looking shoes that are still comfy. My personal favorites are ballet flats, because they pack really tight. Gents, this could mean a classy looking pair of sneakers for you, or maybe your favorite desert boots. You do you. But they have to be able to be casual or nice depending on what you pair them with.
- Pack one flexible item that will dress any outfit up (but that you won’t stress about losing or getting wrinkly). One that I like to use is my vintage navy blue blazer that I found in a thrifts store in Paris. I wear it over jeans and a t-shirt to look a little nicer, or over a summer dress to add a layer of warmth on a chillier day. Because it’s already old, I’m not stressed about it getting wrinkly. I’m also not uber attached to it so, while I’d be sad, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I lost it. And it’s super flexible. Navy blue goes with almost everything I own.
Let’s see an example of how I would pack for a trip that will last a few weeks:
Strategy #3: When Packing Light, Laundry Is Your Friend
If you’re looking at that suitcase I just packed for myself thinking “That’s supposed to last her 5 weeks?? Is she a crazy, smelly hobo person when she travels??”, the answer is: not usually. Instead, I always plan to do laundry while I’m traveling.
- Doing laundry while you travel means you won’t have to pack nearly as much clothes.
- You won’t have weeks of dirty underwear stinking up your suitcase the whole time.
- You’ll be supporting local businesses in the communities you’re enjoying.
- Doing laundry while you travel will also help you stay on the road longer. More stuff to keep track of means less mental space to organize your travels. You’re more adaptable with less stuff.
There are lots of places you can do laundry when you’re traveling long-term, and some of them are downright affordable. Here are some that I’ve done:
- Laundromats – Depending on where you’re traveling, there maybe laundromats in the area that you could chill at for a bit while your clothes get clean.
- Professional Cleaners – This is a treat, trust me. Having someone else do your laundry will make you feel luxurious, and in some countries it doesn’t even cost much more than a laundromat. (I did this in Italy once. They looked at me like I was nuts, but my clothes were the cleanest they’d been during my whole 5 week trip).
- In Your AirBnB – If you’re staying in an AirBnB with a washer and dryer, make sure you take advantage of that. Do your laundry, even if you’re not in desperate need of it yet.
- Hostel Washer & Dryer – Some hostels have coin-operated laundry machines you can use, and if they have this, they probably also sell individual-sized laundry detergents.
- When you search for hostels on HostelWorld, you can add filters to your search. First do your search with date and number of guests, then click the button, then click , then click + Show More, then click the checkbox next to “Laundry Facilities”. Boom. Now you’ve got a list of all the hostels in your destination with washer/dryer.
- Hostel Sink – Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do. I’ve used shampoo, body wash, and even hand soap in the past. If it’s that or wear dirty underwear, I’ll do this, thanks. Then I usually gerry-rig some kind of clothes line on my bunk in the hostel with a shoelace and some duct tape. Done and done.
With these three strategies, I’ve been able to pack light without fail every single time I travel, whether it’s for a 5 week backpacking trip or an out-of town wedding weekend. Sometimes I even have extra room in my suitcase.
It helps me to focus on the trip, the destination, the people I’m with, and the adventures I’m having rather than being overly concerned about the objects I’ve left at the hotel or hostel, or whether or not my shoes match my outfit.
More stuff takes up more space in your suitcase and more space in your mind. Pack light. Leave room for the important things.
To make this as easy as possible for you, I made you a free downloadable packing list that makes all these concepts as easy as possible for you to put into action. Grab your free copy below and let me know what you think!