When you are getting ready to go on an adventure, it is hard to not get super excited and try to throw everything but the kitchen sink in your bag. This is especially true when you already have a vision of what you want your vacation (and your pictures!) to look like. However, it is important to keep in mind that the more stuff you have, the harder it is to travel.
Share in the Experience of a Scavenger Hunt
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Packing When Traveling: Why Pack Lightly?
There are so many reasons to pack lightly that I could write a book on it. For many people, traveling is a time to get rid of some emotional baggage, whether it be the stress of working, relationships, or family. So why would you want to take physical baggage with you during your journey?
Packing lightly is better for you physically, mentally, and financially and this impact on your overall travel experience should never be underestimated. Below are just a few reasons why you shouldn’t carry too much stuff when you go on your next vacation.
It is really hard to move with lots of luggage.
First, it is much, much easier to carry your stuff. While a big suitcase full of adorable outfits may seem like a great idea when you are at home with a big bedroom, a car to get around, and lots of space, this is actually a really, really bad idea when you actually begin moving from place to place. Big bulky luggage is extremely difficult to move up and down flights of stairs, pull over cobblestone streets, navigate through airports with, etc.
It wastes your precious vacation time.
When you have to check luggage on your flight, you need to be at the airport earlier and often wait in ridiculously long lines that you could completely skip if you had just brought less stuff. While this may not seem that big of a deal when you are leaving home, it may seem a lot more annoying when that time could have been spent having one last coffee at your favorite or one more beer at that great pub you found. It also means that you may end up losing a lot of time when you arrive at a destination if you have to wait ages for the checked bags to be delivered.
It wastes money.
Virtually every airline in the world now charges you a fortune in baggage fees even on long-haul flights. Is it really worth paying an extra $30-50 per flight just to have more stuff with you? While sometimes checking a bag is simply unavoidable, usually, this is not the case. I traveled for 18 months around the world with a carry-on backpack, reaching a wide range of places such as Antarctica, Oman, and New York.
While the costs of checking a bag add up really, really fast, it also impacts how much you spend on transportation. If you just have a small backpack, it is easy to walk to the train station or take the metro. If you have an enormous suitcase, on the other hand, you may need to take expensive taxis to get from place to place.
For more money-saving travel tips, head over to this handy list of Budget Travel Hacks from a Full-Time Traveler.
It can be a safety risk.
To put it bluntly, having a lot of stuff makes it harder to run away. This could be from a creepy guy who is following you, a taxi driver who you think may be trying to rob you, or a hotel that seems incredibly dodgy. While I firmly believe that travel is safe for both men and women, there are things that you need to be prepared for.
Think about it, if you were in your hometown walking down the street with a huge suitcase that is hard to move and a car with a scary guy inside starts driving slowly, what would you do? Leave your bag on the street and find someplace safe to go or would you try dragging it along with you the whole time hoping that the guy doesn’t have a knife or a gun? While this scenario sounds overdramatic, it is really important to think about how having a ton of baggage limits your mobility.
It is hard on your body.
If you decide to skimp on the taxi and drag your suitcase for 30 minutes and then have to carry it up four flights of stairs, how do you think your body will react? Will you feel ready to go explore a new city right away? Unless you are like 20 years old, the chances are that it will make at least one part of your body feel pretty crappy which is the last thing you want when you are on vacation!
It won’t get “lost” by the airline.
If you have ever had the misfortune of an airline losing your bag, you probably know how quickly it can disrupt your vacation. No clothes to change into, no toiletries, nada. When you only have a carry-on bag, you don’t have to worry about the airline losing it as you will have it with you at all times.
How to Pack Like a Minimalist
Hopefully, I have convinced you why you need to pack lightly and try to avoid bringing checked luggage with you so now let’s get to the fun part! Below is a step-by-step guide to packing for your trip. Spoiler alert: You basically just need to pack less and less and less until you actually start to worry if you will have enough clothes with you to last your entire trip which, by the way, I promise that you will have plenty of clothing to wear and you won’t miss out on any of your necessities.
Step #1: Making a list … and checking it twice!
When you start preparing for your trip, one of the first things to do is make a packing list that lists everything that you think you will need. Make sure not to forget things like travel adapters, charging cables, extra contact lenses, a pair of flip flops, etc, and at least 1.5 pairs of underwear per day.
Pro Tip: Like most people, I started traveling with giant backpacks full of stuff that I barely used. I would carry it around buried at the bottom of my bag for months without even touching it. Through a lot of trial and error over the years, I have whittled my belongings down so that they can fit in a carry-on but still be adequate for a wide variety of climates.
When I travel, I tend to go to some pretty conservative countries so I usually need to bring plenty of loose-fitting clothing with me while still wanting to have a few nice things to wear when I am in Europe or the US. All of my clothes can be worn for many different things and in many different ways.
My packing list consists of:
- 3 semi-sporty tank tops that I wear in hot climates when going to the gym, or to bed. I also layer them under loose-fitting shirts if I want to feel a little warmer in cooler weather
- 3 t-shirts—two very loose-fitting that cover my butt, one fitted
- 1 black sundress that I can use for “dressy” occasions
- 2 loose dresses that I can wear over pants if I need to dress conservatively
- 1 rope belt that I can use to cinch in my loose dresses if I want to give them a bit more shape
- 1 black cardigan
- 1 pair of loose navy blue pants that can be worn in conservative countries, for bed, or for long travel days when I want to be comfortable
- 2 pairs of cotton shorts that I can wear outside, in bed, and at the gym
- 1 pair of quick-dry sports shorts
- 1 pair of jeans
- 1 pair ¾ length black leggings that I can wear under dresses when it is cold or under my long t-shirts. In a pinch, I also wear them to bed or to go running.
- 2 pairs of flip flops
- 1 pair of tennis shoes
- 2 pairs of socks
- About two weeks worth of bras and underwear
- Extra chargers, a travel converter, a wallet full of a mix of currencies for emergencies
- A brightly colored sarong that can be used as a cover-up at the beach, a towel, a blanket on buses, and a scarf. I usually wear them until they are basically torn to shreds or until I lose them and then buy a new one wherever I happen to be.
If you want some more ideas for streamlined packing lists, there are many great blogs and apps that focus on helping you pack lightly. There are also some great YouTube videos that show how experienced travelers are able to fit in an impressive amount of stuff into a tiny carry-on bag.
If you want to find more great apps that can make your vacation a breeze, check out our guide to the best travel apps for planning your vacation.
Step #2: Start reducing
Once you have your list ready, put everything that you want to take on your bed or on the floor and divide it between the essentials like underwear, chargers, and toiletries (if you want to be really organized, you can put it in your bag since you know that these things have to come with you).
Now, go through your clothes and start thinking about how many different ways that you can wear EVERY SINGLE ITEM. If everything can’t be worn for at least two different things (ie walking around, bedtime, exercise, etc) then take it out of the pile. You need to be really strict with yourself on this one and remember that regardless of your size, you can almost always buy t-shirts, coats, and sweaters while you are traveling in case you have forgotten something or have a last-minute change of plans. However, you should make sure to have enough pairs of jeans, bras, and shoes with you, especially if you are an average size American traveling in East Asia.
Step #3: Whittle it down some more.
Now that you have taken a bunch of stuff out of your pile (hopefully!), it is time to try and squeeze it into your carry-on size backpack. Can everything fit? If not, it is time to start whittling it down some more. Make sure that you add your toiletries when you are packing your bag at this point because they can get pretty bulky, even when they are in travel-sized containers. (At this point, my toiletries take up about 25% of my bag). Make sure that everything fits in with a little room to spare in case you pick something up along the way.
15 Must-Know Travel Packing Tips
Below you will find a list of great travel packing tips that will help you save a ton of space. They have been compiled by our team of travel experts who have learned a thing or two after spending years on the road. You will also find some creative travel hacking tips that we have found to work really well as we have roamed around the rule.
Pro Tip: The golden rule to prevent overpacking and make sure that the amount of luggage you have with you doesn’t have a negative impact on your experience is to make sure that you can always put your own bag in an overhead compartment. If it is too heavy and you need help lifting something over your head, you are carrying too much stuff and this can limit what you do when you are on the road.
1. Place emphasis on functionality.
As mentioned, everything that you bring with you should be able to be worn in many different ways. While Instagram is full of both men and women parading around in super cute/sexy/stylish clothes, in reality, this is really, really hard to do if you plan on having a minimalistic, long-term vacation. (It is also often not entirely culturally appropriate in many of the places but that is a different story for a different day). Pack only multipurpose clothes that you can wear throughout your journey rather than trying to pack separate pajamas, exercise clothes, etc.
2. Be creative with your toiletries.
While it is possible to buy many different brands of toiletries in containers less than three ounces (the size that you can put in your carry-on luggage), they actually tend to be pretty expensive when you compare the prices with the full-size bottles and you can’t always get exactly what you want. A little workaround is to save all the empty bottles that you can from hotels, or trial-size toiletries and fill them with your favorite products. Bottles with wide mouths usually work the best as they are the easiest to refill.
Pro tip: If you live in a country where you can easily get your hands on the Kinder Eggs with the little plastic containers inside, try to stockpile those little babies as they make amazing containers for toiletries, especially thicker creams, lotions, and gels, as well as shampoo and conditioner, sunscreen, etc. They tend not to leak, even if they are squashed in your bag somewhere and you can just keep washing them out and reusing them. They are so useful that I once negotiated with a friend’s little boy that I would buy the eggs if he would give me the containers. Needless to say, he was more than willing to enter into that deal!
You can also try using organic toothpaste which often comes in reusable glass jars that are roughly the size of a tea light. I personally haven’t found one that I actually like but they definitely do what they need to do. You can reuse the jar afterward for plenty of different things rather than just throwing another piece of plastic into the garbage. If you want to be really careful with space, you may also want to look at switching to bamboo toothbrushes. They are quite a bit smaller than normal toothbrushes and are much, much better for the environment.
3. Buy cream deodorant rather than solids.
One of my favorite little toiletry hacks is to use cream deodorant rather than the solid bars that you normally find. Even in the trial size, the solid deodorants tend to take up quite a bit of “empty” (i.e. unusable) space in your toiletry bag. Cream deodorant is generally made of all-natural ingredients which is much healthier for you and you can normally fill a tiny container and it will last you for weeks. It also doesn’t get used up or fall apart when you get to the final uses, as the solid deodorants so often do.
4. Use plastic bags as your toiletry bags.
While using plastic bags to hold your toiletries may not keep you as well-organized as a toiletry bag with lots of different compartments, they tend to be a bit more malleable than a bulky toiletry bag, and as long as you use clear plastic, it is surprisingly easy to find exactly what you need. I usually put all of my shower stuff in one little sandwich-sized ziplock bag and my “grooming” products in another. It is really convenient to keep one in the bathroom and the other in my hotel room or if I am staying in a hostel, it means that I can easily grab just the stuff I need when I go to take a shower and not have to worry about trying to find a place to put a toiletry bag in a wet bathroom.
5. Use packing cubes.
When you are on a trip where you find yourself packing and unpacking a lot, packing cubes can be your best friend! These handy little things come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can hold everything from your phone or laptop charger to your toiletries and tennis shoes. They work very well in carry-on bags and make it easy to find everything quickly. Some people organize them by types of clothing, some by days. The great thing is that they are incredibly versatile and can be used for pretty much everything!
You can find packing cubes at many sports and adventure stores like REI and Decathalon. Eagle Creek also sells a great selection of high-quality bags that will last you for decades.
6. Bring at least one waterproof bag.
When you are heading out for your next trip, make sure to bring at least one waterproof bag with you. If you are really tight on space, this could be a simple Ziplock bag that can hold wet bathing suits or clothes so that the rest of your bag stays dry, or they can help keep your valuables dry if you happen to get caught out by the weather.
If you are planning on doing different watersports or spending a lot of time outside, it is a wise idea to invest in a better quality bag. You can find many options on Amazon or in shops like REI or Decathlon that are high-quality without being too bulky. Try to get one with a zippered opening that has an extra flap that folds over it as they tend to get your things the driest.
7. Avoid carrying bulky sweaters.
While you may have a fantasy of yourself cuddled up in your AirBnb with a cup of tea or hot chocolate in your favorite sweater or hoodie, fluffy sweaters, comfy cardigans, and thick sweatshirts can take up a ton of space in your bag. They also take forever to dry in case you need to wash them or they get wet and just imagine how annoying it would be to carry around what is effectively an enormous wet sponge for a few days. As a rule, it is best to avoid any articles of clothing that are big and bulky and opt for clothes that are specifically designed to be quick-dry, lightweight, and multi-purpose. There are a ton of great fabrics that are perfect for this so it shouldn’t be too hard to find something that is compact, versatile, and still stylish enough that you can wear it in a big city without feeling like a tourist.
If you are going somewhere that you absolutely must have a lot of sweaters or a big coat with you, make sure to pack these items into compression bags that will help push any excess air out of them. You can find them in many home goods stores across the US and while some of them are basically the equivalent of a giant Ziplock bag (which if you want to pack on a budget, the one-liter bags are perfect for small items like tank tops, underwear, etc) that you push the air out of. Others have fancy valves that you can suck the air out of through a canister vacuum cleaner. Both work very well but make sure to remember that although you have gained a lot of space, you still have the same amount of weight and you definitely don’t want to go over the weight limit for your carry-on luggage and end up having to check it.
8. Bring basic bras and underwear with you.
Ok ladies, I know that there is nothing particularly fun or confidence-boosting about wearing granny panties and bras but carrying just the basics with you when it comes to traveling is one of those situations where less is definitely more. When you stick with basic non-padded t-shirt bras and bralettes, you will be able to cram in extra pairs of underwear which will be much more important in the long run than that lace push-up bra.
Also, remember to always pack undergarments that you can wear under ALL of your clothes. Bringing a bunch of different bras to wear under certain outfits can eat up a large chunk of your bag before you even know it and if they have underwires or padding, they are really difficult to squish into small spaces.
If you are worried that you won’t have the right bra to wear under your pretty dress or sexy shirt, try to rethink your wardrobe choices rather than just throwing more stuff in your bag. Trust me, you will be happy that you did in the long run.
9. Don’t forget earplugs and an eye mask.
Although they may seem a bit of a luxury when you are a minimalist packer, earplugs and an eye mask may end up being one of the only things standing between you and a decent night of sleep. We can’t always (ie never) guarantee that the hotel rooms or hostel beds that we end up in will be in ideal sleeping circumstances but having earplugs to block out sounds and eye masks to block out light helps a lot.
I usually have a really thin, basic eye mask (like the cheap ones that they give out on planes) with me wherever I go and they take up such little space that they are well worth it. They are surprisingly easy to forget until you really need them so try to put one in each of your most frequently used bags (carry-on, duffel bag, checked luggage, etc) so you aren’t left empty-handed.
10. Bring a lightweight tote bag with you.
Tote bags are one of the best inventions ever. They are incredibly versatile and can be used for everything from grocery shopping to beach days (make sure you clean them out between uses though or you may end up with your groceries covered in sand. I found that out the hard way!).
If you forget to buy one before your trip, no problem—you can buy them pretty much everywhere in the world, especially at grocery stores and they end up being a great souvenir! Just make sure to check that the straps are long enough to go completely over your shoulder as it will make it much easier to carry.
Pro Tip: I was given a tote bag with a bunch of interior pockets as a gift. This has now become my favorite travel bag and I have found that it is perfect for last-minute getaways as it is easy to throw things in a hurry and can be used in many different ways while I am away (i.e. no need to carry lots of bulky bags with me!). It is also great to use as my personal item on flights as my purse actually fits inside of it as well as my laptop, and water bottle. This means that it doesn’t take up any room in my actual carry-on bag leaving me more space for other things!
11. Remember that you don’t need to be prepared for everything.
This is actually one of the hardest parts about traveling lightly. There are so many things that you think that you MIGHT need during your trip that it feels like you should put them in your bag “just in case.” However, it is crucial to remember that you can buy things like umbrellas, socks, toothpaste, etc all over the world. You don’t need to carry everything with you and you can buy things as you need them.
The only caveat to this rule is tampons. Throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, it can be surprisingly difficult to buy tampons so if you are traveling for a few months, you want to pack enough for at least two months of it and hope that you can find some when you are on the road. And this leads me to my next tip …
12. Use a menstrual cup.
Despite being available for decades, menstrual cups have become much more popular over the past five years or so. While they may take a bit of time getting used to, they have many great benefits. They are safer for you overall, they reduce much, much less waste than pads or tampons, they can be worn for up to 12 hours, and they work out much cheaper in the long run. They are also perfect for minimalist travelers as they take up much less space than the equivalent supply of pads.
Pro Tip: If this is something that you are interested in pursuing, make sure to try it out for a few months in the comfort of your own bathroom before you begin your trip so that you are completely used to using them. It is very important that you feel comfortable using them in public or shared bathrooms so it is a good idea to give yourself plenty of time for practice.
13. Don’t be shy about airing your dirty laundry,
When you travel long-term with just a carry-on, you will most likely find yourself struggling with finding ways to clean your dirty laundry. In places in Asia, it is relatively inexpensive to get it washed for you and in Europe, you will often find washing machines in hostels. However, it can sometimes get a bit tricky to schedule your laundry days (i.e. you usually need to be somewhere for at least a few days so that it can be washed and dried as most places around the world don’t have dryers).
One “workaround” for this is to do your laundry as you go. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend trying to wash a pair of jeans on your own, this could include washing your exercise clothes or T-shirts while you are in the shower, or hand-washing your socks and undies in the sink. Make sure to wring them out as much as possible as soon as you are done washing them and then try wringing them out again about 20 minutes later to get any excess water out. Depending on the climate that you are in, things can be dried within a matter of hours or a few days.
14. Make use of your “personal item.”
Most airlines will allow you to bring a carry-on bag and a personal item on the plane with you so make sure that you take advantage of this! Personal items usually include small backpacks or large purses. Whatever you choose, make sure that you put your valuables in it. This is obviously much safer and convenient than having them in your carry-on bag up in the overhead bin and saves valuable space in your bag at the same time.
When you are getting ready for your trip, make sure to put your laptop and other electronics in your personal item if you don’t have a separate pocket for it in your carry-on (some bags have this and it is super convenient!). This makes it much easier to get through airport security.
15. Choose your shoes wisely.
Depending on where you are traveling to, there is a high chance that you will want to take a few pairs of shoes with you. It is always a good idea to have a pair of tennis shoes, and flip-flops (for beaches, dirty showers, airplanes, etc) or sandals, and one pair of ballerina flats in case you are planning on dressing up. Ballerina flats are great for traveling as they take up much, much less space in your bag than a pair of high heels and are also much easier to walk in on cobblestones, or uneven ground. I wouldn’t recommend wearing them all day unless they have a supportive sole but they work well for short periods of time.
One strategy that I have found that works well is to always wear my tennis shoes when I am taking a flight and to hang my sandals off of the straps on the side of my bag. This ensures that my clothes stay clean and also helps save space.
Pro Tips: Depending on your shoe size, you may be able to use disposable shower caps as shoe protectors. They work perfectly with sandals and ballerina flats and take up virtually no extra space, unlike a packing cube. The best part is, they are free!
Additionally, if you aren’t wearing your tennis shoes, you can use them as “storage!” You can stash an extra pair of socks in them, or use them to hold toiletries. This is valuable space that shouldn’t be left empty!
Ready to Roam?
We hope that you have found this helpful and have thought of a few ways that you can save space during your next vacation. If you want a fantastic way to make your minimalist vacation a memorable one, why not try one of our fun-filled scavenger hunts? This will have you racing through the streets as you search for your next clue. We promise that you will learn a lot about your destination and have a great time doing it!
Frequently Asked Questions
Before you start your trip, make sure to trim down your packing list as much as possible. Use expert travel packing tips, like taking staple articles of clothing you can wear in different ways.
Pay attention to travel packing tips from the experts! Most importantly, limit yourself to one carry-on and one personal item, and figure out how to fit everything you need inside.