packing for 6 people in 1 carry on

The One Bag Rule: Packing for a Family in Carry on Baggage


As I watched my tribe of teenagers saunter across the border between Guatemala and Honduras this week, it occurred to me that that time is passing before my very eyes.

In the four years since we last passed this way my children have leapt for the sky, and we’ve measured every inch against border crossing signs on five continents. When we took off to ride our bicycles from London, England, to Africa and back, we never would have guessed that seven years later we’d still be on the road. It’s been an adventure of epic proportions, and a unique way for our kids to gain an education.

Joining forces with Tortuga Backpacks as the new editor of the Packsmith blog is an exciting turn of events for me and I’m looking forward to sharing the journey of traveling light with lots of kids with our readers! If you have family travel questions, don’t hesitate to ask, I’ve traveled with newborns through teenagers and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned about packing for a tribe.

Traveling with kids is a whole different kind of circus than setting off with boots and a backpack in your twenties, you can trust me on that.

With four kids traveling between five and eighteen years old, by bicycle for a year, on planes, trains, boats, busses and on foot, you can imagine that our packing style has morphed somewhat, over the years and adventures; not to mention the contents of the bags!

Teddy bears and legos have been replaced by iphones and ebooks on robotics engineering. Now, we find ourselves traveling with nearly adult companions who are experts in longterm travel and a range of packing styles. Gone are the days of double checking the contents of everyone’s carry on; now, instead, my boys are generally carrying mine.

The One Bag Rule

I’ve long been a proponent of the One Bag Rule, even with children. That being: For any trip up to six weeks long there’s no excuse for packing more than one bag for up to six people.

There have been times when that one bag was the biggest one I could lay my hands on, and it was tipping the scales at just under an airline’s allowable weight, I’ll admit that. Necessity has been the mother of invention and I’ve learned, and relearned, how little we really need to make a journey, over the years. I’ve rarely made a journey packed entirely in a carry on, until I discovered Tortuga Backpacks!

This bag has taken my one bag rule for the family to the next level.

The essentials for five days across Guatemala into Honduras, for six people, ages 12 through 42, tucked neatly into the Tortuga backpack; and there was rejoicing in the land.

Packing List

So what do we pack for most of a week, overland, in Central America?

As little as possible; which equates to:

  • Two outfits each, plus the one we are wearing (extra undies!)
  • A sandwich sized ziploc of toiletries
  • A mini hair brush
  • One computer
  • iPods and phones (carried in people’s pockets, not the bag)
  • Camera (around a neck)

What more do you need, really? Books are on the iPods, along with music, an app for sending postcards to family, and Google Translate!


It’s a common misconception that traveling with kids means massive amounts of additional gear. Every single thing a child needs can be easily purchased or rented upon arrival anywhere children exist (which is everywhere) if we are willing to adjust our expectations.

Kids don’t need half of their toy box from home. We’ve found that a general lack of “stuff” increases meaningful interactions with local kids because our children are out looking for something to do. This week found all six of their big selves (we have two spares on this journey!) laying on the ground in the town square creating art with some Honduran kids who were putting on an exhibition of their artwork.

Less is more. Little people don’t “need” copious amounts of junk to entertain and keep them happy. Big kids don’t “need” an electronic device plugged into their brains every second. A little deprivation therapy, the happy result of ultra-light family packing, is a good thing!

3 Tips for Family Packing

  1. One, at most two, changes of clothing
  2. Basic hygiene items
  3. One (small) comfort item per child
  4. NOTHING else.

I can tell you, from ridiculous experience, that excess baggage is the single biggest frustration and soul-sucking-stealer-of-joy from the journey when traveling as a family. In our family, the happiness quotient increases in direct proportion to how little we have to wrangle bags. We’ve done the six backpacks, three instruments and six carry ons on and off of night busses in Vietnam, in a monsoon downpour, and let me tell ya, it ain’t pretty.


You can pack for a big family in only a carry on, if you strip it down the bare essentials. Plan to rent or buy what you need instead of checking extra bags. Less stuff often equals more meaningful interactions with locals and less stress on your journey!

Do you travel with kids? What are your best tips for packing less and going carry-on only?

To learn more about Jenn, read her blog, Edventure Project. Follow her on Facebook, G+, Twitter & Instagram. All of Jenn’s Packsmith posts can be found here.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Meg January 6, 2015 at 9:33 am

I think this is true in general, we just completed our first family trip with our Tortuga (plus some other bags) and although I’ve been a long-time carry on only traveler, this was our first trip with no wheeled bags. I would also say having traveled with my kids from ages infant to now pre-teen all over the globe that (1) very young kids do need a lot more stuff and so do the parents traveling with them. I remember the days where if I didn’t bring along my clip-on high chair, I held my daughter in my lap for every meal because many countries don’t do high chairs. In France, these meals can last hours. That sucks the fun our of eating. I remember having to take a baby carrier and a stroller and a carseat. We had to take diapers because we quickly found out after waking in a puddle in our bed in Morocco that Pampers are not the same quality all the world over and extra sheets also not as plentiful. No doubt, our packing has gotten lighter as the kids have gotten older. And we’ve always gone light on toys, toiletries, any extras. But there is still no way we can get away with 1 or 2 outfits per kid. In many cases, they wear two sets of clothes in a day because a set or two end up soaked or covered in red dirt or many other scenarios involving a need for dry or clean clothes. Thats how smaller kids are and I wouldn’t want to change that during travel, its all about adventure. We recently returned from Peru with our kids and I took about 5 outfits for my six year old and found this was typically 2 days of clothes. In a country where the rooms can be cold and things wouldn’t necessarily dry overnight, I found this to be my minimum. At least her clothes are smaller so take up about the same space as the 1-2 outfits as an adult. Also, I have not yet hit the point where we can travel with only one pair of shoes per person. For this trip rain coats as well as warm coats were necessary but not always in use. So that increased our bag amount a bit, but we are so much lighter than we used to be it feels pretty liberating. And we are working on getting lighter with every trip!


Jennifer Miller January 7, 2015 at 2:52 pm

Meg, certainly different types of trips and different places require different sorts of gear, some places more, others less. I will say that I have always been somewhat of a minimalist parent in that even at home we haven’t had loads of gear for our kids. I recognize that other parents do things differently and different parenting styles at home will translate into different family traveling styles. I do think it’s important to pack the things that are going to lower stress levels and remember that carrying more than you need also increases it too! I’m looking forward to the dialogue between parents about how we can all do more with less and enjoy our travels with our kids! Thanks for weighing in!


bikemama January 16, 2015 at 5:17 am

Hi Meg… I’m so sorry it seems like I haven’t replied until now. I *thought* I had, but then when I checked here this morning none of my responses had appeared! I think it’s very important to note that there are lots of different parenting styles, and thus, lots of different “travel with kids” styles and there is no right or wrong. I know our travel (and packing) style has changed a lot over the years, as the kids have grown, as the number of kids has increased, as we’ve taken off traveling longer term instead of vacationing. Life changes. How we pack and travel changes with it. My number one piece of packing advice for families is to take the things that are going to make the trip easier and happier for you. For me, that means taking less because baggage is the bane of my existence and I just don’t have enough hands for four little people and six wheelie bags. For another friend of mine, that means never leaving home without the Bumbo seats (he has twins and a four year old!) It’s important to know your family and pack intentionally! I’m so glad you’re reading along! Let me know if there is any way I can help you forward!


Jen A January 6, 2015 at 9:52 am

I am so happy to see a parent of plural children joining the Tortuga team. Most of the pack light advice comes from single travelers, and while I have long appreciated the advice, I’ve always wondered how we could get this to work for us (mom, dad, 2 kids). I am really looking forward to reading more from your family!


Meg January 7, 2015 at 8:44 am

I agree!


Jennifer Miller January 7, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Thanks Meg! Not many people do in the family travel circles! 🙂


Jennifer Miller January 7, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Thanks Jen A… plural children, that’s us! We started traveling with them when they were tiny and their all teens now. Time flies! Packing light is a life saver!


bikemama January 16, 2015 at 5:13 am

Jen & Meg, I hear ya… packing for a tribe is very different from packing for just yourself, or even a family with one child! It CAN be done! If you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out!


Simms Brooks Cate January 7, 2015 at 8:53 am

Jenn, you have been and continue to be my hero.


Jennifer Miller January 7, 2015 at 2:48 pm

Thanks Simms! I loved your comment on the FB page… me thinks you need a Tortuga backpack!


bikemama January 16, 2015 at 5:12 am

Simms… thank you my friend… why don’t you throw some knitting needles in a bag and meet me in Hawaii?


Jen A January 8, 2015 at 7:26 am

I was drawn to the Tortuga after a recent family trip, 3 weeks across Europe. We needed everything from sweaters in chilly Kraków to long underwear in the freezing Black Forest to swimsuits in sunny Spain. Having one bag on my back would have been a big help while we still pulled one bag for my husband (business trip for him, so in addition to the long underwear and swimsuits he needed shirts, ties, a suit, and dress shoes). We still managed with 2 medium wheelies but the constant train travel would have been easier with the Tortuga.


bikemama January 16, 2015 at 5:11 am

Ha! Sometimes those work trips throw a wrench in the plans, don’t they? Maybe one Tortuga for each of you?? My husband does his work trips in a Tortuga now, but it took some practice!


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