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

Jenn Sutherland-Miller

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Teddy bears and legos have been replaced by iphones and ebooks on robotics engineering.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!

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