Carry on packing is old hat. You haven’t checked a bag in years, except that one filled with stroopwafles and handmade German candies that you brought home as gifts, but that was the exception to your rule. That $600 round trip ticket to Europe to hit the Christmas markets was paid for by the checked baggage fees you saved in the past year, thank you very much! But now you’re ready to take it to the next level.
You’ve had room to spare in your full-sized carry on backpack on the last three trips you’ve taken. You find yourself marveling at what people can possibly be packing to fill those monster roller bags they are dragging away from baggage claim. The time has come to up your packing game. Invest in a few key pieces of gear to further lighten the load and give you the added freedom of less stuff on the road.
Don’t worry, we can help. Maybe you won’t be as extreme as Angela, who packed for a Tortuga retreat in only a large packing cube, or Jenn, who traveled for 10 weeks in just a medium-sized backpack, but you’re ready to downsize. Let’s get started.
The Mentality of Minimalism
Leo Babauta is famous for his blog Zen Habits where he writes about simplicity and mindfulness. On his other (now abandoned) blog, mnmlist, Babauta wrote about why less stuff is better. Below are his arguments and how they apply to our travels.
- Less means you spend less. You need less storage. You need a smaller house.
- Less means you worry less. You search for things less. You are less bogged down by clutter.
- Less means you’re lighter. You’re freer. You can focus on better things.
- Less means you can travel more quickly. You spend less time with stuff, and more time doing stuff.
Minimalism in travel doesn’t just mean that you can buy a smaller bag. Packing less can affect everything from your overall experience to your wallet, health, and the environment.
Sometimes cliches are true. When traveling, less is more.
Read more about the philosophy of minimalist travel.
Minimalist Backpacks for Travel
The easiest way to pack lighter is to start with a smaller bag. Of course if the space is there, we’re tempted to fill it. By limiting the size of the space you have to pack in, you’re forced to make the hard choices that will lighten your load.
Constraints are a good thing.
The Outbreaker 35L is a full ten liters smaller than the most generous carry on limits. A mid-sized travel backpack is a serious move towards minimalist packing without sacrificing organization or comfort. The Outbreaker packing cubes still fit perfectly in this smaller bag, and you’ll find that this beauty can be carried on even the budget airlines in Europe.
Downsizing doesn’t have to feel like a sacrifice.
For light packers and short trips, a full-sized carry on is too much bag. You need something compact with enough packing space for the essentials.
Expand the backpack from 26L to 34L for extra packing space when you need it. Use the two-compartment layout to separate your clean clothes from dirty (or large pieces from small) to stay organized en route.
Ditch the Heavy Stuff You Don’t Need
Two things stand in the way of packing light: gear that is too heavy, and those “just in case” items that you know you probably won’t need but are afraid to leave at home, because you might need them, and what will you do if they aren’t there?!
Letting go of the safety net of packing everything can feel scary. Resist the urge to be over prepared and learn to trust in your ability to figure it out on the fly.
Packing light looks different to different people and can vary from trip to trip. When every small corner of space counts, you can get your bag from light to ultralight by applying a few strategies that expert packers use.
What should you not pack as a minimalist traveler?
- Jeans: they’re heavy
- Hiking boots: solid walking shoes are almost always a better alternative
- Heavy camera gear: unless you’re a photographer, your phone is plenty
- Your laptop: you can probably live without it
- Toiletries: unless you’re brand specific, they’re almost always available when you arrive
Start by getting as small as possible with your stuff, especially toiletries and electronics.
- Look for compact versions of bulkier items, like cameras, tablets, and water bottles, to replace them with.
- Opt for single items with multiple purposes, like a sarong instead of a sarong and towel, or a universal charger instead of many specific chargers, rather than multiple items with single purposes.
- Get a smaller bag! The smaller the bag, the less tempted you’ll be to fill it
Bring the absolute bare minimum of clothes and plan on doing laundry a little more often.
I substituted jeggings for jeans, Keens for my heavy hiking shoes, and invested in gotoobs to shrink my toiletry bag. That alone made a huge difference in the size and weight of my bag. Which things in your bag can you swap out for lighter versions?
As for the “just in case” items, like that huge first aid kit, a raincoat in June, three extra pairs of shoes, and your pillow from home, just don’t. Always bring emergency medications (like that epi-pen if you have allergies) but realize that doctors and pharmacies are everywhere, you’ll find what you need, if you need it.
With a little creativity and planning, you’ll be able to take your bag from light to ultralight.
Minimalist Packing List
Minimalist packing is really about learning to think differently about what you need and letting go of anything you don’t. The next step is thinking through which items can do double duty and opting for lighter, smaller, and more versatile versions of your old standbys.
Let’s cut to the chase and start with what, exactly, you should pack. Remember that if you pack for one week you’ll be able to wash clothes as you go, and travel for many weeks comfortably. A minimalist packing list that covers all of the bases for a week looks like this:
- Your passport / ID
- Credit cards and cash
- Phone and charger
- 2 short sleeve shirts
- 2 long sleeve shirts (optional for cooler climates)
- 1 jacket (optional for cooler climates)
- 1 pair of convertible pants
- 1 pair of shorts or pants
- 1 pair of shoes
- 2 pairs of underwear
- 2 pairs of socks
- 1 belt
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Soap (used as a body wash or shampoo)
- 1 bar of deodorant
Done! Short, right?
At first glance, this list may look impossible. Keep in mind that you’ll still be clean, have enough clothes to wear, and have more than a week’s worth of outfit combinations. Plus, your bag will only contain (at the most) three shirts, a pair of pants, a pair of underwear, a pair of socks, and a small toiletry bag.
Damn, that’s light!
Some people build a capsule wardrobe so they can pack fewer clothes. You can read more about that here.
If paring down toiletries and makeup seems really hard, read this article for specific help with that.
Basic Economy Fares: Traveling With Only a Personal Item
With the rise in popularity of “basic fares” on a number of airlines, some people are choosing to save money by traveling with even less. Most basic economy fares will allow you to travel with only a personal item sized bag on the plane. If you can master minimalist packing, you might be able to save some money this way.
When traveling on a basic economy ticket, swap out your mid-sized travel backpack for a personal-item-sized laptop backpack or daypack.
Here are some tips for traveling even lighter with only a personal item:
Share items with your travel buddy. For example, my partner and I might bring one laptop for the two of us.
Plan on buying items at your destination. Don’t have room for your sunscreen and bug spray? Like traveling with snacks but can’t fit them all? Pick them up at your destination.
Bring a reusable grocery bag to carry extra items at your destination. I’ll also sometimes use it to carry my jacket, cross-body purse, and extra sweater/scarf while I’m wandering around the airport (and feeling hot), then put the extra item or two on before boarding to fit the rules.
Rent gear instead of packing it. This especially applies to sports equipment.
Re-wear clothes or wash them as you go.
Only take clothes you love. If I bring my favorite sweater, I’m far less upset about wearing it every day than if I packed a lesser-loved one that packed better.
Read more about flying Basic Economy and whether or not it’s actually worth it, before you book a ticket!
Are you looking for more tips on how to improve your packing?
- All the Packing Tips You Need to Travel Like a Pro will get you started
- The Best Travel Gear: Luggage, Accessories & Everything in Between covers the basics
- Your Guide to the Best Travel Clothing & Accessories covers all things clothing