Think back to your last vacation. Pretty awesome, right? Great views, great drinks, great friends. It was all good… except for those parts that you’ve permanently removed from your bank of memories, like the uncomfortable hauling of your ginormous suitcase OR — if you jog your memory a little further back — to you sitting on your suitcase to squish and finagle it shut.
Don’t worry, we don’t judge, and neither did your cat (the one who was just scolded to “git” from its fave spot — inside your half-packed suitcase).
But what if I told you that you can learn how to pack light for a week — so light, in fact, that you won’t necessarily break into a sweat during every transfer? Yes, even you can learn to pack for a week so that your zippers aren’t stress tested every time. Here’s how.
As travel guru Rick Steves put it…
“Remember, packing light isn’t just about saving time or money — it’s about your traveling lifestyle. Too much luggage marks you as a typical tourist. It slams the Back Door shut. Serendipity suffers. Changing locations becomes a major operation. Con artists figure you’re helpless. Porters are a problem only to those who need them. With only one bag, you’re mobile and in control. Take this advice seriously.”
How to Pack for a Week in a Carry On
As important as what you choose to bring (we’ll get to that later) is what you choose to pack it in. Too many people discount this. Grabbing whatever bag they’ve got in a closet, or borrowing one from under a friend’s bed, they’re thinking about the contents, not the carry experience. This is a mistake.
Choosing the Right Bag
With very few exceptions, we recommend ditching a suitcase for a backpack. Travel backpacks are just plain easier to maneuver (and wheeled luggage can ruin your trip). If you’re traveling for months through multiple climate zones and you also need to have a suit and dinner dress with some regularity, or if you have a physical difference that precludes actually carrying a backpack, then perhaps you’ll want to stick with your giant Samsonite. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and invest in a high-quality carry on backpack, somewhere in the size range of 30-45 liters.
Of course we recommend the Outbreaker 45 because it maximizes your carry on baggage allowance and the side open compartment allows you to pack it like a suitcase, which is far more convenient than the old fashioned top down backpack. Well padded hip and shoulder straps allow proper weight distribution so that, even fully packed, it carries like a dream. Add to that the waterproof sailcloth we’ve made it out of and the very well organized interior and your stuff will stay dry and neatly arranged for the entire trip.
Backpacks ease your transportation experiences (especially if you are planning on taking public transport or visiting cobblestoned locales) and mean that you can move freely through a landscape without struggling, or hindering other travelers.
Bag Size Matters
We tend to fill our bags to the brim regardless of the size and without too much thought. The larger your suitcase or backpack, the more likely you are to toss in items you don’t normally use (like your dental floss or that sarong you swore you’d start using this year). If you learn how to pack light for a week with a carry on sized luggage — even if you plan on checking it — you are more likely to only pack the essentials (and leave the fluff behind).
The Step Down to Carry On series that Jessie wrote will help you make the transition from too much luggage to light packing and carry on only.
Feeling doubt? Leave. It. Out.
Bring a Daypack Too
An additional daypack is a win-win-win. Super useful for shorter mid-trip adventures, they don’t take up space in your primary packing piece, and, in fact, add even more liter capacity to your travel luggage.
If you’re not planning on too many day-long adventures during your trip, this can easily be replaced by your go-to tote, fanny pack, or crossover bag. The goal here is to travel lightly even within your trip, as well as to and from your destination.
Packing Organizers are Great
Packing organizers, like packing cubes, compression sacks and even ziploc bags make the process of packing and staying organized easier. Packing cubes take the guess work out of finding your go-to scarf or wool socks, and helps you avoid having to dump out all of the contents of your bag to find that one item that seemingly disappeared. These zippered goodies still allow your clothes to air out and breathe, and can double as a compression strategy when you need to maximize every cubic inch.
And what do you do with that stinky dirty laundry, or the damp pair of shoes you’ve got to pack before your flight home? A wet/dry bag is the answer. Keep moist and gross items separate from your fresh and clean things on the go. When not in use in your main bag, toss it into your daypack as a separator for your day trip to the beach, or an additional organizer on adventures.
Packing Everything in a Carry On
Choosing the right bag is the first step. Actually knowing how to pack, and what to pack, is the next step. You definitely do not need everything hanging in your closet, or even everything you might wear in a normal week at home. For help in figuring out exactly what to pack, download the Definitive Carry On Packing List and start there.
Wear Your Bulkiest Items
A tried and true travel method when learning how to pack light for a week is to wear your bulkiest items on the plane. Yes, this means you’ll suffer through short-term, baggy discomfort while in transit. But, your heavy jackets, thick layers, pair of jeans, and bulkiest pair of shoes are being WORN instead of packed, freeing up more precious cargo space in your bag to be maximized for other “can’t-travel-without-it” items.
Max Two Pairs of Shoes
We repeat: Max two pairs of shoes.
Yes, we know it can be tempting to bring a pair of shoes for every last outfit you’re planning to rock. But remember, shoes tend to take a ton of space and aren’t exactly feather-lite. So instead of worrying about how others will remember your footwear, do the practical thing and cut your shoe packing in half (Or thirds?! You shoe-hound!)
Pack no more than two pairs — that bulky pair you’ll wear on the plane and another pair that can easily stow away in your pack. Choose shoes for versatility: Walking shoes that can also go with chinos to a casual dinner, or sandals that will dress up and down.
Pack the Right Kinds of Clothes
Packing light for a week is fairly straightforward when it comes to what to wear. We will always be advocates for quick dry clothes and that which you can easily layer. That means selecting neutral shades (we’re not saying you have to sacrifice stripes, but it is better if items can pair with multiple tops and bottoms) and investing in lightweight, durable materials. Plan to wear that special outfit twice in one week — the world won’t end, we promise.
Want to add a pop of personality? Scarves are total workhorses, simultaneously able to dress an outfit up, down, or double as a transit blankie, a picnic table in a pinch, or a cover up for sacred places.
Roll It Up & Maximize Space
Flat is out! Instead of folding, start rolling. You’ll be surprised how much space this can save. Try stuffing socks and undies into your shoes, bras, or other corners of your bag as a last step in your packing process.
Consider using a carabiner to clip a pair of shoes or your water bottle to the outside of your bag instead packing them inside. Don’t bring giant bottles of your toiletries — the small ones exist for a reason, and they’re the perfect addition to your pack as you perfect how to pack light for a week.
Savvy, modern travelers know that with the right kind of packing strategies, those annoyingly steep checked-baggage fees can be avoided. Instead, strip down to the essentials when you are going on a weeklong vacation or holiday.
- Choose the right kind of luggage, designed for urban travel and the carry experience
- Invest in the right kinds of materials for the clothing you pack
- Adopt the mindset of a minimalist traveler.
While on your fabulous week-long getaway, prepare to meet two kinds of travelers: Those who learned how to pack light for a week (like you!) and… those who are still wishing they had.
Want more like this?
Get weekly gear reviews, travel hacks, and packing tips sent straight to your inbox. As an added bonus, we’ll send you a carry on packing list right away.