10 Space-Saving Packing Hacks for Carry-On-Only Travel

By Nick Hilden
Packing a backpack on a bed

I’ve been traveling more or less constantly for over a decade. As with any skill, there’s a learning curve to being a smart traveler.

For the first several years of my life on the road, I packed the same way I’d seen my parents do it back in the 90s. That meant carrying on a small daypack while I checked a large suitcase crammed with the bulk of my stuff. Sometimes my luggage arrived at the baggage claim like it was supposed to. Sometimes it didn’t. But checking luggage was always a hassle and a worry no matter what.

Two things changed all of that. First, I realized that I should simplify my life of travel and condense everything into a single carry on. That was easier said than done. The second major change came when I bought a travel backpack on the recommendation of one of my travel buddies, which made my new “carry on only” goal significantly easier.

The impact it had on my travels was nothing short of revolutionary. I’m not exaggerating.

The ability to comfortably and efficiently carry on everything I needed for months and even years of continual travel was a game-changer. When you’re getting on and off planes several times a month, the time and stress of checking and collecting baggage takes a toll. My new backpack eliminated all that from the process.

As I traveled, I discovered more and more carry on packing hacks to help maximize the efficiency of my load. My newfound hacks allowed me to get a truly astounding amount of stuff into my backpack.

Packing Hacks for Traveling

The first thing you must do to get the most out of packing your carry on involves getting a bag that maximizes space efficiency and gets the most out of the airline carry-on allowance. We’ve already covered that, so we can move right along to some specific packing hacks.

1. Cut Out the Filler

While it might seem smart to pack along a bunch of random stuff for every possible contingency, the truth is that a lot of it—maybe even most of it—will never leave its place in your bag. Lay out all your travel gear on the floor and ask yourself what delivers genuine value for the space it consumes.  If you think it might not get used, it probably won’t. Leave it at home.

2. Shop for Size

We live in a golden age of gear. Designers of travel goods have gotten smarter about trimming down products to get the most out of the least. So shop with size in mind. 

This doesn’t just apply to luggage itself. Forget about packing a big bulky towel. Instead, look for one of the modern travel towels that fold down to the size of your fist. That’s just one example. Seek out smart, small gear design.

Woman rolling clothes to pack them

3. Fold and Roll, Don’t Stack

This one is about as tried and tested as they come. Folded clothes eat up too much space. Three rolled pairs of pants, for example, can fit into the same space as a single folded pair.

We have full guides on rolling vs folding clothes and packing without wrinkling your clothes. The short version is that the process actually starts with folding. Fold each item as concisely as possible, smoothing out any wrinkles or air. Then roll them as tightly as you can. Rolled-up clothes can then be placed in packing cubes that help to keep them in place.

4. Be Smart About Your Shoes

Shoes are a space-killer, so be smart about them. The most important thing you can do is to take the fewest pairs possible with you. Instead of packing walking shoes, gym shoes, and dress shoes, find a single pair of nice-looking, durable trainers that can cover all three use cases. Once your shoes are in your bag, stuff them with socks, underwear, or a belt.

Alternatively, I’m a big fan of clipping shoes to the exterior of my bag using a carabiner or cramming them into the water bottle holder. So far I’ve never had an airline complain about having a pair of shoes dangle outside the carry-on size limitations. As a bonus, it keeps dirty, smelly shoes away from your clothes.

Packed pockets in a travel backpack

5. Everything in Its Place

If you’re going to make the most out of every square inch of your bag, your stuff needs to be as well-organized as possible.

Here again, I need to mention my Outbreaker Backpack, which is unrivaled in its organizational potential. There simply isn’t any other travel backpack with compartments, pockets, and small-item organizers so perfectly laid out.

The Outbreaker gives you the flexibility to put your stuff where you think it should go. There’s no one “right way” to pack it. But you should decide what belongs where. Having a map in mind of where your stuff belongs allows you to Tetris in more stuff, as well as making it easier to find things when you need them on the go.

Here’s how I do it.

I use the rear laptop compartment as “the office,” with all my work stuff, cords and electronics, art supplies, and Kindle in the pockets. All my clothing and any larger items are in the main compartment. Up front are small odds and ends, anything I might need spontaneously like headphones or sunglasses, pens (always important when it comes to filling out customs declarations), and so on. Even further up front are two outer pockets where I typically keep a couple of books and a two-foot bungee cord that comes in handy in a million surprising ways. I’ll also slip boarding passes in there too when I’m on the go at the airport. Then I’ll often have a charger in one belt pocket while the other is left open for sudden contingencies. Sometimes you need to free up your hands unexpectedly.  

That’s a lot of stuff, but it’s all extremely organized. Because of my map, it all fits and is easy to find.

Packing shoes in a travel backpack

6. Think in Terms of Bundles

Try to compartmentalize different items as often as you can. For example, corral all your cables, chargers, and other small electronic accessories into a common pouch. Use packing cubes to keep like clothing items sorted. Toiletries go in a dopp kit or a simple plastic bag. And so on. This helps with travel packing hack #5 and makes finding things much easier.

7. Use Solid Soaps Instead of Liquid

There are solid travel versions of every kind of soap you might need, from body wash to shampoo to laundry detergent (which is available in super-packable travel sheets). Solid soaps are easier to pack, TSA-friendly, and will never leak in your bag.

8. Take Advantage of Modern Tech Gear

I used to haul a mini-library around because I preferred reading real books in whatever beautiful setting I happened to find myself. Finally, however, I realized that a good e-reader saves both space and my back.

Ditto goes for a big set of headphones versus a pair of modern earbuds. Or an entire camera setup versus a phone with a good camera. Whenever possible, go for the smaller tech. You’ll get just about the same results but have a much better travel experience.

Packing clothes in a backpack

9. Wear Travel-Smart Clothing

Sure, you could pack shirts for every day of the week.

But a better solution is to buy three shirts made of modern materials that wick away sweat and are stain, odor, and wrinkle-resistant. Then you could wear them multiple times before washing them.

These travel-friendly clothes also tend to be lighter weight and more space-efficient. We particularly like merino wool for travel.

10. Pack the Largest Items First

If you pack your small things first, you’ll discover that you can’t find room for the big essentials. Pack the biggest items into your travel backpack first, then fill in around them using progressively smaller items.

Use the rocks, pebbles, and sand analogy. If you pack the rocks first, then the pebbles, then the sand, you’ll fit everything. But if you start with the sand, you won’t have any space left for the rocks.

Bring everything you need without checking a bag.

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