7 Secrets to Packing Light

By Fred Perrotta

This article is the second in a three-part series on packing carry on only. If you haven’t read The Carry On Luggage Rules to Live By, we recommend starting there. Then read the final post, The Definitive Carry On Packing List.

In the last post, we covered the rules of carry on packing as set by the airlines and government. Now we can move on to the guiding principles that will help you get the most out of your allowed packing space.

Your exact packing list will depend on your destination, the length of your trip, the weather, and your planned activities. The seven core principles below apply to every trip.

Packing is like grammar. You have to know the rules before you can break them. Learn to work within these constraints, then you can start to freestyle.

Start with the Right Bag

When it comes to packing, people tend to fill the space they have. The simplest way to pack less is to give yourself less space. By choosing to travel in a carry on sized bag you’ll find yourself packing more efficiently and traveling lighter. The easiest way to avoid heavy bags, luggage fees on airlines and the hassle of dragging bags around is to choose a carry on sized backpack. The Outbreaker Backpack is the best organized backpack for urban travel and is perfect for a trip to Europe. In fact, it was inspired by a trip to Europe with the wrong backpack.

Keep your bag organized using packing cubes. The Outbreaker 45 holds two full sets! Add in a daypack to carry as your personal item on the plane, and to carry your daily necessities once you arrive.

#1: Pack “Must Have,” Not “Just In Case”

When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.

Packing light requires sacrifices.

You can’t bring clothes for every possible situation. You should only bring what you wear on the average day.

Pack with the Pareto Principle, aka the 80/20 Principle, in mind.

Applying the Pareto Principle to packing means that 20% of what you pack will account for 80% of what you wear.

Bring your core wardrobe that you wear over-and-over at home. Those clothes will cover more than 80% of the situations you will encounter on the road.

For the rest, buy or borrow what you need depending on local prices and your budget. Most of your “what if” scenarios will never happen. Don’t carry around extra physical and mental baggage “just in case.”

If a surprise does come up, you can solve it cheaply with a temporary solution, not one you have to deal with for your entire trip.

Pack light and stay flexible. Deal with situations as they come. You’ll get a better story out of it that way.

#2: Pack for One Week

Thanks to Anil at foXnoMad for helping to quantify this idea for me.

If you’re traveling for two weeks, or a month, or a year, or permanently, break your packing list down into a more manageable chunk: one week.

Packing for every possible contingency on a long trip is impossible.

Instead, pack for one average week. A week is a manageable amount of time. You can easily visualize one week of clothes. A year of clothes would be your entire closet.

If you’re traveling for longer than a week or two, you will need to do laundry. Pack accordingly.

On short trips, hand wash your basics like socks, t-shirts, and underwear in the sink between laundry cycles.

For longer trips, use a cheap wash-and-fold service or local laundromat.

In many countries, you can save time and money by dropping off your dirty clothes at a cleaning service. Then just pick up a neatly bundled package of your clean clothes the next day.

In San Francisco, wash-and-fold costs $15 for a huge sack of clothes that lasts me two weeks. At that price, I could do laundry three times, which would yield six weeks of clean clothes, for $45, less than the cost of checking a bag on a roundtrip flight. Most other cities will have cheaper services.

Doing laundry is cheaper than checking a bag.

Plus, you have all the other benefits of packing light: convenience, flexibility, and less mental and physical burden.

#3: Pack Layers, Not Bulk

When traveling in cold weather or across multiple climates, dress in layers.

Packing multiple thin layers takes up less space and offers more flexibility than packing bulky items like sweaters and coats.

One heavy sweater will eat up so much space in your bag that you’ll never fit everything else you need.

merino wool base layer or thermal shirt will keep you warm and can easily be combined with other items or taken off as the weather changes.

Imagine a city with variable, spring, or fall weather. Cool mornings, warm afternoons, and cold nights. Pack for that day.

I often wear a t-shirt, base layer, and light jacket when heading out in the morning. As the weather changes, I can remove one or both of the outer layers. When the sun sets, I can put them back on.

Dressing in thin layers offers this flexibility and keeps your pack light. Two t-shirts and two base layers can take up even less space than a sweater.

If traveling in very cold, wintry weather, wear an ultralight down jacket and/or a fleece jacket. Most importantly, don’t pack your jacket. Wear it if your whole trip will be cold. Otherwise, pick up a cheap jacket as the weather changes. Then sell or donate it when you’re done.

#4: If It’s Bulky, Wear It

If you need something bulky, like boots or a winter-weight coat, wear it. Don’t pack it.

In her guest post on how women can pack carry-on-only, Brooke Schoenman of Her Packing List said, “Wear it all at check in.”

Most trips require two pairs of shoes. Let’s say you need a pair of sneakers for walking and a pair of flats for going out.

Wear the sneakers, pack the flats.

If your trip includes winter weather, wear your coat. If wearing the coat on the entire trip is impractical, like if the trip includes time in warmer climates, don’t bring any coat at all. Pick up a cheap one at Goodwill when you land, then sell or donate it when you leave.

While living in Sydney, I visited Queenstown, New Zealand for a week at the beginning of ski season. I bought a cheap winter coat before I left for New Zealand, then sold it to a friend when I got back to Sydney. The “rental” was cheap and easy.

Losing a few dollars on the exchange was far preferable to dragging a winter coat from the US to Australia or vice versa.

Even budget travelers can spend a few dollars to make their lives easier.

#5: Pack Your Lightest Pair of Shoes

Shoes are the most common reason that people can’t pack light. This hurdle trips up lots of people, men included.

Here are my simple, no-brainer rules to follow:

  1. Bring no more than two pairs of shoes, including the ones you’re wearing.
  2. Wear the bulkier pair, typically sneakers or boots.
  3. Pack the smaller pair. They must be flat and light. Think sandals, flats, boat shoes, or espadrilles.

Done. You never have to think about how to pack shoes again.

#6: Wear the Right Fabrics

To pack light for any weather, consider the fabrics that you’re wearing.

Cotton is a common but poor choice on the road. It’s heavy, slow to dry, and doesn’t breathe as well as wool.

I recommend wool and synthetic performance fabrics.

Wool is ideal because it keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The downside is that high-quality wool clothing can be expensive.

Merino wool t-shirts can cost $40-80. Wool socks can cost $10-15 per pair.

Treat wool clothes as an investment. Save up. Buy a small number of high-quality pieces. Take care of them. A wool t-shirt may be expensive, but you can wear it under anything and wash it as often as you need to on the road.

Wool fights off odors much longer than sweat-wicking performance fabrics.

An Icebreaker shirt will cost more but last longer than a cheap t-shirt from Target. Don’t think about the total price. Think about the cost per wear.

Cost per wear is how I justify buying expensive jeans. A well-built pair of raw denim jeans are expensive. But I wear them every day, and they’re tough as hell. If anything happens, I just pay a few dollars to patch them up.

Break the cycle of cheap, disposable junk.

Buy good stuff so you can buy less stuff.

Performance fabrics are cheaper than wool. They do a nice job of wicking away sweat but will smell bad if you don’t wash them after wearing them.

Either invest in wool or be willing to give your synthetic fabrics a quick wash at night.

For performance fabrics, I like Under Armour and Nike. Under Armour’s HeatGear and Cold Gear lines are designed for athletes and work well for their respective weather conditions. Nike’s Dri-Fit offers good breathability in hot weather.

For socks, we recommend Smartwool.

I know. They’re just socks. What’s the big deal? Why so expensive? Because they kick ass. Smartwool socks have my strongest endorsement.

They feel great, they let your foot breathe, they don’t fall down, they fit snugly, they’re durable, and they’re easy to wash and dry. Smartwool socks cost $12-15.

We also like ExOfficio underwear for keeping you dry and eliminating odors. They’re also very easy to wash and can dry overnight. A pair of ExOfficio underwear will cost $10-15.

#7: Simplify Your Color Palette

Pick a simple color palette and only pack clothes that fit that palette. I wear blues and grays.

By sticking to a simple color palette, you can maximize the number of outfits for the clothes that you’re bringing. Everything should match. Anything can be worn with anything else.

For example, four shirts and four pairs of pants should yield sixteen, not four, outfits. Four tops times four bottoms equals sixteen outfits (4*4 = 16).

Bring pieces, not complete outfits, to maximize the number of looks that your travel wardrobe can yield.

Limit hard-to-coordinate colors and patterns to accessories. Wear that printed scarf if it makes you happy.

For advice on how to make a travel wardrobe look stylish, check out Travel Fashion Girl’s 9 Piece Travel Essentials Packing List. Men can read my post on men’s travel style.