How to Pack Light for Short Trips (with Checklists)

Jessie Beck

Not every trip is an epic adventure. More often than not, we travel for less than a week at a time. And while you may be tempted to reach for your usual suitcase to pack for a 3-5 day trip — resist. Packing for short trips is different than packing for a week or longer.

Short trips are usually single-destination and always quick. You won’t need as much, and forgetting something is usually less of a big deal. You’ll also have a pretty good idea of the weather and your activities, making it easier to limit your “just in case items” and stick to a lightweight, carry on only packing list.

Whether you’re a seasoned traveler looking for smarter or lighter ways to pack, or a green explorer (welcome!) trying to get your bearings straight, here’s what you need to know to pack well for a short trip.

Before You Prep, Check the Weather & Your Itinerary

A day or two before you leave, check the weather in your destination. Since your trip is short, you’ll get a pretty accurate idea of whether you’ll need your umbrella or not. This can really help you cut out unnecessary things, choose your travel wardrobe well, and make sure you bring the things you’ll actually need.

You should also think through your itinerary. Even if you’re more of a go-with-the-flow, spontaneous traveler, it’s helpful to know if you might be hopping on a trail or not before you start rustling through your closet.

Luggage: Use a Small Carry On Backpack

If you already travel with carry on only luggage, well done. However, you might want to consider using something slightly smaller than your usual bag — especially since using a larger bag might tempt you to fill those empty pockets and extra space with more stuff than you need. Instead of maximum carry on size, think weekender size.

Outbreaker

To illustrate, the 45L Outbreaker Backpack is the maximum size you’re allowed to carry on an airplane. You can comfortably fit a week’s (or more) worth of clothes, toiletries, electronics, and travel essentials in this bag– but you don’t need all of that for a quick trip.

For a short trip, you can definitely downsize, at least to the smaller Outbreaker 35L.

If you’re a heavy packer, then the 35L Outbeaker should be plenty of room for everything you want to bring for a short trip, or the souvenirs you’re planning to pack home with you.

Setout Divide

In comparison, the 26-liter Setout Divide Backpack has enough room for 3-5 days worth of clothes, travel-sized toiletries, a laptop, chargers, and a few other travel basics. It’s also expandable to a 34-liter bag, but the original size is only a little bigger than most commuter backpacks.

Like all of the Tortuga backpacks, it’s comfortable, minimalist, and smartly designed to keep you well organized. In other words, this backpack is right up your alley, speed-adventurer, and an ideal choice for short trips.

What Not to Forget: Start With Your Base List

No matter how long a trip is, there are some items we always pack, and won’t bring more or less of just because our trip is shorter than usual. These “always items” are the unchanging base of every packing list. Start by grabbing these:

Travel & In-Flight Essentials

Electronics

Toiletries

For short trips, keep everything under 3.4 ounces — even if you aren’t flying. It will allow you to skip the checked bag on flights, and for road trips or train travel, simply save you space and weight. I recommend getting a set of 1- or 3-ounce GoToobs, and filling them with your essentials.

Optional Add-Ons

Don’t already own all of the essentials? Take a look at our flight gear buyer’s guide for direction.

What Clothes to Bring: Short Trip Packing Checklist

Clothing tends to be the most varied element of any packing list. While you’ll always need your wallet, phone, and charger, you won’t always need 7 pairs of underwear or 2 sweaters — even if you love having extra outfit options when you travel.

For 3-5 day trips, limit yourself to 2-3 outfits you can easily mix and match. As an example, here’s a basic short trip packing checklist. I typically use this for 4-day trips, and I pick my in-flight outfit from this list (not in addition to it):

Undergarments

  • 4 pairs of underwear
  • 1 bra I can wear with everything
  • 1 sports bra
  • 2-4 pairs of socks

Clothes

  • 1 dress or jumpsuit
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 1 pair of leggings or shorts
  • 2 tops
  • 1 sweater and/or light jacket
  • Accessories (necklace, earrings)
  • 1 coat, hat, and scarf for winter travel

Shoes

Once you’ve gathered everything, use packing cubes to sort and organize them in your bag. With just these items, you’ll be ready for everything from a hike in the woods to a nice dinner out.

Ditch the Laptop: Can You Unplug?

Even the lightest laptops add a few pounds and bulk to your bag. Work trips aside, ask yourself if you really need it before slipping it into your laptop sleeve. Since this is a short trip, challenge yourself to be present and unplug.

In any case, your phone will allow you to do everything you absolutely need to do, and everything else can likely wait until you’re back.

Bonus: How to Pack Quickly & Be Ready to Go

While I actually enjoy packing (I know, I know, but did you really expect anything else from a woman who writes about packing?), I don’t always have the time to spend more than twenty minutes getting my stuff together. This is especially true before short trips since they have a way of either coming out of nowhere (spontaneous getaway!) or creeping up out of nowhere (wait, it’s August? When did that happen?).

To pack quickly every time, here are my two main tricks:

Leave your base items in your pack 

For things you only use while traveling, like your travel toiletries, in-flight gear, or packing cubes, keep them in your stored away backpack. This way, you won’t have to run around the house in search of everything.

Use a capsule wardrobe

Whether you create a capsule wardrobe for your everyday life or one specifically for travel, having fewer clothing options on hand makes it easier to choose what to pack. I’d recommend always having a few go-to outfits you can grab quickly and feel confident in while on the road.

TL;DR

If you’re about to head out for a 3-5 day trip and need to know what to pack, start with the items you always travel with, like your wallet, phone, chargers, toiletries, and in-flight essentials. Then, check the weather and choose 2-3 weather-ready outfits you can easily mix and match.

Put it all together and pack it in a smaller carry on bag, like the Setout Divide, rather than pushing the limits of your maximum carry on luggage allowance, so you can easily move about and avoid overpacking.

 

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