Travel Light: How to Confidently Pack Less

Most of us have heard about the people who travel the world with a single backpack. These people seem confident and spontaneous, if not a bit extreme. I admire these minimalists, but I like my comfort too much to copy them. Even if you don’t want to travel like a true minimalist, you can learn how to travel light.

Pack One Small Bag.

Why Bring A Single Bag?

When you travel, you want to feel prepared for every situation. But experienced travelers will tell you that the less you bring, the better. “The law of travel physics” says that no matter how big your bag is, you will pack it full. You can make do with a smaller bag than you think, and there are several reasons you should.

First of all, a bag that is carry-on size or smaller makes travel cheaper and easier. You won’t have to pay for a checked bag. You can get off your plane or train faster. Because a small bag is lighter, you can move much faster. If you need to run up a flight of stairs to catch your next ride, you’ll be glad that you aren’t lugging a big bag.

One bag travel is safer. You can keep your bag with you at all times, so it’s less likely to get stolen or lost during travel.

Finally, you might find more opportunities to experience your destination with less luggage. Thieves are less likely to target you because you won’t look like a tourist. You will be more “portable” and adaptable. Imagine the possibilities. Arrive at your destination early? You have the flexibility to squeeze in a quick tour because you don’t need to haul around a huge suitcase.

What Size Bag Should I Choose?

Once you’ve decided to try traveling with a single bag, you need to select a bag. It makes sense to choose a bag that is allowed as an airline carry on. This guide provides information on what sizes different airlines allow. Once you have booked your flight it’s a good idea to double check the official guidelines for your airline.

Travel expert Rick Steves suggests a 9” x 21” x 14” bag. This small size is easy to carry and also meets the allowable size for most airlines. If this small size doesn’t work for you, there’s no pressure. But why not give it a try first?

brown duffel bag on wood floor by a draped window and a white chair

If you’re concerned that you won’t be able to fit everything in your bag, you can try this exercise: Start with a bag that is 10-20% smaller than the one you want. (Keep the tags on it because you will return it later.) Pare down your packing list until you can fit everything you want to bring inside it. Then return the small bag and get the one you originally wanted. Now you know that everything will fit inside your bag, and you still have extra room for last-minute items.

For extra storage, you can bring along a pack-able day pack. When you arrive at your destination you can pull this out to use for day trips, food, or anything you need.

Choose a lightweight bag. The lighter your bag, the easier it will be to carry. Plus, you won’t come close to exceeding your airline’s weight limit. You may want to go with a soft sided suitcase; it should be lighter than a hard sided suitcase. If you’re carrying on your bag, you will be the only person handling it so you don’t need to worry about how sturdy it is.

Knowing the loopholes in airline rules might help put you at ease. On an flight you are usually allowed a personal item besides your carry on. You can bring a purse or extra bag for the personal item. And, wearing isn’t carrying, so you can put a few things in your pockets or wear your bulky clothing.

Pack Only What You Need.

How Do I Know What I Need?

You might prefer to make a list before you start packing. Or you might gather your items and pack as you go. Whichever method you prefer, you can make packing light work by evaluating each item you have selected. Ask before you pack it: “Do I really need this? Is this item truly necessary?”

fountain pen on top of blank spiral bound ruled notebook on wooden desk

One way to decide whether something is necessary is to pack for the best case scenario. Don’t consider every possible problem, or you will end up bringing way too much. Bring what you know you will need and then budget for things that can and will come up.

Consider buying consumable products, like toiletries and food, at your destination. Some people even buy clothing when they arrive and then donate before they leave. 

Choose Your Clothing Wisely

When it comes to clothing, many of us tend to bring too much. This goes back to what we discussed above: you should pack for the best case scenario. No matter the length of your trip, you should pack for 3-7 days and plan to do laundry.

As a rule of thumb, plan to bring around three of each type of clothing: “One to wear, one to wash, and one to dry.” Of course you are free to make a judgment call on whether three is enough. For children, you probably want to bring extra for those frequent outfit changes.

I know, no one dreams of doing laundry on vacation. But imagine how much lighter your suitcase will be if you bring less clothes. It’s probably worth the trade off. Options for laundering generally are plentiful, no matter where you travel. Many rental houses have a washer and dryer on the premises. You could use a laundromat if necessary, and in a pinch you can hand wash in the sink. Bring some powdered laundry detergent in your bag and you’ll be set.

Even if you have access to a dryer, it’s still a good idea to choose fast-drying clothing. If you get wet during your day’s adventures, you’ll be happy you’re not wearing cotton. Synthetic fabrics like polyester dry quickly, as does merino wool. Many travelers consider merino wool to be the gold standard. It resists wrinkles, regulates temperature, and needs less frequent washing.

If you’re planning to bring less clothes, then your clothing needs to fill various functions. For cold weather, plan to wear layers instead of bringing a bulky winter coat. Bring two adaptable pairs of shoes – one sturdy functional pair, and one for when you want to dress a little nicer. If you don’t have solid plans for a fancy evening out, leave your suit or gown at home and go shopping instead if you need to.

Maintain your fashion sense with clothes within a similar color scheme and style. Think “capsule wardrobe.” Bring clothes that mix and match, and you’ll have various outfits from only a few pieces of clothing.

A Word On Toiletries

Limit which toiletries you bring. Many hotels and rental properties provide toiletries. Even if toiletries aren’t provided, you should be able to pick up what you need in the neighborhood. Shopping in the local store might even provide a fun experience of the culture.

It’s completely fine to bring your favorite toiletries along, but choose a travel size. If you’re flying and your item is a liquid, make sure that it meets the criteria for an approved liquid. You can buy small containers for this purpose. It’s even better if you pack solid products instead of liquids. Not only do you have to not worry about the liquids rule, but solids also weigh less and take up less space.

Books And Electronics

Save space in your bag by leaving books at home. You can find phone apps that contain the information that you’d find in a guidebook. Read for leisure on a tablet or an e-reader, or if you prefer a hard copy you can buy or borrow books at your destination.

Do you need your laptop? If you’re not working on your trip, you can probably make do with your phone or a tablet.

You might know that international electrical voltage is different. But you might only need a plug adapter instead of a voltage converter. You can read more about whether a multi-country universal plug adapter is all you need here.

A Few Tips From The Experts

Here are a few tips on how to pack light from frequent travelers.

  • Pack a quick-dry towel. This takes up hardly any space in your bag, and can come in handy in many situations.
  • Protect your passport from the elements with a simple plastic bag. You should also consider how to secure your passport while sightseeing.
  • Pack medicine that you would need in an emergency. You don’t need to bring your whole medicine cabinet, but it might be handy to have a dose of aspirin or nausea medicine.
  • Don’t buy souvenirs. Most of the time these items really aren’t even wanted. If you find something you just can’t pass up, then consider shipping it back home.

This video has some great tips on items to pack when traveling light.

Pack Efficiently.

When you have narrowed down the list of items you’re bringing, it’s time to pack. Whatever you do, don’t stuff everything willy nilly in a suitcase. Wadding your clothes is an inefficient use of space and leaves them full of wrinkles.

Several efficient packing methods are listed below. Choose one method or combine methods, depending on your preference.

“Fold And Roll” Method

In this method, you first fold your clothes and then tightly roll them. You can add elastics to keep them together if you like. Folding and rolling your clothes gets them quite compact, so you can have more wiggle room in your bag.

This video shows how to use the “fold and roll” method.

“Filing Cabinet” Method

In the “filing cabinet method,” you first fold your clothes into a square and then pack them in rows in your bag. This method takes up a bit more space than folding and rolling, but it allows you to see your whole wardrobe at once. If you will be living out of your suitcase, the easy access this method provides is ideal.

If you’d like a visual example of how to use this method, check out this video.

Packing Cubes

Packing cubes help to keep your clothes organized. If you like to keep your socks separate from your shirts when you travel, this method may be for you. Packing cubes don’t save space in your bag, though. If space is an issue, combine packing cubes with another method such as folding and rolling.

You can buy compression packing cubes. These will definitely save space, but could leave your clothes wrinkled. Be sure to choose wrinkle-free fabrics if you use compression cubes.

Mesh bags and clothing folders are two more options for organizing your bag. Explore what works for your needs.

A Few More Tips

Keep wrinkles minimal by taking the time to carefully fold and pack your clothes. Remember that some types of fabric, such as cotton, wrinkle more easily than others.

Think outside the box when packing your suitcase. For example, save space by putting socks and underwear inside your shoes.

Wear your bulkiest items while traveling so that you don’t need to pack them. Consider wearing your heaviest shoes instead of packing them. And wear your jacket, removing it when you sit down if it’s too warm.

Summary

Take the time to think through what you actually need to bring with you and have an organized packing system. Relax. If you bring less, you’ll be able to experience more.

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