You want to feel free like a bird on your travels, not packed like a mule! That’s why it’s worth thinking carefully about you’ll pack and how you pack it.
When you force yourself to pack lighter and smarter, you can avoid checking in your luggage and you can benefit by saving money, time, hassle, and just being so much more mobile during your trip.
I’ve been travelling all my life and as a travel blogger for over 10 years. My packing system has only become more streamlined over the years. Even for long trips, I generally keep my packing weight under 10kg.
It wasn’t always that way. I, too, once packed like a doomsday prepper, filling my bag with completely unnecessary gear. But with a little work and a minimalist approach, you can easily get it down to just a carry-on bag. Here I will show you exactly how to pack light.
Benefits of packing light
Save money on flights
You can avoid check-in fees on many airlines by having carry-on-size luggage only. It’s most common to avoid fees this way on shorter-distance flights, but increasingly long-haul flights now also offer the option of a ‘basic economy’ fare that only includes carry-on luggage.
Easier to pack and unpack
With less stuff to rummage through it gets easier to pack/unpack, easier to find things, and harder to lose things.
Always in control of your luggage
Packing light makes it easier to always keep your luggage with you, instead of having to hand it over to porters, luggage handlers, and other people who could mishandle your belongings.
Lighter luggage simply makes it easier to travel by reducing the effort it takes to move around. Stairs, cobbled streets, and other terrain become easier to navigate. Your back and feet won’t hurt as much. You can change locations much more easily during your trip if you pack minimalistically.
Rules for minimalist travel
You can pack light by following a few simple principles:
1. Pack the must-haves, not the nice-to-haves
If you’re going on a big or far-away trip, you can quickly end up packing ever more things just because ‘more stuff’ feels somehow comforting and safe. But resist this urge to be overprepared! Think long and hard about every item, then eliminate anything you don’t absolutely need.
2. Bring versatile instead of special-case items
Focus on items that will be useful to you all the time or that have multiple uses, and think twice about anything you’ll use only on unique occasions. Keep in mind you can often rent gear locally (e.g. trekking gear), or find a cheap temporary fix instead of carrying something for one-time use. For clothing, packing layers is more versatile (e.g. a shirt can be a base layer in a cold climate or a top layer in a warm climate).
3. Pack one week’s worth of clothing
It’s much easier to do laundry than to carry weeks’ worth of clothing. Pick some versatile favorites with a simple color palette so that you can easily mix and match every item.
4. Use a packing list (if it’s your own!)
“Use a packing list” is a mantra you see repeated everywhere. But as far as I’m concerned this doesn’t mean just grabbing packing lists from the web and copying them line for line. This approach is very likely to cause you to overpack.
Most packing lists out there are padded with unnecessary stuff as they compete to be the ‘most complete’ (or to promote products), so just pack what seems most sensible for your trip. You can however write down your own personal packing list so that you’re reminded next time you travel — then add or remove things over time based on what you’ve learned.
5. Don’t pack in a panic
It’s best to pack at least a day before the start of your trip. If you try to pack just hours before departure, you’re more likely to quickly stuff your luggage with things you don’t need. (I’m a professional traveller and I still pack about 3 days in advance, just so I can do it in a calm and controlled way!)
How to pack light
Step 1: Weigh your luggage
You can’t pack light when you don’t know exactly how much you’ve packed, so be sure to use a scale to prevent any unfortunate surprises at the airport. This also helps you prioritize lighter items.
Step 2. Choose the right luggage
It’s hard to pack that well if you don’t have the right luggage to put things in! That’s why you may find it worth investing in some nice luggage that will help you pack lighter.
There are two things to consider: size and weight.
Note: I’ll be showing a backpack in this article as that’s what I use for my style of adventure travel. But you can use the same packing principles if you’re packing a suitcase.
Using smaller luggage
Sticking to a smaller luggage size is such a great way to force yourself into packing lighter.
You see, a funny thing happens when you’re using a big suitcase or backpack: even if you don’t intend to fill it completely, you will probably find a way to do it. Simply having more available space can easily trick you into overpacking.
I see it all the time with backpackers and adventure travelers carrying humongous 70 or even 80-liter backpacks around the world. Merely by using a bag that’s too big to start with they end up waaaay overpacking. They sweat, they curse, they toil — even when it’s not at all necessary to pack so much for most trips.
So instead, I suggest getting something with a maximum capacity of around 35 to 40 liters. This is the typical volume of a carry-on compliant size bag.
It’s true that for some trips this might not be quite enough. For example, for a very long trip through multiple climates that requires lots of different (winter) gear. But I find a carry-on bag sufficient in most cases. I even traveled around the world for 2 years with just a carry-on.
Choosing lightweight luggage
The weight of the luggage itself also makes a difference. Some backpacks and suitcases use heavier materials, or they have lots of extraneous features making them heavier than others. This can needlessly weigh you down.
I usually reach for my trusty Osprey Farpoint 40 (check it at Osprey, Amazon, or REI). It’s carry-on sized and weighs about 1.6kg or 3.5 lbs. That’s about half a kilo less than many other more elaborate backpacks. That’s half a kilo’s worth of weight allowance freed up instantly.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that you throw your perfectly fine luggage in the trash to buy something else that’s just a little bit lighter. But if you’re getting into one-bag travel or just optimizing your new gear, then you could go with a lighter option.
Backpacks that weigh around 1.5kg include the Osprey Farpoint 40, and the Cotopaxi Allpa 35. I keep a list of best travel backpacks which you can check for the latest reviews.
Cabin Zero packs are also an extremely lightweight choice. Check out the Cabin Zero Classic, which weighs just 760 grams or 1.7 lbs. These packs are super basic though so in terms of features they might not be for everyone. Another very lightweight option is the Osprey Daylite Carry-on Travel Pack, which is only 1kg.
Similarly, suitcases can be made of lighter or heavier materials, so it can be worth choosing a lightweight design.
Step 3. Pack the essentials
Alright, time to pack. Let’s do this!
What follows is exactly how I pack. Of course, this is only an example.
Based on your type of trip, your gender, or style you may want to pack some other things.
When it comes to clothing I try to be quite minimalistic. Regardless of trip length, I never pack more than about a week’s worth of clothes. I find that it’s just easier to wash clothes during a trip than to have to pack a giant wardrobe.
For clothing, I usually pack these:
- 6 or 7 shirts or t-shirts — only ones that I know I’ll be happy to wear regularly.
- 7 pairs of underwear. Some say you should bring as few as 3 (one to wear, one to wash, and one to dry), but I prefer having fresh underwear regularly, thank you very much. Maybe I’m just a little weird like that!
- 3 pairs of pants/trousers. For hot climates, 2 of these will be shorts
- 3 pairs of socks for tropical climates, about 7 for temperate or cold climates
- 1 sweater or hoodie
- Wind/rain jacket
- Cap or hat
In tropical destinations, I just sleep in shorts and a tank top. In colder climates, I’ll add a pyjama.
Winter trips do need some additional bulky stuff, like jumpers, a hat, a coat, etc. Luckily, many of these outerwear items can be on your body most of the time, so not all will need to be packed. You can also layer your clothes so you can use them flexibly for various climates.
Sometimes it can be worth buying multi-functional clothing. For example, these zip-off travel pants can be used both as trousers or as shorts. (Check out these dual-purpose zip-off pants at Amazon, or these options at REI if you’re US-based.)
It can also be worth investing in some merino wool clothing. This material is expensive but has many advantages; it provides warmth when it’s cold, keeps you cool when it’s hot, has the incredible ability to stay warm even when wet, and dries much faster than cotton. (Gee whiz!)
Merino is pricey but I find it worth it mostly for hiking. Even on multi-day treks, you can keep stinkiness at bay with some merino wool socks and a merino t-shirt.
My jacket is a Patagonia Torrentshell 3L. I’ll be honest: I used to think of this type of premium brand being overpriced, but then my partner got me this jacket and I ate a thousand crow. as it’s legit become my favorite travel item. It’s lightweight but perfectly protects against the elements, while also having an amazing feel to it. It neatly packs into one of its own pockets.
I now hugely see the value in investing in a high-quality outer layer. A great jacket lets you brave the elements, so it’s really an essential travel tool. Even when it’s not windy or rainy, it can be used as a casual jacket.
I’m not sure why people recommend umbrellas. They are bulky and prone to getting damaged in strong winds — and umbrellas don’t keep you warm! A good jacket is a lot more versatile.
Footwear is hugely personal, but here’s what I pack:
- 1x hiking or comfortable walking shoes
- 1x backup/everyday shoes (usually low-top canvas sneakers)
- 1x flip-flops
My main travel shoes are a pair of Merell low-top hiking shoes. I love to hike so they are perfectly suited for this, though I chose a model that doesn’t look too technical so I can also wear them in non-hiking situations too.
I have the Merell Annex Trak, but the classic Merell Moab is pretty similar.
As a secondary pair, I usually bring low-top Converse All-Stars or similar canvas shoes. That’s because these fold up nicely and take up very little space. When travelling in a tropical climate, I might bring sandals instead of a second pair of shoes.
When it comes to toiletries the most important thing is not to pack full-size bottles. They are just too bulky! Liquids can’t exceed 100ml anyway when flying carry-on.
One solution is to get some empty 100ml containers and pour in some of your products. If you can’t live without your favorite 100% organic cocoa wild fig truffle oil shampoo, then this is definitely the way.
(Seriously though, not everyone likes the complimentary products offered by hotels. In more basic hostels or guesthouses, you might not get such amenities anyway, especially in adventure destinations.)
Personally, I prefer not to bring any liquid shampoo or soap at all. It weighs much less to pack a simple soap bar and it lasts much longer too. All you need is a nice case to keep your soap in.
Fun fact: 70% to 90% of the weight of shower gel is just water!
For a longer trip, I will also pack a shampoo bar. These work just like a soap bar: simply rub it in water and you’ll get some lovely foamy shampoo.
A 100ml shampoo bar can last as long as one big 750ml bottle. Assuming you wash your hair once every few days, one bar can last you many months. This is amazing if you’re a long-term traveler. By using bars you also remove any risk of any spills during transit.
Shampoo bars are not too difficult to find. For example, the cosmetics retailer LUSH sells them in many varieties. You can also find several shampoo bar brands on Amazon.
As for the rest of my toiletries, I try to stick to the basic necessities. Full disclaimer: I’m a pretty basic guy, but I can make do with:
- Toothbrush + paste
- Small roller deodorant
- Some matt clay for my hair
- Beard trimmer
- Some razors and cotton buds
- Solid soap + shampoo
- 100ml moisturizer
I store these in a Peak Design wash pouch, which is my favourite toiletry bag that I’ve used.
This list is clearly male-focused and you might have different items in mind. The point is just to try to keep it to the essentials, whatever that means for you.
If you’re staying in hostels then you’ll find most don’t offer towels, but plenty of budget hotels don’t either. That’s why I bring a lightweight microfiber travel towel. These weigh at least 10 times less than the average cotton towel.
Some people don’t like their velvety texture, but you are not supposed to actually rub this type of towel on your skin. After showering, use your hands to remove most of the water first, then just gently pat yourself dry.
Microfiber travel towels dry much faster than cotton ones, which is great if you’re switching between accommodations often during your trip.
Organization is super important as it helps you pack better. It also makes it harder to lose things whenever you’re packing and unpacking.
For some basic organization, I use packing cubes. I’ve used over a dozen brands and I have two favorites: eBags slim packing cubes if you’re on a budget, or Peak Design packing cubes if you want something a bit nicer.
This is a small Peak Design cube that I use just for socks and underwear. The Peak Design cubes have flexible materials and multiple zippers and I like using them a lot.
I keep my dirty clothes in this world map laundry bag with a drawstring. This keeps the stinky clothes nicely separated and I really like the world map print.
If you need to pack for multiple climates, consider bringing a compression bag for storing e.g. your winter items when you no longer need them.
A compression bag lets you suck all the air out of it turning them into a nice and flat little pancake. It’s not ideal for items you use all the time, but it’s great for putting things into deep storage.
Finally, if you expect to be in- and around the water it can be worth bringing a waterproof bag. I learned my lesson when I got my passport and money utterly soaked in seawater once when I took these with me on a boat, so now I always put my papers and valuables in a dry bag.
Alternatively, you can get a smaller dry pouch so you can use your phone/camera around the water.
The kind of electronics you bring will likely have a huge impact on packing weight as they have some of the most variable weights and sizes.
I’ve traveled with numerous electronic devices over the years, including a Macbook, a Dell XPS laptop, a Chromebook, an iPad, and a Kindle. I’ve finally settled on the simplest solution for me: a mini tablet.
My Samsung Galaxy Tab Lite A7 is absurdly light, weighing only 360 grams. Its modest dimensions are ideal for travel as it will easily fit on a tray table and can be held like a pocketbook. I also got mine on sale for just over 100 Euros, making it far less theft-sensitive than my 1500+ Euro Macbook Air.
Being roughly the size of a pocketbook makes this an ideal travel device.
This mini tablet is perfect for:
- Reading e-books (the screen resolution isn’t perfect, but it’s pocketbook size and fine for reading an e-book or two)
- Watching video (it fits perfectly on an airplane or train tray table)
- Backing up my travel photos and videos (it supports SD cards up to 1TB)
- Travel research (easier to have multiple tabs open than on a phone)
- Taking quick travel notes
It’s honestly a very slow device but I bought it specifically for travel. It’s a device I can always just throw in my bag and not worry about at all. Despite its limited specs I adore this device for basically everything except doing serious work.
For a small tablet that’s actually fast, consider a Samsung Galaxy Tab Lite S6 or an iPad mini.
These days I try not to work while I’m on the road, but if you’re a digital nomad or remote worker, you should obviously bring a laptop.
An ultrabook is definitely the way to go if you want both speed and mobility; you can check my recommended laptops for travel. I have a Macbook Air which weighs about 1.3kg, but I only pack it if truly necessary.
- In-ear headphones. After losing my noise-cancelling Sony WF1000XM4s on a flight once, I now just stick to cheap wired headphones. It’s just less theft/loss sensitive. In any case, I leave my chunky over-ear headphones at home.
- USB-C charger. I’m trying to standardize everything around USB-C: phone, tablet, camera, etc. That way you need just one charger.
- Universal Plug Converter. Many plug types are used in countries around the world. With a converter, you don’t ever have to worry about this.
As a travel blogger, I do need to bring additional gear to document my trips. I use a Micro Four Thirds camera by Panasonic. Although it’s become a bit of a niche format, I love the quality it offers despite using smaller lenses than your typical full-frame cameras. This makes it easy to carry multiple lenses in my daypack.
I don’t always bring a drone, but when I do it’s my DJI Mavic Mini (it weighs only 249g).
Useful items or gadgets
Finally, some (multi-) functional items that I like to pack:
This Buff is made of a special seamless stretchy material. You can use these to create a bandana, sweatband, scarf (great for motorbiking), sleeping mask, or sun guard.
An inflatable travel pillow is pretty compact. I take this only on trips where I’ll have some very long journeys.
An LED head torch is essential for adventure destinations, early morning hikes, etc.
A number padlock is 100% a must if you’re staying in hostels. Get a number padlock so you don’t have to worry about losing the keys. I prefer a small wire padlock that I can also use to secure my luggage during transit.
First aid kit with some essentials. Besides the band-aids and such, I also like to include some painkillers, loperamide (to stop diarrhea) and anti-mozzie stuff, so this also doubles as a travel medication kit.
Another helpful small item is to get a hook to attach to your luggage. This will let you hang a mug, water bottle, towel, or shoes on the outside of your pack. It’s a great way of creating some extra space or drying out your gear.
I like the HeroCLIP brand of carabiners because these are strong enough to also hang your entire luggage. This means you can easily hang your backpack on a wardrobe rail, a fence, or on a tree branch.
Backup debit card. I always travel with multiple means of payment. It’s highly worth signing up for a free Wise debit card. Wise actually offers very fair exchange rates between currencies and even free ATM withdrawals abroad (up to a certain maximum).
In general though, if something is too gimmicky or the use case too specific, I tend not to pack it.
But… you’re a guy!
I’ve received many compliments from other travellers on my light packing over the years. But I’ve also often heard the claim that I can only pack minimalistically because I’m a guy.
I guess the idea is that because I’m a dude I can go full Bear Grylls style and be a total dirtbag with only one t-shirt to wear (not true!), while women always need a huge wardrobe and so on.
It’s true that as a woman you might want or need to bring more toiletries, cosmetics, or clothing accessories. However, I’ve seen so many great examples of women travellers who keep things super light (e.g. see this or this or this.) that I don’t think gender plays that big of a role.
Many women’s clothes are actually smaller/lighter than men’s versions, so I think that cancels out some of the additional items you may wish to pack.
Of course, my example is basic and maybe not for a flashy holiday where you need something fancy to wear every evening. I don’t go for the most stylish choices, just pure practicality.
Final packing tips
Whatever you decide to bring, one of the best ways to prevent overpacking is not to pack at the last moment! Pack at least one day before.
If you’re in too much of a hurry, you might stress out and stuff your bag too full. If you’ve ever panicked before a trip, you know what I’m talking about.
Oh, one more good rule: try to keep a quarter of your bag empty. This makes loading and unloading easier and this space can be used for storing souvenirs or gifts.
Finally, remember that there are shops all over the world, even in seemingly remote places. If you forget something, you can usually still buy it there. Yes, they do have toothpaste in Borneo!
Travel light essentials – my full list
Packing and organization
Some links may be affiliate links, meaning I may earn commission from products or services I recommend. For more, see site policies.