We see them in airports, hotels and tourist destinations everywhere – tourists miserably dragging around a rolling heavy suitcase down the cobble streets of Europe and backpackers walking around with 70L backpacks that weigh almost as much as themselves.
To avoid looking like them and to maximize your happiness on the road, it is crucial to be able to pack lightly and smartly. To travel like a minimalist is to travel happy. There are many advantages to travelling light, including:
- Less stress about lost luggage
- No airline checked luggage fees
- More mobility and freedom to roam and change location
How do you pack efficiently while ensuring that you have all the essentials for a great trip? Here are 15 tips and tactics I’ve discovered through years of research with trial and error.
1. Always Start with a List
Airline pilots and NASA astronauts start with a checklist before any flight. Although you are not about to fly a 747 anytime soon, a check list forces you to stay organized and actually spells out what you think you need! I like to start it a few days prior to a big trip and add things I may have forgot about the as they pops into my head.
With a hundred things running through your mind prior to a trip, it may be easy to overlook both big and small things, such as your passport (!), a pair of sunglasses or your favourite pair of jeans. This is especially important on the day you leave as things may get left behind in the rush to leave the house. Check and double check the list!
2. Find the Right Bag
Just like Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands to fill the time available to its completion” I like to utilize a totally made up rule called Gary‘s Law, which states “your backpack and suitcase tends to fill up to its maximum space available.”
That means if you have a 50L backpack or suitcase, you will find a way to fill it with stuff. These days, I travel with the light yet strong 5.11 Rush24 37L backpack on month-long trips in order to make sure I’m only carrying the bare essentials. It also happens to be right at the maximum carry-on allowance of 21” x 15” x 9” / 53 x 38 x 23 cm to fit into an overhead bin.
3. Roll not Fold
Instead of folding your clothes, which results in unwanted wrinkles and takes up more space, learn how to roll your clothes tightly to maximize the compact space that they take up inside your luggage. Most travel experts and experienced backpackers swear by this method and will save you a lot of wasted effort trying to squeeze a bulging suitcase shut. With practice and in combination with the next method, you will have a solid combination of outfits to choose from while still keeping things light.
4. Use Compression Bags and Packing Cubes
Once you roll everything nice and tight, gently but firmly place them into packing cubes and compression bags. You can have one bag or cube for smaller items such as socks and underwear, and another for bigger pieces such as pants, dresses or shirts. This will help you stay organized, keep sane and never have to dig deep to find a t-shirt again.
There are other travel-aides that can help you stay clean and organized as well! Consider packing a nylon or paper shoe bag to help them stay fresh and to keep your other belongings from getting dirty.
5. Keep it Organized
I have also found a separate toiletry bag for your personal health products and medications to be essential. Mesh bags can also be a good idea to separate your dirty laundry from the rest.
Be sure to carry a few clear zip-lock bags around as well and any liquids in clear 100mL containers to get through TSA quickly and smoothly. They are life-savers and will prevent any nasty, surprise spills inside your luggage.
6. Use Layers and Wear Your Heaviest Clothing
Unless you’re going to Europe in the middle of winter or plan to hike the glaciers of Patagonia, there is no reason to bring or even stuff your luggage with heavy coats and winter jackets. If it’s spring, summer or fall, consider wearing multiple layers such as t-shirts with hoodies and fleece, or autumn jacket to stay warm in different climates during your global adventures. By packing your items in layer, it will also be much easier for you to go through security screening at airports.
I also like to wear my trust boots and a leather or denim jacket to board the airplane. They also keep me warm when temperatures drop midflight. This means my carry-on luggage is that much lighter and has more space to fit other items. While you don’t want to end up looking like the Michelin Man, you will want to wear as much as is comfortable on you onboard.
7. Pack One Week’s Worth of Clothing Max
This means I pack no more than 7 pairs of under wears, 7 pairs of socks, one pair of pants, one pair of jeans, 2-3 shirts and a collared shirt for more “formal” occasions. This still allows me to mix and match my look to keep fresh while remaining light. You an also throw in dryer sheets inside your bag to keep laundry smelling fresh.
Don’t fret, those useful things called laundry machines also exist on the other side of the world and other countries! Many Airbnb rental apartments, hotels and hostels will offer laundry service for a fee. Laundry services are also plentiful and easily found in cities and towns across Latin America.
For a truly budget option, you can always buy a bar of laundry soap and do it yourself! This means I do my laundry once a week while on the road. This is the perfect balance between packing smart while feeling and looking fresh.
8. Pack Dual-Purpose Items
Some items in your pack can serve two purposes. For example, I’ve used a pair of surfing shorts both as beach swim wear and gym shorts! Other examples include a t-shirt that could double as a towel (not that I recommend it) or a hoody that can fold up and turn into a pillow should the occasional demand. One of my favourite pieces of clothing was a pair of Prana Zion convertible hiking pants that can unzip to turn into cargo shorts until my luggage was stolen in Israel.
There are also companies out there that make multiple purpose travel clothing, such as hoodies that include a built-in sleeping mask, inflatable neck pillow, built-in gloves, etc. If you have one or two of these with you on your voyage, it will go a long way in minimizing redundancies and save space.
9. Pack for Best Case Scenarios
A lot of rookie travellers like to pack for every single contingency that can happen, which mean they end up carrying a lot more than necessary. What if it rains? I should really carry that umbrella! What if it’s super sunny, I need the giant bottle of sunscreen! Or what about a spare toothbrush / toothpaste / last season’s DVD of Game of Thrones, just in case?!
Unless you’re visiting some third world backwater, most cities and towns will have personal toiletries, sunscreen, umbrellas, bug spray and whatever else you need for sale in convenient stores, pharmacies and supermarkets. There is no need for you to clutter up your bag with these things en-route to your destination. When in doubt, leave it out.
10. Heavy Stuff at the Bottom
This might sound obvious but following this tip will reduce your back and shoulder strain like no tomorrow. Your heaviest items, such as shoes and bigger pieces of clothing in a larger packing cube (did you follow tip #4?) should be at the bottom. Then fill the rest of the space with lighter items. Follow this tip and your neck and should muscles can thank me tomorrow. This will also maximize the valuable space you do have inside your bag.
11. Maximize Your Personal Item
Difference airlines have different restrictions and guidelines on what constitutes a “personal item” and measurement restrictions. Some budget airlines will charge you even for a personal item like a laptop while others will be more lenient.
American Airlines, for example, has a generous 24” x 14” x 9” baggage policy while Hawaiian Airlines has a loose definition as “must fit below seat or overhead if available.” Whatever the case may be, research the limits ahead of time and pack a well-designed day bag or purse (for the ladies) which can fit under your seat but still hold a good amount of stuff even if packed to the brim.
12. Leave Home at Home
Travelling is supposed to put you out of your comfort zone and help you value experiences and memories over material things. This means learning to let go and leaving behind some of your world possessions at home where they belong. That beloved hair dryer, comfortable pillow or awesome album collection can wait while you’re gone exploring the new sights and sounds of the world.
This applies to people and relationships as well. While initially it might be difficult to leave your dog, friends or even significant other behind to travel, it is much more rewarding if you embrace the adventure in front of you. Learning to let go and being spontaneous and open to new relationships that might arise on the road will ultimately make for a much more rewarding trip.
13. Buy Your Way Out
You can relax knowing that if you’ve forgotten something behind or need something new, chances are you can buy it at your destination. Whether it’s an extra t-shirt, a selfie stick, a replacement charger, you’d be able to find it. I specifically set aside a small amount of my budget for these contingency purposes and it allows me to travel relatively stress free. Of course, I also make sure that I have good travel insurance.
14. Know Your Airline’s Luggage Policies and Fees
There is a huge inconsistency amongst different airlines on the size and weight restrictions of both checked luggage, carry-on bags and personal items. Depending on the type of ticket you purchased and any special membership status you have with the airline, your limits will be different.
Most budget airlines will charge you extra even if you go over their limits by just a little bit and major airlines won’t hesitate to charge you extra luggage or overweight fees. To avoid having to pay extra at the airport, do a quick search ahead of time on the airline’s website to make sure you stay compliant.
15. Leave Extra Room
Last but not least, save some empty space in your luggage for awesome stuff you find along the way. Just because you have a 30L suitcase, doesn’t mean you should fill it up with 30L worth of stuff.
You may encounter cool local souvenirs, delicious national foods and famous regional wines that you just have to bring home as gifts for yourself or family and friends. That bottle of delicious Italian red wine or aged Scottish whiskey definitely deserves room in your luggage on the way home!
There is no worse feeling than realizing you don’t have the real estate for it. Save yourself that feeling and give yourself a little bit of breathing room in your bag.
When you limit yourself to the size of a carry-on luggage, you’ll find yourself experiencing greater freedom and joy as a minimalist traveller. You will also enjoy the added benefit of being less likely to have your stuff broken. You think those luggage handlers at airports are going to be gently treating your checked bags with white gloves on? Heck now! They’ll be throwing it around it around onto carts and carousels like a bag of potatoes at a farmer’s market!
When in doubt, follow the old adage: spread out everything that you think you need to bring with you on this trip and then bring half of that.
There you have it, my best packing tips and tricks in one blog post. Hopefully you’ve found a few or all of them to be helpful and learned something new. Just remember that a light traveller is a happy traveller. Be a savvy adventurer and not an overloaded tourist!
Did I miss any packing tips or hacks that you’ve discovered along the way? Leave a comment and let me know.
Until next time,