- I’ve been traveling and working abroad for two years with nothing more than a carry-on backpack.
- Through trial and error, I’ve perfected a system that leaves me with as little luggage as possible whenever I move to a new destination.
- Here are 11 of my best tips for packing light that you can use on your next trip.
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In January 2017, I left America for Switzerland with a 65-liter backpack that was so big, it could almost double as a sleeping bag.
I packed the night before with not much forethought, adding clothes left and right because I thought they were warm, or cute, or whatever. I filled every inch of space.
I knew nothing about travel backpacks and didn’t consider the fact that I’d have to lug it around Europe with me – through train stations, on and off buses, and down random cobblestone streets.
The bag was so heavy, in fact, I’d drag it behind me as though it had wheels. (It didn’t.) After too many frustrating tear-filled moments, I knew we had to part ways. (Plus, I was only wearing about half the clothes inside.)
Through trial and error, I eventually learned to travel with just a 45-liter backpack that was just small enough to be a carry-on bag on most airlines. For my digital nomad lifestyle, it’s perfect. And now that I’ve been traveling and working abroad for two years, hopping from country to country, there’s no way I could go back to using a bigger bag or suitcase.
But how do I pack light? Here are 11 of my best tips if you’re trying to limit your luggage on your next trip.
Read on to see how you can start saving space in your bag.
Lay out what I want to take, then remove half of the items
The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve learned that there’s a big difference between what I want to take with me versus what I need to take with me.
I once heard that Anna Paniagua, founder of LaTravelista.com, lays everything she wants to bring onto the bed and then removes half of the items. I started using her system – and it works.
Use a smaller bag to begin with
By using a bag smaller than the bag I’d really like to use, it gives me a limit – otherwise, I could just keep stuffing more and more inside (like I learned the hard way with my 65-liter bag).
Plus, if you only travel with a carry-on, you get to avoid the cost of having to check a bag.
Bring mostly solid-colored clothing
An easy way to eliminate many clothing items from your suitcase is by choosing a few favorite solid-colored items – such as a pair of black pants and a pair of beige ones. (Personally, I travel with a pair of pink ones and a pair of red ones.)
Then, your chances will be higher that the non-solid tops you bring will match.
Don’t bring bulky items
When I moved abroad, since it was winter in Switzerland, I brought along way too many bulky sweaters and hoodies. I ended up wearing the same one almost the whole time, as well as the same pair of ski pants that I had bought there.
Now, if a jacket does not fold up easily, I make sure to wear it on the plane (or train or bus) and never pack it. I also bring along a packable down jacket (it rolls up in its own pouch and takes up little space) – and it can also be used as a travel pillow.
Similarly, unless I wear them on the plane, train, or bus, I no longer bring jeans, jean jackets, or anything made from jean material. They simply take up too much space.
Don’t bring wrinkly materials
Another hard lesson learned was not to bring along items that need to be ironed, like cotton dresses, which started taking up too much of my precious packing space.
Aside from irons not always being readily available while you’re traveling, it’s also time-consuming to have to iron something before wearing it. It makes sense to leave those out of your suitcase.
Now, I bring a couple Unbound merino wool shirts (one short-sleeved, one long-sleeved), as well as polyester dresses that don’t wrinkle when I roll them up (Target has great ones, and for under $30).
Don’t bring a lot of the same item
If you can’t decide what dress to pack – maybe you want to bring your top five favorites – ask yourself: Will you really need five different dresses?
I was once this person, but then found I wore the same couple again and again. They were the ones that required the least amount of maintenance – they could be washed in the sink, would dry quickly, and didn’t wrinkle.
Make sure to roll your clothes and use oversized Ziploc bags or packing cubes
While some people roll their clothes, then put them in plastic bags and vacuum seal them shut, it’s good to leave some spare room in your bag.
Limit how many pairs of shoes you bring
Limiting how many pairs of shoes you take is an easy way to pack lighter. These days, I wear one pair of shoes – Palladium baggy canvas boots that can be buttoned up or down – and pack the others, like my sandals that work both in warm weather and in the shower: Ipanema Wave Heart flip-flops.
If I’m in a cold destination and need winter boots, I find some on sale there, wear them for the duration of my trip, then give them away to someone I know or to a secondhand store. After all, there’s no use lugging winter boots around Portugal all summer.
Play a game: If you buy something, give something away
When I first started traveling full-time, the more countries I lived in, the more I’d want a fun local item of clothing, like a unique skirt or jacket. But that’s a quick way to acquire excess baggage.
So I started to play a game: Each time I wanted to buy something new, I’d have to give something away. I’d either donate it to a thrift store or give it to a local I’d befriended.
Limit toiletries, jewelry & other items
Toiletries and jewelry not only may take up a lot of cargo space, but they’ll also add a lot of weight to your bag. For instance, getting a shampoo bar from Lush can help you save space (and it’s also good for the environment). Honey is my personal favorite and one bar can be used for 80 washes.
The same goes for items such as books. I used to be anti-Kindle – I love a good old-fashioned three-dimensional book. But they weigh more than your phone or Kindle full of your favorite books. I still carry one “real” book, but once I’ve read it, I give it to somebody during my travels.
Do a trial run before your trip
One of the best things I started to do before leaving one country for the next was doing a trial run of everything in my bag. If I was going to Madrid for a month, for example, I’d pack the week before and see what items I wore and used from my bag for a one-week period. I’d then unpack whatever remained untouched and not take it along.