Tips for Packing Light: Life in a Carry-On

I am, by nature, not very good at packing light. When I go somewhere, I think of every possible thing I could need for my trip and try to shove it into the smallest bag possible. The result? Hair curlers, multiple pairs of shoes, too many toiletries, and an overstuffed, unzipped suitcase. Does this sound like you? Well, you’re in luck. There’s a quick fix for all of your packing needs.

Last summer, I had to pack one single suitcase for two weeks of volunteering in Central America, a week of conference-going, and two weddings. This meant a mixture of tattered, worn out clothing, business casual, and formal gear, collectively with all of the things I picked up during my travels. It was a crazy time, but I learned how to pack as little as possible for my time on the road. Since then, I was able to pack strategically and simply for all of my subsequent trips. Here are some of my most useful discoveries for packing light:

Roll your clothing items

Roll Your Clothes - Tips for Packing Light

If you haven’t heard of this age-old trick, try it on your next trip! Fold up your clothes as usual, but instead of folding in half, roll them up into a cylinder! This helps save space in your bag and also serves as a great organization system (you can roll shirts into one corner, bottoms into another, etc.). I love this packing method so much that I use it to organize my closet and dresser at home.

Bring items you can reuse and wash easily

Packing Light? Bring Items You Can Reuse

Who here has never reused a pair of jeans two or more times without washing them? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Reusable clothing (read: things that don’t get dirty or stink easily) is a godsend when it comes to packing light. My personal recommendations are black “jeggings” or jeans (jeggings are much more comfortable in my opinion), anything denim, black items (they won’t get dirty) and tights. These things are easy to reuse with any outfit!

When I went to Guatemala on a service trip, I knew that I would be getting my hands (and pants) dirty every day for work, so for a two-week trip, I just bought two pairs of pants- one for the dirty work and one for nicer occasions. For tops, I brought one t-shirt for every two days and I ended up donating all of the shirts that I brought on the trip at the end. While I don’t condone going this minimal on packing for every trip, it has and can be done.

Minimize the shoes

Shoes take up a lot of room. That’s why I try to limit the number of pairs of shoes I bring on any given trip. Truly, all you need is a pair of good walking shoes and a nicer pair for nights out. Of course, this always depends on what you are traveling for (eg. If you’re going to the beach, you’ll need flip flops or if you’re headed hiking, you’ll want some boots) and what kinds of activities you like to participate. Keeping this in your mind while packing will free up a lot of space in your suitcase (and in your life).



Accessories are the key to packing light

Instead of bringing more clothes, which take up a lot of space and weigh quite a bit, why not consider replacing those extra clothes with accessories? A simple black dress can be dressed up for three different nights out with different scarves, necklaces, earrings, and belts. These are a lot easier to carry around (read: you can pack more of them) and they will enable you to reuse your clothing and dress up the most ordinary of outfits.  Accessories are key to packing light.

Carry thick jackets and bulky items outside of your suitcase

When you have to travel to cold places from warmer ones, there’s often no need to wear a coat to the airport. Instead of shoving it into your suitcase, I recommend carrying it on its own instead. This will save you space for thick winter clothes, and your coat will also be on hand for when you need it upon landing. Plus, coats make great pillows/blankets on airplanes!

Forget the things you can live without

Packing Light?  Leave Unneeded Things at Home

This one might seem self-explanatory, but if you aren’t going to use it every day of your trip, don’t even think about taking it. I’m talking about everything from hair straighteners to extra shoes to purses and more. Electronics are a usual culprit – I’ve caught myself traveling with a tablet and two laptops all at once! Lay all of your belongings out on the floor or the bed, take the things that you’ll need for a majority of the days and leave the rest at home.


Traveling with less will lessen up your bags for a freer and lighter life. If you’re a serial overpacker like me, you’ll soon come to see why it’s so much easier to travel when you don’t have to worry about things. Getting rid of the clutter in your life will help you do more of what’s really important – exploring!


Do you have any other tips for packing light?  Let me know!


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Tips for Packing Light

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11 thoughts on “Tips for Packing Light: Life in a Carry-On”

  1. I’m on a hunt for avoiding overpacking tips, and creating a post about it, and found this article during the research. It’s funny how people actually don’t know why they are stuffing their bags with so many clothes, and the reason is psychology-related: people often look at clothes the same way as hoarders do. That is the reason most of packed clothing it never gets used on a trip or gets thrown away from a closet. Another great read from Steph. Sharing it and linking to it definitely.

  2. Oh my gosh, I am struggling with this so hard right now… I am packing for an indefinite travel trip, somehow having to go from a whole apartment (and walk-in closet) to a suitcase! I struggle with identifying what exactly I CAN’T live without.. hopefully a bit of time on the road will help me to realize what is truly necessary. Thanks for the post.

  3. Packing light…this is becoming my struggle as I prepare to head to Central America for a year. The idea of fitting my entire life into a backpack just seems impossible. The one thing I don’t struggle with, however, is shoes – I have no problem bringing only the basics. I’m right with you on packing clothes that can be reworn too!

  4. I am also a recovering over-packer so I can totally relate! I learned the hard way – lugging a giant bag up and down stairs in Italy where elevators are few and far between. These are all great tips for people trying to pack light. I also try to find reversible clothes, or clothes that can be used for more than one thing – my cropped yoga pants reverse from black to blue, and can totally pass as pajamas and leggings in addition to workout gear – a packer’s dream!

  5. *high five* I couldn’t agree with you more, and would definitely stress that last point to leave behind what you don’t absolutely need. We’ve done a few posts, too, about packing and prep for a big trip, but keeping it light is one of the simplest things you can do with the biggest impact on quality of travel IMO. Great post, Kay!

  6. Awesome advice- the only thing I would add is the thin packing sacks by Eagle Creek. The slightly compress my clothes (which I roll like you do) and organize them. I’ve been travelling with a carry-on for 6 months and have no problem.
    Great post- packing light is really the way to go.

  7. Such good advice! I wish I could pack light, but I inevitably pack too much:) I really like what you said about putting thick stuff on the outside. I travel with a yoga mat and it took me three months to figure out I could put it OUTSIDE my pack. Yeah, not my brightest moment:)

    My favorite tip is packing dark solid colors, because they don’t stain and go with everything. Then I pack some fun and bright accessories to liven things up.

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