If sore shoulders, checked bag fees, broken luggage and a lone suitcase left stranded on the tarmac of the Madrid airport have taught me one thing, it’s this: Pack light to travel well.
How light? Whether traveling for three days or three weeks, if I’m flying somewhere I only bring two bags. The first is a duffel bag or roller board weighing 22 pounds or less, since that’s the limit for small airlines. According to backpacking experts, that’s also my ideal pack weight — 1/4 to 1/6 of body weight. The second bag is a little 14-liter backpack of in-flight essentials.
Why carry-on only? Traveling well means having enough clothes and travel essentials to be comfortable without hauling around things I don’t really need. The less I carry, the less I have to worry about. Packing light is easier on the environment and saves time and money every time I do it — no lost luggage, no airline baggage fees, no waiting at a check-in line or luggage carousel.
Every trip, I start with a core packing list and consider calendar, climate, culture and comfort. From there I create a travel wardrobe of outfits. Here’s how:
1. Create a Calendar Chart
Write three headers on a piece of paper: Outfit, Day, Activities.
- Under Day, write a row for each trip day — Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.
- Under Activities, jot where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing. Note planned outings — flights, tours, day trips, reservations, events.
- Under Outfit, note what outfit type(s) you’ll need for each day.
- Then, count how many times you’ll wear each outfit type across the trip.
You’ll find that most trips only require these three or four kinds of outfits, regardless of how long you’re traveling or what you’re doing:
- Sightseeing: 7 times = 3 outfit variations
[Silk tank or Cotton tank] + [Cardigan or Sweater] + [Black skinny jeans or Blue skinny jeans or Joggers] +[Booties or Sandals or Sneakers]
- Travel Day: 6 times = 2 outfit variations
[Cotton tank or Tee] + [Down vest and/or Sweater or Cardigan] + [Dress Coat or Light Jacket] + [Running tights or Joggers] + [Sneakers or Booties]
- Outdoor Exploring: 2 times (2 back to back days) = 2 outfit variations
[Tee and/or Swimsuit] + [Down vest and/or Light jacket and/or Rain jacket] + [Running tights or Running shorts] + [Sneakers]
- Going Out Somewhere Nice: 4 times (2 back to back days) = 3 outfit variations
[Silk Tank or Dress] + [Cardigan and/or Dress coat] + [Black skinny jeans] + [Sandals or Booties]
Most days you’ll only need one outfit (“sightseeing” day in Barcelona), but some days you’ll need a few (“traveling” by plane to go “outdoor exploring” in the Alps then “going out” to a nice dinner in the French countryside).
If you’re wearing the same outfit type back to back two or three days in a row, you might want to create two or three variations of that outfit type — switching up a piece or two to create options, and to give your clothes a day to breathe between wears.
At most, you’ll find that you really only need 5-10 outfit variations (a week of clothes, give or take), even if you’re traveling for weeks on end in different climates — and that’s just enough to keep things fresh while keeping luggage light.
An example: I tallied 19 wardrobe changes on a 17 day trip to Europe: x7 sightseeing, x6 traveling, x2 outdoor, x4 going out. I didn’t need 19 different outfits — just to get dressed 19 times wearing those 4 different types of outfits. A few days were back to back repeat outfit types, so I threw in an extra pair of pants and some options for tops. In all, I needed no more than 10 outfit variations, with some of those variations just changing out a top or bottom:
So, a week’s worth of clothes is usually plenty. You don’t need to pack a dozen different outfits – just a few really great ones that you can wear everywhere. Lean into high-quality comfortable classics in a limited color palette — everything will match and easily keep up with the inevitable wear and tear of travel.
Tip: Super simple travel laundry will whittle this number down even more. Just wash your clothes in the bathroom sink with a few drops of castile soap — Dr. Bronner’s is my go-to. After washing, gently wring and lay wet clothes flat on a towel on the bed, then roll up the towel to soak up extra water. Unroll, smooth wrinkles out with your hands, then line dry overnight on hangers or a towel rack. Lather, rinse, outfit repeat.
A few other things to consider picking clothes and starting to pack:
2. Climate Check
- Check the upcoming weather forecast for each place you noted in Activities. Google place name + month you’re visiting + weather to see weekly forecasts, then scroll down for travel forums that talk about typical temperatures and gear tips.
- Jot down the overall forecast for each place you’re visiting — expected temperature range, chance of rain or snow, and weather advisories — storms, strong winds, heat waves.
- From there, log any special weather and adventure gear you might need — rain jacket, winter coat, gloves, sneakers, sun hat, swimsuit, water sandals, snow boots.
3. Be Culture Conscious
- Conservative countries tend to have certain customs and cultural norms around clothes. Researching and respecting any local and religious traditions helps you avoid unwanted attention and causing offense. Think scarves, hats, long sleeves, pants — take a minute to Google what’s good before you go.
- If you want to dress like a local, hop on Instagram and do a quick location search. Make sure you’re looking at “recent” versus “top” photos if you want to see this season.
- Research what’s not going to be locally available. It only takes a few minutes to check local travel tips, and can save you hours of time and make for a much more comfortable trip. For instance: In Europe, most hotels are BYO-washcloth and you’ll need a prescription to buy basic antibiotic cream. On the island of Roatan, bug spray is $15 a bottle. There’s no chocolate for sale in Mfuwe, Zambia, but local children adore travelers who bring along colorful stickers and mini-flashlights to share. Take the weekend train from Paris to Barcelona and you might have a multi-hour layover at beautiful old Latour-de-Carol station — sans café, sans salle de bains.
4. Choose Comfortable Clothes
- As you start selecting items to pack, be pragmatic in what you’re assigning for each outfit and think about your go-to pieces that you love to wear all the time.
- Leave behind anything that doesn’t fit quite right, is uncomfortable, and that you don’t think you’ll wear more than once.
- Be realistic: Fussy dresses and fumbly stilettos are not going to mix well with cobblestone streets on a laid-back trip.
- Pack natural and performance fabrics. They’re lightweight, handwash easily, dry quickly and don’t hold odor.
- Finally, if you’re not totally sold on bringing something along, leave it out.
Now that you’ve got your clothes calendar, climate and culture check, and comfort factors organizing, you’re ready to pack.
5. Get Packing and Organize it All:
Create a staging zone and eliminate the non-essentials. Make your bed and lay everything you’re packing on it. Sort it by category (tops, bottoms, jewelry, toiletries, electronics, etc.) and take a hard look for duplicates, near-identical items, things you don’t really need to bring, and things you don’t really want to bring.
- Buy travel size toiletries and refill with everyday versions, or decant into clean contact cases, cosmetic bottles or mini jars. Instead of liquids, pack solids, bars and sticks where possible.
- Natural castile soap is one liquid I do always bring along. It can be used for face and body, shaving, laundry, dishes, fruits and vegetables, and as toothpaste.
- Leave travel-size skincare, haircare, shower, first aid, and in flight kits ready to go — pre-packed and stored in your carry-on.
Pack and roll neatly to save lots of space.
- Pack the heaviest, least-used items in the bottom of your bag, along with anything you don’t think you’ll use on the first couple days of your trip.
- Stuff your shoes and hats with smaller items like socks, scarves, and tee shirts.
- Stack a few of similarly-shaped clothes (tanks, pants, dresses) on top of one another, tuck in sleeves and fold in half, then roll the folded set into a bundled tube — this will keep your clothes compact and wrinkle free.
- Remember to place in-flight essentials near the top of your bag along with anything you’ll need to take out at airport security.
Fact: Freezer bags are lightweight, waterproof, compression packing cubes.
- Freezer bags are a smart packer’s best friend. They weigh and cost virtually nothing and will store virtually anything.
- Think like with like — pack similar items close to one another in clear, waterproof snap baggies. Stash your toiletries, electronics, a first aid kit, in-flight essentials, medicines, and any other ‘groups’ of items into separate liter and gallon freezer bags.
- In a pinch, you can free up extra space in your bag by packing clothes, socks and underwear in 2-gallon Ziplocs, then gently squeezing the air out and sealing shut to create light compression bags.
- Pack a few extra empty freezer bags or small trash bags to separate out dirty laundry.
Layer, layer, layer: Weather permitting, wear your bulkier clothes and heaviest shoes when you know you’ll be walking a lot with your carry-on in tow. It’s so much easier to wear all of that weight across your body than to keep it all on a shoulder. You’ll also save a few precious pounds of baggage — helpful if you’re boarding a budget airline with a strict weight limit.
Take nothing precious, and get ready to adapt: I can’t say this enough — when in doubt, leave it out. Whittle away and you’ll be surprised how little you really need to have a great trip. It may also open your eyes to the kindness of the universe. A few years ago while I was staying in a small village in rural Africa, my lone pair of boots began to literally disintegrate from bush walks, sole and all. Our house manager sent them over to the neighbor, a cobbler, who had them repaired in an hour’s time. Spare yourself of keeping up with a heavy bag and you might even make a new friend along the way.
Does this packing formula really work anywhere? Well, over the past few years, this packing list has saved my grits on three continents, in all weather:
- 3 summer weeks in Paris, Barcelona, Ibiza, via planes and overnight train
- 3 spring weeks with snow in Belgium, then hiking, kayaking, history, a haunted castle and a dozen distilleries through Ireland and Scotland
- 2 summer weeks by plane and train, from Atlanta to DC to Brooklyn for a weekend wedding, followed by hiking and exploring Acadia, Bar Harbor, and Portland, Maine.
- 2 weeks out west, from Seattle to Olympic National Park to Vancouver and Victoria Island
- A bachelorette weekend with a rooftop champagne party followed by music festival glamping
- A long fall weekend in Savannah shucking oysters, Brocante browsing and island hopping
- 16 days in Chile with two galas, one winery, horseback riding, kayaking and rainforest hiking