A Light Packing List to Travel Anywhere with a Carry-On

My best advice for adventures anywhere? Pack light to travel well.

How light? Either a duffel or roller board weighing 22 pounds or less (the limit for small airlines, and an ideal 1/4 to 1/6 of my body weight), plus a little 14-liter backpack with in-flight essentials.

Why carry-on only? The less I carry, the less there is to worry about. Packing light is easier on the environment and saves time and money — no lost bags, checked bag fees, waiting at check-in or a luggage carousel.

What’s in the bag? Here’s my complete packing list:

I’ve whittled the list down traveling across four continents — everything from a long weekend to a few weeks abroad.

Items in italics are optional, depending on weather and what I’m doing on the trip.

To me, traveling well means having just enough to be comfortable. It also means spending a little time on what to pack, then how.


What to Pack

The Four C’s of Packing Well: Calendar, Climate, Culture, Comfort

1. Calendar: Write it down.

  • Number down a piece of paper, one line for each travel day.
  • Beside each Day, write where you’ll be and what you’ll be doingflights, tours, day trips, special reservations, planned events
  • Note what Outfit(s) you’ll need each day — sightseeing, traveling, outdoor exploring, going out.
  • Total each Outfit type, noting back-to-back days wearing the same outfit type.

See, most trips only require these three or four outfit types, regardless of where you’re going or why:

  • Sightseeing = Comfortable Top + Bottom + Shoes + Outerwear (or Dress)
  • Traveling = Comfortable Top + Bottom + Shoes + Outerwear
  • Outdoor Exploring = Athletic Top + Bottom + Shoes + Outerwear
  • Going Out = Nice Top + Bottom + Shoes + Outerwear (or Dress)

If you’re traveling more than a week, or wearing the same Outfit type a couple days in a row, just bring an alternate version of that outfit type — switch up a top or bottom to give your clothes time to breathe between wears. If you’re sticking to a limited color palette, all of your outfits will match, no matter the combination of pieces.

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. 

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.

An example: I tallied 19 “Outfits” 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.

2. Climate: Check the Forecast

  • Check weekly forecasts, then travel forums for seasonal gear tips. 
  • Note the overall forecast for each location you’re visiting — expected temperature range, chance of rain or snow, weather advisories. 
  • From there, log special weather and adventure gearrain jacket, winter coat, gloves, sneakers, sun hat, swimsuit, water sandals, snow boots.

3. Culture: Conscious and Considerate

  • Conservative countries tend to have customs and norms around clothes — think scarves, hats, long sleeves, pants. Research and respect these traditions to avoid unwanted attention or offense.
  • Look like a local by doing an Instagram location search for recent photos.
  • Research what’s not 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 example: In Europe, most hotels are BYO-washcloth and you’ll need a prescription to buy basic antibiotic cream. Take the weekend train from Paris to Barcelona and you might have a layover at Latour-de-Carol station — sans café, sans salle de bains.

4. Comfort: Is Key!

  • Choose comfortable pieces and go-tos that you love to wear all the time.
  • Pack natural and performance fabrics — they’re lightweight, handwash easily, dry quickly and don’t hold odor.
  • Leave behind anything that’s uncomfortable, doesn’t fit, or that you’re unlikely to wear more than once. On the fence? Best leave it out.
  • Be realistic — those stilettos will not mix well with cobblestone streets.

The Carry-On Only Wardrobe


How to Pack

Stage, Sort, Streamline, Stuff — Then Layer and Go.

First, create a staging zone and eliminate the non-essentials.

  • Make the bed and lay everything you’re packing on it. Sort it out by category (tops, bottoms, jewelry, toiletries, electronics, etc.)
  • 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.

Then 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 won’t use on the first few days of your trip. 
  • Stack a few of similarly-shaped clothes (tanks, pants, dresses) on top of one another, tuck in sleeves and fold in half length-wise, then roll the folded set into a bundled tube — this will keep your clothes compact and wrinkle free. 
  • Stuff shoes and hats with smaller items like socks, scarves, and tees.
  • Remember to place in-flight essentials near the top of your bag along with anything you’ll need to take out at airport security.

Use freezer bags (aka 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, grocery bags or small trash bags to separate out dirty laundry, muddy shoes and wet clothes.

Create pre-packed kits for toiletries, first aid and in-flight essentials.

  • 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.

Remember to dress in layers.

  • Weather permitting, wear your bulkier clothes and heaviest shoes to the airport, and any time you know you’ll be walking a lot with your carry-on in tow. It’s so much easier to wear the weight across your body than to pull or put on a shoulder.
  • By dressing in layers, you’ll also be ready for chilly flights and will save a few pounds of baggage — helpful if you’re boarding an airline with a strict weight limit.

Last, and 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.


Does this work anywhere? Here’s everywhere I’ve traveled with this list.

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  1. Caroline Shyu

    This post is so handy! Brian and I have been thinking about doing a Europe trip (but that might be put on hold for a bit because of the house), this will be super helpful when it comes time to pack!

  2. This is a great post! I’m always looking to downsize my packing, and have definitely gotten better over the years. I like your formula for # of outfits to days/activities- thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi! Beautiful blog and your fit details are always so helpful — can you give some please for the Grana joggers? I’ve been eyeing them too. What size did you get? How tight are they (any risk of panty lines?) and where do they hit on your leg? (Do they reach your ankles?) Thank you!

  4. Sure! I ordered the XS Grana pima joggers and they fit like a dream. I’m 5’8″, 125 lbs, 32x34x32 with athletic frame and typically wear a US 2-4 pant, 27 jeans, and small or xs shorts/stretch pants. They are slim fit but are not super tight in any spots on me, and the fabric is nice and thick so no panty lines on me (Grana’s new seamless panties are also really nice! I got smalls for those). The joggers do reach right at my ankles – perfect for me as I hate croppy capris and don’t like bunching up joggers that are too long. Hope this helps!

  5. Of course 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it!

  6. Ohhh Chad and I have a ton of recs when you’re ready to start planning. So excited you’ll be back in the A soon!

  7. Thanks so much!

  8. Hi! I’m a new reader. Really enjoying your blog. Starting the process of minimal & ethical wardrobe. I like the idea of silk basics but not the dry cleaning bill. You mention hand washing clothes in the shower–will you do that with your silk? Do some companies have silk that holds up to hand washing better than others? Thanks for any thoughts!

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  10. This is a FANTASTIC post! I’m definitely bookmarking it for later this summer has I have a 3 week vacation planned to Portugal, the Greek Islands, and Budapest. This will totally help me stay organized! Thanks for the tips Jess!

  11. Of course, and have SO much fun in Portugal, Greece, and Budapest. Can’t wait to see photos when you return.

  12. Same! I used to dry clean all of my silks and have since gotten much better about just handwashing in the sink or on delicate cycle in the wash with a little laundry detergent, then I let them air dry on a bedspread. If they’re wrinkled I hit them with this little steamer: https://bit.ly/1U9TpQW (sidenote: the first one I received sometimes spat out water as it steamed – I emailed the seller and they immediately sent a new one which is still working well a year in).
    I do have a few vintage silk tops that I still get dry cleaned as they are more delicate than my other tanks, but find that any thicker new silk top is easy to handwash. I am loving Grana tops as they are nice and thick with a bit of a sueded silk hand feel, so they don’t wrinkle as easily as thinner tops or Habotai silk. They’re also super affordable and ethically made in Hong Kong. The sizing on their website is super helpful, too. I got XS tanks and they fit really well. Everlane is another great source for great silk!
    For washing on trips, I can wear a silk tank at least 5 times before it needs a wash (so long as I give it a day to breathe between wears and it’s not boiling hot out), so most trips I just wait til I get home to wash. If something catches a stain or starts to smell, I take it in the shower and gently wash it with my Dr. Bronner’s or the hotel’s shampoo – the trick is to make sure not to wad everything up else it will crease badly. Then I rinse thoroughly and gently twist it lengthwise to wring out dripping water. Then I lay the top on a hotel towel, smooth out wrinkles, and roll the top and towel up lengthwise into a burrito so that the towel soaks up any extra water. Unroll it and put it on a hanger or dry towel and it will be dry by morning!

  13. Thank you!! This is so, so helpful & just the info I needed to feel comfortable ordering a silk tank.

  14. Elena Holl

    That post is just awesome!!! I am the badest packer ever and always forgot the half of the things I want to put into my lugage, haha!
    XO from Germany 🙂
    Elena
    ________________________________
    https://saintjeans.de/

  15. Great system for packing for some very different occasions and locales. Thanks for the amazing packing lists. I’m a sucker for a good printable list 🙂 And lovely picks. That alpaca sweater looks delicious.

  16. Jaime Clark

    Fantastic packing lists, thank you!

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