How to Pack Light & Travel with Less (Like a Pro)

Man sitting on a bench waiting for a train with his lightweight backpack at his side
How to Pack Light & Travel With Less in 2023

Want to travel light? Then you’d better pack light! This simple bit of advice will fix most of problems if you’re a traveler who is weighed down with a suitcase that’s bursting at the seams and endangering anyone in its path.

Beyond bringing less, there’s more to the art of one bag packing and travel. If you’ve already slimmed down your luggage, there’s still plenty more you can do to lighten your load.

I’m a steadfast one-bag traveler with years of experience under my belt, and would love to share some of my best advice with you. Here are my best tips for packing (and traveling) light.

Maximize Your Carry-On Size for Optimum One-Bag Travel

A black Osprey brand backpack leaned against a white camper van
The Osprey Porter 46 is one of the largest available carry-on backpacks

I recognize the irony for this piece of advice. Joe, you just said to slim down your luggage, and now you want me to buy a bigger carry-on? Fair enough, but stay with me. You certainly don’t want to overpack, but you also want to balance comfort with ease of travel. That’s where your carry-on comes in.

Unless you’re braving the budget airline realm and going personal item only, you’ll need to know carry-on regulations. Even if you’re barreling headlong into the Spirit Airlines budget travel world — I do routinely and have lived to tell the tale so far — every square inch inside your luggage matters.

Most domestic airlines have identical carry-on regulations (and at least very similar personal item regulations). For carry-ons, the standard in the US tends to be around 22″ x 14″ x 9″. European carriers, on the other hand, can be a bit more stringent.

If you swear by one carrier exclusively (for better or worse), know their carry-on and personal item regulations and how they compare to other airlines.

Learn How to Ranger Roll

If there’s one thing we travelers can do to make packing light easier, it’s learning how to ranger roll. What was once a way for soldiers to pack efficiently is now a favorite technique for travelers and nomads looking to utilize every square inch inside of their bag.

The ranger roll helps us travelers to make the most of our space, and the incredibly tight rolls also minimize wrinkles. There’s certainly an art to it, but it’s a skill entirely worth learning.

Know When to Utilize Packing Cubes (and When not to)

Packing cubes are a favorite among organization-minded travelers, so why would you ever travel without them? The one downside of packing cubes is they’re, well… cubes. Unless your pack is completely made of 90-degree angles, they won’t actually fill up every square inch inside.

Backpackers may be familiar with the idea of taking their sleeping bag out of its stuff sack and jamming it into the bottom of their pack, Doing so allows it to move naturally and fill every little crevice. The same is true when travel packing.

For traditional travel, packing cubes are worth their weight in gold. However, when you’re one-bag traveling, you may find that packing cubes may not maximize space in your bag and you’ll have to get creative to fill the empty spaces.

If you want to give packing cubes a shot, be sure to analyze their dimensions to ensure they fit well into your travel bag before making a purchase.

Pack Multi-Functional Clothing

Man with a grey beard sitting on a swing surrounded by leaves at a restaurant in Paris
Pack clothing that you can dress up or dress down

Let’s split “multi-functional” into two categories: style and utility. In terms of style, aim for a simple wardrobe that matches well and can be dressed up or down.

Considering your itinerary is crucial to dialing in your clothing. If you plan on visiting beautiful European churches with dress codes or heading out to fancy dinners, your needs will differ wildly than if you’re spending a relaxing week in Bali or splashing around in the ocean.

It’s not strange to pack only one set of nice clothing for your trip. If you’re on the move, nobody will know that you re-wore a certain outfit already anyway. As goes for all things one-bag travel: less is more.

The second element to choosing a travel wardrobe is utility. You want to consider your specific travel needs and which combination of clothing can solve the most needs at once. Swim trunks and workout shorts do not have to be different pieces of clothing, for example. They can also act as casual shorts on travel days, if nothing else.

Shoes often present a potentially tricky element to travel packing. Even if you have size four feet, extra shoes will still occupy a significant amount of space in your bag. In an ideal world, I recommend wearing one pair of versatile shoes and packing some thin flip-flops for showering and warm weather destinations.

Can you bring two pairs of shoes? Sure you can, but you’ll have to be at peace with cutting a significant amount of usable space from your bag’s volume. Ultimately, everything you put in your luggage has an opportunity cost, so prioritize as you see fit.

Invest in Merino Wool & Technical Fibers

The longer you can wear something without washing it, the fewer items you’ll need to pack. Makes sense, right? Merino wool travel clothing is ideal when it comes to stretching time between washes since it wicks sweat from your body and is incredibly anti-microbial and odor-resistant.

When you’re traveling for a week or more, you’re bound to get a little ripe. That’s just how travel goes. So, why not pick items that are made to keep your travel musk at bay for a few more days than usual?

Merino wool doesn’t need to be washed nearly as often as cotton (or polyester and other technical fibers, for that matter). Wearing the same socks and underwear for days at a time would be a gnarly endeavor if they were cotton. Merino wool though? Perfectly fair game and completely hygienic.

Merino clothing can be quite expensive, so it’s not for everyone. For what it’s worth, my favorite Merino brand, Smartwool, frequently runs promos on their socks and underwear. Keep a close eye on their clearance section, and you’ll find some serious discounts. Darn Tough is also great.

If you can’t find a sale or swing the cost of Merino, other synthetic technical fibers can simulate many of Merino’s benefits at a lower cost.

Wear Your Bulky Items at the Airport

What should you do with boots, jackets, travel jeans, and other bulky items that hog precious space in your bag?

Simply don’t pack them; it’s a rookie mistake. Wear them onto the plane instead.

Who cares if you look like the Michelin man going on vacation? Freeing up valuable space in your bag is worth it. Airports and airplanes tend to be over-air-conditioned anyway, so it’s a win-win.

Leave Unnecessary Electronics at Home

Phone, GoPro, camera, watch, lens, hard drive, and other electronics laid out on a wooden table
Do you really need to bring all of those fancy electronics?

Stay with me, digital nomads.

I’m not saying leave all of your precious tech gadgets behind. I’m simply encouraging you to pare down your setup to the absolute essentials. Maybe you already have, but just in case you haven’t, let’s talk.

You may not be able to get a full day of work from just your phone, but do you really need a bulky laptop? Could the combination of a smartphone and a capable tablet get the job done? Perhaps.

A phone stand, compact tablet, and mini Bluetooth keyboard can work wonders for digital nomads and free up a bunch of weight in their packs.

Don’t Overpack Toiletries

If you’re short on space in your bag, buy toiletries when you arrive at your destination or simply use what they provide at your hotel, hostel, Airbnb, or other lodging. If you aren’t short on space, pack your favorite travel-sized toiletries to save some time and money.

A local pharmacy or general store is never too far away to stock up on toothpaste, soap, and other essentials. Hotels and hostels usually have extras on hand that they’ll give away if you ask politely. The same goes for those chargers and other odds and ends in the lost and found (if you’re extra charming).

Disclaimer: Your favorite toiletries won’t be available everywhere you travel. If you require a specific brand or type of toiletry, don’t chance it – bring it with you. The same goes for prescriptions and medicine beyond the basics.

Bring Packable/Collapsible Gear to Save Space

Packable down jackets, crushable travel hats, power banks with built-in wires, and other compact travel accessories will maximize storage in your bag. Invest in efficient, space-saving gear and watch your pack-size shrink.

One of my favorite packable pieces of travel gear is the Klymit X Inflatable Pillow, which I’ve used for several years. Sure, it’s a bit of a luxury but frequent travelers will find it to be worth every penny. It takes up no space, inflates in a few seconds, and is far more comfortable than resting your head on your backpack.

Make a Packing List and Stick to it

Packing cube, backpack, laptop, tripod, camera case, speaker, toiletries kit, headphones, locks, sandals, water bottle, and notebook on a wooden floor
Never stop dialing in your packing list

Seriously.

If you don’t, completely unnecessary items will magically appear in your bag. How did that novelty travel mug get in your luggage? Well, it probably snuck in while you were packing without a packing list!

Make a thoughtful list of your necessities, and once you’ve dialed it in, don’t deviate from it as you pack. Know that your destination will almost always have anything you chose to leave behind, so don’t stress. Europe has soap, I promise.

If you need some lightweight travel inspiration, check out our one-bag packing list to get started. If you want to really dive into tips and techniques to lighten your load, peep our minimalist packing list, as well.

Whatever you do, avoid copying someone else’s packing list item-for-item. There will always be something you need that they don’t (or vice versa). 

Select Your Luggage for Dimensions and Weight

You can pack lightweight items, but a heavy piece of luggage will nullify all of your weight-conscious decisions. Remember, just because a bag is small doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lightweight. I mean, have you seen those Fjallraven backpacks? They aren’t that large, but they weigh practically as much as a toddler.

There are loads of benefits to traveling with a smaller, lighter bag. That said, the more technical and lightweight a bag is, the pricier and (sometimes) more delicate it can be. Some travelers are fine with the tradeoffs, others aren’t.

If you want durable luggage you can toss around without worry, buy a more burly bag and enjoy the little extra workout you get as you trek around the globe.

Within your mind, there’s a Venn diagram that pinpoints the optimal balance between your bag’s size, weight, durability, and price. There are going to be trade-offs no matter which direction you lean, so choose a bag that falls perfectly within your sweet spot.

Pack High-Use Essentials at the Top of Your Bag

Admittedly, this piece of advice won’t help you travel lighter in and of itself. But, a thoughtfully-packed bag will significantly elevate your one-bag travel game.

When traveling, having your most essential gear immediately accessible will be a game-changer. Think travel documents, power banks, and in-case-of-emergency cash. Whether you stash these items at the top of your pack, inside a fanny pack, or on your person is up to you.

When heading towards the land of one-bag travel, ensuring your essentials are easy to find is absolutely crucial. How you pack your bag is almost as important as the items you bring along.

Pack Light, Travel Right & Keep Perfecting Your Craft

Man wearing a backwards hat and black backpack looking towards the lights of Bangkok
Pack thoughtfully, travel comfortably

As you spend more time trying out one-bag travel and traveling light, you’ll naturally continue to dial in your gear list and travel packing routines. The only way to see what works for you is to pack a bag, get out there, and go for it.

If you haven’t quite perfected traveling light when you head out on your next trip, don’t stress. You’ll likely never be completely smitten with your packing list.

Along your journey, put your packing list to the test, figure out what works through trial and error, and forever fine-tune the gear you bring along, even if just incrementally.

Last Updated on March 19, 2024

Photo of author

Joe Coleman

Joe Coleman is a freelance travel and outdoor writer based in East Texas. Though always up for an international trek, there’s nothing he loves more than a road trip exploring the small towns of the United States. Learn more about Joe at colemancreates.com.

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