Creating a Life Free From Chaos

Travel Lightly: How to Pack Less

This summer, I had a three-week-long trip, with a week in Portland, then heading straight out for two weeks up in the mountains of New Mexico at Philmont Scout Ranch. You know what I learned? Despite having wicked awesome skills at packing compactly, these skills led me to pack heavily. As in, “sweet Lord, how am I going to lift this *$# heavy bag into the overhead bin?!”

Last year, after a too-long flight delay lugging a too-heavy duffel, I switched to a hard-side 20” spinner bag. This suitcase is super lightweight, rolls easily, and saves me when traveling alone or when I’m flaring from fibromyalgia and am completely over life (happens often after weeks of travel). The hard sides keep me from overpacking, since that thing does not stretch. At all. In addition to the spinner, I usually have a computer backpack or work bag with my laptop and inflight necessities, which fits under the airplane seat and can roll around on top of the spinner, saving my shoulders and keeping me completely carry-on-only with no checked bags.

Sounds good, right? Until you realize I have mad skills when it comes to compressing things into teeny tiny spaces. Which means I can easily pack 10 days worth of clothes, books, and shoes I don’t need, making that light-weight spinner into a rolling pile of bricks.

Here’s the thing: if you can force yourself to pack light, your travels become so much easier. You’re more comfortable, more mobile, and free. You can save money by not checking luggage — which often runs $25-$50 per bag. Some people think this means picking the appropriate sized bags and then stuffing them completely full. I thought that too, until I was dragging those bricks around the airport and cursing the weight whenever I had to lift the bags!

The first step in learning to pack lightly is to choose the bag you’re going to use. Mine is a 20” Kenneth Cole Reaction Out of Bounds Spinner. It’s purple, my favorite color, sturdy, and spins/rolls easily. It’s also a finite packing space with no room to expand, so you’ve got to be sure of what you’re packing. This removes the temptation to add more stuff and forces you to prioritize what you really need.

I find it helpful to use a packing list for each trip, and review what I used vs. didn’t use after each trip to refine my list. I ask myself which items went unused on my last trip, and which items could I find a duplicate use for. I also check for items that I can find in smaller or more versatile forms for my next trip. It’s important to embrace simplicity when traveling light, and ask yourself for each item, is it a want or a need?

That being said, I not only pack for necessities, but I do allow myself some comfort items when I travel. I have a chronic illness, so it’s important for me to plan ahead to make sure I have what I’ll need to be comfortable and stay as healthy as possible. That may mean bringing a heating pad, a travel pillow, some essential oils, or a cozy blanket for the trip.

Generic packing lists don't work. Learn to pack lightly to suit your own habits. Click To Tweet

What items do you need to feel like yourself when you travel? What do you need to feel comfortable and ready for adventure? If I’m headed somewhere for business or an author event, I need my curling iron and a great work bag to feel my best. If I’m headed up to the mountains for a Scout retreat, then a couple of hats and a walking stick may be on the list.

For me, traveling means focusing on the experiences rather than consumption and “vacation shopping.” Because of my chronic illness, I select experiences that will be satisfying, but not wear myself out by forcing too much into one trip. Instead of loading up on souvenirs, I spend more time savoring local foods and taking photos on my iPhone.

A few more reasons to pack lighter:

  • Save time and frustration: no more waiting around the luggage carousel praying the airlines haven’t lost your bags.
  • Save money: by not paying baggage fees for checked bags or overweight luggage.
  • Comfort and freedom: save your energy lugging heavy luggage or finding a place to stash said heavy luggage. Carrying a lighter bag saves me back and hip pain, and it keeps me from exhausting myself before I even reach my destination.
  • Less risk: since you have less on you, you can better keep up with your stuff, and you’ll be less likely to have bags stolen.

Here are some more tips for packing less:

  • Stuff expands to fill the bag you have, so choose your bag wisely. If you have smaller luggage, you’re much more likely to pack less.
  • Try packing cubes or compression bags to fit more into a smaller space, but be wary of weight. It’s my fondness for compression bags that leads to my bags being so heavy!
  • Create a capsule wardrobe. Before my Portland trip, I reviewed my closet and put together a simple capsule wardrobe of 8 items that can be more than a dozen outfits with just the colors black, white, and red. This capsule is now my go-to travel wardrobe.
  • Look for products that can do more than one thing. Try out a new shampoo/conditioner combo, or bring along a lip/cheek stain instead of lipstick and blush. A bandana can double as a handkerchief, a scarf, or a headband. Flip flops can be house shoes, beach/pool shoes, and shower shoes. A sarong can be a blanket, a scarf, a swim cover-up, or a top.
  • What can you do without? I have long hair, but I don’t carry a hairbrush when I travel — just a wide-tooth comb. Instead of a fat pack of disposable make-up remover cloths, I carry one Norwex facial cloth that can be reused. Instead of foundation, I use BB cream with sunscreen. What can you cut out or replace?
  • Go digital when you can. Instead of packing a heavy notebook, can you take notes on your iPhone or tablet? Can you take ebooks instead of paper books? Will a small Bluetooth keyboard with your tablet be enough to replace your laptop for a short trip?
  • Think small. Instead of those bulky headphones, can you make do with earbuds? Instead of a big coat, will a couple of thin layering pieces keep you warm? Do you really need full-size products, or can you carry smaller travel sizes? I enjoy collecting sample size cosmetics and toiletries that I save for my travels — they’re compact, and a bit luxurious. For my faves that don’t come in smaller sizes, I decant them into travel bottles.
  • Try KM folding. Have you read Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up? If you have, then you know all about folding clothes and filing them vertically in a drawer. The same folding method works wonders in a suitcase, not only saving space but keeping your clothes tidy and easy to work with at your destination.
  • Remember that unless you’re headed out into the wilderness to do some backwoods camping, there will be stores at your destination. You can always pick up what you need there, so get rid of those “just in case” items, and pack bravely and lightly!

What are your favorite tips for packing lightly? Are you a packing minimalist, or do you pack everything and the kitchen sink?

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17 Replies

  1. If I can’t lift it over my head, the spinner is too heavy. Dry wick clothes are light. Nude colored crocs flip flops work with swimsuit, dress, shorts or jeans. Really love the looks of your site. Thanks

    1. Yes! If I can’t lift it, it’s too heavy. Love those tips for clothing. Thanks for popping by Terri!

  2. Helpful post! I like your suggestions for packing duel purpose items. I went to visit my niece in England for a week, followed by a prayer conference in France for another week. I was proud of
    myself for not overpacking too much–I think only one or two items didn’t get worn. However, I still have to use the soft luggage.
    Hard would be too heavy for me. I opted to check one small bag and have a small-ish carry-on for all those things I couldn’t do
    without in case my other bag was diverted. Next time, I would opt for a backpack for my carry-on, though. Since it was summer, I could let my natural wavy hair go. A sample bottle of beach-hair spray worked well for that and less to pack in the hair fixing department!

    1. Thanks Kathy! I picked my hard-side luggage because it’s super lightweight empty — so I know all the heavy comes from ME! Love that idea for wavy hair — I let mine go natural as well whenever possible!

  3. I know this sounds silly but my number one bit of advice is to travel more. Every person I know who travels alot. Learns over time what they need and what they don’t.
    Additionally I find that if you are on some kind of a wandering about trip that has you in mutiple locations just pack for the maximum amount of days you will be in one spot. So instead of needing 8 outfits you only need 3.

    1. Love this! And I’m all for traveling more!

  4. I love the suggestion of using a small bag. I’ve had great success using mid-sized salad plates rather than large dinner plates! Same idea.

    1. Yep! Love creating my own boundaries to simplify within 🙂

  5. Fantastic tips! I travel a lot and often use packing cubes, but I found like you… they can tend to cause you to overpack and have a suitcase of bricks! My biggest dilemma is shoes. I love boots but they are not packing friendly, so I choose one pair and plan my onboard travel outfit around them. I also choose one set of jewelry that goes with everything, then wear it every day so I have no fear of it being stolen. I give up on my hair. Kathy in the comments mentioned letting her hair go wavy… that’s what I do too, since my at home hair care is a huge number of products that are bulky. If I need my hair done well for speaking or a special occasion, I go to a blow dry bar in the city. I haven’t resigned to the hard shell case… but now thinking about it! Thanks for a great article full of options!

    1. Thanks Sandy! Yes, I’m good at using packing cubes to compress — but then I end up with little bricks! Working on downsizing my shoes too! I love boots in the winter, but I always want a pair of good flats too!

  6. Ruth

    I visited family in England (from the US) for 3 weeks and used Amazon UK to send myself consumables that I would need (e.g. caffeine-free products, toiletries and the like). This meant no need to shop for the things I had decided not to carry with me, and I could leave behind what I didn’t use.

    It was September and I packed 1 dress, 1 thin solid green skirt, 1 pair of black trousers, 1 solid green blouse, 1 patterned green blouse, 1 black T-shirt, 1 black turtle-neck, 1 pair of all-purpose black shoes. A couple of necklaces, a belt, a Russian shawl (warm, worn for travel) and 2 silk scarves provided variety. I did take slippers (good move). And there were a few other personal things and non-bulky gifts.

    I wore a heavier pair of shoes (hiking), the 1 sweater and the 1 coat that I took, as well as a green T-shirt and black trousers.

    – I wish I’d bought a hair dryer for use there and left it – I packed one, with a converter plug
    – I wish I’d left my body-warmer at home
    – I could have gone without the electric toothbrush and charging stand
    – a nightie would have been lighter and less bulky than the pyjamas I took
    – I didn’t need a bulky book to entertain me. I could have just used what the airline provided, and perhaps bought something small when I was there.

    My carry-on and personal bag were still heavy! My shoulders hurt after travel. Next time I will pare down a lot more.

    1. Ruth

      I forgot – I also took a cardigan that was really bulky and regretted that choice.

    2. Love this Ruth! The key is to refine your packing list with each trip until you find the spot that’s just right!

  7. Regina

    I have traveled for over 60 days at a time with only carry on. Of course I do some laundry, mostly in the sink (using shampoo provided in hotels). What saves me from having to wash jeans and capris frequently are panty liners. Try it.

    Also, I bring what I call “disposable clothes”. When I feel an item needs to be tossed, after I launder it I put it in a ziplock. (You can always get one more wear out of something). Theses items are packed, worn on the last few days and left behind.

    1. Great tip! Thanks Regina!

  8. Jen

    Have you written any posts regarding sime fibromyalgia self care? I was diagnosed this spring and would love to find ways to simple live and manage this chronic condition well from those ahead of me on the journey. Thanks for these great tips!

    1. I haven’t posted any yet Jen, but I’m working on a small ebook specifically for people with chronic illness. I’ve had to change a lot of things since I became sick, so I definitely see the need! Hang in there!

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