My wife and I went on a multi-week trip to Xinjiang China to help a non-profit organization. We both fit everything we personally needed into a carry-on bag. This permitted our two check-through bags to be filled with educational materials that we would deliver to the project without paying shipping charges. Many of our colleagues brought a couple of huge bags for their own use. This post was written to answer their question “How did you managed to get everything into a carry-on bag?” I made some minor updates to this post in 2018.
Advantages of Traveling Light
I would encourage everyone to taking a trip than is at least a week long and everything you bring fits in a carry-on size bag. I think you will find it’s enjoyable and freeing. For a bit of humor and inspiration, check out Lessons Learned from Luggage Lost. When you return home consider simplifying your daily life. I know I have benefitted from a simpler life. Here are reasons I think anyone would benefit from packing light:
- By reducing material stuff you can be more focused on people and experiences. You will spend less time fighting with your bags, have less to keep track of, and less to worry about losing.
- You are able to take your luggage as carry-on: lower risk of losing your luggage, you bag doesn’t get thrown, dropped, and if you have a tight connection you know your bag will be with you, wherever you end up. If you really need to change your clothing (or get something out of your bag) you can.
- Transportation becomes simpler because you don’t have to find someone who can transport a number of large bags. For example, some remote towns use motorcycles as taxis. Imagine trying to hold onto a number of huge bags on the back of a motorcycle.
- By trimming what you carry down to the essentials you will spend less time on the trip thinking about “Is this the right outfit?” “Should I use X or Y today?”
- Packing light lets you use your check through luggage allotment for medical supplies and other items for service trips. Or, if you found a large, perfect gift for someone, you can bring it back as your check-through luggage.
Remember the traveler’s motto: It’s better to bring half of what you think you need, and twice as much money.
Luggage which is 7″x14″x20″ will fit under nearly all commercial airplane seats, and is permitted as a carry-on bag on almost all airlines. Luggage which is 9x14x22 (45 linear inches) will fit under the seat in most commercial jets used in the USA and all overhead bins. There are two caviets. It is possible to overstuff soft side luggage to the point that it will not fit under a seat. Some regional airlines limit carry-on bags to 5-7kg. There is a nice summary of carry one restrictions by airline, but you should contact your carrier since these restrictions can vary.
I suggest staying away from wheeled bags. They cost more, add extra weight, and hold less than other options. I would generally recommend using a “travel pack” which is a cross between a backpack, and soft-side luggage. Travel packs will have often have light weight internal frames to make them easier to carry, handles on the top and side to carry as luggage, and backpack straps that tuck away. There are also a number of outdoor oriented backpacks which can function as travel packs and are better suited to carry heavier loads. Just make sure your pack is carry-ons legal since many packs are too large! I keep a list of travel friendly packs. I use a Tom Bihn Synapse (25L) Backpack as my luggage on almost all trips.
All but the most minimalist travelers typically want a smaller bag for “daily” use when they aren’t in transit. Some travel packs have a zip-off daypack which I don’t recommend. The attached daypack typically makes the main bag too thick to be carry on legal and rarely has the characteristics I would choice when selecting a day use bag. My day use bag is typically a patagonia UL courier. The material is light enough that it can be easily packed away but durable enough to have survived several years of use. I like the courier style over a backpack because it’s usable when I am wearing my carry-on pack, provides easier access than a daypack during the day, and it leaves my back with more ventilation. I would recommend the Matador Freerain24 for people who prefer daypack or if you are going to be in the rain.
Clothing for the Journey
You should select clothing which can be mixed and matched: colors which coordinate and layers which can be varied for look and comfort. To minimize the amount of clothing needed, you should plan to wash your clothing during the trip. This works best when clothing are made from fast drying fabric such as light weight merino wool, polyester, or nylon. Fast drying clothing can be easily washed in the sink at the end of the day and will dry over night in most conditions. When in a rush, you can squeeze excess water out of these materials, put them on wet. They will be uncomfortable for a bit, but movement and body heat dry them in around a hour.
You don’t necessarily need to wash clothing after one day of wear. The number of times a garment can be worn without washing varies depending on a your unique biology, environmental conditions, how active you are and the type of fabric used. I am normally comfortable wearing denim jeans two days in a row, but if it is hot or I was sweating, I might want to change after just a few hours On the other hand, I am happy to wear pants made from light weight Schoeller fabric treated with nanosphere three days in a row in warm weather and five days in cold weather. Likewise, I have found wool shirts resist bacteria build-up which can allow them to be worn several days in a row while still feeling and smelling fresh.
I have a collection of posts about selecting clothing for an active life for more thoughts. There are a number of small companies which make clothing for men that is particularly well suited for travel including Outlier, Makers and Riders, and Wool and Prince. Maker and Rider have finally released a women specific line. I know some women who really love the Infinity Dress because they can wear it in multiple styles and Macabi Adventure Skirt because it can be worn as shorts, pants, or a skirt.
Layering of clothing can lighten your load while keeping you comfortable. Seasoned travelers and backpackers are very familiar with the idea of layering. I have found that the combination of long-underwear, normal clothing, a wool sweater, a down-like insulating vest, light weight waterproof/breathable jacket, and hat keeps me comfort when active down to 10F. Yet I can mix and match the various layers so I am comfortable when it is 30F, 50F, and even 70F. For a more thoughts on this, see my Clothing page. Small note: fleece are versatile outdoors, but a nice wool sweater can make you look more “dressed up” as well as keep you warm.
I bring one of two shells. If I am expecting to be outside for extended periods of time in cool weather I bring a waterproof breathable jacket. Otherwise, I take a light weight water resistant (DWR) wind jackets such as the Montbell Tachyon which is more breathable, lighter (just 2oz), and pack into the space of a cliff bar. Since a DWR jacket isn’t waterproof, I will bring a small umbrella. The umbrella can also provide portable shade.
You should adjust the style of your cloths to the local sensibilities. For men, the level of formality typically drives clothing. In some situations slacks, a button up shirt, and blazer are normal and appropriate. Other situations it’s perfectly acceptable to wear sandals, boardshorts, and a tee shirt into a high end restaurant. Women aren’t so free. When away from “international class” cities women are often expected to wear skirts or dresses which go below the knee and blouses that at least cover the shoulders. Women not so clothed are assumed to be prostitutes or “loose” and could find themselves harassed by local men. In many Muslim countries women are expected to keep their heads covered with a scarf or a hat.
Don’t forget to bring a hat. If you are going to be someplace sunny, you should bring a hat with a wide brim to reduce the risk of sunburn, keep your head cool, and protect your eyes from too much light. It is best to bring a hat which can be rolled/folded up and can take a lot of abuse. It hot weather I would recommened the geeky, but highly effective hats from Sunday Afternoons, the classic Tilley Hat, or something like the compact and versatile OR Sunrunner Cap. If cold weather is at all likely, bring a wool or polyester stocking hat or a buff. It will take up very little room, and will help keep your warm. In modest conditions you only lose 10% of your heat through your neck and head, but the percent goes up to almost 50% when a person is so cold they are entering hypothermia. In other words, the colder you feel, the more important it is to protect your head and neck.
The best shoes to bring will depend on the local conditions and weather. In colder locales, insulated boots are wonderful. In hot climates sandals are great. In most cases I recommend bring a pair of trail runners. You should always bring one pair of shoes that you would be comfortable wearing for a whole day on your feet while walking several miles. If these shoes are not be appropriate for everywhere you want to go, then bring a second pair of shoes which would be appropriate. In the summer I bring a pair of Keen Sandals because they are versitile, with socks that match their color can be mistaken for shoes, and the toe guard has been very effective at preventing stubbed toes. The rest of the year I typically bring a pair of Vivobarefoot Gibo ankle boots. If I am going to be spending a lot of time in the back country or running I will bring a pair of Merrill Vapor Glove shoes or Alta trail runners. There are a number of minimalist shoes which others find effective: Soft Star Shoes, Lems Shoes, Xeno Shoes and Luna Sandals. In many international locales you will want to have shower thongs (or use your sports sandals) when you take a shower or go into the bathroom since the floors can be nasty.
Toiletries, First Aid, and Safety
Dehydration is a common problem among travelers, especially when you are flying. Make sure you drink enough. Safe drinking water is extremely important. In many countries, the tap water is not safe to drink. These days the high-tech filters are small, easy to use, and extremely effective. Make sure whatever filter you get is able to remove or kill viruses. You should always have something to carry safe water in. I like the Platypus Water Bags because they are durable and collapse nearly flat and Zojirushi Double Walled Mug because it insulated better than any other double wall container I have tested and has a flawless design.
All of my toiletries, first aid, and repair items fits into a quarter size Glad BigZip plastic bag. Remember to kee[ your liquids and gels separate in containers no larger than 3 oz. I typically have been able to reuse containers for this purpose (like samples and items provided by hotels. If you can’t find containers for free you could buy some fromy easytraveler inc. The humangear GoToobs are very nice but pricy. Don’t take full-size items (normal size bar of soap or a tube of toothpaste), but use the travel/sample size, if not a smaller amount in an appropriately size container. Hint: try measuring the amount of toiletries you use for a week or two. It might be much less than what you think is needed. If you are bring anything which is a liquid, double wrap it in zip-lock bags to prevent leaks. In many parts of the world, toilet paper is not common, nor are flush toilets. It is always wise to bring some toilet paper on your journey, and keep a small amount with you at all times.
Pick-pockets are extremely common and are attracted to locations which have a lot of travelers/tourists. This is especially true in third world locations frequented by comparatively rich western travelers. Naïve American tourist (and that is how we are viewed most places) are often careless, and might have more than a month’s waging for the easy taking. Don’t be a victim. Carry your valuables in a travel wallet under your clothing. Note: the classic travel wallets don’t work well for all people. For example, short women who need to wear dresses might have problems finding security wallets which do not create an unsightly bulge not to mention being able to get to the wallet without undressing. I have found that the ankle security wallets work pretty well. There are also a number of the travel companies sell vests which are specifically designed for traveling. These vests have pockets inside which can be sealed against pickpockets. While some travel vests make you look like a foreign correspondent (lots of oversize pockets), there are a number of very fashionable vests which can add color to wardrobe and don’t make you stand out as a “tourist / photo-journalist”.
One of the best things you can bring back from your trip are pictures. Use your cell phone and bring a camera. Modern smart phones can now takes very respectable picture in daylight and acceptable picture when lighting is less than ideal. If you are on a trip focused on sporting events, wildlife, or night time activities I would strongly recommend bringing a camera with a high quality sensor and a lens with appropriate level of magnification. Take a look at the “How to Use a Point-and-Shoot” or read David Pogue’s Digital Photography: The Missing Manual before you go on your trip.
In the USA, especially in larger hotels, it is common to get clean linens every day. At a minimum you expect to have fresh linens when you get a room. All hotels are not like this, especially if you are far from mainstream tourist areas or in a budget hotel. Even if you don’t normally use pajamas, you might want something that you can sleep in. I know a number of people who bring a pair of silk pajamas because they feel nice and take up almost no room. Long underwear can double as pajamas if you need them to. Some people like using “sleeping sacks”. Having a clean pillowcase to lay your head on is also very nice.
Gift giving is very common outside the US. You should bring some small gifts. Especially if someone makes you a home cooked meal or shows great hospitality. Handmade items are always appreciated. A small needlework, a drawing, a small bag or pouch decorated by hand. Postcards from your home town, chocolate, small pins, LED lights, small calculator, or a key chain with something nifty on it. A great way to delight small children is learn to make animals out of balloons.
Cell Phones: If you want to use your cell phone when traveling internationally there are several options. People on T-mobile or Google Fi just go. International roaming is very reasonable, though data speeds won’t be great. For everyone else you have three choices. (1) Get a local SIM. Typically if you are in a country for 1 week or more, this is the most economical option plus data speeds with be significantly better then roaming. (2) Enable international roaming on your existing phone plan. (3) Switch your phone to WiFi only, and just use your device when there is WiFi present.
Noise Reduction: Planes and trains can be quite noisy. Noise is fatiguing so it’s good to cut it down. There are a number of companies such as Bose that make noise reducing headphones which use active sound cancelation to reduce noise. More compact, and typically cheaper and higher sound quality are sound issolating in the ear monitors such as those made by Etymotic, or even basic ear plugs.
Other Technology: Many people feel compelled to bring technology with them. Tablets, computers, all sorts of electronic devices. There is nothing wrong with any of these objects. It is possible that each of them can enrich your journey. But before you pack your favorite electronic gear, ask yourself questions like Do I really want to bring this with me? What will happen if I don’t hear the latest news? Maybe I will relax more? Am I really going to use this laptop, or is it going to be a four pound weight around my neck? Do I really want to listen to my tunes or will it cut me off from the new environment I am trying to experience? Make sure how you have a backup plan in case your electronic device gets broken or lost.
Let your trip be a growing experience… be willing to be pushed beyond your day to day comfort zone. You might find books like The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau & Huston Smith encouraging.
[The following text is copied from Eagle Creek Inc. “Responsible Travel” page]
Travel can first and foremost be a learning experience. We learn about the culture and land we visit and we learn about ourselves. Traveling to remote and unusual places, far from the standard and well-traveled tourist destinations, can rekindle our adventure spirit and renew a sense of perspective in our daily lives.
Such places are often very sensitive to outside disruption and exist in a delicate cultural or environmental balance. As travelers, each of us holds a responsibility to protect this balance. Eagle Creek offers the following suggestions for all of us:
Understand and Observe Local Customs: Acquaint yourself with the culture and customs of the lands you visit and respect them. Other cultures may take offense to certain innocent and unassuming gestures. For, in some societies people do not wish to be photographed without their permission.
Support the Local Economy: Stay in locally owned establishments. It gives you better cultural exposure to the region and it is of direct economic benefit to the community. Avoid chain hotels, which often channel profits out of the region or country. Eat the local cuisine. Why waste your taste buds on totally familiar foods you have at home and are not indigenous to the area. Enjoy the provincial fare which supports the local eateries, growers, fishermen, wineries, etc. Buy local crafts. Avoid souvenirs mass produced in Chinese or Korean factories. Your purchases should support local artisans and help perpetuate their traditions, crafts and culture.
Be Patient and Positive: Remember that travel means strange languages and unfamiliar surroundings. Expect the unexpected. Try not to get frustrated and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Courtesy is usually responded to with kindness. Delays, detours, and other inconveniences will occur. Be patient, be positive, and remember to smile!
Before You Go
Find someone who will take care of your residence. You will want someone to pick up your mail (or have the post office hold your mail), water your plants, feed your pets, etc.
Pay all your bills before you leave. If important bills are likely to arrive after you leave, but come due before you get back, leave checks with the person taking care of your mail which have been filled out with as much information as possible and leave pre-addressed stamped envelopes.
Take care of any medical issues. Make an appointment to see your doctor at least three months before you leave. Discuss any health issues that you have been putting off dealing with, and find get whatever vaccinations you need. Likewise, make appointments with other medical practitioner such as your dentist or optometrist if you haven’t seen them recently. As long as you are taking care of yourself, go get your hair cut.
If you don’t have a passport and valid visa, start the paperwork. Passports used to take six-eight weeks to be processed. My understanding is that it’s now taking a number of months. Visa will often take a number of weeks. If you are unable to get a passport fast enough for your trip, contact you US congressman’s office since they can often speed up the process. There are a number of organizations that expedite visa if you are short of time. Make sure you leave someone with important documents such as your will, health information, copies of your passport and visa.
My Packing List
The following is my typical packing list. Items “*” are optional. For a more complete description of these items see my yearly gear for life list.
tom bihn synapse backpack
patagonia ultralight courier bag or freerain24 daypack*
small wallet w/ cards, cash
garmin 935 gps watch
passport, vaccination certificate*
Clothing (Wear & Carry)
outlier slim dungarees or new way shorts (2-3)
icebreaker tee-shirts or hoody (3)
darn tough socks (3)
icebreaker underwear (3)
vivobarefoot gobi II or keens
montbell tachyon windshirt
arcteryx Norvan sl or umbrella
tilley ltm6 hat
merino wool sweater*
uniqlo ultralight down vest*
mountain hardware grub gloves*
merril vapor glove 4 shoes*
columbia titan running shirt*
patagonia capilene 4 hoody*
zojirushi travel mug
westtone iem + EarStudio ES100
edc pouch: usb cables, chargers, etc
Zebralight H51 headlamp*
rei micro toiletry bag
mini firstaid kit
all purpose liquid soap
extra long usb cable
international power adapter*
gifts (handmade is nice)*
If a trip includes camping as well as travel in cities, my packing list will be based on my backpacking list which might be supplements by some of the items listed above.
Mark Verber’s Travel Information: My other travel links. URL: http://www.verber.com/travel/
How to See the World on $25 a Day or Less: A wonder web site by John Gregory which suggests meeting people is the best part of traveling. URL: http://www.artoftravel.com/
Footloose and Fancy-Free in the Third World: Great tips on adventure travel, especially in the 3rd world by Randy Johnson. Last updated in 2008. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20110527055428/http://www.ease.com/~randyj/rjfootls.htm
Solo Guide: A simple site with around 180 brief city guides and some good recommendations on gear and packing. URL: http://sologuides.com
Joshua Project: Web site about distinct peoples (ethnic) groups of the world. List comes from a Christian perspective, but interesting to anyone wanting to discover different cultural groups. URL: http://www.joshuaproject.net/
Rick Steves’ Travel Tips: Great recommendations, mostly focused on light weight travel in Europe. URL:
The Compleat Carry-On Traveler: What to Take, What To Take It In, How to Pack It. by Doug Dyment. My packing list is a based on Doug’s. URL: http://www.onebag.com
Travel’s Checklist Useful system which will generate a custom packing list based on type of trip which you can then update. URL: http://www.travelschecklist.com/
Tyman’s Recommended Gear: Tyman takes minimalist traveling to the extreme. I don’t go quite this light, but he has an enlightening perspective. There are a number of blog posts on the site related to minimalist travel. His current packing list. URL: http://tynan.com/gear2019
Sierra Trading Post: Mail order catalog which has quality outdoor gear at 30-70% retail prices. URL: http://www.sierratradingpost.com
TravelSmith: Mail order catalog which focuses on clothing designed for travel. URL: http://www.travelsmith.com/
Magellan’s: Mail order catalog which has every imaginable travel gadget. Some of them are even useful. URL: http://www.magellans.com/
REI: The classic mail order catalog for backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts. URL: http://www.rei.com
Campmor: Mail order catalog which has a wide range of outdoor and travel gear. URL: http://www.campmor.com
Ex Officio: Versatile clothing for travel. URL: http://www.exofficio.com