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How to Travel Carry-on Only

No Matter How Long Your Trip

I was a Girl Scout growing up, and one of the key lessons I was taught was: be prepared. No matter now short the trip or whatever the weather forecast predicted, I needed to be ready for all of it. Rain? Snow? Earthquake? I'd better have that poncho, those boots, and the radio, just in case.

Packing light or carry-on only embraces the complete opposite of how I was raised. It's not about having it all; instead, it's about having just what you need. No more, no less.

Packing the necessities in a small bag and personal is hard enough for weekend getaways. So what are you supposed to do for longer tripsthe ones that last a week, a month, or even more? Here are tips to make packing carry-on only stress-free.

Make a list, and stick to it.

I'm always more likely to throw extra (and unnecessary) items in my bag when I simply scour my closet and select things based on my mood. To avoid this, spend ten minutes beforehand and write out what you need, and then (this is the trick) stick to it. I don't stress about this too much and go into too much detail, but I always state how many outfits I will need and never exceed that amount.

Pack for no longer than a week.

Wondering how people take a 3-month jaunt through Southeast Asia with only a 35L backpack? They break their trip down to week-long trips instead and bring only the clothing needed for 7 days. After that, it's time to wash. Hotels and hostels may very likely provide laundry services, and an Airbnb host will either have a washer/dryer in home or know where the nearest laundromat is.

Once you've set out the clothes you want to bring, put at least one outfit back in your closet.

This simple trick is one you'll hear a lot from people who travel light, and for good reason: it works. You truly won't miss that one additional outfit, no matter how much you convince yourself you might need it. I've heard of people even putting back half of what they set out to pack in order to pack light, but if this is stress-inducing then just start with putting one outfit back for now.

Mix and match more easily with versatile items that fall within a color palette.

A shirt you can dress up and down and a scarf that doubles as a light blanket on an airplane are excellent items to bring because you'll get more than one use out of them. Don't base your entire travel wardrobe off of one piece you intend to wear each day (because it will just get dirty and smelly), but you can definitely get away with wearing a top more than once in a week before washing.

To make mixing and matching even easier, stick to a few key hues. My go-to's are black, dark gray, pink, and purple. 

Layer clothing for excursions where you encounter different climates, and consider buying, selling, or shipping things home.

Definitely the hardest part about traveling light is when you genuinely don't feel prepared for changes in the weather. I ended a particularly toasty month traveling Europe in Iceland, where the highs were in the 40s and 50s (and windy). I'll be honest, I arrived thinking I'd be totally prepared, but I was not! I purchased a wool sweater my first day there.

If I had to go back and do it again, though, I wouldn't have wanted to change anything. That wool sweater would have only taken up valuable space in my pack and done me no good whatsoever the previous three weeks.

If you're facing a trip with a variable climate, plan to layer (a wicking layer, a warm layer, a windproof/waterproof layer). Don't shy away from buying or selling things (when you can), shipping unwanted things back home, or communicating with people who can send you things in advance.

Find the right shoes.

Shoes take up a massive amount of space, so I tend to travel with the pair on my feet and maybe one extra. This is difficult, and I confess I haven't 100 percent found the perfect, versatile, comfortable, cute travel shoe. I've come close, though, with Allbirds (great for long days of walking, plus they're so light), Doc Martens (if they're broken in, they're incredibly durable), and Clarks (possibly my favorite). Check out The Walking Company for some good options.

Consider what your accommodation may provide.

Check to see if where you're staying offers things shampoo, towels, or a hairdryer. I do love my hair straightener, but not enough to want to bring it with me on a trip—especially when my hotel or Airbnb has one.

Remember you can always buy things when you arrive.

There are some items I take with me no matter what. For example, I am pretty particular about which face wipes I use and the saline solution for my contacts. But when it comes to lotions or conditioners, I always pick those up on the road. Decide which items you can purchase when you arrive or on an as-needed basis.

Use the right size luggage.

If you have a big suitcase, you're going to want to fill it up. You'd be surprised by how much you can fit in a 25L backpack! But even something up to a 40L capacity can still work for carry-on. In general, backpacks are somewhat less tempting to overpack since you have to carry them around, so it's a great motivator to travel light. (FYI I have an Osprey Kyte for Women which is 46L, although I've been using my Lo & Sons weekender bag more lately.)

That thing you never wear or never use when you're at home? Don't pack it.

Without fail, anytime I pack for a trip, I look at some eyeshadow color or top I never, ever wear at home and think, "Maybe this is the trip for this." Trust me, it's not. Whenever I pack these things, they make their way to the bottom of my bag and I unpack them back at home with shame.

Practice, practice, practice.

So you tried packing light and it didn't totally work out? That's totally understandable. You're not going to become a master of carry-on only in one trip because it really is a skill. I've been a travel writer for about five years now and only feel like I'm getting a grasp on it this year. So look at each trip as a chance to improve your skills a little. It takes patience, but you will improve every time.

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