Pack Light: A Gradual Minimalist’s Guide

Mission Church, Pecos National Historic Park, New Mexico © 2013 Christy King

“The measure of a good traveler is how light he or she travels. You can’t travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two.”

-Rick Steves

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably new to traveling light. And you’re probably worried that, if you pack light, you’ll find you need something you didn’t bring.

The key to avoiding that problem is planning. Obviously, what you pack depends on many factors, including:

  • Where you’re going, e.g., big city, small town, wilderness area
  • What you’ll be doing (visiting museums, hiking, attending a wedding or business meeting, etc.)
  • Weather and elevation
  • Your own interests, e.g. photography, bird-watching, geology
  • Cultural expectations like women covering their hair in some Muslim areas and everyone covering legs and shoulders to enter St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome
  • Your personal style
  • How easy it will be for you to buy something it turns out you need after all

Make a Packing List

I print out my form list each time I travel. It prints in landscape mode (sideways) and has 4 columns, one each for:

  • my clothes, shoes and accessories
  • my son’s clothes, shoes and accessories
  • toiletries and medications
  • miscellaneous stuff like camera, snacks and sunglasses

I have a second list for “specialty” trips that I print only if necessary. Its columns relate to trips where we bring the dogs, take long-distance hikes, bicycle, snowshoe or go caving.

My lists include everything I can think of that we might possibly need. Why? Not so I can pack it all, but because it’s a lot easier to cross out what you don’t need than to try to remember to add something you do need. In fact, crossing out items we don’t need for a trip is the first thing I do with the list.

Some of the resources listed at the end of this post include sample packing lists, but you’ll need to make a customized list for it to really be useful.

Gradual Changes

Many people are able to pack for long trips in one carry-on sized bag (no under-the-seat bag), but if you’re used to over-packing, you shouldn’t try that the first time. You may not even be successful at fitting everything in both bags the first try or two – and that’s okay.

As long as you pack less each trip, you’re making progress. It really does get easier each time, as you find out how well you function with less stuff. Remember, the goal is to make your life easier and more fulfilling – not more stressful.

The first few times I tried to pack light, I struggled with what to bring and how to pack it, and it took a long time. Now that I’ve got the hang of it, it’s quick and easy. We even pack lots of extras when we travel, like a DSLR camera, field guides and a binder with historical and geological information (see my last post) – and it all fits easily.


Here in the western US, it may be freezing in the morning, hot by mid-afternoon and cool in the evening. Or maybe you’re traveling to multiple places with different types of weather. The key to packing light in these situations is layering. There are (at least) three advantages to this.

  • It’s easy to tailor your wardrobe to the climate.
  • It takes less space – picture packing a pair of thin pants and a pair of long underwear vs a pair of thin pants and a pair of thick warm pants.
  • If it’s a long trip, you’ll need to do laundry. Thin items – especially synthetics – dry a lot faster.

Don’t despair if you live in jeans, though – an advantage is they can usually be worn more times before washing than pants such as khakis.

Double-Duty Items

Instead of packing flip-flops, consider sports sandals. You can wear them to the pool and on the beach, but they’re also durable and comfortable enough for long walks. They have good traction and can be worn in the water, so they’re great for playing around in a creek.

If you need casual and dressy clothes, try packing some clothes that can serve either purpose, depending on the accessories. A blazer can dress up a button-down shirt or a sundress, for example.

You can wear a thin shawl to take off the chill of the A/C in a restaurant, to cover your hair to enter a mosque, to dress up an outfit or to wrap around your next as a scarf.

When you pack, look at what you already own and try to include things that can do 2 or 3 jobs. Also, when you need new clothes, shoes or accessories, try to buy items with multiple uses. This will help simplify your life even when you’re not traveling.

Shopping at Your Destination

What if it turns out you need something you didn’t bring? Or it’s too big to pack but consumable or inexpensive? Usually, you can buy it when you arrive.

For instance, on our road trip through the desert, we needed water, snacks, picnic supplies and sunscreen. Easy enough to pick up at Target the first day – no reason to fly them across the country.

The same logic applies to many of the “spare” items you’re tempted to pack. In most places, it’s easy to buy replacements.

On the other hand, some things aren’t easy to get. For example, it’s more important for me to pack a spare pair of pants than it is for many people, because pants-shopping is a nightmare for me. Nothing fits right and I might have to visit a dozen stores. This is not something I want to deal with while traveling.

Also, if you’re going to a country with a language you can’t read, you should take more medications than you might otherwise, since buying something as simple as ibuprofen could be difficult.

Go ahead and pack “just in case” items that will be difficult or expensive to replace – but don’t use that an excuse to over-pack.

Frequent Travelers

If you often travel for more than a week, consider buying some items that are quick-drying, so you can hand wash clothes in the sink or tub.

Clothes labeled for travel are expensive, but you can find them at thrift stores if you keep your eye out for them. You can also substitute cheaper items – look for thinner fabrics made of quick-drying synthetics. “Wrinkle free” items are a big plus. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that some of the clothes already in your wardrobe make great travel clothes.

Travel Gear

If you’re new to packing light, you might want to look into vacuum-sealed bags, which help everything fit in a smaller space. You can pack items in Ziploc-style bags (use the 2-gallon size) in place of vacuum-sealed bags. They save some room if you squeeze the air out, though not as much as the bags designed for that purpose.

The downside of using compression bags is that your luggage will be heavier, so don’t pack everything in them. Once you become more experienced at packing light, you shouldn’t need these bags anymore.

Many people also swear by packing cubes, but I’ve never used them. I do use (and re-use) Ziploc-style bags to organize smaller items.

Other Tips

Unless we’re gone long enough to have to do laundry, we pack old underwear that’s on its last legs and toss it after wearing it. If we have old PJs, we do this with them as well. Consider packing old socks and shoes if you won’t be walking much. An added benefit of this method is that you’ll have room in your luggage to bring souvenirs or gifts home.

If you’re flying and running out of room, wear bulky things on the plane (e.g., boots). Otherwise, pack them, since they’re a hassle to deal with at security.

Buy a reusable set of bottles in the right size for carry-on luggage. It’s a lot cheaper to refill your own than to keep buying trial sizes. You can also use lotion and shampoo bars to avoid the liquids problem.

Also, if you know you’re going to buy yourself souvenir tee-shirts, take that into account when you pack. You can wear the new ones you buy and not bring so many.

 Leaving-Home Checklist

Make a checklist of things to do before you leave. This reduces stress since there’s less to remember and prevents you from panicking when you think “Did I feed the cat? Lock the windows? Turn off the oven?”

If you’re really concerned, bring the checklist – all checked off – with you in your pocket, and look at it if you start to worry on your trip.

See some sample checklists at One Bag, REI and Smarter Travel. Again, I recommend you make your own customized list.

Resources: How to Pack Light

In the US, AAA offers classes on packing lightly. If you’re not in the US, see if you have something similar in your area. Of course, there are also a lot of online resources.

Check out: One BagRick StevesSolo TravelerStylebookTim FerrisFashion After 50SquawkfoxTraveliteAlready PrettyMiss Minimalist; and Little House Big Heart to see a variety of packing styles.

Your Tips?

Do you have any suggestions for packing light? Please share them in the comments.

8 thoughts on “Pack Light: A Gradual Minimalist’s Guide

  1. I like your essays so much. So practical and wise at the same time. I always feel my temperature boil in airports when I see people coming with two or three ‘carry-on’ suitcases! No need! Thanks for sharing Christy!

    • I couldn’t believe how much stuff we saw some people with. Try not to let your temperature boil though – maybe you should meditate before you go to the airport 🙂

      • Ah, but you don’t always know their circumstances. We just flew from NZ to the UK with one suitcase, a carry on bag and a laptop bag/handbag each. Plus a coat with pockets full of books. Over the allowance by at least a kilo per item. Why so much? We were moving from NZ to the UK and that is what we have to live and work with in an unfurnished house for a few months. So not everyone is just going on holiday. Maybe they have their whole lives with them!

        • Oh, that’s totally true. I’ve brought way too much stuff before, as when my mom died in another state and I flew back with a bunch of her stuff.

          However, I can’t imagine all the people lugging all that stuff (especially lined up to check in a casino hotel in Las Vegas) are in that situation.

          Especially since I used to travel with way more than I needed. Heck, I probably still do, but at least it can all be brought carry-on 🙂

  2. All of your tips are good ones. My biggest hangup is the idea of wearing the same article of clothing multiple times before laundering it. At home I am so used to a fresh set of clothes every day. Really this is so unnecessary. Whether or home or away, it would be better for me (less work) and certainly better for the environment if I wear the same item multiple times prior to laundering.

    The idea of packing clothes that will layer nicely is a very big help, as you have pointed out.

    Thanks, Christy!

    • Thanks, Carol. I used to have this problem (not wanting to re-wear clothes) too. Then I decided that I wanted more free time and less laundry! I still don’t wear shirts more than once unless I didn’t wear them a full day, but I’m okay with the pants.

  3. Great tips! And thanks for the link back!

    With meds, I’ve found that non-prescription things, especially in Europe, are fairly easy to come by. In Austria this year my allergies were killing (we didn’t think about allergies since the season was past here in TX). Luckily our B&B owner spoke great English and was able to write my problems down in German so that when we went to a pharmacist, they were able to give me an awesome nasal spray!

    • Thanks, Jess, and you’re welcome for the link to your website. I found your site when I was looking for packing resources, and I loved how you took so many pictures showing just how much can fit in a little bag – even 2 extra pairs of shoes AND your rubber boots! Your little house is really cute too.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.