how to pack only a carry-on

How to Pack Only a Carry-on (No Matter Where You’re Travelling)

I travel more than I don’t. In fact, I’m away from home up to three weeks every month. If there’s one thing I’ve mastered, it’s packing. No matter where I’m heading these days, I travel with almost the same list of clothes, toiletries, gadgets, and gear — all carry-on. Here’s how.

Leave (Most of) Your Clothes & Launder Along the Way

Don’t: One of the worst things you can do to yourself as a traveler is overpack. Unless you’re Richard Branson or a Sultan who’s planning on meeting with heads of state, you don’t need five pairs of pants, four suit jackets, and a collection of pocket squares and watches. Making travel easy for me means doing it comfortably, and that means packing functionally — only what I need, not what’s nice to have.

Do: Stop packing for a two-week trip with 14 different outfits. The key is layers and figuring out how to build a different outfit for each day with the minimum number of garments possible. You can likely get by with two t-shirts, one pair of jeans, two collared shirts (one long-sleeve, one short), and a week’s worth of underwear and socks. Add a versatile pair of dress casual boots that work in most situations — at the bar, out on the hiking trail, on a long-haul flight. At most, my clothing occupies one-third of a maximum allowable size carry-on bag.

Opt for lightweight, quick-wicking clothing whenever possible. It’s comfortable, breathable, and packs down small. I’m not talking about dressing like Phil Mickelson every time you travel. Under Armour and Nike Dri-FIT are great for base layers; while Arc’teryx crafts a versatile line that looks equally at home whether you’re clubbing or ice-climbing.

Once you’re in-country, simply launder your clothing along the way. Almost every reasonably civilized destination offers laundering services of some kind. Worst case scenario: launder in the sink and hang-dry (this is where your clothing’s quick-drying capability comes into play).

Go Completely Digital

Don’t: Print out every last scrap of paper related to your trip(s) “just in case.” Anything you think you might need a printed copy of, you either won’t need or can get reprinted at the airport/hotel (in the unlikely event you’ll need to). Save the paper and the strain on your back.

Do: In very few cases is carrying paper documents necessary for modern travel. Download your airline’s mobile app which should provide you with mobile boarding pass capability (double-check that your destination airport is setup to accept this, however).

Use a free cloud service app with offline capability (like Microsoft’s OneDrive or Dropbox) to scan and store copies of your travel documents. As long as you have your smartphone, you’ll have access to your itineraries, passport, boarding passes, travel insurance information, etc. Take it one step further with an aggregator app like TripIt that consolidates your key travel information into a single, easy-to-read itinerary.

Printed guidebooks are a dying artform. If you prefer access to a traditional guidebook on your travels, go digital with them. Every major publisher offers (often cheaper) digital editions that can be downloaded and read on your smartphone. They’re also searchable and easier to bookmark and annotate however you see fit. Ditto magazines.

Buy Toiletries Along the Way

Don’t: Unless you’re embarking on a three-week Antarctic expedition or plan to whack the bush along the Amazon, you needn’t bring your entire medicine cabinet with you.

Do: Realize that we live in a very, very modern world. Even seemingly remote, isolated destinations often have access to the conveniences you’re accustomed to. I’ve visited villages in Africa with at least some semblance of a pharmacy.

If you really want to lighten your load, pack any prescription medication and brand-name toiletries that you absolutely cannot live without. For everything else — toothpaste, bar soap, shampoo, etc. — just buy it when you get where you’re going. In many cases, it may even prove cheaper than buying it at home ($4 for a travel-sized toothpaste? Really?).

Find the Right Luggage

Don’t: Assume that tattered suitcase you’ve been using for the last decade is all you need. If it ain’t broke …

Do: Reassess your luggage needs. If everything I’ve said so far will dramatically overhaul how you pack, it’s time to take a second look at your luggage. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all luggage solution as every traveler is different. But, at the very least, it’s helpful to pick luggage that allows you to compartmentalize your belongings easily. Dumping everything into a cavernous, pocketless interior is not an ideal way to organize.

Check out soft-sided packing cubes (from a company like Eagle Creek) to keep your clothes, toiletries, gadgets, and other bits separate from one another. They make it infinitely easier to pack and repack on the go.

The Bottom Line

Unless you’re heading on a highly specialized trip that requires boatloads of gear (a liveaboard dive trip, for example), you should be able to lighten your load considerably with these tips. I’ve personally cut my luggage at least in half. Not that I’m bragging …