How to fit everything into your carry on backpack

It might seem impossible but it is doable: everything you need for your entire daily life can easily fit into a carry on sized backpack. Alex and I each have one and I had space enough in mine that I picked up a ukulele in Istanbul and snugly fit it next to my clothes, still not exceed carry-on demands! This guide is designed to help you pack light, weather you are going on a two-week trip or a two-year trip. We are lightweight travelers carrying 10kg (22lbs) carry-on bags but this break down should also be useful for backpackers simply looking to minimize the weight of their pack.

I have divided my personal (original) packing list into 5 sections (clothing, toiletries, electronics, “stuff” and documents) and will discuss each category, focusing on how to best choose what to bring and what to consider. 

If you want to skip the explanations my complete packing list can be found on the bottom of the page. 

Why only bring a carry-on backpack

The reason Alex and I choose to travel with carry on luggage only is simple; it is lighter, easier and you skip the hassle of checking in or loosing bags in transit.
Also it is a relief for us to only bring a minimum of belongings. There is something deeply satisfying about walking down a beautiful street in a Spanish city, knowing that you are carrying your life on your back. Personally I really enjoy how much you come to appreciate each piece of clothing (even when it has holes), and how you don’t need to consider what shoes to wear (although they have plenty of holes too). But even if you would love to bring your entire closet but are restricted to your hiking backpack, I hope I can help you out.

backpack light travel traveling carryon long distance budget carry on sweet distance

How to approach the packing

For a start you should remember that it really doesn’t matter if you’re packing for a month or the rest of your life. You will most likely run out of shampoo or outwear a pair of shorts if you are traveling for a very long time, but it is better to buy a new shampoo than bringing two bottles.

First thing you need to do is consider your restrictions: Are you doing carry-on only? Will you need to save space for special equipment like a big camera, hiking boots or a dressing gown for a wedding? What sort of climate are you packing for? All these things are important to take into account when determining your "space budget" and "weight budget".

Personally I was packing for warmer places (why not stick to the sun when we're traveling anyway?) which made things easier. Since I’m doing carry-on, I will had to consider the 100ml fluid limitation. Also, I needed space for a laptop for work.

Carry-on demands for small European airlines:

55cm x 40cm x 20cm (22’’ x 16’’ x 8’’)

10Kg (22lbs)

luggage travel traveling carryon light lightweight backpacking budget

Clothing

I will start off with the most difficult thing to pack. Clothes. First, a few tips and suggestions for choosing your travel wardrobe and then a list of all clothes I packed with comments on my choices. 

Think multifunctional:

When choosing what clothes to bring, it is important not to get caught up in what is newest or what you like the most. As a general rule, don’t bring anything that could only be paired with one other item of clothing, or could only be worn on one type of occasion.

A long top that can be used as a dress, pants that can be rolled up to shorts, a tube top you can wear as a skirt or a light scarf you can wrap around you to make a beach dress are examples of multifunctional clothing items.

Wear layers:

It is practical to bring clothes that can be worn in layers. In this way you wont need to bring both jackets, thick sweaters, medium thick sweaters and light sweaters. Instead you can wear a long sleeved shirt underneath a regular t-shirt, or you can wear leggings underneath your shorts if you need something in-between hot and cold.

The clothes I packed are mostly summer clothes, but wearing all of it at the same time is always an option - So far I've never been cold. I think I was wearing 11 items of clothing simultaneously in Istanbul...

Color schemes:

When you need to create your compact wardrobe or “travel capsule” a very important thing to consider is what colors of clothing to bring. Ideally everything you bring should match. And yes - you are allowed to skip this section if you don't really care about matching clothes...

When choosing my color scheme I usually follow these steps:

1. Choose a dark primary color

2. Choose a lighter primary color

3. Choose a complimentary color

The idea is that the two primary colors will be the base of your wardrobe, and the complimentary color will be one that is found in patterns on clothing items or in accessories. If you like, the complimentary color can be more wild and bright, as this will make your general look more interesting. Voila, all of your clothes match!

Examples:

Navy blue – White – Coral

Bordeaux – Beige – Curry

Black – White – Red

Brown – Baby pink – Pink

Army green – Beige – Gold

Deep purple – light green – Navy blue

Brown – Beige – Coral (As in picture)

Of course you might have a few pieces of clothing not living fully up to these demands. The scheme is meant to be a pointer rather than a strict rule. Also adding black is always beneficial. My colors are Bordeaux – beige – navy blue, but I allowed the “beige” part to include several shades of brown and camel. As long as everything goes with everything you’re good.

Fabrics:

If you are backpacking or otherwise need to fold your clothes tightly, don’t bring anything made of a fabric that easily gets wrinkled (unless you, like my SO, think that wearing a wrinkly shirt makes you look adventurous). Choose light cotton for most clothing and lighter non-wrinkly fabrics like silk or satin for dresses and shirts. Lighter materials also have the advantage of being low weight, drying faster and taking up less space.

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Washing:

You have to consider how you are going to wash your clothes. If you are traveling long term it is a bad idea to choose white as the lighter primary color, as it would have to be washed separately from the darker items. I am not bringing a single white piece of clothing. This is an advantage in that it takes longer before our clothes reveal that they haven't been washed for weeks...

Don’t bring fragile clothing items things that can’t be washed in a washing machine either; make sure that whenever you have a washing machine at hand, everything can go in there at once.

Review your choices:

To determine if your travel capsule is optimal, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can (almost) everything be worn together?
  • Can everything be washed together?
  • Will any items wrinkle in my backpack?
  • What will I wear for the beach?
  • What will I wear for a casual relaxed day?
  • What will I wear for hikes or physical exercise?
  • What will I wear for a nice dinner or fancy cafe?
  • What will I wear for a night out or a party?
  • What will I wear if it's really cold out?
  • What will I wear if it's unbearably hot out?

All right, here's what I brought:

clothes tops packing light travel backpack carry on luggage traveling lightweight

Tops:

  • Beige wool sweater. Open in front. My 'jacket'
  • Black skintight long sleeved shirt. Long enough to be a dress. (although Alex forbid me to wear it as such since it is a biiiiit revealing...)
  • Bordeaux loose long sleeved shirt. Comfortable and rather warm.
  • Black light oversize t-shirt w/ navy blue print. Good over long sleeved.
  • *Curry yellow skintight t-shirt w/ navy blue print. A close fit t-shirt.
  • *Dark grey oversize t-shirt. Doesn’t match anything, but I got it at SXSW and love sleeping in it!.
  • Bordeaux skintight tank top. Pretty basic.
  • Black spaghetti strap skintight top. Good for avoiding tan lines.
  • *Army green very light oversize tank top. For when it’s too hot for clothes and you need something light. Also has sufficient holes that I can pass as a homeless when required...

* Items that aren’t strictly necessary and were only added to my travel capsule because I had a lot of spare space. I could have done without them, but they save me from having to wash constantly and give me more clothing options.

bottoms packing light lightweight travel carry on luggage bottoms

Bottoms:

  • Bordeaux tribal pattern long baggy pants. Crazily comfortable and good for transit although I have to put up with jokes from Alex every time I wear them.
  • Navy blue skintight three quarter pants. Short enough to roll up to knee shorts and long enough to wear instead of denim jeans.
  • Denim skintight mid-thigh shorts. Basic but not too short.
  • Brown loose short shorts. When you need short but not skintight.
  • *Tribal pattern light material high waisted short shorts. Light, comfortable and crazy.
  • Camel/Bordeaux plaid high waisted skirt. For more girly outfits.
dress packing lightweight travel carry on luggage backpack packpacking long distance

One-pieces:

  • *Bordeaux lightweight dress. Casual over a bikini, fancy with a belt around the waits.
  • Black/floral jumpsuit. Very comfortable but good for formal occasions.

 

 

underwear packing light lightweight travel traveling backpack carry on luggage

Intimates:

  • 3 Bras
  • 7 Pairs of panties
  • Navy blue bikini
  • 4 pairs  socks

 

Note: These last two categories will of course look very different for guys. The important thing is to bring something that can be worn for formal occasions, and to remember to bring underwear!

accessories traveling travel light lightweight backpack luggege carry on packing

Accessories:

  • Cotton Shopping bag. For carrying food or to use as a daypack.
  • Ugly microfiber shopping bag. For dirty laundry.
  • Small brown purse. Because girls don’t always have pockets for phones and wallets.
  • Black travel wallet. I swear you can get this exact model in oriental shops all over the planet.
  • Microfiber Towel. Not nearly big enough to cover me up, but dries me off!
  • Brown braided belt.
  • Brown sunglasses.
  • Dark green tribal headband. Homemade. Because why not.
  • 4 black hair bands. Because I loose one a month…
  • A few pieces of jewelery. Only the ones I am wearing, no spare.

Shoes:

  • Merrell Mimix Flats. These things will work WONDERS. Ultra durable, Ultra packable, and even comfortable! These are the perfect 'inbetween' shoes that will even fit in your day bag for when your flip-flops happen to break during a hike (which happened to me, it sucks walking home barefoot). 
  • Nike frees. Countries visited: 9. States visited: 8. Shoelace replacements: 2. Black markers used to cover up holes and ugly colors: 4. Holes: 117. These stats are from before I left... But they are so comfortable! I'll wear them until I break through the sole. (Edit: I let these die in Turkey and got fake black ones for 15$. Already miss them)
  • Flip Flops. For hostel bathrooms, beaches and taking out the trash.

Toiletries

Travel sizes:

You can get all the basic toiletries you need in miniature sizes and this will get you far along the way. Alternatively you can buy a bunch of travel containers and transfer your preferred products to these.

Tip: If you are traveling long term it might be a good idea to get a small emergency kit too. A lot of stores sell travel emergency kits containing band-aids and wet-wipes. Add painkillers, laxatives and allergy pills to this and you have yourself a miniature pharmacy.

Multifunctional toiletries:

To save space you can choose combined options for some of your toiletries. For example a shampoo that works as a body-wash, a face lotion with build in foundation (BB-cream) or a travel-comb with a mirror on the back. My personal favorite is “Dr. Bronners Magic Soap” organic soap bar. This soap can be used to clean anything you need cleaned; from you hands, body and hair to your clothes. Allegedly you can even use it for brushing your teeth since it is 100% organic, but I really doubt that would be comfortable. I also don’t know how I feel about lavender smelling breath…

The fluid limitation:

Those of us traveling with carry-ons face yet another challenge. You can only bring fluid containers of 100ml (3,4oz) or smaller onto the aircraft. In addition to this rule, all your fluid containers must be able to fit snuggly into a 1 liter plastic zip-lock bag.

Again the travel-sized products are an advantage. Another thing to consider is non-fluid alternatives. A lot of toiletries that are usually fluid can be found in a solid version. Examples are deodorant sticks, soap bars, powder foundations or solid lotion (turns fluid from body warmth). These substitutions can save you a lot of space in the 1L plastic bag. I even heard of people who would dry up dollops of toothpaste and bring them as small solid drops. I never went that far, but I guess if you're desperate…

Tip: If you do carry-on, do remember to take those scissors out of your nail kit. It is an unnecessary hassle when they have to confiscate them at security. Same goes for bottle openers. Alex managed to sneak his onto 4 flights before having to leave it behind in Antalya airport though.

toiletries light travel packing backpacking carry on luggage

My toiletries:

  • Dr. Bronner’s Magic 100% organic Soap bar, rose scented. Remember to bring a small plastic bag to keep it in after use.
  • *Shampoo. Transferred to travel container. I could have gone without since I have the soap bar, but decided to bring it because I had space.
  • Conditioner. As above.
  • Moroccan hair oil. Because otherwise I'd get dreadlocks...
  • Sun Lotion. SPF 30, CVS travel size.
  • After sun lotion. Transferred to travel container.
  • Hand lotion/body lotion. CVS travel size.
  • Face lotion.
  • Small perfume.
  • Deodorant stick. CVS travel size.
  • Toothpaste. Hospital size. This is the only employee benefit of being a nurse…
  • 6 small make-up products, 3 make-up tools and tampons. (I will spare you the details of the girl's stuff)
  • Travel hairbrush w/ mirror.
  • Toothbrush. Bringing a cap for it is more practical than keeping it in a separate bag.
  • Epilator set. For guys this would be the electronic razor. Takes up space, but is worth it when you are traveling for long.
  • Razor.
  • Painkillers. Because sometimes you have too many sangrias.
  • Laxatives. Because sometimes it is hard to go in a crowded hostel.
  • Band-Aids. Because sometimes you run into walls.
  • Wet wipes. Because it was in the kit…
  • Blister pads. Because walking far can hurt.
  • Asthma medication. Because I had asthma when I was a kid. Better safe than sorry.

Electronics

For an in-depth discussion on what laptops and phones are good for travelling, you should probably go to another blog. I have apple products and am very happy with them. There. I hope that statement didn’t offend anyone. I apologize to all electronics enthusiasts for my following amateur tips on this subject…

Wise words on laptops:

First of all having a smaller laptop is obviously better. I have a Macbook air 13’’, and always found it to be perfect. Because it is so thin, it doesn’t really matter that the screen is 13’’ and not 11’’ in my opinion.

Instead of investing in a backpack that has a computer department, it works bringing a sleeve for your laptop. A computer department takes up more space in your bag than most laptops need, and the addition usually makes the backpack a bit heavier.

If you are traveling for a long time and will be taking pictures or otherwise need electronic storage, remember to bring an external hard drive. A SSD (Solid State Drive) is the most compact and sturdy option.

Wise words on phones:

This is the age of the Smartphone, and it really is a traveler’s best friend. This device eliminates the needs for cameras, alarm clocks, flashlights, maps, compasses, books, envelopes, calendars, board games, calculators, notebooks, dictionaries, watches, iPods, guidebooks, and even computers for shorter trips. Oh, and they have candy crush! I don’t know how our parents did without.

I traveled for 6 months without bringing a laptop or a camera and never needed them. With the new technology your Smartphone most likely takes just as good pictures as most digital cameras.

electronics carry on light travel weight backpack luggage traveling backpacking

My electronics:

  • Macbook Air 13’’- Small, reliable, simple
  • Laptop sleeve. Always use protection.
  • iPhone 5s w/cover and screen protection. I’d be lost without my second brain.
  • iPhone 5s charger
  • Macbook Charger
  • European Apple socket piece.
  • American Apple socket piece. The two should be good for most places. I will purchase a transformer when I need it rather than carry it around.
  • Apple headphones. For traveling these are so small and efficient for their size that it’d be a waste of space to bring my big headphones.
  • 128GB USB flash drive. 

Stuff

This category covers everything that’s left. Depending on what you’re doing and what your interests are, this might change a whole lot. Even things that used to be a must when packing for a trip, like pen and paper, might not be useful to some people.

In this category is also everything that is completely not necessary, but which you are bringing anyway. Yes I am talking about that stuffed animal or those neon green party glasses you can't live without. No, seriously, there are some things that might not be vital, but are their weight worth in fun.

stuff light travel traveling lightweight backpack carry on luggage

Useful stuff:

  • Blank journal.
  • 4 black pens and 3 colored pens. Okay I am breaking my own rule about only bringing one of everything, but I really like all the writing in my journal to be in the exact same color and thickness, and since I got the cheapest pens they had I really doubt each will last long.
  • Tape. I could bring staplers, clips, and markers too, but you’ve gotta keep the office utensils down because if you start to bring those things the list could go on. .
  • 3 combination bag locks. These are small, cheap locks of a bad quality, but if you ever need your bag stored in a reception, your bag is a lot less likely to be stolen if your zippers are locked together. Also useful for hostel lockers as some hostels charge you a fee if you didn’t bring your own lock.
  • Sewing kit. I am only bringing this because I am travelling indefinitely with very limited amounts of clothes.
  • Bose Earbuds. Very useful for overnight bus/train/plane rides, sleeping in airports and noisy dorm rooms.
  • Snap hook. I use mine for controlling all my small items (rubber bands, USB, tape, locks). It is also useful for when you need to attach something to the outside of your bag. For example if you don’t have space for your shoes or if your towel didn’t dry up before you left.

Fun stuff:

  • Artificial sweeteners. Because I need these in my daily coffee.
  • Travel playing cards. Good for when you travel in pairs or for meeting people in hostels.
  • 6 small packs of liquorice. Because I am Danish and want to bring a little something to remind me of home.
  • Spanish castanets. Because… well I don’t play the ukulele, but how fun is it to bring a musical instrument traveling? Okay, enough said. But again. They are their weight worth in fun! (Edit: I actually ended up giving these to our host Omer in Istanbul an bought myself a Uke instead. Ironic, I know)

Papers and documents

Go electronic:

It is no secret that it can be a pain to keep track of Visa’s, currencies, plane tickets and hostel bookings. A lot of travelers feel most comfortable bringing printed copies of all these things in a big folder, but when you are trying to travel light, it can be an advantage to keep as much of your data as possible electronically.

Generally most bookings (flight tickets, bus tickets, hostel reservations) don’t need to be printed. A lot of airline companies even have apps from which you can check-in and receive the barcode right on your screen. And let me tell you; it feels good to walk through a gate, casually closing your Spotify app to flash the barcode on your phone to the scanner, while everybody else is struggling with piles of papers and printed tickets.

Note: A few budget Airlines still require you to bring a printed ticket, and some even require you to check-in in advance AND bring your ticket printed. Make sure to know your airline company’s policies.

For hostels there is usually no need for any verification documents other than your passport (so remember to make the booking using your own name!)

Papers to bring:

If you need a visa for where you are going, this is a document to have in a printed version. It is also a good idea to bring printed copies of your insurance policy and personal ID’s (passport, divers license, health cards) since copies of these things will come in very handy if you are unfortunate enough to loose your electronics and valuables. 

Tip: Send copies of all important documents to your own email or save them in Dropbox/Google Drive – in this way you can access them from computers anywhere.

ID’s and cards:

Your most important valuable is your passport. Take good care of it, and please, please don’t forget it. If this is the one thing you forget to bring, you are simply screwed. So just don’t, okay?

It is a good idea to bring another valid picture ID apart from your passport, since you don’t want to carry this around with you, except from when traveling from one location to the next. If you don’t have a driver’s license, most countries provide some other sort of valid picture ID. If you have a student ID too, this can get you discounts in variable places and is definitely worth bringing.

Always bring more than one credit card. MasterCards are good for traveling, and VISA works everywhere, in my experience.

Tip: If you are actually packing for indefinite travels, it is a good idea to make sure that your credit cards and drivers license wont expire for the next couple of years.

Other cards that are practical to bring are insurance or health cards, especially if you are a European citizen. The European health card works as an insurance in all of Europe.

Vaccination certificates (small yellow passport sized folders) are important to bring for traveling in some countries.

Note: Here's the one thing I forgot; extra passport pictures. You need these when applying for visas. 

Smart storage of documents:

This one is important. Always consider how you store your valuables, so that you will still have what you need if you get robbed.

When staying: When you have your room and leave your backpack behind (in a locked locker of course!) to go out to explore, the following is a good distribution of valuables:

  • Passport, spare cash, spare credit card and insurance cards in your backpack, which you are leaving behind.
  • Primary credit card, cash, ID card and printed copy of passport in you day pack, which you are bringing with you.

If your backpack is stolen you still have the passport copy, a credit card and cash. If you get robbed in the street you will still have your passport, a credit card and cash in your backpack.

When moving: When you are traveling from one location to the next, you should make sure to not put everything in your backpack, but carry a small purse or a daypack on the side.

  • Spare cash, spare credit card, insurance cards, ID card and printed copy of passport in your backpack.
  • Passport, primary credit card and cash in your daypack

In this way your passport will be accessible while traveling, but again you made sure that if either bag is lost or stolen, you still have a backup of everything important in the other.

At one point I had an old spare phone too. When walking around in dangerous areas I made sure to put the cheap phone in my purse and keep my iPhone in an inner pocket or other hidden place (this is one time when bras come in handy). In this way, if I was robbed in the street and someone wanted to take my phone, I could let them have the cheap one.

documents passport travel light weight budget backpacking backpack carryon carry on luggage

Documents I brought:

  • Passport.
  • ESTA application for American Visa. Alex is American after all, and if we decide to go to the US, I want to have this document printed so I can get past those scary American immigration officers without any trouble…
  • Insurance police. I do have the phone number written down and my insurance company’s app on my phone, but this is one document you can’t have in too many versions. Stay safe!
  • Copy of ID's. This is a scanned picture of my Passport and drivers license.
  • Vaccination certificate. To travel in between certain countries you need to prove that you have certain vaccines. (Remember to check if you need any! Do this far in advance as some, Hepatitis A and B for example, need to be given twice with a month in between injections.)
  • Cash. Good for a start.
  • VISA credit card. My primary credit card.
  • MasterCard. My spare credit card.
  • Student ID. Can get you discounts on food, shopping or even hostel accommodation.
  • Drivers License. For proving to the doormen that I simply look underage although I am not…
  • Danish health insurance card.
  • European health insurance card.

My complete packing list

clothes carry on luggage backpack light travel traveling backpacking budget

Clothes

  • 1 sweater
  • 2 long sleeved shirts
  • 3 T-shirts
  • 3 tops
  • 2 pairs of long pants
  • 4 pairs of shorts
  • 1 skirt
  • 1 dress
  • 1 jumpsuit
  • 4 Bras/tops
  • 7 pairs of panties
  • 1 bikini
  • 2 shopping bags
  • 1 purse
  • 1 wallet
  • 1 belt
  • 1 pair of sunglasses
  • 1 headband
  • 4 hair bands
  • 10 miniature rubber bands
  • 10 hair pins
  • 1 travel towel
  • 4 pairs of socks
  • 4 pieces of jewelry
  • 1 pair of flip flops
  • 1 pair of walking shoes
  • 1 pair of sandals
IMG_7015.JPG

Toiletries

  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Soap bar
  • Hair oil
  • Sun lotion
  • After sun lotion
  • Hand/body lotion
  • Face lotion
  • Perfume
  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste
  • Hair brush
  • Toothbrush
  • Epilator
  • Razor
  • Tampons
  • Tweezers
  • Eye shadow brush
  • Pencil sharpener
  • 1 Compact face powder
  • 1 Eye shadow
  • 1 Eyeliner
  • 1 Mascara
  • 1 Lip balm
  • 1 Nail polish
  • Painkillers
  • Laxatives
  • Anti diarrhoea pills
  • 10 Band-aids
  • 5 wet wipes
  • Asthma spray
  • 5 blister pads

Electronics

  • Macbook Air 13’’
  • Laptop sleeve
  • Mac charger
  • Iphone 5s w/ cover
  • Iphone charger
  • Headphones
  • USB Flash drive
Here it is: ALL my stuff.

Here it is: ALL my stuff.

Stuff

  • Notebook
  • 7 pens
  • 1 roll of tape
  • 3 baggage locks
  • Sewing kit
  • Earplugs
  • Snap hook
  • Castanets
  • Stevia sweetener
  • Playing cards
  • Liquorices

Papers

  • Passport
  • ESTA (American Visa)
  • Copy of insurance police
  • Copy of passport and ID
  • Vaccination certificate
  • Cash
  • VISA credit card
  • MasterCard
  • Student ID
  • Drivers license
  • 2 Health cards

So there you go! Although some things have been exchanged and I did pick up a ukulele along the way, this was my original packing list. With everything in it my bag was 9 kilos, and keep in mind that when you are in transit you will be wearing a lot of your clothes which will make your bag lighter.

Hope you found this useful and got an idea of how to limit the content of your backpack! If you want to know more about us and hear the story of how a Dane and an American decided to run away for good you can read our live novel or take a look on our collection of small moments from the road.

This is how both our final piles of stuff looked when we left for our infinite travels in August 2014.

This is how both our final piles of stuff looked when we left for our infinite travels in August 2014.