I’m what you might call a serial over-packer. I have never been able to travel without at least 3 pairs of shoes, a range of outfits for every climate and dress code, and a full bag of toiletries, and traveling in cold weather is a nightmare because winter clothing is so much thicker! Spending time with my boyfriend’s outdoorsy family, I discovered that hikers by necessity are pros at packing because they’re used to lugging their home, food, and all their supplies on their backs while trekking for hours, days, sometimes even weeks! Here’s what I’ve learned about packing and traveling light.
45L is the Perfect Carry-on Size
If you’re trying to lighten the load of your luggage, a backpack will be lighter than a hard-sided case by at least 5-10 lbs. Even if you get a suitcase with wheels, the standard carry-on sized ones will typically weigh at least 8lbs or more, and you’ll still have to lift your luggage up stairs, and to get it into the overhead compartment. That’s why I prefer a light (usually <3lbs) hiking backpack with all the pockets a traveler could want to organize his or her life!
Hiking backpacks are categorized by volume, and I’ve found 45L to be the perfect size for my default carryon bag. The volume for a 22″ x 14″ x 9″ inch bag is 2,772 cubic inches (multiply length x width x height) which converts roughly to 45L. This puts you safely under the radar for most airlines including Wow Air and EasyJet, both of which currently have maximum allowed dimensions for hand luggage of 22 x 18 x 9.8 inches, or 56 x 45 x 25 cm.
If you’re flying a budget airline like Wow Air which has strict rules about weighing your luggage and only permits each person one piece of carry-on luggage (including a purse!) under 5kg/11lbs, you basically need to carry empty suitcase to avoid paying any check-in fees. Most people should therefore expect to pay almost $100 on a roundtrip flight just to increase the allowed weight to a more reasonable 11kgs/~26lbs. The baggage fee may be justified if the plane ticket was significantly cheaper than competitors, but I also just add $100 to whatever the ticket price as listed since I don’t expect to go anywhere with less than 10lbs of luggage.
The added bonus of using a hiking backpack is that even if you overpack the bag to slightly over the allowed dimensions, agents at the check-in desks are usually pretty lenient with soft-bags because they know you can squish them in wherever it’ll fit in the overhead compartment.
Invest in “Ziplock” Bags
Packing cubes or dividers may be a lifesaver for organizing luggage in hard-sided cases, but don’t work well with backpacks. I recommend zip-lock bags because they can really compress your things a lot to save space, and keep your things from jumbling together in a structureless bag. I usually use a gallon or larger for clothes, and smaller bags for separating toiletries, holding delicates, and to organize non-clothing items (e.g. receipts I collect during the trip).
How you divide between those bags is personal preference. You could put a different outfit in each bag, or all of one type of clothing per bag, or some combination of those. There’s no wrong way to do it, just what fits better with the way you get dressed.
Plan What You’re Wearing on Travel Day
The more layers you’re wearing on your person, the less weight that goes into your bag. You should try to wear all your heaviest layers, and the most space-consuming pair of shoes.
Get Better Gear
There’s no getting around it, spending a little extra on better gear can be worth it, especially if you’re going somewhere cold. After a kickass backpack with lots of pockets, I recommend investing in thermal clothing because they give you more bang (warmth) for your buck (luggage space).
Although coats are less of a concern if you wear instead of pack them, I invested in an ultra thin, ultra warm jacket for when I know I’ll be hitting more than one stop in different climate zones. I’ve never been a big fan of goose down for ethical reasons, but discovered there are tangible benefits to synthetic down. For example, they’re much thinner/compressible (read: easier to squish into a backpack!) and also more water-resistant, so I don’t need to pack an additional raincoat unless I’m going on a hike or somewhere I might be caught outside in a downpour.
If you’re unsure how to get a better coat, try this guide on choosing insulated outerwear. I’m also a big fan of getting my gear at REI because the product selection is curated for true outdoors enthusiasts, and you can return any product even after use if it doesn’t work as advertised.
Find Clothes That Serve Double-Duty
Layering is a great way to get multiple uses out of clothing. When my boyfriend and I went to Paris with plans to visit the Moulin Rouge and some upscale restaurants, I brought a “little black dress” that I could also dress down with a sweater to wear during the day, and he brought an old pair of loafers to dress up his jeans but that he could throw away if we needed to free up space.
If you plan on going somewhere more upscale, are your walking around shoes stylish enough to go from day to night? Shoes are something that may be hard to purchase on the fly if you need it in a pinch. I usually like to pack flat knee high boots improved with a gel insert, which will be comfortable enough to walk around all day in, but also acceptable at a nicer bar where sneakers would be too casual.
Prepare to Re-Wear and Do Laundry (Drop-off!)
I’ve found that when you’re traveling around, recycling outfits is less of a problem because nobody will know if you have worn the same outfit 3 days in a week as long as they aren’t dirty or smell bad. If you’re willing to do laundry or pay for dropoff, that opens up even more ways to scale down your packing.
Cut Down your Toiletries
While there are some products I need to bring with me (e.g. disposable contacts), there are definitely products I can be less choosy about like toothpaste, shower gel, and (for girls) feminine hygiene products, which will generally be available most places you go.
Compress Your Tech
Are you bringing a smartphone, laptop, tablet and maybe even a kindle too? Those electronics may be light, but you can lighten the load even more by leaving them at home. Do you actually plan to use your laptop enough to bring it with you while you travel? If so, do you really need a tablet? Can you read ebooks on your phone or computer instead?
The “hassle” of not having a full suite of screens might be worth it if it’ll make you a less obvious target for theft, keeps you from paying overweight luggage fees, and gets you to unplug a little while you’re away!