Travel Tips: How to pack for carry-on only travel

PUT AWAY THAT BULKY SUITCASE WITH THE ULTIMATE CARRY-ON ONLY PACKING CHECKLIST

If the thought of cramming your whole life into one wee backpack frightens you, you aren’t alone. When I first packed my 40L bag more than a year ago, slashing half of what I’d intended to bring, my heart stopped for a minute.

“This can’t possible be a good idea,” I thought to myself.

Fast forward five months, seven countries, 50+ cities and more than a dozen flights, and I was back home, eagerly swapping that bag with an even smaller 30L pack. Unpacking and repacking my clothes every few days had become about as fun as a kick in the teeth, and I’m not one to seek out getting a foot in the mouth (I do that enough on my own, thank you).

So, down the minimalist rabbit whole I went. Now, another 8 months later, I’ve turned my little 30L into a near masterpiece of packing without once paying baggage fees or worrying if it’ll be there on the other end.

It’s taken a lot of stress off my shoulders, literally. So, what do you say – let’s pack a bag!

 
 Anne celebrates reaching the top of Pidurangala Rock in Sri Lanka, with Sigiriya in the background.
 

 

TIPS FOR CARRY-ON ONLY PACKING FOR LONG TRIPS

The big secret here is no secret at all: pack lightweight clothes that mix and match easily. But you knew that already, didn’t you? Instead, let’s look at a few things you might not have thought of that make carry-on only travel that much easier. Read on to find:


TOP 5 MUST-HAVES FOR CARRY-ON TRAVEL

  1. UV blocking shirts: carry-on only means minimal liquids and, if you’re like me (that is, allergic to the sun), your sunscreen is equal to gold. I buy a couple bottles of Biore Watery Essence, conveniently carry-on sized, and rely on these shirts on sunny days.

  2. Bar shampoo and conditioner: while your cutting liquids, skip the plastic hair care bottles and reach for minimally-packaged bars instead. Find great option at LUSH, or look for any hair-friendly bar like these shampoo and conditioner bars from Ethique.

  3. Laundry detergent sheets: don’t let Friends fool you, no one is having that much fun at the laundromat. Grab a pack of these little strips to make easy work of quick washes between trips to the laundromat. These Travelon laundry soap sheets are my go-to (Canadian friends, get them at Eddie Bauer).

  4. Hydration supplies: on the list of plastic saving, those water bottles. Eesh. Keep dehydration at bay with a metal bottle and a handy SteriPen – in 90 seconds, you’ll have purified water with zero waste. Add a few Vitamin C packs for the post-flight jetlag/dehydration.

  5. Ear plugs + Silk sleep mask: if sleeping were an Olympic sport, I’d still be at home eating chips on the couch. My sleep game is weak, but these little comforts go a long way to helping me zonk out in new beds, time zones and airport floors.

CARRY-ON ONLY PACKING LIST FOR A RTW TRIP

Here it is, my life in a bag. Thirty liters of fabric and miscellany that can comfortably take me from about 15°C (10°C if you give me a coffee) to the most scenic equatorial beaches around.

Tops

  • Basic tank top (two): look for something lightweight and easy to layer

  • Work out tank: reach for moisture-wicking and quick dry fabrics

  • Basic t-shirt: bonus points for a while shirt to feel fresh when you really aren’t

  • Button-up: because no one wants to look like a backpacker in big cities

  • Dressy tank/top: for those last-minute wedding RSVPs and date nights

  • UV protection t-shirt: my favourite is Under Armour for being simple, not too sporty

  • UV protection long sleeve: plays double-duty as a great under-layer for colder weather  

  • Thin cashmere sweater: it isn’t always sunshine and lollipops

Bottoms

  • Casual shorts: a basic pair of denim or canvas shorts goes a long way

  • Sport shorts: search for a pair that can double as regular shorts

  • Skirt: grab something versatile for when shorts just won’t cut it

  • Culottes: long and flowy to cover your knees in hot, conservative areas

  • Pants: have a little fun here or reach for an easy dress-up option

  • Leggings: for long flights to lounge days and mosquito-ridden hikes, etc.

  • Note: I’m not a dress girl, but I can’t deny their value in a carry-on wardrobe if you are

Jackets

  • Lightweight windbreaker: the UA Do Anything is perfect in the layering arsenal

  • Ultra lightweight down: look for Uniqlo or similar that packs down (bonus: pillow)

  • Nicer lightweight wrap/kimono: to dress up your other pieces in a snap

  • Note: I skip the rain coat by avoiding rain and grabbing a poncho when desperate (hey Vietnam)

Undergarments

  • Underwear: a week’s worth in a comfortable, seamless style

  • Sports bra (2-3): with details/colours to mix into your wardrobe, I shop Fabletics

  • Bra: one, wireless, very comfortable and usually worn begrudgingly

  • Bathing suit: whatever you feel comfortable in and stays put in rough tides

Shoes

  • Running shoes: with traction to double as hiking shoes, I’m loving the Nike Lunarepic

  • Casual shoes: preference for easy slip-ons that aren’t too heavy

  • Sandals: flip flops, Birkenstocks, whatever you won’t hate yourself for wearing all day

Miscellaneous

  • Hat: a lightweight, sporty baseball cap helps keep sun and rain out of your face

  • Bandana/headwrap: to double as a scarf when those temperatures start to dip

  • Purse (or fanny pack): fabric, cross body and zippered, for safety and ease

  • Airplane blanket: the most versatile item in the bag; blanket, scarf, curtains, etc, etc.

  • Toque + gloves: if I know I’m heading somewhere cooler

 Anne and Paco pose for a photo in matching bandanas at home in Mexico - Go Squab
 A yellow wall is the perfect accessory to a minimalist packing wardrobe in Castelfalfi, Italy - Go Squab
 A lightweight windbreaker doubles as a rain shield when shopping for wine in France - Go Squab
 

THE BEST BACKPACK FOR CARRY-ON TRAVEL

 Now the fun part – what do you put all of this in? Great question.

I’m in love with my Gregory Compass 30L Daypack. As a fabric pack with the usual support structures found in backpacker bags, it’s much lighter – which goes a long way when you’re looking at 7kg weight limits on budget airlines. Will you miss those structural elements? Not unless you plan on walking long distances with the bag. Which isn’t a blast, so let’s not do that.

Regardless of what bag you go for, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Look for one with a suitcase-style opening, instead of a top loading bag. This makes it so much easier to find what you need quickly without tearing everything apart.

  • A few pockets to organize it great, but you don’t need as many as you think. Look for a big main area with pockets for laptop, important small items, and an easy-access pocket for things needed mid-travel (like that sleeping mask and water purifier)

  • If you plan on leaving the bag in less than ideal places, opt for a double zipper to make it easy to lock it up with a small travel lock.

  • While you don’t need to break the bank, don’t skimp out on quality. Your life lives in here now, it should be able to stay secure.

Next, let’s write a little love letter to packing cubes. These fabric and mesh cubes are life savers for carry-on only travel. With the right sized cubes your bag will stay organized, making the pack/unpack far more enjoyable, with the contents being kept nice and compact. My small Amazon packing cubes fit like a glove in the Gregory bag, with enough room to drop an umbrella and shoes on top. Like. A. Glove.

Now go on and travel my friends. The world is out there waiting and I assure, it doesn’t care how many outfits you brought.

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 A Roman arena in Nice, France sets the stage for Anne to show off her new casual travel shoes.
 
Travel ResourcesAnne Cayer