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8 Secrets of Ultralight Packing

It’s time to put your suitcase on a diet. Packing light—really light—doesn’t mean sacrificing style or comfort, but it does require rethinking such travel basics as suitcases and shoes. An ounce here, a half pound there—when you’re packing for a trip, these small increments can add up fast.

The Secrets to Ultralight Packing

Do the math and it’s easy to see why this matters: If your checked bag is too big or heavy, you’ll incur bag fees on most airlines. If you are carrying on a suitcase, weight matters even more since you’ll be lifting your bag dozens of times while in transit (in and out of the car, onto the security belt, into the overhead bin, and so on). Spare yourself the extra cost, sore muscles, and baggage rage: These eight tips will help you ace ultralight packing next time you take to the skies.

The Suitcase: Every Pound Counts

Packing light starts with a featherweight foundation. When you’re looking for a suitcase, consider these weight classes: A 22-in. carry-on roller suitcase is generally considered lightweight if it’s anything under 10 lb. Manufacturers start claiming “ultralight” status at around the 7-lb. mark.

Seven pounds may be comparatively light, but I wanted to find out how light a suitcase could be and still offer some protection to the items inside. This rabbit hole led past brands such as Lipault and Delsey—both known for lightweight offerings in the 5–6-lb. range—and ended at IT Luggage’s World’s Lightest Luggage line. With 19.5-in. carry-ons from 3.4 lb., these bags beat the other contenders by a healthy margin. (Larger sizes are also available.)

And unlike a roller duffel bag, which can be similarly light but lack a frame, this ultra light suitcase still offers some structural integrity. While your items may not have as much protection as they would in a heavier, more reinforced suitcase, if you’re using it primarily as a carry-on, you don’t need as much armor against luggage-hurling baggage handlers anyway.

Shoes: Think Durable but Light

Ever wonder why your bag always seems so heavy by the time you’re finished packing? Shoes—especially boots, wedges, and just about any men’s work or dress shoe—may be the culprit. And many ultralight options have their drawbacks: There’s only so far you can walk in flimsy flats, and lightweight sneakers don’t always deliver on the fashion front.

When it comes to shoes, packing light and well is a tricky balancing act between bulk, style, and comfort. Since shoe needs and preferences are highly individual, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but here are a few hints to point you in the right direction:

  • Shop Light: Most shoes were not designed with weight in mind, but shoes sold by travel outfitters tend to be the exception. If you’re looking for lightweight options built for comfort, start with a company like Magellan’s or TravelSmith. The offerings may not reach any pinnacles of fashion, but there’s enough variety that most travelers can find something suitable. And, unlike most online sellers, travel outfitters often list shoe weight in the specs, so you can shop accordingly.
  • Determine Scale: The lightest shoes I found online were a pair of 3-oz. foldable ballet flats. However, in women’s shoes, most travel-oriented options built for all-day wear weigh in at somewhere between 10 oz. and 1 lb. For comparison, a sample pair of flat boots (women’s size 8.5) weighed 2.8 lb., and a pair of wedge sandals (also women’s size 8.5) was 1.7 lb.
  • Dealing with the Heavy Pair: If you’ve got a heavier pair you need to bring, let your feet do the heavy lifting and wear them when you’re in transit, reserving your suitcase for lighter shoes.

Toiletries: Buy with Weight in Mind

For years, we’ve been thinking about packing toiletries in 3.4-oz. increments to abide by TSA carry-on restrictions. But you can do better than that. The lightest options I found were Travelon‘s shampoo, conditioner, and bodywash sheets, which each weigh in at about half an ounce per package of 50, offering the prospect of packing all three for less than the weight of one travel-size bottle of shampoo.

Even solid shampoos, conditioners, and small bars of soap tend to weigh less than their liquid counterparts; Lush makes a variety of shampoo and conditioner bars for different hair types. And since each bar delivers serious suds, you can travel even lighter by cutting the bar and taking only the portion you’ll need for your trip.

The truly lightest option, of course, is to not pack the sort of toiletries that hotels provide and depend on your hotel bathroom to provide you with basics such as soap, lotion, shampoo, and conditioner.

Cases: Minimize and Lighten

Shoe bags, toiletries kits, suit bags: They serve a purpose, but heavier canvas-and-zipper models seem built for a previous generation of travelers in a time when most airlines didn’t charge checked-bag fees and no one thought much about bag weight. So be sure your storage bags are light and that you’re only using those you actually need.

On a recent trip, after years of loyally toting a lined canvas Victorinox toiletries case, I made the switch to a similarly roomy mesh bag, thereby saving myself more than half a pound even before adding toiletries. The downside of mesh, of course, is that if anything leaks, there’s no real barrier to protect everything else in a suitcase, but since my liquids were all in a quart-size plastic bag for TSA compliance, I wasn’t worried. And though I usually use a separate suit bag to transport dresses, I instead opted to carefully roll items in the bag’s main compartment and rely on a few ironing touch-ups once I arrived.

Outerwear: Get Inspired By Backpackers

Backpackers had the art of super-lightweight outerwear figured out years ago. A quick spin through REI.com yields lightweight finds such as a 4.3-oz. water-resistant jacket (women’s size medium) and an 11-oz. multisport jacket for men.

Outdoorsy not your style? Since so many companies now offer some variation of lightweight outerwear, you’ve got plenty of options that don’t sacrifice fashion for weight. Nau’s Carry-On Blazer for women weighs in at a mere 8 oz., and L.L.Bean’s Trail Model rain jacket for men is another lightweight option. Travel outfitters such as Magellan’s and TravelSmith also have a variety of weight-conscious options.

Electronics: Just Say Yes

Traveling with the right electronics can save you both weight and space. A typical e-reader or tablet weighs in at somewhere between 8 oz. and 1 lb., roughly the same as (or less than) a modestly sized paperback guidebook or sizzling beach read.

Even if you’re the sort who swears by printed books, it’s worth considering the higher-tech route for travel. You can store an entire suitcase full of books on one small device, and with a tablet, you can score handy additional features like travel apps that can help you cut down on your vacation paper trail. Just don’t forget the charger.

Materials: Lightweight Winners

When you’re choosing clothes, consider lighter fabrics. While wool and heavyweight fleece are sure to keep you warm, they also tend to be both bulky and heavy. Fabrics known for being particularly lightweight, on the other hand, include silk and synthetics such as nylon and polyester. Cotton, linen, and cotton blends are slightly heavier, but they tend to still be on the lighter end of the spectrum and so should remain on your list of options.

Overpacking: Don’t Do It

No matter how many ounces you shave off by opting for lightweight gear, you won’t reap the benefits of ultralight if you overpack. Everyone has their own method for smart packing, but here are a few tips to break the habit of bringing too much:

  • Whenever you feel that overpacking urge rise up inside of you, talk yourself down. Lay out everything you want to take, then remove anything that’s single-use (unless it’s for a special occasion) or any item that is too similar to something else you’re bringing. You don’t need two black sweaters—just the one will be enough.
  • Be realistic about your shoes. Unless it’s for a specific special occasion, all your shoes should be multiuse.
  • If you’re worried about running out of clothes, pack a small bottle of laundry soap. That way, you can wash an item or two in the bathroom sink of your hotel if you need to refresh before rewearing.

Pack Right No Matter How Light: More Resources

We think a lot about packing. Here’s more from SmarterTravel on some of our favorite ways to pack like a champion:

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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