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neatly packed suitcase.
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Ultralight Travel: How to Pack Light Every Time

SmarterTravel

Packing 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. Do the math and it’s easy to see why this matters: If your checked bag is too big or heavy, you’ll incur baggage 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).

After years of traveling, I’ve learned the many advantages of bringing only a carry-on, even on trips of more than two weeks: avoiding baggage fees, not having to worry about the airlines losing my luggage, and being less encumbered by heavy bags while navigating a new place. And while other flyers are waiting at baggage claim watching the belt go round and round, I’m breezing past them to hop in a cab and get on with my day.

Whether you’re looking to travel with a carry-on only or you simply want to cut your checked bag down to size, these tips for packing light can help.

How to Make Your Suitcase Lighter: The Basics

If the challenge of ultralight packing has you wanting to lock your doors and stay home forevermore, it helps to think basic instead of specific, at least at first. When making your packing list, start by separating your items into these key categories.

Luggage

The carry-on from away
The Carry-On from Away

Packing light starts with a featherweight foundation. When you’re looking for a suitcase, consider these weight classes: A 22-inch carry-on roller suitcase is generally considered lightweight if it’s under 10 pounds. Manufacturers start claiming “ultralight” status at around the seven-pound mark. Brands such as Lipault and Delsey are both known for lightweight offerings in the five- to six-pound range. The MegaLite collection from IT Luggage is even lighter.

Whichever suitcase you choose, make sure that it has enough pockets and compartments to help keep you organized, and that it’s as roomy as possible without exceeding your airline’s size requirements. For more suggestions, see 10 Ultralight Rolling Carry-on Bags Under 5 Lbs.

Clothes

When choosing clothes to pack, consider lighter fabrics. Wool and heavyweight fleece are sure to keep you warm, but 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 should remain on your list of options.

Shoes

Wool runners from allbirds
Wool Runners from Allbirds

When it comes to shoes, packing light is a tricky balancing act between bulk, style, and comfort. The lightest available shoes, such as sandals and ballet flats, may not offer enough support for long days of walking. If you’ve got a heavier pair you need to bring, let your feet do the lifting and wear them when you’re in transit, reserving your suitcase for lighter shoes. Above all, be realistic about your shoes. Unless it’s for a specific special occasion, all your shoes should be multi-use. (Bonus points if you can pull your trip off with just one pair. For help, see One Shoe Trip? These Are the Best Pairs That Do It All.)

Toiletries

The lightest option for toiletries, of course, is to pack none and either depend on your hotel to provide you with basics or purchase them when you arrive at your destination. If you can’t travel without, solid shampoos, conditioners, and small bars of soap tend to weigh less than their liquid counterparts (you can travel even lighter by cutting the bar and taking only the portion you’ll need for your trip). Travelon’s shampoo and body wash sheets each weigh in at about half an ounce per package of 50.

Electronics

Traveling with the right electronics can save you both weight and space. A typical e-reader or tablet weighs in at somewhere between eight ounces and one pound, roughly the same as a modestly sized paperback guidebook or sizzling beach read. 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.

Outerwear

Featherless hoody from marmont
Featherless Hoody from Marmont

A jacket can add major bulk to your packing list, but plenty of outdoor suppliers offer surprisingly lightweight options—like the seven-ounce women’s Featherless Hybrid Jacket from Marmot or the 10.5-ounce REI Co-op 650 Down 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.

Key Tips for Packing Light

There are no hard and fast standards that can apply to every imaginable trip, but here are a few rules of thumb that have served me well when learning how to travel light, gathered from years of trial, error, and inspired experimentation.

Every Little Bit of Space Helps

Swap your pile of paperbacks for a tablet or e-reader, forget about those “just in case” items you could easily buy in your destination, and maximize your space by filling in nooks and crannies with small items (including stuffing socks, underwear, mittens, and even T-shirts into your shoes). See What Not to Pack for more help whittling your list down to the bare essentials.

Don’t Pack More Than a Week’s Worth of Clothes

To keep everything fresh, toss in a dryer sheet (you might find you can forgo perfume altogether with this hack). To erase wrinkles in a pinch, pack a travel-sized bottle of Downy Wrinkle Releaser and spritz your garments on the go. For trips longer than a week, plan to do laundry along the way.

Pack Outfits That Mix and Match

Pack only garments that can be color-coordinated with everything else in your travel wardrobe. If an item doesn’t work in multiple outfits, leave it at home. I generally try to limit myself to two pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes that go with everything else I’ve packed.

Maximize Your Personal Item

In addition to a carry-on bag, airlines allow you to bring a personal item such as a purse or laptop bag. I generally bring a small backpack, which can hold a lot more than a purse but will still fit easily under the seat in front of me. (If I need a purse during my trip, I fold it up inside a larger bag.)

How to Pack Light and Stay Organized

A cornerstone of ultralight travel is expert-level organization. The most common approaches to packing include folding, rolling, and compressing, which involves placing folded clothing in a sturdy plastic bag (like these) and rolling the bag to force additional air out, thus saving space.

The folding method works best for garments with sturdier fabrics, such as denim jeans or chambray blouses, while rolling your clothes works best for softer fabrics that are less likely to wrinkle, such as cotton and wool. Compressing, while a great space saver, does not ensure a lighter bag; in fact, it can tempt you to over-pack, thus running the risk of incurring surprise weight-induced upcharges at the airport.

Consider folding outfits into “units” and placing them into your bag together rather than placing all sweaters in one pile, all jeans in another, and so on. The following packing tools can help with this type of organization.

Packing Cubes

Pack-It original™ cube set
Pack-It Original™ Cube Set

Packing cubes, like this cute bear-themed set from Eagle Creek, are great for maximizing space in your bag. They categorize items and store them separately, making it easier to find exactly what you need in your suitcase. If you’re on a budget, you can use gallon-sized freezer bags—they do the exact same thing for a lot less money, and they’re sturdy enough to be reused over several trips.

Packing Folders and Envelopes

Another organizational aid, packing folders or envelopes offer the same efficient space-saving functionality as packing cubes, but they’re better at keeping your clothing wrinkle-free. These are good options if you’re toting lots of button-up shirts or blouses, and many come with boards to make folding easier. But keep in mind that any folded garment is still liable to crease along fold lines.

Packing Sacks

Pack-It specter tech™ sac set
Pack-It Specter Tech™ Sac Set

The most free-form of the packing aids you’ll find, packing sacks are like cubes but in softer bag form. They won’t keep clothing wrinkle-free, but they’re a great hiding place for belts, jewelry, hair-styling tools, shoes, and other necessities that you don’t want to toss into your bag willy-nilly. Consider these packing sacks from Eagle Creek; they’re water-resistant and partially transparent, so you can see what’s inside without tearing open each bag.

How to Travel Light in Tricky Packing Situations

I’m often asked how I manage to squeeze everything into a single carry-on and personal item, even for trips as long as a few weeks. I’ve put together advice for traveling light in three tricky packing scenarios.

Challenge No. 1: A Long Trip Through Multiple Climates

First off, if you’re going for much longer than a week, resign yourself to doing a little laundry. (Your shoulders and back will thank you when you’re not lugging 17 days’ worth of clothes.) You can pay your hotel to do it for you, look for a nearby laundromat—think of it as a glimpse into the local culture!—or simply wash your dirty duds in your bathroom sink.

Second, get creative. This is the time when all those clever convertible travel clothes are actually worth the money, like pants that can be turned into shorts by zipping off the legs or jackets that have a gazillion pockets for all your odds and ends.

The secret to dealing with multiple climates is layering. The same lightweight T-shirt that you’d wear when strolling around the humid streets of Buenos Aires can serve as a base layer during your hike in the snowy Andes. Keep your heavy layers to a minimum—you can wear the same sweater or fleece every day as long as you keep changing the lighter shirt closest to your skin. And be sure to bring your jacket on the plane with you so you don’t have to stuff it into your suitcase.

If your trip starts in a wintry climate and ends in a tropical one, consider mailing your cold-weather gear home so you don’t have to lug it around for the rest of the trip (or vice versa). An alternative is to bring along older clothes that you don’t mind donating or leaving behind along the way.

Challenge No. 2: A Week on a Cruise Ship

Shorts, bathing suits, and tank tops are easy enough to pack, but the most common sticking point for cruisers is formal night. How can you get a tux or an opulent ball gown into that teeny little carry-on?

Luckily, these days you don’t really have to. Many cruisers opt to skip formal night altogether and head to the buffet or order room service instead. But if getting gussied up for formal night is as much a part of your dream cruise as ocean breezes and fruity cocktails, you’ve got options. Men can pay to rent a tuxedo on some ships if they want to dress to the nines—but on many cruise lines you can get by with nice slacks and a jacket (a tie is preferred, and easy to squeeze into a carry-on). Bring multiple ties to change your look if there’s more than one formal night.

For the ladies, think little black dress. If there are a couple of formal nights on your cruise, save space by wearing the same dress twice with different scarves, shawls, jewelry, or other accessories. Choose shoes that can also go with sundresses or other less formal outfits at dinner for the rest of the week. For more help, see Top 10 Cruise Packing Tips from SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic.

Challenge No. 3: The Business Trip

Business trips pose two primary challenges for people trying to pack light: looking professional without toting half your wardrobe, and bringing only the most essential gadgets to get the job done.

Unless it’s a particularly lengthy trip, you can usually get by with a single neutral-colored suit that can be mixed and matched with different shirts, ties, and/or accessories. For example, a woman can wear the same pair of black suit pants for a daytime meeting (pair with a button-down shirt and jacket) and for dinner out (substitute a flowing wrap for the jacket and add earrings or other jewelry to dress up the look). By sticking to neutral colors, you should also be able to keep yourself to a single pair of dress shoes. If you’re bringing a blazer or jacket, wear it on the plane to free up space in your carry-on.

The advent of the iPad and other tablets has helped lighten the load of the business traveler considerably by providing an alternative to bulkier laptops. Don’t have a tablet? If it’s a short trip, you can probably get by with only your phone.

A note for business travelers attending a conference: Forget about lugging all those folders and freebies you received on the trade show floor. Go through them the night before your departure and pack only what you really need or want. If you still don’t have room in your carry-on, have your hotel mail the remaining goodies back to your office.

Don’t let the task of packing light weigh you down. Armed with these top tips, you’re well on your way to your next destination, lighter of bag and spirit.

Outfits to Pack on Your Next Trip

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Christine Sarkis, Dara Continenza, and Margaret Leahy contributed to this story.

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