Travel has become very challenging these last few years. Airlines have added fees for everything from choosing a seat to when you can board and, of course, what luggage you can take on your flight. Adding even more stress to the traveler are all the recent news photos showing rooms full of ‘lost’ luggage. What’s the solution? Packing carry-on only. But is it really possible to pack light for a two-week trip? Yes, but it requires a bit of practice and a lot of discipline.
Why pack light?
I love packing light because honestly, I’m a packing nerd. I enjoy the challenge of creating the most efficient packing lists for any trip – even trips I’ve not booked! And I love putting my capsule wardrobe into practice when I’m on the road. There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that you can travel efficiently and still look stylish.
If you’re new to the packing light idea, here are some of the benefits for you (and the planet!) when you pack carry-on only.
- No fees for checked luggage. Depending on what airline ticket you purchase, you may be entitled to a checked bag. But if not, checking a bag will be an extra cost, multiplied if you’ve several legs on your travel.
- No lost or damaged luggage. Having control of your bags at all times is reassuring.
- No wait in the bag check line before your flight, or at the baggage claim after the flight. Skip the lines and get on with your vacation.
- No dragging heavy suitcases through the streets, up staircases, or through train stations.
- Easier to use public transportation when you’re unencumbered.
- Lower your risk of shoulder or back injuries from lifting heavy gear.
- 🌿 Luggage weight adds to fuel expenditure on the flight. Decrease the amount of luggage you travel with and you’re lowering your travel carbon footprint (a bit).
Note: This post focusing on posting light, not ultralight. The goal is to pack with carry-on luggage only. Most air tickets allow a passenger to bring on board a carry-on bag and a personal item. That’s usually plenty of room for a two-week trip.
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How to pack light for 2 weeks
If you’re a long-time traveler, used to packing an entire suitcase with clothes, shoes, etc., learning to pack light for your next trip will take a bit of work. You’ll need to adopt this bit of the minimalistic mindset – what is absolutely necessary and what can you live without?
Your first step is identifying your travel needs. Consider what you intend to bring on this trip (or what you usually pack). Then ask yourself these questions:
8 questions for travel light packing
There are no right or wrong answers. Everyone’s needs and travel style are different.
- What do I absolutely need for this trip?
- What’s on the list that I bring ‘just in case’? These are the – “I may get invited to a fancy dinner” -items. Not packing a mini first aid and OTC medications. Being prepared for a health emergency is good practice even if it’s ‘just in case’.
- What habits can I skip on my trip? If you want to travel light, you may have to make some compromises. Can you skip the curling iron? Or go with minimal makeup? (We traveled on a river rafting trip with a young woman who brought along her entire makeup kit. She looked great but I can tell you the rest of us resented that heavy duffel bag whenever it was time to load the rafts.)
- Can I substitute lighter versions for my usual travel gear? Instead of a full sized brush, can you get by with a travel sized brush? What about that heavy sweater? Could you bring a merino wool sweater instead?
- What is essential on my flight? Long flights are challenging and there are a lot of items that make long flights easier. But go through your inflight items and ask yourself – do I want to carry this around for two weeks just to use it during the flight? Or can you downsize – switch the over the ear headphones for noise-cancelling earbuds instead? Stuff a small pillowcase with your sweater instead of bringing a travel pillow?
- What tech gear do I really need? Do you need your laptop, or can you make do with a tablet? Will your phone camera work as well as that dSLR?
- Am I being realistic about what I’ll do on the trip? Will you work out enough to justify multiple workout outfits? Will you find time for that art/work/whatever project you’ve been thinking of completing?
- What do I really want to bring that’s not necessary? There are items we travel with that aren’t essential but make our lives happier or more comfortable. It may be a favorite snack or a silk pillowcase. Put these items to the side to consider when you’re done with necessities.
Again: There are no right or wrong answers. Everyone’s needs and travel style are different.
Make a packing list
The best way to pack light is to pack organized. Spend some time before your trip identifying what you need. Using a packing list app will make this a lot easier. You can get an idea of how heavy your bag will be before you even begin packing.
When you get back home, take some time to review your list, seeing what you used and what was not needed. Maybe you could leave those items at home next trip.
Choosing your travel clothing
Create a capsule wardrobe -A capsule travel wardrobe is a small collection of clothing that travels well and combines to create many different outfits. By curating your travel clothing into a capsule wardrobe you’ve created a base for your trip. You can add more items, but if you’ve planned well, you don’t need to.
Don’t forget a light sweater or jacket. Every item in your complete 10-piece capsule should coordinate and every piece you include should be worn at least twice.
This capsule can be your complete travel wardrobe, or just a jumping off point towards packing light. Depending on the destination, my capsule wardrobes are often supplemented with a few favorite items.
Travel Clothing – Choose lightweight, easy-care items for your capsule. You likely have most of the items needed in your closet, but if you don’t you can find travel friendly clothing locally or online. Look for natural fabrics like bamboo, Tencel, and merino wool for odor resistance. Choose quality clothing that’ll hold up well in your luggage this trip and well into the future.
Learn to layer – This might be the best secret shared by top travelers. If you plan right, you can enjoy cold weather travel without a suitcase full of heavy clothing. Invest in a base layer of merino wool, or technical fabric, to add warmth to any outfit. Add a packable puffer coat, a wool hat, and gloves, and you’re all set.
A packing light example: navy blue base
|Navy blue base capsule – |
– navy merino wool top
– navy merino wool dress (Wool&)
– navy lightweight sweater
– 2 pairs of pants (one Wool& Mazama – durable and odor resistant travel pants)
– 3 additional tops – button down white, Breton-stripe short sleeve, black & white shell
– scarf/shawl (Diane Kroe Endless)
– underwear, socks, etc. in compression bag
Optional Items added
– 2 Icebreaker merino tees
– additional scarf
All fitting into a carry-on backpack (including shoes, tablet, chargers, toiletries) for a total weight of 12.5 lbs.
Shoes: every light packer’s challenge
Most travel advisors recommend only bringing two pairs of shoes – wear one, pack one. In all honesty, I rarely am able to do this. But I never pack more than three pairs.
- Supportive shoes (wear on the plane) – If you’re hiking, you’ll want hiking shoes. If you’ll be touring all day, you’ll want walking shoes. If you’re an athlete, you’ll want workout shoes. But you can’t bring all three. Look for shoes that’ll work fairly well for all your anticipated adventures.
- Casual/Dress shoes for dinners. I pack ballet flats as they take up little space. If you find a casual shoe that ALSO has the support needed for a day’s touring, let me know!
- Sandals or a pair of flip flops – you’ll want these on a beach trip, but also for showering at a gym, or just for relaxing in the evening. These are lightweight and pack flat, so there’s no need to leave them behind.
Focus on utility: everything must earn its place in bag
When packing light, make sure everything serves a purpose. Even better if things serve two purposes!
- look for hand luggage that’ll be of use during the trip and not just on the flight.
- consider multi-use clothing:
- a scarf that can be worn as a beach cover-up or used as a picnic cloth.
- swim shorts that can be used in the gym, or the reverse…
- workout shorts to wear under a dress for comfort or modesty. My latest favorite is my Summit merino wool bike shorts, sent to me for review by Wool&. These are a packing light win! I can wear for a morning workout and wear again under a dress in the evening. They’re comfortably high waisted and have pockets!
Minimize toiletries to pack light
Most everything you need can be purchased at your destination. But if you have sensitive skin or hair, and need a particular brand of product, you can decant some into a small container. Katherine, of the 5 Kilo Traveller, recommends collecting the small travel sized containers we use in our daily lives (medicine containers, eye drop bottles, etc.) rather than purchasing new 🌿. Visit her website for ultralight travel strategies.
Tip: Put anything containing liquids into a plastic bag, both for TSA regulations and to protect your clothing from spills.
Some people swear by solid shampoo and lotion bars. Before leaving home, try the solid toiletries to make sure they’ll work for you. (When I’m traveling somewhere that might not supply soap, I slice off a bit of my at-home bar and carry it in a soap saver bag.)
Choose your bags carefully
Most airlines allow passengers a carry on bag and a personal item. The carry-on luggage must fit in the overhead compartment and the personal item under the seat in front of you. Some airlines will also specify weight limits for these bags. But for the most part, if your bags will fit in the allotted space, you have some flexibility in choosing the right bag. A few tips:
- Wheeled bags offer structure and easy handling for those with shoulder and back issues. But remember, the wheels and handles are included in the airline baggage length restrictions and also contribute to making the bag heavier. Make sure you can lift the bag into the overhead bin before choosing this option.
- Soft sided bags – duffels, etc. are ‘squishable’ and will let you fit a lot in a smaller space.
- Backpacks with a hiking frame may not fit into the overhead bin. Check the dimensions before packing.
- Make the most of your baggage allowance by choosing a personal item that combines organization, capacity, and ease of carry.
- Pack your inflight needs in a small bag inside your personal item. That way you can stash it in your seat pocket immediately and have it handy throughout the flight.
Declutter your wallet – Don’t bring your entire handbag when you travel. Carry only one or two credit cards, your ID, etc. This is important for security but will also save space in your bags.
Packing cubes – A real space saver as well as organizational aid. I use packing cubes with a zip compression option rather than true compression bags. I can pack my better items loosely on my way, avoid wrinkles, but can squish the dirty clothing on the way home, leaving room for souvenirs. Socks and underwear go into another compression cube.
Plan on doing laundry
If you’re traveling for more than a short trip, accept that you will need to wash clothes. It may be a quick hotel sink wash, or you might drop off clothes at a laundry. We’ve learned that they’ll be a laundry visit (or drop off) if we’re gone for more than a week, but always pack a couple of wash packets for a cold-water wash. Occasionally I’ll add a travel clothesline, especially if we’re at a beach where it comes in handy for bathing suits.
Wear your heavy and bulky items on the flight
Always wear your heaviest shoes on the flight Likewise, wear your bulky clothing, and outerwear on travel days. You can usually stash some of the outer layers under the seat in front of you. (They may come in handy if the A/C is chilly.)
I rarely travel with a pair of jeans, as they are heavy and slow to dry. (I might pack a jean skirt though!) If you want your jeans, wear them on the plane.
Pack Light for 2 weeks – a simple packing list
Too much stuff for you? Download our Minimalist Travel Packing List.
- ID, driver’s license, or passport
- Credit cards
- Tickets, itineraries, etc.
- Prescription medications
- Small amount of cash
- Pen and notebook
Clothing (includes items to wear on travel day)
- 3-6 pairs of socks (depending on season) – Smartwool merinos are comfortable and odor resistant. I wore two pairs on a week long cycling trip without washing.
- 5 tops – focus on lightweight fabrics and you can add more!
- 2-3 bottoms (pairs for pants, shorts, leggings, or skirt)
- Lightweight sweater or blazer
- Tee shirt for leisure and sleep
- Large scarf, shawl, or sarong
- Lightweight jacket (I love my Cole Haan packable rain jacket. It has a classic style that is great for evenings out, but compresses into a small bag.)
- 2-3 pairs of shoes max
- [optional] skirt or dress
- [optional] workout clothing – lightest possible, i.e., 2 merino wool tees and exercise shorts
- Cell phone and charger
- Tablet and/or eReader and charger
- Earbuds (noise canceling if flying)
- Adaptor if traveling internationally
- Toiletry bag (small)
- Mini first aid kit
- Reusable water bottle
- Wet wipes, tissues
Extras and options
- Camera and charger
- Laptop and charger
Cold weather additions – choose merino wool for the lightest gear
- Base layer clothing
- Wool hat and gloves
- Wool neck warmer
- Packable down jacket