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How to Master the Art of Packing Light

How to Master the Art of Packing Light

Black Mia Toro Leggero small suitcase and black Herschel backpack, stacked and ready to go.

Packing Light small suitcase and backpack Packing Light small suitcase packed efficiently

Packing light is the key to traveling light.

Packing light is probably in my DNA given my lifelong need for efficiency and love of organizing. So, while I’m pretty sure my excess baggage aversion stems from some sort of prime directive to create order, it was definitely influenced further by watching my mother lug ginormous purses full of stale gum, used Kleenex, and nothing useful everywhere she went.

But hey, they always matched her shoes.

I can pack everything for a ten-day trip in a a 16″ backpack and a 15″ carry-on.

Which is what I’ll show you how to do in this article. I’m not a minimalist, so my mission-essential packing light list includes creature comforts like Bose headphones and Star Wars Band-Aids along with ten days of clean clothes and all the things you need to stay safe, clean, and organized, with nothing you don’t.

I get that the struggle to pack light is real. And I try not to judge. Really, I do.

But some travelers…oh mamma. I’ve watched many a couple trudging through an international airport with four enormous and clearly heavy suitcases (usually piled on one trolley because they’re too stubborn to pay for a second), plus an iffy under-seat carry-on, backpack, and overstuffed shopping tote.

Packing light is the foundation of traveling light.

I think to myself, WHY do people torture themselves like that? How can they possibly enjoy traveling when they have all of that literal baggage weighing them down? And the answer, based on the arguments I’ve witnessed, is that they can’t.

Traveling light opens up a whole new world.

The places you can go, the flights you can take, and the amount of time it takes you to get from Point A to Point B shift dramatically when you’re rolling light and limber. It doesn’t make 11-hour flights shorter, but it does give you options.

Travel innately involves things you have no control over, like weather, flight delays, and idiots.

All of those things happen, and you have no control over any of them. But you DO have control over how you respond to them, what you take with you…and how you pack it.

Less stuff to lug means less stress and more free brain space be present and enjoy the journey.

It’s not distracted by guarding your stuff or overstimulated by how to hoist your 18 kg (40 lb) bag (of six pairs of shoes you aren’t going to wear) up onto the train from the platform without falling, so you can daydream about all of the cool things you’re about to experience.

Packing light allows you to be. When you’re free, you’re relaxed, when you’re relaxed, you’re more tolerant, when you’re more tolerant, you feel more joy when you feel more joy, you produce more endorphins, when you produce more endorphins, you literally share the love.

That goes a lot further toward world peace than cranky people arguing with their spouses, yelling at their kids, and berating ticket agents for things that weren’t their fault, don’t you agree?

It also significantly lessens the amount of time it takes you to unpack repack when you’re underway. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend the two hours it would take to sit on the floor and figure out what went where sleeping or having another coffee.

Okay, now let’s help you get to packing light.

In case you’re still thinking there’s no way you could do it, I promise you can, and I’ll show you how, step by step. Just think of me as the Marie Kondo of packing smart, which is what packing light starts with. But with traveling light, it’s less about whether your choices spark joy and more about whether they’ll be useful enough to you enough times to justify the space they’ll take up on your trip.

I’m 5’5″ and weigh 119 lbs, so as with all things, size matters. (Anyone who says otherwise is lying.) For purposes of packing light, if you’re a dude who wears a size 12 shoe or going somewhere layers are required, your list will be longer and you may need to upsize to an 18″ bag. Speaking of, read this if you want to know a little more about me.

European size limits and cultural differences.

Not checking a bag when flying to, or within, Europe means meeting international carrier size limits, which are smaller than US airlines ones. For example, EasyJet’s maximum cabin size is 50 x 40 x 20 cm, or 19.5″ x 15.75″ x 8″…with wheels and handles. That means a standard 20″ US “carry-on” will end up in the belly every time AND cost you between 60–100 € at the airport.

Most EU airlines have the same standards, and “personal items” are not a thing. That means one carry-on item = ONE bag, backpack, tote, etc. If you’re wondering how I travel with an itty bitty suitcase AND a backpack, the answer is not dodging gate agents, it’s selecting premium seats…they include two cabin items. Oh, and priority boarding.

My magic packing light suitcase.

Mia Toro’s Leggero Softside Spinner Under-Seat Companion Bag.

I gotta be honest: Mia Toro as a brand is meh. The “Butterflies” hard-side 20 and 28-inch spinners I wanted to love have both been hard fails for different reasons. Plus, the number of Better Business Bureau complaints about their customer service warrant concerns.

The sleek, contemporary Leggero is the exception, and exceptional. It’s one of my favorite suitcases ever, and I’ve owned a bunch. I use it for business and personal travel, and taken it EVERYWHERE…on planes, trains, buses, taxis, and ferries, in rain, shine, and fog.

At 16.5 x 14.5 x 9 inches, it’s international airline carry-on compliant, yet holds everything I need it to. Including my laptop, thanks to the padded internal sleeve. The lightweight ripstop it’s made of is durable, forgiving AF, and easy to clean. Plus, it has gel-grip handles on the top and side, and only weighs 5.7 lbs/2.6 kg…light enough to maneuver on steep stairs or across a sea of cobblestones without eliciting the “F” word.

Packing light in my tiny Italian suitcase

Clothing + Shoes

  • Purple legging jeans
  • Dark wash skinny jeans
  • Medium wash boyfriend jeans
  • Pajama bottoms (2)
  • Black dress pants
  • Black sweater dress
  • Blue knit dress
  • Black tights (2)
  • Long-sleeved black shirts (3)
  • Black sweaters (3)
  • Cotton camisoles (3 black)
  • Cotton tanks (3 black)
  • Light pink bra
  • Black bra
  • Black socks (6 pairs)
  • Pink + black day undies (8 pairs)
  • Black night undies (8 pairs)
  • Wedge sandals (Black)
  • Black leather slip-on sneakers
  • Suede ankle booties (black)

Outerwear: Long insulated rain jacket, lightweight down jacket, cashmere scarf, hat, and gloves

First Aid Kit

(in a 5.5″ x 4.125″ x 1.375″ X-Large Hinged Box):

  • Band-Aids
  • GlacierGel™ Blister Pads
  • Gauze Pads
  • Pre-Cut Moleskin (22/Sheet)
  • Butterfly Strips
  • Self-Adhesive Tape
  • Cushioned First Aid Tape
  • Clear First Aid Tape
  • Antibacterial Ointment
  • Burn Cream
  • Electrolyte Tablets
  • Ibuprofen
  • Rolled Gauze
  • Tweezers
  • Safety Pins
  • Scissors
  • Alcohol Wipes
  • After Bite Wipes
  • Insect Repellent Wipes
  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Anti-Diarrheal
  • Antihistamine
  • Antacid

Packing light in my Herschel backpack

I’m mostly grateful to Canada for Justin Trudeau and The Dead South, but Herschel Supply Co. made a 22L “Harrison” backpack that was ideally configured for the way my brain works. It had padded shoulder straps, waterproof zippers, side pockets, fleece-lined sunglass compartment, and fleece-padded laptop and tablet sleeves. Because I rarely sleep on planes (FML), assorted pockets that keep my stuff accessible so I can find things in the dark by feel on long flights is molto importante. I try not to be the asshole with the light on when everyone else IS sleeping.

ELECTRONICS + COMFORT ESSENTIALS

  • 13″ MacBook Air
  • iPhone
  • Camera
  • Sunglasses
  • Passport w/case
  • Driver’s license
  • Credit card(s)
  • Cash ($ + €)
  • Travel keys2
  • A book I’m willing to lose
  • Slipper socks

LIQUIDS (in a clear Sephora zip case)

  • Spiral notebook
  • Zebra F-402 + highlighter pens
  • Blow-up travel pillow
  • Face mask
  • Sleep mask
  • Headphones
  • Gum
  • Kind bars (2)
  • Chargers + adapter
  • Eyeglasses
  • Lip balm
  • 3 oz. Shampoo
  • 3 oz. Conditioner
  • 3 oz. Body lotion
  • Travel Deodorant
  • 2 oz. Cleanser
  • .25 oz. Eye Cream

MAKEUP + MISC (in a Sephora “Weekender” case)

  • .25 oz. Eye Drops
  • .5 oz Moisturizer
  • .5 oz. Toothpaste
  • 2 oz. Contact Solution
  • 1 oz. Rubbing Alcohol
  • .20 oz Perfume
  • Eyeshadow primer
  • Foundation
  • Setting powder
  • Blush
  • Bronzer
  • Dark lipstick
  • Light lipstick
  • Lipgloss
  • Lip balm
  • Lip liner pencil
  • Eyeshadow palette
  • Eyeliner pencil
  • Liquid eyeliner
  • Mascara
  • Sharpener
  • Eyelash curler
  • 8 full-sized makeup brushes
  • Brush cleaner wipes
  • Face wipes
  • Blotting papers
  • Toothbrush
  • Contact lenses w/case
  • Hairbrush
  • Dry shampoo
  • Folding silicone cup
  • Starbucks Via coffee packets
  • Cotton rounds
  • Cotton swabs
  • Dog poo bags for trash
  • Sea salt
  • Hair elastics
  • Mini Makeup Eraser

Medications + Supplements

In case it needs saying, research any prescriptions way ahead of your departure date to verify whether they’re legal/available in your destination country. The best sources are usually official Ministry of Health or Ministry of Travel websites. (“But I didn’t know!” rarely cuts it in the big, wide world if you’re over the age of 5 and break the law.)

Controlled (but Legal) Prescription Medications

require registration with the government in many countries, most of whom have a fairly straightforward process for doing so. The UAE Ministry of Health’s “Permit to Import Medicines for Personal Use” is a good example, and there’s an online version…bonus! Countries that do this aren’t dicks, they’re trying to discourage abuse, counterfeiting, and smuggling, which is reasonable. So follow the rules and register sooner rather than later to reduce complications.

If Your Medications are Prohibited or Illegal

Don’t fucking take them with you. The risk of foreign jail time for doing so is very real in places like Thailand, Nigeria, Zambia, Japan, and the UAE, and confiscation is a given. Unless you can skip your meds for a few day or you have a sadistic sense of fun, choose an alternate destination. (If your medications are banned but essential to life, you may still be able to get permission in a handful of countries, but it’s a long shot.)

Prescription Bottles Waste Space

Most are less than half full, and the space they hog adds up fast, especially for people who take a bunch of prescriptions, or in my case, vitamins.

I use a pill organizer pack the number of days I plan to be gone + 4 and take the pharmacy info sheets with me instead. They have exactly the same information as the label, and in the 12 years I’ve traveled internationally with meds this way, the only thing I’ve ever been questioned about was my Tongue Sweeper. (To be fair to German airport security, it does kinda look like a shiv, and they had a sense of humor about it.)

WHAT I WEAR ON TRAVEL DAYS

I’m all about classy comfort, which denim + black does beautifully. My travel ‘uniform’ is medium wash Lucky Brand jeans, a black cotton cami, lightweight black Italian wool pullover sweater, bra/undies, black cotton socks, black leather sneakers or boots, and minimal jewelry: diamond stud earrings, a diamond pendant necklace, and a medical bracelet. Packing light = I leave the rest at home. I wear my lightweight down jacket on flights all year, and bring an insulated rain jacket for colder months/wetter climes, along with a cashmere beanie and gloves.

Pro Tip: The Hot Librarian Look is Always in Style

Cabin humidity on most planes is only 12%, so I fly in my glasses instead of contacts. I still have to use moisturizing drops sometimes, but it’s WAY more comfortable. I just put my contacts in with my sunglasses when I do my final run-through the night before my flight. It works.

PACKING LIGHT STEP-BY-STEP IN PHOTOS

Be sure to bookmark this article and feel free to follow my travel adventures on Instagram. Grazie.

One Response

  1. Glick David says:

    Wow! You are thorough. Thanks for the details and lists. Very helpful!

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