Learn to pack lighter and avoid overpacking with these 12 easy steps.
Have you ever heard about someone going backpacking in Tanzania with a huge and heavy Samsonite? No? I did.
The Past: The Samsonite Fail
My old roommate and I brought one enormous suitcase each on our trip to Tanzania a few years ago, and it was a big mistake. You see, my Samsonite can fit a lot of things. Like, a lot. We’re talking serious amounts here. And instead of embracing the concept of «extra room for shopping», 21 year old Tina figured she had to fill up the entire thing with clothes. And hairspray, of course. Because who doesn’t need two cans of hairspray on a vacation to eastern Africa. I also made sure to pack five bikinis and I hate both swimming and wearing bikinis. I also brought two leather jackets. Not one, two. WHO THE HECK BRINGS TWO LEATHER JACKETS TO TANZANIA? Me, apparently.
Dragging around that enormous thing from place to place was honestly a real pain in the ass. Some locals even pointed and laughed at us, like that time we couldn’t fit them both in a tuk-tuk and had to get a second one. Or that time we tried to carry them up two flights of stairs on the boat to Zanzibar. And I don’t blame them for laughing. We must have looked absolutely ridiculous. In addition to it being extremely impractical, bringing all those clothes also made it surprisingly hard for indecisive Tina to get dressed every morning. Sounds kind of counterintuitive, right?
The Present: Carry-On Is Bliss
Now, fast forward 5 years and imagine me traveling to Belgium, France and Ireland for a week in freezing December, with nothing more than a carry-on and a purse. Sounds impossible? It’s really not. I finally kicked my bad habit of overpacking and let me tell you: It. Felt. Amazing. Not only was it easier to get dressed every day, I was also amazed with how many different outfits I could make out of a few items. I also felt so much more free without all that luggage, however weird that may sound. Whatever your motivation may be: To drag around less stuff, to feel more free, to escape those insane baggage fees.. Here is my self-help guide to packing lighter and finally kicking the bad habit of overpacking. For me, this was the cure for overpacking.
Step 1: Pay Attention In Your Everyday Life
This might sound obvious, but I swear: You do not need as many things as you think you do. Start paying attention to the clothes and toiletries you use in your everyday life and you’ll probably realize there is a limited number of outfits you prefer in your closet. And that your hair can still look great without those seven products you sometimes use to style it. By creating self-awareness regarding the clothes and things you actually need to feel your best self, you’ll build a great foundation in your mind that will help you out so much next time you’re packing for a trip. At least it did for me.
Step 2: Do Some Research & Create A Packing List
Create a packing list that fits your destinations climate, the duration of your trip and the activities you’ll be doing. Do some research. Pinterest is great for this particular part of planning a trip, as a lot of travel bloggers write posts like «what to pack for a road trip to Scotland» or «packing list for Iceland in June». Those posts can be very helpful and might make you aware of what things you definitely need to pack and more importantly: what you will NOT need to pack. (Like two leather jackets to Tanzania in April, heeh).
Research is particularly important if you’re planning on doing activities you’re not that familiar with. Lets say you’re going hiking for the first time on your trip to northern Norway; you should definitely do some research on what footwear and equipment you’ll actually need. You won’t have to do much research before learning that you can leave those three pairs of heels at home and to pack sneakers or hiking boots instead. If you’re not sure what you’ll be doing on a trip, always bring versatile clothes and shoes. Special equipment can always be bought or rented while traveling if it comes to that.
Step 3: Start Early To Avoid Stress Packing
One of my biggest fall pits when it comes to overpacking is when my time is limited. I’ll start of great.. until the clock starts ticking. Then I’ll absolutely panic and deviate from my packing list. I’ll add a ridiculous amounts of stuff in my suitcase while thinking «but what if!». Stress packing = overpacking, ALWAYS. Just start early.
Step 4: Limit Your Space
I’ve come to learn that if I choose a smaller suitcase or backpack for a particular trip, it’s easier to stick to packing less. I won’t get too tempted to throw in a lot of extra stuff simply because there won’t be any room for it. And since I have to consider each and every item I bring with me, I’ll want to make sure those items are the ones I really want to bring. My suggestion:
Decide on a certain backpack or suitcase size, pack accordingly and stick to it. Do NOT upgrade to a bigger one just because you found six extra pairs of pants you just «have» to bring with you to Portugal. You do not need them. Buy a small backpack or suitcase if you don’t already own one. A backpack usually weigh less, is more flexible, easier to handle, and is more comfortable to travel around with in the long run. If you prefer a suitcase, get yourself a light one. I got myself a neat little black suitcase from Primark a few years back in Edinburgh, and it weighs barely anything. Perfect!
Step 5: Identify your problem – Why do you overpack as you do?
It’s easier to do something about a problem once you’ve identified the reason behind it. Have you ever thought about the reason why you overpack? Sure, it might be because you’re simply not that experienced as a traveler or because of pure laziness. But it can also come from a place a bit deeper.
In my case, my overpacking gets worse whenever I don’t feel good in my own skin. Everyone wants to look and feel like their best self while traveling, and when I don’t.. Well, I compensate by packing basically all of my clothes. As if those clothes will magically make me feel pretty once I get to my final destination. But guess what? They won’t.
Here is what I started doing instead: Accept that this is my current state and how I look at the moment. Going on a crazy diet and working out a lot the week before traveling will not make me look or feel that much different on my trip, so instead I find a way to feel my best as I am right now. I sometimes spend an entire evening trying on all of my clothes to figure out what I feel good in – and those outfits are the ones I bring for my trip. Easy peasy! This way I bring way less clothes, the clothes i bring will actually be used on the trip, and i dont have to deal with that whole trying-on-a-thousand-clothes-while-crying-in-the-bathroom situation while I’m on vacation. I’ll enjoy myself 100% instead!
This strategy might apply to other aspects as well. If you dont feel good until you’ve styled your hair for 45 minutes each morning, in addition to using like twelve products, maybe what you really need is a haircut and a new hairdo that is less high-maintenence? The changes don’t even have to be that big, it might be enough to get a pair of hold-in underwear prior to your trip if you’re struggling with feeling bloated and uncomfortable because of it. The concept here is always the same: Find solutions BEFORE your trip in order to feel your best self.
Step 6: Plan Your Outfits
Limiting what clothes to pack is the biggest struggle for many of us. But with a fresh mindset and smart thinking you can overcome the need to overpack and get by with a lot less than you usually do. For instance, you will not need twenty-five pairs of socks and underwear, as you will not shit your pants every day of your trip. And even if you’re extremely unlucky and actually do – they probably sell underwear wherever you’re going. And you can always do laundry.
Based on the research you did in #2 of this post, start by putting together a number of outfits depending on the duration and style of your trip. Think smart and bring clothes that can be combined in different ways so that your total number of outfits increases. Think neutral colors and materials, versatile items and layers.
Here’s an example for you: By packing 7 lightweight items like the ones in my photo below you will have 12 outfits to choose from on your trip. Add a pair of tights and a jacket or a wool cardigan, and you’re good for fall and winter trips as well. I personally would also add a dress or two, preferably something I can dress up and down like a simple white shirt dress.
TIP: Take a picture of each possible outfit to help you remember when you get one of those «I have nothing to wear» moments later.
Although packing light for warm weather destinations is a lot easier, it is far from impossible to pack a carry-on for a winter trip, you just have to think even smarter and get creative. Here are a few suggestions on packing light for cold destinations:
- Bring one warm jacket, preferably water resistent. Wear it while traveling so you don’t have to pack it.
- Bring a hat, scarf and gloves in neutral colors so it will match all of your outfits.
- Consider getting a set of thin thermals to wear underneath all of your outfits, especially if you get cold easily
- Bring warm tights if you’re planning on using dresses or skirts, and combine the outfit with a cardigan or sweater.
Step 7: Kick That Shoe Addiction
If you really think about it, do you really need more than two pairs of shoes on a trip? Maximum three. I know this sounds crazy for any shoe lovers out there, but think about it for a sec. Footwear weighs a lot and be hard to fit in a small luggage, so try to really consider your options before packing. Your travel shoes should be comfortable, in neutral colors, and be practical in terms of materials. If the weather is unstable at your destination, maybe save those lovely suede shoes for your next trip?
SHOES FOR WARM WEATHER
One pair of nice shoes that you can use while strolling around your destination and also with a dressy outfit for going out to eat/for drinks (classy sandals, cute ballerinas or comfortable heels), one pair of sneakers (if thats your thing), and maybe one pair of flip-flops for the beach.
SHOES FOR COLD WEATHER
A pair of warm ankle boots in a neutral color are always a winner, double win if they are water resistant too. These ones in black will go with most outfits and they’re warm and water resistant. Depending on your style and travel activities, you might want to bring a pair of winter boots or heeled boots as well. If they’re big and bulky you can always wear them on the trip itself to save room in your carry-on.
SHOES FOR ACTIVE TRAVEL
One pair of main shoes to be worn most of the time, depending on your style and activities: like nice sneakers or Converse. Even on trips where you’ll be hiking, consider replacing those huge hiking shoes with sneakers with a great grip if its possible. If not, wear the hiking shoes on the journey to save room in your luggage.
Step 8: How To Limit Those Toiletries
Toiletries is a major fallout and even tiny bottles of liquids add up quickly in regards to both space and weight. If you’re traveling with carry-on only, you also have to keep in mind that you have to limit your liquids to 10 containers of maximum 100 ml each. AND they all need to fit into a small plastic bag of 1 liter. This can be a real challenge, especially if you’re a make-up addict like myself. But here are a few tricks help you limit your toiletries:
REFILL BOTTLES ARE YOUR FRIEND
Those tiny bottles of shampoo at the airport sure are adorable, but they can be quite pricey compared to the amount you’re getting. Buy a set of refill bottles instead and fill them with your favorite liquid products from home. I recommend getting a set like this brilliant TSA approved travel bottle set. Here you get several squeezable refill bottles, cream boxes and toothbrush covers – all in a durable plastic bag. The best part is that the bottles have ID windows with 6 label options, which will prevent you from putting body wash in your hair like me (whoops!). I usually wait until I arrive at my final destination to buy bigger items like hairspray, dry shampoo or big bottles of sunscreen.
KEEP THAT PLASTIC BAG
I always keep a plastic bag from security when I travel, that I can use for my next trip. That way I can pack my liquids at home, so that I won’t get any surprises at security. Alternately you can purchase a travel bottle set that includes a TSA approved plastic bag, like the one I mentioned above. It will probably last longer, and is less prone to leaks.
BUY A PERFUME REFILL BOTTLE
These little weirdos are a blessing. I’m not even exaggerating. These colorful, miniature refill bottles contain 5 ml each, and are easy to refill with your favorite perfume, aftershave or makeup remover. They’re lightweight and small enough to put in your purse, which makes them ideal for travel and everyday use. I know a a six-pack might seem like a lot, but you can keep one or two for yourself and give the remaining ones to your travel buddies. I keep one in each of my favorite purses, I love them so much!
REPLACE LIQUIDS WITH SOLIDS
Avoid the liquid limitations all together by replacing liquid toiletries with solid ones, like dry deodorant or powder foundation. Travelon also has tiny packs of biodegradable sheets that dissolve in water, which are peeerfect for backpacking and traveling with carry-on only. I’ve only tried the laundry soap, which worked wonderfully, and they also have shampoo, hand soap, body wash and shaving sheets. Just make sure you keep them dry while traveling so they don’t ‘melt’ – maybe in a zip lock bag or something similar.
Step 9: Reconsider Bulky Electronics And Heavy Items
A lot of things we use for entertainment, work or styling are bulky and heavy and not great for packing light. Reconsider the big things you usually bring on a trip: Maybe you won’t need them after all, or you can find a smart way to replace them? For instance:
- Are you sure you need your computer? You could always write notes in a small notebook while on the road, and do the rest on your computer once you get home. Or maybe your iPad will be enough for this trip?
- Addicted to that straightening iron? Consider getting a travel version if you’re on the road a lot.
- Do you really need those huge headphones for this trip, or will a smaller set be sufficient?
- If you’re a vivid reader you can still limit your number of books to bring – you can always buy more while traveling, or even bring your kindle.
Step 10: The Elimination Method
Great job, you’re almost there! Now is the time to put all of your items on your bed to see what we’re working with. Be super critical and reconsider every item you put out on your bed. Get rid of anything you’re not 100% sure you’ll use on the trip – anything from the “maybe” pile is off limits. Did you sneak in that skirt you haven’t used in two years, «just in case»? Remove it. This is the hard part, but trust me, you’ve got this.
Step 11: Learn To Pack Smarter
Packing techniques can be a lifesaver when you’re trying to pack light. There are a ton of different ones and you can learn a lot from clever Youtubers, like this one. I gathered a few of my personal go-to packing techniques for you here:
WEAR THE HEAVIEST ITEMS
Identify your heaviest and bulkiest clothes and shoes and wear them for the journey. This will save you space in your luggage. This especially goes for heavy hiking or winter boots and heavy outerwear. It might be annoying to drag that huge jacket with you from airport to airport, but look at it this way instead: You can use it as a blanket on the plane.
ROLL & TUCK
Fight the urge to fold your clothes and roll them instead. It will be easier to pack this way and each item will take up less space. Rolling will also help you avoid the worst wrinkles on many types of fabric and materials. Help your shoes hold their shape by tucking your rolled socks and underwear into them. Win-win!
STAY ORGANIZED WITH PACKING CUBES
Packing cubes aren’t for everyone. I didn’t even like the idea of them at first, but I had to try them out after I was gifted a set two years ago. And I’ve used them quite a lot actually! They are great for organizing my stuff and makes packing less stressful. I expect a good set of packing cubes to look sleek, have a mesh cover for good visibility, and they should always include a laundry bag or two. This affordable set has all of that, in addition to buckle straps, which will help keep the clothes in their place and apply compression.
Step 12: Allow Yourself A Guilty Pleasure
Thought I was insane when I suggested you only need two pairs of shoes for any trip? Here’s your chance: Everyone is allowed a guilty pleasure of their choice. Now you can throw in those shoes you’re not completely sure you’ll get to wear. Or that skirt you haven’t used in two years, if you can’t stop thinking about it and you think packing it will bring you some sort of comfort. Or heck, bring those two leatherjackets to your backpacking trip if you want! The trick here is to make it just that – one or two guilty pleasures – and to not fill you entire luggage with several.
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I still may overpack from time to time, especially when I have to pack in a hurry, and I still love my big Samsonite suitcase. But I now know how to limit myself and I only bring my large suitcase when I’m headed to a big city with the intention of shopping. I no longer feel the need to pack my entire closet with me for a weekend trip. I hope some of these steps will help you as much as they helped me.