How to Pack Light (And Still Feel Like You Have Everything You Need)

Or, How to Be Mary Poppins, Y'all

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I had asked on Instagram what followers would like to see as travel topics for future IG Stories, and my friend Marni of the excellent baking blog Happy Go Marni commented she would love to see the topic of how to pack light and feel like you have all the things you need. So naturally, as this topic is near and dear to me, I jumped on it and thought not only would it be great for a quick IG Story, but also a great blog post.

Picture it: 2007, Baltmore. I'm on vacation at a convention and have packed everything and the kitchen sink into a large piece of luggage. Excessive clothes, a huge ass makeup bag, and more things than I would need for a 5-day trip. This would be my pattern of travel packing for years and years to come, which led to a growing annoyance and dissatisfaction with the process. I'm not tall nor strong, so lugging around a 40+lb suitcase grew fucking tedious. I can't imagine how many hours I've lost waiting at the gaping, soul-crushing void that is baggage claim. Finally, I'd had enough of that and not living my best travel life.

Last year for my 8-day trip to Italy I set a packing challenge to myself: I would backpack the entire trip, fitting everything I needed in my Tortuga Air travel bag. This was a doubly interesting challenge as the Air is the smaller version of the first generation travel backpacks with an ability to contain at most 37L of stuff. It's usually meant for shorter jaunts. This was not a short jaunt. It was a learning experience for sure, but overall in the end I came out of it feeling a huge rush of liberation. No waiting for a checked bag, no dragging around luggage over 35lbs; get off the plane and gooooo. It was so freeing and satisfying, I can't even begin to tell you.

Now when I pack for trips my mentality is backpack/carry-on first. It's just so much easier. With more trips under my belt employing this mindset, here are my tips and tricks for packing lighter.

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Embrace the checklist

Having a checklist is a great starting point for packing in general to make sure you have everything you need accounted for. When it comes to packing lighter, I suggest doubling down on organizing your list and break it up in two categories: "Absolutely Need" and "Nice to Have If There's Room." Really think about what you actually need for the length you'll be traveling, the completely non-negotiable. Then go over that again and see what you can bump into "Nice to Have.." Part of embracing this meant me actualizing I didn't need to bring a lot of makeup products and sticking to core staples I know are awesome, meant realizing I didn't need every cable or accessories ever. This step can mean doing a lot of hard negotiating with yourself, but considering the trade off of carry less weight, less luggage, and not waiting at baggage claim I can assure the pros outweigh the feeling of "but I must have all these things that would make me feel better but I probably don't need!!" 

There's a lot you honestly don't actually need for a trip, so save room for what you actually do. For me, the average "Absolutely Need" things would be:

  • Clothing (more on this below)
  • Phone charger, USB cord + travel adapter if traveling abroad
  • Earbud headphones
  • External phone charging battery 
  • CPAP machine so I don't suffocate in my sleep (not everyone will need this)
  • Medications (I use a small pill case for this) 
  • Small makeup + toiletries bag
  • passport/ID/wallet + paper copies of passport if traveling abroad
  • Wet naps of some form
  • umbrella (small pocket size, of course!)
  • book to read for fun on plane/in transit

Unless I'm traveling for work or need to do work remotely, I try to leave the laptop at home. It's one less expensive piece and bag to worry about. Anything I'd need to look up I can do on my phone, and if I REALLY need a computer almost every hotel has a business center option. I take trip notes on my phone or bullet point out stuff for blog posts directly into a draft post through Squarespace's Blog app. I track my itineraries through TripIt and cross-referenced with GoogleTrips, which on a basic level can work offline. I've just found I'd rather be out doing things than tied to my computer if I don't need to be, and there's something really great about taking a break from the laptop life.

I used to bring a ton of makeup on trips, but now I pare it back to core staples (more on that in future posts) to fit into a small makeup bag. For toiletries I usually bring a small decanted pot of my cleansing oil, face wash, tooth brush, small toothpaste tube, deodorant, razor and maybe some face moisturizer. I use a tangle tease brush on trips because it's so small (size of your hand) and works well. I also decant things into small travel containers that I pick up at Target or MUJI. You're only going away for a certain amount of time, only bring as much as you actually need. You can probably survive a week without more than shampoo/conditioner for your hair, but if you need something detangling skip conditioner in favor of a detangling product since most are conditioning anyway. Double up where you can with multipurpose products depotted or decanted into small tubes and pots. If you aren't a fan of using hotel shampoo or they don't have shampoo there, most anywhere you go will have a drugstore/chemist/pharmacy where you can get small bottles. If you'd rather pack something, the Lush bar shampoos are great for travel and the tins take up so little space. You don't necessarily need to bring some toiletries with you, you can pick up travel sizes at your location to use during your time there. It can be a great excuse to visit a foreign drugstore or pharmacy and check out their local makeup/beauty brands too, says the girl who lives and breathes for going to Boots when in UK. 

And my secret weapon trick for packing light? Bring a small bottle of Dr. Bronner's Liquid Castille Soap. It can be a shower wash and double as laundry soap, or shampoo in an absolute pinch (though for my hair I didn't fancy it for this use). That laundry soap tip is important because...

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Compromise on clothing

You literally do not need a new outfit every day of your trip. This is the BIGGEST thing I've learned in packing light; bring a capsule wardrobe and re-wear the same pieces. You don't necessarily need to wash a piece of clothing after one use, and it's not gross to wear the same pair of jeans three days in a row or the same shirt two days later without washing. Bring a little bottle of Febreeze, and you're good to go. I promise. But if you find it difficult to embrace this, that's where Dr. Bronner's comes in. It's really easy to hand wash clothes, especially if you have a sink or tub in your lodging. Douse the clothing with water, add a little soap, swish it up really good for a minute, and rinse to get the soap out. Wring it out so it's not dripping wet and hang up over shower or flat on top of a towel to air dry over night. It takes less time to do than you'd think.

With that in mind, here's my typical travel capsule wardrobe that will typically cover most any activities, adjust as needed:

  • 2 pairs of jeans or shorts
  • 1 dress
  • 1 cardigan
  • 3 t-shirts 
  • 1 jacket/coat (I will usually wear this or bring on plane to save room)
  • a pair of underwear for each day (this takes up so little space this is where I don't mind packing more)
  • 3 bras
  • enough socks for whole trip
  • 1-2 pairs of shoes depending on plans (if not going anywhere fancy, I'll just bring my boots. Otherwise I'd bring sneakers and wear them on flight and then pack a pair of more formal but comfy shoes in my bag)

I'd liken the style of my travel wardrobe as being basically a small version of a French Minimal Wardrobe in terms of design and color because the French style leans super well to mixing and matching and looking cute and timelessly fashionable. For a more visual idea of this, check out my Minimal Wardrobe Staples board on Pinterest. 

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Where and how to store what

Pro tip: airlines say you can only bring two personal items for carry-on, but I've found you basically can get away with bring a travel bag, computer messenger bag, and a purse and they don't give you crap for it. As long as it's not a huge purse anyway. I've had very few instances where I've been stopped for it, but just in case I bring a smaller purse when going abroad that can fit in my messenger bag. 

Clothing: I roll up most of my clothing to take up less space, and also take advantage of packing cubes, the true MVPs of packing light. If you're packing something that wrinkles easily though, fold it more gently instead of rolling and put it at the bottom and cover with other clothing. For shoes, any one I pack I put in a plastic or Ziploc bag and put on top because germs yo, germs. 

Makeup + Toiletries Bags: I put both of these in a front pocket or easy to access pocket for two reasons: to take them out going through TSA/Customs, and also because I will inevitably always want something from either mid-flight. Easy accessible pockets is also where I'd put wet wipes because I always need one at some point while in transit or getting off planes. 

Electronic AccessoriesI always try to only bring what cables I need, usually the plug adapter for my iPhone, a travel adapter for abroad, and one USB cable to charge in the wall or via external battery. These I usually coil and just chuck in my purse. Finding a small battery with a long amount of charge time is key for me, and I really like Mophie batteries for this as they're about the size of your palm and hold a good charge time. I also put my headphones in my purse. Basically most all of my electronic stuff goes in my purse or a bag pocket. 

Passport Copies: Always make photocopies of your passport. I put one in my luggage, leave one in a safe place in my lodging, and one in my purse. If your passport gets stolen, having a copy will help a huge amount in getting things sorted.

So that's it in a not-so-tiny nutshell. If you have more specific questions on this topic, please feel free to leave a comment below! :)