What I Pack in my Carry-on

how to pack with carry-on

All set for a 10-day trip in Portugal

When I travel these days, I’m doing it one of two ways: with my family for up to three weeks, or on a writing trip for a week to 10 days. I sometimes check a bag for the former (especially if I need to backpack with a real backpack), but usually get by with a carry-on for the latter. You get a free checked bag for international flights on all but the stingiest airlines (like Spirit Air), but if you’re leaving the airport city upon arrival, the last thing you want to deal with is lost luggage.

As the editor of Practical Travel Gear, I get loads of apparel, footwear, and gadgets to try out. I personally review close to 100 items a year and the three others who write for me there check out even more. So after all that, what are the best items to pack? Which ones really pull their weight and bulk?

Quick-dry clothing
This is the key factor in packing light. Sure, take a few cotton t-shirts if you want, but the bulk of what you carry needs to be items you can wash in a sink and have dry by morning. I’m a big fan of ExOfficio clothing as it holds up to a crazy number of washings and still looks good. But if you’re put off by the price, try similar alternatives from Colombia Sportswear or just browse the clearance racks, physically or at sites like Sierra Trading Post. A few companies are making polo shirts with built-in odor suppression, something you’ll also find in many wicking t-shirts meant for exercise. These are a nice alternative to the button-up ones.

For pants the usual lightweight tough nylon ones are great for warm places, but companies like ExOfficio, Craghoppers, and Sherpa Adventure are making “trekking pants” that are stretchier and thicker. They still dry fast though and resist a drizzle and stains. I’ve often worn these a week straight without washing them–like I did with the ones in that photo above.

If you’ll be someplace like Delhi, Rome, or Barcelona though that’s notorious for pickpockets, it’s good to invest in a pair of Pickpocket Proof Pants (also known as P^Cubed Pants) from Clothing Arts. They also make shorts and just released some nice lightweight travel shirts as well. It would take an incredibly determined thief and you being passed out for someone to get into these and steal your valuables.

Biom grip shoes

Double-duty shoes
Shoes are the adversary of the carry-on bag. Footwear takes up an inordinate amount of room and if not chosen carefully, can add a lot of weight. Fortunately shoes are getting lighter in general—even hiking boots—and more companies are making ones that pack down flat or close to it in your bag. Scroll through a few pages of travel shoes that the four of us at PTG have reviewed. We go through a lot of them looking for ones that can be worn in multiple travel situations.

Wear the heaviest, clunkiest pair on travel days to lighten your packing load.

Quick-dry underwear and socks
Cotton is not your friend in this area. Underwear and socks are the things you want to replace most often in your wardrobe, so bring at least a few pairs of travel underwear that use merino wool or synthetics. You can sink wash them anywhere and they’ll dry more quickly than cotton. Well-made hiking or running socks usually avoid cotton and will last for years of heavy usage.

Small toiletries
To carry on a bag, stay with small sizes. Hit the trial size aisle at your local drugstore or Target, save the little bottles from hotels, or buy small refillable bottles you can reuse. You can buy cool dry tabs from Sea to Summit that start working when you get them wet and I like shaving cream that comes in a tube as it takes up less space. I use a hanging toiletry kit for when counter space is tight.

Eagle creek pouch daypack

Pack-away jacket and bag
One of my secret weapons in getting by with a carry-on bag is to pack things that stuff down into a little pouch. I love my Eagle Creek packable daypack, for instance, and if I need a jacket where I’m going but sporadically, I’ll bring one that stuffs into a pouch when I’m not using it, like this Helium II windbreaker one from Outdoor Research or this warmer Powerfly Down one from Colombia.

SteriPen Water Purfier
If I’m going anywhere with dodgy water, which is most of the world, the SteriPen is an essential item. It saves the world from your personal mountain of disposable single-use plastic, but keeps you from getting sick from any bad drinking water.

Gadget chargers
I’m past telling anyone what gadgets to bring and how much to use them, but a lot of them have batteries that don’t last very long. I’ve used a Callpod Chargepod for six years now to avoid bringing along a bunch of cords. Then I carry a small charger from Innergie or Eton for times I can’t access an outlet. If I’m going off the grid for a while I might bring some kind of solar charger.

And then…
One belt, usually worn the day of travel.
One or two hats, including a sun hat for sunny places, a beanie for cold ones. Tilley ones are expensive but have a lifetime warranty.
A pair of good sunglasses, usually worn the day of travel.
A loaded Kindle or good book.
Magazines I can throw away or pass on as I read them, lightening the load as I go.

Many women carry some kind of shawl or multi-use scarf to change up their outfits.

Keep an eye on the colors you’re packing. Ideally most every bottom can go with most every top. You don’t want to have pieces that can only go with one other thing.

What about you? What carry-on items or tricks have you found worked best?

  1. Margie

    Leave the jeans at home or you’ll be wearing them every time you pack up.

    Pack shoes that go from sightseeing to dinner or bring flats that take up no room for changing at night.

    Accessories! Jewelry and a scarf go a long way.

  2. gary

    Hmm, let’s see…

    1. My Brooks Addiction shoes in black; they’re fashionable from trail to table.
    2. 2 washcloths and a Speedo Sports Towel.
    3. Plastic grocery bags, from schlepping laundry and wet bathing gear to, well, groceries.
    4. All the above and more in my Boyt Mach II carry on glider, still going strong since 1993!
    ( I broke down and bought my wife the Boyt Mach 6 carry on glider, which miraculously cured her over overpacking … somewhat)

  3. Phidias

    I agree with the tricks to take only double usage cloth and quick drying! The weight can be reduced a lot this way!

  4. Suzanne

    Really informative article

  5. Johnny

    The outfit thing is really important. If you bring one thing that only goes with one other thing, you naturally have to pack much more. I normally have two combos: dark pants, light shirts, then light pants, dark shirts. Plus a jacket that packs down tiny if needed. Three pairs of shoes max, and one must pack really flat. Plan it right instead of just tossing in your favorites and it’s much easier to go with just a carry-on. And you can lift it without asking me to help you because it’s too heavy.

  6. Anthony

    I usually bring at least one or two things I can change up when going out at night, since I don’t do the “Irish Pub” thing and party (I don’t drink/drugs) with the locals. Included are some sneakers, a pair of dress shoes, shorts and maybe one/two pairs of jeans.

    I’ve only taken a smart phone with me and my laptop. In 2007 it was a Motorola Rokr E6 (trust me you haven’t seen one) unlocked GSM phone and Dell Intel Pent 4 laptop. Recently it was my hot rod Asus Quad Core laptop and my Infuse 4G Unlocked.

    In a few months, I may add a Kindle Paper White since the plane rides are long and the movies shown I’ve likely seen already. But then I think a 7″ Android tablet might be a better fit.

    We shall see.

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