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7 Gear Ideas for Packing Better and Lighter

I go on the road with a lot of different kinds of bags, both suitcases and travel backpacks. Sometimes I know I can check one so I’m not all that careful about it—and sometimes it’s actually cheaper to do that on a budget airline—but on any trip I can travel with just a carry-on if I have to. I’ve been known to not even do that when traveling on Allegiant or Spirit Air, taking a trip with just an under-seat bag. As you can probably guess from the name of this blog, I hate to spend money on extra fees, so paying for baggage hurts. I’d rather be packing better and use those funds for actual travel fun.

packing better tips for a carry on

How do I fit all my crap into one carry-on? Well, I’m a big fan of double-duty items and things that enable you to jam in more clothes without adding weight. Here are a few of them.

Pack Travel Underwear

First of all, are you packing things that can be sink-washed and will dry quickly? Start with the underwear. It’s hard to get excited about what underwear you pack for traveling, but it matters a lot, especially for guys. You can take off with just two or three pairs if you pack quality travel underwear for the likes of ExOfficio.

These are not cheap, at $15-$20 a pop depending on the where and when, but I have only been able to wear out one of these after five or ten years of trips. Some of the pairs I have still look new. You can sink wash them in a few minutes and they’ll dry in a few hours. ExOfficio constantly runs sales on these and they’ll usually give you an extra discount if you buy two or three pairs. 

There are some other options out there too, so check out this post on the best travel underwear.

Wicking Shirts and Lightweight Travel Pants

travel wicking shirts

I was in the anti-wicking crowd for a long time, until they got the stink out. I couldn’t help but notice the correlation between stinky backpacker and synthetic t-shirt in the tropics. But then the companies started building in odor-killing properties and using merino wool and I converted.

I like the idea that they whisk moisture away, but the real benefit is fast drying after a sink washing. So you can pack less and stay fresh-smelling.

I also carry mostly lightweight travel pants and quick-dry collared shirts and polo shirts too. When I do check a big suitcase, I can pretty much scoff at even a 40-pound weight limit you get on some airlines as I’m always way under.

I sometimes look like a walking ad for Prana these days, especially when I need to mix business meetings in with my travels, but I also pack a fair bit from ExOfficio and Craghoppers—the British counterpart of ExOfficio. Both make great travel clothing that dries quickly after a sink washing and is wispy-weight light. If I’m headed to a place where I think I’ll have to worry about street theft, I might pack some pickpocket proof pants that also work for other needs. 

If I’m going somewhere cold I like the expensive but non-stinky merino wool base layers from Ibex or Icebreaker. The best value choice is usually Columbia Sportswear. They pack a lot of features in technology into travel clothing with all the latest tech. (If you are willing to pay more to save the planet though, go with Patagonia. Here’s their sale page.)

Merino wool can be quite the wonder fabric for light packers. Here’s what a reader named Terri commented when I wrote about this subject in an earlier post: 

Merino is instrumental for not only the easy maintenance, but also how aesthetically versatile it is. Besides being a very functional fabric, it’s also a higher quality looking fabric than most other travel fabrics. A simple black merino top can be worn for my hikes and then in the city paired with a skirt and  some not-expensive jewelry.

I also usually pack a couple of simple chic dresses that I can layer things over or under. So if it’s cold, that hypothetical merino top can be the base layer under the dress. Tights or merino leggings are lighter even easier to wash than pants. Those too can go from the trail to a chic city environment if they are a solid basic color like black.

There are loads of brands out there selling merino items for travelers, including Icebreaker, Ibex Wool, Smartwool, and Anatomie. Just remember to buy things in complimentary colors so ideally you can wear any top with any bottom, even when you’re down to your last clean items. 

Double Duty Travel Shoes

double duty travel shoesShoes generally take up more space than anything else you pack. So most people who are lugging around big and heavy suitcases (or can’t lift their carry-on bag into the overhead bin) are usually packing way too many shoes. Spend more time thinking through what you’re going to do in the destination and then pack as few pairs of shoes as possible. That usually means packing shoes that can work in a variety of situations, rather than just one.

I used to review a couple dozen pairs of travel shoes a year when I ran the Practical Travel Gear blog and some of the brands I loved best have passed on. But the ones I pack the most are the ones still going strong from Ecco, Keen, Oboz, Lowa, Ahnu, New Balance, and Teva. Ask yourself these questions: “Can these shoes work for exercise and walking around? Can I hike and bar-hop with them? Do I have to dress up any? Is there something flatter/lighter I can pack.

If you’re traveling for business, you can probably get by with two pairs of shoes: dressy and not dressy. If you plan on running or going to the gym, there’s your second pair: sneakers. If you’ll be hiking or doing a lot of sidewalk pounding, maybe some trail runners or other sturdy shoes. The worst that can happen is you’re looking Italian the rest of the time, wearing nice footwear when you’re not in exercise shoes or walking shoes.

Whatever you pack, wear the biggest/heaviest pair to the airport and on travel days so you will have more space in your bag. If you’ll have a week at the beach and you’re worried about appropriate footwear there, just buy some flip-flops or sandals locally. More on that in a minute. 

Bring Smaller & Lighter Versions of What You Use at Home

Yeah, I know you must have your favorite bottles of goop and cosmetics, but do you really need a two-month supply? Put enough for your trip into reusable bottles or buy travel-sized options at your local drugstore or Target. If you really want to pare down, there are some innovative products from Sea to Summit that weigh almost nothing for shaving your face or washing your clothes.  (Also, shampoo is a detergent, so it can be used in a pinch to sink wash laundry too.)light packing laundry solution

What else can you apply this strategy to? Spread all your stuff out on the bed and see. What’s too heavy? What’s too big? There are lightweight hats that crush flat, lightweight gadgets that will replace larger ones, you can pack a Kindle reader instead of thick books, there are jackets that compress down to a small pouch, daypacks that do the same, and compression packs from Eagle Creek that will allow you to squeeze in more socks or t-shirts.

One of these changes by itself might not make a big difference, but added up they can drastically reduce how much you’re carrying. Each of these items can make a contribution to packing better and lighter. 

Find Places to Do Laundry

One big misconception among people taking their first long trip or going nomadic is that they’ll have to sink wash constantly or pay exorbitant hotel prices for laundry. In a whole lot of countries, especially inexpensive ones, that’s definitely not the case. From Mexico to Bulgaria to Thailand, I’ve gotten laundry done for the equivalent of a buck or two a kilo. It comes back folded, clean, and smelling nice. 

You can look on Google Maps or just ask around to find a place that will wash your clothes for you and it’s seldom going to be a major expense. Even in the most developed countries, not everyone has a washing machine. When I worked in New York City I knew plenty of people who used a drop-off service and when I lived in Nashville, there were laundromats in every neighborhood. 

Even if you get good at packing better and you can take off with just a 40-liter carry-on, you should have enough clothing to last you a week or two before you even need to worry about this, less if you supplement with some sink washing now and then. In cold climates you can go even longer. 

Wear Out and Replace

If you’re nomadic or you’re going to be traveling for months, you’re probably going to start getting tired of your outfits. If you’re in a different place regularly, no biggie, but if you’re in one place for a while and socializing, you might be inclined to overpack just so you have some variety. 

One way to fight this urge is to bring some items that are nearing the end of their life or are starting to wear out. Then you toss them eventually and go shopping for a new top or new pair of pants to mix things up. Some blogger friends of mine end up switching out their entire wardrobe a couple of times a year this way by exploring thrift stores in cities where they’re traveling. They buy clothing that’s new to them that’s still in good shape, while not having much impact on the planet by buying something newly manufactured (like the tempting things on the rack at “fast fashion” chains like Forever 21 and Zara.)

Are you going to a trade show or to a place where you intend to bring back some gifts? Then follow the strategy of taking things you had already planned to get rid of anyway and free up space in your bag over time. Here’s what reader Rilne wrote on another packing post I did: 

Long before your trip, as your socks, underwear, and T-shirts give up the goat, wash and store them. Then pack them the next time you take off. For the first few days of your next trip, you wear wear each thing once until it’s dirty and then throw it away.

Packing Better by Buying Local When You Travel

buying slocal supplies when traveling

Spending a few bucks in a Bosnian supermarket, tossing in some toothpaste.

I called this “gear ideas” instead of “gear items” because this last one is a packing better strategy more than an item you can pack and take along. There was a time when I first started traveling that you would find it hard to get what you needed where you were going, even one country over in Mexico.

But those days are mostly gone. Sure, it’s hard to find plus-sized clothes in Asia or big hiking boots in India, but if you’re of a relatively normal size you can get nearly anything you might need after arrival. Some items are tougher, so do stock up on tampons, sunscreen, or your favorite face moisturizer, but in most cases you can find what you need for close to or less than what you would pay at home.

You can buy electrical adapters, gadgets, hats, socks, flip-flops, beach towels, soap, and all kinds of other inexpensive items that would take up more space in your bag. And remember, every place has toothpaste and aspirin for sale if you run out. Pringles and Snickers too.

Some specialty items you might even be able to rent. When I led a group on a ski trip in Bulgaria this year, there were some nomads on the trip who didn’t have the clothing they needed. So they rented ski pants and gloves and of course we all rented the actual skis/boots/poles. If you’re going on a hiking trip, you can easily rent or borrow trekking poles. Same for snorkeling gear or bike helmets. 

What strategy do you use to pack light?

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Tuesday 9th of May 2023

Great article. Again! All my clothes are high tech, quick dry. As a full time nomad, impossible to do only carry on. But not that much more to have a checked bag. And sometimes, it's free!

I only buy quality clothes. Many places I visit don't have outlets where you can get replacements.

Gipsy Dean

Monday 8th of May 2023

I never pay for carry-on luggage, I just pay for basic and take a smaller one anyway, I have never been turned away, I wait until the last few moments to board, so they don't want to bother with it. Also traveling solo, I check the seating on a flight an hour before taking off to see what seats are empty. My last flight here to Lima where I am now I 'upgraded' myself from the randomly selected row 24 that was free to an isle seat in row 7!