How to Pack Light: Tricks the Pros Use

In this new age of airlines charging extra for even your first bag, it’s more important than ever to pack light. It will save you money in ways you don’t even realize, and will also give you much more flexibility while on the road. Here are some quick tips that should help you bring down the size of your load:

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There’s a quickly-aging cliché among travelers that you should put all your travel clothes and all your travel money each in a pile, and then get rid of half the clothes and double the amount of money. It’s obviously not nearly quite so simple, but the wisdom behind this idea is sound, and as long as you understand it this will help you pack in a manner that will cover your needs and still give you mobility.

The problem most new travelers experience

Until you’ve learned this lesson yourself (swearing to never make these mistakes again) the temptation is to pack everything you think you’ll be able to carry rather than pack as little as you can get away with. Even after hearing this advice most people will make this mistake anyway, so hopefully some of this will come in handy and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Let’s say, you are going to pack for a two-week trip to London and Paris. The temptation is to think you’ll need 14 different outfits, or at the very least, 14 different sets of undergarments. So you get two huge suitcases and jam in nearly everything you can, including formal wear in case you decide to go to a fancy restaurant, and several casual outfits for the times you’ll be really active.

Then on the trip itself you curse your overstuffed luggage, and it finally occurs to you that packing this much severely limits your mobility, and will often cost you a fortune extra because you’ll have to pay for expensive taxis to get to your hotel and back, instead of faster and cheaper trains or subways. Then while you are there you’ll keep wanting to wear your best outfits over and over, and the second tier outfits will eventually come home with you still completely clean and unworn.

Realities you should consider

  • As mentioned above, you probably will never wear your 12th favorite shirt on a 2-week trip, so don’t bring it.
  • People in most of the world outside the US and Canada don’t always wash their outerwear after each wearing. In fact, particularly in Europe, this is considered very wasteful.
  • Chances are no one is going to invite you to the opera or ballet, so make sure at least one of your outfits can work as “reasonably formal” and leave the tux or gown at home.
  • Having your clothes washed in a laundry while traveling is usually quite easy and cheap.
  • You can buy virtually anything you’ll need once you get there, and in the long run, buying an umbrella and scarf while traveling, for example, is far better than bringing a long list of things you probably won’t actually need.
  • Toiletries are cheap and easy to find everywhere.

How the pros pack light

After ten or twenty trips lasting at least a week, most travelers develop a system that works for them. They have long given up the idea of bringing two huge suitcases per person, and now only take what they need in one bag that is as small as possible. This strategy is still a bit too extreme for some people, but just to give you an idea of how the most experienced world travelers pull it off, here are some tips:

Read: Packing for a 6 Month Trip

Never bring more than one week’s worth of clothes, including underwear
If you are going for 8 or 9 days you might violate this rule, but for anything approaching two weeks or longer, you’ll want to pack only for one week, and then every week or so you can have laundry done. If you have it done in a nicer hotel it could cost you more to wash than each piece would cost new, but it’s actually quite easy to find a laundry place or service that will “fluff & fold” for you in any city on earth, and you’ll probably pay US$15 at most for a week’s worth of clothes. In many parts of the world you only have to pay a fraction of that, and they do a surprisingly good job as well. This strategy also makes sure you are always wearing your favorite outfits instead of the B team.

Pack outfits that are versatile and don’t wrinkle
This could be a whole other article, but to sum the point up, it’s best to make sure all your clothes can be mixed and matched depending on the situation. And make sure you can dress in layers, and that they work together. If you are going somewhere it gets cold at night, forget a heavy coat and bring a light jacket and sweater instead. Three layers of light clothes can do the same job as a shirt and heavy jacket, and it allows you to take off the top layer more easily when you get indoors.

Develop a strategy to maximize your better outfits
Many people will spend perhaps 8 or 10 hours each day sightseeing, and then another large chunk of time relaxing in the hotel room. It’s good to have a set of clothes for lounging, which shouldn’t get dirty too quickly since you are just sitting around, and then outfits for going out. If you wear your “going out” outfits for 8 hours a day it’s easy to get at least two or even three days wear out of them before you worry they’ll start to be a problem for anyone. You probably wouldn’t do that at home since you’ll be seeing the same people over and over again, but while you are traveling you’ll always be seeing new people, and no one will have any idea this is the 3rd time in 5 days you’ve worn this top.

Bring toiletries in small bottles or trial sizes
Many new travelers carelessly pack their giant shampoo and conditioner bottles without even thinking about it, but this is something they’ll usually regret. You can cheaply buy small empty bottles at a sporting goods or camping store, or just buy trial sizes at the supermarket. If it turns out you need more, it’s a snap to buy a new (and exotic) small bottle of something for a couple dollars in your destination. Unless you have your own team of valets, getting rid of this deadweight will be very worthwhile.

Don’t bother bringing exercise clothes
Particularly if you like to work out several times per week at home, you might “commit yourself” to keeping up your workouts while on the road. So you might bring running shoes and gym wear, but the reality is that most people never get around to working out, and you won’t need to anyway. If you are visiting a city you’ll probably end up walking 6 or 8 miles during the day just seeing the sights. After that the last thing you’ll want (or need) to do is hit the hotel gym. Just take the stairs instead of elevators and so forth, and leave workout clothes at home.

Minimize any books or electronics you’ll bring
Travel guidebooks are great, but they are heavy and sometimes bulky. The hardcore travelers will read them at home and then bring only small sections along on the trip itself. Or download information from the internet (including the Lonely Planet site) and just bring the light printed sheets. People who like to read novels are also tempted to bring a few, but many people don’t read as much as they expect, and buying a new (and possibly used) book on the road is easy if you need one.

And some people wouldn’t travel without their laptop computer and iPod, but if you aren’t sure you’ll need them then leave them at home. These things can be great (and the new iPods are very small anyway) but you really want to eliminate bulk as well as expensive things that can be targets for theft as well.