Kate Swanson is a Scottish-born Australian who has traveled to and lived in many countries across the globe.
First, Decide What to Pack
When travelling, it's always a challenge to fit everything you want to bring into a suitcase. While there are certainly tricks to squeezing everything into a small space, the easiest way to pack light is to take less stuff in the first place!
In order to do this, assemble all the clothing you think you'll need during your holiday, before you start packing.
Now, before you put one single thing in your case or backpack, take a look at what you've laid out and pick out some items you can wear on the journey. This approach will avoid the most common travel mistake—packing everything you'll need, then wearing something else as a “going away” outfit. That outfit likely won't be worn again till you come home, and it's just dead weight! Sure, the climate where you’re going may be very different to where you start, but that doesn’t have to be a problem if you think laterally.
Say it’s cold at home and you’re going somewhere tropical. If you wear a thick sweater or padded jacket on your outward trip, it’ll be useless at your destination. Instead, wear a long-sleeved tee-shirt, and add a fine wool cardigan or sweater, a rainproof/windproof jacket and a pashmina or scarf.
Each of these things, individually or in combination, could be useful on your holiday (nights can be cold, even in the tropics!).
Choose "Double Duty" Clothes
Applying the principle of "double duty" like this is the main secret to saving space. Avoid items of clothing that can only be worn one way, because chances are they’ll only be worn once or twice and won’t “earn their keep”. For women, stick to separates you can mix and match to produce different outfits. If you're going to one major evening event, then an evening gown is fine - but for something like a cruise, where you have several special nights, bustiers and skirts/pants will give you more different outfits in far less space.
On a recent trip to the Middle East, our best investment (for both myself and my guy) was undoubtedly convertible long pants (“double duty” again!). Be careful with fabrics—many convertible styles are made of quick-dry synthetic fabrics, which claim to be cool but often aren't! These Columbia convertible travel pants are made of soft synthetic material. That means they won't crease like cotton and will dry much faster. Most importantly, they are also breathable, unlike some travel pants which can be sweaty.
Our other most-worn items were lightweight long-sleeved shirts with button-up sleeves. Roll the sleeves up when it's hot, roll them down when it's cool—and unlike my husband, I had the added bonus of being able to tie mine as a midriff top!
If you’re really worried about the cold, today's thermal underwear is featherlight and scrunches down into nothing—however it may be too warm for milder climates. Unless you're going somewhere really cold, consider taking lightweight singlet tops or t-shirts which can be worn under or over shirts as an extra layer.
For a multi-purpose jacket, a soft shell or lightweight fleece is a good buy.
Now you’ve chosen your clothes, it’s time to pack them.
Roll, Don't Fold!
Rolled clothes are easier to fit into odd spaces in your suitcase, and won't crease nearly as much as if you fold them. Pack big items first, and fill in the gaps with rolled-up undies or socks.
Don't roll up belts or ties. Leave them unfurled, and tuck them around the edges of the suitcase. That way they'll take up almost no space at all, and you'll be able to find them easily too.
While rolling maximises the amount of clothing you can squeeze into your case, searching for clothes can turn your whole case into a glorious muddle. If you're touring, that means you'll have to do a total repack every morning!
The solution is travel packs. You can buy specialist travel cubes, but I just buy the biggest size of Ziplock bag from the supermarket. They're not nearly as sturdy as the proper travel packs, but I always carry a few spares in case I burst one or two. Sort your clothes into categories, and roll and pack each category into a separate bag.
Because you can't make use of every nook and cranny, using bags means you won't fit quite as much into your case. But the joy of being able to get up and pack your case in minutes for that early morning start—priceless!
I don't recommend the vacuum bags (where you suck out the air after packing), unless you don't mind walking around in wrinkled clothes. Besides, if I'm touring I don't have time to muck around with sucking out the air every morning!
Shoes are always a problem, because they’re heavy and take up space. If you can, wear your heaviest/bulkiest shoes on the outward journey, so you don’t have to fit them in your luggage. You may be reluctant to do that (who wants to wear heavy shoes on a long trip?), but you can take a pair of light slippers or socks that you can change into on the plane (you can stash your shoes in the overhead locker). Just make sure your shoes are not too tight, or you may have trouble getting them on again at the end of the trip!
Never pack empty shoes. Find small items to put inside them (socks, hairbrush, pens, ties etc). Put your shoes in shoebags so they don’t dirty your clothes.
If you're staying in hotels, there's no need to take towels. Sure, hotels say you shouldn't use their towels at the pool or beach—but that’s only because they’re worried about them getting lost. I’ve used room towels at beaches and pools all over the world, and never had a problem.
If you don’t want to take the risk, ask the hotel if they have pool or beach towels—many do.
If you feel absolutely lost without your own towel, pack a microfibre travel towel instead (but check the size - most are much smaller than a regular towel).
Toiletries for Travel
At the time of writing, there are severe restrictions on the amount of liquid you can carry when travelling. Your liquid or gels must all be packed in 3-oz bottles, and they all have to fit in one small pouch. For most people, that's mostly a problem when it comes to toiletries.
The solution is to look for toiletries that aren't gel or liquid. For instance, I don't pack cleanser or toner - instead, I take make-up remover wipes. Sunscreen and self-tanning wipes are good, too. Dove or Neutrogena soap is solid, and just as gentle on your skin as a liquid cleanser.
The principle of double duty applies here, too. I always pack a conditioning shampoo, so I don’t need conditioner, and I choose a body sunscreen which is also a good moisturizer.
For the face, I take a good quality SPF15 tinted moisturiser, so I don’t need separate face moisturiser, sunscreen and foundation. A bronzer can be used as blusher and eyeshadow. Soft eyeliner and lipliner pencils take up no space and can be used as eyeshadow and lip tint.
If you're staying at hotels, you may not need to pack shampoo, conditioner or body lotion at all, as there's likely to be a free supply in the room. It's worth asking.
If you're decanting, be careful not to overfill the bottles, because the contents will expand with the changes in air pressure—and you don’t want sunscreen all over your clothes. Always put your toiletries inside a plastic bag, in case of spillage.
The restrictions on toiletries can be a nuisance, but you can also be seen as an opportunity! I've never travelled with lots of toiletries, even on a long holiday. For me, part of the fun of going overseas is trying new things, so I love the excuse to buy some French shower gel or an Italian face cream!
For my last overseas trip, which lasted six weeks, I travelled with one medium-sized wheelie duffle bag and a carry-on bag. My husband had one medium wheeled suitcase and a shoulder tote. That trip took us from the heat of Africa to the chill of Northern Europe, and we never had any trouble keeping warm (or cool).
We’ve all heard the saying “pack everything you think you need, then halve it”. I’ve never been able to apply that rule—but then again, thanks to my own “rules”, I’ve never had to!
More Tips on Packing Light
- 7 Reasons to Travel With One Bag
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- Rick Steves' Europe: Packing Light and Right
Planning tips to help maximize your time and money spent in Europe.
- Travel Light with One Bag!
leisure and business travel packing list - travel light - carry-on luggage
- How to Pack Light
- Cruise Packing Tips
Cruise Packing Tips from Cruise Diva's Cruise Planner
© 2007 Kate Swanson
Mike from Harrisburg Pa on February 20, 2019:
When packing shampoo and/or body wash I have 1 (6 ounce) travel bottle and a few 2 to 3 ounce trial size bottles/travel tubes. This saves me from carrying a full 20+ ounce bottle. Also instead of shaving cream I carry a shaving brush and use soap in its place. Lastly I have a few convertible pants where I can zip off the bottom of the legs for warmer climates.
Laura L McCall on February 24, 2018:
Before packing the clothes, you can take pictures of all the combinations of outfits you might think of wearing!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on May 24, 2016:
Yes, I do often handwash overnight! There are a few things to think about first though.
Never try to wash cotton things overnight - they won't dry. The only things that will dry overnight in a hotel room are lightweight synthetics, especially travel shirts. You can buy lightweight travel underwear too.
It's perfectly fine to use soap, body wash or shampoo to wash your clothes in - they will do just as good a job as detergent.
But before you put the clothes in water, make sure you've got somewhere to hang them up! More than likely, you'll have rooom to hang only one or two items. Remember they will drip, so it will need to be in the bathroom or shower. You can reduce the drip (and speed up drying) by rolling the item in a clean towel before hanging up.
Always have a spare ziplock plastic bag or two in case things aren't quite dry in the morning and you have to pack them damp.
Paula from The Midwest, USA on May 17, 2016:
I have a trip coming up where I am unable to have much luggage, nor would I want it anyway. I liked your tips very much. I like how the rolling of clothes seems to help with the wrinkle problem.
I was wondering, on a practical note, do you ever hand wash any of your clothes while traveling? It would seem to me, that clothes that might dry quickly, might be ok to wash before going to bed one night, to get use from again on the trip? Just wondering if you had any tips or thoughts on washing clothes while traveling in order to pack less overall?
Loved all the ideas discussed, and in the comments too. Thanks!
Milli Thornton on July 15, 2012:
I'm impressed with your small amount of luggage for a six-week trip. Thanks for the tips. I already use some of these methods - but I picked up many more here that will help me with future packing challenges. I'm bookmarking this one.
fjohn from india on July 15, 2012:
I am frequent traveler, while travelling comes into my mind,folding clothes was a tough job for me. after reading this i am sure that i can do it in better way!!! great hub and great help!!!!
travel-O-grapher from Dhaka, Bangladesh on January 31, 2012:
looks like ur one hell of an experienced bag packer! all that info on packing and layering!
Travelwyse on September 27, 2011:
Great Hub. big fan of the 'roll, not fold' philosophy!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on September 22, 2011:
@Shammi, clothes for the plane should be light and comfortable - but make sure they're also clothes you'll wear for the rest of the trip, too. When I was slimmer, I used to wear a loose jumpsuit - these days I wear travel pants and a comfy top, and sandals.
@Anjony, Australia is very laid-back so casual clothes are fine for most situations. It's a big country so temperatures can vary quite a bit depending on where you're going, so bear that in mind -but it is the beginning of Summer in Oz now, so things are warming up quite a bit.
Anjony on September 22, 2011:
Hi im travelling to australia and queenstown new zealand, pls help me what kind of clothes to bring. We will be staying four days in new zealand thnks
shammi on September 21, 2011:
pls give me some tips for the clothes in the plane?
Maksym on August 14, 2011:
These are good advices! But number of things you need to take depends on travel destination country (location). Some countries have special natural, technical and social conditions so you should take more things then for other countries. Make decision about what things to take on the base of learning your travel places. It is more better to take more things but feel in safety and comfort then to have light but unsafe and uncomfortable travel. After creation of your list of necessary things you may use useful advices of Marisa post. Thank you!
Trekking in Nepal on May 10, 2011:
I'd like to share one tip. I never pack small things like socks when travelling. Its always better to buy them because they are cheap.
Edwin Chan from New Zealand on April 16, 2011:
Rolling, not folding has saved me tons of space on my round the world trip right now. Thanks for the great info!
baileyhake from Chicago, US on April 06, 2011:
Good advice, traveling light can really make a difference...
puertoricoplace on February 16, 2011:
DavidLivingston on December 02, 2010:
We all need to know this! Thanks for posting!
JCatapano from Cedar Grove, NJ on November 03, 2010:
Once your all packed up (lightly!) and looking for a cheap, reasonable alternative to hotels, check out metroflats.com They offer some great prices that would be competitive against most hotels in the Florida area (they can get pretty expensive). Check it out and let me know what you think! :)
2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on July 08, 2010:
I just searched for this hub so that I could add a link from our hub "How to unpack after your vacation". I realise that your hub is where I picked up the tip on rolling clothes rather than folding. I've been doing it since reading this idea, and can tell you that it really does work - including for smart dresses.
happyexplorer from Mostly USA, sometimes elsewhere on July 04, 2010:
Thanks for all the packing tips! Versatility is so important. As you say, anything you're only going to wear once is just wasted weight. You need things you can wear multiple ways, to get the most out of your limited wardrobe.
Brad on June 30, 2010:
I have not tried the roll technique, always been a folder myself but I will try it our for sure if it helps save space!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on April 22, 2010:
Alex, July is summer so it will be hot and humid, but it can also rain so pack a roll-up waterproof jacket and a small umbrella.
For two weeks at that time of year, I'd take a pair of lightweight black long pants, suitable for day but smart enough to wear for evening; capri pants and/or shorts; and one nice frock. But then I rarely wear skirts or dresses when I'm travelling! Then t-shirts and blouses, with one cardi for colder evenings and overly air-conditioned places. I have some nice gold Grecian sandals which pack completely flat for travel.
Hand wipes (like Wet Ones) are useful because the public toilets often don't have soap or hand dryers.
Alex on April 21, 2010:
Loved the blog, very many helpful tips that I'll be sure to remember on my up coming trip, which brings me to my question.
I'm a 22 year old female and I'll be traveling to Japan in Late July for a 2 week vacation. I plan on traveling extremely light I plan on buying a small rolling duffle bag that I can easily wheel with me while traveling city to city.
I was wondering if there are any must have pieces that I should have when I travel, as far as outfits are concerned. I will pack separates so I can mix and match but I was just wondering if you had any other advice.
Thanks in Advance!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on April 13, 2010:
Sharon, the key is layering. Buy yourself some thermal underwear: you can get the vests in long-sleeved and short-sleeved so get both. And long thermal tights. You'll also need a good quality fleece jacket (look for one that says it's windproof), a beanie, gloves and scarf. Get them from a proper hiking shop so you know they're for cold weather. Throw in a couple of warm woollies - and a good pair of boots if you're going to be doing any walking.
Those things will be enough to keep you warm in Alaska, so you wont need to pack any other special clothes for that part of the trip.
Check out the dress code for the cruise - not all cruises require you to dress for dinner, so you may get away with casuals.
Sharon on April 13, 2010:
We are leaving May 11th and driving from our home in Arkansas to Seattle. We board a plane to Fairbanks, AK on May 16th and on the 17th we begin our land tour of Alaska. On May 24th we board the Island Princess for a 7 night cruise. On May 31st we arrive in Vancouver where we will possibly stay one or two nights and then back to Seattle and 6 days of sightseeing back to ARkansas. I am at a loss as to how to pack for this trip. HELP
screation on March 28, 2010:
I learned how to travel light from lightweight backpacking, then found it was just as useful to keep it light on trips overseas or driving across the country.
Best Travel Destinations: https://hubpages.com/travel/American-favorite-plac...
cbris52 on March 21, 2010:
Great info! Roll or fold... never thought about rolling
sreeiit on March 02, 2010:
Very good article. You write well and provide some valuable information..
jade3hh on January 24, 2010:
Brilliant Tips! i already follow the layering style hah! :) Great idea about the roll instead of fold as well!!
Gift Experts on August 22, 2009:
Good ideas, I will use some of them.
Haydee Anderson from Hermosa Beach on August 07, 2009:
a pair of jeans can be very flexible, you can pair it with almost any top and footwear.
mkamdar from San Francisco Bay Area on August 06, 2009:
Good list, but I have to admit that if you're traveling outside of Europe, you'll need more on the list. Here's a good guide that I found: http://oneeasyvisa.com/sites/oneeasyvisa.nu-design...
PS- I love the scarf comments; I never leave without one because it's so versatile!
uganda-safari on February 18, 2009:
Great information. Although when you are coming to Africa, you need to change this list abit.
2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on April 11, 2008:
The last trip I made I purchased a pair of bootie-type slippers (flat) with non-slip soles. Put them in my carry on luggage and wore them on the plane (very comfortable) and then the non-slip was great on slippy hotel bathrooms. Took up hardly any space. I will try Prescriptives flight cream. I try to take disposable face wipes in my hand luggage so that I can clean my face at the end of long flights. You are right about Pashminas - good for warmth on the plane, evening shawls, and reading in bed in chilly hotel rooms.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on January 04, 2008:
Christine, I hope the tips I've given will help you. Thermal vests and a lightweight fleece jacket are essentials if you're going somewhere cold.
Also you'd be surprised how much difference
a pair of thermal gloves and a hat make.
Christine Heath on January 04, 2008:
I am touring Canada in April for 18 nights and 16 days. I am the most terrible packer. Please help me to have a wonderful trip. Many thanks Christine.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on October 28, 2007:
Yes Lissie, but it has to be the right sarong, otherwise it's useless! And it's less useful if you're going to cities rather than the beach. My current must-haves are my Brazilian designer thongs (flip-flops to non-Australians) - they look good enough to wear with almost anything and are a life-saver in dodgy bathrooms...
Elisabeth Sowerbutts from New Zealand on October 28, 2007:
Single most useful item: sarong, it's a skirt,dress,shawl,beach towel,tablecloth, carry bag, sun shade...