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.
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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
- 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
© 2007 Kate Swanson