A different take on packing light, and how to do it right

The new travel trend that’s taking the internet by storm is minimalist packing—fitting your packing list into as little space as possible, usually to save on airline baggage fees. But it seems like what started as a call for more practical packing practices has become a competition to cut back on as much space and weight as possible.

Now, it seems like every travel blogger has an article about how they fit everything they need into a day pack, or traveled for a year with three t-shirts and a swimsuit. And this might work for some people, but it’s definitely not for everybody.

Some people like having the items that comfort them.

Some people don’t want to wear the same three pairs of socks for two weeks straight.

Some people (like me) don’t always know where they’ll end up or what they’ll need when they embark.

Minimalist packing is all about being harsh. These gurus advocate for cutting out all of the “nice to haves” and honing in on things that are absolutely necessary. But this style of packing isn’t for everyone. Not everyone has the confidence and peace of mind to rely on three outfits for an extended trip, especially if they aren’t seasoned travelers.

And I’m here to tell you that that’s okay.

Tips for cutting back on packing can be helpful if traveling minimally is your top priority, but for the average traveler, it’s really okay if you don’t want to sacrifice your comfort in order to join those 20 Liter warriors of nomad life.

I, for example, like to travel with options. While it’s true that you can definitely pick up most things you forgot once you’re there, that won’t work for everything. Some items are too expensive, like my down jacket. Some items are hard to shop for, like my special ordered 38-inch inseam jeans. (being a tall girl is a bit of a pain) Some items are just priceless and irreplaceable, like the Crocodile Hunter-esque green jacket that’s been on every trip of mine.

And so I know from experience that it’s okay to leave room for a few extra “nice to haves” when you’re planning your packing list.

And you don’t have to check a bag to do it.

So without further ado, here’s my quick guide to comfortable carry on packing.

Be kind to yourself

First, recognize that packing is a very personal process. The problem with all these online packing lists is that they work great—for their authors. But what works for one person might not work for everyone, and not everyone is comfortable packing so little on their first trip. So before you stress about cutting your pack down to the bare minimum, cut yourself some slack and understand that learning what minimalist packing means to you is a process that only you can discover, and that you will keep discovering with every trip you take.

Get the right bag

I use the Osprey Farpoint 40, which is the perfect size for stuffing onto a Ryanair flight. It’s got storable shoulder straps and converts easily into a duffel, but is lightweight and durable. But this bag won’t work for everyone. So here are a few tips for finding the perfect pack for (semi) minimalist packing:

  •      A bag is something that’s worth investing in: Seriously. High end backpacks can get very pricey very fast, but they’re worth spending the money on, because you’re going to want a reliable, high quality pack. For one thing, these bags are built with your comfort in mind, and you’ll thank yourself for it when you’re walking two miles to the nearest train station to catch your ride. They’re also built to survive extreme conditions, and you’ll want a bag you can count on to power through a lot of abuse.
  •      Compression straps are your best friend: While 40 liters is usually the volume limit for most budget airlines, getting your pack onto a flight is mostly a matter of how big it looks. You’re much more likely to be forced to check your 40 liter bag that is overstuffed and bulky than your 50 liter bag that’s cinched down tight. So pick a bag that can compress down tightly for maximum carry on potential.
  •      Always try the bag on before you buy it: even if you’ve found the perfect deal online, I recommend going into your local REI or other outdoor goods store to try the bag on first. Not every pack sits comfortably on every body, and with the amount of time you’ll be spending strapped in, comfort is key. REI has the added benefit of having expert backpackers available to show you how to adjust your straps and pack your bag for maximum comfort. Be sure to try it on with some weight in it.

Get yourself some packing cubes

These seem frivolous and unnecessary, you’ll say. I’m very organized when I pack!

I don’t care.

Buy them. They’ll change your life.

Not only are they great for finding things you need without totally unpacking your new backpack, but they add an extra opportunity to compress your clothes down to the smallest space possible. I purposely buy very small packing cubes and stuff them, instead of trying to do all the compression when I close my bag. If you plan on taking anything puffy or bulky, like cold weather clothes, these are an absolute must have.

Take your time

I love my stuff. If I could I’d probably travel with all of my stuff. Choosing what to bring with me on a more minimalist trip is a difficult process for me, but I manage it by giving myself time to decide.

Don’t feel like you’ve got to pack all in one sitting. Instead, lay out your things and refine your choices over several days or even weeks. Do test packs to see how everything you want to bring fits in your backpack, then unpack and remove a few things you can live without.

Give yourself time to come to terms with leaving some things that make you feel comfortable at home. Return to your packing pile every few days to remove a few more things you’d be okay leaving behind until you’re happy with how your pack feels.

There’s a very real idea called decision fatigue, which basically says that we can only handle so much tough decision-making before we say “screw it!” and just make a choice we’re not completely happy with to get it over with. So instead of making all of your hard choices in one sitting, make one tough call every day or so until you’re certain that you’re happy.

You’ll thank yourself.

At the end of the day, packing is about balancing what will make you happy to have with what will make you happy to carry. So as long as you end your trip happy you brought the things that you did, you’re doing it right, even if you didn’t come it at 30 liters or less.

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