Back when I owned dozens of cocktail glasses, boxes full of curiosities, and dresses that filled a walk in closet, I never felt like I had enough. Now I travel the world with my entire home on my back, and more often than not, I feel like I have too much.
I’ve traveled for months by rail through the Alps, from jungles to volcanoes to beaches in Central America, on a sailboat to South America, and all across Southeast Asia… with little more than a carry on bag.
I’ve also done it the other way.
Dragging a rolling suitcase through dirt roads in Morocco. Carrying a 70 liter backpack in 100 degree heat to the bus stop in Nicaragua. Lifting an enormous bag over piles of snow in the Arctic Circle in January.
And let me tell you, when you are your own moving van, less is certainly more.
After packing and repacking hundreds of times, in the last four years of travel from beaches in the tropics to ski resorts in Europe, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to pack a bag.
I’ve learned how to consolidate my clothes, limit my liquids, pack for changes in locations and climates, and most importantly how to still feel like I’ve got everything that I need no matter what I have. And while I’ve learned to become far less materialistic, I haven’t lost my fashionista sensibilities.
Here’s my best advice, for how to pack your life into a carry on bag, no matter how long you’ll be away and how far away you drift… without sacrificing on style. I’ll cover some general packing guidelines, then delve into what I pack in my bag, and finally explain how I get it all to fit into my carry on.
Keep Your Bag as Small and Light as Possible
I’ve noticed a direct correlation between the size of my bag and the frequency with which I get “ripped off.” Maybe you can fit it all into that carry on, but the question is, do you want to? A bigger bag means a smaller tolerance for walking long distances in the heat. A lighter bag means having the patience to walk to the border or the bus stop and to spend time finding the best possible hotel or hostel. It also means having your bag safely on you, instead of risking losing it in cargo.
If You’re Going to Asia, Buy Everything There
One of the best things about traveling in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, is the access to inexpensive… everything! You can get some of the same clothes you’d buy in the states for 10% of the price. Electronics are easy to come by and are less expensive than in the states, but do beware of counterfeits. What I do recommend bringing are shoes (they’re way too small in Southeast Asia) and toiletries (everything has whitening, yes whitening, agent in it in Southeast Asia). Otherwise, feel free packing very little and just buying what you need when you’re there. My favorite place to stock up is the Chattuchuk Weekend Market in Bangkok.
If You’re Going to Latin America, Bring Everything
It’s best to assume that you won’t be able to get much down there. However, farmers markets and little organic shops will have nice homemade soap and other toiletries. Otherwise, you’ve got tourist shops with very expensive clothing, flip flops, and vacation supplies. Electronics are almost impossible to come by and are extremely expensive. The exception is Panama City, which has an enormous shopping mall with every kind of store imaginable selling goods for the same price as in the USA. That said, being in the developing world will teach you quickly how little you need to actually be happy.
And When You’re Changing Climates…
This is certainly the most challenging trip to pack for. When you’ll be up in the freezing mountains then down on a tropical beach, hiking through the jungle and hanging in a cosmopolitan city, how the heck do you pack light for that?? I recommend packing the clothes you need for the first leg, and then when you change locations, ship your old stuff back and buy weather appropriate things along the journey.
This past winter I started a trip in Lapland in January where it was 30 below zero, and ended in Morocco in May when the sun is blazing hot. There was no way I could pack for skiing and beaching in one small backpack. So I packed all of my winter gear, along with some simple camisoles (to wear underneath all of my layers) and one cute little dress I could wear with nothing in hot places and with a sweater and tights in cold places. When I got to Spain, I shipped back my winter clothes to the USA and bought clothes along the way that were weather and culturally appropriate. Yes, I wore probably the same five outfits again and again, but when you’re constantly roaming, it doesn’t matter!
Don’t Bring Anything You Can’t Lose
Travel takes a toll on your belongings, and it’s quite common to lose or destroy your stuff constantly. I’ve left a trail of bikinis hanging on the drying racks of hostels all over the world. I’ve broken at least 3 kindles. I’ve had two iPhones stolen. I’ve had my Macbook die from too much humidity and salty air. Nearly everything I’ve ever brought to Costa Rica ends up stained and covered in holes. The road is rough on stuff. If there’s anything you’d be heartbroken to lose, leave it behind. Most importantly, learn to attach less to your belongings and trust that you will always have more than enough.
…But Bring What Makes You Feel Taken Care Of
I do advocate for packing light, but when your backpack is essentially your home, it’s important to have things that make you feel comfortable. I always travel with my yoga mat (so I can take my practice anywhere), essential oils (they’re my beauty and medicine kit), a jar of water kefir (pretty inconvenient but makes a huge difference in my health), and at least a few outfits that I feel beautiful in.
Pack Concentrated Liquids
The airport restrictions since 911 have dramatically changed the way that we pack our bags. Not being able to bring big bottles of liquids on the flight definitely makes it harder to put everything into your carry on. This is why I use ultra concentrated essential oils that I can dilute with water or oil (that I buy locally) and use for health and beauty tinctures. More on that later.
I believe that suitcases are like houses and plates. No matter how big they are, you will always find ways to fill them. Challenge yourself to travel with less bags, and smaller bags, straight from the get go. Here’s what I use to keep my stuff organized.
Osprey Travel Pack
Past experience has led me to only pack what I can comfortably carry on my back. I personally use the 46 liter Osprey Porter Travel Pack, which is big enough to fit everything that I need and has great compartments for organization, but is small enough that I can carry it anywhere. It opens like a duffel, which makes it much easier to live out of than your typical backpack.
It would not have physically been possible for me to pack everything that I needed this past winter, traveling in some of the coldest places on Earth, without compression bags. I’ve had stacked of clothes or huge puffy coats roll down into nothing. If you’ve got some bulky items to pack, these bags are an absolute must. I bought mine at REI.
They do take up some space, but the organization lover in me can’t live without packing cubes. When you’re living out of a backpack, it’s so nice to be able to pull out compartments one at a time instead of ripping apart your whole bag to find something.
When your bag is your home, you’ve got to keep it organized. I collect pouches from all over the world (my favorites I bought in Laos for a couple of dollars) and use them for my electronics, crystals, essential oils, or anything else small and loose.
This is the bag that holds all of your valuables and electronics on travel days, and probably the bag you use for day hikes and other adventure activities. The type of bag depends on where you’re going. Right now I’ve got a big shoulder bag that I put my laptop, camera, journal, and anything I need at the ready for travel days, plus a paper thin backpack for short hikes and beach days.
No matter how seasoned of a traveler I become, somehow I always seem to forget packing an adaptor. They’re not necessary everywhere, but when you show up in a country with no way to charge you’re electronics… it’s not fun. I’ve been surprised upon arriving in Switzerland where the outlets are different from the rest of the EU. Or in Cambodia which has a different outlet from Thailand. Get the universal adaptor and you’ll be taken care of anywhere.
Getting a headlamp is ESSENTIAL when you’re travel in beach/jungle/wilderness locales. You never know when you might be out past sunset on a dark path.
I have yet to travel anywhere in the world without one of these, and I don’t ever plan to. They are the single most versatile item in my bag
Any seasoned traveler will stress the importance of packing earplugs on a journey around the world. From crying babies on airplanes to drunk backpackers in your hostel to sunrise weddings outside your window, earplugs will save your life by letting you sleep.
Your clothes will certainly vary depending on where you’ll be traveling. If you’re headed to a beach destination, check out my post What Every Girl Should Bring Beach Backpacking. In general I opt for the thinnest fabrics possible. In the winter I packed cashmere sweaters, yes more expensive but paper thin and very insulated. In the summer I wear thin breathable cotton and linen that dries fast and takes up very little space. I almost never pack jeans because they take up so much space, are slow drying, and aren’t nearly as comfy as yoga pants. If I can’t stretch in it, I don’t usually wear it. When in doubt, opt for quality basics, and then you can buy fun fabrics, dresses, and jewelry on the road.
I pack all of these items into my smaller, personal bag that always stays on my body when I’m in transit. Generally, I recommend traveling with as few gadgets as possible. They can often be distractions from fully experiencing your travels, and it’s not uncommon to have them stolen. However, if you’re passionate about photography or
I travel with an iPhone for listening to music and connecting to wifi on the go. In the past I had two stolen while traveling, so if you’re attached to yours, keep it at home. If you have one that is unlocked you can buy local SIM cards and get unlimited data very inexpensively.
I do not recommend traveling with a laptop in general, too heavy and too much risk of it being stolen, but if you work remotely it’s unavoidable. Most people will do well with an iPad or a smartphone, but if you’re taking tons of photos or you’re working on the road, go for a Macbook Air and a remote hard drive. I travel with a 13″ Macbook Pro, which is a bit heavy, but not too bad. I protect mine from humidity, salt, bike falls, and jungle rain by keeping it in a Thule laptop case. The case is so heavy duty it looks like I’m packing heat, but it is fall and water proof.
If you plan to work remotely and need guaranteed wifi, I highly recommend traveling with your own hotspot device. This way you’ll have the freedom to go anywhere, without worrying about wifi. In the past I’ve used Goodspeed, which can hold up to 10 different SIM cards at a time, which is amazing when you’re traveling around to a bunch of different countries. The service was strong and reliable.
(Full disclosure: Goodspeed did send me a free device with service while I was traveling in Europe, with zero obligation to promote their company. My recommendation is 100% authentic and not sponsored by Goodspeed.)
It took me a long time to get on the Kindle bandwagon. I love holding a book in my hands and seeing how much I manhandled it by the end. However, practically speaking, a Kindle makes so much sense when traveling. You can download any book you want whenever you want and save lots of space in your bag. I’ve never regretted buying one. I usually go with the cheapest one since I only use it for reading books.
One of the questions readers ask me most frequently, is what kind of camera I use to take my photos. Many are surprised to discover that I do not use a DSLR. Many of the photos on my site were taken with a Canon Powershot A4000IS. It’s tiny and cheap so I’m never heartbroken when it falls in the sand (I can’t close the lens anymore) or gets stolen. Most importantly bring a camera you feel well acquainted with and will carry with you everywhere. I’m now shooting with a Canon Powershot SX520 which has the same features as my old camera, is still really compact, but also has the ability to use manual settings. It’s a nice compromise between a full on DSLR and a tiny point and shoot.
Some people swear by GoPros, and I do have one, but honestly I’ve never gotten great footage with a GoPro, which is why I can’t personally recommend them. However, I have seen other people take some great videos and photos.
Blogger friends of mine recommend the Canon Rebel T5i and T3i as far as DSLRs go, along with a good quality microphone if you plan to shoot video. For more on that, I recommend watching this video by the Vagabrothers.
The Cleaning Supplies
What could be more important when traveling than health and hygiene? With large bottles of liquids being prohibited on flights, it’s tough to bring all that you need without checking a bag. Yet I have managed to bring supplies for health, cleanliness, and beauty, that last me months and can go in a carry on back. Check out My Travel Wellness Kit and My Travel Beauty Kit.
There are the practical things that we need to pack, and then there are those items that perhaps seem frivolous, but they enhance our experience enough to justify packing them. That’s what this section is all about. The stuff that might not be practical, but that helps me feel comfortable, grounded, and connected, no matter where I go.
Stick of Palo Santo
For clearing the old energy of a space and making it my own, I follow the ancient tradition of smudging. It’s also a powerful way to shield and protect yourself from outside energy. A stick of Palo Santo lasts a long time, doesn’t make a mess, and smells heavenly.
Special Essential Oils
I already shared the essential oils that I use for my health and for my toiletries in My Travel Wellness Kit and My Travel Beauty Kit, but I also pack oils that just make me feel good. I use Sacred Mountain to feel like the strong, grounded goddess that I am, especially when I’m on the road alone. White Angelica I use for protection and Joy is my go-to perfume for inviting more happiness into my life. I also recommend Valor for protecting, Grounding for grounding (duh!), and Release for settling into a new place. Find out more about essential oils here.
I travel with small stones to keep my bag from getting weighed down, and have started making my own activated crystal necklaces with raw amethyst and quartz pendants. Aragonite is small, light, and known for its grounding properties and quartz is always nice to have for general healing.
In addition to my necklaces with special stones, I travel with rings and feather earrings which take up hardly any space and are very lightweight.
I often consult these cards when I’m looking for support and answers while traveling. They also make a wonderful activity to do with friends, especially around a beach bonfire. The flower therapy cards are always on point and I’m often humbled by how open people become when I give them a reading.
Journaling can add fulfillment to your travels by allowing you a medium for reflecting on your experiences. It’s also great if you ever want to look back and remember details of who you met, where you ate, etc on a trip. I’m very brand loyal to Moleskine journals because, well, they’re the best, and I love writing with Faber Kastel pens.
When I’m constantly moving, yoga is what keeps me grounded. Beach travel lends itself perfectly to yoga, because it’s all about relaxation and there’s nothing quite like stretching in front of the ocean at sunrise. Most studios carry yoga mats, but I like to have my own so that I can practice anywhere. I have traveled with a Manduka EcoLite mat which folds up into the size of a notebook, and I’m currently using the Jade Travel Mat, which is thicker but far more supportive.
Getting it All Into the Bag
Now that you know what you need, how do you get it all to fit into one backpack and one personal item? Here’s what I do:
I sort my clothes into categories, then roll each item and place it into my packing cubes. That way, when I look at the packing cube, I can already see exactly what’s inside, and I can just pull out the cube that I need. I usually have one cube for underwear, one for yoga/lounge clothes, one for dressier items, and one for day attire. So if I’m headed to yoga, instead of rifling through everything, I just grab my yoga cube, unzip, and I can see everything that’s inside without even touching it.
If I’m using compression bags, I will set aside the thicker, heavier clothes, and place them directly into the bags. If I’m using compression bags for everything, I put my packing cubes right inside of the compression bags.
The cubes go into my backpack first, along with any shoes or flip flops next. I recommend packing as few pairs of shoes as possible as they take up a lot of room and are very heavy.
I wear my bulkiest layers on the airplane, with my biggest pair of shoes (tennis or boots), yoga pants, a tank top, a long sleeve top, and a sweater.
I put all of my toiletries, health supplies, and, in a hanging organizer bag and or small pouches. Miscellaneous things like my headlamp, etc go into pouches. I then place them on top of my clothes or in the outer pocket of my backpack.
Into my “personal item” that stays on me not only on flights, but also on bus rides, train rides, in taxis, etc, I put all of my valuable belongings. My laptop, camera, journal, passport, money, and anything I might need quickly (a pen, earphones, etc) goes into my shoulder bag.
So there you have it, that’s how I travel the world with all of my belongings on my body. Does it seem possible to you? Why or why not?