How to Pack Light

How to Pack Light — 9 Steps to Smarter Travel Packing

Looking for tips on how to pack light? You’ve come to the right place.

In this guide to packing light, I share my 9 simple steps to smarter travel packing. Whether you’re on a 3-day city break or about to start your around-the-world adventure, these travel packing tips show you how to pack the right items.

You want to pack light, but you also don’t want to not pack the items you need. In this guide, I run through how to determine what clothing and travel gear you need to pack and how to pack it well.

If you want to know what goes in my backpack, check out my complete ethical travel packing list.

1. Write a checklist (then cross stuff off!)

Write out everything you think you need for your trip. Plan what to pack ahead of doing it. This helps you recognise the stuff that isn’t essential. Leave out any toiletries that you’ll be able to buy when you arrive at your destination. Shampoo, conditioner and shower gel are heavy items that don’t need to be in your backpack now. Unless you need specific toiletries, then leave them out.

2. Look up the weather forecast

You don’t want to be lugging that woolly jumper around the humid streets of Bangkok. You’re not going to need that bikini for your winter trip to Bulgaria. But sometimes it’s less obvious what clothing you’re going to need and what you’re not. Always look up the weather forecast before you pack. If it’s going to be blazing sunshine, cross off the cold weather gear. If rain clouds are rolling in, forget about the sandals and pack your raincoat instead. Cross any unnecessary clothing and travel items off your list. It’s easier to pack lighter for warm weather trips. But if you’re heading to colder climes, pack layers rather than too many bulky clothing items.

3. Decide what kind of traveller you are

To pack light, you need to know what your travel style is. For a long time, I used to think I needed nice tops and bags for going out in the evening. But let’s be honest, most of my time I’m trekking up mountains and backpacking between towns. My travel activities are active, so I need comfortable clothing that I don’t mind sweating in. Pack according to the activities you do. Don’t pack for every single activity you might (but probably won’t) do. Pack for activities you know you definitely will do. Cross off any gear from your list that doesn’t fit with the kind of traveller you are.

4. Lay everything out on the floor

Lay your bags, clothes, shoes, toiletries, electronics and any other travel gear out. I find that laying everything out gives me a much better sense of how much stuff I’m considering packing. If you look at the contents and worry a) it won’t fit in your rucksack, or b) it will be too heavy for you to carry, you need to cut some items. If you want to pack light, you have to be brutal here. Prioritise lighter clothes and lots of layers over chunky space-eating items. 

5. Separate out your basics

These are your bare clothing essentials. For a weekend break, my basics would be three white t-shirts (one per day), a light sweater, a pair of jeans, a lightweight raincoat and a pair of trainers. Neutral colours tend to work best because your outfits will generally blend. The basics are the bare minimum clothes that you could get by with for the length you’re away. Never take more than 7 days worth of clothing for a trip — do your laundry while you’re travelling. Once you’ve separated these out, you’ll be able to see which ‘excess’ clothes you have and deduct from there.

1. Organic white cotton t-shirts – I always go for organic cotton with t-shirts because it feels softer and lasts longer. White is my go-to colour because it goes with everything. Black, gray and neutral plain colours would also work well.

2. Light Sweater – I’ve currently got a light sweater from H&M’s Conscious collection. Light sweaters are good for cool climates and chilly evenings. Unlike chunky knitwear, they take up hardly any space in your bag and easily be stuffed into your day rucksack if it gets too warm.

3. Basic Jeans – A standard pair of skinny jeans is all you need for a weekend or week-long trip. I’ve currently got a pair of skinny jeans from H&M’s Conscious collection. If you are considering a second pair of bottoms, I’d recommend leggings because they take up hardly any space.

4. Helly Hansen Lightweight Rain Jacket – I never travel anywhere without a raincoat. Getting rained on and having to walk around damp the rest of the day is uncomfortable. Lightweight raincoats are versatile. They fold up easier and lend themselves well to warm and cold weather conditions.

5. Nike Women’s Running Shoes – For a short trip, you need one pair of comfortable, cushioned trainers that you’d be happy running around in all day. I opted for a more quirky pair of trainers to brighten up my otherwise plain clothing. My trainers are from Millet Sports.

See the full list of clothes I pack in my backpack in this awesome travel packing list.

6. Roll your clothes

Forget folding, rolling is the way to pack. Rolling clothes saves so much room. Rolling also keeps clothing wrinkle-free. If possible, you should only pack one pair of shoes (the ones you’ll be wearing on your feet). If you’re on a longer trip or need a second pair, then pack these first. Roll any bulky clothing like jumpers and place these on top next. Separate your clothes into underwear/socks,  t-shirts/tops, and jeans/other bottoms. Roll these too.

Travel Clothes | How to Pack Light

7. Use packing cubes

Packing cubes are the most useful item for travellers who want to pack light. Once you’ve rolled all the clothes that you separate in step 6, the next trick is to put each set into a packing cube. Packing cubes compress clothing so you can fit more into your backpack. By separating your underwear/socks,  t-shirts/tops, and jeans/other bottoms, and toiletries, it’s much easier to locate the items you’re looking for when you got to unpack. I use ZeroGrid Packing Cubes.

8. Leave some space in your bag

If you truly want to travel light, realise that you don’t need to stuff your backpack until it’s full. This is something I struggled with over the course of many trips. When I saw a  little bit of spare bag space, I used to automatically want to add-in whatever I considered the next most important item that I’d eliminated in the above steps. Only later would I regret that decision when I wanted to take home a souvenir or had something unexpected to carry during the journey (like lunch!)

9. Try your full backpack on

My number 1 rule is to never pack more than I can carry. Never expect anyone else to carry your backpack for you. Once you’ve packed everything into your rucksack, put it on. If it’s too heavy for you to carry around the house for 10 minutes, then you’ve not packed light enough. This is the best way to test whether you’ve been able to pack light or whether you’re still carrying more than you can manage.

Are you good at minimal travel packing? What’s your top tip to pack light?

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

5 thoughts to “How to Pack Light — 9 Steps to Smarter Travel Packing”

  1. Thank you again Charlie for your Brilliant reports on travel I always look forward to your next adventure
    as they have been so helpful with my traveling , I am not a vegetarian although I have enjoyed many veggie dishes on your recommendation ——— Thank You So Much From Christopher Spencer

    1. Yes, I know the feeling! The packing cubes really compress clothes down a lot though, so it’s much easier to get a little bit more space. I need to make a video next time I pack! :)

    1. Wow, that’s quite a climate change, Natasha! I’d recommend taking lots layers and thin sweaters that you can put on top of each other. Layering is a really good way to travel light when going to colder climates. Hope you have a great trip!

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