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How to pack light was always beyond me. After many adventures around the world, I finally admitted that I was a classic overpacker. Perhaps it was from years of road tripping where I could just squeeze one more thing under the RV seat or tuck something in the glove compartment.
Whatever the reason, overpacking as a solo woman traveller means one thing only. I have to lug my stuff around. Always. And I got tired of it.
When I started my nomadic lifestyle, I used this Pacsafe backpack for the first two years. It was overflowing and required a wrestling match in order to close the zippers. This was before I even left Canada. Overpacker supreme!
It’s not that the size was a problem. It was the number of things I was bringing. I finally gave away some belongings in Costa Rica, and my trusty grey backpack became more manageable.
I switched to a suitcase in the summer of 2018 and by the end of my 90-day trip, I could barely lift it. Classic overpacker. It was full of items I had barely used (those fun red sandals – GUILTY) and I vowed that I would be changing my ways.
Tada! Overpacker to Minimalist Traveller.
How to Pack Light: Which Luggage to Use?
In my opinion, there are only two choices – a backpack or a suitcase. Packing light is doable using either.
I loved carrying that grey Pacsafe backpack and was very disappointed when my doctor advised me not to anymore. I felt it was part of my travelling identity. The bonus? It zipped open like a suitcase so I could easily access my abundant belongings. And being a Pacsafe brand, it had many safety features.
In Europe, one of the advantages of having a backpack is the metro stations. In big cities like Paris and London, there are many Metro stations where there are hundreds of stairs to navigate. That’s right. Not even an escalator to help a girl out. I loved breezing up the staircases with my backpack zooming past people who were struggling with their suitcases. (Fast forward – that was me with the same struggle in the summer of 2018).
Europe is full of cobblestone roads which are difficult to pull a suitcase along and also add wear and tear to any suitcase while trundling to your hotel. Backpacks win in this situation.
Travelling in South America, I would have much preferred a backpack. Wheeling my suitcase along dirt roads and up and down a zillion stairs as in Valparaiso, I thought longingly of my backpack.
“And what is the advantage of carrying that thing (my backpack) again?” quipped a friend I met in Paris. She was hustling ahead of me effortlessly wheeling her luggage along the paved sidewalks. Weighed down by my backpack, I was momentarily envious of her sleek suitcase. It’s true, backpacks can be heavy to carry and are hot in summer weather. I have broken into many a sweat carrying a backpack. In SE Asia, this was a common occurrence.
The Combo – A Backpack with Wheels
Backpacks with wheels are also a choice on the market. On my recent trip to South America, I did not notice anyone with this kind of luggage. The wheels take up space in the interior and add to the overall weight of the backpack. I did go to the store and check these out but they were expensive and not exactly what I was looking for. Not my choice.
The Duffle Bag
Somehow you always end up walking more than you think. Maybe you are trying to save a few pennies by walking and not taking a cab to your accommodation. Maybe you decided to walk and that hotel is somehow WAY further than you thought. Possibly you are navigating several Metro lines and a train. Carrying a duffle bag over your shoulder along with a daypack should not even be on your radar.
The Wheeled Duffle Bag
This might be an option for people who prefer duffle bag type luggage. There are various sizes. This one is carry-on size.
After much travel, I have become a lover of the carry-on, 4 spinning wheeled suitcase. This is the one I used on my three month trip to South America. It rolls like a dream, fit everything I needed for 3 months and 2 climates and usually was the right size for carry-on (with the expander zipper closed).
Carry-on size varies with each airline. When I arrived in Medellin, Colombia for a domestic flight with VivaColombia my suitcase was way oversized for the cabin. So I ended up paying extra at check-in to have my luggage checked. This happened a couple of times. I decided to just roll with it.
When booking travel, read carefully the carry-on requirements. Sometimes an airline’s least expensive ticket only includes one carry-on piece. Or possibly the size of the luggage is smaller than you are used to. Pay close attention also to the weight restrictions. The worst-case scenario and the most expensive is to have your luggage, which might be slightly larger than the carry-on requirements, taken from you at the gate.
How to Pack Light: What to Bring?
My first carry-on endeavour was for a 3-month trip to South America where I would be needing warm clothes as well as summer clothes. Now there’s a challenge. “Pack light! Pack light! Pack light!” I repeated it over and over as I got ready.
Ultimate Packing List for a 2 Climate Long Term Trip:
- this warm jacket that folds into nothing and fits into a little bag; can double as a pillow
- waterproof shell – stood in the shower with it on to make sure the seams were waterproof
An anorak with a hoodie underneath would have made for a solid choice here, but I went with what I had available
- wool mittens, a wool hat for hiking in Peru and Bolivia. Could have been purchased in South America.
- sunhat -foldable
- 2 long-sleeved – one Merino wool; one reversible
- 2 short sleeved
- 3 tank tops
- wind pants (Lululemon studio pants)
- crops (could have left these out)
- spandex shorts (for under my dresses or PJ’s)
- Lululemon skort similar to this one
- 2 Summer dresses; one Columbia dress that is lightweight and doesn’t wrinkle; like this one.
Two pairs of shoes should be the maximum. I struggle with this…
- sturdy runners for hiking and long walking days
- flipflops for the beach and shower
- Birkenstocks purchased mid-trip (oops – now I’m at 3 pairs)
- zip hoodie (left it behind when I was in summer weather)
Undies + Bras:
- 5 quick dry undies for easy washing at night
- 2 bras – one normal; one sports
- 2 ankle; 1 taller wool pair
- 1 Lululemon headband
- 0 scarves but purchased 2 on the journey
- 1 fold up eco-friendly shopping bag
- 1 doorstop to be used under the door at night (safety)
- 1 headlamp – in case of needing light and free hands
- 1 padlock – make sure it is a TSA approved one if using on your luggage while travelling; needed when staying in hostels with personal lockers
- 1 collapsible eco-friendly cup
- 1 Lifestraw – I wasn’t a fan of this and would bring this one along next time
- 2 packing cubes
- bra stash
- money belt
- universal travel adapter – didn’t need this in Peru, Bolivia or Colombia. Needed it in Chile
- a small, flat purse for evening use when I am not taking my camera (which is rare)
- purchased some clothing and gifts – needed the suitcase expander and to check my bag on the return flight. Oops!
- Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems – true confessions. Yes, I carried this with me the whole way. A trip to Chile is just better with his poems tucked in your back pocket
Please note there are no pyjamas on this list. Some of my clothing doubled as PJ’s. For example, my crops and a tank or my leggings and a long sleeved.
I also had to throw out several items on this list after gas leaked into my suitcase in Bolivia.
How to Pack Light: Tips
- You need a colour scheme. Lay your clothing out and make sure you can mix and match. Often an accent piece like a scarf or necklace can change the look of your basic pieces.
- Shoes. Two pairs. Comfy all the way. I struggle with this every time but when I bring more, I regret it.
- Lay everything out. Take away at least 3-5 items. You won’t even remember they are still at home.
- Wear the bulky stuff on the plane.
- Roll your clothing. It takes up less space.
- Have you tried compression bags? I think I will give them a go next time.
How to Pack Light: Toiletries
Trying to pack light and be more eco-friendly was a challenge for a 3-month trip. The worst part was throwing out liquids I had purchased when I decided to fly to my next destination. Not a good sustainable choice.
For Carry-On Only
- toiletry bag and a resealable bag for liquids placed in an easily accessible spot for airport security
Non – Liquid
- toothbrush and Lush toothpaste tablets
- small first aid kit
- any vitamins; prescriptions; medications
- solid shampoo
- camping toilet paper (developing countries)
- solid makeup
- deodorant; if solid
- tweezers, nail clippers, scissors with a blade shorter than 4″,
- disposable razor (who knew?)
- eye mask; ear plugs
- shower cap
- feminine products
- small hair straightener (yep!)
- small mirror
Liquids and the Carry-On Restrictions:
All liquids for carry-on need to be in containers no larger than 100mL or 3.4 oz. They all have to fit into a single one litre (1 quart) clear, closed resealable bag.
- small contact lens solution (purchased more as I travelled; available everywhere but possibly not your exact brand)
- extra contact lenses
- face cream
- makeup – all gels, mascara, liquid foundation
- lip balms
- body lotion
How to Pack Light: The Day Pack
As in all things travel related this comes down to a few factors: personal preference, length of trip, destination and what you want with you during the day. For example, do you carry a DSLR camera or mirrorless camera with extra lenses?
My preference is always a backpack as I carry a camera case with at least one extra lens and often my laptop with me. I just never know if I will find a café and take a little time to work.
My Canadian-made Herschel pack was exactly what I needed for my trip to South America and will continue to be my go-to day pack. I mean, Herschel says its backpacks are retro and hip so I feel like every traveller could use one!
The Day Pack as Your Personal Carry-On Item
- passport, International Driver’s License, Yellow Fever card
- wallet tucked in an interior pocket for safety
- any paper travel confirmations (I mostly use digital; use screenshots as backup)
- any critical items such as contact lens case/ glasses; prescriptions
- guidebooks – I use digital versions
- journal and pen
- sunglasses and case
- reusable water bottle
- hand sanitizer
- collapsible coffee cup
- cutlery (a sustainable choice. Choose bamboo. My metal fork was confiscated at security)
- small packing cube for all my charging cords
- pack of cards
- Sony A6000 Mirrorless Camera
- my everyday lens
- Manual Focus Wide angle lens ( which I plan to replace with an autofocus wide angle)
- camera batteries+ charger
- extra SD card
- tripod (travelling, this tucks into my suitcase)
- lens cleaning kit
- unlocked or clarity on how your phone plan works overseas
- paperclip to pop open SIM card drawer
- place to store SIM card until your return
- these camera lenses are exclusive for iPhones (I have not used these but want to!)
- extra charger
- selfie stick
Computer: I only travel with this as I am a blogger. Otherwise, I would travel with an iPad or e-reader
- anything you think necessary for the plane
Once at my destination, I do not carry all of this with me every day.
Travelling Light: How Does it Feel?
Just wonderful. Freeing. Marvellous. Making the decision to minimalize any area of one’s life is liberating. Packing is the same. I loved wheeling my suitcase through the airports, skipping the counter (although internationally sometimes that is not an option) and then breezing off the plane and on my merry way.
I am converted.
Have you ever heard anyone say, “I wish I had brought more?”
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