Minimalist Packing: How to Pack Everything Into a Carry-On

January 12, 2020

packing into a carry-on

It doesn’t matter how long I’m traveling for or what kind of weather I’m flying into: I pack only in a carry-on. Always.

I was once an obsessive over-packer. The type of over packing where I’m sitting on my bag, attempting to fit every outfit I own into my giant *hot pink* suitcase because I was convinced that if something came up and I didn’t have the right outfit, I would perish.

My defining moment was at LAX back in 2012 when I was attempting to maneuver through customs wearing three layers, an overflowing carry-on bag, and that same *hot pink* suitcase that was nearly as tall as I was. The customs guy asked why I was so sweaty. My arms were sore. I almost took out a small child with my bags in the process.

Since then, traveling, van life, and detailed thinking have allowed me to become an expert at minimalist packing. Now, whether three weeks in Australia or three months in Europe, you’ll only see me packing a carry-on. Here’s how to do it: 


how to pack everything into a carry on


5,4,3,2,1,1 Rule 

Five shirts, four pants, three bras, two shoes, one heavy sweater/coat, one dress. 

When it comes down to it, you probably won’t even wear all of it. One thing I’ve learned is that even when packing a lot, I tend to stick to my 2-3 favorite outfits. If you’re worried about running out of clothes, remember that laundry exists all over the world, and you don’t have to wash your shirts after wearing them one time. 


Make Your "Personal Bag" a Backpack 

On a flight, you are typically allowed one carry-on and one personal bag. Instead of using a purse or small bag as your personal item, use a backpack. This gives you more room for packing while staying within the limit size. 

My backpack is always my gear bag. I purchased this camera bag, which fits my 13” laptop, Canon 70d, Sony a7rii, multiple lenses, and all needed charging cords.


packing tips


Leave the Extras at Home 

I leave excess makeup, hair products, camping gear, etc. at home. If I’m not 100% certain I will use it while I’m gone, it will be left behind. The biggest waste of space are high heel shoes. Always choose to leave those behind. If at any time you realize you need something you left behind, you can always go out and buy it. Some standard extras that take a lot of space include: 

  • Hairdryer 
  • Travel pillows
  • Curling iron 
  • Air mattresses
  • High heels
  • Towels 
  • Multiple pairs of jeans 
  • Hair spray 
  • Perfume 
  • Dry shampoo 
  • Makeup wipes 
  • Travel shampoo/conditioner 


Shop at Your Destination 

The above list may seem scary, thinking that you must leave certain essentials behind. However, even on vacation, supermarkets and grocery stores exist. I always wait until I am at my destination to go shopping and pick up essential items such as shampoo, bug spray, deodorant, camping food, etc. 


minimalist packing


Thrifting is Your Friend 

When your travels include particular gear, such as camping equipment, it can seem impossible to fit everything you need into two small carry-on bags. Pots, pans, blankets, and pillows are just some of the items that require more space than usual. When this is the case, go to a thrift shop at the beginning of the trip to buy needed supplies at a cheap price. Once you are finished traveling, you can donate the items back at the end of your journey.


Invest in Compact Items 

In order to pack everything into a carry-on, you should buy common travel items in a smaller, compact size. For example, headphones come in all shapes and sizes. Instead of massive Bose headphones, invest in a wireless pair of Jaybird headphones, which only take up two inches of space. 

Other common items that can often be substituted for compact alternatives include: wallets, purses, drones, and water bottles. 


packing tips


The Ultimate Carry-On Packing Checklist 

Use this list when you travel and you will dramatically decrease the amount you pack while staying inside carry-on limits. 

❏ 2 T-shirts 

❏ 1 Long sleeve 

❏ 1 Cardigan 

❏ 1 Workout tank/shirt 

❏ Pair of Jeans 

❏ 2 Pair of Leggings 

❏ 1 Pair of shorts/skirt

❏ 2 Sports bras (if applicable)

❏ 1 Support bra (if applicable)

❏ 1 Pair hiking/walking shoes 

❏ 1 Pair another shoe of choice 

❏ 1 Dress (if applicable)

❏ 1 Sweater

❏ Toiletries 

❏ Charging cords 

❏ Underwear

❏ Socks 

❏ Travel documents 

❏ Adapter plug (international only) 

❏ Camera and Laptop (if applicable)

❏ Deck of cards

Remember: You can wear some of these items on your flight. My usual flight outfit includes a layering of my tank top, one shirt, and my sweater, pair with jeans and my bulkiest pair of shoes. 

minimalist packing tips

Minimalist Packing Goes a Long Way 

Even when traveling long term, this list still applies. While backpacking Europe, I packed enough clothes to get by. When a shirt or a pair of pants needed to be replaced, I bought a new item in whichever city we were currently visiting. 

As a once repeat-offender on over-packing, learning to become a minimalist packer is a breath of fresh air. Long gone are the days of stressing and regretting hauling around an oversized bag that may or may not make it to my final destination. Packing light eliminates stress, eases travel, and catapults you from the ranks of novice tourists to expert traveler.

Outdoor travel blog

At any given moment, Shalee is either lost, hunting for ice cream, or obsessively planning her next adventure.

Born and raised in rural Michigan, she began exploring the shores of Great Lakes as a teen, often sleeping in her car to save money. Eventually, her urge to explore pushed beyond her Midwest borders. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, outdoor, and sustainable tourism. Her pack now includes two spunky hiking cats and her partner, Josh. Learn more about her here.

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  1. Kathleen on January 12, 2020 at 7:15 PM

    Thanks for the packing list, so helpful!

  2. Nancy Murdoch on January 12, 2020 at 7:32 PM

    Great advice Shalee! I used to be an over-packer too!

    Love your articles and posts. ❤️

  3. KATHY A HALL on January 12, 2020 at 10:45 PM

    Pinned. Great ideas!

  4. Kellen Kautzman on January 13, 2020 at 1:30 PM

    Seriously, I am all about the minimalist packing. Can I apply the same thing to how much stuff is in my house?

    Imagine a room with just a lamp in it. It’s the lamp room. 🙂

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