How To Pack A Kick Ass Carry On And Travel Like A Boss!

Travelling with carry on only is an absolute life saver when you are heading off on a trip, making getting through the airports a hell of a lot easier and saving you from the compacted spinal pain from the dreaded backpackers hump later in life, to name just a couple of benefits. But packing a carry on pack is a fine art that not everyone gets right; let me show you how I do it.

After years of backpacking around the world I have learned the hard way that travelling light is the way to go. I don’t always travel with carry on only, especially on longer trips, but when I can I do.

I love the feeling of freedom it gives you, not having to worry about the airlines sending my bag on an entirely different trip than I am going on, ridiculous airline excess baggage fees (although I find it annoying that I don’t get money back by not burdening the plane with extra luggage!) and not having the stress and time wasting annoyance of waiting at the baggage claim area.

Plus it is just easier to travel with one small bag!

Many people are surprised that I can travel for extended periods with just a carry on, but it really is not as difficult as it sounds, and it isn’t exactly a hardship either. These are the little tricks I have picked up over the years as I have refined my own specific travel style. I hope you can use some of them to help develop your own.

Embrace Technology, But Not Too Much Of It.

Most backpackers now will travel with an entire department store worth of technology and gadgets, especially those who want to embrace the ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle. Take it from me, you really don’t need as much as you think you do. A good camera is of course essential, as is – to many people – a smartphone. As well as the accompanying chargers. You may even need a laptop to do your work and edit all those stunning photos on, but do you really need that oversized screen? Do you need the extra hard drives and other accessories? And you definitely don’t need those horrendous drones and damnable selfie sticks either, so just leave them at home!

One bit of tech you can embrace is the eReader. I love reading and do so voraciously when travelling. It helps pass the time on long layovers and overnight trips, and I still think that you will never be able to beat the tactile feel and the smell of a good, old fashioned paperback, but when travelling light, a few books can add a lot of weight. This is why the eReader is an absolute dream,and when you can combine the tech with a good smartphone app and reduce what you carry even more, all the better!

The point is, with the exception of your laptop (if you travel with one at all), you can carry a camera and smartphone in your pockets so they aren’t part of your luggage at all. What else do you need?

Leave The Wardrobe At Home.

Even if you are travelling long term, you will never really need more than a weeks worth of clothes on the road, maybe ten days worth at most and you really don’t need to travel with so many changes of clothes or outfits ‘just in case’. Check here for a list of what is recommended, but trust me, it isn’t much.

The trick to travelling with just a few clothes in a carry on is washing them frequently. Laundries are everywhere, whether you splurge on a hotel stay and use their in house laundry or go to a local cleaners, or even if you simply use the sink in your bathroom with a bit of soap, you will find somewhere to wash your clothes! It may add a tiny bit to your planned budget, but the extra few pounds it will cost over the course of a month or two is worth it so that you don’t have to lug around a heavy pack on your back for the entire trip.

Be Smart With What You Wear.

Clothes that are versatile are the rule here, so trousers that zip off at the knees to become shorts, tops that can look smart or casual, you get the idea. Every bit of clothing that you take with you should match everything else too, so you can change them up whenever you want. Clothes can also be worn more than once, and can be layered for effective climate specific wear if you are heading to cooler climates (or a mixture of climates) as well. Keep any heavy top layers (such as a fleece) to a minimum and layer up with lighter t shirts that you would wear in warmer climates.

Roll With It.

Whatever clothes you do decide to bring, roll them instead of folding them. This is an old trick that works really well and not only makes more space in your pack, it creases your clothes less too. Bonus!

Choose Your Pack Wisely.

It’s important to get the right carry on for you, whether that is a smaller backpack or whether it is one of the increasingly popular small hard cases. The point is it has to be just like Goldilocks supper, not too big, not to small, just right! And it has to be just right for you as an individual too. There really is no hard and fast rule here, and there is no perfect pack that is right for everyone.

Ladies, despite popular belief you do actually have a major advantage in this regard. You may not be able to carry as large or heavy a pack as some of your male counterparts, but in this case that is a good thing! Your clothes are generally a lot smaller and lighter, and you can fit a lot more into a smaller pack that can easily stay within an airlines weight limits.

Guys, you do have to be a little more careful here. You will have to choose a larger pack to fit your (generally) larger frame (and your larger kit), but be careful not to exceed the weight limits of carry on. The size of the pack matters a lot less than its eventual weight when you have put all your stuff in.

It’s also a good idea to have a pack that has plenty of sections and pockets so that you can organise your stuff a lot easier.

Organise Your Kit In Waterproof Liners.

Stuff sacks and packing cubes have become an essential part of any backpackers kit in recent years, and they are a lifesaver when you are travelling with carry on only. There are tons of different brands and types out there, but I always travel with a few good waterproof ones that I separate my clothes and other essentials into. This has the dual effect of not only organising my gear but also completely water and weatherproofing my pack too.

When travelling with carry on only, having a well organised pack can also help you get through security at airports a hell of a lot quicker and easier. Have everything that may be checked at security easy to reach in a separate section or easily identifiable stuff sack (bright colours work well for this) or even a small bag that can be considered a personal item so you can pull them out in seconds.

Keep Everything Secure.

I always travel  with a waterproof backpack cover and some form of security for my pack, especially if I know I will be staying in hostels or travelling on long distance overnight buses. When travelling with carry on only a cover isn’t going to add too much weight, but my usual go to security option of a pacsafe will, so I usually opt for a simple steel cable lock and a padlock instead.

Nix The Toiletries.

I’ll be honest I do this simply to avoid the ridiculously overzealous security measures that airports seem to think are still relevant more than for any practical weight and space concerns, but apart from a few basics I ditch carrying most toiletries in my carry on until I get to my destination.

I take my toothbrush, a razor (yes disposable razors with the safety heads are allowed) and a small toothpaste (I prefer the liquid variety).

There are of course small 100ml or less sized bottles of most types of toiletries that you can buy now, often at extortionate prices compared to their larger counterparts. The cynic in me half believes the travel security industry is taking backhanders from the beauty industry so they can keep ripping travellers off! But honestly, you don’t really need the vast majority of them. I will only carry these small 100 ml versions if I know I can’t pick anything up on the other side for some reason.

This doesn’t mean that you have to travel like a stinky hobo. You can still do your daily ablutions and  ensure that everyone in the hostel or on the night train doesn’t avoid you like the foul smelling plague that you will become. This just means that you don’t pack them in your bag when leaving home. It is easy to pick up whatever basics you need from a pharmacy when you get to your destination, so by all means bring the absolute basics with you (a toothbrush and a tiny tube of toothpaste for example), but leave the shower gel and deodorant until you get to where you are going. This will allow you to breeze through airport security and past the draconian tin pot Hitlers who are just waiting to pounce and relieve you of any liquids over 100 ml on the off chance that there is something other than liquid soap in the big bottle that says ‘liquid soap’. Just get small bottles of what you need when you are travelling or steal – sorry ‘use’ – them from the occasional hotel you stay at, then ditch them as they run out.

If you do want to carry some toiletries, just make sure they are in small 100ml bottles and that you don’t carry an entire stock cupboard of your local pharmacy with you.

Check The Requirements Of Individual Airlines.

If you are travelling for an extended period you will more than likely end up using a variety of different airlines, both major and budget, and not all airlines are created equal. The majority of the time  your carry on won’t fall foul of weight restrictions unless you really push the limits. If you keep the size and weight within general budget airline restrictions, you’ll be fine.

So there you go, keep your kit to a minimum, don’t overburden your pack and feel the freedom of travelling with carry on only. It will change the way you travel forever! 

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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26 comments on “How To Pack A Kick Ass Carry On And Travel Like A Boss!
  1. Lauren says:

    Great post! I’ve been lugging a 70L Osprey around the world for the past 6 months and I do love it, its a great pack, but I’ve been really wanting to downgrade the size for a little while now and this has given me the kick I needed! Thanks.

  2. Alan says:

    Yes! We are relatively experienced travellers but had never done this until our current trip (Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela) and it is such a life changer!!

  3. Jim says:

    The more airlines keep trying to squeeze us with rip off baggage fees and limiting what we can cary on more and more I think more people will just do this and stick a big finger up to the airlines. Great tips.

  4. Gail says:

    SO much better to use carry on luggage only. I’ve been travelling with a 45 litre backpack and a small handbag sized backpack for my absolute essentials like electronics. I have no lost luggage, no baggage fees and no line to wait for my bag after landing. And you are absolutely right, packing cubes are genius.

  5. Poppy says:

    I don’t think I could ever go super minimal when travelling, honestly. I don’t need a massive suitcase or anything but I do like to have a couple of dress choices when I need them.

  6. Mia says:

    Great adive, but one thing I struggle with is shoes! I have one pair of running shoes, hiking shoes if I want to do anything adventurous, flip flops and smarter shoes to wear with dresses. And shoes can take up a LOT of space! I just don’t know how to get round that.

    • Ah the endless shoes question, I get it, I really do. I take one pair of good dark trainers that can do triple work as comfy day to day wear, smart casual and hiking/adventure wear all in one, and then I throw a pair of good flip flops in my pack. That’s pretty much all you need and then you don’t have footwear taking up valuable pack space and weight. 🙂

  7. Gai says:

    I never check in luggage if I’m flying with Ryanair, FlyBE or any other airline that charges extra, though they tend to be trips of about 1 week duration – if I’m away for weeks then I’ll take a bigger pack but that doesn’t cost extra on my long haul flights.

    Regarding toiletries, I do tend to take them with me, but it’s ones that I’ve picked up through the year if I’ve stayed at a hotel or got a free sample (e.g. sachets of moisturiser in a magazine, small toothpaste tube from a Facebook promotion giveaway) – I keep them specifically for that reason! Then I can just bin the little tubes, bottles etc when used.

    The biggest hassle I tend to find is the towel dilemma – if I’m staying in hostels they’re not provided, some don’t even have them available to hire, so I always take one. A normal one is way too bulky for hand luggage, so I take a travel towel which is ultra thin, but actually pretty rubbish at drying me. Ah well, being a bit damp for a few extra minutes beats spending £50 on checking in luggage!

    • I would definitely take toiletries with me if it wasn’t for the ridiculous security ban on them, I have the room in my carry on I just can’t be bothered dealing with the hassle when it is just as easy to buy them cheaply when I get to my destination. And as for towels I take a travel towel too, no they aren’t perfect but it’s a balance of sacrifice vs benefits.

  8. Mike says:

    The greed of these airlines squeezing every last penny out of passengers with extra baggage fees really annoys me, and I agree with you that we should be getting rebates on the cost of our tickets if we stick two fingers up to them and travel with carry on only! The airline industry is in some serious need of regulation! Until then keep up not paying check in fees!

  9. Linda says:

    I love travelling carry on only, it’s the future! I also wear cargo pants with roomy pockets and a jacket with enough space and pockets to stash a lot of stuff. All your heavier or more important items (phone/kindle/book, etc) can be put in these, saving you space and weight in your pack.

  10. Jenny says:

    I could not agree more, travelling carry on only is an absolute freedom giving life saver! I have my little airplane standard size wheely case now plus a little backpack for my personal bag and it suits me perfectly.

  11. Caroline says:

    I travel carry on only for all shortish trips now. It’s just so much faster and easier. I don’t have to wait around at baggage claim and I don’t have to worry about lost bags! Bonus!

  12. James says:

    Ive always wished I could travel light with a carry on only!

  13. maxymilano says:

    Great tips .when I 1st traveled, I tends to bring a lot of stuff, by the time, geting smarter, I always travel with 1 cabin bag (small luggage) and 1 weekender bag/backpack for essentials (gadget,charger,etc), because I dont like waiting my luggage. So I do military rolled on every cloths even pants and light jacket. It is very effective. Im agree with you to minimize the toiletries, Bring only parfume, facewash and moisturizer, other things like shampoo,body-wash leave it at home, you can buy it later on or the hotel mostly provided.

    • Having a second bag is always a good idea for essentials, for a daypack out exploring or as a backup. Even when I carry travel on only I have a smaller pack rolled up inside! Great tips and thank you for the comment MaxyMilano 🙂

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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