I recently read that one of the greatest fears people have about travel is not knowing how to pack for a trip. There’s this angst that you’ll either be hauling way too much stuff or, conversely, you’ll leave behind that one essential you wished you’d had. But knowing how to pack isn’t that hard, especially when you can see examples from others on how to pack for any kind of trip.
I’ll show you plenty of those examples of how to back below. But let’s start with a summary of points taken from my book Hidden Travel: The Secret to Extraordinary Trips that explore not only how to pack the physical items but also the intangibles that may matter even more.
How to pack: Some considerations from Hidden Travel
- Less usually is more because limitations liberate you from the tyranny of choice. That then helps you enjoy and appreciate better the fewer things you have and do.
- Leave behind the non-essentials. Packing is less about specific items in your suitcase and more about finding the hidden freedom that comes from leaving behind both the physical and emotional baggage that you were never meant to carry.
- Bring what you can’t see. Sometimes the best things you can bring with you aren’t things but intangible attitudes and habits that will make any trip better.
- Baggage weighs more than you think. Never underestimate how much what you bring with you weighs you down mentally, as well as physically
- Write things down to free your mind. With packing lists and other pre-trip notes, the more you write down, the less you have to remember. This creates mental space for dreaming.
- How much you pack affects how you pack— and how you travel. Bear in mind this quote from Antoine de St. Exupery: “He who would travel happily must travel light.”
- Pack items that can be used in multiple ways. Thinking through alternative uses for the items like a scarf primes you for creative problem-solving on your trip.
- “Improvise, adapt, overcome.” —This unofficial motto of the US Marines also applies to hidden travel and packing light.
- Few things are more hidden and less helpful on a trip (or in life) than expectations. Leave yours behind to discover more.
- Learn to travel expectantly rather than with expectations. With the former, you anticipate the possibility of more without restricting what it might look like. When you travel expectantly, you begin to see even the worst days on a trip—missed connections, bad weather and other setbacks—as opportunities for something rewarding hidden amid the disappointment.
- Bring along an openness to connect with others. Research shows that social connection may be the greatest contributor to our happiness. Pack with you a willingness to engage with others, even if you’re introverted. You’ll be happier and you’ll discover more.
- Be wise as you travel, but don’t let stereotypes or fears affect your humanity. Pack what you need. Leave behind what you don’t.
- Enjoy the process. Packing can be one of the most joyful parts of your trip if you treat the process as an act of anticipation, and each item you put aside to bring with you as a precious piece of “kit” for your adventure. Create a staging area and build your adventure kit in the days or even weeks before you leave.
How to pack in a variety of ways
As with my article on How to Plan a Trip, I’m going to concentrate here on the work others have done when it comes to how to pack so that you get a variety of insights based on different needs and situations.
How to pack for men:
This article is more for a longer-term trip, but still useful to get a sense of how to pack lightly for a guy.
Here’s an updated list from Nomadic Matt as to what he packs for a trip.
How to pack for women:
If you’re interested in a vast range of packing lists based on the destination, check this out from Travel Fashion Girl: It takes packing lists to a new level by providing numerous lists based on season, destination, etc. I wish they had a similar range of list for guys, but I guess I’d have to find a website called Travel Fashion Guy for that.
Another thorough list for women comes from A Little Adrift. Much like the men’s article above, it is geared toward long-term travel but can easily be modified for shorter trips.
Speaking of long-term trips…
How to pack for long-term journeys
This list from Honey Trek, is one of my favorite packing lists because it is organized by type of items (clothes, tech, camera, etc.), by gender and it even provides the cost of each item. Super helpful.
How to pack in general
Here are three additional resources for you related to how to pack:
This one is Rick Steves’ packing list and a really helpful one for shorter trips. It also includes a downloadable version as well.
This next one, from Matador Network, is less a packing list and more a list of 40 useful items to consider bringing on a trip.
Finally, though a bit old, the ten rules of packing in this Nat Geo piece are still sound.
How to pack clothes
Now that you’ve seem some general overviews on how to pack, let’s get more specific with the items that tend to take up the most room in your bag, clothes.
In Hidden Travel, I write about how to pack clothes in four ways. Here’s that same information but with links below to some super helpful videos and articles to show you visually what these look like, as well as to provide some other great tips on how to pack:
- Fold and stack. Everyone folds differently, but the key is to also stack your items (like with like, e.g. all your shirts together) for easier access. Clothes get more wrinkled when you pull some out and put back others, arranging them sideways so you can see each item like a book on a shelf, can help. And dry cleaner’s bags kept around coats or dresses do seem to reduce wrinkles.
- See how to pack your clothes like books on a shelf.
- This video is great for showing all sorts of ways to both fold and roll. And not just for a trip.
- Compression bags. These are like heavy-duty zip locking bags where you vacuum out the air (at home) or simply press out the air on your trip. I use this technique at the end of the trip with dirty clothes but many people swear by it as it saves you a great deal of room — but not necessarily wrinkles. Best to bring items where wrinkles don’t matter as much.
- In this video, you can see not only how compression (or space-saver) bags work, but also how they compare to all these other options. It’s a really helpful review to know the best approach for time saving and for space saving when it comes to how to pack your bag.
- Packing cubes. Many people love the organization these mesh, cloth or plastic bag-like cubes in various sizes bring. They’re particularly helpful when unpacking on the road since every items stays in its own place.
- Here’s a video on how to pack using packing cubes.
- Rolling. Many travelers will tell you you’ll fit more in a bag by rolling your clothes plus, it reduces wrinkles. You can combine this with the stacking approach above so all like items are rolled and packed so you can extract only the item you need.
- Learn when to fold and when to roll along with other great packing hacks here.
- Compare the folding and rolling methods in this video.
Finally for an overall great set of travel hacks and helpful tips on how to pack in the most efficient manner, check out this article form Matador.
How I pack
At this point, you likely have more than enough advice on what to pack for a trip. But I’m constantly asked how I pack so light and my list is a bit different than others you see here or rather, a combination of several of them. I tend to dress a bit more upscale with collared shirts (instead of just t-shirts) and khakis (over shorts or jeans — never jeans except for a weekend trip). But I also pack lighter than many and usually leave home with my carry-on bag only 2/3rds full. I do this because I don’t mind washing clothes in a sink every five days (if I can’t find a laundromat) and because I like the freedom of traveling light. I’m also not picky about fashion (no comments, please).
What follows is the packing list I used for my three-week trip to China which I outlined in the How to Plan a Trip article. It took place in early October necessitating warm clothing for Beijing in the north, but cool enough for the sub-tropical weather of Yunnan Province in the south.
The following list may seem very long, but I’m including everything I brought so you get a sense of the details that some packing lists leave out. Everything fit into one 22″x14″x9″ roller bag and a 20 liter size daypack for my camera gear. I was able to carry both on the flights between the US and China but had to check the roller bag on domestic flights in China. Here’s what I brought:
My packing list for three weeks in China
- Three shirts – This was a casual trip so three quick-dry long-sleeve shorts worked well. With a t-shirt underneath, I could wear a shirt two to three days before washing.
- 4 t-shirts (2 poly quick dry, 1 merino wool, 1 v-neck cotton)
- 5 underwear (4 quick dry, 1 cotton)
- 1 belt
- 3 quick dry pants (2 regular, one zipoff, all quick-dry with the zipoff’s being usable as shorts or even swim trunks if needed)
- 1 winter rain jacket with removable fleece liner and thin gloves and cap in pockets
- 1 pullover fleece
- 4 pair merino wool socks, 1 pair quick dry nylon/spandex socks – The quick dry pair was in case I somehow needed to have one pair washed and dried overnight. The merino wool will dry overnight if properly squeezed out, but not always in humid situations.
- 1 pair silk long underwear – I brought these because of the possibility of really gold weather but never wore them. They are very light and roll up smaller than socks, so it wasn’t a big deal that they weren’t used.
- 1 pair hiking shoes – Normally, I will also add a light pair of walking shoes that can work in a dressed-up situation. But on this trip, our plans were for only casual places to visit.
- Non-logo baseball cap
Art, reading and writing stuff
- Watercolor set with three water brushes
- Pencil pack with two drawing pencils, ruler, four micron pens, and eraser
- 1 watercolor journal (4” x 6” Field Artist)
- 1 small pocket Moleskine
- Phone and charger with Tripit, Evernote, maps, ebooks, loaded.
- Kindle with guidebooks and reading loaded. I use my phone charger to charge this.
- Maps and printouts of guidebooks in a manila folder with extra paper clips
- Folding keyboard, bag and phone stand
- Notecards, bookmarks and other small gifts to give
Equipment, supplies and back-ups
- Carry-on bag (22” x 9” x 14” to fit on all domestic and many international planes)
- Summit bag (parachute material daypack that rolls up to the size of a lemon and can be used as a small daypack, “murse” or stuffed with dirty clothes at the end of the trip and checked if I need extra space in my carryon)
- Backpack (yellow daypack used as camera bag)
- Passport case
- Extra passport photos
- Photocopy of passport (one in case, one in carry-on)
- Passport with visa
- Passport and credit card shields
- 3 credit cards (call bank to inform)
- 2 debit cards (call bank to inform)
- International drivers license (not needed this trip)
- Biz cards
- Money belt
- Neck pouch
- Money clip
- Global entry card
- Alaska MVP card
- Travel insurance info
- Laundry line and soap (I rarely bring detergent for washing machines since that is almost always available at laundromats and I have used shampoo to do hand laundry in a pinch but mostly I bring small refillable bottles of handwashing laundry soap. Also, my laundry line has a 200 pound load bearing rating so I can use it to get out a window in case of a fire.)
- Ear buds and backup headphones
- Spare glasses
- 4 bags of nuts
- 7 protein bars
- Laundry bags/small garbage bags
- Laundry close pins
- Extra quart and gallon zip lock bags
- Chinese outlet adapters (two types are used in the country)
- USB cable to use with phone charger for Kindle
- Disposable poncho
- Emergency blanket
- Matches (technically not allowed but never checked)
- Mini flashlight
- 2 3-way wall plug adapter (that lets one outlet become three)
- Duct tape roll
- Misc. paper clips, twistems and clips, rubber bands
- Eye mask
- Ear plugs and back-ups
- Inflatable pillow
- Extra shoelaces
- Pocket knife with filed down blade – I use this for the scissors and tweezers. Sometimes security asks to see it, but when I show there is no blade, they let it through. You can buy similar items that are TSA approved (and don’t require you filing down a knife blade).
Camera and accessories
- Main tripod and case
- Mini tripod
- Lumix LX-100 digital camera, 3 spare batteries, 4 SD cards, case and card holder/case, tripod quick release, flash and flash bag. This is my high-end point and shoot back-up camera.
- Lumix G-85 digital camera, 14-140mm lens, lens hood, 3 SD cards, 2 spare batteries, tripod quick release, case. This is my main mirrorless travel camera.
- 9-18mm lens, hood, lens cover and bag
- 45mm lens, hood, lens cover and bag
- 15 mm lens, hood, lens cover, bag
- Lens cloths
- Filters: 14-140mm polarizer, 9-18mm ND
- LX-100 battery charger
- G-85 battery charger
- Rain cover for camera – If I’m not expected much rain, I’ll just use a zip lock bag in a pinch.
- SD Hard drive back-up unit and cable
Toiletries and related supplies
- Tissues (3 packs)
- Hand sanitizer
- No Jet Lag – A homeopathic pill you take every two hours on a flight. Is it just a placebo? Maybe, but it has dramatically reduced the affects of jet lag for me.
- Disinfectant wipes
- Band aids
- Cortisone creme
- Vitamins, etc.
- Tylenol PM
- Bottle opener
- Razor and blades
- Pepto and Lomatil
- Antibiotics – I sometimes carry some for emergency cases, but be careful not to overuse any antibiotic.
- Cold medicine
- Pocket toothbrush and Invisalign case – I only needed this and the following because I was wearing these clear braces at the time.
- Next set of Invisaligns (since my rotation changed during the trip)
Summary of how to pack for a trip
I cover a lot more in Hidden Travel: The Secret to Extraordinary Trips including my favorite section, “20 ways to use a zip lock bag.” But the main themes are these:
- You need far less than you think you will
- Traveling light has profound mental, as well as physical, benefits
- Packing gets easier the more you do it. So consider taking several short trips before a long one to see how little you can get by with while the risk is low.
- Strive to bring items that serve multiple purposes. I note that my laundry line above can bear my weight or that I can use a zip lock bag for a rain protector for my camera. Scarves can be fashion accessories, head covers, pillow covers, beach attire, etc.
- Be as focused on weight as on space when packing since many airlines these days weigh even carryon bags.
- Let you time of packing be a joyous time to appreciate your stuff and dream about your trip.