How to travel with only a carry-on

Everyone who’s traveled extensively has probably experienced this: you’re waiting by the luggage belt, and waiting, and waiting, and all of a sudden everyone else has taken their bags and left, but you’re still standing there as the belt slows down and comes to a halt. Without your bag.

We once waited a week for bag to be found, walking around Mexico City dressed in layers from the hostel’s lost and found box and wearing the same underwear a little bit too long. But at least that taught us exactly what to never check in. And I became a carry-on only evangelist.

Whenever we’re not carrying camping gear, we travel carry-on only. Nothing beats the feeling of getting of that plane and walking straight out of the airport without a worry in the world. When you think about it, even without being one of those people that everyone hates that take a way too large piece of hand-luggage, you can carry A LOT on board a plane.

The trick to fitting everything into a carry-on bag

I should really not be giving advice on this, because I’m one of those few underpackers that can never quite seem to fill a bag. I carry the weirdest shit, like that neat rock I found in El Salvador and just needed to take all around Central America, but still there’s always room for more. I do have a few tricks though. If you’re one of those backpackers who carry 65L on the back and 30L on the front and feel like you need to detox, look no further.

Don’t carry several of anything but underwear

I have one pair of trainers, one pair of thin canvas flats, and one par of flip-flops, unless it’s a hiking trip. I have one pair of hiking pants, one pair of loose long pants and one pair of shorts (unless we’re going somewhere religious, in which case I might as well leave those at home). I have one long sleeved shirt, one t-shirt and one tank top. I do bring two sports bras, and several pairs of underpants. I also carry a fleece hoodie and a raincoat if necessary, and then I layer up like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t bring more clothes than you could wear all at once in a pinch.

If I get bored wearing the same things all the time? Nah, not really. After being on the road for half a year I really struggled to pick an outfit for work every morning when I got back home.

Match it all

Don’t bring anything that doesn’t go well with everything else you’re bringing, color-wise. Don’t think outfits, because what if you spill on the only t-shirt that goes with a certain pair of pants?¬†An added bonus is that you can get dressed in the dark.

And there is no need to bring five t-shirts if you’re only taking three pairs of underpants, because you’re going to be doing laundry before you’ve worn them all. Unless you’re washing up your underwear every night, which is super hardcore and admirable. I know I’m not there yet.

Choose colors and materials wisely

I was recently on a ten day camping trip in a hot and humid climate, and wore the same pure wool shirt throughout. It still smelled fantastic on the return trip (unlike my person). If you choose materials and colors that don’t stain or smell, you don’t have to change clothes as often as you would at home. Maybe you won’t be able to get through any trip without ever changing your clothes, but you definitely won’t have to bring a new outfit for each day. If you’re going somewhere dirty, like a big city or the desert, don’t wear white. If you’re wearing white, don’t order tomato soup.

Don’t buy anything that you can stand to leave behind

This is not the time to buy a t-shirt that’s pretty nice, or a second hand book that’s really cheap. You can do that at home. Get the things that there is no way you could ever find anywhere else. If you’re going to fit it all in your bag, you can only take the things you just know that you’ll regret not having brought back. If you’re not sure, you don’t need it. If it’s a souvenir t-shirt with a beer logo, you don’t need it.

The downsides to carry-on only

Of course, there are some sacrifices you’ll have to make when you won’t check your luggage in. I’ve left behind the best ever mosquito repellant, because I can only take tiny bottles of liquids. We can’t carry a good sunblock from home, and instead we have to hope that we find one on our destination that is not labeled whitening and doesn’t cost a fortune. We can’t shop a lot, and certainly nothing bulky. I carry one book only and then I trade it when I’m done, but sometimes you end up finishing a book at a hostel where only several copies of Shantaram and The Dice Man is on offer. I’m sure we’ve all been there.

You’ll still have the option of checking something in on the way back

If my ticket allows for it, I will sometimes check a bag in on the return, if I’ve done some shopping that won’t fit in a carry-on. It’s not as much of a pain to wait for a missing bag once I’m home again, as it won’t mean I risk missing part of my vacation.

How to pack everything you need in a carry-on bag

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