Step-By-Step Guide to Packing Carry-On Only (3 Quick Steps)


Photo of a Grab Taxi in Cebu

Packing carry-on only is one of the most liberating steps you can take to be free while traveling. It will lighten the load on your mind, shoulders, and wallet. After traveling carry-on only for over 6 years, I am ready to share my packing secrets with you so that you too enjoy the benefits of lightweight travel.

Use a small bag or suitcase to restrict the number of items you can bring. While packing, ditch everything except the essentials. Get accustomed to bringing dry products instead of liquids, and don’t bring liquids in containers larger than 100 ml.  And always make sure you follow air safety guidelines.

This is the framework we are going to be working with throughout this guide. I have a bunch of tips to help you slim down your bag. And a few secret ones that will allow you to fill your carry-on with more than you are supposed to!

Pick a Small Carry-On

The first thing you need to do in order to only bring a carry-on is to pick a SMALL bag! It doesn’t matter if you pick a suitcase, a duffle bag, or a good old backpack. All that matters is that it meets your airlines’ requirements to be brought on as a carry-on. Usually, this means small!

Travel Made Simple has put together a great resource you can use to determine how big of a carry-on you are allowed to bring with you on the flight.

Personally, I recommend aiming for the lighter side of the spectrum so you are free to use whatever airline you wish if you are going on an extended trip.

Size Matters

For example, my airline of choice Norwegian Air Shuttle requires the bag to be no more than 55cm x 40cm x 23cm (21.5 x 15.5 x 9 inches for my US readers), and under 10 KG.

This is a pretty good allowance for carry-ons and one that is very common around the world. Say I fly with Norwegian to Thailand’s capital Bangkok with my 10 KG bag.

Then I decide I’ve had enough of the city life, and want to fly to a tropical island in Thailand with Thai Lion Air. Suddenly my carry-on allowance will be a measly 40 x 30 x 20 cm (15.7 x 11.8 x 7.8 inches) with a max weight of no more than 7 kg according to the airlines’ policies.

In this instance, I am much better off packing for the Thai Lion Air flight so I don’t have to eat any extra fees at the airport, and in the worst case, have to check my bag.

For the thrill-seekers, I will also share a couple of secret tricks to get on the airplane with a bag that’s too heavy later on.

So Which Carry-On Do I Bring?

While many bloggers will try to tell you you need a special suitcase or backpack in order to travel carry-on only (commissions anybody?), I am here to tell you that it doesn’t really matter as long as it meets the airlines’ requirements.

Generally, you can get away with up to a 40-liter carry-on without any problems. I do however recommend measuring and weighing it when it is packed for peace of mind.

If you really need a new carry-on I’d advise you to buy a backpack if you can get away with it. They are a lot easier to carry around than a duffle bag, or suitcase.

My favorite brand is Eagle Creek (Amazon). But at the moment I am using a theft-proof backpack (tap for full review) instead, and I’ve been very happy with it so far.

How to Pack Clothes in a Carry-On

So now that we essentially sliced your space in half (or fourth for some you?), you’re probably a bit concerned about what you will be able to bring with you on your trip.

But don’t worry, we will make a plan for you. Let’s start with the clothes as they are the most important part to get right since they take up such a large portion of space in your bag.

Three Pass Packing Method

Since everybody is different, and we’re all going to different places, I will try to generalize this as much as possible.

I have a few excellent questions you will ask yourself while packing. I’ve split the questions into passes for your convenience.

Feel free to stop going through these passes when you are happy with the number of clothes you have left.

Pass One

First of all, bring out all the clothes you would normally pack for a trip of your length. Lay them out so you have a clear view of everything you’re bringing.

Then start by looking at one article of clothing, and ask yourself:

Do I need this?

If the answer is yes, keep it there. If no, great, less weight to carry around, put it back where it belongs.

The purpose of this exercise is to get rid of the clothes you “want to bring” and only keep the clothes that you “need to bring”.

For example, if you have three dressy shirts, and you only really need two, then you’re only bringing the third shirt as an option. Decide which shirt you want to wear now, and leave the other one at home.

Repeat this process with every single one of the clothes you have laid out.

Pass Two

Depending on your old packing habits, pass one can have been quite an eye-opener for you. This is a very different way to travel than what a lot of people are used to, so stay open-minded, and you may find that you really enjoy this.

During Pass Two we are further going to reduce the number of clothes you bring.

So next, take a look at the new, smaller number of clothes and go through them one by one again, this time ask yourself this question:

Do I REALLY need this during my trip?

Usually, the second pass is a lot harder, but try to be creative here. You can look for clothes that can serve multiple purposes. Think of packing black jeans instead of blue jeans and a pair of slacks, or a good-looking warm hoodie instead of a cardigan and a light jacket.

Try to remember that you are traveling, and you have to carry all of this around. While one piece of clothing may not weigh much, five pieces do. Especially after hours on your back.

If you can get through this pass, you’ll have 80% of the benefits of reducing your luggage with 20% of the effort.

Pass Three

At this point, you should be quite happy with your work!

For some, two passes are probably sufficient. You have a lot less clothing packed now than what you are used to. So if you feel uncomfortable with doing the final pass, don’t worry about it, you have gotten rid of most of the dead weight!

During the third pass, we are going to ruthlessly cut the rest of the excess. So if you want to go really lightweight with your carry-on, ask yourself:

What is the worst thing that can happen if I don’t bring this piece of clothing?

The idea is that if you can accept the worst outcome, you can leave the item back home.

Usually, the worst-case scenario is that you end up washing your underwear in the hotel sink, or have to wear shoes instead of sandals during that one hour you intend to spend at the beach.

Try to be practical here, weigh up the benefits of having the item against having to carry it around for a few weeks, or however long you’re out traveling. You’ll be surprised by how much stuff you can leave at home at the loss of very little comfort.

Note: You can always buy the clothes you need at your destination if you left too much behind. BUT you don’t want to do something silly like leaving your jacket behind if you’re going to a cold place “because it may not be cold that week”. You don’t want to get sick or hurt over a little extra space in your bag, especially while traveling.

Optimal Packing Methods

Now that you have cut down your excess clothing to zero, I will teach you how to pack your clothes in order to keep them organized and save some more space.

Ranger Roll

When packing your bag, you will want to pack the clothes in the Ranger Roll style whenever possible. The reason I recommend the ranger roll is that it is the most space-saving method out there.

You can essentially reduce your space by a good third by using the ranger roll method properly.

How to pack clothes in packing cubes.

The only instances I don’t recommend using the ranger roll is if you have any clothes that will wrinkle easily, like a dress-shirt or similar.

Packing Cubes

Do you need packing cubes? No, not really. And if you don’t want to spend any money to try out this lightweight carry-on packing style, just skip buying them. Alternatively, some plastic or cotton bags also work great for organizing your clothes.

But if you already have packing cubes, or if you don’t mind spending some coin, then packing cubes are a very cheap investment that will pay dividends many times over.

Personally I recommend compression packing cubes like these (tap for more info). But you can also get the non-compression version for a little cheaper. I paid 30-40 USD for a set of two compression packing cubes from Eagle Creek.

Try to get a set with a thin, flexible fabric if you decide to buy some to save some extra space. If you decide to go with the compression kind, you can save even more space, but your clothes will get even more wrinkled too.

Here is my comparison (and biased opinion).

In order to fill up the packing cubes, you should lay your ranger rolled clothes into the packing cube. You will get a very good overview of your clothes. If you use a regular packing cube, feel free to fill it to the brim. If you are going to compress it, leave some wiggle room so it is easier to zip up after.

Secret Tip: If you use compression packing cubes, airline workers will assume your bag is lighter than it really is. So if you travel with a reasonably small carry-on bag, they will almost never weigh your bag because of the size.

A Quick Breakdown of Fabric Options

Before we move on to the toiletries and electronics, I want to quickly say a few things about the best fabrics for travel. If you are happy with the clothes you already have, feel free to skip onto the next section.

Cotton

Comfortable and cheap, but not odor-resistant

Cotton is hands down the most common material that I see people travel with. It is light, and it is breathable. Cotton is an excellent choice in warmer parts of the world, and most of us have a bunch of cotton clothing at home.

The huge drawback of cotton is that it gets smelly quite fast, and therefore you can usually just wear cotton clothing for a single day.

Merino Wool

Comfortable, odor-resistant, and great in all weather, but expensive and ethical concerns

Merino wool is overall the best material available when it comes to travel. Unlike other wool, merino wool is very fine, so you won’t be scratching yourself throughout the entire day.

Merino wool holds the heat very well compared to every other fabric I’ve tested, and it also keeps you perfectly cool, making it perfect for both cold and hot climates. On top of this, wool is also incredibly odor-resistant. In some instances, I have worn merino wool clothing for a week straight while traveling. No smell.

There are, however, two drawbacks to merino wool. The first one is the ethics of it, I recommend that you have a read about mulesing, and make an informed purchase so you don’t support bad practices.

Secondly, there is the price of merino wool compared to other fabrics. I consider merino wool a luxury fabric, but it is so damn practical to use. Expect to pay a few times more for a quality merino product than what you would pay for the same cotton product.

Bamboo

Soft, odor-resistant, good for warm weather, reasonably cheap, but stretches out easily.

Bamboo blends are excellent fabrics to use while traveling. It is surprisingly soft and very odor resistant. It feels a little similar to cotton when worn, just better in every single way. I encourage you to try out this fabric, especially in hotter climates.

There is very little drawback to using these processed bamboo products, my only issue them is that they seem to stretch out a little after a few days of wear.

Tech Fabrics

Mostly unreliable if not specifically made for travel.

I find that tech fabrics can range from horrible to great (check out ExOfficio for great underwear). Due to the many different options out there, you need to experiment yourself to find what you like. Personally I stay away from them if they’re not underwear or outer layers.

As a rule of thumb, if they are not intended to be worn for travel, they usually start smelling quite quickly.

But since most of us have them laying around anyway, I want to encourage you to experiment. Let me know if you discover anything good.

Electronics

Electronics and travel is a controversial topic for some, but I will teach you a framework similar to the Three Pass Packing Method to decide what you need for your trip.

Don’t Leave Yourself Vulnerable

So, here is the main thing you need to know before deciding what electronics to pack: The more electronics you bring, the more vulnerable you are to theft, and the more worry will be at the back of your mind (especially if you are traveling a little rough).

You really need to put that into consideration when packing your expensive camera and laptop.

Pro Tip: I find that I worry a whole lot less when I bring old but usable electronics.

Eliminating Extra Electronics

So we are doing my Three Pass Packing Method for your electronics as well. This time I want you to go through all three passes, as pass three is slightly modified and very important.

Since you’re already becoming a pro at my packing method, I will go through Pass One and Pass Two more quickly this time.

Pass One

Lay out all your electronics on the floor, or somewhere safe.

Ask yourself: Do I need this?

If you have your tablet, your e-reader, and your laptop laying there, are you bringing your tablet just as an option? Or if you have a USB-C charger for your phone and your laptop, do you need to charge both simultaneously?

Put away whatever you don’t need for your trip.

Pass Two

So now that we have removed the duplicates, we are doing the next pass.

Ask yourself: Do I REALLY need this?

Try to find items that serve similar uses: If you have a camera, a phone, and a laptop, is there something you can combine without losing out too much? Can you leave the laptop at home and do the tasks on your phone instead? Does your phone produce pictures of acceptable quality?

If you want to keep your camera for better pictures, can you bring a zoom lens instead of three prime lenses?

Pass Three

So now that you have removed all the duplicate items, and found some gadgets you can use for multiple purposes, we are doing the most important pass.

This time, I want you to ask yourself: What is the worst thing that can happen if I lose this electronic?

As a tourist, you can be a target for theft. It is also possible to lose your gadgets when you move around constantly.

I encourage you to take a look at your thousand dollar camera and laptop, and ask yourself if nesting it through your trips is worth the benefits. And what would you do if you ended up forgetting it in a cafe, or if it was stolen?

Will your travelers insurance cover it? is the data backed up? These are things you need to know before you leave.

I have an entire series packed with information about this on YouTube. I encourage you to check it out, as it will greatly help you to keep your valuables safe, and bring you some peace of mind.

Here is the first episode about keeping your belongings safe while traveling.

Tips for Electronics and Airport Security

Generally, there won’t be any problems keeping your electronics in your carry-on case when flying.

It is best to keep electronics easily accessible near the top of your carry-on bag in the airport so that it is easy to pull them out for scanning at security.

Beyond that, I’d get an electronics bags that can easily be opened all the way up and is easy to see and scan for the airport security. This way they won’t bother you with your electronics.

Another great piece of advice is to place your most valuable items on the band last, right before you go through the scanner yourself. This way you can keep an eye on them as they go into the machine, and they will come out last on the other side, making it easier for you to keep an eye on them.

Toiletries

Packing toiletries for a carry on may sound impossible to some, but it is quite easy once you know the rules.

Rules You Need to Know

The two main rules are regarding liquids and sharp objects. While the degree of enforcement of these rules may vary a little from place to place, you need to be aware of them and follow them so you don’t end up losing your stuff, or even worse, get into trouble!

Rules for Liquids

The first thing you need to learn is the 3-1-1 rule (TSA). Let me explain:

  • You can carry liquid as long as it’s in containers of up to 100 ml (3.4 ounces, hence the 3 in the 3-1-1).
  • You have to place them in a max one liter (one quart) transparent bag.
  • You can only bring one bag.

Rules for Sharp Objects

This one is a lot easier, don’t bring anything sharp that could be used to hurt anybody.

So, no scissors, knives, safety razor blades, etc. A standard razor is fine though.

Tips for Packing Toiletries in a Carry On

So now that we got those very simple rules out of the way, it is time to pack.

Liquids

When it comes to toiletries, I like to pack the amount I am going to use on the trip, and no more. The main reason for this, is that you are limited to dry products, and 100 ml (3.4 once) bottles.

Depending on how long you are staying, just take your shampoo and other liquids you have at home and fill them in something similar to these 100 ml containers (Amazon).

Another option is to buy dry versions of your products to avoid the limits on liquids. There is everything from dry shampoos to dry deodorants out there if you are interested.

Grooming Tools

Depending on your interests you can also purchase travel versions of your grooming tools. These travel versions are usually smaller and can be a great option if you are trying to cut down on space.

Personally, I don’t really care for the travel versions of the groom tools, as the full-sized ones are often more powerful. And honestly, I can’t justify the cost when the products I use at home are just fine, even if they take up a little more room.

Steps to Toiletry Packing

So the quickest and simplest way to downsize your toiletries, is to simply pack in a small toiletry bag. I recommend using one that is see-through so that you don’t have to unpack it for the airport security.

Something simple like this toiletry bag on Amazon is fine. And if you don’t want to spend the money, just use a transparent zipper bag for your liquids and place them in your toiletry bag, then take the bag out at the security check.

As for the actual packing of toiletries, everybody’s needs are very different. Therefore I want to encourage you to use my Three Pass Packing Method to reduce your toiletries as well. You will be surprised by how little you really need to bring.

Just make sure to not cut down on things that are important to your health and well-being.

Pass One

With all your toiletries spread out on a table, ask yourself:

Do I need this?

If you brought a razor and a trimmer, could you make do with only one for the length of your trip? Instead of three lipsticks, could you manage with one or two?

Pass Two

So now that you removed the duplicates, let’s try to reduce the amounts and combine a few items. Ask yourself:

Do I REALLY need all of this?

If you are bringing vitamins, can you pack the amount you need for your trip, or bring a multivitamin that is somewhat sufficient? Can you unspool some floss instead of bringing the whole pack? Can you use some of your make-up in multiple ways? Can you cut off a piece of soap instead of bringing the whole bar?

This is where you get to be creative! It is a lot of fun.

Pass Three

You’re doing great. Let’s complete the packing!

So depending on the length of your trip, it may be feasible to forego some of your regular products. Ask yourself:

What is the worst thing that can happen if I don’t bring this?

If you are gone for only a week, can you survive without your favorite shampoo, and use the hotel shampoo instead? If you use make-up, could you go without some for your trip? Can you wash your face with water instead of a scrub for the duration of your trip?

Grooming is very personal, and I’m sure some of my suggestions may sound outlandish to some, but don’t be afraid to experiment. Try out some of your ideas at home before you leave if you’re unsure.

To get some packing inspiration take a quick look at my carry-on packing list here. You can see exactly what I pack for long trips in only a tiny, little backpack.

carry on only packing guide graphic

Make sure to share the article if you found it helpful so it can help others as well! 🙂

Tor Tours

Tor Tours has spent the past 6 years traveling around the world. On his website, he is dedicated to making high-quality travel guides focusing on South East Asia. His content focuses on how to get the most out of your travels. That includes getting good value, staying in the best locations, what things to do, and what to avoid.

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