How to Pack a Carry On (and Only a Carry On)

Someone cue Mission Impossible. Because you can’t really pack everything for one trip in a single bag, can you? Well, my friend, it takes some planning and discipline, but this isn’t just another clickbait article. It really is possible. Before we begin, allow me to answer a simple question:

Why Pack Only a Carry On?

Packing only a carry on means you don’t have to worry about lost or stolen luggage – or paying the insane extra-baggage fees many budget airlines have. I know it can sound hard, but trust me – it so worthwhile to take the time and only pack what you need. Let me show you how to pack a carry on, and only a carry on, for your next trip.

Note: Links in this article contain affiliate information, so I may make money if you buy.

Before You Pack

Pick a Color Scheme

Every top you bring should go with every pair of bottoms – that way, you can mix and match to make many different outfits, even though you won’t be bringing tons of clothes.

Get Yourself a Backpacker’s Backpack

When you’re only taking a carry on, you want to make the best use of the space you’re allowed. Do some research and grab a durable backpack that has a nook and cranny for everything. I use this one from Osprey, and my husband uses this one from Kelty. The trick is to make sure you’re using one with dimensions accepted by any airline – and these two do!

Gather Everything First

Grab everything you intend to bring before sticking it all in your bag and lay it out on your bed. This will help make sure you have everything you need and nothing you don’t.

What to Pack


Obvious, yes? Here’s the thing with toiletries: there isn’t an airplane in the world that will let you on their flight with toiletries in containers larger than 100 ml, or 3.4 oz. Make sure all of your toiletries are airline compliant, and packed in a clear quart-size plastic bag. Most airlines won’t allow aerosol cans at all, so leave that spray-in dry shampoo at home. Shampoo, body wash, face wash, deodorant, toothpaste, and sun screen (if you’re heading to the tropics) about cover the liquids you’ll absolutely need. Grab the sample sizes at Walmart or Target. You can also get clear plastic travel-sized tubes to put the toiletries you already have in them. There are no restrictions against that, but think of it this way: you’re far less likely to have trouble at security if the containers are marked with a brand and size.


No matter how long your trip is, never ever pack more than a week’s worth of clothes. If you’ll be gone longer than that, you can do laundry fairly cheaply – either at a facility or in the bathroom sink with some shampoo. Here’s a good guideline for specific articles of clothing to bring:

  • 3-4 tops
  • 2-3 bottoms
  • 1-2 dresses
  • 1-2 sweaters
  • 1-2 pairs of shoes

Then, of course, socks and undergarments as you see fit. Remember that color scheme and stick to it. Try packing by activity rather than the number of days you’ll be gone. Here’s what I mean: if you’re out hiking or at the beach, you’ll change more times in a single day than if you’re just exploring a new city. Keep that in mind as you’re putting together your stuff.


Laptop, Kindle, your nifty DSLR, whatever electronics made the cut for this trip need to be packed tightly and securely in your bag. Maybe choose a backpack with extra padding, or keep your DSLR in the very center of your bag surrounded by all those rolled-up clothes. Don’t forget your chargers. And finally, make sure that you check what kind of outlet plugs the countries you’re going to use. You’ll be able to find cheap converters on Amazon to grab before you go.

Other Useful Items

  • Paper copies of your passport, tickets, and travel itinerary
  • A Tide-to-go pen
  • Toilet paper or Kleenex
  • Headphones
  • Eyemask
  • Journal & pen
  • Mini first aid kit

How to Pack It

Roll, Don’t Fold

Rolling your clothes makes better use of the space you have than folding does. Smooth down your garment, fold it in half, and roll it up as tightly as it will go. Use every inch of space you have by filling in leftover corners with socks and underwear.

Pack for Easy Access

When you’re traveling on flights, you’ll need to grab your toiletry bag out of your carry on when going through security. And once you’re on the plane, you’ll want to be able to reach your Kindle or headphones easily. Make sure what needs to be easily accessed is packed toward the top of your backpack – including your passport.

Never, Ever Bring Anything “Just in Case”

As you’re packing, pick up each item and think about carrying it on your back for the duration of your trip. You definitely do not need a third pair of shoes, that curling iron, or the jacket that looks cute but isn’t really warm. Believe me, I’ve been there, and it is no fun to be be trekking 2 miles by foot to the hostel with a bunch of stuff on your back that you aren’t really going to use.

If You’re Staying in Hostels

Bring a padlock to keep your things safe and a pair of old flip flops to use as shower shoes. Most of them will have towels for hire, so if you don’t want to pay, pack your own. Make sure it’s thin and can be easily rolled up into your pack.

There you have it: how to pack a carry on, and only a carry on. Did I miss anything? Are there any specific topics you’d like to read about next? Let me know in the comments below!

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