Packing Hacks: fitting your life into carry-on luggage

The first time I left home for a year away I had an absolutely awful 85 Litre backpack and it was full. I know, huge mistake. I knew this before I’d even left home but I was adamant that I needed those family-sized toiletries and an outfit for every occasion.

After years on the road, I have finally figured it out. All those little tips and tricks, things I know I’ll need and what I can actually live without, to save space in my bag. I recently left home for two years with my belongings in a carry-on sized backpack (plus my ‘personal item’) and it’s an absolute dream.

Not only is it easy to carry, but it saves me having to waste time checking in luggage and picking it up, nothing gets lost and I can finally avoid those annoying luggage fees. You may be thinking that it’s impossible for you, but try these steps and see how it goes!


Size matters. You want a bag big enough to carry everything with a little room left over for things you pick up along the way. You want it small enough to pass as carry-on luggage. I use a 50-litre pack from Mountain Warehouse which is perfect for both requirements (when it’s not full).

Practicality also matters. Avoid a big bag with a solid back piece, it needs to be able to squish into that damned metal cage that’s always the wrong shape and meet cabin baggage restrictions. But you also need something with waist and chest straps to give your back the support it needs.

Find a good day bag. The most important and useful thing I own is a tiny Dakine 8L backpack that holds an insane amount of stuff, plus it keeps all my valuables in one place and has a removable 2L Hydrapak reservoir.


Use a compression sack like this Sea to Summit Compression Sack. It will squish your clothes until they take up a third of the room, and offers a water-resistant layer in case your bag gets rained on. Seriously, it’s incredible.

Choose a colour scheme. My colours of choice are normally blues, greens and greys, which go well together and with any black or denim shorts or pants I’m wearing. I also try to avoid patterns that clash if worn together.

Mix and match. With a colour scheme, it’s easier to pair each item together in a different combination. You want the minimal amount of clothing with the most outfit options possible.

Layer. Don’t pack a bulky sweater, pack different layers that can be worn together, for example, a lightweight hoody over a long sleeve shirt over a T-shirt. I try and avoid jeans, they are bulky, heavy and take forever to dry. A pair of jeggings is a good alternative.

Wear bulky items on the plane. If you need to pack hiking boots or a warm coat, wear them on your flight, however uncomfortable it may seem you can take them off once you’re on the plane.

Pack a sarong. It’s lightweight, good to wear on the beach, to cover yourself up, to use as a scarf or blanket or even a towel if necessary. It’s the most useful item a girl can have.


Pack travel-sized toiletries. Those adorable mini toiletries are ideal in every way, buy them. I guarantee no matter where you’re going you’ll often be able to replace what you use. And try a shampoo bar from Lush, I can’t recommend these enough!

Condense your make-up bag. You don’t need 12 shades of nail varnish or lipstick or eye shadow and you don’t need a contour kit. Get back to basics or better yet, go make-up free. Your skin will thank you.

Try a menstrual cup. There’s nothing worse than being in a foreign country and struggling to find tampons or having to pack a box or two just in case. A Diva Cup will end all your troubles and help save the environment.

Use a microfibre towel. They are lightweight, quick-drying and take up barely any room, even the biggest ones fit into a small pouch when folded up properly.


Choose the right camera. Think about what you need: a point and shoot, a DSLR, a GoPro? I have all three and it’s a lot to carry but I am a photography snob so it’s worth it.

Get an eReader. If you like to read but get sick of carrying around real books waiting for a book swap I can fully recommend investing in a Kindle Paperwhite. It has been a game-changer for me.

Use a tablet instead of a laptop. They are tiny, useful and can be surprisingly cheap, my Kindle Fire was only £50 and has allowed me to edit photos and blog on the road.

Condense your chargers. You’ll notice that the same charger will usually work for a number of things, so save space by only packing one of each kind, using a USB plug and worldwide plug adapter.

Extra Packing Tips

Pack smart. If you’re going to a hot place don’t forget a hat. If it’s gonna rain pack a lightweight raincoat. If it’s cold you’ll want gloves. If you’re walking around a lot you’ll need comfortable shoes.

Respect the culture. If you’re visiting countries that require you to cover up then respect that. Take lightweight, loose-fitting clothes (if it’s a hot country) that will cover your arms and legs.

And finally… Pack, repack, repeat. Each time you try you might find something else you can live without, making your bag that little bit lighter every time. Before you know it, you and your backpack will be enjoying the view at 30,000 feet.

I know it all seems like a lot to consider but it gets easier each time you try. Why not write a list of everything you want to pack, and cross things off when you realise you don’t need them? Once it’s crossed off it can’t go back in the bag!

But guess what… Even though I know my bag will pass for carry-on luggage on most airlines, I still always check it in when it’s free. Why? Because I’m too damn lazy to carry it with me while I wait to board. So try and keep all your valuables in your ‘personal item’!

If you have any special tips or tricks for lightweight packing I would love to hear about them in the comments below!

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7 thoughts on “Packing Hacks: fitting your life into carry-on luggage

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  1. I never can seem to get to pack light enough and I think one of my problem is that my backpack is one with the solid back piece… I need to get a new one but they’re expensive T_T also, are the compression sacks easy to use ? Don’t they wrinkly your clothes (I mean more than when they’re rolled…) ?

    1. Yea weight is the major issue, some airlines either don’t check or don’t have a weight limit, or sometimes it’s a big one which is good, my bag normally weighs around 20kg.They definitely can be pricey, but I got mine on sale for £50!! The compression sacks are super easy to use but yea, your stuff can get pretty wrinkled. I tend to fold stuff up to the size of the bag, layer everything on top of each other and then when you compress it it’ll usually stay pretty flat!

  2. Great suggestions! I packed carry on only for my trip to Central America, and it was so nice! I loved only having a small amount of stuff to keep track of. Plus I looked like less of a target without a hulking backpack on. I find that using packing cubes helps save space too.

    1. I’ve never tried them but I’ve heard so many recommendations about them! It’s honestly such a relief to have such a small pack. I’m looking forward to my next trip away with the smallest one yet hopefully!

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