‘Carry On’ travelling – Secrets of Packing light

The subject of ‘carry on luggage‘ or ‘travelling light‘ continues to be a hot topic & this blog on the subject, is our most viewed post in total, over the past 6 years. Therefore I’ve decided to update it complete with examples of the ‘capsule wardrobes‘ I’ve taken so far on our trips …


My old 40l – I’ve now got a 30l

Since the beginning of our travels, we decided to go with hand luggage only. Mainly because of the convenience, such as the speed of getting through airports or for security on chicken buses/boats etc. However, the simplest reason was not having to lug the heavy weight of bags around with us, for up to 7 months at a time.

Nearly six years later, we are still happily travelling with our ‘carry on’ bags.

Many people seem shocked when we tell them that we can survive with hand luggage only (especially women). However, its quite easy with a bit of planning & access to clothes washing/laundry facilities.

Independent of the duration of our journey: 7 days or 7 months, I only pack a maximum of 7 days of outfits & rotate them’.

As friends & family know, I trained as a Style Consultant many years ago. Therefore I have used the concept of a ‘capsule wardrobe‘ combined with my personal experience of ‘travelling light‘ to detail the ‘secrets‘ below.

What is a Capsule Wardrobe?

It is a limited collection of interchangeable pieces that create perfect outfits for your shape, colour preference and lifestyle.

Secret 1 = Don’t Over Pack!

Before we discuss your ‘capsule wardrobe‘ keep the following in mind; The amount of times I hear “I’ll just put it in, in case… ”

  • Remember clothes can be bought on the road – you are not going to run out of shops unless you are going ‘off-grid’
  • Try everything on as a complete outfit before you go, to make sure there are no surplus items in your bag
  • If an item isn’t interchangeable with other pieces – don’t pack it
  • Be strict with yourself: Use the Must, Should & Could guide to rule out excess stuff
  • Avoid packing full size versions & remove packaging from toiletries & makeup (remember liquids are restricted anyway in hand luggage)
  • Solid cosmetics/toiletries not only avoid the liquids problem, but are smaller & often lighter to pack
  • Packing cubes not only organise your items, but can condense the size…
  • However, my favourites are Compression space saving bags (available from loads of outlets – these from Amazon, are an example). I never go away without them, as they can reduce the size of your clothes by 75%
  • Don’t take a towel unless you are staying in hostels – most B&Bs/hotels provide them
  • Avoid too many electronics – from experience, these are the things that take up the room!
    • Buy a world plug-adapter
    • Take a tablet/e-reader to reduce the need for books/travel guides and a laptop (unless you need one to work).
    • How many hair-styling products do you need? If you’re off backpacking around Asia, the chances are your straighteners will be long forgotten after you’ve left Bangkok
  • If you hear yourself say “I’ll just put it in, in case… ” re-read the above

OK so now to the wardrobe secrets themselves …

Secret 2 = Colour

The first secret, is to think about colour. You will probably know what colours suit you, but if all your colours work together, then you can minimise the items in your bag.

There is a lot of information on colour theory available, such as this from lifehacker.com

Image courtesy: http://www.lifehacker.com

For our first trip to Central America it was easy. I wanted to take my silk reversible skirt (2 items in one). It is a blend of yellow, gold, orange, peach, coral, red & pinks (analogous colours).


* Refine colours with your key pieces

If there are some key pieces you just ‘have to’ take, coordinate the colour-scheme around them.


I wanted to take a pair of Palazzo Trousers; functional in hot climates for evenings with tons of mosquitoes. The pair I bought, were navy with coral & pink flowers, with a hint of gold pattern (matching fantastically with the analogous colours of the skirt). Therefore I reduced the choice of colours for the tops I would take, to coral & pinks only, to be sure they went with both the trousers & reversible skirt.

* Neutrals

Be sure to pack plenty of neutral colours as these go with all items. These are tans & creams, greys, browns, black & white. Navy & khaki also work well with most other colours.

Secret 3 = Style

By choosing clothes according to the style that best suits you, you won’t end up with that item that you ‘hate’, left at the bottom of your rucksack!

There’s lots of information on style personality, such as this from Mysteries of Style The most important thing though, is that your clothing needs to be suitable for the type of trip you are undertaking. For example even if you love ‘City Chic’ several weeks in Asia & I bet you’ll be rocking the hippy vibe 😉 even if it’s only a pair of harem pants.

Secret 4 = Fabric

Some quick secrets about fabric:


keep them to a minimum in your travel capsule wardrobe, unless you love the ‘clashing mismatch’ style.

If packing patterned items, ensure they are either all for the top half, or all for the bottom half.

By keeping all my tops to block colours (no pattern), I can be confident that they will match with my skirt & trousers which are patterned & hence be inter-changeable.

Fabric Weight & Durability

Whilst everything might fit in your carry on bag, it can still weigh a ton! When buying clothing, think about how much it weighs. Lightweight, cool, breathable but durable are key for hot climates!

Example: I had to renew a top in Bangkok and bought a coral stretch-cotton top. The only problem was, that it had a pleated material mock belt (complete with a metal buckle). Not only did it weight a ton, but it didn’t dry well either,

Secret 5 = Functionality

What type of person are you? sporty, fashion conscious or a beach bum & what will your trip involve?

Think about clothing that can double up functions! Scarves, belts, jewellery & layering can take an item from ‘beach’ to ‘classy’. A maxidress for example, can be a cool outfit for sightseeing temples in the day, but teamed up with a tied at the waist blouse (or pashmina) with a statement necklace, it becomes a classy evening outfit.

Some additional Secrets

So you have your capsule wardrobe? Here are some other packing secrets to think about, to fine tune your backpack contents…


When you are travelling with hand luggage only, your clothes will be worn & washed more frequently. Therefore durability needs to be taken into account not only for hiking & activities etc, but how it stands up in the wash!

Quick drying

With fewer items, you’re washing them more often. Therefore how quickly they dry is a big deciding factor!

Handy Items

I always pack a large scarf/pashmina, it provides not only valuable sun protection & cover-up for religious buildings, but they can be used in a variety of other ways from beach towels to bolero jackets.

I found Ways to wear a pashmina on YouTube invaluable.


Now this is often the big one for us girls. Yes it would be great to have a pair for all outfits. Ultimately, I’ve found you only need two types: walking & evening.

Therefore depending on where you are going, a sturdy pair of walking sandals or shoes (or both) & a glitzy pair of flip flops/shoes; in total only 2-3 pairs!

If you want something classier than flip flops, I bought a pair of folding ballet pumps from Butterfly twists before I left for Central America. These are reasonably priced, but there are loads of companies that do similar styles in all price ranges. They are lightweight & are so small they can fit in your pockets (They are great for city breaks or when I want to travel in more style).

In Central America, I had taken a lightweight pair of trainers as I love to run. However, these were hardly used for trekking or running, used at the gym on a couple of occasions & then finally worn in the torrential rain, they became a stinky bulk in my backpack for the remainder of the journey (despite sending them to laundry twice).

Make up & products

Most people know I don’t travel with liquids where at all possible. I’m a big fan of Lush solid shampoos & conditioner (a bar easily lasts me 4 months & can double up as soap or even clothes-wash when needed). Sunscreen I buy on the road as it is generally available in most countries. I haven’t found a decent solid mozzie repellant yet, so I do take Deet when needed, as it is often difficult to find.

Makeup is a personal thing, but generally I don’t wear any day-to-day when traveling (it’s generally too hot & it’s liberating to be make-up free for once) but I take 2 eyeliners & a mascara for the evenings.

Summary & Examples of Capsule Wardrobes:

So hopefully this has helped you decide on your carry on ‘micro capsule wardrobe’.

In mine: 4 ‘tops’ & 5 ‘bottoms’ give me a total of 20 outfits. Plenty to ensure I have a good rotation, plus space in my bag to add my bikini & sarong (plus a couple more tops as a bit of a treat if I want to).

Central America – 7 months

Below are the items I took for our first back-packing trip.

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Including some handy items: Arm protectors (sun/mozzies), silk scarf & quick dry vest top

South East Asia – 6 months

After the previous trip, I fancied a bit more colour in my wardrobe for our next adventure. This time, I went with the same concept (but even less items): 4 T Shirts, 1 skirt, 1 pair of trousers & 2 pairs of shorts. I packed a comfy pair of walking sandals, a pair of smart flip flops & a cardigan.

This time I upgraded my reversible skirt to a green & pink one by Seasalt (giving me 2 looks for the price of one). I also added two scarves & some necklaces to dress the outfits up a bit more.

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Budapest & Vienna (in January -10°)

So is it possible to travel light in colder climates? What if I wanted to take an even smaller bag as I was confused over the cabin allowance?

Same Principles apply:

  1. Whether 7 months or a week – I always work on a maximum 7 days of outfits, so this was perfect
  2. Ensure you wear your bulky items on the plane where possible
  3. Layering is the key rather than packing lots of bulky knits
  4. Vacuum bags are always my best friend
  5. If you are staying in a hotel (or apartment like us) remember you can always wash items overnight. Therefore I packed two of my trusty quick dry tops (but long sleeve)

Here it is:

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Morocco 7 day Tour

I had learnt from our recent 3 months in Indonesia, the dress-code for women in a Muslim country: It’s good to include plenty of loose clothing, only hands and feet should be exposed. Although of course, I understand in some countries (such as Morocco) it is less strict than the parts of Indonesia we visited such as the island under strict Sharia Law. It was advisable to pack plenty of scarves to cover up in religious buildings, although in the end we did not enter any.

However, the challenge this time, was that we had a hectic schedule and I wasn’t sure we would have time to wash items overnight.

Therefore I decided to pack 7 tops (a luxury for me) but all in a harmonious colour scheme of turquoise, pinks and khaki, teamed with neutrals of putty and black.

I’ve started using a handy app called YourCloset to plan outfits and packing lists (it takes some time to photograph and log all your clothes first though).

These are the items I ended up packing:

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At last another long haul backpacking trip. This time I took my new smaller 30l bag (I’ve already given my sister the 40l).

As we planned on visiting higher altitudes (colder) & it’s a more religious country, I extended my items:

  • Reversable skirt (as always)
  • 2 long trousers
  • 1 3/4 pair trousers (*most worn item)
  • 1 shorts (*only wore at beach)
  • 6 T-shirts/shirts (including 4x long sleeves)
  • cardi
  • pac-a-mac
  • 3x scarves (Inc pashmina)
  • Toiletries, underwear, mascara & 2x eyeliner
  • Light walking shoes & Crocs sandals

Revision: Didn’t really need T shirts as I lived in long sleeves & didn’t really make use of skirt this time.

To be continued …


  1. Nice one Dawn. Awaiting Colin’s post on his style and ‘Capsule wardrobe’. Somehow, I think I can guess already!


  2. That’s brill Dawn, I need to take a leaf out of your book. I can’t go away for longer than a few days without a suitcase! You’ll have to come on a shopping trip with me, or tell me what websites to visit. Very impressive 🙂

  3. I love your micro wardrobe and how you show different combinations. I have travelled quite a bit but am a terrible packer, always packing the wrong things… Now that I am going on my first backpacking trip I will follow your packing advise. Only thing – I need to take running stuff! Thanks for a great blog! 😀

    • Hi Anna glad you liked the article. I took a lightweight pair of trainers & a sports bra on our first trip for running. Everything else doubled up (shorts/running vest). Good luck with the packing & don’t forget, you can always buy things ‘on the road’ if you need them.

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