How I can pack for a month+ with a single small backpack

A most appropriate comic for today’s topic. Here’s a link to the original site.

For most travelers who, over the course of time, become “light packers,” the pinnacle of this achievement is being able to fit all their belongings into one standard rectangular wheeled carry-on bag.  One that looks like this:

While that’s all and good compared to the hassle of dragging around a monstrous checked bag, I think most people, if they so desire, can do much better than that.  If I ever have to take a wheeled carry-on like what’s pictured above, I consider that packing heavy.  My idea of light travel is a single backpack.

Pictured on the right is a Jansport Spring Break. At a whopping 21 liter capacity, it’s the smaller version of the classic Jansport Super Break backpack.

When you travel, all you really need falls into one of the following broad categories:

  • Travel documents (boarding pass & either passport or driver’s license)
  • Clean clothes
  • A few items to keep your clothes clean
  • Some toiletries
  • Some cash and a couple of credit/ATM cards
  • Phone and charger
  • Maybe a camera (optional since most people use their phones)

And that’s it.  It’s not much right?  The only things in the above list that take up significant space are the clothes and the toiletries.  And that’s where we will focus our attention to pare our luggage down to a single, small bag.

I did a post on toiletries not long ago, so I won’t rehash that entire discussion.  Here’s the link.

For the clothes, we want three sets each of any top and bottom that directly touch our torso skin (the parts that sweat and subsequently stink up our clothes):  one set to wear, one set for the following day, and one set that was recently washed and is drying at any given time.  If you want to play it safe, you can throw in a 4th shirt and underwear set, but usually you can get by without it.

I travel with 3 short sleeve shirts in some combination of t-shirts and polo shirts and 3 boxer shorts.  If I’m going someplace warm, I also take along 2 shorts — these typically don’t need to washed every single day since there’s a layer of underwear between the fabric and skin, but you can certainly launder them daily since they dry so quickly.  If I’m vacationing someplace cold — which is very rare so it doesn’t come up often — then I take one shorts and 2 pair of jeans; one on my body, the second in my bag.  If I’m expecting chilly weather, I also take a jacket that I’m either wearing or squished into the bag.

All the clothing listed above, minus the jeans, are made of high quality, name-brand quick drying materials.  In most climates, I can do a sink wash, hang them up in the room, and within 3 to 6 hours they’re completely dry.  If your clothes don’t dry quickly, then it’s near impossible to pack this light.  That’s why I recommend avoiding cotton — it takes forever to dry.  Jeans are another matter; my thoughts about that here.

Shoes?  Usually Chaco sandals on my feet (the most comfortable shoes ever).  If I need real shoes, then I pack one pair with one or two accompanying pair of quick dry socks stuffed into them to minimize the amount of unused empty space in my bag.

Everything that goes in my bag for a warm weather trip. This does not include the clothes I’m wearing and my phone & wallet in my pockets.

Now step back and look at all the clothes I just listed.  Keep in mind you’ll be wearing a third of it plus the shoes.  It’s not that much right?

My backpack with all my luggage in it. The top is folded back to show how much space is still left over.
Inside view of my travel bag.  See all the room for some chilly weather clothes?  A pair of jeans, some socks, a light jacket, and one pair of shoes will easily fit in there.

Now think of all the other stuff you normally pack when you go on trips.  Go through each item one by one and ask yourself:  is this really necessary?  Can I get by without it?  If I do really need something unexpectedly, will I be able to buy it at my destination?

If it’s not essential, then don’t take it.

Let’s go back to the clothes for a minute.  I’ve read a lot of articles that tackle packing strategy when it comes to luggage organization.

Fold or roll?

Packing cubes or no packing cubes?

Maybe buy one of those doohickeys that suck all the air out of plastic bags?


Save your money and forget about all that extraneous rubbish.  A shirt is a shirt.  Whether you fold it into a rectangle or roll it up, it still takes up the same amount of total space.  When you pack light, you’ll have plenty of space in your one bag for all this stuff.  Remember; you’ve only got three shirts.  Whether you roll them, fold them, or even just ball them up and shove them in your backpack haphazardly, it won’t make any difference to us.  Since it’s all quick dry material, none of it will wrinkle either.

A brief rant about packing cubes.  I never understood the idea of packing cubes:  adding even more unnecessary mass to one’s luggage in an attempt to save space.  It’s similar to how I feel about plastic storage containers from The Container Store.  If your goal is to declutter, more containers to organize your stuff is not the solution; the solution is to get rid of all your unnecessary stuff so you don’t need those containers in the first place.  A house full of meticulously organized junk is still a house full of junk.  Same with your luggage.

With our packing system, your one bag is the packing cube; no need to further subdivide it into compartments when you’re traveling with so little to begin with.  Don’t bother with that stuff.

My entire luggage for a one month warm weather trip.

Because we’re doing a small bit of laundry every evening, we don’t need much clothing, regardless of the length of the trip.  The only variable that changes is the amount of Woolite to bring.

There are lots of ways a person can travel, and this certainly isn’t the “right” way.  There is no right way.  What I do is simply different and a little unconventional.  But I love it, and it takes so much stress out of traveling to far places when all you’re responsible for is yourself and your tiny sack.

[Editor’s note:  An astute reader pointed out that the Jansport backpack shown above is not the bag I usually travel with.  That is correct.  My current main backpack is this oneTwo reasons why I used the Jansport for this article. 1) To better illustrate how little space is required for the amount of luggage I need (since tons of people are familiar with the size of Jansport backpacks) and 2) Because back in the day when I was a poor student, the Jansport was all I could afford, so that’s what I used for many, many years.]


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