How I Packed for 5 Months of Travel in a Single Carry-On

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As I began preparing to leave for a five-month trip around the world, I decided I would limit myself to one carry-on sized suitcase in addition to my carry-on bag. When I told my family and friends that this was how I would be traveling they couldn’t believe it. “Really?” “How are you going to pull that off?” “But what will you wear?” “Wow. Good luck.” It has now been a full month since I set off on this journey with my husband and I have zero regrets about limiting myself to the few items that will fit in a bag of this size. Read on to see how I made like Marie Kondo for my five-month walkabout around the world—packing for long-term travel is not as hard as you think!

I Started Planning Several Weeks in Advance

The thought of packing for five months in a carry-on-sized suitcase was daunting, even without my mother repeatedly asking me how I could possibly survive with such a limited wardrobe. I brushed her off and told her it wouldn’t be a problem. But I knew I’d have to make sacrifices because I always think I can fit more in my suitcase than I can. How much space could one more dress really take up? And besides, I’ll need it for that special dinner I know I’m going to attend at some point. Sadly, the answer is always the same: no matter how tightly I roll it up, no matter how many times I fold it, it takes up more room than I have.

That’s why it pays to think ahead and start planning what you’re going to pack several weeks before you leave. Creating a calendar will make it easy to accurately visualize when you’re going to be in each location and for how long. If you’re sticking to Southeast Asia during the dry season, you can bet on a tropical climate with sunny conditions most of the way through. That means you’ll be able stuff your suitcase with skirts, dresses, and shorts, and you’ll be able to stick to sandals and one pair of sneakers. On the other hand, if you’re starting in Vietnam in February, relaxing on the beach in Thailand in March, climbing a mountain in Malaysian Borneo in April, flying to Japan in May, then over to Europe in June, you will need to make some hard choices when it comes to what you bring. You’ll need those hiking boots, that jacket, those long pants, and a few long layers.

Pro tip: Create a calendar with as much detail as you can so you can figure out how many days you’ll be in each location and can plan accordingly. That way you won’t end up with one long-sleeved shirt, no long pants, and three pairs of sandals when you really only need one.

I Chose a Neutral Foundation That I Could Mix and Match Easily

Whenever I’m traveling I always emphasize the most versatile pieces in my closet that go with anything. That means I stick to classic colors like black, white, navy, gray, and denim. These colors create a neutral foundation that can be mixed and matched easily with the other pieces you bring along. I also can’t emphasize the value of packing more dark colors than light ones. They don’t show stains or sweat as easily, and can be worn multiple times (that will happen) without looking shabby and dingy. Emphasizing neutral pieces also enables me to bring one or two fun, patterned pieces that I can pair several different ways.

I Stuck to Simple, Natural Fibers… With Some Exceptions

Anything dry-clean only items should be left at home. Period. It’s not that you won’t be able to find a dry cleaner where you are—you probably will. But query whether you want to trust your silk dress to a cleaner you haven’t used before. And, more importantly, whether you want to take up valuable luggage space with a dress you can only wear once before having to clean it. The dress will still be in your closet when you get home, waiting for you, like an old friend. Save it for your welcome-home party.

That doesn’t mean you can’t bring a beautiful dress. When I considered whether to bring a favorite black dress I’d worn to a few weddings, I hesitated. “Where would I possibly wear this?” I asked myself. Well, when my husband and I decided at the last minute to go to the symphony in Ho Chi Minh City I’m really glad I found space for that dress. I was appropriately outfitted for the occasion and felt comfortable and confident as a result. By the way, the dress is cotton, meaning I can wash it in the bathroom sink if (ha—when) I need to, along with my tank tops, shorts, and button-downs.

As with any rule, there are a few exceptions. Performance gear is an obvious one. That mountain in Borneo I mentioned? I’ll be climbing it in a few weeks and will need that dri-fit shirt and those rain pants I brought along. Another less-obvious exception is for the few synthetic fabrics out there that are actually pretty awesome. I broke my natural-fiber rule for a couple of pieces made of materials like lyocell, a synthetic fabric that looks like washed silk but is wrinkle-resistant, stain-resistant, breathes like cotton, and looks great. I’ve worn my lyocell shorts at least 10 times since I left, have washed them once, and I still don’t look like a pauper (at least, I don’t think I do).

I Put Together Complete Outfits Before Packing

It may sound silly, but whether I’m going to Mexico for a week, to Chicago for the weekend, or to New York for the holidays, I never started packing before I’ve created a complete set of outfits first. I’ll even go so far as to try on each and every one to make sure it works. This has saved me from the “nothing to wear” conundrum in which I used to find myself before I started packing in a more organized manner.

Granted, when you’ll be on the road for five months, you can’t plan every single outfit. But you can create 10 to 15 looks that you know will look good that will get you through your journey. It’s also important to put together complete outfits before you leave so you can make sure you’re packing a versatile wardrobe replete with pieces that can be mixed and matched. Case in point: A bubblegum pink pleated skirt may seem like a one-trick-pony, but I was able to put it together with a vintage t-shirt, a simple black tank top, and a button-down—that’s three outfits with one skirt as my base. It can also be worn as a dress with a belt—a fourth outfit! And the t-shirt, tank top, and button-down can obviously be worn with myriad other things, such as shorts, jeans, or other skirts.

You’ll be surprised by how many outfits you can put together with just a few items of clothing when you try.

I Used Jewelry to Add Flair

It may seem crazy to go all Marie Kondo on yourself when you’re about to set off for five months of travel. But just because you’ve limited the items of clothing you’ve brought along doesn’t mean you have to look boring. To balance out all of the black and navy I’m wearing head to toe, I brought along several pairs of funky earrings, a couple of jaunty silk scarves, and two chunky cuffs to adorn my wrists. This has kicked each outfit up a notch and have made me feel like I’m still dressing like myself even though I’m thousands of miles away from home. Sometimes it really is the little things.

I Packed More Underwear and Fewer Items of Clothing

Face it: You will re-wear that shirt after airing it out for a day or two and you tell yourself it isn’t that dirty. At least it doesn’t smell anymore. Right? But you won’t re-wear that underwear. At least I hope you won’t. There’s no need. When I was planning my wardrobe for this trip, I didn’t think twice about taking up valuable space with 20 pairs of underwear and 10 bralettes. I knew it would be hot in the countries to which I was traveling, and I knew I would be sweating and wanting to change into a fresh pair more than once per day. And I didn’t have to sacrifice too much space for these items because they pack down to the size of a bocce ball. This investment has more than paid off—I only had to do one wash in my first three-and-a-half weeks, and I still had several pieces available to serve as buffer while those pieces dried.

I Brought Only One Type of Each Shoe—Seriously

Shoes take up more space in your bag than anything else so it’s really important to limit the number of pairs you bring along. For this trip I brought one pair of flat sandals, one pair of low-heeled mules, one pair of Converse high-tops, and one pair of sneakers I can hike in and also work out in should I find myself at a hotel gym (haha). I stuff as much as I can into my sneakers and wear my Converse whenever I travel to save space in my bag. This has saved me a ton of space and I surprisingly haven’t missed any of my shoes from home.

I Only Brought Toiletries I Couldn’t Substitute

When it comes to toiletries, the key is to only bring what you absolutely cannot get abroad. I take my skincare very seriously and only trust my face to a small set of skincare companies. So I made sure to stock up on my favorite Aesop and Eminence products before I left and just made room for these items. Maybe I could have brought an extra shirt otherwise but beginning and ending my day with the same skincare routine I maintain at home is more important to me than I thought it would be. And yes, I’ve needed other things as the trip has progressed. But it wasn’t that hard to find floss and sensitive toothpaste, and I even came across an amazing French deodorant I never would have found had I packed more than a travel-size stick.

I Limited My Exercise Clothes

At home, I run several times per week, go to yoga, and pilates, and try to hike once on the weekend. And as much as I wanted to believe I would be working out at least a couple of times per week while away, that has not been the case. And I didn’t kid myself about this prospect when packing. I brought two pairs of exercise pants—mostly for the overnight hiking trips I’ll be doing—two sports bras, and three pairs of gym socks. My yoga practice doesn’t require any equipment, and I’ve been able to do pilates on the towels in my hotel room. It’s not ideal, but it works. And when I have stayed at a hotel with a decent gym and I’ve decided to make the time, I’ve hit the bike for 30 minutes or so to sweat it out. Truth be told, I miss exercising a little bit but I’m doing things that are way more interesting like exploring incredible cities and towns, eating amazing food, and chilling in cafes.

I Brought My Regular Staples… For the Most Part

The things I wear time and again at home are the same things I knew I’d reach for on my trip. Even though it may seem boring, I’ve relied on the same blue oxford and the same vintage denim shorts I find myself in at home three times per week. I feel good in these pieces, I know they look good, and they’re really comfortable. But I did leave my favorite vintage jeans at home. For one thing, I knew I’d be in tropical climates for 90% of the trip and now that I’m a month in, the thought of wearing jeans ever makes me break out in a sweat. For another, these jeans are irreplaceable (I know, because I tried to find an equivalent pair to bring on this trip to no avail) and I knew I would be devastated if I lost them. So they are sitting safely in my closet, waiting for my return. And I’m fine with that. The two pairs of pants I brought instead will have to suffice, and I’m sure they will.

I Packed Once Then Removed 25% of My Items

If you have to sit on your suitcase to close it, you’ve brought too much. I did my best to avoid this by meticulously planning in the ways outlined above. But despite the fact that I was able to close my suitcase without exerting any extra effort whatsoever, I still knew I’d overpacked. That’s why after I put everything in my suitcase and closed it up, I re-opened it and removed 25% of its contents. Overpacking is stressful and I find it just weighs me down. And when you check in for your flight to find that the airline is going to charge you $20 because you’ve exceeded their modest weight limit, you will be frustrated. Plus, I know myself, and I like to shop. I knew I’d be acquiring new things that I wouldn’t want to ship home, like the awesome vintage skirt and adorable straw purse I picked up in Vietnam that I’ve been wearing nonstop. I’m glad I have some extra space in my bag for these items.

I Still Overpacked and It Was Okay

I made a plan, I made a list, I stuck to it, and in my third week I still sent two items home along with some gifts I picked up in Myanmar. My husband sent home three shirts. It’s not that we didn’t have the space. It’s just that after three weeks of traveling we hadn’t worn these pieces despite the fact that they were weather-appropriate. It turned out we didn’t need these as much as we thought. And we’ve been traveling for two weeks since then and neither he nor I miss these items. So don’t beat yourself up if after nearly a month of travel you haven’t touched a few items you swore you thought you would wear nonstop; Just ship it home and keep moving.

Have you packed for a long trip in one small suitcase? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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