How To Pack Your Life in a Carry-On: What I packed in my backpack for 2+ years of travel
Buying the right travel backpack can be confusing. Will it meet the carry-on TSA guidelines? Is it comfortable? Will my things fit? This is where we come in. We’ve done the research so you don’t have to. This guide will help you choose the perfect backpack for your upcoming trip.
My husband and I traveled the world for 27 blissful months from 2017-2019. We took countless plane rides and hopped into taxis, trains, and buses. We rode boats and tuk tuks. All of this done with one carry-on backpack each.
The moment you have to pack your entire life into one bag is the moment you realize how small a carry-on bag is. I remember having moments of doubt and anxiety as I contemplated how I would possibly fit all that I needed inside such a tiny space.
Looking back over our journey so far, I’ve learned many things about living out of a 46 L carry-on backpack. For starters, you can live with very little, you’ll be fine.
You can purchase ANYTHING around the world (or variation of). And you’ll have to be okay with parting with some things. I’ve had to throw away clothing that wasn’t practical and travel gadgets that were useless and a waste of space. Remember no one but you knows that you’ve been wearing the same clothing on repeat. I promise you that no one will send you a message asking why you wore the same outfit twice.
I’ve learned that less is more when living out of a carry-on. The less you pack, the more time you’ll have to spend doing other things and the lighter you’ll be (your shoulders and back will thank you).
The following is a guide of travel packing systems and essential travel items that I’ve used during our travels. I hope it saves you time so you can do what you enjoy most – traveling.
Choosing the Right TravelBag- We decided on the Osprey Porter 46. This ultralight backpack (1.5 kg) easily fits your work and personal items. It has a laptop sleeve and sizeable front-loading main compartment. It also has lockable zippers, areas to neatly store your extra things, and compression straps to shrink the bag to a smaller size.
What we love: The bag has padded walls to protect your contents, a padded hip-belt and harness that you can tuck away when flying, and a built-in safety whistle in the chest strap. The material is water-resistant.
*Note: Carry-on TSA luggage has limitations that vary from airline to airline. There is no official carry-on size. The dimensions of your luggage can be found by measuring your luggage’s height x width x depth. As with size, there is also a weight limit for carry-on luggage that varies from airline to airline. Some airlines require that your carry-on fit in the overhead compartment while others will weigh your luggage at check-in. To date, we have only had one carrier request that we check our Osprey Porter 46 because it was over the weight limit (8kg).
Travel Clothes- Personal Packing List (Nikki)
•10 underwear •3 Smartwool Ph.D. Run Ultra Light Micro Socks
•2 bikini tops •2-maxi-style dresses
•1 bikini bottom •1 Nike Dry Modern Tempo Running Shorts
•1 bra •1 Nike Dry Miler Running Tank
•1 jeans •2 long-sleeve plaid shirts
•2 shorts •1 Nike Jogger Pants
•3 t-shirts •1 leggings
•2 sports bras •1 J. Crew Chambray Shirt
*Note: There are a couple of points I would like to touch on here. Socks are the single most important purchase you’ll make for your travels. Blisters and sore, smelly, wet feet will ruin your trip. The Smartwool PhD Run Ultra Light Micro Socks will keep your feet dry and cushioned. The heat regulating properties of the Smartwool help to keep your feet cooler in the heat and warmer in the cold. They also wick moisture when you’re active and sweating. The wool has natural antibacterial properties so that your feet do not smell.
*Note: Finding the right shoe for traveling is an important packing decision. I can’t tell you how much I love my New Balance All Terrain Trail Running Shoes. They’re perfect for trail trekking, walking, hiking, and everyday wear. They are both sturdy and light. As for sandals, I needed to have something that was both versatile and durable. I chose a cute brown, leather embellished, flat sandal by Steve Madden and waterproof Havaianas for the beach.
*Note: The North Face ThermoBall jacket is ultra light, will keep you warm, water-resistant, and windproof. The jacket also travels well as it quickly compresses down into the size of your fist. I also brought along a more chic jacket option for when we decided to go out. The Nike Dri-Fit Long Sleeve Running Top is lightweight and perfect for chilly days, evening workouts, or just lounging around your Airbnb. One of my most favorite travel purchases is my Lululemon Vinyasa Scarf. This scarf can be worn 10+ ways which is great when you’re traveling around the world and need to cover your shoulders, head or face. I’ve used my scarf as a beach towel, sarong, and a blanket on chilly plane rides. It’s super warm and comfy!
Travel Organizers/ Cases
*Note: The packing cubes help organize the contents of my bag and help keep my travel gear wrinkle-free!
Let’s face it. If you know me, you know I’m obsessed with skin care. When I travel, I never skip my skincare routine. If your skincare go-to’s aren’t available in travel-sized (3 oz) minis, you can always transfer your products to air travel approved (TSA) containers. These bottles have saved me so much money.
*Note: The BLINK Security Camera System lets us know if someone has been in our room and gives us peace of mind in case we simply misplaced something.
BLINK Security System is very easy to use. You can arm, disarm and monitor your room from the BLINK mobile app.
•Toothbrush •Deodorant •Toothpaste
•Gillette Fusion ProGlide Razor
*Note: Simple is better when it comes to your skin care. After a day of hiking or several months of travel, a natural, exfoliating DIY face scrub is just what your face needs. This simple, 2 ingredient face scrub takes 30 seconds to make, and it’s a life-changer!
You will need one tablespoon of your favorite olive oil and 2 tablespoons of sugar (I try to use coarse sugar for a better exfoliating scrub). Combine the olive oil and sugar in a small bowl and stir. Rub the sugar scrub onto your face, neck or any area of the skin using a gentle circular motion for approximately 30 seconds. I recommend doing this over the sink or in the shower to avoid a messy bathroom floor or countertop. Rinse dry with warm water. Pat dry with a fresh, clean towel. Repeat process if needed (not more than twice weekly).
•Imodium (loperamide) tablets •Rolaids (calcium carbonate) tablets
•Benadryl (diphenhydramine) capsules •Saline eye drops
•Neosporin (triple antibiotic) ointment •Band-aids
•Cortisone cream •Pepto Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) tablets
•Cipro (ciprofloxacin) tablets •Zithromax (azithromycin) tablets
•Advil (ibuprofen) tablets •Tylenol (acetaminophen) tablets
*Note: I highly recommend that you travel with a medical kit with you at all times. Some countries do not have the same over-the-counter medications that we have in the U.S. or you may be too sick to go.
I keep Cipro, Azithromycin, and Imodium on hand in case of traveler’s diarrhea. Benadryl for potential allergic reactions and symptoms of the common cold. Saline eye drops for dry eyes due to long flights. Band-aids and Neosporin for any minor cuts and scrapes. Cortisone cream to treat insect bites, poison ivy, itchy skin, and rash.
Rolaids come in handy for heartburn, upset stomach, and indigestion. Pepto Bismol helps with nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach and diarrhea due to overindulgence of food. I also make sure to pack both Advil for general aches and pains and Tylenol for fever reduction.
*Note: These miscellaneous items are anything but ordinary. They are must-have items that you can’t live without. The travel laundry clothesline I chose has surgical quality rubber braiding and no need for clothespins. We’ve had to hand wash our laundry many times and this clothesline has allowed us to easily hang our clothes outside or in our home to air dry.
I don’t use the door stop at every stay, but there are circumstances in which we’ve shared living spaces and the door stop simply provided peace of mind. A luggage lock will not prevent someone from stealing your carry-on bag, but it will help with quick “grab and go” theft. If anything it helps act as a deterrent and will hopefully make a thief think twice.
We carry our tactical pen with us everywhere. It’s a self-defense weapon and a writing pen. Although I thankfully have never had to use this pen to defend myself, it helps me feel more secure and confident when I’m walking alone or in a new area that’s unfamiliar to me.
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