In the process of doing the blog post for my packing list and outfits that I wore on a recent trip, I decided it would be more useful to write up a collection of rules of thumb which I can just link to for all future trip write-ups. Here are some things that I keep in mind when figuring out what to pack for a trip!
I wouldn’t call myself well-traveled, but I have gotten a lot better at packing over the last few years from business trips and being able to go on non-local vacations! As of the initial writing, I’ve done 10+ trips including weekend ones, which is of course nothing compared to someone who has regular business travel or who considers traveling a priority hobby, but infinity times more than the none I had as a fresh college grad. I feel a lot more confident with packing now than I did then.
I always enjoy seeing how people think about solving the problem of optimizing their luggage for their particular needs, even if the trip isn’t anything uncommon and they aren’t wearing anything at the bleeding edge of fashion. You probably shouldn’t copy my formulas verbatim because you are not me, but rather I hope that there is some food for thought for newbie travelers.
I enjoy fashion and having options for clothes, so I’d guess that I put more priority on what clothing to pack than the average person. I always travel with just a carry on + personal item, but I’m not the best person to consult for tips on packing as light as possible. I have listed some general packing resources at the end of this post.
For 2-3 day trips, I’ll usually just reuse the same outfit and pack extra socks and underwear, and then pack lounge shorts/joggers and a lounge/sleep top that I’d be okay wearing the next day or two in case the first set of clothes gets dirty, otherwise I just re-wear the outer items.
Generally: I wear stuff I’d normally wear so I know I’ll be comfortable with it. I of course pack for the general activities I expect to do but don’t forget things I normally do (including exercise clothes and loungewear for just relaxing in the evening, or maybe something a little fun or fancy for going out).
Relaxing and exercising
I usually like to bring one set of clothes for sleeping in and one pair of workout leggings and a sports bra in case I decide to exercise in/around the hotel or AirBnB or do some particularly active touristy thing.
I find it nice to have some off-duty clothes on business trips, because it can help give you a mindset of being off the clock in the evenings.
Under or over pack?
I have actually under-packed before! Twice! It sucked. As long as I can carry it, I’m personally more happy to have a bit extra. This is pretty similar to my general wardrobe philosophy on how many clothes to have: if it fits in your space and you don’t find it overwhelming and will use most of it most of the time, then it’s okay if it’s not the smallest wardrobe possible.
You can usually buy something when you get somewhere if you forgot it, but there isn’t always time and I wouldn’t bet that I’d be able to find something that would be a good purchase in the long term if I’m grabbing something as an emergency replacement item.
For trips 4+ days in areas with similar weather with more flexible itineraries, I’ll pack more or less the same amount of clothes, aside from underwear and socks. I feel better mentally with at least some options for getting dressed, so I’ll likely be slightly overpacked for a shorter trip. But I find that with some thought put into the clothing, I’m fine alternating the same top for several days in a row.
How much extra space to leave?
I always leave some space in my luggage in case I buy something, whether it’s clothes or other souvenirs or food/gifts.
My personal experience has been that airlines sometimes count a small purse or bag containing souvenirs as a third bag, and sometimes they don’t care. If I have a tote or backpack and carry on and additionally a small bag for convenience, I make sure I can easily stuff the small bag into either the large bag or luggage in case it gets counted as extra.
For longer trips I usually plan to do laundry after a week or so if needed. Underwear doesn’t take up much space or weight, and I hate all underwear that isn’t close to 100% cotton so I just end up packing more of it rather than washing just socks and underwear more often.
Travel specific clothes?
I’m now firmly in the camp of “wear things you normally wear, and preferably things you’ve already worn together before and know you like”.
If you’re going to pack things expecting to wear combos you haven’t tried before, I recommend at least doing a sanity check that all those combos really do work together and trying them on beforehand and walking a bit, sitting down, bending over, raising your arms above your head, etc. Traveling isn’t the greatest time to find out that you need to constantly adjust a shirt that wasn’t quite long enough to tuck into those pants.
While I’ll wear my usual stuff, I don’t pack anything too delicate. In particular, I don’t pack any clothes (tops in particular) that may get super pilled or snagged from bag friction if I’ll be walking a lot with a bag.
I’ve accidentally left behind jewelry before, so I usually don’t take any small accessories that I would be very sad to lose.
Plane outfit should be comfortable to sit in (I wore high percentage cotton high-waisted straight leg jeans once on a cross-country flight. Never again.)
Bring a sweater or wrap or something for the plane even if the destination is hot.
In addition to outdoor weather
Will I be staying somewhere with good HVAC or not? This is mostly relevant if you’re staying in an AirBnB, but in mild climates, a lot of older housing doesn’t have central AC, just fans.
In the same vein, if I’m going to be in a super air conditioned conference center most of the time, even if it’s 90F outside I’ll dress mostly to that.
Keeping things compact (starter formula)
I’ve found that packing (2 tops + 3 bottoms or 3 tops + 2 bottoms), 2 shoes, and 1 outerwear is a good starting formula for “outfit clothes” for me, assuming that all tops and bottoms can go together. If I’m going somewhere cold, I usually just rotate between 2-3 thermal shirts under 2 sweaters instead of packing actual tops for base layers.
This is assuming I’m going to be in an urban environment and not camping, and that there won’t be a huge variation in climate (e.g. a 2-leg winter trip stopping in both Florida and Chicago) and that I won’t be so sweaty that I’ll need to wash tops/pants after a single wear. I haven’t been properly camping in ages, but that would definitely be a different set of criteria and this is probably not the blog you should be checking for tips on that!
Depending on the trip I may count the leggings as a potential third item for bottoms or wear them on the plane, or bring a second piece of outerwear if it will get really cold or rain but not on every day of the trip.
I’m not really much of a layering person (e.g. using cardigans, blazers) when it comes to my usual outfits and current wardrobe, so I don’t try to shoehorn those in when traveling. Generally, think about how you usually like to style things and don’t suddenly deviate from that just for your trip.
I’m always interested in seeing how other people use double-duty items, but I haven’t found any items yet (e.g. shirt dress that also works as a duster) that I’ve liked.
Keeping things interesting
The three main points I keep in mind when picking clothes that won’t make me bored out of my mind are:
- variety color values in clothing categories
- variety of silhouettes
- throw in some prints
These are the same ideas I always bring up in any of my posts that discuss creating a wardrobe, whether it’s just for fun for a capsule exercise (which the collage below is from), for an imaginary wardrobe, or for travel. I feel like at some point I should really talk about something else, but it’s one of the most helpful concepts for me when it comes to building a wardrobe.
I don’t always do color + silhouette in every trip, but I focus on at least one of them to start with.
Of course, if it doesn’t bother you to wear the same color bottoms for 12 days in a row, then you can totally ignore this section. But if you’ve found yourself being super bored of all your clothes halfway through a trip, then I’d recommend going for as much variety as possible within the scope of everything working with everything else.
This is a screenshot from one of Miss Louie‘s capsule wardrobe videos (she has made several fun capsule videos with great production value). If you want to have more examples of capsule wardrobes that demonstrate these concepts, I recommend checking them out.
Accessories don’t take up as much space, so bringing a few options for earrings, scarves, knit hats, etc can do a lot to change up the feel of the same base outfit. For example, last winter I packed a travel wardrobe of white sweaters and black pants/skirts, and having two distinct scarf and hat options (one with a print) was helpful for mixing things up, especially since they’re visible over a coat.
I don’t tend to bring a ton of makeup, but I enjoy the option of styling something with a bold lip so I’ll always bring one red lipstick. Changing hair + lip color and shoes can make otherwise the same outfit feel super different! (See more examples of this over in my post on How to Look Older in Casual Clothes: Case studies with a graphic tee and a tulle skirt).
There are a gazillion videos on packing in a carry-on on YouTube, but my favorite is this lecture given by Sarah Murdoch, a professional tour guide (from what I could tell, to touristy destinations in Europe). I didn’t think 100% of what she said was the best advice for me, but overall her approach is thoughtful and gives a lot of points for you to think about even if you don’t come to the same conclusion for your own needs than what she suggested. The presentation is friendly and not in the typical adrenaline-spiking SUPER HYPE YouTuber speaking style (but also still listenable at 1.25 or 1.5x if you’re in a hurry).
I particularly like how she emphasizes that it’s really about prioritization and not just about being as monk-like as possible. Being happy and comfortable is important! If you want to pack a pair of heels because you know it will make you very happy in the two opportunities you may have to wear them, even if you don’t need them, go for it! Want to bring some drawing supplies? Sure!
It’s overkill for the amount of travel I do, but I liked her idea to weigh the items you’d regularly consider bringing and label them so you can easily check whether a combination of items will put you over the baggage weight limit. (Perhaps this could be a field added to Airtable for you frequent travelers using the wardrobe tracker base.)
I also heartily agree with her tips of packing an outlet extender thing if you’ll be sharing a space with multiple people and potentially not a lot of outlets, and that a Bluetooth speaker is a surprisingly nice thing to have (in my case I use headphones if I’m by myself, but it’s been fun for group trips with downtime).
Her Packing List – A large collection of posts for “What to pack for Location in Month”. As with anything else, probably shouldn’t take any one list as gospel but generally fun to view and you can pick up some tips.
For a slightly more intense bent, r/HerOneBag on reddit can be interesting to check out. (Example post) It’s the female-specific version of r/OneBag. From what I can tell r/OneBag commenters can be kind of extreme (case: this thread with a surprising number of angry comments pro not washing underwear). So while it may have some good tips, if you’re not going on a 3 month country-hopping sabbatical with one bag it might be overkill.
While I don’t think any of that was novel information, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a packing advice video or blog that covered the exact same set of things, so hopefully it was still worth a read.
What sorts of things do you find are consistent across your travel capsules? Would you rather be slightly underpacked or overpacked? Do you wear all your favorite things, or leave them at home?