Packing

Table of Contents

We travel carry-on only, unless we’re taking special equipment that just won’t fit.

  • It saves money. The obvious savings is in checked-bag fees. But it can also mean not needing a ride to and from your lodgings; you can walk or take public transportation.
  • It saves time waiting for that checked bag.
  • It saves hassle since you have less to cart around and keep track of.
  • There’s no risk the airlines will lose it.
  • You will likely need to do laundry while you’re traveling, which also influences what you take with you.

All airlines have carry-on size limits. We’ve recently run into carry-on weight limits too.

Over the years we’ve developed a packing list that works for us. We have core items that go on virtually every trip and separate lists for specific activities (hiking, snorkeling, beach) that we don’t do on every trip.

I’m female, so the list is biased that way. Steve’s list is similar, though shorter. 

I’ve seen several good packing lists online. Most fall into the category of “here are all the things you might want to take.” Ours is more about “here’s the minimum to take.” As with travel planning, evolve your own list! Think about what you really need to have while traveling. Can you take this opportunity to streamline your routine temporarily? At home, for example, I have a multi-step skincare routine. On the road I’m usually so exhausted that all I want to do at night is wash my face and put on my prescription topical cream for rosacea. I don’t even bother to carry a hairdryer, so you won’t see one of this list. Think about what you can’t live without. 

Clothing

This takes up the most space and weight. The absolute minimum is two of everything so you can be washing one while wearing one. We’re not that strict.

Things to keep in mind:

  • If it’s not visibly dirty and it doesn’t stink it’s clean and you can keep wearing it. Saves on laundry.
  • Choose quick-drying synthetics or merino wool over cotton or linen. You’re going to be doing laundry and cotton takes too long to dry. Merino wool is naturally antimicrobial and doesn’t retain odors so it doesn’t need to be washed as often. It will also keep you warm even when wet.
  • Plan around layers. Short sleeves that can be worn under long sleeves for more warmth. Lighter long-sleeved tops that can be worn together. For example a lightweight merino wool cardigan + lightweight fleece jacket rather than a midweight fleece. The cardigan can be worn on its own if buttoned up and either can be worn with a short-sleeved top.
  • Plan around separates not outfits. My goal is to be able to pull out any top and bottom and wear them together.
  • Look for multipurpose items. Zip-off pants are just one example. Others include a sarong or turkish towel that can also be worn as a wrap or scarf, or for cooler weather a pashmina.

Here’s my standard list for any trip:

  • Short-sleeved Tops (2-4): for traveling from place to place, sightseeing, going out to eat.
  • Long-sleeved Tops (2): for cooler weather, sun protection. I like something that zips or buttons up the front versus a pullover for maximum flexibility.
  • Bottoms (2): These could be long pants, shorts, or skirts depending on the weather and situation.
  • Regular Bra (2-3): One extra if not bringing sports bras which I wear for hiking.
  • Underwear (4): I could probably get by with three or even two but they don’t weigh much or take up much space. Steve has ExOfficio travel underwear that dries more quickly than cotton underwear.
  • Shoes (2): Sigh. Shoes are the one thing I struggle with since I’d like to take more but they’re heavy and take up lots of space. I shoot for two pairs that are good for walking. One might be dressier.
  • Socks (2): Typically merino wool.
  • GoreTex Jacket: If there’s any chance of rain, and also good for wind.
  • Sleep T-shirt: It’s a small luxury but I like a cotton t-shirt to sleep in because it’s more comfortable
  • Jewelry: I take lightweight pieces I don’t care about losing.
  • Hair Ties: I currently have long hair so I need these to corral it.
  • Buffs: I used to use bandanas but now I’m a Buff convert. They’re great for restraining hair in the wind and a solution for bad hair days. And they can double as a hat or scarf.
  • Hat: I take an all-purpose squashy hat and when spending lots of time in cities a more urban sun hat.
  • Other Accessories: I have a travel purse I take on urban vacations and may take a smaller bag to hold my phone and wallet in the evening.

I love this Travelon Anti-Theft Messenger bag! (Mine is peacock blue, not striped! It comes in several colors.) I bought this before our trip to Australia and New Zealand since we were visiting primarily cities and towns. The zippered pop-out pockets on each side hold water bottles and umbrellas well. Zippered pockets on the other sides offer flexibility in storing items securely and for easy access. The interior is large enough to hold a Kindle. I even managed to get my GoreTex jacket inside.

Medical and Hygiene

These are the items I am most likely to forget and so this is where I need a list! (I’ve managed to take off without a toothbrush, which was easy to replace, and my contact lens case, which was impossible to replace and which is why I don’t travel with my hydrogen peroxide-based contact lens solution.)

General

  • Prescriptions
  • Vitamins
  • Deodorant
  • Hairbrush
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, toothpicks
  • Soap: We’ve stayed at a couple of less expensive places that didn’t provide soap so we carry a small bar just in case. 
  • Washcloths/facecloths: Something we use and can’t count on outside the USA and at lower price points, so we bring a couple of microfiber clothes. (They dry faster than cotton.)
  • Chapstick with sunscreen
  • Sunscreen: We take at least enough to get us started. If we’re checking a bag we may take more.
  • Nail clippers
  • Toilet paper: For day hikes if nothing else.
  • Pain reliever and pocket first aid kit
  • Spare eyeglasses

Her

  • Contacts, contact solution, contact case, saline: And usually extra contacts.
  • Face wash: I have rosacea so I’m particular about what goes on my face.
  • Facial sunscreen/BB cream: Rosacea applies here too. The BB cream doubles as foundation.
  • Decongestant: I always take it before I fly, after a couple of uncomfortable experiences.
  • Makeup: Mascara, eyeliner/concealer pencil, lipstick. I rarely wear makeup on vacation, but just can’t convince myself to not take it. At least it’s small and light.
  • Hair gel: My fine hair needs some goop to behave.
  • Feminine hygiene products: I’m old enough not to need these anymore!

Him

  • Shaving gel and razor

Laundry

Our laundry kit shown here takes up about the space of a t-shirt and allows us to wash clothes on the road.

  • Sink stopper because the bathroom sink doesn’t always have one
  • Clothesline
  • Hi-tech towel(s) to sop up extra water before hanging clothes, so they’ll dry faster. We use the original PackTowl
  • Fels-Naptha for laundry soap
  • Shout wipes for removing stains
  • Laundry bags: Plastic bags like they have at hotels and hospitals
laundry kit items
laundry kit stored

Photography

Photography is an integral part of our travels. We both enjoy photography, including landscape, architecture, and wildlife, both flora and fauna. We don’t generally take photos of people. In fact, we try to avoid it where possible. 

Camera(s)

In addition to mobile phones we have a water and dust resistant DSLR and a waterproof  pocket camera. 

Our last pocket camera didn’t much like the damp weather in Scotland so when the time came to replace it we went with a waterproof Fujifilm FinePix 120. We haven’t actually used it underwater; we  bought it to hold up to damp and rain. The photo here is the Fujifilm FinePix 130 which replaces our older model. 

We went with the Pentax K-50 DSLR because both the camera and lenses are weather and dust resistant and the price was within our budget. After our experience with our pocket camera and damp we wanted a DSLR that wasn’t fragile. The photo here is the newer Pentax K-70.

Accessories

  • Batteries and chargers: We have a Wasabi brand spare battery and charger for each camera so we can be charging one while still using the camera. 
  • Memory cards: We have multiple memory cards for each camera so we aren’t trusting all our photos to one card.
  • Backup drive and FileHub: We often carry a backup thumb drive so we can back our photos up from the card to the drive. The FileHub acts as a battery backup and allows you to transfer files from one drive to another using your mobile phone to perform the operations. It can be kind of clunky and we don’t always do it, but it does allow you to make another copy of a photo without having to upload it to the cloud, carry a PC with you, or count on your lodgings having a PC for guests to use.
  • Camera bag: We shopped around for a bag for our DSLR. We wanted something that could hold an extra lens and be worn as a waist belt or a shoulder bag. It also has a built-in rainfly.
  • Additional filters and lenses: If we anticipate a lot of good photo opportunities, especially wildlife, we’ll take additional equipment with us.

Other Essentials

Research payment methods for the places you’re going. In remote areas, cash may be the only form of payment accepted and there may be few if any ATMs. In highly developed areas you may need a chip and pin card to operate ticket machines and kiosks. In some countries, US dollars are widely accepted.

  • Credit Cards: We generally carry at least two cards with one as a backup. If traveling internationally, get a card with no foreign transaction fees. In the past few years, more cards have moved in this direction.
  • Cash: We like to have at least a small amount of local currency when we land if possible, then top up at ATMs while traveling.
  • Money belt: We have money belts to stash passports, credit cards, and spare cash as needed.
  • Kindles and charger
  • Mobile phone and mobile phone charger; car charger if renting a car.
  • Adapters: We only carry electronics that plug in so we don’t need a converter but you will need a plug adapter.
  • Sunglasses
  • House key
  • Wallet: My travel wallet contains just what I need for the trip, not all the usual day-to-day items.
  • Plastic grocery bags for packing shoes or dirty clothes or the odd food item.
  • Ziploc baggies
  • Small bottle opener for consuming local beer!
  • Bandanas for sweat rags and general mopping up.
  • Water bottle(s)

We love these Nalgene water bottles. They’re inexpensive and they work well. We got an OTF (on the fly) lid and an Easy Sipper insert to make them easier to drink from. We also take a disposable empty bottle to fill at the airport. 

Other Optional Items

These are things that we may take depending on the trip.

  • Umbrella, rain poncho, rain pants, windbreakers: Usually, we count on our Gore Tex to keep us dry and taking a cab if needed when moving with baggage from place to place. But if we’re going someplace known for wet weather, like Great Britain or New Zealand, we’ll take additional rain protection. The windbreakers are to wrap around our carry-ons to provide some additional protection.
  • Bug spray: It can be both necessary and difficult to find in the rainforest.
  • Plastic storage containers: If we anticipate carrying food from one location to the next.
  • Utensils: If we think we may end up cooking or getting lots of takeout.
  • Cooler: We actually were able to fit a cooler into a checked bag. When we do “motel camping” and don’t eat breakfast and lunch out we take a cooler along for storing food and condiments. One of these days we may invest in a good soft cooler.
  • Mesh bags: If we think we might be toting damp clothes.

Data and Documentation

Data and documentation can take three different forms:

  • Online
  • Offline on a digital device
  • Printed 

Sometimes we may store it in multiple forms, such as printing a copy and having it accessible online.

We take these on every trip:

  • Itinerary (TripIt): TripIt is a great app for tracking transportation and lodging. It’s super easy to use since it monitors your email and adds plans to trips automatically. ) It sometimes notifies me of flight changes before the airline does!
  • Tickets: As I mentioned on our page about planning a trip, I like to book sights and attractions ahead of time when I can, to save time and avoid lines. Sometimes there is a digital ticket to bring with you; sometimes you need to have a printed version.
  • Maps: We often rely on Google maps or pick up any maps when we get there. When we went to Costa Rica and rented a car we saw advice to buy a good map before going because good maps were hard to find once you got there.
  • Confirmations: I hang onto confirmation numbers and codes just in case. I’ve rarely had to resort to them. If I think I’m likely to need it I’ll include it in the printed itinerary so it’s easy to find. Otherwise, I just hang onto the email.
  • Boarding pass: I know mobile boarding passes are a thing and I usually do that, but I’m also afraid of having my battery or the phone itself die just when I’m about to get on the plane! (It’s happened.) So we typically print our boarding passes too.
  • Passport/ID: We typically carry a driver’s license as identification, and obviously a passport if traveling internationally. Research the entry and exit requirements for the countries you’re visiting. Do you need to get a visa ahead of time? As US citizens we get complacent about this. For Australia, we needed to get a visa before arriving. We could do it online and it was almost immediate, but it still needed to be done before we got there. For Mexico, you get a tourist card upon entry that you must retain and turn in when you leave the country. Some countries may have entry or exit fees that must be paid in certain ways.
  • Medical insurance card
  • Auto insurance card and international driving permit: If renting a car. International driving permits are not always needed. Again, research the requirements where you’re headed.
  • Travel insurance policy: Until recently we didn’t bother with travel insurance. Now that we do, I print and take the confirmation with me.
  • Notebook: I used to carry a notebook to use as a journal. I’ve since moved to capturing info digitally on my phone.
  • Guidebook: Lately they’re digital so they go with the Kindle. I find an iPad much more useful during the planning phase.
  • National park pass: The numbers usually don’t make it worthwhile, but do look into an annual pass if you’ll be hitting a lot of national parks.

Gear for Activities

Hiking

We try to fit some hiking into all of our trips. How much we plan to do, and how involved, influences how much gear we take. It also impacts how much other clothing we take, since we take hiking clothes that can also be worn for other purposes.

  • Hiking boots: GoreTex for wet areas
  • Hiking T-shirts (2): One to wear and one to wash. Unless we’re not doing a lot of hiking. One T-shirt is usually good for 2-3 hikes. Yes, it might get sweaty but you’re just going to sweat it up again, right? This is also a reason to take a laundry bag!
  • Hiking shorts or pants (1-2): These may be zip-off pants that work as both.
  • Sports bras (2)
  • Hiking socks (1-2): Usually merino wool, though I still have some synthetic socks that I’m trying to wear out.
  • Hat: My all-purpose squashy hat works for hiking.
  • Trekking poles: We have collapsible trekking poles but can only take them if we’re checking a bag, so they don’t always make the trip.
  • List of options, maps, other info: We try to identify potential hikes or hiking areas before we leave and take along any information we can find.
  • Binoculars: We have some compact binoculars that we take especially if we anticipate wildlife viewing opportunities.
  • Bug nets: We have inexpensive bug nets to wear over our hats in especially buggy areas. They paid for themselves in the Australian outback alone!

Beach

Not every trip includes beach time and we’re not pool people.

  • Swimsuit (1-2): Depending on how much time we’ll spend at the beach.
  • Swimsuit coverup: Something that also functions as a scarf, towel, or top as needed. We recently bought Turkish towels that work nicely. Hiking T-shirts and shorts can also serve this purpose.
  • Hat: My all-purpose squashy hat usually works for the beach too but sometimes I take another one.
  • Beach chairs: If we’re planning on a lot of beach time where there aren’t sun loungers to rent and we’re checking a bag, we’ll bring our own chairs.
  • Sandals: We like these Teva flipflops because they hold up well for extensive walking and are easy to walk in while wet. They don’t make a women’s version so I got mens. 
  • Dry bags: To keep electronics and such safe from getting wet and so we can take them in the water with us if needed. We purchased 10L and 20L Adventure Lion bags and they’ve worked very well for us. We use the 20L size more often. It’s a good size for a couple of cell phones, keys, a Kindle, and still leaves room for air so it floats well.
dry bags
  • Shade Shelter: We try to avoid direct sun so if it sounds like there won’t be palapas, umbrellas, or convenient palm trees where we’re going, we’ll take our Coleman shade shelter if we’re checking a bag. It’s very lightweight and easy to carry.

Snorkeling

We enjoy snorkeling and try to work it into any trip that we can. We especially like snorkeling from the beach where possible. While most snorkel excursions include equipment and you can often rent equipment, we did the math on our second trip to Hawaii and determined the equipment would pay for itself in that one trip. Plus we avoid the extra errand of picking up and dropping the rental equipment. We only check a bag when we’re snorkeling and taking our gear with us. Listed below is the gear we bring with us. For more information on snorkeling gear we recommend Tropical Snorkeling, which was very helpful to us in figuring out what we needed.

  • Mask: It’s highly recommended to try one in person, but we didn’t have that luxury so we rolled the dice and bought online. My mask fit well. Steve’s prescription mask that cost extra did not. He had constant issues with leaking that were frustrating. He’s since gone to a full-face model that isn’t prescription but is much more comfortable for him. 
  • Snorkel: I have a dry snorkel, which helps avoid swallowing a bunch of water if a wave hits. It makes for a more relaxing snorkeling experience.
  • Fins: We heard travel fins are useless so we bought the real deal. They mean checking a bag, but it’s worth it. 
  • Snorkel vest: An inflatable snorkel vest is a requirement in some places, so you’re less likely to stand on the coral, which damages it. Even if not required it keeps you afloat, which is good if you’re not a confident swimmer or become tired, injured, or ill.
  • Reef safe sunscreen: Reef safe sunscreens are based on titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They help keep coral safe and are also sticky, gooey, and generally a pain. Rash guards are a good alternative since they limit the exposed skin you need to apply sunscreen to. One advantage of the stinger suits we wore in Australia was that we didn’t need any sunscreen!
  • Rashguard: We each have a long-sleeved rashguard. I have knee-length shorts and Steve has long pants. When our reef-safe sunscreen starts to run out I’m getting pants too. (Outside of snorkeling rashguards could function as a base layer or leggings, and my zip-up rash guard could act as a light jacket.)
  • Mesh bag: We have mesh bags to carry our equipment in.
  • Waterproof belt packs: These small packs can hold keys, cash, or other small items without added bulk. We also use them inside a daypack to protect phones and such if we’re out in the rain.
  • Swim cap: It helps protect bald heads from sun (him) and protects long hair from getting yanked and tangled by the snorkel mask (me).
  • Toothbrush for mask cleaning
  • Anti-fog bottle: Anti-fog solution is generally available on excursions. For beach snorkeling I carry a small spray bottle with a drop or two of baby shampoo mixed with water.

Road trip packing

When packing for a road trip we relax the rules a bit since we have more space. We also take along some things you can't reasonably transport without a vehicle.

  • We'll often take more shoes, like hiking boots, water sandals AND flipflops rather than two out of three.
  • We may take enough clothes so we don't have to do laundry.
  • We take full-size toiletries and sometimes our electric toothbrush.
We dub it "motel camping" since we substitute a cheap motel for a tent or our travel trailer. So we take folding chairs, a cooler to transport food and beverages, and a portable gas grill so we can grill rather than eat out.​

How we pack

As I mentioned earlier, we travel carry-on only, unless we’re taking snorkel or other gear with us. We often start the packing process a month before we leave, turning our spare bedroom into a staging area. It’s one way of building the anticipation for the coming trip!

We have two sets of carry-ons:

  • Wheeled carry-ons. We use these when weight is not an issue, we rent a car, and only need to travel short distances with our bags. I would recommend them, but LL Bean doesn’t make them anymore. (We’ve had these since 1998 and they still look like new.)
  • Convertible backpack carry-ons. These are our go-to bags. Each can be carried by hand, with a shoulder strap, or as a backpack. The straps tuck away when not in use. They are light, allowing more weight for your stuff. And since they’re squishy, they fit nicely into overhead compartments, under a seat, or even on your lap. 

My bag is an Osprey Porter 46. I’m not going to talk in detail about the features because mine is an older model and they’ve made some improvements. (And they really do sound like improvements.)

What I like about it:

  • It’s lightweight but sturdy. 
  • The padded sidewalls make it easy to compress it when not full and keeps the sides from flopping when you open it, so it’s easy to get things in and out. 
  • It’s sleek looking. We call it Batman. It’s understated and doesn’t have lots of jangly dangly gadgets.   

Its sounds like one thing I don’t like about mine has been fixed in the newer version. There’s an outer pocket on the front of mine that’s almost useless. They’ve refined that. They’ve also added a laptop compartment, which I wish I had.

Steve’s bag is an eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible. It has more compartments than mine and can expand if needed. It has a separate compartment good for a 3-1-1 bag, organizer pockets in the top flap, and a laptop compartment that we use not for a laptop but for a folder with our printed travel papers. It also has an expandable water bottle holder. It also has compression straps.

We bought one of each of these bags thinking we’d swap one once we decided which we liked. In the end we decided each had it’s advantages and the pair has worked well. We’ve had both since 2012 and they are holding up well.

We both use packing cubes too. It’s easy to pull one out and get what you need than digging around inside the bag and dislodging everything. You can also toss them on a shelf or in a drawer and not have to live out of your bag. I roll my tops first; it makes it easier to select the right item.

These eBags medium packing cubes work well for shirts and pants or shorts. Knits get rolled first, making it easier to find the one you want. Small packing cubes work well for socks, underwear, and swimwear. 

In addition to our carryons we also each carry a daypack that acts as our personal item on the plane. [pic] We have the Stowaway daypack from LL Bean, and we’re each on our second version of the pack. It’s very lightweight yet still has a waistbelt and sternum strap if needed. The pouch pocket on the front works well for towels, flip flops, or other potentially messy items.

When flying Virgin Australia we ran into the lowest weight limit we’ve seen yet: 7 kilos (15.4 pounds) for both carryons. That required some rearranging of items, which included putting a change of clothes in our daypacks. That worked so well for decreasing anxiety about luggage going awry that we’ve made that a permanent thing. Otherwise, our daypacks hold the items we can’t be without, such as prescriptions, electronics, and valuables.

When we do check a bag we have a couple of options. We bought this High Sierra wheeled duffel for our trip to Australia and New Zealand. We took our snorkel gear with us, and since we were there for seven weeks, taking us from summer in Australia to fall in New Zealand, we used it to hold our warmer layers, water bottles, hiking boots and poles, and full-size liquid toiletries we otherwise couldn’t take with us from place to place. The wheels allowed us to roll the duffel while wearing our backpack carryons.

We also have a smaller general-purpose duffel. This one was purchased in Belize when the zipper broke on the older bag we’d brought with us. We again had our snorkel gear with us and wanted a smaller, lighter checked bag since we knew we would be flying in smaller prop planes while in Belize. (We’ve experienced baggage not making it on the same small plane with us, so we try to keep it minimal.)

Okay, enough about packing! I need to go back to talking about actual trips! In closing we want to share two sites that we’ve found very useful for packing advice: