How to Travel for Months at a Time with Only a Carry-on
Guest post by Skye Sherman
Overpacking isn’t just stressful—it costs more, weighs more, and generally detracts from the travel experience.
When my husband and I set off to sample the digital nomad life, we consolidated everything we brought into just a carry-on and small backpack each. When we boarded our one-way flight out of West Palm Beach, all our travel gear was within reach: our backpacks fit under the seat in front of us and contained toiletries plus work/fun items like our laptops, chargers, pens, passports, and other important documents; our carry-ons in the overhead bin were reserved for clothes, shoes, and other essentials.
We remained on the road for over six months. After traveling so long with so little, I learned how to pack correctly (read: lightly). Below I’ll cover what I packed, how I packed it, and some advice to help you pack lightly for short or long-term travel.
What I Packed to Travel for Six Months With Only a Carry-On
While everyone can pack light, what you do pack depends on what you like to do while away—if you hike and exercise frequently, pack more athletic wear. If you gravitate toward cold places, you’ll want a few more layers on hand.
We do a little bit of everything when we travel but spend a good portion of our weekdays working, then walking around and exploring, maybe eating at a local restaurant—and we’re always up for an out-of-the-ordinary excursion. So, for us, versatility is key.
Here’s what my carry-on contained:
- 3 pairs of shorts
- 1 set of workout clothes (1 sports bra, 1 dry-fit top, 1 pair of running shorts)
- 1 pair of capri leggings
- 3 dresses
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 1 pair of closed-toe shoes that work for lots of walking (TOMS are my go-to!)
- 2 pairs of sandals (1 strappy pair; 1 pair of flip flops)
- 2 sets of pajamas (2 t-shirts plus 1 flannel pant and 1 pair of shorts)
- 3 pairs of socks
- 2 pairs of jeans (1 black, 1 blue)
- 2 capri pants (1 khaki, 1 jean)
- 4 shirts
- 3 tank tops
- 1 light/thin jacket
- 1 heavier jacket
- 1 bathing suit
- 1 beach/bathing suit cover-up
- 1 flat iron (Most accommodations have a hair dryer, so don’t bother packing one!)
- Bras, underwear, etc.
Pack neutral items that can be combined into different outfits—almost every item of clothing I packed could be paired with anything else in my suitcase. These weren’t the cutest outfits I’ve ever worn, but they clothed me for 6 months of adventure!
You'd be surprised at how much you could fit inside your carry on when using Packing Cubes to organize your bag.
How to Pack Less
As with all things, packing light begins with a decision—an adoption of the right mindset.
Consider your packing philosophy: why do you want to travel with these items? If you’re worried about not having something you’ll need, remember that unless you’re setting out for an off-the-grid adventure in the bush, you’ll likely be able to buy it where you’re going. (And that’s only if you find you can’t live without it, which is unlikely.)
Pack less than what you think you’ll need… then cut that in half. This is borderline painful during the packing process, but stick to the bare minimum you need to survive and remain happy (and clean). And don’t pack anything that doesn’t serve a dual purpose; if it’s in your carry-on, it should serve double-duty—think beach cover-up that can moonlight as a going-out dress, or a t-shirt you can wear both to bed and around town.
Mail things home as you go. Not wearing those heels as much as you expected to? If you can’t part with them altogether, just pick the cheapest shipping option, throw in a couple souvenirs you’ve collected along the way, and the package will be there for you when you return.
Why You Should Never Check a Bag
Overpacking is a burden in every sense of the word. Physically carrying an excess of stuff while you travel is cumbersome and uncomfortable, sure, but it also means you have more to keep up with and more to pay for on planes, trains, and other forms of transportation.
You also run the risk of losing items—when checked luggage leaves your sight, entrusted to the baggage handlers of the world, there enters a chance you may never see it again. If you’ve ever experienced lost, delayed, or damaged baggage at the hands of a normally reliable airline, you know the sinking feeling of being unable to recover lost items that are important to you.
Instead, avoid pitfalls and enrich the travel experience by traveling only with what you need and nothing more.
Skye Sherman is a freelance travel writer based in West Palm Beach, Florida. She’s a big fan of traveling light, reading books, and exploring historic places. Follow her adventures on Instagram @SkyeSherman and Facebook.