How to pack for two months in a carry-on.

Stuff sucks.

Every now and then, I see people post these “packing hack” videos showing how to fit as much clothing as possible into a carry-on bag. Often these are labeled dumb things like “how to pack two week’s worth of clothes into a carry-on.” And then you see the person packing five hoodies. Seriously. Has this person never packed before? BECAUSE NO ONE NEEEDS TO BRING THAT MANY HOODIES.

In packing for Madrid, my goal was to bring as little with me as possible. Seriously: I have packed for enough trans-Atlantic voyages that I have well learned how annoying it is to pack and transport baggage. It is the worst. I hates it.

Possessions limit you in a way you don’t understand until you have to worry about them. Once you decide to bring them with you, you have to protect them: shepherd them through security, search for them anxiously from the plane window as you see the luggage trolly heading for your flight, guard the luggage carrousel lest someone try to steal your suitcase, sit with one leg through your duffle bag handle in the café while you wait for a bus to come pick you up… It’s exhausting. And the more you do this, the more you resent all the things you’re expending so much energy to protect.

Not to mention the exhaustion of hauling said luggage through a public transport system or down a street. Before long, you find yourself wondering what on earth could be causing your bag to weigh so much, and why you thought such-and-such a thing was so damn essential. And then, if you have multiple destinations, there’s all the packing and repacking you have to do as you move from one place to the next.

When I travelled to Vienna this past summer, I packed for two months in a carry-on—and I still packed too much. So for Madrid, I plan to bring even less. Here’s how I cut my luggage down to the bare necessities:

1. Pack a capsule wardrobe.

I saw a graphic on Pinterest once that changed how I pack and purchase clothing. The graphic showed how many people purchase and pack multiple pairs of identical jeans, and how this limits your outfit variations. Imagine 3 tops and 3 identical jeans. No matter how you arranged it, you only ever have 3 outfits, because the only variable is the top you wear with all your identical jeans. However, if you have 3 different bottoms (for instance, 1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of differently-colored trousers, and a skirt), suddenly you have 9 outfit variations.

This may sound trivial, but it’s easy to get bored of your clothing. The main reason why most of us over-pack is that we want to include wardrobe variations. Instead of packing 3 pairs of blue jeans and 12 tops to vary it up, pack 3 tops and 3 bottoms. Include one or two dresses and a nice blazer. Done.

That said, I know some people who enjoy wearing the exact same thing every day. If your closet contains identical copies of the same articles of clothing, only pack enough to get you through a week.

2. Don’t pack anything you haven’t used in the last week.

Honestly: if you don’t use it on at least a weekly basis, it’s probably not worth bringing along, because it’s not something you need on a survival-level basis. Obviously you’ll make exceptions for items that you have a specific intention to use. As in: the book you plan to read once you finish your current novel, or the fancy dress you want to pack because you plan to go to a special event while you’re abroad.

The point here is: stop packing for contingencies. Once you expand your luggage needs beyond “things I know I definitely will have to use ” to include “things which I have no intention of using but which may come in handy,” you go beyond the essential and into a subjective zone of varying probabilities. “Things you know you will use” fall within a very specific boundary. “Things I might use” include basically everything.

3. Plan everything in advance.

What do you expect to do on a day-to-day basis while you travel? What special events should you plan for? Given the clothes you’re packing, what jewelry/make-up/nail polish go with your wardrobe?

It’s easy to look at a vial of nail polish and think “Oh, I like this color! I should bring it along!” But then you don’t realize how it doesn’t go with any of your clothes, and if you pack the nail polish you’ll feel obliged to pack nail polish remover, and then you’ve basically fallen into a “if you give a mouse a cookie” situation from which there is no escape.

Don’t give the mouse a cookie. Don’t pack the nail polish.

4. Don’t pack what you may as well purchase.

If you’re gone long enough to go through an entire bottle of shampoo, don’t pack your shampoo, just buy it when you get there. If you’re anxious about a certain item because you think you “might need it,” ask yourself: how much would it cost to purchase in the event you did actually need it? Would that be worth it?

Things you should pack (beyond the obvious):

  • Things you use on a daily basis that can’t be purchased (medication/ some toiletries)
  • Power and outlet adapters + an external battery for your cell phone
  • Reading material
  • Computer/tablet
  • Notebook and pen

Things I have packed in the past which I could easily have done without:

  • Framed photographs
  • A teapot
  • Decorations for my room
  • Items of sentimental value that I wanted for comfort (quilts, stuffed animals, desktop knick-knacks, books I had no intention of reading but wanted “around” just in case)
  • DVDs (because streaming wasn’t a reliable thing yet, I guess?)
  • Various art supplies (eg. watercolors and watercolor paper) that I never used
  • An entire ream of printer paper

I’m not perfect by any means. In spite of being super scrupulous in only packing items I had a serious intention of using during my stay, I still probably allowed my ambitions to override my common sense. The two biggest culprits on this trip? An DSLR camera which I don’t know how to use (but have every intention of finding out, and which to be fair I bought for the express purpose of taking cool pictures while in Madrid), and a 1000-page history book on top of all the other reading material I actually probably will finish.

If I make valuable use out of all these items, I will consider my packing a success. If I don’t, it’s lessons learned for next time on what not to bring.

Long story short: don’t be afraid of under-packing. It’s the overpacking that will kill you.

2 Replies to “How to pack for two months in a carry-on.”

  1. “That said, I know some people who enjoy wearing the exact same thing every day. If your closet contains identical copies of the same articles of clothing, only pack enough to get you through a week.”

    Finally, someone who says its OK if I just pack one pair of jeans and one shirt.

    Liked by 1 person

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