Dear Nora: How to Travel Ultralight with Carry-On Luggage Only

Monday 15th, September 2014 / 10:38 Written by
Dear Nora: How to Travel Ultralight with Carry-On Luggage Only

Imagine taking a trip where everything you need is easily accessible, moving from place to place is a cinch, packing is fast, and you don’t have mountains of crap to carry around. If you travel ultralight with carry-on luggage only, this could be your reality.

Reader Question –

Dear Nora: I’ve read that you travel full-time with carry-on luggage only; I can’t seem to take anything less than the kitchen sink with me, even for a short vacation! How do you do it? – Maureen

I take travel with carry-on luggage to extremes – everything I own fits into a carry-on bag! So I’ve had a chance to hone the craft of ultralight travel with carry-on luggage over the last few years.

Here was the first lesson I learned:

Weight Equals Misery.

The weight of your luggage is equally proportionate to the level of misery you’ll experience while travelling. I learned this first-hand when I started travelling full-time (in 2007); my partner at the time and I brought rock climbing gear (even ropes!), camping equipment, and a variety of items that we rarely if ever used. I dreaded packing up and moving to a new destination and lugging our overweight backpacks around.

And so began a gradual culling process, learning what I really needed for travel.

Here are my tricks:

Colour Coordinate

When travelling ultralight with carry-on luggage only, everything needs to match, giving you the most possible options for outfits. Choose two or three complementary colours and stick to them (this includes shoes).

Limit Shoes

Speaking of shoes, just carry two to three pairs if you can. I have three (since I deal with different climates and scenarios): a pair of Converse All-Stars for fashion and cool weather, some ultralight hiking shoes, and sandals. On travel days, wear your bulkiest pair of shoes (Converse for me). Make the best use of luggage space by stuffing the shoes you pack with small or fragile items.

Choose Hand-Washable Clothing

With carry-on luggage you won’t have an infinite selection of clothes; even if you dirty everything it will barely fill a washing machine! Practically speaking you’ll end up hand-washing as you go, so choose clothes that clean easily, don’t wrinkle, and can dry overnight.

I’m a big fan of Anatomie Style for their designer travel clothing; it’s wrinkle-free, lightweight, and stylish. (And expensive – but you get what you pay for). Almost my entire carry-on wardrobe is made up of Anatomie Style’s clothing.

Multi-Functional is Key

The more uses an item has, the more it belongs in your bag. Look for clothing that works in layers as well as standalone pieces. (And instead of bringing bulky jackets for cool weather, layer up). is a Canadian company that makes sustainable multi-functional clothing; I have their Chrysalis Cardi (which can be worn 10+ ways) and Evolve Top (6+ ways to wear), and I will eventually get their Chameleon Maxi Skirt as well.

Use Solid Toiletries

Travelling with carry-on luggage means limiting your liquids. I love using products from Lush like their solid shampoos, face wash, moisturizer, and soaps. I also use salt crystal deodorant; all these products are light, easy to fly with, and last longer than their liquid counterparts.

Beware of Travel Gadgets

I love travel gear and gadgets (here’s a formidable collection to sink your teeth into), but I’ve learned to choose carefully. When I started travelling full-time, I bought a solar charging panel before realizing I also needed a voltage converter and all kinds of ridiculous stuff just so I could recharge my computer in the middle of nowhere. Luckily I understood the error of my ways and returned this bulky item before I took off.

Practical Souvenirs Only

With limited carry-on luggage space, there is no room for chunky useless souvenirs. Instead, choose souvenirs that are practical complements to your carry-on entourage. Clothing is an obvious choice, as are small pieces of jewelry or other items that you can wear or use as you travel. And it’s great to have practical souvenirs that you can use in daily life; they’re lovely reminders of the places you visited.

Generally speaking when travelling with carry-on luggage only, most things you buy will have to replace something else in your luggage, so choose your souvenirs carefully. If you’re making a short-term trip and want to leave extra room in your bag for souvenirs, that’s another matter (but remember rule #1: weight equals misery).

Warm Climates Help, But Chilly Isn’t Insurmountable

Travelling with carry-on luggage is much easier if you’re visiting a warm destination and/or don’t expect much climate variation; the lighter your layers, the easier it is to fit everything in. However I have travelled to places where the temperatures get down to freezing, and I still manage with carry-on luggage. If necessary, I purchase an inexpensive extra layer or two at my destination and give it away when I leave.

Travel Gear Suggestion: HoboRoll

The HoboRoll is one of my prized pieces of travel gear; a major player allowing me to travel with carry-on luggage. It organizes and compresses a huge amount of stuff into a small neat little package. It can even be used as an extra standalone bag if you need to carry some items with you on a day-trip.

Travel Gear Suggestion: Rolling Luggage

I’ve used backpacks (large and small), wheeled backpacks, and now my carry-on luggage of choice is pure and simple rolling luggage. I use the soft-sided Pacsafe Tour Safe 21 which is lightweight, easy to pack and organize, and has some extra security features.

For more information on luggage choices and which is best for your needs, see: Best Luggage for Travel: Backpacks vs Rolling Luggage.

Do a Test Run

If you’d like to try travelling with carry-on luggage but aren’t sure you can manage, don’t go out and buy a fancy new carry-on bag just yet. Instead, try taking a short trip with carry-on luggage only (borrow a friend’s bag if you don’t have something suitable).

This was how I started: I was staying in Australia and made a six week trip back to Canada. I knew I’d be doing a lot of couch surfing and couldn’t face lugging around my big bag. So I stuffed a few things into my OR Summit Sack and off I went. From that point on, I regularly left my main luggage behind and traveled for up to three months with carry-on luggage only. Eventually I realized I didn’t need the rest of my stuff and I downsized for good.

Have you travelled with carry-on luggage before? What are your secrets? 

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