Not too Much, Not Too Little: My Carry-On Only Printable Packing List

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I wasn’t always good at packing. Trip after trip, I’d forget something — usually something small and easily replaced. , but an inconvenience nonetheless. Finally, I learned my lesson, got organized, and wrote out a list. Ever since, I’ve been using the exact same printable packing list and haven’t had problems since. If you’re looking for a starting place of your own, I’m happy to share.

This packing list is minimalist on purpose. I nearly always pack carry-on only, partially because I hate waiting for my suitcase at baggage claim and partially because I switch hotels every night or two and hate carrying things around. You don’t have to limit yourself to a carry-on. If you have more you want to bring, use this list as a starter and add to it as needed.

I originally shared this list in 2016 but it was in need of a refresh in 2021, not for the list of items but for brands and specific gear recommendations. Of course, if you have your own favorite products, pack what you have and only opt for new if you’re unhappy with what you have.

This version of my printable packing list was the basis for my most recent trips including Montenegro, Idaho, and Guatemala. Even though those trips each had different activities, climates, and needs, the list is comprehensive and flexible enough to work anywhere.

This is a long post.  If you’re in a hurry, scroll to the section you want tips on, bookmark this page for future use, or head directly to the printable packing list PDF at the end.

pinterest carry on packing list
 

Focus on the Bottom Line First

I won’t bore you with an argument to travel carry-on only.  You either love it or hate it…and that won’t change unless you want it to.

What I do think is important: being realistic about what you choose to bring.  It boils down to two recommendations:

  1. Only pack for the scenarios that are likely to occur on your trip. This isn’t Boy Scouts and you only need to be prepared for likely scenarios, not one-in-a-million chances.
  2. Pick a bag that you can carry.  If you can’t pick it up or maneuver it through an airport, downsize and try again. In my opinion, one large bag is always easier than two smaller ones.

Becky’s Tried and True Packing List and Gear Recommendations

You do not want to be the person who flies halfway around the world only to realize your travel gear is subpar.  Not only is it frustrating, but you’ll waste valuable time looking for replacements while traveling instead of spending your time sightDOING.  Skip all the inferior products and go straight to the good stuff.

Start with the Right Bag

I alternate between a rolling suitcase and a backpack for my primary bag, depending on the type of trip I’m taking. Either way, everything on the inside is neatly organized with packing cubes to keep things contained and make it easier to find what I need.

becky wearing tortuga backpack
It doesn’t look big enough, but this backback has traveled all over the world.

More often than not, I travel with an old Delsey carry-on suitcase. It’s a bit banged up, but still holding up and I haven’t found the right suitcase to replace it with yet.

When I’m traveling to less developed countries, where I expect to schlep my stuff around a little more, I take my Tortuga Backpack. It’s carry-on sized, holds everything I need, and fits comfortably without getting too heavy thanks to the built-in hip belt.

For a personal item that fits underneath the seat in front of me on an airplane, I typically use a laptop bag.

For a daily carry bag when I’m at my destination, I like foldable backpacks that pack down to very little space, like my waterproof Matador Daylite.

Packing the Essentials

There aren’t a lot of essentials, but you should be prepared with your passport, any visas or other required documentation to enter your intended destination (like a vaccination card), and a few forms of payment.

I typically pack at least one Visa and one Mastercard with no foreign transaction fees, just in case one card type isn’t accepted somewhere, plus my Schwab ATM/debit card and enough cash to last me through at least the first 24 hours.

Pack the Right Clothing

Clothing makes up the bulk of what I bring and I’ll be honest, I still tend to overpack in this category. I often think I’ll want workout gear or something to go out at night and I usually don’t use either. Pack what you’ll actually wear and be honest about how you tend to travel. For longer trips, laundry on the road is relatively easy and costs less than what you’d spend to check your bag anyway.

Realistically, you probably already have what you need in your closet and don’t need to shop for specialty gear. I avoid fussy fabrics on the road (who wants to iron on vacation?) and look for items that can be mixed and matched for different looks.

How much is too much? My goal is always to fit my clothes into 3 packing cubes: I use two medium-sized cubes for my main clothes and one small cube for socks and underwear. I don’t worry about the exact number of shirts and pants and instead focus on the amount of space it takes up altogether. If the cubes don’t zip, it’s time to take something out.

ebags packing cubes best travel gear travel accessories

Keep shoes to the absolute essentials: they’re bulky and heavy. I do most of my hiking in trail runners instead of boots (they’re smaller, lighter, and work for 95% of the trails I’m on) and pack a pair of good walking sandals as well for just bumming around town or the beach. On some trips, I throw a pair of flats in my bag too for dinners out.

Still want specific recommendations? Try Prana Halle pants, KÜHL Freeflex shorts, Aviator jeans, Bluffworks t-shirts, North Face fleece jackets, and Smartwool socks. For footwear, I swear by my Xero Shoes sandals but don’t care for their other shoe styles.

Don’t forget to grab a swimsuit, raincoat, or other outerwear as needed for your destination.

Packing Personal Care Items and Accessories

This section has a lot of items but they’re typically all small so don’t get overwhelmed.

For hygiene, you’ll want a toothbrush and toothpaste, ravor and shaving cream, deoderant, brush/comb and hair styling products, cosmetics and makeup remover, and maybe cotton swabs or other applicators. Shampoo, conditioner, soap, and lotion are at your discretion: I know some hotels are likely to provide them but when in doubt, I bring my own in GoToobs to prevent leaking.

gotoob

The specific brands you use will depend on your personal needs and preferences but some of my go-tos are a Billie razor (works well and has an awesome travel case), Wet brush, and Human + Kind family remedy cream. I also think everyone needs a Steripod to keep their toothbrush clean and protected.

You’ll also need a handful of accessories, which may include hair ties or clips, neck ties, jewelry, hats or gloves, belts, sunglasses, or anything else you normally reach for at home to complete your look. You may also want to consider a fake wedding ring instead of bringing valuables from home: there are tons of cheap lookalike options on Amazon.

First Aid

If you tend to get sick while traveling (or are accident prone), you can assemble an entire travel first aid kit to bring with you. You know yourself best and what you tend to need when away from home, whether that’s anti-inflammatories, anti-diarrheals, motion sickness meds, electrolytes, or whatever.

99% of the time I only need ibuprofen and bandages but when I expect to be in remote locations away from local pharmacies, I use a weekly pill case to carry seven different types of over-the-counter meds (one in each “day” and labeled accordingly).

pill container for diy first aid kit

Make sure to also consider destination-specific health items, like DEET insect repellant (wipes are easier to pack than sprays) or a water filter.

You’ll also want to bring any and all prescriptions you need. Don’t forget them!

In-Flight Needs

For long-haul flights, you’ll want to be comfortable.

carry on essentials
My Carry On Essentials

My top items are a water bottle and travel mug (yes, I bring both now, both filled with water from the fountain before boarding my flight). I also bring lip balm, an eye mask, earplugs, compression socks, ginger candy, and plenty of entertainment. For me, that’s usually podcasts pre-loaded on my phone and a Kindle with lots of good books.

Packing Electronics

Bringing electronics is a balancing act — we live in an era where technology is a must-have, but you also don’t want to overdo it with expensive gear that’s at risk of being broken or lost.

I always travel with my laptop since I work from the road but kudos to you if you can truly disconnect! I sometimes, but not always, bring a DSLR camera and other times rely only on my phone. Headphones and an external battery round out my list.

I’m also in love with my new wall adapter: it’s super compact and yet can charge up to 4 devices simultaneously (two plugs, one USB-A, and one USB-C). That keeps me covered without having to pack a separate multi-plug…and it has attachments for different international outlet styles so you can head anywhere in the world.

Packing Everything Else

Here’s where I’d love you to chime in: what miscellaneous stuff do you bring?

I always have an old-fashioned paper notebook and pen and for the past year or so, I’ve consistently packed my foldable yoga mat.

foldable yoga mat
Folding my yoga mat into my day bag

On wildlife-oriented trips, I also bring binoculars, and for trips where I expect early mornings, I bring tea bags along since it’s usually easy to find hot water even when coffee is unavailable.

At the end of the day, it’s a fully packed bag but I use it all.

What I’ve Stopped Packing

no

Packing lightly is just as much about what you don’t bring.  A few things don’t make my cut:

Laundry Care: I used to wash clothes by hand using a Scrubba.  Now, I either send it out (in low-cost countries) or settle for plain soap and a hotel sink.  It might not be perfect, but it’s good enough.

Headlamp: Unless I know I have an adventure planned, I skip the headlamp and plan on using my cell phone for a flashlight in case of emergency.

Voltage Converters: Unlike adapters (which help you fit your plugs into the shape of other countries’ wall outlets and are 100% necessary), voltage converters are rarely necessary.  Almost all modern electronics accept dual voltage, so there’s no need to bring a separate, heavy device that transforms voltage from 240V (frequently used worldwide) to 120V (typical in the USA).

Copies of travel documents: I pull up confirmation numbers, credit card backup information, and other documents from secure internet-based storage.  It’s a good idea to share that info with someone you trust back at home, too.

Solid Toiletries: For awhile, I stuck to solid shampoos and other items in order to avoid TSA restrictions on liquids and gels.  Most of the products don’t work well and/or are very expensive…and I always seemed to have extra room in my ziploc bag anyway.  Now I stick to liquids.

Anything and everything I don’t use at home: Think twice before packing items you don’t ordinarily use at home.  For me, it’s things like sewing kits and scarves.  Some people love them, but they make no sense for me.

Printable Packing List

Get ready for your own trip with carry-on packing list or download the PDF for easy printing!

In an effort to be helpful, I’ve added a few popular packing items onto the checklist even if I don’t use them.  Use your best judgment and don’t pack items you don’t think you’ll personally need.

printable packing list
Click here to download the PDF

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Packing is such a personal chore – what do you agree and disagree with?

18 thoughts on “Not too Much, Not Too Little: My Carry-On Only Printable Packing List”

  1. I carry a mini-flashlight in my purse or day bag. It is amazing how many times I have used it! Handy on red eye flights to find your things without turning on the overhead light, and for reading maps. My last trip to Poland, I even used it in some museums and crypts to read inscriptions and notes. I keep it bedside at night for an emergency light too. For the most usefulness, get a bright LED flashlight.

  2. This is a really solid packing list. I have recently started doing the same and have been refining ever since.

    One thing to add from my persona list is a few sections for various scenario to remind myself for incremental items.

    For example under a section for “If driving:”, i have items like glasses (which i need to drive with at night), international drivers license, phone holder (when i use my iPhone for GPS) etc

    I have a couple other sections for “International trip” and “for camping”…

    You have a great blog btw! Love the layout/organization.

  3. I’m a tea-toting person too! There’s something about a familiar flavor that brings me comfort. Also, I love brown rice green tea and that can be very difficult to find when on the road. Cheers!

  4. Its good to read about another person’s ideas about what to bring or not bring. I’ve enjoyed your post, and might have to implement some of your ideas in my travels. Thanks!

  5. I have never been able to pull a carry-on only trip off!! These are great tips for packing, it can be overwhelming to make sure you don’t forget anything.

  6. I love the printable packing list! We will be traveling a bit this summer, so I think this is super important! I always have a difficult time trying to figure out the best things to pack. Thanks for sharing these tips!

  7. What a great list. I think you pretty much covered everything. I always struggle with the right shoes but I’ve learned to wear my heaviest pair. I’m a dansko gal but also have the trail running shoes you mentioned. Dansko’s because of the weight get worn not packed.

  8. Hi –

    I’m 72 years old and don’t do any heavy-duty hiking/activities. However, I am soon going on a 12-day South African Safari with G Adventures (National Geographic Journeys) and will be participating in their basic “game drives” and other primary activities.

    Can you recommend a lightweight hiking/walking shoe (or boot) that would be appropriate for this trip?

    Thanks in advance for all your great information!

    1. @Budd, I like “trail runner” type shoes because they have pretty good traction on the bottom but are lightweight and airy enough to stay cool in warm climates. All sneaker brands will sell them (Nike, Reebok, etc), if you have a favorite. Hard to give exact styles since everyone’s foot shape and size is different. To go up a level in hiking quality, look for Merrell or Keen.

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