Packing for Long Term Travel in a Carry On

Nomadic Female Traveler

After more than a decade of traveling internationally, I opted to go fully nomadic in the summer of 2015. That nomadism lasted about 3.5 years and included spending anywhere from 1 night to 3 months at a time in any given place. Those “places” included more than 20 countries and every climate across the world.

Throughout all of this long-term travel, I carried only a 55L backpack and one personal item.

In this post, I share my best packing tips and resources, as well as a complete list of what I pack in my bags.

If you have questions, ask me in the comments below! I personally respond to each one.

This post contains affiliate links.

For a quick, categorized list of the below products, check this out.

First, Why Carry On?

Be smart, don’t skip this part.

I do get tired of carrying on; it’s hard on my body, my brain, and my desire to have options in my wardrobe. I was recently thinking about how nice it would be to upgrade to a 70L and start checking my pack again, for the “convenience and space.”

Then I flew down to Patagonia.

There, one of my travel mates arrived for our 10-day trek, but alas, his checked bag did not. The bag, with all of his carefully selected trekking gear, was somewhere in Brazil (so helpful!). He would not see it again for six days.

I traveled on 31 planes during my last RTW (Round-The-World) trip.

That is precisely 31 chances for an airline to have misplaced my bag had I not had it with me.

While traveling with all of your luggage can be exhausting, it is not nearly as frustrating and stressful as traveling without any of your luggage, and having to file reports, follow up with airlines, file claims to insurance (if you have it), and, of course, replace an entire wardrobe at retail price (ahem, Patagonia retail prices) at the last minute.

This refreshing perspective was just what I needed to stick to my guns about carrying on.

Related: What to Do When an Airline Loses Your Luggage

More importantly: What You Need to Know About Travel Insurance

How to Choose Your Carry On Luggage

First lesson: Whatever you do, choose your luggage according to your body size and strength, not the length of your trip. Re-read that. Then, pack it according to what fits, not the other way around.

Watch this short video on How to Choose the Perfect Travel Backpack for help with this:

I started my RTW trip last year with an Osprey Kyte 46, accompanied by an REI Traverse (an awesome pack). I was “double-turtling” it. I quickly learned how much I disliked that setup. I don’t like being weighed down by packs on both sides, and I was constantly questioned by airline personnel about their size, even though they were both within size restrictions for carry-on and personal item.

Carry On Luggage

See last year’s packing list here: The Ultimate Travel Packing List: A Year in a Carry On Backpack

After three months with those two packs, instead of continuing to slowly die inside, I switched to an Osprey Farpoint 55 and a large purse, which I traded out this year for this shoulder bag:

How did I logistically make the backpack switch? My brother came to travel with me in Europe over Christmas. I had the new pack sent to him in the US, and he brought it to me, along with one of my purses from my boxes of stuff, which is all stored at his house.

This post comparing the Osprey Kyte 46 and the Farpoint 55 explains why this was such a good move for me.

In short, I prefer having a pack and a shoulder bag rather than two packs, and I also prefer the zip-open suitcase style front of the Farpoint, as opposed to the traditional top-loading Kyte. As a long-term traveler, I am constantly in and out of my pack, and I’ve decided that top-loading is not an option for me anymore. I have discovered better, and I’m never going back.

For long-term travel, on the go with carry-on luggage, I highly recommend packs that zip open like a suitcase, like these:

For this round, I have graduated from the large purse to a weekender handbag, having decided the purse didn’t give me quite enough space (the struggle is real). This sturdy bag cost me about $35 at Target, and a year later I’m still really liking it. It has both hand and shoulder straps and just barely fits under the seat on a plane, and the bottom is sturdy leather. Note: This particular bag is no longer available online. I’ve upgraded to a more sturdy Pendleton Tote that zips closed.

Related: Best Crossbody Bags for Travel

Know Your Travel Style, Understand the Sacrifice

Long Term Travel Style


Before you start packing, consider what sort of activities you expect to do on your travels. If you are an urban explorer, perhaps your wardrobe will include more fashion, less technical gear, and you might choose a roller suitcase over a backpack.

If you are an outdoor adventurer like me, you must understand that if you plan to pack light and carry on, you will need to sacrifice some of the casual, fashionable clothing you might “normally” wear in order to have the technical gear you’ll need.

In this post specifically, while many of the light packing tips are applicable to anyone, many of the clothing tips will directly help female adventure travelers who still like to look decent every now and then. That’s my style.

I am an outdoor enthusiast and I love adventure. You might see me running a race in Switzerland, hiking for days on end in Patagonia, practicing Muay Thai in Thailand, or kayaking in Mexico. It is more important for me to be prepared for adventure and able to say yes to these opportunities than it is to be dressed to impress on a daily basis.

I trade in pea coats for a rain jacket and down vest, scarves, and boots for running clothes.

I do miss these things, but, when you pack in a carry-on, you just can’t have it all.

For this specific packing job, I knew I would be starting out with two weeks in Patagonian spring, which would certainly mean exposure to winter conditions. Beyond that, I would be heading to Mexico for a few months, which is where I am now, and I still don’t know exactly where my travels are taking me from here, so I had to prepare for anything. Here’s what I brought:

Travel Electronics and Accessories (Packing for Digital Nomads)

Travel Electronics

I work from my laptop and my phone, which means I most likely need more electronics than the average Jane. Only bring these digital nomad items if you must, because they very quickly add up in weight.

From left to right, top to bottom:

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Versatile Adventure Gear for Packing Light

Outerwear for Travel

I stick to a lot of the same brands as I travel because I know and trust them by now.

  • Packable down vest (Marmot Jena) – this was one of the 7 things I wished I brought last year
  • Running tights (Brooks Running)
  • Running capris (Brooks Running Greenlight Capri) – these also have sweat-proof waste band pockets, black is the safest color, not just for dirt, but for considering dress codes worldwide
  • Waterproof hiking pants (I now use Arcteryx) – super lightweight, great outer layer for the elements
  • Rain jacket (Marmot Starfire) – this is an absolute must for adventure travel, read more for help choosing between a rain jacket or umbrella
  • Beanie – specifically for my two weeks in Patagonia, sent this home afterward to save space
  • Running hat (Brooks Running) – super lightweight, quick-dry hat with a brim to protect from sun and rain
  • Gloves – one pair of “smart” cotton gloves to cut the chill but still allow me to use my cell phone, and one pair of batting gloves to protect my hands during certain adventure activities (why batting gloves? Because they allow for dexterity and grip, plus the leather is waterproof)
  • Buff (x2) – perfect for keeping ears warm and hair back on the trail
  • Lightweight running jacket (I now use Arcteryx Atom) – this piece is specifically to protect from the sun in warm conditions, I wear it running on the beach in Mexico all the time
  • Medium weight running jacket (Brooks Running) – I have loved this piece for years, a great layering jacket, can’t leave it behind
  • Packable down jacket (Marmot Quasar) – packs into its own pocket, adds that final layer of warmth when I need it, also one of the 7 things I wish I packed last year

Not pictured:

  • My favorite scarf, an absolute must – this can be used as an eye mask, warm layer, blanket, pillowcase, towel, sun protection, and more.
  • Sarong – this can be used as all of the above, plus a beach towel, skirt, dress, and more.
Adventure Travel Packing
  • Running skort – my preference over shorts, these can be tricky to find the right fit – my new favorite is by Athleta
  • Cotton athletic tank – for soft adventure, yoga, and the like
  • Long-sleeved merino wool (Smartwool) – a brilliant layering piece that you can wear for days without needing to wash
  • Wide-strapped tank (Carve Designs) – great for hiking with a backpack
  • Running tank – the go-to sweaty activity tank
  • Running tee – also great for hiking or running with a backpack, lightweight, dries quickly

Adventure Swimwear

Adventure Swimwear

I always recommend packing at least two swimsuits, with the idea that no matter how much you use them, you should always have a dry one. All of these pieces are from Carve Designs.

  • Skort bottoms (Playa) – perfect for water sports
  • Sports bra style tops (x2) (Sanitas Reversible Top and Hana) – no painful halter straps, no ties to come undone, perfect for water sports
  • Criss-cross strap bikini without halter (ouch!) (Tamarindo) – for “normal” swimsuit activities

Essential Everyday Clothing

clothes to pack light
  • 2 cotton t-shirts
  • 1 nice button up t-shirt (ExOfficio Air Space) – this is a super breathable collared shirt with a hidden pocket on the side that fits an iPhone 6. It’s got professional adventurer written all over it.
  • Variety of 4 cotton tank tops
  • 3 “nice” shirts/tank tops – I did not end up bringing the teal one; it was too bulky to justify. The other three are lightweight, versatile, and packable. And the best part? I feel like I look nice when I wear them! Big improvement from last year’s lack of nice clothes in my pack.
  • 1 layer-able, lightweight dress that packs down to nearly nothing (thank you Thailand) – 2017 update: I’ve switched this one out for my first Prana dress (which has a built-in bra) and am SUPER happy with it
  • 1 lightweight long sleeved hoodie (ExOfficio Lumen Bugsaway) – this is special material that really works to keep the mosquitos off me – I wear this constantly in my house in Mexico.
Pants for travel
  • 1 zip hoodie – 2017 update: I’m now using this one from Carve Designs and I LOVE it
  • Black cotton leggings (2017 purchase from Amazon – success!) – for dressing up or being comfy, these are non-negotiable, super versatile
  • Colorful capris – I debated these but have used them a lot with the in-between season weather I’ve experienced so far.
  • Travel sweatpants – These are narrow and tapered at the ankle so they are made up of a lot less material than regular sweats and naturally take up less space. They allow me to have cozy sweatpants while I travel, which is one of those little but important things that makes me feel at home around the world.
  • 1 pair of skinny jeans – that’s it, one pair
  • Hooded sweater from Carve Designs – this is the largest clothing item I packed, but it is a brilliant piece for three reasons: 1: it has a huge hood which is great to hide under on airplanes; 2: it is a nice outer layer to wear when I want to look decent (instead of wearing running jackets); 3: it is warm, AND it’s a neutral color which can go with anything.
  • Jean shorts, just one pair
  • 2 long-sleeved cotton shirts

Not pictured: Underwear! Underwear gets its own small packing cube. I recommend bringing as much underwear as you can afford to fit, because the more underwear you have, the longer you can go without having to do your laundry! Branwyn performance innerwear is my fave.

Laundry Overseas

Speaking of laundry, you can get it done on the road all over the world at laundromats. Sometimes it takes 24 hours, sometimes it takes 3, and it usually costs between $2-10 for washing and drying. Many places will also offer ironing services (but if you’re packing clothes that need to be ironed, you probably aren’t reading this post).

The most I’ve paid is about 15 euros at a nice hotel in Spain, and the least I’ve paid is about 25 cents at a do it yourself washing machine in Thailand. Most hostels provide laundry services for cheap. If you aren’t sure where to get your laundry done, just ask a local.

Tips for doing your laundry overseas:

  • Always ask for a receipt when you drop off your clothes.
  • Try not to pay until after you get your clothes back and double check that it’s all there (I’ve never had an issue with missing clothing).
  • Make sure you know the hours of the laundromat and exactly when you can expect to get your clothes back before you drop them off.

What Shoes to Pack

best travel shoes

Choosing which shoes to pack will vary depending on your lifestyle. I usually travel with five pairs, all of which, for my travel style, are essential.

Check this out: Best Travel Shoes According to the Experts

  • Nice Boots: One thing I learned last year is to never not bring nice boots, ever again. I didn’t pack any last year and I missed them sorely. A good pair of travel boots is harder to find than you might think. I look for lightweight, super packable, nearly collapsible, comfortable, versatile, neutral color boots. I’ve used BareTraps in the past, and my new favorites are by Dr. Scholl’s, win-win because they are SUPER comfortable to walk all day.
  • Non-Toms: These are my favorite go-to travel shoes. I call them non-Toms because they are nearly identical to Toms, but they came from Target, which has tons of fun designs and options. This is my second pair, and I can attest to their quality even though they’re only $20. They are great travel shoes because they pack down, they’re lightweight, comfortable, and easy to walk in. These are great everyday go-to travel shoes for women.
  • Gladiator Sandals: A flat pair of dress-up-able sandals is a must. They pack easily, yet can be great for a night out dancing, or dressing up in a warm climate. The ones pictured here are also from Target.
  • Flip Flops: Even if you don’t plan to hit the beach, bring them for the showers, hot springs, and lounging around. They pack small, these are non-negotiable. I am partial to havaiianas.
  • Running Shoes (trail runners): As a trail runner and avid hiker, I can’t leave home without these. I’m on my second generation of Brooks Cascadias and they’ve been great for me.
  • Hiking Boots: I sprained my ankle in the summer of 2016, and as part of my recovery, I had to hike with boots for the first time in my life. I found a pair of super low profile, lightweight boots, almost like running shoes but with stability around the ankles, which is exactly what I needed. They are called Litewave Explore by The North Face, and they are available on Zappos.com. I definitely recommend them for travel hiking boots. 2017 update: I did not pack these this time around and regretted it – the Patagonia weather tested my trail runners greatly!

When packing up your shoes, use thick rubber bands to help collapse them and hold them together, and pack them inside plastic grocery bags. Alternatively, pack socks, electronics, or other items inside them.

Carry On Toiletries

Travel Toiletries

Travel toiletries must be 100mL or less (that’s just over 3 oz). The 4 oz rule doesn’t cut it outside the US. Technically this plastic bag is too big; make sure your bottles can fit in a quart-sized bag in case you are asked so at security. These do fit, but I prefer the bigger bag. Favorites and notables from this bunch:

  • Squeezable, silicone travel bottles – These are totally worth it because they do NOT leak! Here is another size option. Mine are filled with lotion and hair gel.
  • Travel-sized sunscreen (Target) – Of all products, sunscreen is often ridiculously expensive overseas – bring it with you.
  • Travel shampoo/conditioner – Get bottles you can refill or even replace as you go – conditioner can double for shaving cream. Word to the wise, the Pantene bottles pictured here are NOT good bottles, turns out they leak, make sure you get screw tops or put them in the silicone bottles.

Travel hair products: Check out this post for recommendations on the best travel hair products and to find out how I take care of my wild mane on the road.

Toiletries/personal items not pictured:

  • Silk eye mask, the best ear plugs – never without them
  • Small pouch containing earrings, tweezers, mascara, nail clippers, nail file, tiny scissors (yes, they are allowed on planes again and can come in very handy), safety pins, mirror, and tester vials of perfume (great for saving space and smelling good!)
  • Tampons – bring the compact ones to take up less space, and remember you can purchase these abroad so don’t go too crazy stashing them everywhere. Personally, I have an IUD and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made for my traveling lifestyle.

Related: 3 Things to Help You Sleep on the Road

How to Travel with Pills and Medicine

how to pack medicine

One more way to save space: pack your pills in plastic bags and throw out the original bottles (just make sure they are labeled!). My favorite pills to pack for travel:

  • Melatonin: A natural sleep hormone that I take whenever I’m in a new place where I fear I won’t sleep well. I never leave home without it. I take either 3 or 6mg at bedtime.
  • Airborne: These chewable tablets replace packets of EmergenC that must be taken with water. Great for travel days (airplanes, etc.).
  • Tylenol: Painkillers should never be abused, but should always be in stock.
  • Zicam: If you feel you are getting sick, start taking these, they are magic.
  • NutriBiotic DefensePlus: A natural herb supplement to give the immune system a boost.
  • Optional for preventing/treating stomach issues: digestive enzymes for sensitive stomachs, digestive enzymes for gluten and dairy, shelf-stable probiotics (all of these are specifically recommended by my Naturopath), and anti-diahrreal pills.

Traveling with Prescriptions

If you have a prescription, try to request enough for the entire time you’ll be gone. If you can’t, see if you can get friends or family to bring it if they come to visit. Lastly, pharmacies overseas are your friends!

Don’t be afraid to get what you need overseas.

Related: How to Navigate Pharmacies Overseas

Are you wondering yet how all of this FITS???

Packing Cubes

best packing cubes

I never used to use these, but now I am a believer. In that larger packing cube pictured above (tennis ball is included for size), I fit all of the following:

  • 3 pairs of pants
  • 1 down vest
  • 2 hats, gloves, buffs, and bikinis
  • 3 hiking shirts
  • 1 long-sleeved Smartwool

Not only does a packing cube put all of these things in a convenient place for me (you can organize by type of clothing if you want to), but it also compresses them, making them take up less space than they otherwise would. I know some travelers who use bigger packing cubes, which they pull out and use similar to dresser drawers in their accommodations. I use the big packing cubes for clothing and toiletries and the small packing cubes for electronics and accessories.

When you’re trying to pack light, every bit of saved space matters.

General Packing Tips for Carry On

  • Trust me on the packing cubes.
  • Try not to pack your bags all the way full. Give yourself space so that when you pack messy, you’ll still be able to zip them closed.
  • Wear your bulkiest shoes and clothes in transit so you don’t have to carry them, but allow space for them in your pack anyway for those times when you just can’t wear them.
  • If friends or family come to visit you, take advantage of that opportunity to replace items, send things home, or restock on specific toiletries.
  • Bring safety pins; they are a backpacker’s fix-all.
  • Make sure your personal item zips closed; don’t bring something that is open, or even buckled on the top.
  • Versatility is key, both in clothing and gadgets.
  • If it’s not absolutely essential, leave it behind.

Getting it perfectly right is next to impossible, no matter how skilled we are with packing. Just remember that you can almost always buy whatever provisions you will need overseas, even if you have to buy brands you haven’t heard of. Good luck and have fun!

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What did I forget? Ask me in the comments, I will do my best to answer your questions and edit this post going forward.

Want more packing lists? These may help: