The One Simple Secret to Traveling Light. And It’s Easier Than You Think

There is a secret to traveling light, but it’s actually not much of a secret. In fact, you may already know it—you probably just choose to ignore it.

Learning how to travel light or even traveling carry-on only is easier than most people think.

It’s made out to be a complicated secret. A method that’s utilized by pro travelers. Only the most experienced travelers can pull this kind of thing off, right?


There’s a secret to traveling light, and you may already know it.

Have you ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? It posits the idea that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

If you have four hours to complete a report, it’s going to take you four hours to finish it. But if you have eight hours to complete it, it’s going to take you eight hours.

See where I’m going with this?

How to Travel Light

Traveling light is simple, really. You don’t have to fight with your suitcase every time you go on a trip.

The amount of stuff you have will expand so as to fill the space available.

In other words: Buy a carry-on backpack that’s the size you want to carry, and you’ll end up taking only enough stuff that will actually fit.

That 120L suitcase in your closet? Throw it out. OK, well, maybe don’t throw it out—you might need it sometime. But let’s work on downsizing.

Traveling in the Antwerp Train Station
Traveling light in the Antwerp Train Station

How big do you want your bag to be? In fact, let’s reframe that question. How small do you want your bag to be? A carry-on backpack? A much smaller suitcase? A weekender bag?

I’m a huge fan of the following carry-on luggage options:

Buy that bag, then commit to carrying only that bag. If something doesn’t fit, or if something takes up a disproportionate amount of space, get rid of it. You won’t be taking it with you on this trip!

How to Save Space in Your Bag

Fitting everything you want/need (they’re not the same thing!) into a smaller bag isn’t always easy. There are a few simple tricks you can use to keep yourself both organized and traveling light.

1. Use Packing Cubes

Packing cubes are a popular choice. They’re easy to use and they keep everything bunched together in nice little pouches. They’re perfect for organizing your bag and keeping your stuff compartmentalized. Organization is of paramount importance if you want to pack light.

Mise en place. It’s a famous French saying for, “a place for everything.”

When you don’t have random pairs of socks and underwear floating around your bags, it’s much easier to maintain an organized, tightly, expertly packed bag.

2. Use Compression Sacs

The less popular choice—and I’m still at a loss for why—are compression sacs. They’re vacuum-sealed “packing cubes” for your clothes.

Especially if you need to carry bulkier items—and especially heavier jackets or mid layers—throw them into the right sized compression sac, squeeze all the air out, and you’ve likely just reduced the amount of space that item takes up by somewhere around 50 percent.

Seriously, they’re that good.

3. Don’t Stuff in What You Don’t Need

On top of getting rid of the extra clothing you probably won’t wear more than a couple times, get rid of the heavier and space-consuming items like bulky jeans or large toiletries.

You should also ditch all the shoe options since shoes take up the largest amount of awkward space in your bags. Bring only the essentials—one pair of sneakers if you’ll need them (wear them), one pair of hiking shoes and a pair of sandals.

Make sure whatever shoes you pack can go with all of the clothes you pack, too. Leave the extra Jordans, Nikes, and Converse at home this time.

But What if You Forget Things?

If you want to learn how to travel light, you have to go into it with the right mindset. You have to overcome the fear that you might be forgetting something, or that you might leave something behind that you’re going to need at your destination.

The fact is: You probably will.

But part of traveling is overcoming fear. And overcoming the fear of packing light has to be your first step. Assuming you don’t want to lug 70 pounds of luggage around with you from place to place, of course.

Forgot your sandals? Pick up a new pair when you arrive. Didn’t realize it was going to be so cold? Buy a new jacket or sweatshirt when you touch down.

Whatever it is that you need, it’s guaranteed you’ll be able to find one wherever you’re traveling.

Keeping my stuff safe while traveling with Pacsafe bags
You’ll always find what you need on the road if you happen to forget an item.

And lastly, when you’re on the road, for the love of everything that’s holy, don’t buy things you don’t need. Small souvenirs? Sure—go for it. But just remember that you’re going to have to carry with you anything you buy along the way.

No matter how much you want it, resist. If you need it, go for it. Just remember, you might have to throw something else out to free up some space.

So pack only the essentials—the bare minimum of what you’ll definitely need. The rest you can pick up along the way.

Pretty simple, isn’t it?


Traveling Light FAQs

What's the secret to traveling light?

The secret to traveling light is to use a smaller bag and not bring anything that doesn’t fit. Simple.

What is the 1-2-3-4-5-6 packing rule?

The 1-2-3-4-5-6 packing rule is to pack 1 hat, 2 pairs of shoes/sandals, 3 bottoms, 4 tops, 5 pairs of socks, and 6 pairs of underwear.

How to travel light for 3 weeks?

The best way to travel light for 3 weeks or longer is to only bring enough clothes for a week or so, and then do laundry during your trip.

What is the golden rule of packing?

The golden rule of packing is to bring less stuff. The less you bring, the more you can focus on the experiences and not the stuff.

How do you pack successfully?

The best way to pack successfully if you want to travel light is to use a smaller bag. Anything that doesn’t fit gets left behind.

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
  1. I have to travel light Jeremy, due to a bad spine and agree with what you say, except for the packing cubes, I find they actually take up more room (because of the sides) than bags with a draw strings. All the soft stuff goes at the bottom to cushion my travel writing kit.

    My pack is a small 35L one.

    I carry one change of clothes (wear one, wash one).
    My travel writing kit:
    – Tablet and smartphone or small Leica/Lumix camera for short trips.
    – 12.6 inch Laptop and the small camera.
    – A small linen towel (they dry faster)
    – The usual paperwork.
    – First Aid kit and a few other little bits.
    – Empty cool bag for food (often as padding under it all).

    Often I’m left with room for stuff I might pick up on the road.

    Total weight between 9-13 lbs depending on the travel writing kit I take.

    What I don’t carry
    Toothpaste (buy it there)
    flip-flops I buy when there from the cheapest shop I can find.

    Works for me….

    1. I admire how little you travel with, Ted! It’s exactly that kind of packing that makes all the difference.

      As for packing cubes, some are definitely better (rather, smaller) than others. Mine are really thin so barely take up any space. Some are quite a bit more bulky though. Regardless, I do think organization–especially if using a small suitcase–is a big part of packing light.

      Keep doing that thing you do! Thanks for the comment.

  2. Oh yea, I’ve always struggled with this.. But you’re right that the size of the bag is of paramount importance. I like to travel on long weekend trips with my CabinZero. For longer trips, I’ve at least managed to do away with a smaller suitcase.

  3. “Mise en place” a famous french saying… I’m French and I’ve never heard it said in that sense. =D

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