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Light and Tight: A Guide To Travelling With Only Carry-On

Light and Tight: A Guide To Travelling With Only Carry-On

Lots of bags when travelling

The worst thing about backpacking is definitely the backpack. Hauling it over sweaty shoulders, stuffing and restuffing, cramming it into lockers, almost toppling head-first down busy escalators, and waiting in lines hunched over to the point of all-fours. Those 15kg can be crushing.

But what if you only had 5kg? What if you could walk around with it aloofly slung over one shoulder? When I made my first carry-on endeavour and backpacked solo around Southeast Asia for seven weeks with a 5.5kg backpack as my only luggage, strangely enough, it felt like a great weight had been lifted.

It might be the best travel decision I’ve ever made, and I can confidently say that once you go carry-on, you won’t go back. 

Pick The Right Carry-On

carry-on chris-holgersson-493304-unsplash
Image: Chris Holgersson / Unsplash

If backpacking, get a backpack that zips the whole way around to open like a suitcase. Packing top-down is the pits. Look for adjustable waist and chest straps. I found one new on eBay for $45 that had room to spare. 

If you’re the kind of traveller who prefers wheeling their luggage, get the lightest bag you can within your budget. There are some small suitcases that take up a whopping amount of your carry-on allowance. Don’t discount second-hand suitcases. 

Do A Clothing Cull

Whether you’re travelling for seven days or seven weeks, the amount of clothing you need doesn’t really vary. You will need to wash your clothes, but it’s really not as hard or annoying as you might think. Of course going carry-on is easier on summer holidays, but it’s totally doable in any season.

Lock in a packing day at least one week before you go. Don’t leave it till the last minute. Lay out all the clothes you want to bring, and then put half back in your wardrobe. Trust us, you always need less than you think.

Only take clothes that can mix and match. Ditch that wide-necked jumper than can only be worn over your one wide-necked t-shirt. Stick to basic, solid colours (no problem if you’re from Melbourne) and tops and bottoms that work with everything. Black, white, denim – no clashing colours or wild patterns.


Summer: One jumper, five t-shirts/singlets, two or three shorts/skirts – one long pair if visiting temples, one or two dresses (or one pair of jeans) and a hat.

Winter: One pair of jeans, five long-sleeved tops/skivvies/thermals (turtlenecks eliminate the need for a scarf), one or two jumpers, a hat or beanie, gloves, one or two t-shirts, and one coat which you will always be wearing so will never be packed. Obviously if you’re travelling somewhere with weather like the Arctic, adjust this list for more warmth. 

Listen now, because this tip is vital: take only five pairs each of underwear and socks. Hand wash used pairs in the shower, it takes 20 seconds.

As for shoes, pack two pairs max. Comfortable street shoes, be they runners or boots and, in summer, a pair of sandals or thongs. Waterproof, supported, strappy sandals like Tevas come with my high recommendation. 

You will also need to get a microfibre towel for hostels. Microfibre is great at drying you, but takes up a fraction of the space of a normal towel. They aren’t as plush, but you’ll get over that. I got a full-sized one so I could wrap it around myself and lie on it.

Collect Those Tiny Bottles  

Image: Kristina Wagner / Unsplash

You don’t need perfume (just deodorant) if your torso will be a week-long waterfall of sweat caused by Bangkok‘s humidity anyway. You don’t need fancy shower gel, either, as bars of soap have been doing a better and more compact job for centuries. You don’t need a hair straightener (you just don’t).

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Remember that many hotels and hostels will have a shampoo dispenser in the showers. Hoard tiny bottles from past hotel visits (or your parents’ past hotel visits), or buy a few recyclable 100ml bottles from the chemist. Use these for moisturiser, sunscreen, insect repellent, shampoo and conditioner. My ponytail is thicker than my forearm and I travelled for seven weeks with just 100ml each of shampoo and conditioner, using hostel shampoo when it was available. Alternatively, get a shampoo bar – a bar of soap for your hair.

Trim Back On Tech

Image: Jakob Owens / Unsplash

Those carry-on 5.5kg of mine included a small but rather weighty old film camera, and 11 rolls of film in a ziplock bag. I also invested in a bulky set of ear-hugging, noise-cancelling headphones.

I didn’t bring a laptop or tablet. Everything from transport to accommodation can be booked on your phone. Use your smartphone to download maps, a few books, movies and TV shows on your streaming apps. For purely entertainment purposes, you don’t need a bigger screen.

If you want to bring a camera, a compact digital thing is best, but I can confirm that lugging around a film camera and a sack of film is also fine, and worth it.

Keep Calm (and buy what you need)

If you get to your destination and realise you’ve forgotten something – you can always buy what you need. Bathroom products, batteries, bandaids… believe it or not, you can get these outside your home town. My hottest tip for women: tampons are in fact hard to come by in many parts of the world. Stock up on a few boxes before you leave, or get a menstrual cup.

If you’re ready to go carry-on, check out the weird tips no one ever tells newbie backpackers.

(Lead image Brevitē / Unsplash)

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