Tips to Packing Light [Tools and Gear]

Tips to Packing Light [Tools and Gear]

Packing Light Tools and Gear

Packing light is an art. It takes years of practice and just when you think you’ve got it nailed, you’ll learn some new trick or find a new piece of gear that shows just how wrong you’ve been packing all of these years. There is a lot of trial and error. But for every item forgotten or every worthless piece of clothing packed, a lesson is learned that you probably won’t forget. Investing in the right packing light tools and gear is the first step.

My very first backpacking trip was a three-week lesson on how not to pack for your very first backpacking trip. I had a great time, but I look back at what I packed for that trip and I have to laugh. Luckily, I learned a thing or two. It only takes one time of hauling around a pair of hiking boots (when you have no intention of hiking) before you learn to ask, “Do I actually need a pair of hiking boots for this trip?” And I have certainly invested in better gear since that first voyage.

Speaking of gear, the right tools can go a long way with helping you lighten your load. Below is a list of some of the gear I use to help me pack light. A few are new to my arsenal but all have been road tested. And most I have been using for years. Hopefully, you’ll find something worth trying out the next time you leave town.

1. The bag

Having the right-sized bag is the first step to packing light. The smaller your bag, the less likely you will over pack. R and I both prefer to travel with a backpack. They are easy to carry, leave your hands free and come with cool pockets. Our backpacks are under the 50 liter mark, which means we can carry them on an airplane and we do not have to check them. Whether you are looking for a backpack, a typical rollie suitcase or another style of luggage altogether, the important thing is that you pick a bag that is not capable of holding the kitchen sink.

My first backpack was a lesson in what not to buy. We went on a couple of good trips together, but it did not take long before I realized we were not meant to be. My next backpack, a Kelty, was chosen with a lot more care. Old Red, as I like to call her, has treated me right over the last decade. She is 40 liters and not top-loading. (I recommend you stay away from top-loading backpacks. They tend to be lighter, but it is a pain when you have to unload everything just to find that one item you are looking for at the bottom of the bag.) I do not plan on replacing this one anytime soon. R recently got a new 46 liter Osprey that she has been trying out. So far things are looking good.

Red Kelty carry-on backpack, chaco sandals
Me and Old Red are ready for an adventure.

2. Packing cubes

I discovered packing cubes way back when they were rare and expensive. Eagle Creek was about the only company that made them and I used to have to go a special travel store to buy them. Nowadays, you can find versions everywhere at just about every price point. These little gems help you organize yourself and keep your stuff clean. It doesn’t matter if I travel for fun with a backpack or for work with a big suitcase, I always use packing cubes.

My original cubes are still in great shape even after countless trips. They were well worth the money I spent on them and if they ever wear out, I will gladly replace them. My personal favorite is the Eagle Creek Pack It Shoe Sac, Black. This thing has saved me on so many occasions. I can usually fit two pairs in there and it keeps the rest of my stuff from getting dirty. It works way better than a plastic bag or shower cap.

packing light tools, travel shoe bag with orange shoes
An excellent option for shoes.

3. Compression sacks

Compression sacks are not an automatic go-to for me. I have used them off and on over the years and although they definitely help with getting more into your bag, they don’t necessarily help when it comes to packing lighter. I find my pack tends to be a little heavier than I would like when I use them. But sometimes, they are just the ticket to getting everything nice and compact. Earlier this spring, R and I took a trip to Whistler, Canada. We planned to ski so we had to pack ski gear. Ski gear, especially snow pants, tends to take up a lot of room. So in this case, a compression sack worked great with helping me get everything in my bag.

4. Laundry soap sheets

If you are packing everything you need for a longer trip in a carry-on, then you are going to have to do some laundry. And unless you want to find a washer and dryer every couple of days, you are going to have to do it yourself. No, this isn’t much fun. But it is a necessary. I honestly do not remember when I discovered laundry soap sheets (like Travelon Laundry Soap Sheets, 50-Count), but I have been using them for a long time. As long as you don’t get them wet (they stick together) they work great for a sink full of clothes. Furthermore, they are small and light. Perfect.

packing light tools, laundry soap sheets and sink stop
These little gems work great. A sink stop is also a good idea.

5. Turkish towel

It can be hard to decide whether to pack a towel or not. They take up so much room. But if you are traveling someplace with a beach or a pool, then you are going to need one. And sure, if you are staying at a hotel they are going to have towels. But what if you are camping or staying in a yurt? For years, I have packed one of those micro towels that absorb water really well. But they offer no coverage and they certainly do not work for the beach. Now a Turkish towel, that is another animal altogether.

I had my eye on a Turkish towel for a couple of years. But since I did not know anyone personally who had used one, I was skeptical of whether they really worked as well as people claimed. Luckily, I received one as part of a monthly subscription box. I haven’t been using it long, but so far, I am in love and find it makes a great packing light tool. My Turkish towel is more than living up to its reputation. It folds up small and dries fast—two critical things. In addition to using it as a towel, I can also use it as a scarf or swimsuit cover-up. It is a very versatile piece of clothing that takes up very little room.

packing light tools, blue Turkish towel next to a pencil
A towel, scarf and cover-up all-in-one.

6. Small day pack

I have used many-a-small day bags in my travels—everything from purses to small backpacks to grocery totes. I tend to prefer bags at fold up easily and can fit into my bigger backpack if necessary. You just need something smaller that can hold your money and other essentials. It needs to be something you can go souvenir shopping with or take to the beach or put under the seat in front of you on an airplane—especially if you decide to check your bag. Kipling is one of my favorite brands and I’ve loved every bag I have ever bought from them. (Their wallet, a Kipling AC2084 Creativity Small Purse Pouch Black, has traveled all over the world with me.)

7. Small toiletries

Packing small or travel-sized toiletries seems like a no-brainer when it comes to packing light tools. But you would be surprised how many people I’ve talked to who are still not doing this. Maybe they do not care about paying $25 to check a bag. But they should care about hauling around that full-sized bottle of shampoo!

I love perusing the travel-size section of a store (Target’s is particularly good). And if they do not have my preferred brand or I don’t like the price, I use travel-size refillable containers and put my own product in them. Another great idea is to put things like eye cream in a contact holder. And a trip is the perfect time to use up any free samples you may have laying around.

Side note: Curious about how long that tiny bottle of shampoo will last? Check out this post I wrote about how long travel toiletries really last.

packing light tools, travel-sized toiletries.
Keep it tiny.

8. Non-liquid toiletries

Speaking of toiletries, I have recently joined the non-liquid toiletries bandwagon. Things like shampoo and lotion work great in bar form (I really like the J.R. Liggett Bar Shampoo, Original Formula, 3.5 Ounce). They may not necessarily be smaller or lighter than their liquid counterparts, but they are a lot easier to deal with. Technically, they do save you room in your TSA-approved quart bag reserved for liquids. But the best part is that there is no risk of them leaking. We’ve all had that happen and it is no fun. I would recommend trying any new product out at home so you can see if you like it first. It would be very sad if you didn’t find out your new shampoo bar makes your head itch until you were on the road.

9. E-ready/Kindle/iPad/iTouch/etc.

I still prefer to travel with an actual book or two. But in terms of packing light, that is about the worst choice I can make. Most likely, you probably already have a piece of technology capable of downloading some reading material. If you do not, there are plenty of affordable options on the market. With most of them, you can read a book, watch a movie and/or listen to music. One small piece of equipment packs a lot of punch in terms of entertainment and can be a valuable packing light tool. I honestly do not remember what it was like to travel without these options. I suppose I packed my CD player and some CDs? Gosh. I distinctly remember putting four books in my backpack once. Now I usually pack two and download more to my iPhone.

Not that long ago, the seat I was sitting in (from Indonesia I think) had a broken monitor. No TV for me. Luckily, I had downloaded a couple of movies so I was entertained. But that could have been a disaster.

packing light tools, iPad mini on top of books
Technology has certainly changed the way I read on trips.

10. Menstrual cup

Sorry for the overshare here, but this is something we women have to deal with. Getting your period sucks. Getting your period on a trip sucks even worse. But that is reality, unfortunately. More than 10 years ago I read something about the Keeper, a menstrual cup. I decided to give it a whirl and I have never looked back. I won’t get into all of the nitty-gritty details, but I will say it is light and takes up very little space compared to pads and tampons. You can swim and be your adventurous self without worry. Plus, it is much easier to deal with in less-developed countries. It takes a bit of practice to use though, so I would suggest a couple of practice runs before trying it out on your next big trip.


Having the right gear makes packing easier and, hopefully, lighter. It may take some trial and error before you find the right packing light tools for you. But hey, that just means you need to take a lot of trips so you can get it right.

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