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How I Made the Best Decision by Downsizing My Luggage

Ali with her 40L backpack

Image: Ali with her 40L backpack

The following is a guest post from Ali Garland. See all of our downsizing stories in one place!

Like so many travelers, I am plagued with dozens of “what if” scenarios that run through my mind before a trip. What if it gets unseasonably cold? What if I need something nice to wear? What if I spill something on my clothes? What if I run out of shampoo? As a result, I have often left for a trip with a bag jam-packed with tons of stuff I never used. All that extra stuff took up space and added weight to my back, and I finally had to reevaluate my packing situation.

So how did I downsize my luggage to a 40L REI Lookout?

Cut back on clothing

Clothes aren’t typically the heaviest things in your bag, but for me they’re some of the easiest to eliminate. You don’t need two weeks worth of clothes just because that’s how long your trip is. You can do laundry anywhere, and no one cares if you wear the same shirt three times.

  • Going someplace warm? Pack a few T-shirts, a couple pairs of shorts, a bathing suit, and maybe one pair of pants and a jacket for cold airplanes and buses.
  • Is a cold destination in the plans? Replace those shorts with pants and layer the T-shirts with long sleeve shirts and sweaters. But remember, you only need a few. Pack enough for five days to a week and you should be fine.

The determining factor for me is underwear. I will wear the same shirt multiple times if I have to, but when the underwear runs out, I need to do laundry. Decide how often you’re willing to do laundry, or if you’re ok with washing a few pairs of quick-dry underwear in the sink, and that’s how many you need to bring.

Say no to those “what ifs”

Sometimes it’s hard to ignore those fears when you’re packing. Suddenly you find yourself packing a big wool sweater for your trip to Thailand, five nice dresses for a one week trip, or a four month supply of shampoo. Those “what ifs” are adding unnecessary weight to your bag.

Only pack clothing that is appropriate for your destination. If you do want a nicer outfit, just pack one. Even if you want to get dressed up twice, you can wear that cute dress again. Or bring casual clothes that can be dressed up with a scarf or some earrings.

Toiletries can be replaced. If you’re backpacking around the world, buy more shampoo or contact solution when you run out. There’s no need to pack enough to last your entire trip. Remember that people in other parts of the world use these things too, so you will find what you need abroad.

downsizing luggage
Be realistic about what you truly need to pack.

Look back at past trips

Unless this is your very first trip, you can probably think back to what you packed on previous trips.

  • Did you wear everything you brought with you?
  • Did you pack too many pairs of shoes?
  • Was that bulky beach towel worth it?
  • What other items did you frantically shove in your bag that you never ended up using?

Use those past trips as guides to your upcoming trip. Remembering what you packed and didn’t need will help remind you to leave it at home next time. If you’re not quite ready to buy that smaller bag yet, pack as if you have less room to work with. This will help reduce the amount you carry and show you that you really can manage with a smaller bag.

The luggage downsizing continues

Now that I’ve started downsizing, it’s become a bit of an addiction. How low can I go? Can I eliminate even more stuff and further reduce the weight on my back? For me, downsizing my luggage has been a slow process, and I continue to cut back. On a seven week trip through Europe this summer, I left my normal daypack at home and just brought a purse. I also had a stuffable bag from REI that I could pull out when I needed a daypack.

Next up is a seven week trip in Southeast Asia when my husband and I are planning on using my old 50L backpack for both of us, plus our daypacks. It’ll be tough and I still fight against those “what ifs” but I’m confident that reducing the amount of stuff we pack is a good thing. It means less weight to carry around, less stuff to worry about losing, and a better chance of staying within the carry-on size limits.

But mostly I just like the feeling of freedom that comes with a smaller backpack and less stuff.

About the Author: Ali Garland encourages people to travel, shows them how to plan trips, and helps them overcome their travel-related fears on her site Travel Made Simple. She has been traveling for almost 20 years and made it to all 7 continents before her 30th birthday. She and her husband are expats in Germany. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest. Ali writes about her personal travels at Ali’s Adventures.

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Reader Interactions


  1. Diana says

    Nice article! We are doing two weeks in Italy soon with carry-on size backpacks. It’s going to be our first trip not taking checked luggage, and I, too, have those “What if” things that I need to get out of the bag. I also like that traveling lighter feels like it gives you so much more freedom on the road. You don’t have to lug anything about, just put it on your back and go. Keep spreading the word on packing light!

    • Ali says

      Thanks Diana! I love that feeling of freedom when I don’t have tons of stuff with me. It’s one of the main reasons why I try to always travel carry-on only. Have fun in Italy!

  2. Marilyn says

    I really struggle with these ‘packing for 6 weeks with a carry on’ posts. Air New Zealand and many other airlines I have been on only allow 7kg for carry on luggage. Some carry on bags weight 3kg before you start. All I can think is that some of your airlines must be so much more generous. I keep looking for a post that shows you how to pack lightly with checked luggage!

    • Brooke says

      Hi Marilyn! It’s tough but it can be done. I’m based in Australia where most of the airlines allow up to 7kg, and both my partner and I have gone carry-on several times for long trips. Your best bet is to go with a small backpack without too many frills as those will weigh less than suitcases, or a super small cabin bag (I have a 25L Antler suitcase). Some airlines allow for an extra personal item, in which case I’ll take a small daypack with my camera and laptop in it. Or, I take my iPad 🙂

      But yes, many airlines around the world allow for more weight as long as it fits certain dimensions.

    • Ali says

      I have definitely run into those airlines, even Air New Zealand, that only allow 7kg or so, and it’s tough. In those cases, I just breathe a frustrated sigh and hand over my bag to be checked, making sure anything vital (laptop, camera, medicine, etc.) stays with me. A backpack will generally be lighter than just about any rolling suitcase, which makes it a little easier to aim for carry-on. And even in those cases where I know I’ll have to check my bag due to a tight weight restriction, I still use the same backpack I talked about in this post because then I know I’m still not lugging tons of stuff with me.

    • Kaylin says

      Even if my carry-on is pushing 12 kgs (not often, but sometimes happens when I’m coming home from overseas with lots of souvenirs!) on one of these airlines, I always walk with confidence and act like the heavy load on my back is light as a feather. I don’t fidget with it, slouch, or take it off and drag it, as that makes it look like it really does weigh a lot. Maybe I’m just lucky but that has worked 9 out of 10 times with those airlines that have small carry-on allowances, and I didn’t have to check my bag in. Of course you SHOULD definitely not have 12kgs of stuff dragging around on your back for a long period of time anyway, as that’s probably gonna be painful or at least really annoying. But normally, mine is ~9-10kgs and I still get away with this so… take it for what you will.


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