Since beginning my minimalist journey, I have been downsizing not only what’s in my wardrobe but also what I carry with me while traveling. Over the last few years, I’ve learned how to pack like a minimalist and finally found a system that works. I’ve established some ground rules to designing a “capsule closet” in my carry-on—for any trip in any season.
More than the bag I choose and what goes in it, packing light has become about my mood, intention, and vibration. It’s about living, rather than preserving or packing, a travel experience. I can just be myself, wherever I live, without needing all my wardrobe to back me up.
Maybe minimalism isn’t for everyone, but a light load of luggage can transform your next flight, bus, or train experience. From burden to a breeze—just think: no heavy suitcase to check or lengthy baggage-claim lineup. Whether backpacking for weeks or business-tripping just a few days, we can each create our own carry-on capsule wardrobe in three easy steps.
Comfort is key
Find a go-to travel bag and remember that limiting your baggage capacity is one way to guarantee you’ll pack lighter. I always opt for a backpack, because being hands-free on the go is most convenient, whether I’m snapping a photo or eating on the run. If you go the backpack route, a reliable, comfortable pack is a must. Prefer a rolling suitcase? Opt for a model that features 360-degree rotational range of motion, so your bag can move with you and not against you.
Currently I use either the 26-liter North Face Jester or the 40-liter G4Free Lightweight Waterproof Backpack for traveling a few days to upward of two weeks. Both are equipped with internal laptop sleeves, front straps across the chest for support, and dual external pouches for water bottles and coffee or tea mugs. While the Jester has padded shoulder straps and a supportive back panel, the lightweight G4Free day pack folds up into its own head compartment and packs away in a bundle about the size of a sandwich.
Put your best foot forward by avoiding shoes that hurt! Travel is a great opportunity to leave the heels behind. Consider a carabiner to loop strappy sandals and sneakers to the hooks on the outside of your bag—save space where you need it. And before fantasizing about your vacation wardrobe, check the weather. If there’s rain in the forecast, swap out one of those sundresses for a waterproof windbreaker. I always pack a pair of long pants or leggings and a jacket or long-sleeved shirt, even if I’m in a tropical locale. Nights can get chilly anywhere, and in the summer, that airport air-conditioning doesn’t play, folks.
Pack with (multi) purpose
If it seems like packing for several weeks in a single bag sounds challenging, just remember that each item you bring has the capacity to serve multiple uses. Pack with an eye toward mixing and matching, rather than planning one outfit per day.
Think of your carry-on capsule closet as one organism that lives in balance and harmony. In theory, each item matches with all the others in this harmonious carry-on world. Sticking to mostly solid or neutral tops and bottoms, with a few strategic prints and brights thrown in, will score the most ensemble combinations. You want variety of function, not repetition, so besides your basics, just one of any given type of piece is plenty. Adding small, choice accessories will stretch your versatility much further than that big, chunky necklace or neon wool scarf, depending on how you pair them.
When building your travel wardrobe in a carry-on, remember that easy-fold is gold. Lightweight and stretchy fabrics like cotton, spandex, and polyester are less wrinkle prone and not very bulky. Leggings pack more efficiently than jeans and can be paired with a dressier top for going out to a nice dinner, or with an oversized T-shirt when you just feel like lounging. But they’ll also serve as pajamas in a pinch or take you on a run.
Be realistic about what activities you have planned for your trip and which of those you’ll actually do when you build your carry-on capsule wardrobe. A good way to trim down your packing selections (even minimalists have to do it!) is to ask yourself, “Will I wear this more than once?”
Sink & spot clean
Give your little laundry some love! Washing and air-drying small clothing pieces like socks, underwear, and tank tops in a hotel or hostel bathroom will keep them in circulation longer, limit your luggage load, and cut down your need for washer/dryer access. Similarly, spot cleaning on larger items like jeans, dresses, or jackets will save energy, time, and money. A travel-size soap and spray bottle is handy here. To dry, drape just-washed pieces over a shower curtain rod (with the curtain hanging into the tub or shower!). Camping? Some twine or other durable string looped between two trees will build you a DIY clothesline.
I can say I’ve come a long way from the time I rationalized toting six pairs of boots for a brief stay in New York City. It wasn’t the last time I found myself bagged down, but somewhere between multiple apartment moves and my desire to travel often, I began to shift my approach: I feel more free with less stuff.