How to Pack for Several Months in One Carry-on Suitcase

Auriane Alix
And a small backpack.
Photo by Blake Hunter on Unsplash

Whoever finds at least one advantage in using a check-in suitcase earns my eternal admiration. As far as I’m concerned, carrying around tons of stuff with me is not my cup of tea. My winning formula is one hand luggage and one backpack. A small one, I mean. Just like in the picture. And this, for trips of several weeks or months.

For sure, it forces you to make choices and to be very selective in what you take with you. But it’s so nice to travel light, without all the burden of feeling like a donkey carrying its weight in clothes and things you won’t even use.

I recently packed my bags for three weeks in Portugal. It’s not that long, but I don’t have a washing machine at my disposal, and it’s winter here, so pants and sweaters required. I also have my laptop, camera gear and GoPro accessories, which takes up space. In 3 weeks I’ll be packing for South America this time. Lighter, because the weather will be much warmer, but for much longer: 3–4 months.

I’ve been packing light for a few years now, and I’ve found out that it requires 3 specific skills that I will develop in this post, along with some tips. I hope this will help you to get ready for your adventure!

#1: Be (very) picky

The secret is to bring only the absolutely essential.

I chose 3 pants, 2 sweaters, 5 t-shirts, 1 shirt, underwear for a week, 1 swimsuit, 1 cap, 1 night shorts and t-shirt, 1 coat and 1 spare pair of shoes. My toiletry kit contains the bare necessities: a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, hair wax, face cream, nail clippers, tweezers, lip balm and hand cream.

In addition, I brought my wireless headphones, laptop, GoPro and accessories, Kindle (very useful if you’re an avid reader on the go), camera equipment, various chargers and of course my phone.

I also brought my working glasses, sunglasses, my reusable water bottle and enough masks (Covid-19, you know).

Even then, there are several things I could have done without. The trick is: pack your suitcase for a week. No more.

A tip for choosing the items you take with you

There’s something I like to do that helps me choose what I bring and what I leave at home. I put everything I want to bring in an organized pile on my bed. Things add up, and before I put them in the suitcase, it allows me to see what I have, if I have enough, and if I don’t have too much.

If you’re hesitating between all your t-shirts and jeans, just take the whole pile out of the closet, put it on your bed and make 3 piles: Yes, No, Maybe. Put the “No” back in the closet. Then sort the “Maybe”. Don’t forget: no more than a week!

Be (very) organized (and smart)

Buy on the spot what is cheap but takes up space

Where you’re going, there are probably grocery stores, which means you’ll be able to buy everything you need. Yesterday, I bought shower soap and laundry so I can wash my clothes in the sink. I’ll probably buy an extra sweatshirt before I leave, as the nights have been quite cool.

It doesn’t cost much, but it saves you a lot of space. The trick is to budget for your purchases on site, often between $50 and $150.

Be smart

It’s all about projecting yourself and planning what you’ll need. For example, bring a cloth bag with you: it will prove very useful to store your dirty clothes waiting to be washed, and to separate them from your clean ones in the suitcase.

On the spot, be smart. Yesterday, I went to buy a second-hand kettle, which cost me $11. Why? It allows me to make coffee in the morning (as my Airbnb was canceled at the last minute, I had to book a hotel room that doesn’t have a kitchen), and also to make tea or soup for the evening. 11$ for this kettle compared to what I saved in 3$ coffee cups turned out to be a smart calculation.

You can either buy soluble coffee, or, if you feel like a MacGyver soul, take a bottle that you cut in half, put a bowl underneath, a coffee filter in it, and BOOM: you have a homemade coffee machine.

To sum up:

Plan ahead for what you’ll need and decide whether or not it’s worth taking with you.

Another tip: I put everything I’ll have to take out during the security check at the airport in my backpack. That way, I don’t mess up the contents of my suitcase, and all I have to do is empty my backpack. Depending on the country, you will most often be asked to take out your computer and liquids, which will have to be placed in a small plastic bag. Sometimes also belts and cameras. Think about it, it’s much easier (and less stressful) this way.

Be a Tetris Master

I’ve seen too many people stack things in their suitcases and wonder how other people manage to put their whole life into it when they can only take it for three days. My mother taught me how to pack a suitcase when I was a kid. She gave me a golden method to save as much space as possible.

It’s all about playing Tetris. Start with the underwear in the cavities created in the bottom of the suitcase by the handles. Then add the clothes, staggering them. One in one direction, the other in the other, some folded in two, others in three. As you go along, insert the most fragile objects, so that they are protected. Throughout the process, feel with your hands to find where the empty spots are, and fill them with anything that doesn’t wrinkle: other underwear, computer charger, toiletries, etc.

No, the clothes don’t come out wrinkled. On the other hand, you’ll see that you can now put twice as much in your suitcase.

Final thoughts

It is such a freedom to have only what you need and nothing more. No more struggling on the stairs at the subway station, or waiting endlessly at the airport to check in or pick up your suitcase.

Your whole life for the next few months now fits in one carry-on bag and one backpack. These two items are now like my home, wherever I go in the world.

And at worst, if you realize that you are really missing something, it will either be a good opportunity to find out that you can do without it, or an excuse to buy a souvenir on the spot.

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