The general rule of thumb is, lighter is better. And if you can't follow that rule, at least follow this guide.
Luckily, we've traveled our faces off—over two million miles!—and we've figured out what works best. It's practically down to an art at this point.
If you're figuring out what to pack and how to pack for your next trip, read on.
Do you bring a suitcase or backpack?
It doesn't matter too much: A suitcase or a backpack will work.
Personally, I like backpacks since I originally began most of my travels zipping through Asia—it keeps me mobile, since I can run to catch a bus or run through the airport more easily—but it's a matter of personal preference.
If you're bringing more than one carry-on for any length of time, you're bringing too much. Learn to cut the filler.
Exceptions apply if you are bringing equipment for a work project or something like that, but seriously, the hair dryer, curling iron and straightener do not need to make the trip to the Amazon jungle with you.
Never bring full-sized toiletries.
Hi. Those travel-sized toiletries you see at the local drugstore? Those designed to fit perfectly into your carry on? Yeah, go ahead and pick a few up.
Staying at a hotel? Don't forget to bring that tiny bottle of conditioner home. And if you don't want to listen to us, at least go buy some empty travel-friendly bottles you can fill up with your favorite shampoo at the dollar store.
Almost never, and I repeat, never bring full size products. It is always possible to pick up whatever you need when you hit the ground.
The amount of conditioner you'll actually use won't justify the hassle. (Unless, you're moving out of the country or something like that.)
Once you've got everything, pack the liquids on top of the clothes or right next to a compartment opening for speeding through security.
Keeping liquids to carry-on limits will also save time at the baggage carousel; instead of waiting for your bags, it will be more expedient to make a beeline for the airport exit the minute the captain turns off the seat belt sign.
Investing in the right travel gear pays off.
…Especially travel-friendly products. Having a portable spork is probably pushing it, but if you're a serial traveler of any kind, these products will pay for itself over time.
These are things like microfiber travel towels, collapsible daypacks, a small first-aid kit. These are the things that will make your life easier in the long run. Be the best Girl/Boy Scout than you can be.
The focus is really on reducing an object's footprint and weight as much as possible. Even my hairdryer is designed to be portable.
Pro tip: Look for dual-voltage electronics.
Learn to roll clothes to maximize space.
First order of business, stop folding your clothes. Learn to roll them: It reduces the footprint of your clothes and allows for extra bag space, letting you pack even more in.
There are also vacuum-sealed clothes bags, which happen to be nice for reducing space. They aren't an absolute necessity but if you have them I'd suggest using at least one bag to store dirty clothing. Packing cubes also keep everything nice and tidy!
How many clothes to bring?
For Trips Lasting 1-5 Days
The maximum number of shirts you bring should be equivalent to the number of days you'll be at the destination. (If you're going on a three-day trip, bring three shirts at the most, if you're going on five-day trip, bring five shirts at the most, etc.)
That's a maximum limit, so if you can do with less, the better off you'll be. Bring one to two pairs of pants and one to two pairs of jammies, and that should be enough.
The danger isn't underpacking, but overpacking. Resist the urge to fill up empty space with unnecessary excess weight.
(Leaving a quarter of the bag empty is usually the perfect ratio to bring back souvenirs!)
Ask yourself the golden question: Can I live without this [insert object name]?
For Trips Lasting 6-10 Days
Bring about 75 percent's worth of clothing that would last you for that time. Meaning, the sweet spot is roughly four to seven shirts, two to three pairs of pants, and two sets of pajamas.
The limit is seven shirts; assuming you're not sweating through them like you're in the Sahara, you can re-wear one or two. If rewearing clothing sounds gross, hand washing and hang drying clothes is an amazing concept.
For Trips Lasting 2 Weeks & More
Bring about a week's worth of clothing. This means roughly seven shirts, two or three pairs of bottoms and two or three sets of pajamas.
There is also no limit to fresh underwear in my unprofessional opinion. Leave the leopard prints at home; pick items that play and mix well with others.
With all due respect, it's not necessary to bring your entire wardrobe with you. Through hand washing and the availability of laundromats worldwide, your smattering of belongings should be more than enough to last you in most situations.
Case in point: I once lived almost three months out of one carry-on in Central America and I was fine.
Let's talk's about how to pack shoes.
I suggest no more than three pairs: One pair of sandals, one pair of comfortable walking shoes and one other pair of your choice. This includes the shoes that you wear to the airport.
If you can, strip it down to two pairs, so you're packing one. Then wear the clunkiest shoes onto the plane.
How to deal with extreme weather clothing
"It's so hot, I'm melting like the Wicked Witch!"
Luckily, summer weather is easy to pack for. The only thing to remember is that if you're planning out to hang out on Bali's tropical beaches, you'll be sweating through clothes a lot faster.
Bring breathable t-shirts (flannel is not breathable!) and a couple pairs of shorts. A pair of pants, though, can come in handy.
A note on freezing your butt off in Siberia
Sadly, winter clothing adds a lot of weight, so these will require more packing creativity.
The key in mildly cold temperatures is to layer, layer and layer. One scarf, a cardigan, a jacket and/or a light fleece can make all the difference between being comfortable or sniffling for a week after.
Don't forget the extremities: Bring gloves and a hat if the weather seems like it will dip below 50° F/10° C. If you'll be in near-freezing temperatures (32° F/0° C), then you will want to take at least one functional jacket with you. Two, if you'll be there for a while. Three is overkill.
(It's not a beauty contest; it's about warmth at this point.)
If you're bringing boots, wear them on the plane 'cause they're often the worst things to pack in a bag. None of this advice applies if you're planning to head to the Arctic or Antarctica.
But I'm literally going everywhere!
Layering is your friend.
Can you tell me exactly what to pack?
No, because everyone has different needs and priorities. Some people might be able to survive without their camera; some might not.
This guide is all about how to pack efficiently with the utmost basics, 'cause you can't exactly run around town without clothes on.
For non-essentials, consider the golden question mentioned above: Can I live without this [insert object name]?
If you answer, "Well, I might need it..." then you need to leave it out of the bag. If the answer is a definitive omg-I-might-die-without-it "no," toss it in the bag.
Though with all of that said, here are things you should try to make space for:
- Passport. This is maybe the most important thing, because you won't make it past the airport without it. It's best to keep it in same place consistently so you don't lose it. Another form of identification can also help: For example, an old, expired driver license can help when you need a form of ID and don't want to give up your trusty passport.
- Universal travel adapter. Especially if you plan on bringing electronics.
- Towel. We've already explained our reasons for this before.
- First-aid kit. In case you hurt yourself. Reasonable.
- Mosquito repellent. If you plan to spend time indoors or outdoors. Standing water can be a problem in the most unexpected places.
- Dimenhydrinate (or Dramamine). If you plan to be on a boat. If you already get motion sickness, don't leave without it or you'll be spending a lot of time with a barf bag.
- Sunscreen. Fog can disguise how powerful the sun's ultraviolet rays are. Snow can also often act as a powerful reflective surface for the sun when it's out in full force. Bring it even in winter. Just because it's cold doesn't mean it can't be sunny: For instance, though the weather can often drop to below freezing, the sun can often still shine briskly in Beijing or Mongolia.
- Toothbrush. It's funny how many people forget it.