Pack Like a Pro: The Ultimate Carry-on Essentials for Female Travellers

Woman with travel pack on Nakasendo

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Ever wondered how someone can fit their whole life into a carry-on travel pack and travel the world (with no end in sight)? It’s actually not that difficult, even for us women, and once you’ve tried travelling light on a short trip, you won’t want to go back, even when you travel longer.

How do I know? I lugged around a 70-litre backpack on a three-month backpacking trip in 2012, and while this was great to tone my muscles, it wasn’t much fun schlepping this monster around in 30+ degree heat and near 100% humidity. I can tell you, travelling with carry-on is so much more pleasant.

Waiting for bus in Argentina in 2012

In 2012, we still travelled the world with large backpacks

Initially, I struggled with the strict volume and weight limitations (especially when packing for all seasons). Until I came across the concept of the capsule wardrobe – my packing list is based on the same principle.

I don’t only share with you my (current) packing list, but also what I’ve learnt over the 7+ years I’ve lived full-time on the road. By the way, my packing list has got you covered for travel in any season and any weather. That said, you may want to adjust it according to the weather/climate at your destination and the time of year you travel. To give you an example: I added a pair of 200 denier tights before we headed to the Snow Festival in Sapporo, knowing I would be outdoors in sub-zero temperatures for long periods of time.

And lastly, while my article today is for my fellow female travellers, if you’re a guy who’s reading this (or a male loved one could use some advice) you may find our Carry-On Packing List For Men fits what you’re after.

Paul and Sandra with carry-on in Sydney 2016

That's us with our carry-on luggage leaving Sydney in 2016

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Luggage and Organisation

Let’s start with the stuff that holds your stuff.

Travel Pack / Packing Cubes

If you don’t have carry-on luggage yet, check out our guide to find the carry-on travel pack that’s right for you.

Below are the luggage and organisational items I currently travel with, or – if an item is no longer manufactured and available for sale – what I would purchase if I had to replace it today. To give you an example: My current travel pack is the Osprey Ozone 46, which I’ve had since the very beginning. It’s a great pack and so far, there is no need to replace it. BUT. If I had to, I wouldn’t buy another Osprey pack (at least none of the ones currently available, as much as I like the company). My replacement pack would be the MEC Pangea 40. It ticks all the boxes when it comes to my requirements and going down slightly in volume wouldn’t be an issue (as I never fully utilise the extra volume in my current pack).

Packing cubes and travel packs go hand in hand – another trick for travelling light (even though you’re adding a little bit of weight). They are a great help to keep everything neat and organised (like having drawers in your travel pack), making it easy to pack up on travel day or locate an item on the go.

  • Bellroy Lite Sling Mini

    Bellroy Lite Sling Mini

    $79.00
  • Matador Freerain22

    Matador Freerain22 Daypack

    $100.00
  • MEC Pangea 40 Carry On Travel Pack

    MEC Pangea 40 Carry On Travel Pack

    $199.95
  • MEC Travel Light Packing Cube

    MEC Travel Light Packing Cube

    $19.95

Daypack / Handbag

Paul and I currently share a Matador Freerain22 Daypack. This is our fourth daypack in 7+ years of travel: We started with a Tortuga daypack. When that broke, we moved to a 16-litre Matador daypack. While the seams were the downfall of the Tortuga, the biggest weak point on the 16-litre Matador was the main compartment zipper. Fortunately, Matador learns from its (early) quality issues: Our subsequent Matador Freerain24 Daypack lasted more than 4 years (the mesh pockets holding our water bottle, snacks, sunscreen and glasses disintegrated in the end).

Like our daypack, my handbag gets used a lot. So, no wonder I’m now onto my third handbag in 7+ years:

  • I had a Pacsafe Cruise Anti-Theft All Day Crossbody handbag before we started our location-independent life. But I always found that it hurt my back after a while, as I ended up carrying a water bottle, an Apple iPad Mini and all sorts of stuff in it. It was also far too clunky to take on a night out. So, in 2016, I bought a Pacsafe SlingSafe 100 GII. It still fitted a lot in it, surprisingly. But it was better for my back, looked nicer (especially with a dress) and lasted 4 years.
  • I had bought Pacsafe handbags for their security features. So, when it came to replacing the Pacsafe SlingSafe 100 GII (its zipper and the locking mechanism that connects the strap to the bag had started playing up), I first looked at Pacsafe models. In the end though, I went with the Travelon Anti-Theft Classic Essential Messenger Bag – a totally different brand that offered similar (yet less obvious) safety features at a very competitive price.
  • After 3 years of (almost) daily use, the zippers on the Travelon started playing up. I also found that a (typical) handbag annoyed the heck out of me on travel days and multi-day hikes – whenever I carried my travel pack at the same time. So, in November 2023, I switched to a sling bag: the Bellroy Lite Sling Mini. It doesn’t have the safety features of a Pacsafe or Travelon. But a sling bag – by nature – sits closer to your body (than a typical handbag), thus it hopefully won’t need all those features.
  • Pacsafe V125 Trifold Wallet

    Pacsafe V125 Trifold Wallet

    $45.95
  • Sea to Summit Ultra SIL Dry Bag

    Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Bag

    $22.95
  • Zpacks passport zip pouch

    Zpacks Passport Zip Pouch

    $17.95

Other Organisers

I use a stuff sack/compression sack for a number of reasons:

  • to keep my smelly and dirty clothes separate from my clean clothes;
  • to store wet clothes when I head to the beach or pool for a swim; and
  • to protect valuables in our daypack when out and about on the water or in pouring rain. A waterproof bag inside a waterproof bag – just to be on the safe side.

My shopping bag weighs next to nothing and takes up very little room, yet it’s super-versatile. I use it to carry groceries, take the washing to/from the laundromat, and as a personal item in the rare instances I need to reduce weight in my travel pack to stay within airline restrictions.

Having dual citizenship means we travel with three passports – two for me, one for Paul. I like to keep them together in one place and therefore travel with a super-lightweight passport pouch. Do you know which passports we travel on? Check our home page for the answer.

Your Essential Travel Safety Tips

No one can guarantee your safety while travelling. But following these essential tips may reduce your risk and help you stay out of harm’s way on your travels.

Clothing

When you travel with carry-on only in all four seasons you need to layer your clothes. It’s a simple but very effective trick to travelling light:

Sandra standing in front of ice sculpture in Sapporo

This Marmot Jacket is my only jacket - with merino layers underneath, it kept me toasty warm, even during the Snow Festival

Below are the clothes I currently carry with me, or if – they are no longer manufactured and available for sale – what I plan to buy as a replacement once they’ve reached their end of life.

Underwear / Sleepwear / Swimwear / Socks

I’m onto my fourth set of undies in 7+ years:

  • For the first two years, I wore Uniqlo Seamless Bikini Briefs. I loved their shape and the fact they were seamless. But they became larger and larger over time, and Uniqlo is NOT a role model when it comes to ethical and environmentally friendly manufacturing.
  • My second set was Macpac Merino Bikini Briefs. Tiny holes started to appear in the fabric around the hips after only a few months. I left a review on the Macpac website recommending product improvements, but my review was never published.
  • After a bit more research, I tried Saint Basics St Eva briefs (no longer manufactured), made of lyocell (or TENCEL, an eco-friendly cellulose fibre made from eucalyptus trees. The material is soft, lightweight, absorbent and doesn’t wrinkle. Those briefs lasted over three years.
  • My current undies are the best of both worlds – a mix of Merino and Lyocell. Allbirds might be best known for their shoes, but they do make great apparel too. The Allbirds’ undies are super-comfy, and their shape is very similar to my prior Saint Basics.
  • allbirds womens anytime thong

    Allbirds Womens Anytime Thong

    $16.00
  • Bikini Season Coja Multiway Bikini Top and Porto Cheeky Bottom

    Bikini Season Coja Multiway Bikini Top

  • Bikini Season Coja Multiway Bikini Top and Porto Cheeky Bottom

    Bikini Season Porto Cheeky Bottom

  • Boody Lyolyte® Triangle Tadded Bralette

    Boody LYOLYTE® Triangle Padded Bralette

    $29.95
  • Macpac Merino Blend Trail Ankle Sock

    Macpac Merino Blend Trail Ankle Sock

  • Macpac Merino Rouleur Sock

    Macpac Merino Rouleur Sock

  • Mitch Dowd Crazy Birds Bamboo Boxer

    Mitch Dowd Crazy Birds Bamboo Boxer

The boxer shorts are not accidentally included here. I do wear them (and have so since the very beginning). In fact, I’m onto my third pair in 7+ years (always the same brand). I combine them with one of my singlets or t-shirts – no need to carry a separate pyjama.

As for socks: I travel with four pairs, alternating between Macpac and Mons Royale. I always purchase socks that are made largely from Merino wool as only those keep my feet warm.

Layers

Layers are the key ingredients for travelling light in any season. In my case, these comprise:

For my merino layers, I have tried many different brands over the years: Icebreaker, Kathmandu, Macpac, Mons Royale – you name it. The best one so far however, has been Unbound Merino (especially when it comes to quality, sustainability and customer service).

Isn’t wool too hot in Summer? you may ask. In our first year on the road, I used technical quick-dry t-shirts made by Nike and Under Armour. These t-shirts started to smell after a while, despite regular washing. Merino wool is naturally odour resistant, and I sweat in them less than in those synthetic t-shirts. I can wear the same merino t-shirt three days in a row, and they don’t stink (no matter how hot it is). Merino wool fabric comes in different weights, and a 150-200g/sqm t-shirt is perfect for any season.

  • Mons Royale Approach Merino Gridlock Jacket

    Mons Royale Approach Merino Gridlock Jacket

    $229.95
  • Unbound Merino Womens Active Merino Tank Top

    Unbound Merino Womens Active Merino Tank Top

    $75.00
  • Unbound Merino Womens Merino V Neck T Shirt

    Unbound Merino Womens Merino V-Neck T-Shirt

    $85.00
  • Unbound Merino Womens Slim Merino Long Sleeve V Neck

    Unbound Merino Womens Slim Merino Long Sleeve V-Neck

    $95.00

Our jackets were probably the second most researched items (after our travel packs and before our hiking shoes). Given this was to be my only jacket, it had to be waterproof, ultra-lightweight, durable, long enough to cover (most of) my butt and not look like a potato sack.

Marmot has been leading the pack in product development, and we’ve only had Marmot jackets for the past 7+ years:

  • My Marmot Nano AS Jacket lasted three years. I maintained its water-repellent qualities by treating it with waterproofing spray. But at some point, the zipper broke.
  • The Marmot Eclipse Jacket was the perfect replacement. Rather than being treated with nasty chemicals to create a water-repellent layer (that needs to be reapplied regularly), the use of EvoDry technology means the fibre itself is water-proof. It is also made 100% from recycled nylon, further reducing the environmental impact of its manufacturing process. I’ve been wearing this jacket now for four years, and it’s still going strong.

While the Eclipse is no longer being made, the Marmot Womens Gore-Tex Minimalist Pro Jacket is very similar. It’s waterproofness is even higher: 28,000mm vs 20,000mm for the Eclipse, and it’s slightly lighter: 343grams vs 349grams for the Eclipse.

  • macpac womens uber light down vest

    Macpac Women’s Uber Light Down Vest

    $179.99
  • Marmot Womens Gore Tex Minimalist Pro Jacket

    Marmot Womens Gore-Tex Minimalist Pro Jacket

    $275.00

Pants / Dresses

Kühl and Outdoor Research have been my go-to brands for long pants since the very beginning. They fit my body shape perfectly – no alteration required. Likewise, PrAna shorts and capris have been my favourite companions for warmer days and sports activities (including yoga).

Most travel dresses look like potato sacks (at least on me) or come in colours that don’t suit me. Toad and Co’s range of lightweight dresses is huge. They are ethically and sustainably made and always look flattering.

  • KÜHL Trekr Pant

    KÜHL Trekr Pant

    $99.00
  • Outdoor Research Womens Ferrosi Pants

    Outdoor Research Womens Ferrosi Pants

    $99.00
  • PrAna Halle E Waist Short II

    PrAna Halle E-Waist Short II

    $75.00
  • PrAna Koen Capri

    PrAna Koen Capri

    $89.00
  • Toad And Co Rosemarie Dress

    Toad and Co Rosemarie Dress

    $88.00

Head, Neck and Hand Protection

When it’s sunny, you’ll see me with my (Minimalist Journeys branded) baseball cap, made of 50/50 Bamboo and Recycled PET. I also wear the cap when it rains, as the rim prevents rain from splashing at my glasses. When it’s freezing, I swap my cap for my trusty beanie, and add my buff and gloves. Easy as.

I also travel with a light-weight sarong. Why do I list it here? Because I mostly use it as a shawl around my shoulders (an easy way to add a touch of colour to my black dress on more formal occasions) and as a scarf on extra-cold days. On occasion as a sarong too, but less often.

  • Buff Merino Lightweight Neckwear

    Buff Merino Lightweight Neckwear

    $30.00
  • Mons Royale Volta Merino Glove Liner

    Mons Royale Volta Merino Glove Liner

    $44.95
  • prAna Stellium Sarong

    prAna Stellium Sarong

    $49.00
  • Unbound Merino Beanie

    Unbound Merino Beanie

    $75.00

Shoes

I only own three pairs of shoes – all of which are light-weight:

  • I wear my hiking shoes to hike (obviously) but also on days out around the city, and even when we dine out on a cold day.
  • My ballerinas fit perfectly to my dress for more formal occasions (including date nights – yes, we do have those – and weddings).
  • My sandals are perfect for summer days out and about, and water sports activities. Though I’ve also worn them indoors on cold floors.
  • Sale! Salomon X Ultra 4 GTX Womens Hiking Shoe

    Salomon X Ultra 4 GTX Womens Hiking Shoe

    Original price was: $160.00.Current price is: $120.00.
  • Xero Shoes Phoenix

    Xero Shoes Phoenix

    $74.99
  • Xero Shoes Z-Trail EV

    Xero Shoes Z-Trail EV

    $79.99

I have worn Salomon shoes for years and found them most suited to the shape of my foot. I’ve also tried Haglofs Trail Fuse GTX. A great company that makes good quality footwear, but the shoe sadly was too narrow for my (relatively narrow) foot. Go figure.

I also tried Merrell’s well-known Moab Speed GTX – but what a disaster. The shoe looked nice and fitted well when I bought it. But the upper started ripping after only SIX WEEKS of occasional wear around the city (I hadn’t even used them on a proper hike). Even worse though was my absolutely shocking experience with their customer service, which was not only incompetent in handling claims but refused to honour standard consumer warranties (even when contacted by NSW Fair Trading, the Australian organisation intermediating in cases like this). Needless to say: I will NEVER EVER purchase ANY Merrell product again.

Reviewing the manufacturers

We not only review the most suitable gear and business tools that meet our needs and stand the test of time. We also consider how ethically and sustainably a product was made and link to organisations that have reviewed the sourcing practices of manufacturers. 

Technology

Running an online business like Minimalist Journeys requires (of course) several devices and applications – we list those in our resources for small (remote) businesses.

The below technology list covers only non-business items – items a normal traveller may take with them on a long trip. All our technology and electronics are best of breed for the purpose we use them for. Also worth noting: The Nitecore battery pack and OneAdaptr OneWorld135 travel adapter/charger are shared between the two of us, but I include them here for completeness’ sake.

  • Baseus USB-C to USB-C Cable

    Baseus USB-C to USB-C Cable

    $14.99
  • Nitecore NB10000 Gen2 Powerbank

    Nitecore NB10000 Gen2 Energy Brick

    $59.95
  • Nitecore NU25 Headlamp

    Nitecore NU25 400L Headlamp

    $39.95
  • Sale! OneAdaptr OneWorld135 International Adapter

    OneAdaptr OneWorld135 International Adapter

    Original price was: $129.00.Current price is: $109.00.
  • Samsung Galaxy A54 5G

    Samsung Galaxy A54 5G

    $399.99

Toiletries

Toiletries are quite personal, so I won’t list every single item I travel with here. However, what we do make sure is that we

  • stay within the 100ml allowance for carry-on, and
  • use zero waste products wherever possible.

I keep my toiletries in a large Sea To Summit Travelling Light Hanging Toiletry Bag. I bought mine in 2012, and it’s still going strong, thanks to its 30D Cordura® ripstop nylon fabric. Paul uses the same toiletry bag but in the small size. I wouldn’t be able to fit all my stuff into the small version, but for the few things a man needs, the small one works well.

  • Sale! Coconut Matters Deodorant Options

    Coconut Matter Deodorant

    Original price was: $19.00.Current price is: $15.20.
  • Matador Toothbrush Cap

    Matador Toothbrush Cap

    $10.00
  • Sea To Summit Hanging Toiletry Bag

    Sea to Summit Hanging Toiletry Bag

    $54.99

Accessories

Towels

I travel with two towels – of different sizes and for different purposes:

  • I’ve had my Hammamas Turkish towel from the very beginning (still the same one). It’s light-weight, doesn’t smell and dries in an instant. Plus it’s super-multifunctional: I’ve used mine as a towel, beach/picnic blanket, wrap dress (on the way home from the beach) and even as an extra blanket when I was cold at night.
  • The PackTowl Personal Towel fits perfectly around my head to form a turban after I washed my hair. The towel sucks up the moisture and once removed, my hair air-dries in no time – I haven’t used a hair dryer in 7+ years. It’s my face towel at all other times but has also been used as a hand towel and kitchen towel when needed.

Utensils

Our water bottle is one of the most important items we travel with. We don’t buy water if we can avoid it. In many places around the world, tap water is perfectly fine to drink. Where (there is a likelihood that) it’s not, we boil water, let it cool down and then fill our water bottle. Water bottles are notoriously difficult to keep clean, not so the (aptly named) Klean Kanteen Wide Water Bottle. Added bonus: Thanks to its loop cap, I can secure it easily to my travel pack or daypack.

Like Paul, I also travel with a spork. Not an item we use daily but are always glad to have – whether on (multi-)day hikes or to avoid single-use cutlery when we buy meals on the road.

  • Hammamas towel

    Hammamas Towel

    $42.00
  • Klean Kanteen 27 oz Wide Water Bottle with Loop Cap

    Klean Kanteen 27 oz Wide Water Bottle with Loop Cap

    $24.95
  • Packtowl personal towel

    PackTowl Personal Towel

  • UCO Titanium Spork

    UCO Titanium Spork

    $16.99

Other

Only the main compartment of my travel pack can be locked, and for that purpose, I use a Samsonite TSA luggage lock. I don’t mind that the other compartments can’t be locked as they don’t contain any valuables, and I usually have my luggage on me (the benefit of carry-on).

We also travel with a compact first aid kit (about the size of my fist) and a travel sewing kit (about the size of a standard playing card deck) – both of which are shared between us – plus a reusable face mask and a pegless clothes line each (rolled up, about the size of Paul’s thumb). Neither is essential but all are handy:

  • First aid kit: if you’re out on a day trip or (multi-)day hike and got a blister or cut your finger preparing a meal – we regularly replenish items we have used (or which are past their use-by date).
  • Sewing kit: to fix our gear (think garment holes, loose buttons, broken seams and zippers).
  • Clothes line: we prefer to air-dry our clothes (our merino clothes last longer, and it’s better for our environment) – all we have to do is find two opposing points to attach the hooks to.
  • Reusable face mask: Ours are made from merino fabric (and Minimalist Journeys branded) – we wear them when we are in crowded places (especially in Asia, where face masks are omipresent).

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Last but not least, there is Egon, my travel mascot. A little soft toy monkey not much bigger than Paul’s fist, he’s been travelling with me around the world since November 1999. Which makes him the oldest item on my packing list!

Egon

Egon - my travel companion since 1999

Packing List Summary

Phew… that was a lot to take in. To help you put your own packing list together, here is a handy summary of all the items for you:

Recommended QuantityItemMy Recommendation
1Travel PackMEC Pangea 40 Carry On Travel Pack
2Packing CubeMEC Travel Light Packing Cube Large
1DaypackMatador Freerain22 Daypack
1Handbag/SlingbagBellroy Lite Sling Mini
1WalletPacsafe V125 Trifold Wallet
1Coin Purse
1Passport ProtectorZpacks Passport Zip Pouch
1Multi-Purpose BagSea to Summit Ultra-Sil Shopping Bag
1Stuff SackSea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Bag
1Toiletry BagSea to Summit Travelling Light Hanging Toiletry Bag
1BraBoody Lyolyte Triangle Padded Bralette
7UnderwearAllbirds Womens Anytime Thong
1SwimwearBikini Season Coja Multiway Bikini Top and Porto Cheeky Bottom
1SleepwearMitch Dowd Bamboo Boxer Shorts
2 pairs eachSocksMacpac Merino Blend Trail Ankle Sock
Macpac Merino Rouleur Crew Sock V3
2Base LayerUnbound Merino Womens Active Merino Tank Top
3T-Shirt (short sleeved)Unbound Merino Womens Merino V-Neck T-Shirt
1T-Shirt (long sleeved)Unbound Merino Womens Slim Merino Long Sleeve V-Neck
1 eachOuter LayerMons Royale Approach Merino Gridlock Jacket
Macpac Womens Uber Light Down Vest
1Rain JacketMarmot Womens Gore-Tex Minimalist Pro Jacket
1 eachPantsKUHL Trekr Pant (for nice weather activities and dining out)
Outdoor Research Womens Ferrosi Pants (for rainy day activities and muddy terrain hikes)
13/4 PantsPrAna Koen Capri
1ShortsPrAna Halle E-Waist Short II
1DressToad and Co Rosemarie Dress
1Head ProtectionUnbound Merino Beanie
1Neck ProtectionBuff Merino Lighweight Neckwear
1Hand ProtectionMons Royale Volta Merino Glove Liner
1 pairHiking ShoesSalomon X Ultra 4 GTX Womens Hiking Shoe
1 pairBallerinasXero Shoes Phoenix
1 pairSandalsXero Shoes Z-Trail EV
1Body/Beach TowelHammamas Towel
1Hand TowelPacktowl Towel
1Water BottleKlean Kanteen 27 oz Wide Water Bottle with Loop Cap
1Eating UtensilUCO Titanium Spork
1Mobile Phone
1USB-C to USB-C CableBaseus USB-C to USB-C Cable
1Headphones
1Universal Travel AdapterOneAdaptr OneWorld135 International Adapter
1Portable Battery ChargerNitecore NB10000 Power bank
1HeadlampNitecore NU25 400L Headlamp
1Combination LockSamsonite Luggage 3 Dial Travel Sentry Combo Lock
1First Aid Kit
1Sewing Kit
1ClotheslineGo Travel Clothes Line
1Face Mask

Paul travels with a whole bunch of running gear, but my exercise regime requires a lot less stuff.

My pack full of the above (plus my Microsoft Surface Pro) weighs approximately 9 kilograms / 20 pounds, whereas Paul’s travel pack with all his gear weighs approximately 11 kilograms / 24 pounds. So, together, we are below the 10 kilograms / 22 pounds carry-on allowance per person of most airlines.

Do you travel with carry-on luggage only?

What would you include in a carry-on only packing list (that I didn't)? If you have any thoughts/suggestions, please feel free to contact me. If you found my packing list helpful, please share it with your friends and family via the Share buttons below. Even better, link to this post from your personal blog or social media platforms.

Author: <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandrarosenau/" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.