Ever wondered how someone can fit their whole life into a carry-on backpack and travel the world with no end in sight? It’s actually not that difficult, even for 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 my 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 over 75% humidity. I can tell you, travelling with carry-on is so much more pleasant.
Initially, I struggled with the strict volume and weight limitations (especially when packing for all seasons). Until I came across the concept of a capsule wardrobe, and 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 3+ 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. You may want to adjust it according to the weather/climate at your destination/the time of year you travel.
And lastly, while my article today is for my fellow female travel aficionados, if you’re a guy who’s reading this (or a male loved one could use some advice) you may find the Minimalist Travel Wardrobe and Carry-On Packing List For Men fits what you’re after.
Given its importance, the backpack was the item I researched the most. Paul had bought a Tortuga V2, but that pack was too big for my frame (I’m only 1.64 metres / 5 feet 4.57 inches tall). I compared about a dozen different backpacks, and the Osprey Ozone 46 Travel Pack ended up being the best compromise based on my criteria.
Osprey doesn’t seem to make the Ozone 46 Travel Pack anymore, which is a real shame. I do like Osprey packs though and would likely buy another one if I ever had to. Not only is it one of the few companies that are still owned by the founding family, but they also sell at a very reasonable price and come with a lifelong guarantee.
- Meets carry-on size restrictions for most airlines (22H X 14W X 11D inches)
- Large U-zip luggage-style access to main compartment - 46L total volume
- Shoulder straps and hipbelt are stowable converting the bag from a backpack carry to duffel-style
- Protected rear panel lockable zip laptop/tablet sleeve for quick access at security or while traveling (fits up to most 15 inch laptops)
- Front panel organization pocket for easy access to small travel items
The Eagle Creek Pack-It Cube Set is a great help to keep everything neat and organised (like having drawers in your backpack). It’s easy to locate an item (for example, if I’m cold in an air-conditioned hall at the airport I just open the large packing cube, grab a cardigan or my shawl and zip it up again). No mess, no fuss.
While the cubes and the backpack don’t match exactly, they do work well together. My set includes one large cube (35cm x 25cm x 8cm) and two medium cubes (25cm x 18cm x 8cm). I’d never used packing cubes before I embarked on this journey but I swear by them now.
- PACK-IT ORIGINAL CUBE SET XS/S/M - Stay organized while using every square inch of packing space; set includes 3 different sized cubes: Medium - 14 x 10 x 3 in, Small - 10 x 7 x 3 in, X-Small 7.5 x 4.5 x 2.5 in
- PACK-IT TIPS - We recommend rolling your items in your luggage to maximize storage and to minimize wrinkles
- MAXIMIZE PACKING SPACE - Travel compression packs comes with two-way zippered opening for maximum compression freeing up space in your luggage
- SIMPLIFY SUITCASE LIVING - Use Cubes to roll and compartmentalize clothing & travel accessories, designed with a mesh top for visibility and breathability
- NO MATTER WHAT WARRANTY - Eagle Creek's Warranty covers the Lifetime Warranty promise plus the added insurance of repair or replacement due to product failure during the product lifetime, regardless of the cause
Paul and I currently use the Matador Freerain24. My daypack gets used a lot, as you can imagine. My current daypack is actually my third one in as many years of travel: I started with a Tortuga daypack and then moved to a 16-litre Matador daypack. The biggest weak point on the Tortuga was its seams. The biggest weak point on the 16-litre Matador daypack was the main compartment zipper.
The Matador Freerain24 doesn’t have the main compartment zipper, so I’m hoping I won’t find the same issues as with the smaller version. The Matador daypacks are the lightest packable waterproof backpacks there are. The 24-litre version only weighs 187 grams and packs into its own pouch – about the size of Paul’s fist.
My requirements for a daypack were:
- Ultra-light yet super strong
- Waterproof or at least water repellent
- As close to 20-litre capacity as possible – the Tortuga daypack had 21-litres which worked well
- Main compartment large enough to fit two laptop sleeves
- Deep side pocket/s to fit the 800ml water bottle
- Comfortable, adjustable shoulder straps and top grab handle
- Ability to pack it up into its own pouch.
|Dimensions||50cm x 28cm x 24cm / 19.5in x 11in x 9.5in|
|Weight||187g / 6.6oz|
|Purchase Date||June 2019|
|Sustainable or Ethical Policy Statement||Sustainability Statement|
I had a larger Pacsafe® handbag for a long time but always found that it hurt my back after a while as I ended up carrying the water bottle, iPad and all sorts of stuff in it. It was also far too clunky to take on a night out.
My current handbag, a Pacsafe SlingSafe 100 GII, still fits a lot in it, surprisingly. But it is better for my back and looks nicer, especially with a dress. And it has stood the test of time since I purchased it in 2016.
Unfortunately, my handbag is another item that is no longer made. Why do manufacturers discontinue models that are great? Anyhow… I bought a Pacsafe handbag for its security features:
- embedded eXomesh® wiring that protects against thefts
- extra locking mechanism for the zipper
- in-built RFID pouch for my wallet.
So, unless there is a manufacturer which makes similar handbags when it comes to replacing mine I’d likely look for another Pacsafe model of a similar size. The Stylesafe Anti-Theft Crossbody Bag looks like a contender.
I use a stuff sack/compression sack for a number of reasons. The first is that it holds my dirty washing. I prefer to keep my smelly and dirty clothes separate from my Eagle Creek Cube Packing Set. Secondly, I use it to store wet clothes when I head to the beach or pool for a swim and thirdly, I use it to store my Microsoft Surface Pro when I need to carry it in the daypack in the pouring rain. A waterproof bag inside a waterproof bag – just to be on the safe side.
My current sack is a large Exped Folding Drybag. It’s a swiss design but made in China from PU-coated nylon.
|Dimensions||42cm x 22cm / 16.5in x 8.6in|
|Weight||55g / 1.9oz|
|Purchase Date||March 2019|
|Sustainable or Ethical Policy Statement||Our Ideas|
One can debate whether RFID blocking bags and protectors have any value. I bought the Pacsafe RFIDsafe 50 Passport Protector back in 2012, and are still using it to keep the passports and vaccination booklets in the one place. The Pacsafe RFIDsafe 50 Passport Protector also fits neatly into my handbag, which makes it easy to access at border crossings.
Some countries are very fussy about the quality, and wear and tear of physical passports. Well, I don’t have that problem.
- Smart rfid-blocking material protects personal data on passports and credit cards
- Ultra lightweight and compact to fit in most passport pockets
The other organisers I carry with me are:
- Colorado trifold leather wallet
- Tiny no-name coin purse
- Ultra-strong silk bag (used to carry groceries, take the washing to/from the laundromat or as a personal item in case I need to reduce weight in the backpacks to stay within airline restrictions).
Clothing and Shoes
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. On a hot day, I just wear one layer (not counting my bra): a singlet or a t-shirt. On a cold winter’s day, I can wear up to 6 layers (not counting my bra): a merino singlet, a merino t-shirt, a merino long-sleeve, a merino hoodie, my down vest and my jacket. This is toasty, guaranteed. Most of the time, 5 layers are enough (minus the t-shirt or the long-sleeve).
So far, I’ve just used an underwire bra I already had (brand unknown). Given I’ve travelled with it for over 3 years now and it’s still doing its job, it must have been of reasonably good quality.
As and when my current bra requires replacement, I’ll most likely look for another (ideally underwire) bra of a similar shape made of Lyocell/TENCEL™ or merino. I haven’t found one yet but then again, I haven’t really had the need to research it. Leave a comment below if you can recommend one.
I’m onto my third set of undies in as many years of travel.
The first year, I travelled with 7 x Uniqlo Seamless Bikini Briefs. I loved their shape and the fact they really 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. So, when they started to slip off my butt far too easily, I looked for a better alternative.
My second set were 7x Macpac Merino Bikini Briefs. They were great for a while (even though they were not seamless), but tiny holes started to appear after a few months in the fabric that sits on the hips. I left a review on the Macpac website recommending product improvements, but my review was never published. Beware those 5-star reviews, they aren’t all there is!
After a bit more research, I came across a material I hadn’t heard of before: Lyocell (or TENCEL™), an eco-friendly cellulose fibre made from eucalyptus trees. It is soft, lightweight, absorbent and doesn’t wrinkle. So rather than trying another set of merino briefs I decided to test TENCEL™-based Saint Basic St Eva undies instead. I’ve only had them since December 2019, so let’s see how they do overtime.
I started out with Uniqlo Heattech Singlets, and I still have one.
I also have a Macpac 150 Merino Singlet, and I had a Macpac 150 Merino Camisole. Both changed shape after the first wash: the camisole became super small, the singlet huge. After wearing it a few times, I just found the camisole too short and too tight (and got rid of it). I shortened the straps of the singlet and was able to wear it for a few months. But in the end, it had the same issue as my undies: the fabric just wears thin and starts to develop holes within a few months. I’m about to replace it, I’m just looking for good merino or TENCEL™ replacement.
I had a better experience with merino T-shirts: I’ve had my current Icebreaker Spheria SS Scoop Shirts (2x grey, 1x red) since December 2017, and they are still going strong (even though they get washed in the same wash as my merino undies and singlets).
I also travel with two long-sleeve shirts, an IceBreaker Willow 3/4 Sleeve Shirt (grey) and a Uniqlo Heattech Long-Sleeve Shirt (dark green). Both are still going strong even after more than 3 years on the road. But I am going to replace the Uniqlo shirt with a more odour-resistant and sustainable version soon. I find the armpit area of the Uniqlo shirt starts smelling faster than my merino shirts.
Shorts and Pants
After over 3 years of full-time travel, I’m now onto my second set of long pants.
Initially, I travelled with black Outdoor Research Ferrosi pants and black Esprit Cargo pants – both did a great job. After 2 years, I replaced those with the ones I’m still using now: khaki-coloured Kuhl Splash Roll-up Pants and black Macpac Trekker V2 Pants. The roll-up pants are starting to wear thin in a few places, and I’m going to replace them with the same pair soon.
On warmer days, I wear khaki-coloured Prana Tess Shorts. They sit perfectly and are stain-resistant. And again, after 3+ years, they’re still going strong.
I also use Lorna Jane Studio Active Pants when I’m at home. I’ve had them for 5 years now. They are starting to wear thin in some places, so I’m going to (have to) replace them soon.
My little black JJ Authentic Short-Sleeve Dress is probably the oldest clothing item I own. I bought it at Century21 (which sadly went out of business in 2020) when I visited New York as part of the three-month backpacking trip in 2012.
I just love the empire style shape, and even after almost 8 years, it’s still going strong. It’s perfect for a date night, and I even wore it at a friend’s wedding. It’s super versatile. So, if you have a similar dress that you just love there is no reason not to add it to your carry-on wardrobe. Just make sure it doesn’t wrinkle easily.
I always travel with a swimsuit. I had a different one initially (a black one). I even had two at some stage: the black one and my current one. But one fine day, I hung my black bikini on the back ladder of the campervan in New Zealand to dry, and I forgot to take it when I drove off. Oh, well… I hope it didn’t cause a traffic accident.
Thankfully, I still had that second one: I bought the Women’s Secret Bikini when I visited Curaçao in March 2017, as black bikinis are not much fun in the Caribbean sun (especially not if you have pale skin underneath). So, that too is almost 3 years old and still going strong.
Initially, I wanted to pack long pyjama pants as I would spend several months in the Northern Hemisphere Winter (initially in Canada and the USA, and now in Europe). I’m glad I didn’t… A pair of Mitch Dowd boxer shorts together with a Uniqlo Heattech Short Sleeve Shirt (and my late grandma’s woollen socks in cold climates) have proven to be sufficient. It does help though to have an athlete husband (who produces enough heat for both of us) to cuddle up to on cold nights.
I mentioned my woollen socks (made by my late grandma) already. Besides those bed socks, I travel with
- one pair of Icebreaker Women’s Hike+ Medium Crew socks
- two pairs of medium Mons Royale Tech socks
- one pair of anklet Macpac merino socks (the second pair got lost in the wash somewhere); and
- Scholl Flight compression socks (which I only wear on long-haul flights).
So far, the Mons Royale socks have been the best of all, and I would likely replace any of those I currently own with another Mons Royale pair, despite the hefty price tag.
For those cold winter days, I also use the Uniqlo Ultralight down vest (and have so for over 3 years). There are other ultra-lightweight down vests on the market but at a significantly higher price than the Uniqlo vest. I have since learned that the price comes at a cost: Uniqlo’s owner Fast Retailing is only ranked low-average when it comes to sustainability practices. At least, the vest has been holding up well over the years, and there is no need to replace it anytime soon.
The jackets were probably the second most researched items (after the backpacks and before the shoes). Given this was to be my only jacket, it had to be waterproof (of course), ultra-lightweight, durable, long enough to cover (most of) my butt and not look like a potato sack.
After more than 3 years of use, I replaced my Marmot Nano AS Jacket in December 2019. I had maintained its water-repellent qualities by treating it with waterproofing spray. But at some point, the zipper broke and I finally had to say goodbye.
I did stick with Marmot though as I found an excellent replacement: the Marmot Women’s Eclipse Jacket. Rather than being treated with nasty chemicals to create a water-repellent layer (that need to be reapplied regularly), this jacket is part of Marmot’s EvoDry range. EvoDry is a new technology that creates water-repellent qualities that don’t wash or wear out, as the fibre itself is water-proof. It is also made 100% from recycled nylon, further reducing the environmental impact of its manufacturing process.
Head, Neck and Hand Covers
While my prescription glasses have transition lenses and go completely black in bright sunlight, I find that I need additional protection to feel comfortable. So, when it’s sunny you’ll usually see me with my Nike Dri-FIT Tech Golf Cap.
I also wear the cap when it rains, as the rim prevents rain from splashing at my glasses. And unless it’s freezing cold, the cap also gives my head extra protection on those colder days. On those rare occasions when it does get below zero I swap the cap for my trusty Icebreaker Pocket hat.
Around my neck, I alternate between my black Buff Original and my red and black JJ Sisters Shawl. The shawl is one of the more multi-functional pieces I own: I wear it as a shawl draped around my shoulders on a cooler day/evening (perfect with my dress), as a scarf to give me some extra warmth on a freezing cold day, and I’ve also worn it as a headscarf in places of worship.
Finally, for really cold days, I also have a pair of leather and fleece gloves (brand unknown) in my luggage.
- FABRIC: 100% Merino wool
- FEATURES: Soft, warm, wind-resistant, and lightweight layer sourced from humanely raised, non-mulesed sheep. Natural moisture wicking and odor control properties
- WAYS TO WEAR & USE: Wearable in 10+ different ways, it’s versatile multisport headwear delivering four-season performance. A soft, warm, wind-resistant, and lightweight layer perfect for chilly morning hikes or bike rides and warmer days on the slopes.
- CARE INSTRUCTIONS: Hand wash with mild soap. Lay flat to dry. Do not use fabric softeners or bleach. Do no machine dry or use an iron.
- FIT: One size fits most adults
I started this journey with Salomon X ULTRA LTR GTX hiking shoes. After a year of travel, they started wearing thin at the back of the ankle, and I had to replace them. Unfortunately, the same model was no longer made in charcoal, so I replaced them with the very similar-looking Salomon Women’s X Ultra 3 GTX Hiking Shoes. That pair lasted almost two years, and I replaced it with the exact same version in September 2019.
I travelled with Crocs Flip Flops for the first two years. While they worked great most of the time, they were useless in moving water, for example at Semuc Champey, hence the Merrell sports sandals I use now.
My quest for light-weight yet durable ballerinas is ongoing. The ones I’m using at the moment, actually arrived (from the manufacturer) falling apart at the seams. I managed to stitch them up and so far, they’ve survived a wedding and about two hours worth of walking around town.
Xero Shoes have recently launched ballerinas, but with 340g / 12oz for my size, they’re even heavier than my hiking boots. If you’ve come across any lightweight durable ballerinas that are great for travelling (and not overly expensive) please leave a comment below.
- Best Use: versatile, low profile hanging toiletry bag for organized travel
- Size: 3 Liter total volume for compact travel; Size: 9 x 6 x 3 in
- Pockets: 1 Large main, 1 inside divider, 2 inside zippered, 1 exterior zippered
- Materials: water-resistant Ultra-Sil CORDURA nylon fabric, stretch mesh fabric, & durable zippers
- Features: Stowable hanging hook, detachable/shatterproof mirror, carrying handle
I have a large Sea To Summit Travelling Light Hanging Toiletry Bag which fits everything I need. I bought mine in 2012, and it’s still going strong, thanks to its 30D Cordura® ripstop nylon fabric (which is the same fabric that the waterproof daypack has). The fabric is thin (and thus very lightweight) but super durable.
Paul also bought a Sea To Summit Travelling Light Hanging Toiletry Bag, but in the small size, after his old one needed replacing. I must say I wouldn’t be able to fit my stuff into the small version but for the few things, a man needs, the small one works well.
I don’t like to be a hairy bear, so my Schick Hydro TrimStyle shaver and hair trimmer is always in my toiletry bag, just like a nail clipper, tweezers and a hairbrush. Everything else in my toiletry bag are consumables.
Accessories and Technology
When it came to quick-drying towels, I had the option to buy another larger Packtowl, but I decided to go with a Turkish bath towel instead, and I couldn’t be happier with it. In fact, my Turkish bath towel has proven so popular that even Paul has one now.
By the way, besides being a great towel for the shower, I have taken it to the beach to sit on (hiring a lounger every time would be far too costly), I have used it as an extra blanket when it was a bit too cold at night, and I’ve even worn it like a sarong on my way home from the beach.
Sleeping Bag/Liner (only when needed)
Speaking of cold nights: I do own a sleeping bag and liner each:
- Kathmandu Comet Sleeping Bag
- Silk Sleeping Bag Liner
though I don’t carry them in a carry-on if I don’t have to.
First Aid Kit
I also travel with a compact first aid kit the size of my fist. A first aid kit is not essential but handy if you’re out on a day trip and got a blister or cut your finger preparing a meal. The first aid kit is actually in Paul’s backpack but I include it here for completeness.
Only the main compartment of my backpack can be locked, and for that reason, I use a Samsonite TSA luggage lock. I don’t mind that the other compartments can’t be locked as I usually have my luggage on me (the benefit of carry-on).
I also use a Pacsafe belt, not so much to hold up my pants but to hold some emergency money if something goes wrong.
Universal Travel Adapter
Have you ever travelled to a foreign country and realized only upon arrival that they have a different plug pin configuration or current supply? Well, you only do it once…
I prefer an all-in-one option and one that fits nicely into the backpack, so size and weight were also critical. After much research, I purchased the Pac2Go Universal Travel Adapter, which has been great.
I initially travelled without a separate light source, thinking that my smartphone flashlight would be sufficient… until I tried to explore an unlit cave in Guatemala. Since then, I’ve been travelling with a Black Diamond Spot Head Lamp, and let me tell you: hands-free is so much better (not to speak of the much brighter light that comes with 300 lumens).
Drinking and Eating
The Klean Kanteen 800ml stainless steel water bottle is one of the most important items I travel with. I don’t buy water if I 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, I boil water, let it cool down and then fill the stainless steel water bottle. Why do I like this particular model? Because
- it has a wide mouth, which means it’s easy to clean,
- it’s non-insulated, which means it weighs bugger all, and
- 800ml is the perfect size for us.
While I’m not blind, I do see better with glasses when I’m out and about. So, not surprisingly, I travel with (Specsavers) prescription glasses. As mentioned before, they come with transition lenses, so there is no need for extra sunglasses.
Last but not least, there is Egon, my travel mascot, a little soft toy monkey not much bigger than Paul’s fist who’s been travelling with me around the world since November 1999 – which makes him the oldest item on my packing list, a whopping 20 years!
Packing List Summary
|Travel Backpack||Osprey Ozone 46 Travel Pack||1|
|Packing Cubes||Eagle Creek Pack-It Cube Set||1|
|Daypack||Matador Freerain24 2.0||1|
|Handbag||Pacsafe SlingSafe 100 GII (no longer available for purchase)||1|
|Multi-Purpose Bag||Ultra-strong silk bag||1|
|Wallet||Colorado trifold leather wallet|
|Passport Protector||Pacsafe RFIDsafe 50 Passport Protector||1|
|Toiletry Bag||Sea to Summit Travelling Light Hanging Toiletry Bag||1|
|Stuff Sack||Exped Folding Drybag||1|
|Underwear||Saint Basic St. Eva||7|
|Base Layer||Uniqlo Heattech Singlet|
Macpac 150 Merino Singlet
|Shirts (short sleeved)||Icebreaker Women’s Spheria short-sleeved scoop shirt||3|
|Shirts (long sleeved)||IceBreaker Willow 3/4 Sleeve Shirt (no longer available for purchase)|
Uniqlo Heattech Long-Sleeve Shirt
|Outer Layer||Macpac Focus 280 Zip Hoodie|
Icebreaker Dia Long Sleeve Zip Jacket
Uniqlo Ultralight Down Vest
|Rain Jacket||Marmot Women’s Eclipse Jacket||1|
|Pants||Kuhl Splash Roll-up Pants|
Macpac Trekker V2 Pants
Lorna Jane Studio Active Pants
|Shorts||Prana Tess Shorts||1|
|Dress||JJ Authentic Short-Sleeve Dress||1|
|Swimwear||Women’s Secret Bikini||1|
|Sleepwear||Mitch Dowd boxer shorts and Uniqlo Heattech Short Sleeve Shirt||1 set|
|Socks||Long Icebreaker merino socks|
Mons Royale Women’s Tech Bike Socks 2.0
Anklet Macpac merino socks
Scholl Flight compression socks
Woolen socks (made by my late grandma)
|6 pairs in total|
|Shoes||Salomon Women’s X Ultra 3 GTX Hiking Shoes|
Merrell sports sandals
Ultra Light-Weight Ballerinas
|1 pair each|
|Head, Neck and Hand Cover||Nike Dri-FIT Tech Golf Cap|
Icebreaker Pocket Hat
BUFF Original Multi-Functional Headwear
JJ Sisters Shawl
Leather and Fleece Gloves
|Towel||Hammamas Turkish Bath Towel|
Small Packtowl towel
|Medical Kit||First Aid Kit||1|
|Combination Lock||Samsonite Luggage 3 Dial Travel Sentry Combo Locks||3|
|Money Belt||Pacsafe Belt||1|
|Universal Travel Adapter||Pac2Go Universal Travel Adapter||1|
|Headlamp||Black Diamond Spot Headlamp||1|
|Clothesline||Design Go Go Travel Clothes Line||1|
|Sewing Kit||Compact Travel Kit||1|
|Water Bottle||Klean Kanteen Wide Mouth Single Wall Stainless Steel Water Bottle||1|
|Eating Utensil||Light My Fire Titanium Spork||1|
|Personal Items||Schick Hydro TrimStyle Shaver and Hair Trimmer|