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. 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 5 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 and 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 (my Osprey backpack is still going strong 5 years on). 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.
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.
Sadly, Eagle Creek’s parent company has decided to close down the brand by the end of 2021. The one positive thing: you might be able to pick up a set of packing cubes, luggage and other travel organization gear at a discounted price as Eagle Creek’s operation is being wound up. My packing cubes are still going strong after 5 years, so their gear is definitely worth checking out.
Paul and I currently use the Matador Freerain24. Our daypack gets used a lot, as you can imagine. Our current daypack is actually our third one in 5 years of travel: We started with a Tortuga daypack. When that broke, we 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, and therefore doesn’t have the same issues the smaller version. We’ve now had it for over 2 years, and it’s still holding up very well.
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.
Our 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, the 16-litre Matador was a bit on the small side).
- Main compartment large enough to fit two laptop sleeves
- Deep side pocket/s to fit our 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|
Like our daypack, my handbag gets used a lot. So, no wonder I’m onto my second handbag in 5 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 the water bottle, iPad 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: embedded eXomesh® wiring that protects against thefts, an extra locking mechanism for the zipper and an in-built RFID pouch for my wallet. So, when it came to replacing my second handbag (its zipper and the locking mechanism that connects the strap to the bag had started playing up), I first looked at Pacsafe models. The Stylesafe Anti-Theft Crossbody Bag looked like a contender.
In the end though, I went with a totally different brand that offered similar safety features at a very competitive price. My current handbag is the Travelon Anti-Theft Classic Essential Messenger Bag. Travelon‘s safety features are less obvious than those on the Pacsafe handbags (which I prefer), and so far, it’s working really well for me.
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 clean clothes.
- 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 the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Roll-Top Stuff Sack.
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 our waterproof daypack has). The fabric is thin (and thus very lightweight) but super durable.
Paul also uses the same toiletry bag but in the small size. I wouldn’t be able to fit my toiletries into the small version, but for the few things a man needs, the small one works well.
One can debate whether RFID blocking bags and protectors have any value. I bought the Pacsafe RFIDsafe 50 Passport Protector back in 2012, and I’m still using it to keep our passports and vaccination booklets safe and dry 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.
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).
For the first 4 years, I just used a lightly padded underwire bra I already had (brand unknown). When that required replacement, I looked for another bra like it but made of Lyocell/TENCEL™ or merino.
Unfortunately, that search wasn’t very successful. Bras made from natural materials tend to be without underwire or padding. That very bare type of bra just isn’t my thing (you know why when you get caught with one wearing only a t-shirt in a cold wind or rain shower).
Anyhow, I ended up buying a Body Bliss 2nd Generation Contour Bra from BrasNthings. It may not have been the most sustainable or ethical choice. To my defense though, I needed sizing advice, hence my choice of shop. And if the time my prior bra lasted is anything to go by, this one will also last a long time.
I’m onto my third set of undies in five years of full-time travel.
For the first two years, I travelled with 7x 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, and I had to replace them after only a year. I left a review on the Macpac website recommending product improvements, but my review was never published. Beware of 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 St Eva underwear by Saint Basics. I’ve now had 7 of them since December 2019, and they are still going strong.
I started out with two Uniqlo Heattech Singlets and an Icebreaker Merino Aero Tank Top. I’ve had the latter now for almost 4 years, and it’s still holding up very well.
The Uniqlo singlets also did very well. But they didn’t keep me as warm on cold days (or dry on hot days) as my merino tank top. So, eventually, I replaced them – with a Macpac 150 Merino Camisole and a Mons Royale No Ordinary Cami. Unfortunately, both changed shape after the first wash: the camisole shrank, the singlet became huge. After wearing it a few times, I just found the camisole too short and too tight. I shortened the straps of the singlet and was able to wear it for about a year. But in the end, it had the same issue as my undies: the fabric just wore thin and started to develop holes.
When it came to finding a new base layer (I now only travel with two), I looked for good merino and TENCEL™ products and ended up buying an Icebreaker Sphere Tank Top. I’ve now had this tank top since March 2020, and it’s still going strong. Learning: Not all merino products are created equal.
I had a better experience with merino t-shirts: I’ve owned three Icebreaker Spheria SS Scoop shirts over the years, and each lasted about 3 years. I bought my current one in February 2019, so it hopefully still has a few more months of life left.
In the first year of our travels, I also tested sports t-shirts made of polyester. But I very quickly realized: these girls smell. Natural fibres are definitely the way to go if you travel with carry-on only in all four seasons.
Apart from myIcebreaker Women’s Spheria short-sleeved scoop shirt, I also own a Global Culture Womens Tshirt, and 2x St Isabel t-shirts by Saint Basics. Like my undies, the latter are made from TENCEL™. One of them is my pyjama top; the other one, I wear like a normal t-shirt. While they are better than those polyester t-shirts, these t-shirts are not as odour-resistant as merino shirts. So, for t-shirts, I’ll stick with merino from here on.
I also travel with a long-sleeve shirt: a Kathmandu Core Spun Long Sleeved V top. I’ve had this one now since June 2020, and I’m reasonably happy with it. It’s lost a bit of shape and is a bit short for my liking, but I’ll keep it for now.
Until June 2020, I travelled with two long-sleeve shirts: an Icebreaker Willow 3/4 Sleeve Shirt and a Uniqlo Heattech Long-Sleeve Shirt. Both lasted more than 3 1/2 years.
Pants and Shorts
I’ve owned 7 pairs of pants in 5 years of full-time travel.
Initially, I travelled with black Outdoor Research Ferrosi pants and black Esprit Cargo pants – both did a great job. After our first year, I replaced those with khaki-colored KÜHL Splash Roll-up Pants and black Macpac Trekker V2 Pants – which lasted about 2 years. I now wear dark-grey KÜHL Splash Roll-up Pants and black Outdoor Research Women’s Voodoo Pants.
I also wear Willit Women’s Studio Joggers when I’m at home (after wearing Lorna Jane Studio Active Pants for over 5 years).
On warmer days, I wear khaki-colored PrAna Bliss Shorts. They sit perfectly and are stain-resistant. I’ve had them now for almost 5 years, and they’re still going strong.
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 during our three-month backpacking trip in 2012. I just love the empire style shape, and even after almost 10 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.
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 isn’t one that wrinkles easily.
I always travel with a swimsuit. I even had two at some stage: a black one and my current one. But one fine day, I hung my black bikini on the back ladder of our 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 we visited Curaçao in March 2017, as black bikinis are not much fun in the Caribbean sun (especially not if you have pale skin like me). So, that too is now over 4 years old and still going strong.
A pair of Mitch Dowd boxer shorts together with a t-shirt (and the occasional woolen socks) 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.
Apart from Scholl Flight compression socks (which I only wear on long-haul flights), I own
- 2x Macpac Merino Rouleur Crew Socks, and
- 2x Mons Royale Women’s Vert Ankle Socks.
I only bought the Macpac socks in May 2021 after wearing Mons Royale Tech 2.0 Bike Socks for almost 3 years. I loved those socks and literally wore them until they had holes in them. I would have liked to replace them with the same model, but couldn’t find them anywhere at the time. And the Macpac socks (at least on paper) looked very similar. Let’s see how they perform in comparison.
Our 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 three 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 Womens Eclipse Jacket. Rather than being treated with nasty chemicals to create a water-repellent layer (that needs 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.
I travel with two long sleeve zip jackets, both made from merino – a black Icebreaker Women’s Victory and a grey Icebreaker Dia.
On cold winter days, I also wear a Macpac Uber-Light Hooded Down Vest (after using a Uniqlo vest for almost 5 years). I had bought the Uniqlo vest back in the day (when I was less focused on sustainability) because it was very cheap in comparison with other brands. 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.
Head, Neck and Hand Protection
While my prescription glasses have transition lenses and go completely black in bright sunlight, my skin is quite pale, and I find that I need additional protection to feel comfortable in the sun.
So, when it’s sunny, you’ll usually see me with my LUCKY baseball cap by the Australian brand Blank Clothing. I used to wear a Nike Dri-FIT Tech Golf Cap until 2021 but have since changed to this one – which is made of 50% Bamboo and Recycled PET (and has our own logo on it).
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 and as a skirt on laundry days.
Finally, for really cold days, I also have a pair of leather and fleece gloves (brand unknown) in my luggage.
I started our location-independent life 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.
Unfortunately, this pair only lasted about a year until holes developed at the top of the foot where two different materials join. I contacted Salomon (and Bike 24 where I bought them) about it, but they put it down to wear and tear. I doubt that given I didn’t have that problem with the exact same pair previously. Learning: Salomon might have a 2-year warranty, but it’s pretty much worthless.
I continued wearing the Salomon Women’s X Ultra 3 GTX for a few more months, but they were no longer waterproof. And when it came to replacing them, I made sure to shop around. While I liked the fit of the Salomons and knew my size (which made it easy to find a replacement online), I didn’t appreciate the warranty claim experience. And many of the Salomon shoes available in New Zealand were not (yet) PFC-free.
I now wear Haglöfs Trail Fuse Goretex Shoes. While a bit tight, they are comfortable. And their water-proofing is PFC-free.
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 lightweight yet durable ballerinas was a painful one, but one that ended with success. After 4 years without, I bought Xero Shoes Phoenix in August 2020, and I love them. They are reasonably lightweight and super comfortable and go well with my dress, my shorts and my long pants.
Accessories and Technology
I travel with two towels: a Turkish bath towel and a Packtowl hand towel. I use my Packtowl to dry my face and hands and to wrap my hair after I washed it. For the shower and the beach, I use my Turkish towel (Paul has one too).
The Turkish towel is also one of the most versatile items in my luggage: I have taken it to the beach to sit on and for picnics, 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/dress on my way home from the beach.
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).
Sleeping Bag Liner (only when needed)
Speaking of cold nights: I used to own a Kathmandu Comet Sleeping Bag. But since I hardly ever used it (not even during our Camino Portuguese in 2019), I donated it to a charity store in November 2020.
What I kept though is my silk Mountain Designs sleeping bag liner. That way, I can hire a sleeping bag if and when I need one and still feel clean.
Chances are you have a clothesline or drying rack and a sewing kit at home. Well, I carry my home on my back like a tortoise, and household includes practical items like a Design Go-Go Travel Clothes Line and a tiny Sewing Kit. Both have saved us a few times.
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 just the perfect size.
Like Paul, I also own a Light My Fire Titanium Spork. It hasn’t let me down (the plastic version before though did).
While I’m not blind, I do see better with glasses when I’m out and about. So, not surprisingly, I travel with 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, he’s been travelling with me around the world since November 1999. Which makes him the oldest item on my packing list!
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 my backpack, so size and weight were also critical. After much research, I purchased the Pac2Go Universal Travel Adapter, which has been great.
While I switched from an Apple SE to a Samsung Galaxy S10 mobile phone about a year ago (the new Apple phones were just too expensive for the value they offered), I still use my Apple headphones (until they fall apart).
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 Storm Headlamp, and let me tell you: hands-free is so much better (not to speak of the much brighter light that comes with 300 lumens).