The 6 Golden Packing Principles For Ultralight Travel (Carry-On Only)

''Efficiency is doing better what has already been done'' - Peter Drucker

''The men who succeed are the efficient few. They are the few who have the ambition and will power to develop themselves.'' -Robert Burton

If you’ve been travelling the world for a while, you’ll probably have noticed that most backpackers carry pretty enormous backpacks on their shoulders.

It’s not uncommon to backpackers lugging around 80, 90 or even 100 litre backpacks and often doing so in oppressively hot, humid weather too. 

As if this wasn’t enough of a burden to be bearing already, you’ll no doubt have seen that some of these backpackers wear a smaller daypack on the front of their bodies too.

Apparently, there are very few backpackers on the road that have mastered the art of packing efficiently. But what do we mean by that?

Efficient packing means reducing the weight and size of your backpack and its load down to the bare minimum, without compromising your needs in any major way.

Essentially, it means packing better and smarter. In practice, it translates into being able to travel with unmatched ease and mobility for an indefinite period with just a carry-on compliant backpack or a small daypack.

Don’t underestimate the value of packing efficiently. Heavy backpacks are not only a great burden on your body, but also on your mind and bank account.

On the other hand, travelling with nothing but a single carry-on suitable backpack confers numerous benefits upon you as a traveller including:

- No more checked luggage fees when taking flights (carry-on only)

- No more waiting around for your luggage at the airport baggage carousel after arriving or worrying if your checked baggage will make it to your final destination during a multi-leg flight

- No more worrying if your bag will still be there in the luggage compartment in the morning when taking a long-distance overnight bus

- Having the freedom to explore a new town or city on foot while searching for accommodation, instead of being at the mercy of expensive Tuk-Tuks and trishaws to ferry you around

- No more difficulties moving around crowded buses and trains or in finding space to stow your backpack

- No more back pain or back problems related to carrying around an excessively large & heavy backpack

- No more missed buses or hitchhiking opportunities due to the driver’s reluctance to stop due to your enormous luggage

- No more being asked to pay for an extra seat in a minivan because your backpack takes up an entire seat in the vehicle.

- Time saved by having less stuff to pack and unpack when you change to new accommodation

- Lowered risk of being targeted by thieves due to having fewer possessions to steal and fewer bags to safeguard. For more information on this and other travel safety tips, see our comprehensive guide to travel safety.

So how does one pack efficiently? Well, we’ve boiled it down to six golden principles. If you bear these principles in mind, it will be much easier for you to solve the riddle of packing everything you need into a small, lightweight backpack.

Here are the six key principles to keep in mind:

Principle #1: Restrict the size of your backpack

Principle #2: Pack only for the near future

Principle #3: If in doubt, leave it out

Principle #4: Further qualify items before packing

Principle #5: Keep everything organized

Principle #6: Minimize dead space inside your backpack 

Principle #1 - Restrict the size of your backpack

Packing efficiently all begins with a shift in mindset. When most people pack for a trip, they’ll dream up a list of items they think they’ll need and then find a bag that’s big enough to accommodate all of those items.

In other words, the items dictate the backpack that is chosen and not the other way around. This approach is completely backwards to the approach required for efficient packing. 


To pack efficiently, use the opposite approach: Start by selecting a very small backpack and instead let that dictate the items that are chosen.


If you’re taking some camping gear, we recommend choosing a backpack with a maximum capacity of 40-45L and setting a weight limit of 7-8 kg. This is sufficient space and will still keep it within the cabin baggage limits for many of the budget airlines!


However, just bear in mind that some camping gear like camping knives, cooking stove gas canisters etc. cannot be taken on board a plane. 


If you’re not taking any camping gear, we recommend choosing a backpack no larger than 35L and setting for yourself a weight limit of 4-5 kg after all items are packed.


This move to a smaller backpack will instantly shave some weight off your total since the pack itself is lighter. The new size limitation now also forces you to pack with the utmost efficiency, saving you additional weight and space.


You’ll have to do a complete re-think of what items you’re bringing. Ultimately, everything you bring will have to fit inside that small bag with maybe a few items clipped to the outside and all other remaining items you will be wearing or taking in your pockets.


If you need some additional help with choosing a backpack see our detailed article on how to choose the perfect backpack for travel

Principle #2 - Pack only for the near future

One of the major culprits for over-packing is the mindset of thinking too far ahead and trying to pack for the anticipated needs of the distant future.


This mindset is in fact mostly predicated on the fear that certain items will be unobtainable at that point in the distant future when they’re needed.


Now, to take an example, let’s say you’re planning a fairly long and varied trip of 6 months duration. You plan to travel through a few different countries, environments and climate zones and you’ve a few different activities planned during the trip.


Rather than packing everything you think you’ll need for the entire 6 month trip, just pack what you think you’ll need for the first week. This one simple change will dramatically reduce the length of your packing list and it’ll mean you won’t be carrying around certain items that you won’t use for weeks or months on end.


This is not as risky a move as it seems because your trip may not even go according to your original plan and in fact it’s very unlikely that it will if it’s a longer trip.


Also, as your trip unfolds, you can always adjust your inventory to accommodate your changing needs. You can easily add new items by buying or borrowing them and discard obsolete items by selling or trading them for something more immediately useful.


Remind yourself that there are few places in the world where you can’t buy or borrow virtually anything you need. Keep your backpack in a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Principle #3 - If in doubt, leave it out

If you’re an inexperienced traveller, you’ll likely have uncertainties about the usefulness and necessity of certain items during the first week of your trip (which as we mentioned is all you should be packing for).


For example, you aren’t too familiar with the climate of a foreign country so you’re not sure what clothing you need to pack. Maybe you’re not sure if mosquitoes will be a problem where you're going, which leaves you in doubt as to whether you should bring mosquito repellent.


The truth is that it’s very difficult to know beforehand, exactly what you will and won’t need in new, unfamiliar environments.


If you’re like most people, you’ll anticipate the worst and pack these items of uncertain usefulness anyway, under the excuse, ‘just in case’’. Succumbing to this impulse is of course, a primary cause for over-packing.


Over-packing in this manner is especially a problem with items that are both of high financial value and heavy/bulky packing such items is an absolutely fatal error if you're planning a longer trip. Why? 

Because their high financial value means you won’t want to just throw them away after it dawns on you that they’re not needed and their weight/bulk means that you’ll have to  keep resentfully lugging them around with you… unless you’re willing to attempt selling the items to somebody or willing to waste money shipping them home.


If you wish to take extended backpacking trips with just a single, lightweight daypack, you will have to err on the side of packing too little as opposed to too much. Pack only 'must-haves' and not 'might-needs'. Under-packing is a necessity if you wish to pack efficiently.


If a need for an item does crop up during your trip, it’s not a big deal, as we mentioned under Principle #1. Nowadays, you can buy or borrow virtually anything you need, virtually anywhere in the world. If the local people have everything they need, then you do too.

Principle #4 - Further qualify items before packing

When it comes to item choice, efficient packing is all about quality over quantity. You have to start doing some serious quality control on the items you’re packing.


This process will drastically cut down the number of items you bring, thus reducing weight and the total volume of all your items, bringing you closer to the goal of fitting it all into one small daypack.


So what makes a qualified item? What characteristics should it possess to earn the space it takes up in your bag? 

Most items that go into your backpack should be:


Multifunctional - Every item that makes the cut should serve a vital function and preferably be multi-functional. A buff is an example of a multi-functional piece of headwear. You can wear it as a scarf, balaclava, headband, wristband, cap etc. A swiss-army knife is another great example, although you can't take those on a plane unfortunately. Multi-functional items mean that you don’t need to bring ten different items to do ten different things; you just need to bring one.


Frequently needed - Chosen items should be frequently needed to justify their presence. How frequently? We’d say if you’re going to use something less than twice per month, then it’s pointless to pack it. For example, we can just about justify carrying a rechargeable mini-trimmer because once every two weeks or so we’ll use it shave, thus saving ourselves money and time paying a visit to the barber.


Indispensable - Items chosen should be impossible to improvise or function effectively without. We carry a laptop because the alternative of working online from public Internet cafes is just not as effective. However, why wouldn’t we pack a travel pillow? Because a comfy pillow can be improvised from some clothing if you know how.


Lightweight & compact – An item should only qualify if it’s the lightest and most compact (or one of the lightest and most compact) version(s) of that item that’s available on the market. For example, don’t just think ‘laptop’. Think, what is the lightest and sleekest laptop model available on the market?

Within a certain size limit - Any item that is extremely bulky, such as hiking boots for example, should not be packed at all regardless how useful you think it is. It should either be worn all the time, carried in hand, or attached to the outside of your backpack.


Now when screening items according to these criteria, just bear in mind that smaller and more lightweight items don’t have to treated as strictly as the bulkier and heavier items.


For example, we might carry a few minuscule items that don’t necessarily meet all five of these criteria. However, if we were packing something heavy and bulky, like a DSLR camera for example, you can bet that we’d run it through this checklist and make sure it meets all the criteria.


If you have a large item that doesn’t meet all of these criteria, then you can most definitely classify it as a ‘luxury item’ and it is definitely not something you can afford to bring. We would classify things like travel pillows, heavy books, hot water bottles, hair-dryers, hair-straighteners, large towels and many more items as luxury items.


After reading this advice and especially if it’s your first long trip, it might still be hard for you to determine which items you should take and which you should leave out.


Luckily, years of experience have taught us how to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to selecting useful items. See our ultralight packing list for men to see exactly what you should pack in terms of clothing, electronic items and other useful items for travel.

Principle #5 - Keep everything organized

To prevent a chaotic mess inside your backpack and protect contents from rain, it’s useful to keep items in separated, sealed packages according to their functionality. The philosophy here will be to keep like with like. 

Organization may not necessarily save space but we consider it to be an essential part of packing efficiently, as efficiency is also about being able to locate items easily and quickly when they're needed. 


For the budget traveller, large, heavy-duty Ziplock bags are very useful for keeping all related items together and separated from unrelated items. If you need something that works just like a Ziplock but that's a lot more waterproof, you should look into getting a set ofaLokSak bags


There are many other great alternatives to Ziplocks for keeping clothes well organized. If you’d prefer something a little more durable, you can try keeping your items organized with packing cubes or organizer pouches

When you begin packing, you should bear in mind that in terms of organization, it’s better to keep the most frequently needed items/packages near the top and less frequently needed packages at the bottom. Items you might wish to keep near the top include:


-Important documents (passport, driver's license etc.)






Principle # 6 - Minimize dead space inside your backpack

After deciding on how your items will be organized, there's one more concept you need to be aware of to pack them more efficiently: the principle of minimizing dead space. Dead space is space within your backpack that is just filled with air and not with useful items. 

Dead space can either exist within certain hollow or compressible items or it can exist between different items when they're fitted together inside your backpack. You can never totally eliminate all dead space but you should do your best to reduce it to a bare minimum.

Minimizing dead space within items

The items that dead space exists within are usually either hollow and/or compressible items. 


Examples of hollow items are mugs, cooking pots, shoes, plastic water bottles etc. Ideally you want to avoid carrying too many items like this in the first place, but if you do have a few items like this, you should try to fill the hollow space inside with other items. 

For example, shoes could be stuffed with a few pairs of socks (although you really shouldn't be packing extra shoes) and a metal cooking pot could be stuffed with items as well.


Compressible items mainly include things like garments, ponchos, sarongs, sleeping bags, travel towels: basically any fabric-based items. 


To compress most items of fabric, the most basic process is to roll them up very tightly or fold them flat if you're using a suitcase. This might be sufficient for some of you but if you want to take the degree of compression to the next level you can use these special nylon compression sacs to force all the air out of your garments through their special one-way valves.


Sleeping bags can be forced to give up their dead space by compressing them to their limits inside the compression sac they usually come with. Be aware though that heavily compressed sleeping bags should be given some time to decompress before use, so that the insulation works properly again.


If after doing all this, you're still having problems fitting it all in, make sure you’ve used up all the space in all of the different compartments and filled any external pockets the bag may have. 

Next, ask yourself if anything can be attached to the outside of the bag. Bulky things like footwear, ponchos and water bottles are often best attached to the outside of the bag to conserve space inside.

Finally, free up any space taken up by bulky clothing items inside the bag, by wearing them (can suck if the weather is hot) and making sure your trouser pockets are also being put to use.

Minimizing dead space between items

The second type of dead space you want to minimize is that found between your items or packing cubes when you've assembled them inside your backpack.


If you have a laptop, first slide that into the laptop sleeve of your backpack (if it has one). Now, try to fit your packages together neatly without leaving any major air spaces or gaps between the packages. Think playing a game of Tetris or fitting together a jigsaw puzzle. This is important to minimize dead space that could exist between items. Fill out the bags volume not only in its width but also in its depth.


With all this talk about minimizing dead space, we're going to ironically go ahead and tell you to make sure to leave a generous amount of free space at the top of the bag. 

One of the main reasons for this is that your item list will grow at times during your trip as new demands arise. You can of course discard obsolete items to counter this but sometimes your list will grow faster than it shrinks, making the extra space essential.


Breathing room will also be useful for any items that you might need to only carry in the bag temporarily (such as groceries or a sweater that you take off in hot weather). It will also give you some space to bring home some gifts or souvenirs at the end of your trip (if it ever ends). 

A final reason to leave some free space at the top is because it can become difficult to close zippers when you have an overloaded backpack and they can easily become damaged when you try to force them to close.

Still having trouble packing it all in?

Firstly, make sure you’ve used up all the space in all of the different compartments of the bag and filled any external pockets the bag may have.


Next, ask yourself if anything can be attached to the outside of the bag. Bulky things containing dead space like footwear and water bottles are best attached to the outside of the bag to conserve space inside. You can either tie items to the exterior or clip them on with a carabiner.

Finally, free up any space taken up by bulky clothing items inside the bag, by wearing them or tying them around your waist. This will suck in hot weather however! Does everything fit now? Hopefully it does.

A final word

Well, there you have it, an introduction to the six golden principles of efficient packing for ultralight travel. If you follow all of these principles you shouldn't have too much trouble travelling the world with cabin-sized baggage and hopefully you can do it with a bag that's under 35L capacity. 


Since this article only dealt with the general principles to follow when packing, you might still be unsure about what specific items you should bring with you for longer trips on the road.


If you’re still unsure what to pack then just head on over to our ultralight carry-on packing list for men to see what exactly you need to carry for longer trips.


Did you enjoy reading this article or you found it useful? If so, please share it with other travellers. Have any useful packing tips of your own to share? Do leave us a comment below and we'll get back to you as soon as we can. Thanks for reading!

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