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A Traveler’s Guide to Minimalist Packing

Are you sick of paying baggage fees, schlepping heavy suitcases, and worrying that airlines will lose your luggage? If so, you might want to try your hand at minimalist packing.

What Is Minimalist Packing?

Part of a recent trend encompassing everything from decluttering your closets to living in tiny homes, minimalism is all about getting rid of what’s extraneous in your life so you can focus on what you truly value. It’s easy to see the appeal of minimalism when it comes to packing; bringing less means saving money on baggage fees and feeling less encumbered—mentally and physically—as you move through a new place.

Minimalist packing isn’t about ruthlessly paring your belongings down to five pieces of clothing and calling it a day. It’s about thoughtfully getting rid of unnecessary items in your suitcase and making sure everything that remains has purpose and value to you as a traveler. Check out the following minimalist packing tips to learn how to lighten your load on your next vacation.

Evaluate Each Item

Take the same approach to minimalist packing as you would to decluttering your house. Lay out everything you’re considering bringing on your trip, and then consider whether you really need each item. A few questions to consider:

Will you definitely use this item, or are you bringing it “just in case”? Keep in mind that some “just in case” items are well worth bringing (an EpiPen, for instance), while others are easy enough to buy in your destination if necessary (an umbrella).

Is this something your hotel will likely provide? Unless you’re staying in ultra-budget lodgings, you probably don’t need to pack your own shampoo, conditioner, lotion, soap, or hair dryer.

Can each piece of clothing be worn in multiple outfits, or do you have a few one-and-done garments in the pile? The latter are a waste of precious suitcase space.

Is this something you can live without? Such items might include jewelry, extraneous gadgets, and ink-and-paper reading material that could be downloaded to an e-reader instead.

Be Willing to Do Laundry

It’s easy enough to fit a week’s worth of clothes in a carry-on, but for longer vacations, the minimalist travel solution is to do a load of laundry midway through. You can pay the hotel to clean your clothes, use your hotel’s self-serve laundry facilities, or find a local laundromat.

Alternatively, you can wash items yourself in the sink using an Allurette Wash Bag, designed for hand-washing delicates, or a large, sturdy plastic bag. To speed up the process, pack clothes made of quick-drying fabrics.

You might also want to throw a Tide to Go pen in your bag; if you’re packing a minimal number of clothes, you don’t want one garment to be put out of commission by an unexpected stain.

Pack Clothes That Can Be Worn Again

If doing laundry on vacation doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, consider buying clothes that don’t need to be washed every time you wear them. Organic Basics makes socks, bras, underwear, and T-shirts out of SilverTech fabric, which has antimicrobial properties to keep your garments odor-free through multiple days of wear.

Unbound Merino offers a similar selection of garments—socks, underwear, and T-shirts—made of merino wool, which wicks sweat away from your body and makes it more difficult for foul-smelling bacteria to build up. The company claims you can wear these garments for days on end without washing them, as long as you let them air-dry between uses. At press time Unbound Merino only offered men’s clothing, but a women’s line is coming later this year.

Pack Items That Serve Multiple Purposes

Everything in your minimally packed suitcase should be there for a reason—or, better yet, multiple reasons. One editor on the SmarterTravel team never travels without Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap, which can be used as a shampoo, body wash, shaving cream, laundry detergent, fruit and veggie wash, and more. Another space-saving, multi-purpose item: moisturizer with sunscreen.

When choosing clothing, opt for garments in solid, neutral colors that will coordinate with each other in any combination—that way each one will work with multiple outfits. For example, you can wear a basic white T-shirt on its own for sightseeing during the day, then use it as an undershirt beneath a button-down for a nice dinner out. For women, a long, flowing skirt works equally well for touring and going out at night.

If the weather will be variable during your trip, consider buying hiking pants that convert into shorts, such as these options from Columbia for men and women. The company also makes Interchange Jackets that let you mix and match layers for different climates. For more information, see SmarterTravel’s list of the best convertible clothing for travelers.

And don’t forget about shoes, which can quickly eat up suitcase space. Seek out the holy grail of travel: shoes that are comfortable enough to walk in all day but that look nice enough to wear to dinner. Start your search at The Walking Company, which offers walking shoes in a variety of styles.

The Minimalist Packing Wardrobe

The following list of clothing is a good starting point for minimalist travelers. It works well for most leisure trips and will fit into a carry-on suitcase:

  • One pair of jeans.
  • One other pair of pants, such as hiking pants that convert into shorts for outdoorsy trips or black pants for evenings out in a city; women can also substitute a long skirt.
  • One pair of comfortable walking shoes that look nice enough to wear to dinner.
  • One other pair of shoes such as sandals, hiking boots, sneakers, or dress shoes.
  • A handful of layerable tops appropriate to the climate. This might include tank tops, short-sleeved T-shirts, and long-sleeved T-shirts, plus a heavier sweater, fleece, or sweatshirt to wear in cooler weather. Be prepared to wear the heavier top layer multiple times and to wash the lighter layers midway through longer trips.
  • A water-resistant jacket large enough to fit multiple layers underneath.
  • No more than a week’s worth of socks and underwear; plan to do laundry on longer trips.
  • Sleep clothes that you can wear for a few nights and then wash.
  • Other specialty items as needed, such as a swimsuit, gloves, or a sun hat.

What are your best minimalist packing tips? Share them in the comments below.

More from SmarterTravel:

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