5 Essential Strategies for Packing Light

I always always always travel carry-on only, regardless of the length of time I’m traveling.

Why? It saves me time and money, and supports my desire to strive towards minimalism in all facets of my life.

I don’t pay a checked bag fee, I don’t have to wait around at the luggage carousel for my bag (I’ll never have my bag lost), and I’m constantly reminded that I really don’t need as much as I think I do.

For me, less stuff = less stress.

But let’s be honest: Packing light didn’t happen to me overnight.

I used to be a serial overpacker, no matter where I was going. I’d pack extra outfits for every possible occasion, have lots of jewelry options, use full-size toiletries, and always bring at least FOUR shoes. *shudder*

My packing light strategy has taken me years to develop, and it has been much more “trial and error” than some innate packing-light talent. Trust me, if I can do it, you can do it.

Regardless whether you’re team backpack or team suitcase, or you’re flying carry-on only or checking a few extra bags, these tips I’ve picked up over the years will help lighten your load. Literally.

1. Go for multipurpose items

Clothing always takes up more space in my bag than anything else, and almost without fail, I don’t wear everything. Or I wear a few pieces way more than others.

Choosing items that work in multiple ways, multiple temperatures, and multiple levels of fanciness (being able to be dressed up or dressed down) is ESSENTIAL.

Starlet-Style Stay at Haymarket by Scandic, Stockholm: 48 Hours of Fame
This dress turns into a scarf. And a cardigan. And a shirt. Seriously.

Stumbling across Encircled, a Canadian-based ethical clothing company, was an absolute dream come true for me. They offer sustainably-produced, beautifully-designed multipurpose clothing, with the purpose of helping you “Be more with less”.

These pieces are NOT the cheaply-produced, gaudy, “multiway” polyester dresses of the past, but true investment items that you’ll wear in your day-to-day as well as save space on your trip.

Chrysalis Cardi by Encircled
as a Cardi in Mexico City, a scarf in Stockholm, and a dress at my dad’s 60th birthday party!

Their signature Chrysalis Cardi can be worn 8 different ways, and is my go-to item for travel days (styled as either a cardi or a scarf), as well as my “fancy” dress if a 5-star dinner offer ever comes my way. The fabric is luxurious yet easy to sink-wash should you happen to spill a bit of airplane Bloody Mary on it. I wear the Chrysalis Cardi (I purchased the “Petite” version and it is PERFECT on my 5’2″ frame) at least a few times a week, including when I’m at home. It’s my most-worn item of clothing, and I don’t know how I traveled without it.

Just last month, I picked up the new Everyday Twist Top, which can be styled at least 5 ways (though I opt out of the fifth because it’s not flattering for my shape), including a long-sleeve shirt and a cardigan. It’s the perfect multipurpose piece if you’ll be traveling between seasons, or on the colder side.

Encircled Everyday Twist Top
Styled 4 ways: drapey cardigan, long-sleeve top, long flowy cardigan (for a fifth style you could tie the ends together), and a criss-cross top

For example, you’ve got a two-stop itinerary in Mexico in the winter: a week of food, culture, and park-wandering in Mexico City followed by a week of sun, fun, and cocktails in Puerto Vallarta (or substitute for any other chilly city + hot beach destination combination). In Mexico City, you can wear the Everyday Twist Top as a criss-cross top with long sleeve shirt with jeans, and layer it with a chunky cardigan over top when the day cools down. You can wear it as a drapey cardigan, over a tank top, on your way from Mexico City to Puerto Vallarta in the airport and airplane AC, and then stash it in your day bag to throw on over your sundress when the restaurant or hotel AC is pumping, or the night cools down.

2. Layer all the way

The number one rule for traveling between climates or to a place with widely varying weather is layer, layer, layer.

Especially if you’re traveling between multiple temperature zones, layering is absolutely essential for keeping your comfort up and your baggage weight down.

Instead of packing one big, bulky sweater that can only be used in your cold weather location, pack lightweight tops that can be layered with a long sleeve, and rollable cardigans (preferably convertible/multipurpose like the ones from Encircled) that can also be used in your warm weather location during chilly nights or intense AC.

3. Stick with coordinating pieces

Coordinating colors for travel
obviously, black and prints are what I wear everywhere when I travel: Mexico City, in the Stockholm archipelago, and Detroit.

This is the simplest of strategies (only pack things that match!) but one of the most difficult – in my opinion – to actually execute. Sometimes that sundress is SO CUTE but coordinates with absolutely nothing else (and requires an extra set of shoes to look its full cute quotient) – save it for home unless there’s a special occasion.

I always aim to have everything in my bag work with everything else (or at least most everything).

I tend to go with black and black-based prints because it’s a flattering color on me and – let’s be real – it’s the color least likely to show spills. Pretty much everything in my bag is black (especially anything that is print) and I add a few pops of color (turquoise) for interest.

4. Live by the 54321 rule

For any trip a week or longer, this is my rule of thumb, which I originally picked up – and adapted only slightly – from A Pair & A Spare.

It sounds ridiculously minimalist and undoable, but really, just try it.

INCLUDING what you’re wearing in transit, pack ONLY:

  • 5 tops (at least one is multipurpose)
  • 4 bottoms
  • 3 dresses (at least one is multipurpose)
  • 2 shoes
  • 1 extra – somewhere tropical: might do an extra dress, somewhere cold: extra sweater

5. Be brutally honest with yourself

Isabela Island of the Galapagos Islands
I don’t pack heels because I know my travel activity preference is THIS ^

Don’t pack for anything you have less than a 75% chance of doing. Hold yourself accountable by telling yourself that anything you don’t use halfway through the trip, you will give away (seriously).

If you’re one of those people that NEVER exercises while you’re traveling, don’t pack workout outfits for every day of the week. At most, pack a pair of shorts and a top, which you can shower-wash if motivation happens to strike you.

If you hate heels and don’t like dressing up at home, don’t bring those toe-scrunching, arch-aching stilletos along.

Unless you’re going to Antarctica, you can most likely buy whatever you need and have left at home if your itinerary happens to change.

If you’re on a grungy, three-month-long backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, don’t pack fancy flats and a silk dress. If you happen to decide to splurge on a night at the Sky Bar, you can always buy cheap shoes and a dress the day-of (and then either give them away or ship them home), or find a way to fancy-up what you’ve already got with some accessories.

Pin it for Later:

Essential Strategy for Packing Light - Multipurpose Clothes for Travel

Do you have any packing-light strategies I’ve missed?


A short vacation in Thailand turned into a life abroad with a canceled ticket home. Nearly a decade later and after living in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Puebla, and Puerto Vallarta, Steph is on to her next adventure and living back in beautiful, cosmopolitan Mexico City. She is living, traveling, and working (both as an expat therapist and an international health insurance representative) around the world to find the beautiful, inspirational, and interesting while sharing it with you!

Find me on: Web | Instagram | Facebook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.