Minimalist Tips for Packing Light

Minimalist Tips for Packing Light
We just got back from a long weekend of camping with my husband's family in Ohio. In an attempt to simplify things and to make sure we fit in the van rental we were sharing with my brother's family of 3, we decided to pack all of our clothes in one carry-on suitcase.

It actually didn't seem too possible. Just the weekend before, we went to my mom's family reunion and packed our family in a large suitcase for 3 days and 2 nights. This camping trip would be 5 days and 5 nights. Somehow we did it and didn't even have to sacrifice anything or wear stinky clothes!

Keep reading to see what we packed and how I packed it. But first, a few tips for your own light, minimal-ish packing.

Tips for Light Minimalist Packing

When I went on my "momcation" last month I used the same carry-on luggage to pack for myself for 5 days and 5 nights as the carry-on that held clothes for our family of 4 for 5 days and 5 nights. If we have the space, then we tend to fill it whether we need to or not.

On that momcation, I packed my entire current season wardrobe (including 2 shoe options for church, a black blazer even though it's summer, and twice as many outfits as necessary), just because I could.

That's probably true for anyone reading this post thinking "I barely fit my clothes in a carry-on, there's no way I could fit my entire family's!" You just might be able to. Or at least use as little space as possible. Here's how...

1 | Choose one top for each day, then add one (and only one).

You really only need one shirt every day. But packing one extra than needed helps provide options and gives you security in case of "disaster" (whatever that may be). Sidenote: a casual dress counts as a shirt.

2 | Pack one bottom (shorts, skirt, pants, jeans) for every two days.

Choose pants/shorts/whatever that match as many of the tops as possible making it easier to mix and match and to re-wear something that isn't exactly dirty yet.

3 | Pack underwear for each day, then add one.

Again with the security in case of "disaster." (And I really don't want to think about what that may be. Let's pretend it's falling into a lake.)

4 | Pack a set of pajamas/lounge clothes.

Instead of taking specific pajamas, try choosing something more versatile like sweatpants or yoga pants or gym shorts and a tee or tank. If you really don't like the idea of wearing one set of lounge clothes every night, then revert to the pants rule above and take one set for every two days.

5 | Take a loose long sleeve shirt.

If it's summer there are times you'll be in freezing air conditioning or enjoying an unusually cool evening and wish you had something to make you more comfortable. Skip the bulky sweatshirt and opt for a lighter/smaller (read: takes less room in the suitcase) long sleeve tee or lightweight sweater.

6 | Limit the extras.

Find out if you'll actually need your swim suit. Skip the cover-up, unless it's a casual dress that can also be worn with another outfit. A dressier outfit is only needed for a special event (for instance, if you're going to a wedding or plan on going to church). Limit accessories to one or two basic pieces that could work with all outfits (I wore diamond stud earrings and a simple diamond necklace to the memorial service).

7 | Rethink how you fold your clothes.

I've been experimenting with how I pack clothes since I was a kid (it's the weird way my brain works) from regular folding to rolling and even bundling outfits, and the best way I've found to fit a lot of clothes in a little space is the way pictured above. Rolling makes things fit--kind of. But it's not easy to find what you're looking for. And any other way leaves wasted space. Folding each item into a small rectangle makes it easy to line them up, squeeze in all the clothes you need, and be able to spot what you need in a few seconds without taking anything out. It's seriously that easy.

The exceptions are when packing larger items, especially cold-weather / winter clothing. The rectangles might still work, but they'll fit different and not as much will go in the suitcase.

8 | Rethink cosmetics.

My cosmetic bag above holds everything I need including deodorant, make-up, body wash (for me and the kids), travel-size mousse, and even everything I need if I'm on my period (TMI?). I'll share more about a minimalist cosmetic bag another time, but it's worth rethinking what is actually needed and try to fit everything into a smaller bag.

9 | Take one pair of shoes, or no more than two.

My daughter's glitter jelly sandals are the perfect example of a versatile shoe. They're casual enough to wear with all her shorts and tees, they're easy to clean after getting dirty while camping, and work well with a dress or skirt. Okay, so we can't all pull-off glitter jelly's. But we can find something that works in a similar way.

I took only my brown leather sandals because they work with everything casual but also look fine with the skirt and blouse I had. Ian and Daniel also both had flip flops that worked like that. Daniel took his tennies but never wore them (and I didn't pack them in the bag).

You probably only need one pair of shoes, unless you need something specific, like for hiking or a dressy occasion. In the summer, sandals are also great because then you don't have to pack socks for everyone :)

10 | Size matters.

Okay, I feel like I need to take a moment and point out this is possible because the season in the year and the season in our lives were right for it. This wouldn't work in the winter, because we'd all need pants and long sleeve shirts that would require more space. Shorts and tanks just tend to fold smaller and fit better. This also wouldn't work if we were four adults--because adult clothing is bigger than the size 4t and 18mos that my kids are fitting in.

These principles and ideas can still be applied to fit in smaller luggage no matter the season in the year or in your life. But, if you've tried everything mentioned above and you're just not fitting in one carry-on, know that it could likely be a size issue because you're packing for bigger kids, or because you're packing for a cooler season.

Or, maybe you're just not ready to pack minimally. And that brings me to...

11 | Fake being low maintenance.

We are all probably high maintenance in some way, but take this vacation or trip or whatever traveling you're doing as an opportunity to be low key. Spend less time on your hair, even if that means experimenting with buns and braids (leave the curling iron, straightener, diffuser at home). Skip the accessories, or challenge yourself to accessorize with a single scarf in creative ways (as a belt, headband, bracelet). Dress a little more casually than normal (shorts and a tee or a simple dress should be enough to get you through most travels).

Take a vacation from being high maintenance and you just might find you like it.

Family of 4, 5 Days, 1 Carry-on | tips for packing light
*Affiliate links used below. See full note at bottom of post.

What We Packed in Our Carry-On Suitcase

Here's what we packed for our family of 4 for 5 days in 1 Samsonsite carry-on suitcase:

Clothes + Swimsuits + Such

3 pairs of shorts, a separate pair of pajama/lounge clothes, and 6 shirts (1 more than needed) for each of us.
5 white undershirts for my husband.
Something dressy casual to wear to outdoor memorial service (shirts with collars to wear with nice shorts for the guys, skirt with blouse for me, and dress for our girly).
A swim suit for each of us and 2 reusable swim diapers for the youngest.


Separate cosmetic bags for Daniel and myself to easily take our things to our respective bathrooms on the campground.

Sunscreen + Winkle Releaser + Mesh Bag

Travel-size bottle of Downy wrinkle releaser (for the dressy clothes; wouldn't apply for just camping. Find it in the travel section at Wal-mart or Target).
Mesh laundry bag for dirty clothes.

Not Packed in Carryon

Jogger Stroller (love this thing; we've had it through all 3 kids for 7+ years and it's holding up great)
Sleeping Bags
Shoes (we all wore our sandals in the car and throughout the trip; husband's tennies were put in the back of the van)

How We Folded Clothes to Fit in Carry-On Luggage

The clothes were all folded to small rectangles and squeezed in horizontally. This makes it easy for me to see everyone's clothes at once and easily find/pull-out whatever we need for that day. Our dressier clothes were folded a little more loosely and set on top to reduce wrinkling (wrinkle releaser would take care of the rest of the wrinkles). Then cosmetic bags also put on top of the clothes underneath.

Re-Packing at the End of the Trip

Sometimes it's harder to make everything fit at the end of the trip after everything has been taken out, searched through or loosely thrown in a laundry bag and tossed back in. I avoided the not-fitting problem by refolding clothes at the end of each day and putting them back in the suitcase how I packed them originally. Undies and anything too soiled (with sweat or dirt or bug spray) was thrown in the mesh bag and fit on top of the neatly folded clothes when we were ready to leave.

Ideas for Minimal-ish Packing


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*Amazon affiliate links used. Any purchases made through these links could earn me a small commission with no extra cost to you. Thank you.