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A Maximalist’s Guide to Minimalist Packing

April 5, 2018
A Maximalist's Guide to Minimalist Packing | Tiny Ambitions

I’m so excited for today’s guest post, you guys. Erin is sharing one of her first forays into minimalism and all the messy bits that go along with that. Minimalism might be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. This post is great and if you’ve ever struggled with minimalism, you’re going to be able to relate.

I’m a maximalist. I come from a maximalist family, and I inherited my mother’s penchant for overpacking (but not my father’s spatial awareness and good packing skills, which makes the overpacking problematic!). I was that girl in college who always had way too much stuff in her dorm room, which made moving in and out every year an absolute nightmare. To this day I still own a lot.

For the last year or so I’ve been actively working on decluttering and owning less stuff. This has happened in conjunction with my efforts to spend less and make more mindful purchases in my pursuit of financial independence. But I still own too much—and that’s reflected when I pack for trips. I always pack too much in an effort to be over-prepared for everything (also a trait inherited from my mother). My tendency to overpack is compounded by the law of the universe that says stuff will expand to fit an available vacuum. Even if I try packing less, I inevitably end up filling my entire suitcase.

A Maximalist's Guide to Minimalist Packing {Pin} | Tiny Ambitions

An opportunity for change

Back in May of last year, my mother, sister, and I went on a week-long trip to the Azores.

I was in charge of a lot of the planning for that trip, and as I was creating an itinerary that involved us staying in multiple cities during the week, I had flashbacks to previous family road trips, especially the two where we’d rented tiny cars in European countries. Playing the “will we actually be able to fit all of us and our suitcases in this car???” game is a seriously stressful way to start a vacation, and being crammed into a car with too much stuff is also not a recipe for fun.

I’d been reading about carry-on packing for a while and was intrigued by the idea of the mobility and flexibility that comes with packing a backpack instead of a rolling suitcase (plus I’m a fast walker and find that I have to slow down in crowded airports when I’m dragging a rolling suitcase behind me). I love to travel and want a whole lot more of it in my life, and ideally, it’ll be lighter travel. So I decided I’d use the Azores trip as my first foray into the world of packing a (large) backpack and not much else.

Azores backpack
The Infamous Maximalist Backpack

Maybe dropping close to $150 on a (well-thought-out but still) whim on a carry-on backpack was a bad idea, but I also needed some skin in the game (and I’m thankful I could afford to buy the backpack!). If I was ever going to start thinking more consciously about what I was packing and how a life of lightweight travel would look in practice, I needed to first get the bag I’d be packing in.

New 38 liter bag in hand, in preparation for the trip I packed and unpacked the thing multiple times in the quest to stuff as much as I could in there just in case. I also wanted to be sure I knew how to pack it again at the end of the trip so I wasn’t stressing out about stuffing it all back in the bag. But it was overall a success!

Except that I totally cheated and put my hiking boots in my mom’s suitcase. Those have actually continued to be my problem on successive trips: I can mostly fit everything into my backpack (or my other carry-on bag) except my boots. I know I could wear them to save space, but who wants to wear those for hours on a plane and have to deal with taking them off while going through security? Clearly, my transformation from a maximalist packer to a minimalist one is a work in progress.

Minimalist Packing in Practice

I thought when I bought the backpack that I’d suddenly become a champion carry-on packer, but a year later and my experience has been a mixed bag (heh).

The one thing I have learned, though? Packing cubes are your best friend when traveling! Doesn’t matter if you have a suitcase or a backpack, they’re amazing for organizing your clothes and compressing them down into a smaller space. I can’t believe I didn’t know about them or start using them sooner.

Moving towards being a carry-on packer has surprisingly been less about the physical stuff and more of a mental adjustment. I’m still working through what the change to minimalist packing means for me, but largely it’s been an it’s been an exercise in giving up control.

When I indulge my maximalist packing tendencies, I can rest assured knowing I have all weather and social event possibilities covered. Throwing what seems like half of my clothes into a suitcase and calling it good means I never have to deal with being dissatisfied with what I’ve packed because there’s always another option if I don’t like the choices I made while still at home. I’m prepared for everything, and that makes my anxious self happy.

Constraining myself to what will fit in my carry-on backpack means I don’t have a ton of options. I have to make sure what I pack is flexible enough to serve double or triple duty. I’m not fantastic about that because my closet is big enough that I don’t normally need to make those decisions: work clothes are work clothes, everyday clothes are everyday clothes, workout clothes are for getting sweaty, and lounge clothes are for sitting around in. Occasionally I’ll wear a work shirt with jeans to make a casual outfit more dressy, but there’s very little mixing and matching across types of clothes.

Carry-on packing, therefore, requires a completely different mindset.

Work in Progress

I’m not ready to give up control just yet. On a recent long weekend trip to LA, I brought a carry-on suitcase instead of my backpack. It was going to be fairly chilly, so I couldn’t pack shorts and t-shirts and call it good. I was going on a hike, so I needed shoes for that and of course, I needed my hiking daypack, neither of which fit well in my carry-on backpack. That trip happened over my birthday weekend and of course, I wanted an outfit or two that would look nice for going out. Instead of agonizing over how to fit all of that in my backpack or what to leave behind so it would fit, I decided to go the path of least resistance and pulled out my suitcase instead.

Turns out I didn’t end up wearing everything I’d packed in my suitcase.

I’m going to Florida in May to see a friend, and I expect that to be a fairly short packing list mostly consisting of a bathing suit, my beach hat, and sunscreen. I’ll try hopping back on the carry-on backpack train for that trip.

Clearly, the transformation into a minimalist packer is—much like travel itself—a journey.

Erin Headshot

Erin writes at Reaching for FI, where she’s documenting her journey to financial independence as someone making the most of life in an expensive city with a not-so-big salary. She writes about her money, love of the library, the never-ending quest to cultivate a daily meditation habit, and her various travel and hiking adventures. When she’s not spending all her free time blogging, she’s hanging out on Twitter and Instagram.

Feature Image Credit: Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Headshot and Backpack Image Credit: Reaching for FI

  • Daisy April 7, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Erin; your honesty meant I was cheering your wins and relating to your struggles. (And thanks, Britt, for this guest post!)

    Interestingly, minimalist packing was my gateway to simple living and getting debt-free. I travel a lot with loadddsss of work-related stuff (sometimes up to 100 lbs!) so by necessity of not being able to carry more stuff (and no desire to pay for more extra luggage), I learned to pare my personal items down to a handcarry bag. When I traveled for personal reasons, I kept the habit and enjoyed the lighter feeling that came with it.

    The tip I can give you (which you seem to realize after your recent birthday weekend trip) is after you finish packing, take a break then come back and remove 1/4 – 1/3 of what you packed. It’s hard at first, but with practice, you’ll get a feel of what you weren’t going to wear anyway.

    • Britt April 8, 2018 at 1:49 pm

      That’s a great tip, Daisy! After my recent trip to Saint Lucia, I realized I could have gotten away with bringing even less stuff. There was a couple of items of clothing that I did wear, but not enough to warrant bringing them on the trip. It’s all about perspective and learning what you really need to feel at home while on a trip (which is obviously different for everyone). Thanks for sharing!

      • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 9:42 am

        Britt, it’s encouraging to hear that even now you still make the mistake of bringing too much!

        • Daisy April 21, 2018 at 11:30 am

          I agree, Britt, it takes practice and knowing what you need for your situation. Unfortunately, that part doesn’t have shortcuts and is mostly trial and error.

          And Erin, after years of minimalist traveling, I still sometimes bring too much! They just aren’t as big as they used to be. (Like a trip this week for work where I ended up with an extra shirt and bag I did use, but I could have done without.) You just learn not to sweat the small stuff, especially if it all fits in your bag of choice anyway.

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 9:39 am

      Oh wow I can imagine with 100 lbs of work stuff that you wouldn’t want to bring a lot of personal stuff! That is a great tip (but I already know it’ll be super hard the first few times I try it haha). Thanks for sharing it, Daisy!

      • Daisy April 21, 2018 at 11:44 am

        If you’re curious, Erin, one of my most popular posts is a detailed look at my general packing list. (I don’t want to post the link here as it feels promotional but feel free to click over to my site if you’d like. It’s in my popular posts page.) I posted it last November with photos of everything I pack and how I fit it all in my backpack. It probably won’t be how you’d like to pack since we have different needs, but it might help. Again, thanks for sharing!

  • Secret Agent Woman April 7, 2018 at 10:19 am

    We generally only take a carry-on bag unless it’s a longer trip to a cold weather place. But we are planning a 6-day trip to Aruba which unfortunately involves a flight on Spirit. They charge a lot extra even for a carry-on. So it’s a “personal item” (small backpack) each for us. I’ve not traveled quite that minimally, but I’m convinced we can do it.

    • Britt April 7, 2018 at 10:49 am

      I’m sure you can do it! Good luck and enjoy your trip!

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 9:45 am

      I ran into this problem on Frontier in October where I had to take my old school backpack instead of this larger backpack. I cheated by putting some things in my friend’s suitcase, which she was always planning on checking, and splitting that cost with her, but I’m sure you’ll be able make the single “personal item” work for you!

  • kiwiandkeweenaw April 6, 2018 at 12:27 am

    I am 100% a carry on person! I love not having to wait for bags at the airport or paying any extra fees. The only times I’ve checked bags recently were for month long trips. My truck to deal with boots is to clip them to the outside of my backpack. Most airlines won’t count the small amount of extra space they take up.
    Thanks for the tip on the packing cubes, I’ve been on the fence about buying some. I’ll probably hunt at some yard sales for them this summer.

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 9:59 am

      You’re so right—now that I’ve started not having to deal with luggage fees or waiting at the luggage carousel after arriving it’ll be so hard to ever have to do that again! Good call about the boots on the outside of the backpack. I’ll definitely have to try that!

  • Lisa | Simple Life Experiment April 5, 2018 at 9:15 pm

    Oh I have sooo been there! It’s so true that carry-on packing requires a completely different mindset. It can be very difficult – even for the most seasoned minimalist packers – to decide which of so many seemingly essential items to take, but the pay-off of travelling light makes all the indecision well worth it in the end.

    I’m intrigued about packing cubes now as I don’t have any and have never seen them in use, but from the photo Erin has included, they look pretty handy indeed!

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 10:02 am

      Thanks, Lisa! I’m comforted by the fact that sometimes this is still difficult for even the seasoned minimalists! As for the packing cubes, they’re SO handy. I really like having my stuff be very organized and easy to find and they’re great for that.

      • Lisa | Simple Life Experiment April 11, 2018 at 4:01 pm

        Hey Erin! Thanks for your response. :)I will have to try out the packing cubes in the future!

  • Katie | Retiring To The Road April 5, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    I haven’t quite reached bookbag level packing; that’s impressive. I do find that packing is much easier since I switched to a capsule wardrobe though. I’ve only got 2-5 of any one article of clothing in my closet and they all go together, so I’m pretty much set with whatever ends up in my bag. I highly recommend checking out Project 333 for anyone looking to downsize their wardrobe!

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 10:03 am

      Katie, I’ve definitely heard of Project 333. I’m not to that level yet but perhaps some day I’ll try it out!

  • Accidental FIRE April 5, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    I’m mostly carry on only but when I go on a big climbing trip or have a bike race to fly to I have too much gear (and also the bike). That’s why I try to fly Southwest on those trips as they don’t charge.

    I once toured the UK and France for two weeks with just a simple Jansport backpack though. I can get minimal when needed.

    And those modular thingies are cool!

    • Britt April 5, 2018 at 8:35 pm

      It would be super tricky to do a trip like that carry-on only. And probably not useful since you actually need all the gear you would pack for it! Thanks for reading.

      • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 10:05 am

        Oh yeah having gear like that is a fantastic excuse for checking luggage! A two-week trip with just a Jansport is super impressive though!

  • Linda Sand April 5, 2018 at 8:04 pm

    I learned that a laundromat in a foreign country is a good place to meet the natives to learn about the hidden gems. Not having to pack for a full trip is a bonus.

  • theluxestrategist April 5, 2018 at 1:19 pm

    I am 100% carry-on only. Part of that is because I don’t like people manhandling my suitcase, but STILL. I’m on the fence about packing cubes. I usually pack little bigs to segment stuff. I do like how neat and tidy your stuff looks in the bag, though!

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 10:07 am

      If you already pack smaller bags you might not need the packing cubes. I don’t have a bunch of smaller bags like that so being able to organize with the cubes (bonus that I can see what’s inside, although usually it’s clothes in the bigger cube, underwear/socks/bras/bathing suit in the smaller cube) was definitely a game-changer for me!

  • Young FIRE Knight April 5, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    Packing too many clothes on trips that I never use is a problem I always have as well! Though I almost always do carry on since I hate waiting for baggage.

    I have a 10 day trip coming up to Europe later this month and am only planning to do a carry on.. it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out!

  • Tread Lightly, Retire Early April 5, 2018 at 11:24 am

    Growing up playing for a travel softball team where I had to ALSO bring my giant gear bag with me on trips forced me to learn the art of minimalist packing early on. No way if I was already hauling that giant bag that I was taking anything beyond just a backpack (which usually meant bringing schoolwork as well). That still serves me well, and we still do carry on only even with a kiddo. It’s so worth bringing less stuff to not have to deal with it all in the airport 🙂

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 10:09 am

      Haha I can definitely see why you wouldn’t want a ton of stuff in addition to your gear bag, and I’m sure that was great practice for packing carry-on even with your kiddo!

  • the Budget Epicurean April 5, 2018 at 10:14 am

    Love this Erin! I struggle with exactly the same thing, my parents were all about “be prepared for anything” mindset. It’s a struggle to un-learn that need to pack 100 outfits for 3 days. Maybe I’ll look into packing cubes, thanks for the tip. I’m working on my strategy for packing for Alaska now!

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 10:10 am

      Haha I hear a potential packing strategy for that trip is raiding Angela’s closet 😉 But yes, I definitely love the packing cubes even if I hardly ever use the biggest one or two of the set of four I bought!

  • Ms Zi You April 5, 2018 at 9:09 am

    I’m also trying to embrace carry on only, mainly as the budget airlines charge for bags, which I object to paying. My little suitcase has broken, so I’ve been using my backpack exclusively. It makes walking easier, but it’s harder to find things in the bag.

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 10:13 am

      I do love the better organization of suitcases but I can’t complain about the freedom of movement that comes with a backpack! Being able to find things easily is why I went with the combination of the packing cubes as well as a backpack that essentially packs like a suitcase instead of one that you have to load from the top only.

  • Penny (@picksuppennies) April 5, 2018 at 8:50 am

    I love this. The best advice when we started traveling internationally was to take half of what you think you need and double the amount of money. It’s another way of saying experiences, not things, right?

    • Erin | Reaching for FI April 11, 2018 at 10:13 am

      Penny, that’s great advice that I need to keep in mind more often!

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  • Hey! I'm Britt. I write about living a tiny, simple, intentional life. Because life doesn't need to be lived big.