Travel hacks: packing light

My number one reason for packing light is that you don't need to check in your luggage, so you avoid the drop-off baggage queue, and the wait for your luggage once you arrive, if it ever does: you can go straight to the border control and then onto your actual destination. No waiting! No delays! No uncertainty!

Then, because your luggage is lightweight you can go up and down escalators with it, carry it in the tube platforms instead of using the wheels, and generally be agile and speedy, which is super nifty if you're in a hurry or just want to navigate away from crowds. Some touristy people really love to walk all together forming some sort of herd and it gets on my nerves---I like to see ahead of me and feel space around me.

Ready for my packing light hacks? ;-)

The number one rule

The first and most important rule is: think very carefully about what you're going to do while you're away, and don't add things to the suitcase "just in case", because you're probably not going to use it.

If you're going for a week, and you're just doing a work thing, you probably just need normal work clothes for 7 days. Don't even think of packing anything else!


Once you've established what you're going to do, you can start to think of which clothes to bring. But you need to think in terms of layers. You need to devise a basic set of clothes that you can dress with, and then add layers on top of that depending on how cold the weather might be. It's good to check the weather in your destination before you leave, but don't count too much on it, and be prepared to expect anything---you don't want to catch a cold!

You also need to make sure all the clothes coordinate together colour-wise. That way you can, for example, use a pair of jeans with various tops, instead of having to carry pairs of trousers+top which will be bulky.

The clothes that are in direct contact with your body will get sweaty and gross and you want to change them every day, so you need more of those than of the layers you put on top. For example, you might want to pack one jacket, two sweaters and five t-shirts (see the proportions?).

But don't pack items straight into the suitcase. Instead, arrange everything over a flat surface (e.g. a bed). This will help you make sure you don't forget anything and that colours match. Over time you might even be able to estimate if you have room for some "might need" or fancy items!

For example: I went for black/grey tones for the Portland work week in December (the underwear is not in the picture because I didn't want to show it). Actually I didn't get to use the fancy t-shirt for the closing event, because I got sick :-P

packing clothes

Once you're satisfied with the contents, you can start putting them into the suitcase. I've found rolling items (as in the picture above) is the method that works best for me, but if you know how to fold things properly maybe it's even better as your clothes will be less wrinkled! I'll let you experiment and play tetris with your clothes.

Often you can keep some of the bulkiest items out of the suitcase... by wearing them! For example, I like to go for a run or to the gym (if available), but my running trainers are bulkier than my everyday trainers. On the other hand, they are really comfortable, specially on long-distance flights. Also, some of my favourite outer layers are hoodies, but those are very bulky on a suitcase. My trick is to wear the hoodie and the running trainers during the flight! I'm comfortable and warm and also have lots of space in the suitcase: WIN/WIN.

Related: don't bring shoes that only work with some clothes. You want them to be as multifunctional as possible. So those glittery red boots might need to stay home, and you should pack some neutral looking shoes/trainers that go with everything instead.

Or as Ashley Williams puts it, "Composition over inheritance":

Of course, if you need to attend some special gala event you will need to pack some luxurious dress and fancy shoes. The above won't apply then ;-)

Finally, you don't need very bulky items to keep warm in super cold places. Technology is amazing nowadays, and you can find "second skin" inner layers made of merino wool which are quite thin and keep you nicely warm without using half of the space in the suitcase.

Packing even lighter by washing as you go

Sometimes I really want to pack VERY LIGHT, so I just pack maybe half of what I'd use, and then "wash as I go".

Most AirBnBs have some sort of washing infrastructure. In hotels you can generally wash clothes in sinks. The shampoo provided by hotels is terrible for your hair but it is aggressive enough that it will be good for washing clothes if they are not SUPER DIRTY (i.e. if you ran cross and they're all muddy and gross maybe you should wait until you get home, or bring them to a laundry service).

This is the process I follow: fill the sink with warm (NOT boiling hot) water and dissolve the shampoo on it, enough that the water gets soapy. Then add the clothes. Not too many! Say, three or four items tops. Soak everything in and leave it to rest for a while. Then come back and give it a good shake, maybe leave it to soak for a little while more. Now drain them, making sure you get rid of as much soapy water as you can. Plug the sink again, add water, stir everything so the soap goes off and drain again (you might need to do this a couple of times). Take the clothes, gently wringling each one individually, and hang them on hangers on the shower / bath--there's always some sort of hook or surface you can hang things to, get creative or hacky! ;)

You can also roll clothes inside a towel and wring them so you extract even more water.

The reason we hang the clothes in the shower is because even the best of wringing won't take all the water out, so we can let Mother Gravity do her thing. You can help by squeezing the bottoms when they start to drip, to accelerate the process.

After a while they won't drip anymore and you can bring them to the room area, preferably as close to the air conditioner vent as possible. Air conditioning units are really amazing at drying clothes because they try to keep humidity between a certain range (this is also why hotel rooms always give you that "dry throat" feeling). Often you don't even need to put the aircon on as the hotel cycles the air anyway through the vents. T-shirts and underwear will be dry overnight; jeans take longer, but then again you also don't need to wash them so often, so it's fine. Just make sure the clothes are properly ventilated, by not putting them all close together or they won't be able to dry!

You can also use this trick to travel for longer periods---this is what I did last summer when I was away for about two weeks in four different locations.

This might seem "a lot of work" but I personally value a lot knowing what is happening to my clothes, and that I won't end up with some of them missing or shrinking. And after those long work days with so much brainy talk, it's actually cool to just do some mechanical process.

Breezing through security

Although you can move way faster around the airport with your new fancy and light luggage, you still need to go through security, and if you're carrying liquids or similar, this procedure can be annoying both for you (because your luggage might be have to be searched) and for the rest of passengers behind you (because you're delaying the process), specially in highly paranoid airports such as London Heathrow.

Here's my strategy so you don't be THAT PERSON that slowed down the queue:

  • Keep only clothes, shoes and other similarly boring stuff in your suitcase. If you have to place the suitcase in a tray, do not put the liquids bag in this tray. Because if something in the bag triggers the "suspicious item" detector, they will have to search all the objects in the tray--including the contents of the suitcase. There's nothing as unnerving as contemplating someone digging through your personal belongings.
  • Carry all the electronics, chargers, things with cables etc in your hand luggage. Sometimes they will want to see all your devices and sometimes they are content with just seeing the laptop. Ask them! When they want to see everything, I scatter the things on a tray, making sure no device is on top of another (apparently that makes it look "weird" when going through the X-rays and they will want to search it). Make sure your hand luggage makes it easy to take everything out fast, specially if you're carrying lots of items!
  • Finally, put your jacket/sweater/similar with the liquids bag on a tray. If something in the bag triggers their detector, they will only have a jacket and a bag to search, which will be fairly fast, and no one will be putting their hands on your underwear as they would do when searching your suitcase. EWWWW.

Sometimes you might be able to combine the last two trays into just one. This depends on whoever is running the security circus process that particular day. The last time I flew I just put my suitcase on the conveyor and the hand luggage on a tray, with the liquids bag and the laptop out--they didn't even want to look at my other five devices, so I kept them in the backpack.

What goes in the liquids bag?

I have a plastic bag with small miniature bottles (100ml or less) that I refill before each flight, except for toothpaste and deodorant, which can't be refilled. They are the same products I use everyday, only in smaller containers.

I favour bottles that don't waste space and play nice with the other items in the bag, i.e. plain cylindrical containers. Some bottles have fancy caps with sort of sharp edges, and those are awkward to pack and can also pierce the bag, which you don't want. Welcome to the club of "people who shop for miniatures paying attention to the shape of the container"!

On where to find these, most of drug stores in London have a travel / miniatures section, but smaller shops might not. The solution is to buy them once you're in the airport, past security. Then you can refill them :-)

The rest of "beauty" and cosmetic related products which are not liquids such as comb, hairpins, toothbrush etc, are all in another small bag which goes in the suitcase. They are "duplicates", meaning I only use them when I'm travelling, and they stay in the suitcase if I'm home, so I don't need to remember packing them.

Want more hacks?

Previously in travel hacks: sleep.

And if you have more packing light tricks and hacks, please add them in the comments :D