The Art of Packing Light

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Toronto, Canada

While I don’t often offer travel tips one aspect I do like to share is my packing list because it is such an overwhelming task. Over the last three years the way I have packed has changed quite a bit:

– When I first set out I had a 65L backpack and wondered if I packed too much. Here is that RTW packing list.
– In Colombia I broke my first travel rule and bought jeans for traveling.
– Returning back to Canada I shared what I learned worked and what didn’t for packing for travel in South America.
– Heading to Europe I decided to get a 48L backpack from MEC and I packed much differently with a few controversial items. See my packing list for Europe here.

For the most part I have moved onto roll on luggage but when I traveled to Mexico last year I realized that does not work in Latin America’s cobblestone streets or Finland’s snowy streets.


It is time to break out the backpack.


But 48L is too much. I want to travel carry-on only. I know it’s so hard to believe but lighter really is better even if it means you wear the same thing over and over again.

If I can over one single piece of advice you must take is that when you go to a store to look at backpacks please get someone to help you with it. I love Mountain Equipment Co-op because it is a Canadian co-op but also they have amazing service – just don’t go on Saturday because it is ridiculously busy.

MEC Aria 40


Although I thought I wanted a 35L pack, staff there made me realize that the MEC Aria 40 Daypack had a nifty separate pouch on top that was perfect for toiletries and still within carry-on guidelines. They also showed me how to make sure it fit my body and the four straps I needed to pull when I put it on.

If a backpack isn’t your thing you can also apply the same principles with luggage. Here’s a great guide to carry-on luggage size, I also use luggage when traveling to places like Europe – although sometimes hotels don’t have elevators and I really regret it. I think a backpack with wheels would also be a great option.

So now onto the packing list. The next three months are a bit challenging, 2 weeks on Maui, ten days in Brazil, ten days in the Galapagos and then 2 months in South America. The good news is that it should be all warm weather but I do need to bring some nice clothes as I will be going to a conference as well as some nice restaurants on Maui. My solution?


Black dress + Tieks


I wrote a review of Tieks and I really do love them, they fold up, are comfortable and make plain black dresses look much nicer than my bronze flip flops.

Here is the rest of my list:

Toiletries – All must be under 100ml for carry-on

Travel size shampoo and conditioner – believe me every country sells decent shampoo, I don’t need a 3 month supply

Small make-up bag
Sunscreen – I’ll buy more as I need it
Travel size hair dryer and flat iron – I know this it controversial but I’ve learned it’s non negotiable for me.
Medication – lip chip sized bottle of acetaminophen with a few sinus pills in it. If I need more I can buy it.

Electronics – I wish I could go with less but I need to blog so these are non negotiable.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 – my Canon 60D and 3 lenses were too much. I bought this in Portland and have never looked back.
Go Pro Hero 3 with waterproof casing and headstrap for the Galapagos
Hard drive for back-up
HP Laptop – wish I had a Macbook and when I can afford it I’ll upgrade
Samsung Galaxy III with extra battery.
Chargers, memory cards etc.


1 bra
8 pairs of underwear (I won’t do laundry more than once a week)
4 dresses (2 black for events)
2 swim suits (Latin America has atrocious quality for swim suits, last time I only took one and couldn’t find another without lining when it fell apart)
2 pairs of shorts
2 tank tops
1 skirt
1 t-shirt
1 long sleeve shirt
1 button up shirt


packing cubes

One thing that has not changed from the first time I traveled was the use of packing cubes. I use them in backpacks and luggage. I put shirts and shorts in one, undergarments and swim suits in another and dresses in a third. They are incredible, especially when you need to search through a bag to find something.

Most importantly, I do not believe in turtle-ing – you know the backpackers that have one bag on their back and another on their front. I have a small purse that goes across my body that I’ll exchange for a messenger bag on the road. But whatever I buy it also has to fit in the backpack.




Disclosure: MEC gave me the Aria 40 but did not request I write a favourable review. I would have purchased it myself. I have been a MEC member for years and I try to buy as much as I can there. 

Join the Conversation

  1. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures says:

    I’m impressed!!!

  2. Former MEC Employee says:

    I worked for MEC in several capacities over many years (including the Head Office), and I’d suggest that people apply common sense to any purchases made there. House brand quality and design have gone way downhill in recent years, and their inability to keep knowledgeable staff has contributed to a lot of atrociously bad advice given by current staff. Lately it seems a 50/50 chance to get a bad product or bad information. Read reviews before buying any of the newer MEC made products.

    I left the company because I didn’t want to be associated with their new attitude of money and style over quality and reliability. I say the above only because MEC used to be a guaranteed good experience, but now it’s just another major retailer with dollar signs in its eyes.

    1. Even with a crappy dollar I still prefer to give my money to REI in the states., and it’s for this reason.

  3. You should have put up the picture from the first time to SA….this pile is impressive.

  4. OCDemon says:

    I like pointing out to people that not only is this possible, but it’s vastly preferable. No one seems to believe me, though I often cite lists such as these in an ill-fated attempt to convince them. Once they get going they realize that 8 extra pairs of shoes are pointless.

    And don’t feel bad bringing jeans. It’s the ridiculous fault of the outdoor industry for failing to make a travel-worthy pair of quick-drying denim jeans that would solve this problem entirely. Maybe someday!

  5. how did everything fit into a couple of packing cubes. so impressed!! I’m trying to cut things out/down on my southeast asia trip later this month but i am *struggling*!

    will you come over & pack for me?!!! 🙂

  6. Packing has to be one of the hardest things. I think it’ll be a constantly evolving thing for me, but one thing that won’t ever change is the packing cubes. I agree, they are the best thing ever! I’m excited to get traveling again so I can see how much I’ve “evolved” since my last trip.

  7. Alana - Paper Planes says:

    I’ve never heard of Tieks before but am now intrigued…how are they holding up?

  8. Jaryd @ Aus Globetrotter says:

    Wow that really is impressive. I realize the length of your trips would vary dramatically but how long would you travel on a trip for with this gear before you return home? Or is this just for constant traveling and you pick up and leave things behind as you go?

  9. Arianwen says:

    I LOVE packing cubes! Sadly, mine fell apart during the 7 months I was away. This post has just inspired me to buy some more today, ready for the next trip.

    I never realised you carried a hair dryer and flat iron. I have to admit I usually give girls a hard time for that, but then I have naturally straight hair and would probably change my views if that wasn’t the case!

  10. It’s funny how packing can continue to be such an issue even for people who travel often. I traveled for 2 weeks through Argentina will just a bookbag – not a backpack but a bookbag you would use to go to school. However, when given the space, I will go crazy.

    What packing cubes do you use? I would like to try these out.

  11. Elaine Schoch says:

    How big – size not storage – is your harddrive? You might want to try using carbonite or Mozy for cloud backups – one less thing to carry. I use carbonite and can access all my files from home on my ipad or iphone when traveling. Very helpful and saved me from having to carry so much.

  12. Anna Lundberg says:

    I really tried to fit everything in a 40l pack, a beautiful turquoise one, but it was full to bursting and I didn’t think that was the best way to start a trip.

    What about flip flops? Hiking shoes and trousers for Machu Picchu? I’m also heading into South American winter, so add to that jeans, a thin windbreaker, a compact down jacket… Travel notebook, language book, LP guide…

    I didn’t bring my travel hairdryer in the end but I’m regretting it now as wet hair in colder weather is not ideal!

  13. I love traveling carry-on only! It’s such a great feeling to know you’re not lugging around so much stuff. I did the turtle thing on my RTW, but on my upcoming 7 week trip, I’m planning on just taking my 40L backpack and a purse. I bought one of those daypacks that can fold up to nearly nothing, so I can pack that inside my 40L and pull it out when I need a daypack for wandering around the city or something. The goal is definitely to pack even lighter than I have in the past.

  14. Izy Berry says:

    Great useful tips! Packing is really hard to do.

  15. A Cook Not Mad (Nat) says:

    That’s great! I always feel so proud of myself when I can fit both our stuff into one bag. You really do always end up wearing the same things over and over again anyway.
    I love that you have our sticker on your laptop. 🙂

  16. just 1 bra?

  17. Lauren @Roamingtheworld says:

    Despite many trips and lots of packing, it’s still something I dislike. Sounds like you got it down!

    No pants? i guess you’re fine btwn dresses and skirts… but even summer days can get cold, no?

  18. Jimmy Dau says:

    I love my Olympus OMD-5!

  19. Ellen Keith says:

    Just a carry-on? I’m impressed! I love MEC for the quality, and their willingness to accept damaged products. They have a fantastic warranty.

  20. TammyOnTheMove says:

    That is very impressive indeed! I started out with a 65l backpack, which I still use, but it is not filled to the top anymore. I am still not down to a level that makes it comfortable enough to carry. I am not the strongest and for my 2 months Nepal/Europe trip it weighed 13kg. A lot of that was trekking stuff though, which is heavey. When I returned to Cambodia it only weighed 10kg, but it was still quite heavy for me to carry. I think I need to become more bold with my packing decisions or just get a smaller backpack. The one you described sounds perfect!

  21. “Latin America has atrocious quality for swim suits”
    Really? I find the swim suits much better quality here than in Europe at least, the Brazilian brands are the best but Peru has some good ones too. But I admit the quality ones are not cheap and you can probably only find them in big cities.

  22. Very impressive! I tend to travel with a 30-L or 60-L pack…ironically, I seem to take the smaller one on longer trips and the larger one on shorter trips. I guess if I’m only gone for 2 weeks I can handle lugging more crap around? I’ve had a “screw minimalism” mindset lately for some reason – packing is definitely an art.

    Sidenote: I also have that grey crossbody purse. It’s perfect for daytime.

  23. Pretty inspiring list! I’m a light packer anyway, but this is even lighter. I’m packing for Mexico right now and this is a great guide. I have lots of skin cancer in my family so the things I always add for warm destinations are a sun hat and long-sleeve rash guard if I’m planning to snorkel. Sunscreen has never been effective for me when I’m in the water for more than a half hour. Hope you’re having a great trip!

  24. Wil @ Where's Wil says:

    I’m on my first long-term trip (SEAsia) and I’ve definitely packed some things I’m not using. That being said I’m always going to have extra weight, carrying my electronics and my fire spinning gear.

  25. Love this article, the art of packing is a constantly improving process, honed by personal experience and other travellers’ tips.
    Didn’t know the packing cubes, I think they’re a great idea!

  26. Harissons Bags says:

    Inspiring list but you should also check out Harissons Bags. They also have one of the best Travel bags with wheels.

  27. Harissons Bags says:

    It’s said that ‘He who would travel happily must travel light’. It’s actually true and your article just elevated that quote.

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