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How to travel light with Carry-on only

Have you ever thought of ditching your bulky suitcase and travel light with carry-on only? You have come to the right place. During my recent backpacking trip to Portugal, I travelled with a 40-litre backpack weighing only just over 12 kilograms. The backpack held all my belongings for the four-week trip and it was January, the middle of winter. I had one bag, that was it!

Travelling light is not as big of a deal during the summer months, but it gets challenging once you have to pack warm clothes for cooler temperatures. Still, minimalist travel is absolutely doable and has tons of benefits.

The positive aspect of travelling light with carry-on only is huge.  It gives me the freedom and flexibility I wouldn’t have with heavy luggage in tow.  

Travelling light is knowing what and how to pack. It’s important to use a suitable backpack or bag and the right gear for the trip, and decide what you absolutely can’t be without.

The Advantage Of Travelling Light

  • Travelling with only a carry-on you save on check-in luggage fees for your flights.
  • Saving time – With a carry-on bag, you can go right to security when you arrive at the airport. At your destination,  you don’t need to wait for your luggage to arrive and you don’t have to worry that it may be lost.
  • Easier to travel – With one bag,  you can quickly move through airports and railway stations. It’s easy to travel on trains and busses and using public transportation.
  • Quicker to pack your bag – With a small bag it is easy to pack up for your next destination and there is less chance that you will leave something behind.
  • Carrying your bag – You will walk with your luggage more then you expect. With a small backpack on your back, you can go window shopping when you’re too early to check-in at your accommodation. Carrying a small bag is also easier on your body.

What Backpack/Travel Bag Should You buy?

Travel light with carry-on - backpack
My Osprey Fairview 40 backpack

Check and compare the weights of suitcases and bags when you’re shopping for new luggage. There is no one type of bag that fits all.

I decided to look for a bag with a maximum size of 56 cm x 45 cm x25 cm to fit into an airplane’s overhead bin. Although some airlines allow larger dimensions, I wanted to be sure that the size of my bag was accepted by any airline I chose.

First I was interested in a soft bag with wheels and straps but thought that it might be unpractical travelling in cobblestone paved towns with lots of steps. Wheeling around on these types of pavement could be a real pain and hard on the wheels. Wheeled bags also seem to be heavier and therefore I decided, not to buy one. Still, those bags suit many travellers and are worth checking out.

Wheels or no wheels, I don’t think that I will ever buy a bag without straps. Straps are practical features to have in a bag to transfer it into a backpack, to get you up those long stairways or through other crazy situations easily.

What Bag Did I Buy?

Travel light with carry-on - the backpack I reccommend
The outside compartment of my bag showing the laptop sleeve

I did a fair bit of research before I decided to buy the Osprey Woman’s Fairview 40. This bag has many special features and was what I was looking for. Osprey bags are also available for men and in different sizes.

  • The Osprey Fairview 40 has the size I wanted. It opens up completely like a suitcase, allowing me to easily see and access the contents.
  • It has a LightWire frame and a mesh back panel for ventilation and other features for carrying comfort.
  • I can zip away the padded straps and convert it into a duffle bag when I board a plane. For day to day walking around I have a comfortable backpack.
  • It has a few mesh dividers with lockable zippers to help keep my stuff separate and a padded laptop sleeve. I especially like the water bottle mesh pockets on the outside.    

How to fit a whole trip’s worth of luggage into the small backpack

Only take the basics and decide what you can do without. If in doubt, don’t take it. Remember that you can buy any essentials in most places you go to. Whether you’re off travelling for a week or a month or a year, in Mexico, Canada or Europe, you will need the basics. The only thing that you have to adjust, is your clothes.  Remember, whatever you take, you will have to carry around.

Tips On Clothes

Your ideal travel clothing is durable and takes up minimal space and weight. An ultralight down-jacket packs up into a tiny bag and keeps you warm and cozy. Make sure to choose one with a hood!

Look out for clothes made out of merino wool which is super lightweight and keeps you warm in cold weather and cool when it’s hot. Alternatives are garments made out of wool. Choose synthetic materials for undergarments instead of cotton. They are lighter, take less space and dry much quicker. Take layers instead of bulky pullovers.

Don’t pack your large and heavy items, wear them instead. Airports are usually cold, regardless of your destination.

Packing Cubes

Travel light with carry on - packing cubes
Travel towel, ultra-light stuff pack, silk sheet, mini umbrella and packing cubes

Packing cubes are a great invention. I didn’t have any when I left for the trip but purchased two of them at my first destination. My cubes are made out of nylon with a mesh top, saving lots of space and helping me to be more organized. The larger cube comes with two zipped compartments. The two cubes were ideal for me and left enough extra space in my pack to store odds and ends outside of them.

The large cube held my spare pair of light jeans, a couple of t-shirts and long sleeve tops. The smaller cube I used for underwear and too many pairs of socks, a long-sleeved thermal shirt, and my leggings.

To maximize bag space, there are airless baggies on the market that save you even more space.

How I pack clothes to fit into a small bag

Travel light with carry-on how to pack clothes
The Osprey Fairview 40 zipped open

I roll up all of my clothes individually, making them more compact. You also can use rubber bands and tie up each piece of clothing to further save space. This won’t make your bag lighter but you’ll able to fit more into your bag.


How to travel with mini containers for toiletry

Especially us women seem to need many different beauty products. Unfortunately, all we can take is a one-litre sealed plastic bag full of liquids and creams to go through airport security, and that’s not a lot at all. You may decide not to take anything and buy it all at your destination. This works, if you travel to one place and stay put. The problem with this is, that you have to fit all the stuff you buy into your pack when you move on and have to get rid of it before taking your next flight unless you buy all small quantities.

Myself, I don’t like to search for a store as soon as I arrive at a new place. Instead, I fill up small bottles and containers at home.

Through Airport security I keep it all in the required plastic bag and transfer it into my toiletry case at my destination. This always has worked best for me.

Most toiletries are available as solid products, which tend to be smaller and might be a better option for you.

Must-Have When You Travel Light

Travel Light with carry-on Osprey Stuff Pack
My dawn jacket, day pack, my comfortable shoes, my purse and shawl
  • Ultra-light Stuff Pack – This is the absolute hit! My ultra-light backpack from Osprey packs away into its own carry case when it’s not in use but gives me 18 litres of space when I need it.  As soon as I arrive at my destination, I use it for my day trips. It carries my camera, extra clothes, snacks and a small water bottle. It even has an extra zipped compartment with easy access on top.
  • Small purse – You may opt for a waist bag instead, or a travel pouch to wear inside your clothes. I love to have a small purse close to my body. It has to be small enough so it doesn’t count as an extra bag when I get on the plane. In there I keep my wallet, passport, cell phone, timetables and a pen.
  • Travel towel – They usually come in three sizes, pack up small, dry super fast and are useful in various situations. I always wrap my camera in it for extra protection when I carry it in my day pack.
  • Sarong – You will find unlimited use for your sarong. I use it as a beach blanket, curtain to block out light, wraparound, extra shawl, keep my head warm, bed cover, and more.
  • Scarf – Just like a sarong, a scarf has many uses. Wear it when you travel so it doesn’t take up space in your pack.
  • Pair of light slippers or thongs – For cooler destinations, any light thin slippers will do. For a hot climate, a pair of thongs could be more useful.
  • Leggins – can be used as a spare pair of pants, to sleep in, or worn under your normal clothes.
  • Silk sheet – Not all accommodation you come across is clean, and sleeping in your own sheet can give comfort and help to get a good night’s sleep.
  • Small mesh bag – It stores my electrical adapter, and cables for my cell phone, camera and laptop.

What Not To pack

  • Bulky towels – Take a camp towel instead. Towels are almost always supplied. At hostels, you can rent them for a minimal fee.
  • Electric toothbrush and charger – Although I missed my Sonicare toothbrush dearly.  I suggest getting an electric travel toothbrush
    that runs on batteries instead.
  • A large first aid kit for any unforeseen situations. – Keep it basic. You will always find a pharmacy in cities and urban areas.
  • Travel Guide Books – I promised myself, that it was the last time I lugged a Travel Guide Book along. Getting digital travel guides reduces a fair bit of carrying weight.

Tips On Electronics

  • Laptop – Don’t take one if you can do with just your phone and you will save additional space in your bag. I carried my 15.6″ screen size laptop along and wished I would have had a smaller one. For road tripping in Canada, the big size works well but takes up too much room in a carry-on pack. A good thing about having a fully charged laptop with you, it can charge your dead cell phone.
  • Cell phone – Definitely the most useful device to take along. I used it without a data plan and relied on Wifi only. All the apps I downloaded were extremely useful. Offline, the phone was my navigation device, my second camera and my flashlight. Check out my favourite apps when I’m on the road.
  • Camera – I took my mirrorless Sony 6300 along and I’m glad I did. The camera is relatively small and gave me some great shots. No camera means extra space again. My compromise was to leave my zoom lens at home.

A Note On Backpacking

My tips on travelling with a carry-on backpack are meant for city destinations and urban travel. To venture into backcountry Canada or any sparsely inhabited rural area, my suggestions and lists mentioned in this article are not suitable. Backcountry travel needs much more gear.

Backpacking is a special way of travelling and is ideal for minimalists. If you were a suitcase traveller until now, it is time to give backpacking a try. Travelling with a backpack on your back gives you lots of freedom and opportunities to meet open-minded, interesting people on the way. With only a backpack you’re mobile and in control, something which is great for people of all ages.

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Yrene Dee

Yrene lives in the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada, and is the founder of BackcountryCanadaTravel.com. She was born in Switzerland, lived and worked on different continents and has travelled the world. Yes, that's me, an Entrepreneur, wilderness nut and animal lover who prefers off-the-beaten-track places. I write about things I love. Mostely.


  1. Dawn Casey

    Great article Yrene! Good for you! Traveling light……and having fun. Thanks for sharing your travels and tips <3

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