The Ultimate Carry-On Packing List

Traveling Carry-On Only? Make Sure to Include These Items in Your Backpack

girl with carry-on backpack
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Carry-on travel is the ultimate way to travel. 

It makes everything so much easier. You don't need to worry about lost luggage because you'll have all of your possessions with you at all times; you don't need to worry about back pain, because the only backpack you'll be carrying will be under 40 litres and much lighter than other backpackers'. In fact, the only thing you need to worry about is carrying liquids through security at airports, and that's surprisingly easy to deal with.

 

Here is the ultimate packing list for carry-on travelers: 

Clothing 

When it comes to clothing, you need to plan out your outfits in advance to maximize the different looks you can create while traveling. It's also far easier to pack clothing if you're going to be traveling during one season only. Heading to Southeast Asia in the dry season will obviously require far fewer (and bulkier) clothes than Finland in the middle of winter. 

The key here is to pack neutral colors so that everything goes with everything else. I recommend taking five t-shirts, a pair of shorts, one pair of pants (or jeans), a lightweight jacket and enough underwear and socks to last you five days on the road. If you'll be heading to colder climates, look for clothing that's made of merino wool, as that will keep you warm while still remaining lightweight in your bag. 

When it comes to shoes, the fewer you pack the better.

I managed to survive two years of travel with just flip-flops because I'm not much of a hiker and flip-flops were fine for any walking I did. 

If you're more of an adventure traveler, you'll want to bring sturdy walking shoes with you. Try to get a multi-purpose shoe that covers walking, trekking, and hiking, so that you only need to bring just the one.

Here's my carry-on clothing breakdown: 

  • 2 strap tops
  • 2 vest tops
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 1 long-sleeved top
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 2 biknis
  • 1 sarong
  • 1 pair of flip-flops
  • 1 pair of running shoes (to be worn on travel days)
  • 3 pairs of socks; 7 underwear; 2 bras

Toiletries

Toiletries are the trickiest to deal with when it comes to traveling carry-on only. You'll no longer be able to buy bottles of shampoo and shower gel to lug around the world with you. Instead, you'll have to get creative. 

If you're more of a mid-range/luxury traveler, you may be able to rely on supplies from the hotels you stay in. And if you're not sure if your future hotels provide toiletries, you can take some with you when you leave. 

If you stay in Airbnb apartments, you'll also be able to tell in the listing if toiletries are included in the bathroom, so if you want to avoid the hassle of finding smaller sizes or solid versions of toiletries, this could be another good option. 

If none of those apply to you, it's time to start looking for solid items. Practically every toiletry product you can think of has a solid counterpart, whether it's shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, or sunscreen

Finally, you could pick up those small travel-sized toiletry items you see at airports and drugstores, but unless you're heading out on a trip lasting less than a week, I recommend avoiding these.

They're not great value for money, not easily replaced while you're traveling, and run out within a few days of opening them. The following is my carry-on travel toiletries breakdown: 

  • Small toiletries bag
  • Solid shampoo and conditioner bar from LUSH
  • Hairbrush
  • Small bar of soap
  • Solid sunscreen 
  • Solid deodorant
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste
  • Razors
  • Tweezers
  • Nail scissors
  • Contact lenses
  • Diva cup

Travel Technology

What you decide to travel with depends totally on your travel style. If you're aiming to do any kind of blogging or writing on the road, it's best to travel with a light laptop, such as the Macbook Air to make typing much easier. For anyone else, you really just need a tablet and a phone. 

When it comes to reading, I highly recommend packing a Kindle Paperwhite in your bag, because it will save a huge amount of space and weight as you travel -- much better than travelling with a book.

 

When it comes to photography, if you're not super-into it, you can easily get by with using your phone -- many phones on the market today have cameras that are just as great as what you'll find in a point and shoot. A micro 4/3s camera is a great if you know your way around a camera -- they're similar in weight to a point and shoot and take near-SLR quality photos. 

You'll need a travel adapter to use in every country you visit, so make sure you get one that looks robust. I recommend an adapter that converts to countries in one, rather than many adapters to save on space. 

Instead of using an external hard drive, I recommend signing up for a Smugmug account to upload your photos to to keep them safe. Or if you're using a phone as your main camera, you could just use the cloud storage you have access to on your device. 

Everything else that hasn't been mentioned will be chargers and cables. Here's what's on my carry-on technology list: 

  • 13" Macbook Pro
  • Kindle Paperwhite
  • Sony A7ii camera with kit lens with SD cards
  • iPhone 5SE with earphones
  • Various charging cables 
  • Power adapter

Medication

When it comes to travel, the vast majority of medications you can buy at home, you'll be able to get while you're abroad. In your travel first aid kit, then, you should look to fill it with any prescription medication you won't be able to get while you're traveling. I always throw in a packet of painkillers and some Imodium in case of emergencies. If your doctor will prescribe you a course of antibiotics just in case of emergencies, then that's something you'll want to include as well. 

If you'll be traveling to regions where malaria is prevalent, you'll want to carry your full supply of anti-malarial tablets with you. In this case, I recommend buying a pill bottle, pushing through the pills in the blister pack, and storing them in the bottle. It'll take up much less space in your bag.  

Other than that, there's nothing else vitally important that you need to include. My travel first aid kit contains: 

  • 1 box of paracetamol
  • 1 box of ibuprofen
  • 1 box of Imodium
  • 1 course of antibiotics (usually Amoxicillin or Cipro)
  • Birth control pills

Miscellaneous

Miscellaneous items totally depend on what kind of traveler you are, what things you treat as absolute essentials, and how much space you have left in your backpack. 

Some of my miscellaneous items include a quick-dry travel towel (these are essential for carry-on travelers -- they're so light and small and dry very quickly), a sarong (find out why these are an absolute must for me), some makeup, sunglasses, and a dry bag (good if you plan on taking any ferries or boats on your travels). 

What Shouldn't You Pack 

I could just say anything that isn't mentioned in this article, but the truth is, everyone's different and what I deem as essentials, you won't want to pack; and what I advising skipping out on, you won't feel comfortable traveling without. Having said that, if you're interested in finding out which items I don't deem necessary to travel with, keep on reading. 

Silk sleeping liner: This is a mainstay on most packing lists on travel blogs, but I do find myself wondering how many of them actually use it. I bought a silk sleeping liner based on many of the recommendations I found online -- it's small and lightweight, after all, so it wasn't too much of a hassle to carry it. 

I carried it for three years and used it once. And that single time when I used it was because I was sunburnt and it was too painful to sleep with a duvet. 

Hostels aren't disgusting places, they aren't full of bed bugs, and you really don't need to travel with a silk sleeping liner. It's a waste of space in your backpack. 

Sewing kit: Okay, this is a tiny item, so it doesn't really matter if you pack it or not, but I really don't see the need in carrying one regardless. This is another item I traveled with for several years and didn't use once. In fact, I quickly learned that if ever I broke anything so much that I considered using a sewing kit to repair it, it was faster and easier to just buy a new one instead. 

Thick, warm clothes: To free up space in your bag, I recommend avoiding carrying thick, winter clothing with you on your trip. Instead, pack many thin layers made of Merino Wool to keep you warm.