How to pack like a pro: your 10-days, one carry-on packing guide

As I’m preparing for my next trip it occurred to me that not everyone can do what I just did. Pack 10 days’ of clothes plus all my toiletries in a carry-on bag. Moreover, it zipped closed (now I’m bragging but I didn’t even unzip the expansion.

You may think that is impossible. And a few years ago I would have wholeheartedly agreed. I was a chronic over-packer. Actually, I probably still am but I make better choices.

Before I tell you how I stuffed all those clothes into a carry-on, let me tell you what is in my bag

  • 3 pair of light-weight pants – 2 black and 1 grey
  • 1 pair of jeans – White, black or blue
  • 2 pair of denim shorts
  • 2 pair of stretchy short – 1 for exercise, 1 for sleep
  • 6 tank tops
  • 4 lightweight, brightly colored seasonal blouses
  • 2 brightly colored print dresses
  • 1 black lightweight jacket
  • Too many undergarments
  • 2 pair of ultra-lightweight shoes
  • 1 pair of sandals
  • A few pieces of jewelry
  • Swimsuit
  • An umbrella
  • A small camera – it’s waterproof and we are doing beachy stuff. Otherwise, it would stay home.
  • Baseball cap
  • Prescription glasses and sunglasses
  • Small Handbag
  • Too, too, too many toiletries and cosmetics. (now if I could reduce this load)
  • Cat Optional

I think you will agree this is quite a bit of clothes. I have enough attire that I shouldn’t have to wash anything during the 10 days I’m on the road.

You might think this is some sort of hocus-pocus. Some sleight of hand. Nope. It’s nothing like that. Most of my formula has more to do with how I shop than how I pack.

How to Shop

You might have noticed when reading down through the contents of my bag that I described many items as lightweight. Obviously, I am packing for a warm climate. I admit doing this when traveling to a variable climate like on a South American Cruise, or cold climate is much more challenging. However, I think I may be able to help with that too. See my South American Cruise Packing guide. 

Since I began traveling, I have begun thinking differently about how I shop. I would say I now think about function more than fashion.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dress frumpy when I travel. However, my pieces are more basic, comfortable, and packable.

If you look back at the list, you will see that all the bottoms, both pants, and skirt are monochromatic. I save the color for the tops. I buy brightly colored shirts that can be worn individually or under a jacket.  I specifically look for items that will wrinkle minimally. Everything in my suitcase can either be dressed up or dressed down based on the accessories I match with them.

You may be thinking that you can’t afford to have two wardrobes: one for every day and one for travel. I understand that. Take an inventory of your closet. You probably have more monochromatic or neutral items than you realize. Also, consider what items are wrinkle resistant. Then start filling in the missing pieces a little at a time. Wait for things to go on sale. Buy in the opposite season.

The Not So Magic System

Now that you know what I buy and how I shop, let me tell you how I get all those clothes in a carry-on.

Like I said there is no magic to it.

First, I put all my undergarments in the interior pockets on the lid of the suitcase. Then I begin packing the body of the bag. I lay all the small, flat accessory items in the bottom of the bag. This is where you will find the umbrella, handbag, jewelry bag, baseball hat, and scarves if I have them. Anything flat-ish goes in the bottom.

Then I start layering the pants. I start with the pants unfolded. I lay a pair in the bag, waistband in the bag, legs hanging outside the bag. If the first pair of pant legs hang out of the bag to the right, I lay the second pair with the legs to the left. I continue alternating the pants until they are all laid in the bottom of the bag.

Shorts come next. I lay them in the suitcase alternating the direction of the waistband. Once they are in place, I roll all the t-shirts, tank tops, and stretchy shorts. I then stuff them in around the sides of the luggage.

Next, I neatly arrange the wrinkle-resistant blouses on top. Now I fold the legs of the pants into the case. Then, I tidily place the dresses. Depending on the packability (that may not be a word. LOL) of the jacket, this goes in next.

Any odds and ends, I stuff in around the sides of the luggage.

The final step is my toiletry/makeup bag. My case lays flat which I find ideal because I can set it in the bag in the morning before zipping up my suitcase.

Shoes and other details

Again, this, in part, goes back to how I shop. I have purchased some cute lightweight shoes. I like Skechers. There are certainly other brands. I have one pair that is suited for most pant styles and one dressier pair that I can wear with a skirt or dress. On this trip, I also packed a pair of sandals.

I pack all the shoes in the outer pockets of the bag.  If they don’t all fit, I wrap them in plastic bags and stuff them anywhere I can find room. Throw caution to the wind. Separate the pair if necessary. They won’t get lonely.

If there is any magic to my packing this is it: I wear all the heaviest items: a second pair of jeans, a sweater, a second jacket, or if the first doesn’t fit in the luggage, I wear that.  If I want tennis shoes or boots on a trip, I wear them.  This helps keep both the bulk and the weight of your bag down.

A Final Word

Suitcase and camera bag which is my one personal item the airlines allow. Cat optional.

This brings me to a detail that should not be overlooked; the weight of the bag. When you pack this many garments in a suitcase it gets heavy. I mean it can get really heavy. Remember you have to be able to lift this thing over your head to put it in the overhead compartment.  Consider your abilities. If you have a bad back or some other ailment you may want to consider checking the bag. If you know you don’t have good upper body strength, again, consider checking your bag. Be honest with yourself about your limitations. What’s the point of being able to pack everything into a carry-on if it becomes more of a burden than checking your luggage?

I will be putting this system to the test in the coming months as I have a winter road trip in California that I will need to pack for a variety of weather conditions and a wedding (formal wear). We will see how well that goes. Not holding my breath.

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Susan Decoteau-Ferrier

Travel writer/blogger, photographer. Avid potter and wanna-be artist. Wife, Mom to 6 fur kids, gardener, coffee snob.

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