How to Pack a Carry-on (backpack or suitcase)

Packing a carry-on for a trip may not seem like a big deal. Yet that “no-brainer” step of your journey is actually crucial to its success.

In this comprehensive guide, I will give you some general advice applicable no matter the kind of luggage you’re traveling with. I will detail exactly how to pack you're a carry-on for a week or so, both for backpackers and suitcase-lovers. You will also find a list of useful items that you should bring along.

Ready for take-off?

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General rules whether you’re packing a suitcase or a backpack

Bigger isn’t always better

Choose the size of your backpack carefully: you may think that the larger, the better because you’ll be able to bring more stuff. Halfway through your journey, when you realize how heavy the load is and you have no other choice but to keep going, you might revisit the genius of that idea. Instead, you’re just likely to pack unnecessary items.

In this regard, do keep in mind that your airline most likely sets a luggage allowance for your carry-on: make sure that you check the maximum size and weight that you’re entitled to. Although it might seem like a constraint, take it as an opportunity for you to bring only what is necessary. My 40 liters backpack does the job really well, whether I’m leaving for 2 days or 2 weeks.

For clothing, less is more

Be (a little) dirty

Don’t rush head down, take the time to list everything you need first. Lay down all the clothes you want to bring… and cut it in half. Chances are, you won’t need everything. And I’m not saying this only because I’m French, but it’s completely fine to wear twice the same t-shirt or even underwears. It will be your dirty secret.

If you can’t decide which clothes to leave behind, try to picture which items you can mix together to create a brand new outfit for every day or so. It’ll give you the feeling that you’re changing every day. For instance, go for rather neutral colors like black or gray and a couple of more colorful items. Forget clothes you would wear only once during your trip. Plus, it will be less obvious that you’ve been recycling your clothes on the pictures you will take!

And play it smart

Keep in mind that depending on the kind of trip you’re planning, getting access to a washing machine or even a simpler way to clean up your clothes could prove complicated. Taking that into account, don’t bring your brand-new clothes: take some items that can suffer a bit.

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Pro tip: Consider packing even fewer clothes and buy some once you’re there, especially if you’re traveling to a cheap country! Not only will you be less likely to be branded a tourist once you’re dressed as the locals, these items will also be souvenirs after your trip! Just anticipate and keep a bit of free space in your luggage (in this situation, that’s acceptable).

The 1 to 6 rule

The classic one

I bet that if there’s anything that will stick in your head after reading all of this, it’s this amazing rule that was detailed on Lifehacker. Wherever you go, if you want to leave with one piece of baggage only (whether it’s a backpack or a luggage), follow the 1-2-3-4-5-6 rule. Bring:

1 hat 2 pairs of shoes
3 pairs of pants
4 shirts
5 pairs of socks
6 pairs of underwears

Mind. Blown

My revised packing recommendation

It might not seem like much, but it’s actually more than enough, especially for a trip shorter than a week. To be honest, my own packing list is even shorter:

1 hat 1 pair of shoes (with the ones you’ll wear for the airport, that’s enough)
1 hoodie/sweater
2 pairs of pants (or 1 pair of pants + 2 pairs of shorts, depending on the season)
4 t-shirts
4 pairs of socks (easy to wash and dry, you don’t need more)
4 pairs of underwears (same as for the socks)

It sure is less sexy and harder to remember, but I found that it really is a perfect combination. You’re most likely not going to the airport naked anyway, so if you’re scared of not bringing enough, add another layer on you - but pack no more than this.

Space-saving techniques

They see me rollin’

First, forget your summer job in a clothing store where they taught you how to nicely fold every item for the customer. What you want to do is to roll your clothes, not fold them. It is by far the most popular space-saving technique, and for a reason. I found out on Lifehacker the best one out there is the Army roll:

Fortunately, there is also an Army technique to roll jeans (and pants in general):

Both of these videos have changed my approach to packing and I have no doubt that it will have the same impact on you!

Who needs air?

Invest in a couple of compression bags. The best part of this brilliant invention is that it acts not only as a space-saver but also as protection in case of a leak in your carry-on. Backpacker highlights how useful they are to slim down puffy items such as sleeping bags.

Do not hesitate to push: the more compact it is, the more pleasant to carry the luggage is, especially for backpacks, because you won’t fill your items moving around as they please inside. Plus, it simply gives you more room for the rest.

Think of yourself as an ambitious Tetris player: you know how frustrating it is when there’s a small empty space in the middle of an otherwise well-cemented brick wall? The same goes for your backpack: every little space should be filled with something. A classic hack consists of storing your socks inside your shoes.

Go digital

It might be tempting to bring a book to pass the time, or maps to prepare your trip. But you’re better off with your small and space-saving smartphone (with the best travel apps). You can download maps just as easily as ebooks now.

Forbidden items

Be sure to check the airline’s website before packing to avoid bad surprises at the airport. First, remove all liquids above 100 ml (or freeze them so that they can pass through security). Then, although it seems obvious, don’t even think about bringing your favorite Swiss-army knife: no matter the emotional attachment, the security agents will take it from you. The same goes for all dangerous items.

Here’s an infographic with packing tips from the TSA:

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How to pack a carry-on backpack

Choose comfort over fashion

First off, I assume that if you’re traveling with only a backpack, you’re planning on moving around, not just stay at the same place for a week or more. In that case, comfort trumps style, especially when it comes to shoes. Wear your comfy (and usually larger) shoes and pack regular ones if you insist on bringing a nice pair along.

Back to basics: ABC

This catchy and easy-to-remember acronym one stands for:

Accessibility

As a general rule, keep all the items that you will need at the airport within reach. That goes for your travel documents as well as your electronic devices, which will have to be taken out for the security check. You can also check out these airport tips to make your trip easier.

Balance

It might not seem like much but it can make a huge difference in terms of comfort. If you neglect balance, although you might not realize it right away, your back will hurt when you take your backpack off.

Compression

No space should be left unoccupied, except if you’re planning on bringing back some clothes or souvenirs from your trip. I detailed how to make the most of your backpack’s capacity below.

Plan for a strategic internal organization

How to spread the weight...

The idea is to keep your center of gravity as stable as possible and make the backpack as maneuverable as you can. Therefore, the heavy gear should be placed closer to you, halfway through your back. Save the bottom for the lighter gear.

Regarding balance, aim for an even right-left distribution of other medium-weight items that will act as stabilizers. Spread them throughout your backpack to fill the space as much as possible and finish with small and flexible items wherever there is room left.

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… while keeping accessibility in mind

You probably won’t need your towel or sleeping bag at the airport - except if your flight is delayed or canceled, in which case ClaimCompass can help you as well. Put them at the bottom, where they can also absorb shock in the eventuality that your backpack falls down.

On the contrary, keep the travel documents in a small pocket. Your electronics should be close to your back: first, because they’re likely to be heavy and second, you’ll need to take them out at least once for security.

How to hoist your backpack

With the carry-on weight limit, your backpack shouldn’t be too heavy. Still, if you want to pass for a savvy traveler, do not carry your backpack as you would a classic bag. Instead, follow the expert advice of REI:

- Loosen all of your straps slightly to make the pack easier to slip on.
- Tilt your pack to an upright position on the ground.
- Stand next to the back panel; have your legs well apart and knees bent.
- Grab the haul loop (the webbing loop at the top of the back panel on your pack).
- Lift and slide the pack up to your thigh and let it rest; keep your hand on the haul loop for control.
- Slip your other arm and shoulder through one shoulder strap until your shoulder is cradled by the padding.
- Lean forward and swing the pack onto your back. Now slip the hand that was holding the haul loop through the other shoulder strap.
- Buckle up and make your usual fit adjustments.”

Confused? Here’s how it looks like in the video below. It is done with a much larger backpack used for hiking, but the technique remains relevant:

Goodbye wrinkles

Now, I assumed the question would not be as relevant for backpackers as it is for luggage-lovers, which is why I waited until this point to mention it: what about wrinkles? If you’re packing shirts, your main concern is probably to get them to destination with as few wrinkles as possible.
That’s where packing folders come into play. Absolutely useless if you’re traveling with a backpack, they’re a gentleman’s and a lady’s favorite item, perfect for packing shirts, trousers, and clothes with a fragile fabric.

The video below was made by Eagle Creek, but the brand really doesn’t matter:

How to save space in your carry-on suitcase

Fold, don’t roll

While rolling your clothes works great for a backpack, the technique doesn’t prove as effective for a suitcase. Instead, go for the traditional folding method.

The interfolding technique

If the rolling technique hasn’t convinced you, try the interfolding packing method instead. Andrew Snavely from Primer Magazine, claims that it is way more efficient than the widely adopted rolls to save space. He described the process right here.

Not adapted to backpacks, the interfolding technique does make the most of your carry-on suitcase’s shape. The main disadvantage is that you will need to unpack completely to access any piece of clothes. I would, therefore, recommend that you use it only if you’re planning to stay at the same place at your destination.

Adopt the right internal organization

image caption When you don't read this post till the end, you end up with this suitcase

Sort out your items by weight and size and start from the bottom. Place the heavy and bulky items such as your shoes and additional bag first. Don’t waste any space: fill them with lighter and smaller items such as socks and underwears (preferably protected by a zip log bag).

You’re done with optimizing the space of the first layer? Then move on to your clothes: they will make up for part of the middle layer. I described above how exactly they should be packed: fold, don’t roll. Place your fragile items between your clothes, preferably in zip bags.

Keep the upper layer for the items of lighter fabric such as shirts as well as the ones that you will have to take out during the security check, such as your electronics.

Heathrow Airport put up an explanatory video describing how to get your suitcase as organized as possible, using both the folding and interfolding technique:

Some useful items to bring along

Assuming that you’re traveling with a carry-on only, make sure that you pack most (if not all) of these as well.

Photocopy of important travel documents: I would also recommend making digital copies as well, but do bring hard copies with you.

Ziploc bags: They’re perfect to keep your items safe from any leak or separate the dirty from the clean clothes.

Portable battery: This electronic device ensures you to arrive at destination with a fully charged phone. If not during the flight, you’ll eventually need it during your trip.

Pack cover: Just like a travel insurance, it’s something you hope you won’t have to use but you’re glad when you do need it. And if it doesn’t rain, it can still keep your backpack away from the dust.

Quick-dry travel towel: they take less space and are extremely useful, especially if you’re always on the move and don’t have time to let it dry.

Earplugs and eye mask: It’s definitely a nice-to-have. Traveling can be exhausting and you need your sleep.

A bottle: Either pass it empty through security and fill it with tap water afterward or freeze the liquid before leaving. If you opt for the latter, however, keep in mind that it will need time to melt, so you’re not sure to be able to drink it during the flight.

A lock: It’s always a good idea to have one to keep your stuff secure, especially if you’re staying in a hostel. Trust in people, but not blindly…

A flashlight: A small one is enough. If it works with a dynamo it’s even better as you won’t have to worry about when the batteries will die.

Duct tape: Accidents can happen and when they do, you’re glad to have duct tape to patch your stuff.

Small roll of travel toilet paper: Unfortunately, all airports’ restrooms don’t have toilet paper. And when it’s a pressing matter, you come to cherish that roll.

Painkillers and bandages: They won’t solve everything but most boo-boos.

You’re all set!

It will probably take you a few trial rounds to find your perfect organization, but you’re halfway through becoming an expert on how to pack a carry-on for a week or so! You only need practice now, and that’s the fun part, so rejoice!

Feel free to drop me a line to share your own packing tips! And don’t forget that I’m also here to help if your flight was disturbed.

See you around traveler!