How to Travel Long Term With Only Carry-On Luggage

We are travelling permanently with only carry-on luggage, having sold the rest of our belongings. I have a 30 litre backpack and Simon has a 40 litre backpack and a small travel guitar. It’s been surprisingly easy to live with such small bags and to fit everything we need into them, including two laptops and an SLR camera. Life is actually much simpler when you own less.

Benefits Of Travelling With Just A Carry-On Bag

  • No wait for bags after flights.
  • No worries that the airline will lose your luggage, especially when you have connections.
  • We avoid airline fees for checked baggage.
  • We always take our backpacks on buses in South America (we can almost always fit them under our seat), which avoids worries about them being stolen from the storage compartment or roof.
  • Our bags are lighter and easier to carry around when looking for accommodation or getting to the bus station.
  • We don’t have much spare room in our backpacks so it stops us buying things we don’t really need.

Although Simon has two carry-on bags because of the extra guitar we haven’t had a problem taking these on planes, except in the Bolivian Amazon when we were travelling on tiny 18 seater planes. There was no overhead locker and very little room under the seat, so we reluctantly had to check in Simon’s larger backpack and the guitar (in a soft case) – luckily it was fine.

We could actually get away with less stuff, but we work as we travel so need laptops, and we’ve needed warmer clothes in South America for high altitudes. Even still, our backpacks are half the size of every other traveller we’ve seen. We just don’t know what they have in those huge packs!

Our Updated Packing List

We recently updated our packing list to reflect the changes that have happened over the last 10 months of travel.

Losses

Books we'll be able to replace with a Kindle

Books we’ll be able to replace with a Kindle

We got rid of very few things as everything we have we use. We lost some sunglasses (now replaced) and a cardigan, and we dumped our playing cards and phrasebooks that we no longer needed.

Our biggest change is that we have just ordered a Kindle. When this arrives we will be able to leave behind our Spanish dictionary, guidebooks and three novels that we usually carry around. This will save us loads of weight, and solve the struggle to find decent, affordable books to read. We are very excited and will be writing about how we get along.

Extras

There have been a few additions:

  • Asus EeePc 10 inch netbook - We realised early on that sharing the Macbook Pro when we both need to work at the same time was not going to work, so we bought this in Buenos Aires.
  • Small Mouse – Simon needed this for design work.
  • Tiny Tabletop Tripod – This is really small and comes in handy at times, although I’d get rid of it if Simon would let me!
  • Warm Clothes -When we got to Bolivia we needed warmer clothes for the high altitude cold weather. We bought an extra fleece, thick socks, hat, gloves and scarf; and I got an extra long sleeve tshirt. All of this will be dumped as soon as we reach the Caribbean coast. We are done with the cold!
  • Kindle – As explained above when we get this it will save us tons of space and weight.

Take a look at our complete updated packing list. (Note: the latest version of our packing list (February 2013) can be seen here.)

Tips for Travelling with Only Carry-On Luggage

We are firmly convinced that travelling with just carry-on bags is the way to go. Here are our tips on how to do it.

1) Choose a Small Backpack

Choose a backpack that is no bigger than 40 litres, preferably 30 litres. If your bag is small you can’t overfill it.

2) Minimise Your Clothes

Most people overpack clothes, but you can get away with very little: a few tops, a few bottoms and a fleece. Pick a colour scheme so that everything goes with everything else. It is cheap to get laundry done in many parts of the world or you can hand wash things.

Shoes are heavy so don’t take more than two pairs. We have hiking shoes and sandles. In hot climates when you aren’t doing any serious trekking then just a decent pair of sandles is enough.

The common wisdom is not to pack jeans but we do have a lightweight pair. In hot climates you don’t need them but in South America it is often cold and these are great to have. We get our laundry done for us so we haven’t had a problem with them taking too long to dry.

3) Compress!

Packing cubes can work to squeeze your clothes into a nice organised package, but even better are compression bags. They are plastic bags that you roll up and squeeze out all the air. Ours save us loads of space.

4) Take Small Toiletries

To take your backpack on a plane you need all liquids to be under 100ml, so take small amounts of everything and restock when you need to. There are some great products that make this easier:

5) Look into Lightweight Alternatives

Our rain jacket is not much bigger than an apple

Our rain jacket is not much bigger than an apple

There are many lightweight alternatives available to heavy items. Here are some of our favourites:

  • Montane Featherlite Smock – this windproof, water resistant jacket keeps us dry in all but the heaviest downpours, weighs nothing and is the size of an apple. [Update: This is no longer available but this jacket is similar]
  • Western Digital My Passport Hard Drive – 500GB of storage is an amazingly small and light package.
  • Martin Backpacker Travel Guitar – much smaller than a regular sized guitar and it fits in overhead lockers on planes.
  • Travel towel - Simon hates the texture of his but it does dry him and takes up far less space than a regular towel. Most accommodation provides one anyway so it definitely isn’t worth carrying something bigger. I have a 20 year old threadbare towel that packs down as small as a travel towel but has a real towel feel.

6) Go Paperless

Books are heavy so the Kindle is going to make a real difference to us. We also got rid of our paper journals and started writing on the computer instead. We do carry a pocket size notebook for jotting things down when out and about. When we are settled somewhere we often buy a cheap school notebook for planning (sometimes paper is just better for this), but we get rid of it when we are done.

You can take photos of any documents you need, although we do carry copies of our passport.

 

Light cotton shoulder bag we use as a daypack

7) No Daypack

My 30 litre backpack is actually daypack size so we use this for long treks or when we need a bigger bag. The rest of the time we use a thin cotton shoulder bag that packs away in our main bag, or can be used for extra storage: we often use it for food on long bus rides.

8 ) Share Power Cables

We have two cameras and two laptops and they all (annoyingly) have different chargers. All the chargers use the same size kettle lead power cord though. Rather than taking four identical power cords we just have two for when we need to power both laptops at the same time. We never need to charge all four devices at once, and this saves space.

Even better, one of the leads fits European style plugs and the other US style (UK plugs are too bulky and less common). We have found either of these two covers us all over South America, so we could even get away with losing our travel power adaptor.

We charge our iPods through our laptops with the small Apple cable.

9) Take a Small Camera. Maybe.

I do have an SLR with a big 18-200mm zoom lens, but it is heavy and takes up a significant amount of space in my 30 litre bag. There are times (mostly in cities when I don’t take it out much) when I feel like getting rid of it, but then we see the amazing landscapes of Bolivia’s southwest or spot wildlife in the Amazon and I’m so glad I have it.

There are some great compact cameras around so if you aren’t already into SLR photography then it might be a good idea to stick with a smaller camera.

10) Leave the Penknife

A penknife is one of those really useful items that are always on travel packing lists. In fact, we rarely used ours and you can’t take them on planes in your carry-on bag so we didn’t bring one this time. We haven’t missed it. We picked up a plastic knife from a takeaway and this is good enough for cutting bread, cheese and tomatoes for sandwiches. We haven’t needed it for anything else.

11) Only Take the Essentials

Beware those packing lists that list many items that “might come in handy”. In two years of travel we have never needed a sleeping bag, sleep sheet, mosquito net, washing line, travel sink plug (they don’t work very well anyway and a sock does the job), travel pillow, door stop or collapsable bowl.

That said, we do find a small roll of gaffa/duct tape handy for fixing things and taping over holes in mosquito nets (you could manage without it though) and head torches are definitely very useful if you are going anywhere you won’t have power at night (or places like India and Nepal that have frequent power cuts).

Ultimately you have to decide what is most important to you.

To see exactly what is in our backpacks see our packing list. We have descriptions of some of our favourite items on our Gear & Products Page.

Disclaimer: The Amazon links are affiliate links so we get a tiny commission if you buy anything through them. The other links are not.

Trail Wallet

Do you agree that travelling carry-on is the way to go? What are your tips for travelling light? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

100 thoughts on How to Travel Long Term With Only Carry-On Luggage

  1. This kind of post reminds me why I love your blog; practical, informative, helpful and well written. I absolutely agree that carry-on is the way to go, but I’m reluctant to replace paper books with something like a Kindle as it’s another piece of technology that can break, be stolen or lost. I’m quite a slow reader, though, and usually just carry one book with me at a time. However, I haven’t travelled anywhere for as long as you guys and haven’t travelled in South America where books in English are (seemingly) hard to come by. But perhaps I’ll change my tune once I leave forever!

    • Thank you Sam! I had the same concerns about the Kindle which is why we didn’t get one before we left. But I read so much and books are heavy and difficult to get here so I am converted. If you aren’t a big reader then it’s not as much of an issue.

  2. Oh this is such a great post! I will be saving this and coming back to it when it is time for me to actually pack. Last night I did a mock pack and it went well. I was about to fit everything in my 40L backpack and my small daypack. It was very tight in my 40L so I will try to cut some stuff out next time I try to pack again.

    • Glad you found it useful Jaime. Doing a mock pack is a great idea – glad you managed to fit everything in. You could try compression bags to give you some spare space.

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  4. Going from a big backpack to a small one, well, the exact same 40 L north face one, was the best thing I ever did, travel wise.

    I move faster (when chased buy stray dogs or touts), shop only to swap, blend in easier, but most of all I feel school trip careless/carefree when it comes to the actually sweaty travel a to b stuff. Yup, traveling with small backpack makes me look at least ten years younger. Not bad at all.

  5. Great list… ! Although I just found out when purchasing our tickets to Colombia that Spirit Airlines even charge for carry-on’s… Eeek!
    I’m curious about that mooncup — gotta read more about it.

    • Wow that’s the first airline I’ve heard of charging for carry ons! The prices are really low though. The mooncup is great – so much better for the environment too.

  6. Aloha!

    Absolutely, first time we got off the plane and scooted past the luggage carousel we were converted! It’s hilarious to us now when we think of all we used to carry around. No we do not need 5 shirts in Alaska, Hawaii, South America, Malaysia or East Africa. You can wash, wear and repeat. Camera always makes the cut when choosing between more clothes and documenting the journey, though. Love your packs!

    • Aloha Gena! Yep, we prioritise laptops, camera and books over clothes, but everyone has to choose what’s most important to them. It certainly is easier in warm climates though as you need less and it dries so quickly.

    • We can’t wait to get our Kindle. I wasn’t interested in the iPad as I wanted a device with the eInk screen that doesn’t hurt your eyes and you can read in the sun.

  7. Nice guide. I spent last weekend in Tokyo with a 25L bag, including my 13″ macbook pro, towel, umbrella, water bottle and clothing for 3 days (and separate camera bag for my SLR). Reduced my toiletries down too. Got along fine with it. I was also wearing jeans, and had a jacket with gloves and hat because it was cold.

    I have a friend in thailand now too with just a 30L bag, although he gave up his netbook and doesn’t have an SLR.

    I used to carry a small camera but it broke, so I’m getting a new phone with a better camera instead to cover small camera use (mostly indoor). This also covers alarms, mp3 player and notepad.

    I don’t carry books (except a small phrase book in camera bag) so don’t have an issue there.

    I find pretty much anything that was purchased in a travel shop (mosquito nets, big water bottles, penknife, sleeping bag, etc) to generally be the biggest waste of space. Ironic really.

    • 25L is good going Rob. I agree that it is easy to get carried away in travel shops and buy things that seem really useful but you don’t actually need.

  8. Great tips – I’m inspired to keep travelling carry-on only, as it really has tons of advantages. I found that Ryanair really has a strict “one-piece policy”. When departing from Brussels South I had a small backpack and a really tiny shoulder bag for basically just my passport and my wallet, and they made me put the shoulder bag inside the backpack before I could get to security control.

    • So far we haven’t flown any of the European cheap airlines yet but I hear they are much stricter so we’ll probably have problems with the guitar there.

  9. you will love the kindles,we use them all the time. Did you opt for the 3G, we have saved cash and time using the free internet on them. The pages loads are slow but what’s the rush!

    Happy travelling, Rich & Leah

    • We did go for 3G as we don’t have phones and we thought it would be useful to have access to email etc when we don’t have wifi.

  10. Thank you for this extremely useful post! What about weight? Some airlines have ridiculous limits such as carry-on luggage can’t exceed 6 or 7 kilos in weight.

    • Glad you found it useful Marcin. The airlines we have flown on so far have had weight restrictions below the 8-10kg our backpacks are but they have never weighed our carry-on luggage so it hasn’t been a problem.

  11. I am sooo jealous, we carry 60l and 50l plus a daybag – we already want to downsize but can’t afford to get rid of our expensive backpacks and invest in new ones. I read so many articles saying packing light is the way to go, but it wasn’t until I have to lug around my own stuff that it really rings true! When these packs wear out (which they shouldn’t do as they have life time guarantees) we’ll downsize :-)

    • You don’t necessarily need to get new bags, just get rid of some of the contents! If they aren’t filled up backpacks usually have straps so that you can make them smaller (to get onto planes).

      • Great tip! I’m planning on buying a 40L backpack/duffel bag from Mountain Equipment Coop in Canada, for a 12-month, every-continent trip… I am hoping to keep it below the 10kg weight limit that a lot of airlines have, so that means I’ll probably have to make sure it isn’t full. In your experience, how much does Simon’s 40L backpack usually weigh?

        • Simon’s is around 10kg. We rarely get our bags weighed by airlines though so you should be fine.

  12. Wow thats impressive… its taken me ages to learn to pack light, and Im still using a 45L. When you guys stay in one place for a long time though, do you kind of hate wearing the same things over and over?

    • It depends how social we are being! I do feel more conscious of wearing the same thing when you are seeing the same people regularly. I could always pick up a few extra things when we are staying somewhere for a few months but I hate shopping so I haven’t done that yet.

  13. This is so impressive, I’ve just bought a 65 litre backpack. What is the reason you do this? Security reasons maybe?

    I still remember the supreme panic in me when I got my first flight ever and Hanover Airport told me they had misplaced my stuff! I’ve been paranoid ever since.

  14. It also makes it easier to travel light when there are two of you. We are recent converts to the carry on after a trial run in Japan and I’m sold. You can share a lot of toiletries, power adaptors, books etc, and it is amazing how much is provided at a lot of hostels. I’m currently looking at good travel underwear that dries overnight to add to the travelling kit. I also think women need to get a little less precious about their beauty ‘needs’ – there’s no Glamazon in the Amazon!

    • That’s true being a couple does help because we share a lot of things. I could do with some travel socks that dry quickly – ours take forever. I definitely don’t worry about beauty these days! It was actually liberating to stop wearing makeup.

  15. This is great Guys! I always thought I was pretty good at packing, but after reading this I think I need to work a bit more on my packing skills :)
    How do you handle souvenirs etc? Don’t you buy them at all or do you post them home as soon as you buy them?

    • We don’t buy souvenirs anymore as travelling is a permanent state for us so we have nowhere to put them. On our previous year-long trip we let a few things build up and then sent a parcel home (usually in major shopping destinations like Kathmandu and Bali) . They all made it back OK.

  16. Hey, I wondered if you know any good online file storage websites. Am taking a video camera and digital cam with me on my travels but don’t want to take loads of memory cards with me. Thanks.

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  19. I think you guys have nailed “the travel light” bit perfectly. One of the main keys to this is, don’t keep putting in things “you might need”. These are the items that take up the extra space and you don’t need them!. When will I get that thru my thick skull!! Next time maybe! Great advice and great list.

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  24. Very nice. I find that hand washing everyday makes life so simple. I once went a whole summer with 3 undies, 3 shorts, 3 Ts. Wear one, wash one and one spare. Got sick of those clothes at the end of it though :)

  25. How do you manage to fly with sewing needles?

    I thought these were not allowed in hand baggage.

    does it vary depending on the airline?

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  27. Hi guys, leaving this year December, and your site is like the bible to me now :)

    Just quick silly question, which compression bags did you buy? I’m looking for some too (OCD! Need everything organised to the point! Gonna be a hell of a ride for me hehe) I I keep checking amazon and ebay and sorts, its better to ask you guys already using it for travel, than to base my purchase on the reviews of the housemums that just use them for wardrobes.

    Also how did you find Belgium? I’m originally from there, but been living in UK for two years now.

    Thx for your help
    Fin

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  32. I agree, most people can squeeze down to 30-40L packs pretty easy. The other reasons for the ‘carry on’ size is made obvious when trekking; in buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, on boats, in museums, ruins or crowded cities. Once I realized that my pack could also be my travel pack/daypack and camera bag combined my life changed.
    My camera gear has priority (I am down to a single DSLR, and three lenses) and it all fits into a removable foam liner. After that is a couple pounds of toiletries and clothes. All totaled about 15 pounds / 7kg including the weight of my Deuter ACT pack (my personal recommendation for harness comfort and the tropics). My wife has the same pack, but just a DSLR body and lens and her total weight is just under 11 pounds! Those are month long packs (and could go longer) in the tropics.
    Our packs are 40L, but my best guess is that mine is loaded to, perhaps, 27L and my wife’s is at 22L. This does allow us to pick up some things! We opted out of a computer and instead have a single Nexus 7 for reading, maps and internet contact. Lastly, remember that when you hit a major city you can always buy most anything AND you can ship stuff you have picked up home.
    Great lists – and keep inspiring people! Keeping it light is the key (easier to see when hosteling and trekking at 50).

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  36. Thanks for this, I am currently planning my next trip to Australia and trying to decide what type of backpack I need. It has convinced me I can carry a lot less! Also I had the same worries about the kindle breaking. I’m currently in the South of Thailand and my kindle broke this week, I was devastated. Half the screen won’t work, so I contacted amazon.co.uk through their website “chat” and because it was in my handbag when it happened they are sending me a new one free of charge all the way to Thailand. So, if something does happen to yours Amazon are pretty helpful!

    • I have heard so many amazing things about Amazon like that. I’d recommend getting a good case for it though, I have a lightweight but nicely padded neoprene one and have been travelling with it for 2.5 years with no problems.

  37. Very good and practical information. I have a medium size backpack (60 ltr) and a small 30-40 liter “day pack”. I once lent my medium backpack to a friend but suddenly had to travel to Burma with only my small day pack. I was worried that it wasn’t gonna be enough for more than 10 days but I was amazed at how much easier it was to travel with only that bag and how I was able to pack the same amount as in the medium size bag. The smaller bag has more compartments and it made it easier for me to find what I needed when I needed it. I’m now more reluctant to carry the medium size backpack and make every effort to fit everything in the smaller bag. My friends always travel with much larger backpacks and are often surprised at how much I can actually take.

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  40. Some good tips. I bought a 45l backpack and thought I was amazing because I could fit everything in but after 7 months travelling, I now have 2 additional bags! After reading your post I think I will have a repack!

  41. Great list! Thanks so much. I remembered seeing this months ago, and, with my upcoming move to Australia, I checked it out again. I shan’t be taking just hand luggage as I am settling in Melbourne for 6 months (maybe more) to begin with so have decided to have a few added comforts, but your list has certainly helped me a lot.

    It’s important to adapt each found list to fit your individual needs. I too am a digital nomad so need all kinds of tech (and Apple!). However I’m not a musician so of course wouldn’t bring a bulky travel guitar with me. I find a screwdriver and bottle opener to be useful at times so will bring a penknife. So as much as I’d agree with a lot on this list, it is down to the individual person.

  42. This is a great post, Simon and Erin. I’ve always been an advocate of travelling light, for the same reasons. I made a short video on my blog about what I took on my last trip and normally carry very similar stuff to you. I can’t bear the thought of lugging an enormous bag of redundant stuff around, especially as I travel alone. I’ve also got rid of most of my belongings over the years and live a very minimal life, which I find so much easier in many ways.
    I really love the layout and look of your blog. Keep up the great work.
    Jane

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  46. That is a great list. A few years ago I had a bit 65ltr rucksack for a years travelling but ever since I use a 32Ltr one but only on 2 or 3wks trips. Saying that I often wondered if I could manage for long period with it. I know I definitely can now that ye are doing it as I know that we always bring too many t-shirts, bottoms etc.

  47. Hi there Simon and Erin. I would just like to say how inspirational your site is and I think its amazing what you are doing. Back in 2006 I went to the USA and Canada and travelled with a tour company called Trek America for 10 weeks. I got a flight to New York and met up with random people and we all went on a mini bus with an American guy as our driver/tour leader. It mostly involved camping and a bit of lodging/hosteling for budget travel, however in the cities we stayed in hotels. It was the best thing I ever did. Now I am going to NZ on a working holiday and I have already purchased some of the items you have specified on your site and I have found your tips very helpful. So far I have purchased a 40 litre OSPREY FARPOINT backpack which is carry on compliant. I have also got a EAGLE CREEK large double sided cube, a small LIFEVENTURE cube, compression roll bag, Somerset shaving oil, Lush bar and also many other items which I have researched. I wish you all the best on your travels and I’m sure I’ll keep up to date with your site while I’m in NZ. Thanks.

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  49. I am currently planning my next trip to America and although I advocate for packing light my partner is more of a ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ kinda girl. I have convinced her to buy a carryon only bag and reading your site makes it a lot easier to get her on my side about unnecessary items!
    I took a trip around China last year with a bulky suitcase FULL of items I didn’t need or use and came back with souvenirs and presents that i don’t even know where they ended up! I won’t ever be travelling with more than a pack or carry on spinner from now on!!

    Thanks so much for all the useful hints and amazing content! One day I hope to be a digital nomad permanently too!

  50. Hey guys! Hello from Argentina! Glad to hear u were in our land and liked it. Your post actually comes in handy cause im planning my first solo trip for next year. Im thinking 2 months backpacking in Europe so, packing light is one of my main concerns. The thing is (and here is where your wisdom will be really appreciatted) that if I do travel with a carry on compliant type of backpack, won’t I still have trouble with the items I bring along with me? As a budget traveler I want to avpid checking my bags and paying Ryanair their 20 euros extra per checked bag… but at the same time, wouldn’t I have trouble with items such as a) makeup b) contact lenses liquids c) shampoo d) other survival items?
    That is my main fear actually, cause I was under the impression that most of those are prohiitted in cabin bagagge.

    Thank you in advance for your help!

  51. Hi guys,

    I’m loving your website, finding it really useful. My bf & I are off travelling for a year from September and are very interested in the digital nomad lifestyle so this will be a good test run, plus an amazing experience.

    A rather mundane comment to leave, but your link to the Montane Featherlite Smock is broken. Possibly because they no longer appear to have a smock as such, but I would really like to support you by buying products via your site and currently cannot get to that one at least. I think one of the rucksack links leads to a product that is no longer sold or available as well.

    Happy travels!
    Alys

  52. Enjoyed you travel with carry-on. I travel frequently with a lightweight Samsonite carry on. I like it because of the wheels and it’s tough. I am getting older, so a backpack is a bit of a problem at time (bad back). I can fit everything I need in it and travel for months. I wear the heavier stuff while flying if necessary. I also have smaller shoulder type bag that is handy for small things and always get away with that on check in.

  53. Really great! I go two times a year to my home country in Europe. I’ve always been taking large luggage with me with tons of clothes and shoes + unnecessary things i really don’t need. Last time I’ve only took one 35L Backpack with me and I didn’t missed anything, I felt more free. Now I never take more than 5 t-shirts and never more than 3 pants. And no one needs more socks and underwear than t-shirts. I think the amount of underwear and socks should be the same like the amount of t-shirts you’re carrying with you. http://loki.lifetricks.com/images/9105/lighten-your-load-how-to-make-a-skivvy-roll.jpg and this helped me a lot to save space.

  54. I am so happy I found this post. I just bought an Osprey 40ltr for a year of travel around SE Asia and Oz, but I was still a bit apprehensive until I read all the bonuses of travelling light in this post. Now I’m certain I’ve made the right decision and I’ll be using your packing guide. Thanks a lot for this guys :)

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