How to Pack for a Month in a Carry-on

In our past two years in Cambodia, we have learned a lot of lessons about traveling. One that we've learned the hard way is pack light.

 We were notorious, in our first year here, for overpacking huge bags for week-long trips, then realizing it wouldn't fit in the taxi or that we had to drag it up four flights of stairs at a hotel without an elevator. Not fun.

Last week, I packed up our bags for a month in America. I've learned that packing takes strategy. If you spend 15 minutes planning out your outfits and how to put some of your clothes on double-duty, it will save you from carrying clothes you don't end up wearing or not bringing enough of a certain item. This time, I wanted to see if I could fit everything in a carry-on suitcase. Although I didn't have to limit myself to one carry-on of clothes, shoes, toiletries, etc. for this trip, I thought it would be a fun challenge. And if it helps you with packing for your upcoming trip, all the better!

First, think about outfits.

 I used to just think, ok just grab 5 shirts, two pants and go!

 And then I'd end up with a shirt that only went with one pair of pants, or no back-up plan for an unplanned dinner out. If I pack three items that can be made into 5 outfits, that will save me space.

Next, I pull out everything from my closet I think I want to take.

 And then, I put some back. I always pull out way more than I think I need. So after my clothes are laid out, I look at everything and put back anything that I have multiples of or really don't need. Last year for home leave, I took a whole regular-size suitcase of clothes home - then realized most of them were too lightweight for October weather and I had a bunch of winter clothes still in storage. Even if I'm going for 4 weeks, I don't need to take 28 different outfits. I tried to take enough clothing for 10 days, with a few extra "nice" outfits tossed in.

My initial outlay looked like this:

Shoes: 3 pair flats, 2 pair sandals, 1 pair tennis shoes (plus 1 pair sandals not shown)

Dresses: 1 maxi dress, 1 maxi skirt, 2 short skirts

Pants: 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of skinny grey pants, 1 pair cotton shorts (not shown)

Shirts: 9 casual shirts, 4 nice shirts, 3 tank tops, 3 cardigans

Accessories: 1 scarf, 5 belts, 7 necklaces, 7 pairs earrings


Exercise clothes: swimsuit, 3 shirts, 2 shorts, 1 pair yoga pants

Total number of items: 58

Wow, 58 seems pretty excessive. I was shooting for 30 items so I could do a "30x30" wardrobe, but obvs, that didn't happen. That can be blamed on my love of skirts, excessive shoes and jewelry, and including exercise clothes (which really shouldn't count).

After going through that list, I swapped out a few things, replacing one cardigan with a pair of jeans and another scarf. The sweater was too bulky, and I do love my jeans. But basically the number remained the same. I also think about what I want to wear during my travel days. If I can wear the bulkiest/heaviest tops and pants on the plane, all the better for space and for staying cozy warm in those freezing airplanes.

Now for the suitcase...this very beaten-up, barely functioning carry-on.

A note on luggage: if you travel frequently, buy high-quality luggage.

 Yes, you can buy a 7-piece set from Sears or Wal-Mart for under $100 and feel good about your "bargain". But I guarantee those bags will have ripped seams, holes, and broken handles and wheels within two international flights. Baggage handlers are not kind to bags, and you can easily drag your carry-on several miles through airports during layovers. The few pieces I spent good money on (Swiss GearSamsoniteHeys) are the ones that still have all their functioning parts intact and don't look like they were made in the '70's.

Don't be cheap about luggage!

Unfortunately, this piece of luggage falls more in the "upper range of cheap" and will soon be retired. But it was perfect for illustrating these packing principals.

Now, how do I actually get it in the suitcase?

First, rolling is key for space.

 If I don't have that many things, I like to keep them folded. But if I'm worried about space, rolling everything makes it all fit better. Flats and belts go in the front pocket. Shoes line the bottom and sides of the suitcase (which also helps keep the soles from dirtying your clothes). Heavy/bulky items go on the bottom, such as jeans and dresses. I use "unmentionables" to fill up any gaps or holes. Then shirts, scarves, and everything else gets rolled and put in layers. On top goes my bathroom bag, cosmetic bag, small jewelry bag, and hair straightener. One note on bathroom stuff: because of frequent travel, I have travel-size bottles of all my toiletries.

 I even buy stuff from Clinique when we're on home leave so I can get the gift-with-purchase travel size toiletries and cosmetic kits (okay, that's actually a lame excuse, but I use it any way). Again, when you're gone one out of every four weeks of the month, any little thing helps.

So...did it all fit?


Amazingly, with the expander zipper open, the suitcase shut without any problem.

Confession: this sucker is heavy. I don't think I'd get away with actually carrying it on the plane. But it's nice to know I don't have a huge suitcase to drag through the airport once I arrive in America.

So to recap, here are my top packing tips:

1. Plan your outfits & take less than you think you'll need.

2. Buy high-quality luggage.

3. Roll your clothes to pack.

4. Buy travel-size toiletries.

Happy travels!

Check out my other travel tip posts here!

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