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The Art of Packing Light: Why and How

picture of suitcase with script "the art of packing light"

Packing light is something we all struggle with.  Packing light for a family trip? Even worse.  Over the years, I’ve discovered how life-changing it can be.  Ok, maybe it didn’t change my life, but it has made traveling so much easier.  

But why should I bother packing light?

Have you ever stood in a hotel with no elevator trying to lug an enormous bag up the stairs?  Or have you ever tried to roll a huge suitcase or two over cobblestone streets?  I have, and it isn’t fun.  

Now, try to imagine loading yourself on a train with kids, strollers, and several bags.  Sounds awful right?  This all is exactly why we like to travel as light as possible, especially when the kids are tagging along.  It may seem daunting, but it will make traveling- especially with children- so much easier.  

Most of us like to imagine that we will instantly become an instagram fashion model while on vacation, agonizing over outfits and what to wear when.  Oh, you don’t?  Am I the only one?   We take way more than we need, assuming we need to have multiple options for each day.  When is the last time you wore every single item you packed?

Let’s just be honest….options are good to an extent, but options take up space and time.  You don’t want to be carrying all of those options through the airport, aboard trains, and packing them up every time you change cities throughout your trip.  Not to mention, more options lead to more time standing in front of a mirror debating which outfit to wear, instead of getting out and exploring.

But how can I possibly do this?

Ok, now that we know why you should pack lightly, let’s discuss how to actually do this.  It isn’t as easy as just cutting your list in half.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have taken multiple trips- some up to 12 days- with only a carry-on size bag.  I’ve been the one standing at the baggage carousel waiting on friends to retrieve their enormous suitcases while I stood waiting with my backpack ready to go.  I’ve also taken multiple trips with my husband and two kids, using only two travel backpacks- for everyone!  This pic is from our trip to Italy.

packing light makes a huge difference especially when traveling with kids. Pictured with all the bags we took for 12 days in Italy
this is everything we took for 12 days in Italy | packing light makes a huge difference

I’m going to go through my process of packing. It may seem like overkill and a lot harder than just throwing everything in a bag before running out the door. However, it will save you the stress of last minute packing, and your actual travel days will be so much easier.

As I’m writing this, we are getting ready to embark on a 10 day trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We are not only limited by the airlines, but a five and two year old aren’t much help in carrying luggage. We have to be strategic in our packing, especially since the weather is transitioning to fall, and temps will be all over the place.

My General Packing Process

  1. Plan–  I always make a list of thing we plan to do and the weather at our location- making a note of the different types of clothes we will need.  Will we be hiking or doing other outdoor activities?  Will we be visiting a museum or church that will require shoulders to be covered?  Will we be eating at a fancy restaurant?  
  2. List– The next step is to make a list of all the possible things you will need for each activity or day.  The key word here is NEED.  This includes everything from diapers and sippy cups to clothes and shoes, making note of how many of each item that will be needed.  
  3. Pull– I always like to start pulling items about a week or so before we leave.  I’m a mom with a full-time job, so I can’t always pack the day before.  This gives me time to consider the items I’ve pulled.  It also keeps us from needing to do a load of laundry in a panic the night before we leave.  
  4. Edit–  This is where it starts to get interesting.  Go through everything you have pulled and begin to remove things that may not be needed.  Sometimes I do this while packing.  Often times, I’ll just pull a few things every day.  Consider taking even less if you have a washing machine or laundry service where you are staying.  Swap for items that can be dual purpose, especially items that can be dressed up or down.  I often make a stack of things that would be nice to have, but not required.  If there is room, they get tossed in.  If not, no loss. 
  5. Final pack: I pack everything using packing cubes.  Most times, everyone gets their own cube to make it easier for finding things.  I, of course, make sure to cross things off my list so I don’t forget anything.  My friends call me Polly Planner, after all.  

Tips and Clothing Considerations for Packing Light

  • Rewear. Most of us don’t wash our jeans/shorts after every wear. I guarantee you have items in your closet you rewear; do the same on vacation. Unless you are doing some serious exercise, pants can be worn multiple times.  This goes for pajamas and many tops and dresses as well, especially those you’ll only wear to dinner, etc.
  • Travel size Downy Wrinkle Release is a game changer for light smells and wrinkles. Confession: I often use this at home instead of ironing.
  • Pack a max two pairs of shoes: one for casual sightseeing and one that is dressier but still reasonable and comfortable.  Ie- don’t take high heels to somewhere with cobblestone streets.  If you plan to do tons of hiking, etc you could swap that for one of the other pair.  Occasionally, I will take three pair, but in that case, I always try to wear the bulkiest on the plane and make sure the third pair is super small and packable (flats, flip-flops).
  • Try to make sure every item can be worn with at least two other things in your bag.  If everything can be mixed and matched, your item number will drop drastically.   This goes for the shoes as well, which is how you can get away with taking only 1-2 pair.
  • Use accessories/jewelry to change things up.  I’ll use a single clothing item for multiple outfits simply by changing the accessories.  Good basics are key!
  • Try to stick to one color palette.  In other words, in the winter I stick to mostly blacks and grey or browns and beiges as the base of my packing.  This way, all of my accessories and shoes will be either black or brown/neutral.  Then I’ll throw in a few color options to change things up. 
  • Pack the same/similar things for every trip. If you’ve ever paid attention to my pics, I often take some of the same clothes on every vacation. (You probably haven’t, which means no one will notice in your pictures either.)  This makes packing a breeze!  The first things I usually grab are my trusty basics then add in a few new items and accessories.
  • Roll your clothes.  They take up less space and are much less like to wrinkle.  I always roll mine then put them into packing cubes to keep them neat and compact.  
  • Pack clothes straight from the laundry. If you can do this a few days to a week ahead like I mentioned above, it will save you so much time and last minute headache. No last minute laundry to make sure everyone has what they need! I told a friend this trick a few years ago, and she recently mentioned that this has been the biggest game changer for her when packing for her family of five.
  • Consider staying somewhere with a washer/dryer. When we went to Italy with the kids, we picked a place with a washer/dryer halfway through our trip.
  • Wash underwear and light items in the sink if needed. We always take a small ziplock bag of laundry powder on trips more than four days. Have you ever noticed how much room underwear can take up??

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