Scenic road on Lake Garda Tremosine Lombardy Italy. Della Forra street.
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How to Pack Light When You're Only Traveling With a Carry-On

Here's how I packed for a two-week trip to California with just a carry-on.  

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Packing for a trip always feels like a dance between art and science—and attempting to pack light complicates things even further. A few weeks ago, I traveled with my high school senior to California for a two-week tour of colleges. Considering we had a stacked agenda and were going to be on the road a lot, I was determined to travel light and enjoy our trip from start to finish, without stressing over what I left behind. I also didn’t want to be concerned about lost luggage, so I opted to bring only a carry-on. My mantra while packing was that every piece of gear had to be multi-functional in order to maximize space. Here’s how I did it, and my tips for packing light on any trip.

Choose the right luggage

A key consideration for any trip is choosing the right luggage to fit all your essentials without weighing you down. If you're traveling with just a carry-on sized bag, you want it to be lightweight yet roomy—expandable options are always helpful. For this trip, I opted for the Monos Carry-On Plus, a 7.8-pound hard-shell suitcase sized to fit in overhead bins. The wheels have a 360-spin, making it a breeze to maneuver in tight spaces, and the side handle made it easy to lift into the overhead bin and in the rental car. The padded front compartment is perfect for things like a laptop, power cords, or a book—I fit my 15-inch laptop, a scarf, and a book in there easily. The suitcase comes with an antimicrobial laundry bag and two shoe bags that further help with packing and organization. 

Next up: Choosing a functional personal item. I paired my suitcase with the Awassa tote from Parker Clay. I found it large enough to carry my camera and in-flight essentials: snacks, my Otterbox 3-in-1 MagSafe charging station that helped cut down on extra cords, and my insulated Camelbak water bottle. The tote’s trolley sleeve was a lifesaver, slipping onto my rolling suitcase and allowing me to keep one hand free. And for an extra tote I could use on campus visits or on the trails when we snuck away for a quick hike, I added Patagonia’s Ultralight Black Hole tote pack, as it folds down into a small pouch when not in use. 

Monos Carry-on Pro

Patagonia Ultralight Black Hole tote

Don't skip the packing cubes

Anyone who struggles with optimizing space when traveling knows that packing cubes are the only solution. Not only are they perfect for organization, but compression ones like these from Monos also save space in your bag. I routinely use about three to five cubes and organize my essentials by category. The bigger cube is for bulky items like jeans, pants, and sweatshirts, the medium is for shirts, and the smaller one is for undergarments and socks. The clear-view window on these cubes allows me to see what's inside at a glance, making it easier to get ready.

Monos compressible packing cubes

Opt for lightweight, multi-functional fabrics

I will admit, choosing the right clothes for two weeks was the most challenging part of this trip, especially since we were going from sunny and hot Los Angeles to cloudy and cool San Francisco. I needed to have enough options for various climates without overpacking. My Duer jeans are my favorite denim. With the right amount of stretch, softness, comfort, and a water-repellent fabric, I wear them on planes, around town, and even hiking. I wore this fleece-lined relaxed girlfriend fit pair for the flight, and packed the mid-rise performance slim straight for backup.     

For daily wear, I brought a few classic, mix and match pieces from Prana in neutral colors. Foundation rib tanks like this one and long sleeve crew T-shirts are stylish, versatile, and comfortable, and perfect for layering during California winters. I recently discovered hemp fabric, a natural fiber that is breathable, antibacterial, and seems to get softer with every wash. Adding Jungmaven tees to my travel wardrobe was a no-brainer. A few organic cotton Sopra seamless bras that doubled as sports bras and Comrad compression socks completed my essentials. 

As a beginner trail runner from the Midwest, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tackle hiking trails in California. My Superbeam scoop neck running crop top and Litewave Splitty running shorts from Bandit Running were ideal because of their double layered quick drying fabric, which meant I didn’t need sweatshirts to keep me warm while running outside. I also added a pair of multipurpose, water-repellent, 40-UPF sun protection Patagonia’s Skyline traveler pants. They worked great on trails as well as sunny afternoon walks around town.

Keeping up with the theme of packing multi-purpose clothing, I chose to take two outerwear pieces. The Stretchdown light vest from Mountain Hardwear and a Silent Down Jacket from Patagonia. The vest is a lightweight layering piece that packs down to a pouch for convenience. The jacket, which I wore on the plane (another tip: don't pack your bulkiest pieces; wear them in transit), is incredibly soft, warm enough for 30 to 40 degree Fahrenheit weather, thanks to the down insulation, and not too technical—the perfect outerwear for a nice dinner. 

Duer Fireside girlfriend jean

Prana Foundation long sleeve cew

Pick versatile pairs of shoes

Deciding on what shoe(s) to bring on any trip is always a bit tricky, but generally, you want to go classic and neutral. Because of space restrictions, I opted for a white walking shoe that would go with any outfit (worn on the plane) and packed my lightweight gym shoes as a backup. Clae’s white vegan leather sneakers withstood hours of walking around campuses. For my running and training routines, I leaned on my trusted eight-ounce Floatride Energy 4 Adventure running shoes from Reebok.  

Bradley California white leather red Ochre

Reebok Floatride Energy 4 Adventure running shoes

Don’t sacrifice your body care routine—just adjust it

After a lot of trial and error over a summer of extensive travel, I finally curated just the right selection of products for my Dopp kit. The key is to trim down your routine (and packing list) with multi purpose products that still get the job done and leave you feeling refreshed. Everist plant-based waterless shower essentials are a game changer and the travel size tins save a lot of space. My favorite sweat-resistant Miami Beach Bum Save Face sunscreen and Le Prunier Anti-Aging Plum beauty oil double up as a day or night moisturizer duo. And all this packs away in my carry-on friendly Monos Metro toiletry case.

Everist shower essentials travel kit

Miami Beach Bum Save Face