travel packing guide

Packing Hacks: A Guide to Avoid Overpacking

TRAVEL PLANNING

Pack smart, look chic & stay organized on your travels

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I wanted to write a guide to avoid overpacking for myself as much as anyone else. The truth is I love to travel, but struggle with packing. This compilation of “packing hacks”  are tips I’ve gathered through trial and a lot of error, on my travels to almost 40 countries. It’s what I’ve learned works for me, and what doesn’t.

Overpacking has caused me a lot of headaches. I am still recovering from seeing a porter at a train station in India with my huge bag precariously perched atop his head. (photo below, top bag)

 

A porter carries luggage stacked on his head at a train station in India
A station porter in India carries my luggage on his head - it's the one on top

At the other end of the spectrum, in a fit of determined minimalism, I once took a tiny carry-on for 10 days in France: trés practical on the train and Metro but I felt blah in the same outfits all week, and Paris is not where you want to feel frumpish.

So I am striving for the packing sweet spot. I want to pack lightish, but have everything I need. I want getting dressed to be simple, and to look put together and feel comfortable. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Susan prepares for travel at the Denver train station. She is pictured next to Monos Check-In Medium bag and the Monos Metro backpack.

10 Tips to Avoid Overpacking

• Start planning your wardrobe weeks ahead

• Try everything on together, including accessories

• Consider creating a wardrobe in a limited color palette

• Simplify jewelry

• Minimize shoes to a max of 4 pairs and ideally 3 — that’s the number I usually take

• Scarves are a smart accessory, lightweight and versatile

• Use packing cubes if you have a busy itinerary

• Pack your clothes a few days ahead to ensure everything fits. It gives you another chance to discard some items

• If you still have too much remove 10% to 20% of what you plan to take 

• When you return home, reflect on what you didn’t wear and why. It will help you pack smarter next time

Spring clothing pieces create a capsule wardrobe for stylish and easy travel outfits

My Capsule Wardrobes for Travel

The more I’ve traveled, the more I have focused on creating a thoughtful travel wardrobe for each trip — choosing pieces that easily mix and match to create multiple outfits that look great, with minimal effort. This is also known as a capsule wardrobe.

I will delve further into creating capsules below. If you would like to see some specific examples, have a look at: What to Wear on Safari, Spring Capsule Wardrobe for Travel and Autumn Travel Capsule Wardrobe.

A Guide to Avoid Overpacking: 10 Pack Hacks

Susan Heinrich sits in a traditional Paris bistro.l She is wearing a black top and a scarf in her hair.
In Paris and happy with my outfit

1. Start Planning Your Wardrobe Well Ahead

Sometimes the right strategy starts with what doesn’t work. I have learned that leaving it to the last minute and throwing a random selection of current favorite things into a suitcase, and hoping they will magically mix and match themselves into lovely outfits, is misguided.

Let’s call this packing delusion. It made getting dressed more stressful and I was not as happy with the result. Also, I had more than I needed — of the wrong things. For example, I didn’t have the bra that worked with the off-the-shoulder blouse, etc.

Now I start a list several weeks ahead of any trip, and every time I think of something I want or need to bring, I add it. At this stage, anything goes. This list is my place to overpack. Paring back comes later. By starting this process several weeks out from the trip, it reduces the stress. 

Let’s call that packing delusion – I used to do it

Susan Heinrich trying on her outfits before packing for Paris
My least favourite pack hack: Trying clothes on ahead of time.

2. Try Everything On

I try everything on, and I mean everything. If I discover my favourite white pants have a stain, I can get them to the dry cleaner. If I need a new bathing suit, and don’t we all hate shopping for those, I have time to find one I feel good in. 

By the way, I really love swimsuits by Athleta and Summersalt. They are supportive and comfortable, and Summersalt has long-torso suits, ideal for long-waisted, short-legged ladies like me.

3. Create a Capsule Wardrobe with a Color Palette

Capsule wardrobe: Can we agree that the name is ironic? Any capsules I’ve seen are tiny.  My friend Clemencia and I have travelled together in India and Southeast Asia and she travels with a suitcase small enough to be called a capsule, and she always looks great. 

She’s my packing idol. When it’s time to leave a hotel, she is packed and enjoying her second cup of coffee while I’m still in the room cursing the packing gods. 

Midlife Globetrotter visits Angkor Wat, Cambodia with her friend Clemencia
Clemencia and I visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I will never be like Clemencia, but I am now using a method which is getting me closer. Let’s call it the CapsulePlus. The idea with a capsule wardrobe is choosing a color palette of clothing pieces that can mixed and matched to create a number of outfits that is greater than the sum of its parts. I like it when math works in my favor, so tried it out on my last overseas trip to Southeast Asia.

I chose a wardrobe based on a palette of grey, white and green and added items with the colors orange and pink.I did allow myself to bring a couple of extras, a flowered dress and a green linen jumpsuit (pictured above). That’s why it’s the CapsulePlus – I don’t want to be too hemmed in (haha).

I still brought more than I would have liked, but less than usual. And I did wear everything I brought, and was happy with most of my outfits.  Limiting the color palette was very helpful for me. I’ve done this on shorter trips as well.

Midlife Globetrotter in Laos, wearing a flowered dress from her capsule wardrobe
In Laos, wearing a dress from my capsule wardrobe

If you don’t know where to start, pick one thing you absolutely love and must bring. Look at the colours in that item, or pick something else that goes with it and has colour – that’s your palette. Now fill in with some neutrals that work best, navy, grey, black, white. 

Add a few more things with the same colours as your inspiration item, solid or pattern. Every piece you add should be able to mix together to create various outfits. And try it all on first so you know you like the way it looks together.

4. Simplify Jewelry

I used to bring a lot of fun jewelry on my travels, thinking I wanted different necklaces and earrings with each outfit. It was too much trouble and I didn’t end up wearing them. Now I bring one or two necklaces per trip and two pairs of earrings: a small one for day, small hoops or studs, and one dangly for evenings out. 

Less jewelry is less to keep track of and makes getting dressed simpler for me. If you love jewelry ignore this advice and have fun with it.

Susan Heinrich in Laos with a scarf - scarves are an important part of the travel packing guide
With one of my favourite scarves at the Wat Xieng Thong temple in Laos

5. Scarves are Your Best Accessory

While I don’t care too much about jewelry, I love scarves and think they are a traveller’s best friend. I usually travel with two or three, heavier or lighter, depending on the weather where I am headed.  

They are smaller to carry in your bag than a sweater, can protect you from the sun, wrap around your neck if you are chilly, and you always have something to cover your shoulders if you are entering a church or temple.

Also, a pretty scarf makes a simple outfit instantly more stylish. They are also a fun thing to buy on your travels, and easy to pack and bring home.  

A woman's feet pictured in black French-style loafers on a tiled floor with the words: Monoprix Champs Élysées in decorative tile. Visible are her legs with blue denim and a beige trench coat. She is in Paris.

6. Minimize Shoes to 2-4 Pairs

Another friend of mine, Cathy Thomson, is a packing pro and said that the average woman takes eight pairs of shoes on a two-week holiday. Wow! Even I know that is excessive. She and I would agree that shoe choice is critical because shoes take up a lot of space, and the right pair of shoes can serve multiple purposes. 

For example, one of my favorite travel sandals are the Nisolo Flatform Sandal. (I recommend sizing up half a size). They are comfortable enough to walk around in all day, and pretty enough to wear in the evening with a skirt.

I think we can agree eight pairs of shoes is excessive 

I can also wear them to the beach and don’t worry if they get a little wet. They do the duty of three pairs of shoes: beach shoes, day sandals, evening sandals. When I went to Africa for 18 days recently, they were the pair I wore the most. 

Susan Heinrich stands in front of a large blue door in Paris. She is wearing classic French pieces, denim, a black blazer and ballet flats.

So How Many Shoes to Pack?

Choosing shoes you can wear in many ways goes a long way to preventing overpacking. Shoes take up a lot of space in your luggage, and are crucial to your comfort. Spend the time getting the right shoes for your trip. For a week-long vacation or longer, my general rule is three pairs of shoes.

In the above photo I am wearing one of only three pairs I took for a trip to Europe last fall. These stylish flats by Vivaia are a great example of a good travel shoe: comfy enough to walk in all day and versatile enough that they work with both jeans and skirts. You can see a specific example of how I plan my shoes in the post: Shoes for Paris Travel. 

TIP: fabric shoe bags are great for storing shoes in luggage and keeping your clothes clean.  

using packing cubes as portable drawers
Small packing cube for cords/headphones and a medium for socks and underwear

7. Use Packing Cubes

It’s interesting to me that two little words “packing cubes”  can divide people. I’ve had well-travelled friends scoff when I ask if they use them. The implication is if I need packing cubes, I am some sort of amateur. It’s as if I literally need fabric cubes to keep  my life together. 

Whether or not you’ll benefit from them depends a lot on the trip type. If you are on a two-week tour of Europe and changing hotels every few days they will be very handy as they will act like drawers which you will never entirely unpack. If you are going to a beach resort and only unpacking once you don’t need them, in my opinion. 

 

Plan a trip to India with a group tour. This is our G Adventures Group in Jodhpur, Rajasthan
On a group tour in India - we were packing and unpacking every two days

If you haven’t ventured into the land of packing cubes, I suggest buying a few and trying them out.  I find the small and medium ones very versatile. On shorter trips, I’ll take a small cube for my charging cords and a medium cube for my underwear (photo above). These packing cubes from Quince are affordable and come in cute colors. 

If I am going all in on the cubes, which I usually do for a trip of a week or longer, I use a large cube for my tops, another for my bottoms and a third for single pieces such as dresses. I use smaller ones for socks and underwear and to keep random items like hair tools corralled.

A hand pulls on a strap inside of a carry on bag to compress a fabric panel and the contents underneath

8. Do a "Pre-Pack" a Few Days Ahead

Pack your clothes a few days ahead to ensure everything fits. It gives you another chance to see everything together, and to discard some items, before doing it right before the trip which can be stressful.

This is also when I double-check my list to remind myself of items I need to gather that I might not have pulled out yet, such as a sunhat from my hall closet or a wool wrap for evenings that I haven’t worn in months. It also reminds me if I have to do a drugstore run. 

After this I may remove the items from my luggage but leave them all out and organized. Either in piles or packing cubes. 

Speaking of lists, learn more about my favorite things for travel in this post:

Travel Essentials for Women

clothes and travel items are laid out to be packed

9. Leave behind 1 in 5 items

If you are a chronic overpacker, I suggest that once you lay everything out, consider removing 1 of every 5 pieces you plan to take. If you can’t remove 20%, remove 10%. If you really don’t want to, remember that you will probably want to buy something and you need space for it. 

Or, if you are going to India, now is the time to imagine that poor guy with your giant suitcase on his head. The “leave behind” really works and is an alternative to the CapsulePlus method. I lay it all out and remove the items I love the least. And I’ve never wished I had them. Ok, I have, but that is inevitable. 

Susan Heinrich sits at a lunch outdoors at Leroo la Tau safari lodge, Botswana wearing an African safari outfit, brown linen short, tan pants and brown safari-style boots.
Safari style in Botswana Africa

10. Reflect on What you Wore, and What you Didn't

 When you return home and are unpacking, think about what you didn’t wear and why. You may realize that you didn’t feel like dressing up in the evenings, or wore your jeans less than expected, Whatever it is, these inisights should help you pack smarter on future trips. Many of us are a packing work in progress. 

If this all sounds like a lot of effort, it can be. But it will also allow you to enjoy your trip more because getting dressed will be easier.  You don’t want to be the one cursing at the packing gods, while your friend is in the café ordering a cappuccino. 

Hooray, we’re packed, and hopefully not overpacked.  Bon voyage!

I would love to hear all the ways you avoid overpacking! Please share your “packing hacks” in the comments below. 

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Choosing Luggage

Susan Heinrich stands in Denver's Union Station with Monos luggage - the Monos Medium Check-In and the Monos Metro backpack.

One way I pack more efficiently is by using well-designed luggage.  My current favorite brand is Vancouver-based Monos. I absolutely love it — it’s durable, well-designed, and well-priced. And it comes in lots of lovely colors, I went with the terracotta for my roller and taupe for my Medium Check-In (pictured above). I recommend a darker color as the light ones do scuff. If you would like to learn more about the pros and cons you can read my Monos Luggage Review.

If you are looking for lightweight luggage, I’ve  compared Delsey and Samsonite.   

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About - Midlife Globetrotter

Hey there,

I’m glad you’re here. Can we talk about midlife? I reached my late 40’s, realized my kids were growing up, and adventure began calling in a new way: big travel adventures as well as everyday ones. I want Midlife Globetrotter to be a place where we explore how to add a sense of fun, freedom and meaning to these precious years. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and all that’s ahead.

Susan

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