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How to Pack for a Weekend — or a Week — in One Carry-On

This is a smart strategy that really works.

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Dramatically lit suit case and handle
Sam Armstrong/Gallery Stock
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Those of us who backpacked across any country, continent or region in our youth find it hard to understand the epic, Kardashian-style packing of our current travel companions. There’s a reason you can’t spell luggage without l-u-g. Who needs an army of rolling bags and a convoy of porters when you can pack for a week in one carry-on?

My own packing skills have been honed further over the past five years as I’ve regularly traveled halfway across the country to visit my aging mother. I’ve come to appreciate the flexibility my lone carry-on provides. If I’m running late, I can wheel it onto the plane. Or if it’s especially heavy — like the time I packed two stainless steel saucepans — I can always check it. These trips helped me figure out a system for packing that works just as well when I visit friends or go on business trips.

Now that we are venturing beyond our pandemic bubbles to see family, friends and favorite places, it may be time to adjust the packing strategy. Here are 12 tips to help you fit everything you need — not everything you own — into one 22- by 14- by 9-inch bag, the most common dimensions for carry-on luggage on U.S. air carriers.

  • Think of packing as a preview of your trip, rather than an annoying necessity. Have some fun with it. Envision yourself on your trip from landing to takeoff. What are you doing? What are you wearing? Are you hiking around Lake Tahoe? Taking a ghost tour in Savannah? Or checking out new restaurants in Manhattan? Each will require you to pack differently to match your mental selfies. As part of this envisioning exercise, be sure to check the weather.
  • Create a capsule wardrobe. To fit into that one bag, your clothes will need to work together for maximum multitasking. For example, avoid taking six distinct outfits for a long-weekend getaway. Instead, pack pieces that can mix and match to provide you with optimal flexibility. The same goes for jewelry and accessories.
  • Focus on two or three color themes, rather than packing the rainbow. Picking our favorite colors often happens organically, but it’s essential to make this a conscious decision when packing. It also supports the strategy of building a capsule wardrobe.
  • Prints and patterns limit your options, so pack them sparingly. They are great accents, but you don’t want an entire suitcase of floral prints and animal patterns. Solids and stripes are a traveler’s best friend.
  • Whatever the season, think layers. Adding a lightweight jacket over a sweater over a T-shirt gives you more possibilities to stay warm or cool off than one bulky, hooded sweatshirt. This is especially critical when visiting destinations where temperatures can shift dramatically during the day – either because of geography (mountains and deserts) or air-conditioned settings.
  • Avoid taking your best clothes unless it’s for a special occasion. The same goes for items that just came back from the dry cleaner. Traveling is hard work, so rather than silks and cashmere, pack cottons that can stand up to the task. And linen may be trendy right now, but nothing will give you that rumpled, tired traveler look faster.
  • Limit the pairs of footwear you take to three — the ones you wear and two others. It’s also possible to get by with a lone backup pair if you won’t be dressing up. Again, keep thinking capsule wardrobe.
  • Wear the bulky. You can free up a lot of space in your carry-on if you don’t have to accommodate hiking boots or gym shoes. A heavy jacket or sweater can be tied around your waist or stuffed into a backpack with your book or computer.
  • Lay everything out on your bed to see what you’ve got. Place similar items in a stack — tops, sweaters, pants, etc. — to make sure you have enough, but not too many, of each. Two tops a day is reasonable, and I usually plan on two days of wear for each pair of pants. Plus, they can always be laundered if needed.
  • When you’re ready to start putting items into your bag, place the heavier ones at the bottom (when the bag lies flat or stands up). Place more durable items, such as jeans and a laundry bag, on the outside and more delicate items toward the middle. Rather than filling one large cosmetics bag, split items between a couple of smaller bags that often come in a gift-with-purchase set. Tuck these smaller bags into gaps along the edges or interior pockets. Use soft pieces like leggings and pajamas to cushion anything that’s fragile and to create a barrier between cosmetic bags and more vulnerable clothing.
  • Reward yourself for having a little extra room. Give yourself permission to break one packing rule — say, by adding another print piece or another pair of shoes. But only if you have room at the end.
  • But never, ever break the cardinal rule: Allow yourself enough time to pack properly. An hour is good, but 90 minutes is better. Rushing is the surest way to forget essentials — even obvious ones like underwear.

As a fashion editor in Dallas, Kim Marcum covered the international ready-to-wear collections in four fashion capitals and interviewed iconic designers from Giorgio Armani to Ralph Lauren. Later in her journalism career at the Orlando Sentinel, she was the senior editor on a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Local Reporting (2013) and on a project that earned the 2013 Diversity Award from the Freedom Forum/American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2014, she joined Orlando Health, where she is the corporate director of strategic communications. She has two 20-something daughters and a grand puppy, who all live in Florida.

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