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How to Get Started With One-Bag Travel

A man sitting with map. travel bag at the train station
Mr. Whiskey/Shutterstock

One-bag travel sits at the intersection of two popular modern movements: minimalism and remote work/digital nomadism. The idea is that you travel for an extended period with just a single bag—ideally just a single carry-on bag.

Let’s look at how to get started doing it.

The Advantages of One-Bag Travel

As air travel has gotten cheaper and more ubiquitous, some aspects of it have become a lot more of a drag. One of the big ones is bringing checked baggage: it can often cost you more than the flight ticket to bring a checked bag. You have to wait for your bag to arrive, it can go missing, and worst of all, even if everything goes well, you’re stuck lugging a big heavy bag around until you check in to wherever you’re staying.

When you travel with a single carry-on bag, you get off the plane and go. There’s no waiting around, your bag can’t go missing, and you can head straight to the museum, a café, or wherever you want, because your bag is a manageable size and weight.

One-bag travel is at its best when you’re making extended trips. Last summer, over two months, I traveled around the US and Mexico. I flew from Dublin to New York, got the train to Pennsylvania and Atlanta, drove to Mobile followed by New Orleans, got the train to Chicago and then Portland. I flew to LA, flew to Mexico City, then drove through Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, spent two weeks driving up and down the coast, then drove back to Mexico City, before flying to New York and home to Dublin. I did it all with a single, carry-on sized bag. There’s no way I could have handled all the changing planes, trains, and automobiles if I’d had a full set of luggage.

us trip

Of course, there are disadvantages to one-bag travel, too.

You can’t bring as much stuff—especially clothes—with you, which means you have to do laundry on the road. Your carry-on bag will also probably be relatively heavy—you’ll be able to carry it everywhere, but you might not like doing it very much.

You’ll also probably have to compromise if you want to bring any special gear, like a pair of trainers or hiking boots to get some exercise in, or some nice clothes for a fancy restaurant. If you’re going away on a week’s beach vacation, you might be better off bringing a packed bag and everything you want, rather than dealing with these downsides.

How To Make One-Bag Travel Work For You

So, you’ve decided you want to give one-bag travel a go. We’ll look at my packing list in a few minutes, but first, let’s talk about some general principals.

Get a Decent Bag

While you can use any bag you want, bags designed especially for one-bag travel have a few advantages:

  • They’re designed to fit the maximum carry-on size of most airlines so that you can bring as much stuff as possible.
  • They tend to be well made and comfortable to carry, even when fully packed.
  • They’re designed to make packing easy—and unpacking at security checkpoints easy too.

cotopaxi allpa

The problem with these bags is that they’re quite expensive. Over at ReviewGeek, we’ve got a roundup of our favorites, so check it out if you’re looking for a bag.

Upgrade Your Gear

If you’re only going to travel with two t-shirts, then it stands to reason that they should be good enough shirts to handle wear and abuse. This is where one-bag travel lines up with minimalism: you cut down on the number of items you bring, but each one you do bring should be high quality.

With clothes, one of the most popular things to do is to wear mostly merino wool—a light, breathable fabric that’s natural properties stop it from smelling when you get sweaty or wear it four days in a row. Two merino wool t-shirts will wear better for longer than six cotton t-shirts.

You should look to make upgrades like this across most of what you bring. You’re only going to have room for a single pair of headphones, so why not get noise canceling ones to make the long haul flights more pleasant?

If In Doubt, Don’t Bring It

If you’re not sure whether you should bring something or not, leave it at home. It’s way too easy to load up on lots of small bits that, collectively, add quite a bit of weight. It’s better to miss something and know to bring it next time than to bring lots of stuff you don’t use.

Pack a Weight You Can Carry

One-bag travel only works if you can carry your bag. If it’s too heavy, you’re going to hate your life. The golden rule should be to keep your bag to a manageable weight, ideally around 10-12 lbs, though if you’re bigger, you can get by with up to 20 lbs. Much heavier and—trust me—you’ll regret it.

My One-Bag Packing List

Okay, so now to the meat of things: my one-bag packing list. You should consider this list an illustration rather than advisory. My bag is pretty heavy and, after the list, I’ll note some things I’d change.

And that’s it: that’s my packing list for a weekend away or three months non-stop travel. It’s not perfect, but it works for me right now. The biggest issue is the weight of the camera gear and laptop. At some point, I’ll switch my MacBook for an iPad Pro (which is about a quarter of the weight) and consider swapping my camera for a mirrorless model. I just need them all for work at the moment.

Now, of course, I’m a photographer, so that stuff makes up a good bit of my bag. If you’re not, you won’t need all that stuff. You could make room for your own hobby items, or even more clothes.

Tips and Tricks for One-Bag Travel

If you look at my packing list, you’ll notice there’s a couple of apparent toiletries missing. That’s because I buy things like sunscreen, laundry detergent, and shampoo at my destination. This is one of the big tips for one-bag travel.

And, it’s not just toiletries you can buy at your destination. I often pick up a cheap cotton t-shirt or two when I need them—or as souvenirs. Whatever you’re short on, as long as you’re not in the deepest, darkest jungle, you can probably buy.

I don’t pack a huge amount of clothes, but I also don’t mind doing a bit of laundry every other day. I wash my clothes in the sink and then let them hang dry. Bring as few clothes as you’re comfortable with. Some people cut right back and bring a single t-shirt that they wash every day; others prefer to have four or five days worth of clothes.

Don’t over think your packing list. The best way to find out what you need is to travel and see what you forgot or bring when you don’t need.

Don’t get too caught up in exclusively traveling with one-bag either. I’m in Indonesia for three months at the moment. I brought a hold bag to bring some extra gym and sun gear. When I visit Singapore next month, I’ll leave most of my stuff here and fly with one-bag. Same for any other short trips I do. If it makes sense to bring a big bag, do it.

I love one-bag travel. It’s freeing and makes it much easier to string together lots of short, continuous trips. Now you know how to get started.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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