A minimalist's guide to packing light

My first international adventure was a 2 week solo trip to Paris. I wanted to be fully prepared for my tourist activities and checked out numerous travel books from the library. The recommendations on packing strategies and wardrobe choice were similar - comfortable walking shoes (American code for sneakers) and clothing that was sweat wicking and quick drying (everything from REI). Despite my knowledge that I rarely sweat enough for it to be noticeable, and my distaste for sneakers worn outside the athletic sphere, as I lived in Colorado at the time I hightailed it to the flagship REI store and felt very out of place as I perused the aisles of shirts, blouses and shorts all made out of a fabric that felt like a cross between a plastic bag and a paper bag and in many cases with exaggerated sizes - the smallest size offered labelled SMALL but would fit like more like a very big medium.

I went to check out and at the last minute decided agains the pants whose knees would zip off magically transforming them into a pair of extremely unflattering shorts. I marched to my car with several blouses, a turquoise rain coat and what according to the few pictures I took of myself turned out to be THE UGLIEST pair of 'comfortable' walking shoes ever, that, though touted by the sales rep as 'amazingly comfortable!!' almost crushed my spirit for the first 4 days as the synthetic material rubbed against and away at my poor feet.

I shopped for all these comfortable, easy to travel in clothes but they just were not my style at all. Leaving all my nice and normal clothing behind left me feeling strange and uncomfortable. I knew there had to be a better way to travel light and still maintain a sense of self and style. Well, numerous trips later, and with much trial and error I finally figured it out.

Closet-shop first!

Instead of running out and buying new things, realize that going on a trip is the best time to break out some of your special items you’ve been saving up for a worthy occasion. Or even those things that you think are a bit much for your conservative town. What better opportunity to wear all those clothes that are too good/strange for normal everyday wear, and especially before the moths mistake them for food and begin to feast away! Along the minimalist idea of narrowing down to the essentials here are a few tips for packing for a 10 day trip using just a carry on yet without compromising your style. 

First, consider what you choose to wear when you want to feel especially confident & stylish.  Do you have that one item of clothing you're dying to wear but are nervous about how it might be received by people you know? Try to incorporate it into an outfit - being in a new place where nobody knows you is the best time to experiment! Now, think about what your go to outfit is, you know the uniform that you wear at least once a week. Let’s start with these two - the glamorous and the signature look. To pack for a 10 day trip start with these two outfits and expand to an additional two different versions of each resulting in 6 outfits. To do this, think of ways to accessorize, a scarf, a bright colored belt, a pair of leggings under a dress etc.


To stay focused, choose either a theme, a color scheme or signature item(s) and plan the capsule wardrobe around it. For my 10 day fall trip i’ve chosen a palette of blue and grey, two statement pieces - a canary yellow blazer and a bright turquoise Cheongsam blouse, and my uniform of a striped tee and black cropped jeans. 





A pair of black pants/shorts or dark wash denim is the perfect canvas. It can be casual with a cotton blouse, button down shirt or sweater, or dressed up with a silk camisole, underneath a blazer. Similarly, a shift dress can be worn during the day with loafers or sneakers and at night dressed up with sheer stockings and chic flats or heels. A brightly colored blouse with blue jeans can be worn with heels at night, while a uniquely cut skirt together with a simple tee and heels looks just as dressy as an LBD. The key is to choose pieces that can be worked in multiple ways.  


Choosing outfits that can easily be layered allows a smooth transition from day to cool evenings. Also by layering you can re-wear the outer layers as inner layers on subsequent days, to make the clothes feel fresh longer. A blazer is most versatile for outerwear as it's not too heavy for daytime and is more dressy than say a puffer coat for evening wear. Pack at least one sweater or better yet, wear as part of your travel outfit as there is bound to be at least one or more cold days. For my travel outfit I like to wear as much clothes as possible to free up space in my carry on. As i'm ALWAYS cold, I usually wear a cotton tee, a fitted wool sweater over it, another loose fitting sweater over that, a large cashmere scarf around my neck then finally a coat.

By wearing a cotton tee as the base layer, if during the trip the temperature changes drastically and it does get a bit hot, the sweat will be blocked from the top layers like the wool sweaters and certainly the outer coat. With this I wear a pair of leggings under a pair of jeans and socks and booties. It sounds like a lot and might not work for everyone but again I am ALWAYS cold and so it's perfect for me. Once i'm actually in the airport waiting for my flight I might remove the coat and cardigan and wear them again on the usually freezing plane cabin**. Once when traveling from cold to warmer climates I dressed this same way but on arrival changed down into just the tee and the jeans (removing the leggings, all the sweaters and coats and putting them into a tote bag). Why didn't I just wear the jeans and tee to begin with? Well,  airports  are always freezing cold to me, plus this was a multi-country trip and I knew I'd be in cold weather again so I had my layers saved up for when that time came. 

**On US domestic flights, blankets are almost always reserved strictly for first class passengers - you could be freezing to death in Economy you are NOT getting one!!


For blouses, a variety of fabrics can transform the same item of clothing from casual (cotton) to formal (silk). Fabrics like cotton and linen can be easily washed in a bathroom sink and will dry overnight.  Cotton also absorbs odors from sweat less than does silk making it a perfect as a base layer or  to be worn multiple times. Choosing dark colors work well for multiple wears without showing evidence of this - hence dark wash jeans vs. light.  Pack or purchase a lint roller to keep black clothes actually looking black. An alternate space saving hack is to wrap a long piece of tape around a pen and use strips of it to remove lint as necessary.). 


Small things add up very quickly and if you’re not careful all the ‘travel sized’ bottles of toiletries will soon take up more space than can spare. You want to pack enough things so that you feel like yourself but still narrow it down to just the necessities - which you have to define for yourself. If you know you won't feel complete without your signature fragrance try to get it in a sample size. If you aren’t dressed without makeup then pack that too. The idea is to give a trade off by packing things that are too expensive/not available to purchase in travel sizes on arrival (like foundation and other specialty face products) while leaving things like shampoo, mouthwash or toothpaste for picking up at a pharmacy once you get to your destination. For my toiletry kit I narrow down to face moisturizer, foundation, mini perfume and toothpaste, everything else: lotion, conditioner etc. I purchase in travel sizes at a pharmacy once I get to my destination. I'm obsessed with keeping my hands moisturized so I usually take in my pocket a small tub of  rosebud salve to get me through the journey. 

Clockwise: charger pod, phone cable, earbuds/portable power charging cables, nail file, pen, sesame crisps (for sudden hunger pangs), athletic tape, backup power, wireless headphones


You have to be very careful with every item you pack - having just carry on luggage there's no space for non necessities. You can save space in simple ways like switching large wallets with smaller ones, carry small ear buds instead of large headphones, skip the (sun)glasses case and replace with a fabric pouch, leave the paperback books behind and go with e-books via your smart phone (most libraries offer e-book loans in addition to regular paperbacks). Consolidate electronic chargers into one by using one pod - I use the one that comes with my bluetooth speakers as it's much smaller than my phones' and works with multiple cables. I also pack a tiny backup power supply that I keep in my pocket along with my cell phone charing cable. In fact, all the miscellaneous pictured above can easily fit in a coat pocket. A good rule of thumb, for short trips like this is to NEVER duplicate similar electronics - i.e. no smart phone + iPad + Laptop, pick one and stick to the minimalist creed!


For a 10 day trip you want to consider activities you’re likely to partake in. If you know you won’t be hiking or doing anything particularly athletic, leave the sneakers behind and stick to shoes that can work for walking/sightseeing but you won’t feel ashamed to wear if you have dinner at a restaurant that has fabric tablecloth. My secret to transforming any pair of shoes into one conducive for walking about for hours is athletic tape. By wrapping it around my toes (especially the pinky) or any other part of the foot prone to blisters i’ve saved my feet many times from while wearing loafers or heeled booties to explore a new city. This makes it possible to be comfortable and stylish simultaneously, which is one of my goals in life :).


Everlane Petra Magazine Tote

Everlane Petra Magazine Tote

For my 10 day trip I can easily fit everything in a bag pack or duffle bag and use as a carry on. As my personal item I choose this tote bag from Everlane that is the perfect size to fit a fair amount of things but is sleek enough to work as a daytime handbag or even transition to night if need be. I also bring along an envelope clutch specifically for nighttime use as it takes up little space and is chic in its own right. Being this bright green gives a nice contrast to my grey/dark blue garment color scheme.

Finally, though everyone’s style is different i'm sure we can all agree that a pair of heels can work wonders for both confidence (as long as you can walk in them!) and also to give an outfit a particularly dressy tone. Anytime i've taken a trip and didn't pack a pair of heels because I thought I'd only wear them once or not at all I always regretted it. Using a tote bag like this, I like to pack a pair of heels in a canvas shoe bag and put them on top of the tote last, this way it doesn't take up space in my backpack/duffel bag and if i'm going out somewhere especially fancy i'm completely prepared.

Safe travels & enjoy!

StyleGillya ScottComment