Cutting weight in your carry-on is getting more and more important.  With more and more passengers dodging baggage fees by bringing all manner of wheelies and bags on board, the pressure’s on us to use smaller (and hence lighter) bags. But how exactly to cut weight?

The big ways to cut the load you’re carrying are fairly obvious:

  • As simple as it is to say, don’t over pack.  Figure out how many shirts/blouses and jackets you need for your trip, and bring the absolute minimum necessary
  • If need be, bring a shirt or two that could be rinsed out in the hotel sink in a pinch
  • Pay particular attention to what you wear while traveling – wear versatile clothes that work with a variety of shirts, blouses or jackets – and if your trip requires a sports jacket or suit, consider wearing it when traveling to your destination
  • Minimize the footwear you bring – if you can get away with one pair of shoes, by all means do so, and…
  • Favor lightweight footwear – lightweight and versatile are best
  • Make the conversion to super lightweight, washable / dries overnight travel socks and underwear – and then only bring one pair for every two days you’ll be gone
  • Ditch the crap like travel alarm clocks, electric shavers and the like – you don’t need them
  • And take a hard look at EVERYTHING you’re bringing with an eye toward weight

We all could learn a lot from ultralight backpackers and campers. When you have to carry everything on your back for miles over demanding terrain, you quickly learn to dump all extraneous weight.

Here are a few examples of how to cut weight like a backpacker:

Mini Dropper BottlesBring liquids like contact lens solution in mini dropper bottles.  They’re available from a variety of sources like Backpacking Light and Gossamer Gear and are quite inexpensive.

Why bring 2 or 3 oz. of contact solution with you when you only need 10-15 drops per day?  They’re also good for skin lotion, sunscreen, and the like.  You can easily mark the bottles with a Sharpie in order to clearly identify the contents.

Transferring cologne to a sample size bottleI’ve mentioned before that I like to bring cologne along with me, but it invariably comes in a relatively large bottle.  Get a sample size perfume or cologne bottle, dump out the contents and wash it thoroughly, and then carefully (over a sink) spray some cologne or perfume into it.

If you line up the sample bottle opening with the spray nozzle on your cologne bottle carefully, it’s not too hard to do. Move the little bottle along with the spray nozzle as you depress it. (click for close-up)

Cologne & Edge shaving cream in snack size ZiplocOnce done, put the sample size bottle in a “snack size” Ziploc bag in case it leaks at all.  In the photo to the left you can see my sample size cologne bottle next to another way I’ve been cutting weight on the road – I transfer Edge shaving cream into a 3 oz. plastic bottle with a toggle-type nozzle. (Click for close-up)

If you fill a small bottle like this with Edge, it’s good for a week and a half.  The Edge will in fact come out of the bottle as if under pressure for the first several days.  Transferring it from the metal can to a small bottle like this is easy:  spray some in, tap the bottle on a hard surface to get the gel toward the bottom of the bottle, and repeat a few times.  By the way, pack a couple of extra Ziplocs – they weigh almost nothing and come in very handy!

Carry Lotion in a Contact CaseAnother tool for bringing creams, lotions and the like along is to use an extra contact lens case (the type with threaded caps).  This was featured at Lifehacker a day or two ago:  Carry Lotion in a Contact Case.

Again, you can mark the threaded cap with a Sharpie in order to ID the contents.  Only remove one cap at a time, however!

Another idea I’ve mentioned here before:  take a standard toothbrush and use a hacksaw to cut off 2-3″ of the handle.  It’ll still work fine, will weigh less, and you can put it in a Ziploc bag much more easily.

What clever ways have you identified to cut weight while traveling?  Please share your ideas by commenting!

The fine print:  I have no connection to the sites mentioned in this post

Up Next:  Working on a review of the Tom Bihn Aeronaut, a very interesting bag!

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13 Comments on Packing Light: a gram here, a gram there – after a while it adds up!

  1. Miguel Marcos says:

    I’ve been a subscriber of BackpackingLight for a while now and long ago applied the principles discussed there to traveling, not just backpacking. The light backpacking community does like comfort, just not at the cost of a painful back. So everybody tries to come up with as good combination as possible of light weight, efficiency, functionality and comfort.

    I’m glad you brought the topic up.


  2. Michael W. says:

    Ditto what Miguel says above. There’s plenty of room for applying ultra-light backpacking principles (and some of the gear, here and there) to light-weight travel.

    And Kevin located my two “secret ultra-light shopping sites,” Gossamer Gear and (Shouldn’t forget REI and other camping stores – while not as committed to “ultra” light gear, they still have a lot of good lightweight stuff, like silnylon ditty bags and Nalgene accessory bottles and jars, some in their travel dept. and some in their hiking dept.)

    The odd thing it’s actually easier for me to haul a pack on a 20 mile overnight Sierra trip, than to haul too much bag on a long-haul international flight (13 hours) with a wait in the airport (2 hours) and a second leg (3) hours to get to my final destination.

    You’d think HIKING would be much harder than the “modern comforts of air travel” (to paraphrase old advertising), but hiking doesn’t involve hour after hour of cramped sitting, bad food, and time zone changes, followed by a rush to grab my carry-on bag and sprint to the next departure gate.

    It’s those 0-60 transitions in international air travel that shake me up. Having to wake up from a groggy sleep, shove a pre-arrival meal into me, then haul my bag down and race through the airport while having to clear yet another security check point, is just no fun at all, and just plain miserable if I have a large fat bag bumping into people and hurting my shoulder. Air travel should be a stroll, not an amazing race.

    That’s how I’ve learned that keeping my personal bag and carry-on bag as lean and light as possible are really important to my physical well-being and mental health.

    At first I thought 15 pounds, the current limit on international carry-on, was too laughably light for “one bag” travel. I mean, a wheelie can easily weigh 10 pounds, unpacked, just by itself.

    I thought I was smart when I changed to a 3 pound day pack, lopping 7 pounds off the wheelie starting weight.

    But now I want to keep my “carry-on” bag weight down to 10 pounds, and I’m exploring ways to use ultra-light silynylon based travel bags that weigh only 7-16 OUNCES, so I am investing less weight in my bag, leaving more weight for clothing, while still keeping the weight under 10 pounds.

    I’ve also switched from packing an emergency second pair of pants in denim (a heavyweight disaster!) and now pack much lighter, less bulky Ex Officio nylon travel pants, which are good in so many ways – lighter than cotton, quick drying if I need to wash them, stain repellent (and water repellent) with at least one and often two zippered pockets for better security. I just WEAR (as Kevin suggests) the denim jeans I love so much, where the weight will be on me, instead of packing them in my carry-on.

    Ditto for my cotton polo or cotton Oxford shirt – I wear one of them, but pack lightweight synthetic polos and tee shirts in my carry-on for my destination wear. Besides being lighter than cotton, the synthetics dry overnight, even in humid destination climates if I roll them in a hotel towel first then walk back and forth along the rolled up towel to express the water. As for my jeans and cottn polo travel outfit – I just make sure to have them laundered before flying back

    The amazing thing is how heavy our toiletries kit can get, which is probably why Kevin mentions the dropper bottles.

    For most of us tt starts with using a much too heavy shave kit (a regular, zippered nylon shave kit is a lot heavier than a silnylon zippered pouch, like the Air Sacks from Granite Gear or the Zip Sacks from Outdoor Research), instead of a Ziploc bag or silnylon stuff sack.

    And continues when we carry our favorite electric shaver instead of a plastic handled safety razor. Or carry “small” shampoo bottles instead of traveler’s/trial sizes (or carry shampoo at all, when most destination hotels have bottles and soap works in a pinch). Before I know it, I have 24-36 ounces of odds and ends instead of 16 ounces of essentials.

    So the tip about re-packaging stuff like cologne and shaving cream, that don’t come in travel sized bottles, makes sens. (Kevin, I use a children’s size toothbrush as a substitute for a much larger adult size. But my backpacking light friends DO speak highly of the hacksaw trick.)

    For my next trip, I’m going to pack EVERYTHING I need to last a week into my carry-on bag, taking into account sink-washing. My goal is 10 pound or less in a Patagonia Lightweight Courier or Lightweight Tote, plus 6 pounds of personal items(the water alone accounts for 4.4 pounds, at 2.2 pounds per quart) in a small, 16 ounce knapsack (Black Diamond Bbee).

    BUT I’m also going to check-through some luxury items, like a second pair of denim pants, second pair of shoes, etc., in a sub-16 ounce REI duffel pack (I learned my lesson, even my checked luggage is going to be lightweight and compressible). If my checked bag makes its way to my destination (and the odds are actually in my favor, despite about 32 million or so lost or delayed bags last year for the industry), bravo, I’ll enjoy the luxury.

    If my checked bag doesn’t make it, I’m still going to have a change of pants, couple of changes of shirts, and be able to shave – and have a great week overseas.

    Kevin, thanks for being an on-going challenge to the travel ruts I seem to fall into! Lightweight travel RULES!


  3. My fast rules for traveling light:

    Thin layers of tops made of synthetics are easier to pack, dry fast, weight less and can still keep you warm.

    Toiletries that can be bought on the road I leave at home.

    Pack once and then take only half of what is in the bag.


  4. I also enjoy reading Backpacking Light regularly. I love the fact that there is such a large community of guys who enjoy making (sewing) their own gear! What other community would these skills be celebrated amongst men?!

    Michael, I’m interested in your silnylon bag idea. Is it going to be strong and hardy enough to take as a carryon, even though you’re really making an effort to reduce all the weight? I was considering this sort of thing too, but then thought it wouldn’t be strong enough to take the weight (though I also subscribe to the principles of travelling light) of the stuff that I’d want to put in it.

    Kevin, thanks for an interesting post. Must chop the end off my toothbrush…

    Before we went on our last overseas trip with a family of 4 travelling only with carry-on luggage, we went everywhere with our kitchen scales. We got some pretty strange looks in the shops, but we didn’t care. We just didn’t want to carry any more than we had to! I think its part of the thrill of the chase – finding the lightest set of picnic cups that you can etc. All part of the fun!


  5. Michael W. says:

    Enjoy Traveling with Kids,

    The silnylon travel bags I have in mind are the Patagonia Lightweight Travel Courier, which is supposed to weigh (and seems to actually weigh) only 7 ounces, and the Lightweight Travel Tote which is 14 ounces (due to its hidden convertible backpack straps).

    In its old version, the Courier was rated at 1,400 cubic inches, was actually made of silnylon, holds 1,400 cubic inches, and has my vote as “best bang for the ounce” carry-on out there. The Lightweight Tote, in both old (silnylon) and new (’09 polyester ripstop) versions holds 1,525 cubic inches. The current Spring ’09 Courier has seemingly been re-purposed as a day bag or small carry-on, since it has been slimmed down to only 1,200 cubic inches.

    The Patagonia Lightweight Tote looks more like conventional luggage (hey it’s a tote, not a rethinking of the bike messenger bag), but has hidden backpack straps for more comfortably navigating the air transit part of your journey. When in backpack strap mode, the Tote resembles a very square day pack (square is a good shape for packing!) with straps at the top. The backpack straps can be tucked out of sight for checking into a hotel if you like. I added a small section of camping pad dense foam to the bottom of my Tote to give it more structure; there is a thin, dense backpack foam pad that comes with the bag and does a great job of keeping hard edges off the back. Starting in Spring ’09, Patagonia switched to polyurethane coated ripstop polyester for this bag.

    If you think the Tote looks too “girly,” Patagonia makes a totally conventional (in appearance) Lightweight Travel Pack which holds 1647 cubic inches and weighs 15 ounces. The backpack straps don’t “hide”. Your wife may feel the Travel Pack looks too “guy-ish” but the bottom line is both the Tote and the Pack are phenomenal travel pieces. Honestly, look at the real cubic inches available in a wheelie, compare the weight, and you have to applaud Patagonia for cutting about 2 to 2.5 pounds of fat out of a conventional backpack/tote to come up with these bags. (But before I extol Patagonia too much, RedOxx makes a $25 Market Tote out of ballistics nylon that weighs 12 ounces and holds about 1,500 cubic inches. No zipper top, but a lot of functionality – the straps are long enough for shoulder carry.)

    Although not as water proof as the silynylon, the updated Lightweight versions at Patagonia are just as light and functional.

    Finally, Patagonia introduced a Lightweight Travel Duffel to their lightweight travel line in ’08 in silnylon and changed it to ripstop polyester in ’09. This piece resembles a traditional duffel with handles, albeit one made of “stowaway” type materials (thin, slightly translucent). Patagonia added a great feature, though, hidden (convertible) backpack straps on the bottom for easy hauling if you have to trek a lot (like through terminals). I think this is a great innovation, since shoulder straps are not nearly as comfortable for me as backpack straps. I don’t have this piece yet, and at 2,200 cubic inches it is probably more volume than I am currently aiming for. It’s a superb piece, and I’m hoping someone who knows bags will get it and review it before I drop $100 on it and my wife croaks.

    I used the original version of the 1,400 cubic inch, silnylon Lightweight Courier on my return from Thailand in Sept ’08 and it easily and comfortably carried three days worth of clothing and my bathroom kit and jacket – I carried back a little more than I might need, even for an overnight emergency stop in Taiwan, just to see how it handled the load.

    I used the same bag in February on a side trip from Ban Phe to Koh Samet while in Thailand. On that trip, a Rick Steves Appenzell day pack (which Rick Steves recommends for kid use or very stripped down adult travel) served as my main travel pack, but the Courier was carried to the island on the boat trip, then hauled all the water and snacks I wanted back to the hotel from the dockside 7-11 after my return to the mainland. The Courier, albeit only 7 ounces of thin silnylon, had absolutely no problems in terms of puncture resistance, weight capacity, or general sturdiness. If and when Patagonia makes a serious design or manufacturing error, I am confident of their lifetime warranty. They have truly excellent customer service.

    On my upcoming annual family trip to Thailand, I’m thinking about giving the Lightweight Courier a work-out as my main carry-on piece. I may let my wife carry the Lightweight Tote in backpack mode for the flight, and handle mode while there, but she is a real luggage abuser who doesn’t pay attention to the sharp edges angles of the types of nick-nacks she is likely to pick up – a cotton tote or RedOxx Market Tote (ballistics nylon “grocery” bag) are probably better suited to her. So that might answer your question as to how I evaluate lightweight travel luggage sturdiness.

    I may also take an old, discontinued Golite Breeze (Dyneema), Golite Day Pack (a smaller version of the Breeze)(Dyneema), or Dawn (silnylon) pack, all under one pound and with 1,800-2,500 cubic inches of capacity, in my checked duffel to use for a family side-trip to Koh Samet (I liked Samet and highly recommend it). Trekking on sky trains, min-buses, boats, and walking the last 1,000 yards to a villa, all point in the direction of the backpackers’ solution, a backpack, rather than a duffel and certainly not a wheelie.

    For checked bags, I really like the REI house-brand Cordura nylon duffel, in medium size, their regular duffel not the thin nylon stow-away, because it only weighs 14 ounces. It’s definitely sturdy enough to check-through and can take a the ultralight pack for the beach trip as well as extra clothing.

    For my wife and kids (they will fly out before me), they’ll use a 3,000 cubic inch Mountain Smith duffel which weighs more but has a beefier zippers.

    I’m hoping they can limit themselves to sharing a single duffel and carrying book packs on board. They are dubious about not using a wheelie or two, but I am trying to spread the good word.

    I’ll let you know how that trip turns out.

    The silnylon bags that really rock, are the ultra-light, large capacity stuff sacks and zipper shave-kit style bags, principally from Granite Gear but I’ve seen a couple of other brands at REI. You have to avoid the ones that are dry bags with roll tops or that have useless (for travel) stuff straps. I particularly like the 500 cubic inch or so zippered versions that only weight about 1.5 ounces. They are an excellent, lightweight alternative to packing cubes and other much heavier organizing bags. It makes no sense to me to opt for a light bag, but then use heavy organizing bags.

    BTW with kids, I highly recommend both the LLBean Original Book Bag and the Target Jansport Trans medium and large book bags. Simple, cheap, relatively light bags, very adaptable to travel usage by kids.


  6. Eric says:

    I use shaving oil. 3 drops per shave does the trick, and no rinsing afterward! You just wipe off your face. Once I got used to it, I couldn’t shave any other way. You can order it from several places online, but I get mine from Wal-Mart. Its called Shave Secret.

    Great post! I’m going to have to chop off my toothbrush for my next trip…


  7. Michael W. says:


    You said, in part:

    “Thin layers of tops made of synthetics are easier to pack, dry fast, weigh less and can still keep you warm.”

    I’d like to add that sometimes a couple of synthetic tee shirts, piled on top of each other, will do the trick for me. I don’t usually have to carry 100 or 200 weight fleece. Weights are actually pretty similar, but of course fleece is bulkier.

    I usually travel with a combination of short sleeve and long sleeve synthetic tee shirts (Patagonia’s Capilene 1 and 2 series, with their longer shirt tails, are my favorites), plus a zip neck long sleeve pullover in a slightly heavier weight (I like the Smart Wool mid-weight merino wool ones), and by mixing them together I can keep warm in a variety of temperature conditions, from my cool to cold home town to the hot tropical climates in SE Asia with their over-airconditioned hotels, taxis, movie theaters, and restaurants.

    I usually leave San Francisco with either a short sleeve or long sleeve tee under the zip neck, throw on an unlined windshirt if the flight is cold, and shed layers down to the tee shirt at the destination, where it’s usually baking as soon as you get off the plane.

    You are right – thinner layers piled on top of one another are much more versatile than a big fat fleece or jacket, at least for my travel. Synthetics wash and dry easy and fast; the wool less so, but I don’t usually need to launder it on a one to two week trip. It doesn’t get worn as much, and is worn over other layers.


  8. K-eM says:

    I’ve been experimenting with the gradual reduction of my travel kit and I love your ideas for using contact lens cases and eye dropper bottles.

    I’ve found bottles in hotels that were tiny enough to refill with prescription soaps for my face and scalp. I’ve also avoided using bags “designed” for travel since they tend to weigh 2-3 lbs even without the wheels. My current bag weighs less than a pound and the only modification I’ve made is to attach a neoprene pad to the strap for comfort.

    I find it interesting that most of the advocates of packing light that I see on-line are men. Since I’m a woman I can’t get away with carrying as few toiletries; especially when it’s on business. So I’ve changed over to a mineral foundation instead of liquid since it’s lighter weight and doesn’t have to go in the 1 quart bag. Limiting my clothing colors also helps to reduce the makeup and jewelry options to a minimum as well.

    My last business trip I had a 2 lb bag and it weighed 12 lbs when packed. However, I still had room left over to carry some purchases home for a coworker. Since I got my new bag, I expect my next trip will be 10-11 lbs. Every little bit counts.


  9. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the huge amount of detail on the Patagonia bags. I took a look at their website – here in Australia I think we only get a very limited Patagonia range into some of our outdoor stores. As the wife of the couple (!!) I do appreciate the Backpack rather than the Tote, but that’s more to do with the slightly larger size than the look! I read through the reviews, and it does seem like people put some pretty heavy things into those bags, quite successfully.

    I love the fact that you can 27L worth of space for only 425g. That’s incredible! Currently I use a 40L wheelie bag, but would really like to ditch the wheels whenever possible, and the bag ends up being reasonably empty too. This backpack could be a really good way to go.

    Thanks for letting me know about them. Hmm.. now I’m thinking about the ripstop pertex that I have lying around, and methinks “I wonder if I could use that to MAKE something…”


  10. Easter Cat says:

    I’ve been trying to stay away from using liquids at all. Besides the potential for messiness, one is limited by a quart sized bag. Also, if TSA freaks out again, you’re going to have to check your luggage. That is one experience I don’t care to repeat.
    Since I’m a Lush fanatic, I mainly use their solid products for travel: shampoo (which doubles as soap), conditioner, deodorant, body moisturizer, perfume (they also have a unisex scent for the guys), etc.
    I’m still trying to find a SPF 45+, solid sunscreen that doesn’t make my face itch. Currently, I use CVS SPF 45+ zinc oxide sunscreen. Unlike the solid neutrogena, it doesn’t make my face itch and has decent protection. Also, I won’t cry if I have to toss it in the trash to get rid of my liquid albatross.


  11. Dave says:

    When I am traveling overseas, I prefer to carry an electric razor. Personally, I put fewer nicks in my skin when I use an electric razor, and I therefore feel less vulnerable to infection. When I was younger (and the skin on my face was tighter), I could shave with disposable razor blades, but not anymore.


  12. Miguel marcos says:

    Let the bard grow!


  13. Surely a smart way..What is the need to carry big size products if we can replace them with the small one..????A sensible way is to use small bottles so that there is no overhead of overloading…..


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