Pack for three weeks in Europe with a single carry on. Plus: capsule wardrobe packing system, what’s in my bag, travel tips, printable packing list.
For a long time I’ve been whittling down my travel luggage. If broken roller bags, sore shoulders, a feisty baggage fee episode en route to Zambia, and the mental image of a single suitcase languishing on the tarmac of the Madrid airport have taught me one thing about exploring this world, it is this: Pack light to travel well.
How light? Whether a trip is three days or three weeks, my max is a 10 kg / 22 lb duffel bag paired with a little backpack. Twenty-two pounds is the limit for carry on luggage on most smaller airlines, and according to seriously old school backpacking experts it’s also my ideal pack weight.
For me, traveling well means having enough clothes, toiletries, and travel essentials to be comfortable without dragging along anything I could do without. The fewer things I carry, the less I have to worry about keeping track of, and the more I am really grateful what does make it in the bag. Not to mention, packing light is eco-friendly!
Last time we bopped around Europe I saved a detailed list of what traveled with me, what I didn’t need, and what I wished I’d packed. Since then I’ve worked out a system that’s served me well whether headed out for a long weekend music festival or couple of weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest. It all comes back to packing light.
Next week we leave for a three-week trip to Europe. Between work meetings in Belgium, sightseeing in Galway, kayaking Western Ireland, and five days of whiskey tours on the Scottish Isle of Islay, there’s a lot to see and do – and wear.
By combining my go-to packing list with the idea of a capsule wardrobe, I’ve created a comfortable formula for packing well that maximizes your choices and minimizes your luggage.
The Capsule Wardrobe Packing System
 A Bit of Research
First, gather up a rough idea of your daily itinerary. Take a look at what you’re doing the majority of each day, wherever your schedule may take you – flying, sightseeing local villages, hiking mountains, exploring museums or shopping in a city – and note any repeat themes.
Spend a few minutes checking the weather forecast, jot down any special items you know you’ll need, and search Google Images for “your destination” + “street fashion” to see how stylish locals dress. It’s also worth hunting around to find out what might not be locally available. Who knew that in Europe, most hotels don’t supply washcloths or that you might need a prescription to buy certain remedies like antibiotic cream?
 Group Outfits into Themes
For our upcoming trip, I was able to narrow everything down to four basic outfit themes:
- Sightseeing: elevated essentials
- Travel Day: cozy + casual
- Outdoor Exploring: athleisure gear
- Going Out: simple, luxe tops with nice pants
 Decide Number of Combinations for Each Outfit Theme
Next refer back to your daily itinerary themes to tally up total wardrobe changes – mine totaled 19 over 17 days. On any given trip I know like to wear everything at least 2-3 times, but also try to avoid wearing the same exact outfit two days in a row so that everything can breathe a bit. I also plan to bring some Dr. Bronner’s into the shower to hand-wash items as needed since that worked out well last time we traveled around Europe.
So for our three week trip, I work out that the following 10 outfit variations should be enough to keep things fresh while keeping luggage light. Bear in mind that each outfit variation might mean just changing a single piece out – a top, jacket, or bottom – and that many pieces could also cross over into different categories. For instance, I’m only bringing two pairs of pants and plan to wear them for almost all of my Sightseeing and Going Out variations.
- Sightseeing: x7 = 3 outfit variations
- Travel Day: x6 = 2 outfit variations
- Outdoor Exploring: x2 (back to back) = 2 outfit variations
- Going Out: x4 (2 back to back days) = 3 outfit variations
Combinations for “Going Out”: 3 tops, crop jacket, pants, booties, delicate gold jewelry, and a solid deep berry lipstick.
 Create Your Outfit Variations
Now for the fun part – building out the capsule travel wardrobe! Be pragmatic in what you’re assigning for each outfit and think about your go-to pieces that you love to wear all the time.
Leave behind anything that doesn’t fit quite right, anything that’s uncomfortable, and anything that you don’t think you’ll wear more than once – fussy dresses and fumbly stilettos are not going to mix well with cobblestone streets on a laid-back trip. When in doubt, leave it out.
Over the years I’ve realized that you really don’t need to pack a dozen different outfits – you just need to a few really great ones that you can wear everywhere. Above all, I like to lean into nice, comfortable classics in a limited color palette so that everything matches everything else.
Sightseeing: 7 times = 3 outfit variations
[Silk tank or Cotton tank] + [Cardigan or Sweater] + [Black skinny jeans or Blue skinny jeans or Joggers] +[Booties or Sandals or Sneakers]
Travel Day: 6 times = 2 outfit variations
[Cotton tank or Tee] + [Down vest and/or Sweater or Cardigan] + [Dress Coat or Light Jacket] + [Running tights or Joggers] + [Sneakers or Booties]
Outdoor Exploring: 2 times = 2 outfit variations
[Tee and/or Swimsuit] + [Down vest and/or Light jacket and/or Rain jacket] + [Running tights or Running shorts] + [Sneakers]
Going Out: 4 times = 3 outfit variations
[Silk Tank or Dress] + [Cardigan and/or Dress coat] + [Black skinny jeans] + [Sandals or Booties]
And you’re off!
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Hover above to shop what’s in my bag.
I also am loving Grana for silk tanks and shorts, and love, love their pima joggers.
They offer 2-3 day free shipping in case you’ve waited ’til the last minute to shop.
And a few final tips and techniques for organizing it all:
- Pack neatly to save lots of space: Before you get started, put everything in one place and look at what you might be able to cut. Then pack your heaviest, least-used, and will-be-used-last items in the bottom of your bag. Stuff any shoes and hats with smaller items like socks, scarves, tee shirts. Layer a few tops or pants on top of one another then roll each stack into a bundled tube to keep things compact and wrinkle free. Be sure to place any in-flight essentials up top along with anything you’ll need to take out at airport security.
- Freezer bags are your best friends: Pack like with like and stash your toiletries, electronics, first aid kit, in-flight essentials, and any other similarly grouped items into separate gallon or liter bags. Pack a few extra bags to separate out dirty laundry and in a pinch, use gallon Ziplocs as light compression bags to open up extra space in your bag.
- Take nothing precious, and get ready to adapt: When in doubt, leave it out! Whittle away and you’ll be surprised how little you really need to have a great trip. It may also open your eyes to the kindness of the universe. A few years ago while I was staying in a small village in rural Africa, my lone pair of boots began to literally disintegrate from bush walks, sole and all. Our house manager sent them over to a nearby cobbler who had them repaired in an hour’s time. Spare yourself of keeping up with a heavy bag and you might even make a new friend along the way.
- Layer, layer, layer: Weather permitting, wear your bulkier clothes and heaviest shoes when you know you’ll be walking a lot with carry on in tow. It’s easier to wear the weight than keep it all on your shoulders, plus you’ll be able to save a few precious pounds of baggage on any budget airlines.
And last but not least, here’s a handy printable packing list I’ve pulled together to help you get a jump start on everything:
Later this week: What’s in my beauty bag.
Until then, bon voyage!
May 2016 update: I’m back from holiday… and still whittling down. Encouraged by the fact that my husband survived the entire trip living out of a single backpack, I’ve built a revised list that crosses off a few more items and narrows it down to the absolute (and coziest) essentials that were well-used this trip and will be joining me on the next one: