The Maximalist’s Guide To Minimalist Packing

I’m a maximalist. I come from a maximalist family, and I inherited my mother’s penchant for overpacking (but not my father’s spatial awareness and good packing skills, which makes the overpacking problematic). I was that girl in college who always had way too much stuff in her dorm room. It made moving in and out every year an absolute nightmare. To this day, I still own a lot.

For the last year or so, I’ve been actively working on decluttering and owning less stuff. This has happened in conjunction with my efforts to spend less and make more mindful purchases in my pursuit of financial independence. But I still own too much, and that’s reflected when I pack for trips. I always pack too much in an effort to be over prepared for everything (also a trait inherited from my mother). My tendency to overpack is compounded by the law of the universe that says stuff will expand to fit an available vacuum. Even if I try packing less, I inevitably end up filling my entire suitcase.

Thankfully, an opportunity for change presented itself. Back in May of last year, my mother, sister, and I went on a week-long trip to the Azores. I was in charge of a lot of the planning for that trip, and as I was creating an itinerary that involved us staying in multiple cities during the week, I had flashbacks to previous family road trips, especially the two where we’d rented tiny cars in European countries. Playing the “will we actually be able to fit all of us and our suitcases in this car???” game is a seriously stressful way to start a vacation, and being crammed into a car with too much stuff is also not a recipe for fun.

I’d been reading about only packing a small carry-on for your trips and was intrigued by the idea of the mobility and flexibility that comes with lugging a backpack around instead of a rolling suitcase (plus I’m a fast walker and find that I have to slow down in crowded airports when I’m dragging a rolling suitcase behind me). I love to travel and want a whole lot more of it in my life, and ideally, it’ll be lighter travel. So I decided I’d use the Azores trip as my first foray into the world of minimalist packing by carrying a (large) backpack and not much else.

The Infamous Maximalist Backpack

Maybe dropping close to $150 (it was well-thought-out but still) on a whim on a carry-on backpack was a bad idea, but I also needed some skin in the game (and I’m thankful I could afford to buy the backpack). If I was ever going to start thinking more consciously about what I was packing and how a life of lightweight travel would look in practice, I needed to first get the bag I’d be packing in.

With my new 38 liter bag in hand in preparation for the trip, I packed and unpacked the thing multiple times in the quest to stuff as much as I could in there just in case. I also wanted to be sure I knew how to pack it again at the end of the trip so I wasn’t stressing out about stuffing it all back in the bag. Overall, it was a success!

Except that I totally cheated and put my hiking boots in my mom’s suitcase. Those have actually continued to be my problem on successive trips: I can mostly fit everything into my backpack (or my other carry-on bag) except my boots. I know I could wear them to save space, but who wants to wear those for hours on a plane and have to deal with taking them off while going through security? Clearly, my transformation from a maximalist packer to a minimalist one is a work in progress.

Minimalist Packing in Practice 

I thought when I bought the backpack that I’d suddenly become a champion carry-on packer, but a year later and my experience has been a mixed bag (heh). The one thing I have learned, though? Packing cubes are your best friend when traveling! Doesn’t matter if you have a suitcase or a backpack, they’re amazing for organizing your clothes and compressing them down into a smaller space. I can’t believe I didn’t know about them or start using them sooner.

Moving towards solely packing a carry-on has surprisingly been less about the physical stuff and more of a mental adjustment. I’m still working through what the change to a more minimalist packing approach means for me, but largely it’s been an exercise in giving up control. When I indulge my maximalist packing tendencies, I can rest assured knowing I have all weather and social event possibilities covered. Throwing what seems like half of my clothes into a suitcase means I never have to deal with being dissatisfied with what I’ve packed because there’s always another option if I don’t like the choices I made while still at home. I’m prepared for everything, and that makes my anxious self happy.

Constraining myself to what will fit in my carry-on backpack means I don’t have a ton of options. I have to make sure what I pack is flexible enough to serve double or triple duty. I’m not fantastic about that because my closet is big enough that I don’t normally need to make those decisions: work clothes are work clothes, everyday clothes are everyday clothes, workout clothes are for getting sweaty, and lounge clothes are for sitting around in. Occasionally I’ll wear a work shirt with jeans to make a casual outfit more dressy, but there’s very little mixing and matching across types of clothes.

Just packing a small carry-on requires a completely different mindset.

Work in progress 

I’m not ready to give up control just yet. On a recent long weekend trip to LA, I brought a carry-on suitcase instead of my backpack. It was going to be fairly chilly, so I couldn’t pack shorts and t-shirts and call it a day. I was going on a hike, so I needed shoes for that and of course, I needed my hiking daypack, neither of which fit well in my carry-on backpack. That trip happened during my birthday weekend, and, of course, I wanted an outfit or two that would look nice for going out. Instead of agonizing over how to fit all of that in my backpack or what to leave behind so it would fit, I decided to take the path of least resistance and pulled out my suitcase instead.

Turns out I didn’t end up wearing everything I’d packed in my suitcase.

I’m going to Florida in May to see a friend, and I expect that to be a fairly short packing list mostly consisting of a bathing suit, my beach hat, and sunscreen. I’ll try hopping back on the carry-on backpack train for that trip.

Clearly, the transformation into a minimalist packer is (much like travel itself) a journey.

Erin writes at Reaching for FI, where she’s documenting her journey to financial independence as someone making the most of life in an expensive city with a not-so-big salary. She writes about her money, love of the library, the never-ending quest to cultivate a daily meditation habit, and her various travel and hiking adventures. When she’s not spending all her free time blogging, she’s hanging out on Twitter and Instagram.

Tiny Ambitions is the online space where blogger Britt shares her tiny, but wonderful, life. Britt is a minimalist, a simple living advocate, and a tiny house enthusiast.

Image via Unsplash

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