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How To Travel With Just A Carry-On Bag

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Since many of my travels involve either camping or cold/wet climates, I usually pack a large backpack and a small carry-on for the flight. However, depending on your destination and style of accommodation, you can easily pull off a month-long trip with just a 40L carry-on bag.

Why would you want to do this? For starters, you can save money at the airline counter, as well as time at check-in and luggage pick-up. There’s no chance that the airline will lose your checked bag or that someone will walk off with it at the carousel. Also, I greatly enjoy the simplicity of travelling with just one bag; you’re free to leave as soon as you get off the plane and you’ve got less stuff to carry around between destinations.

I’ve always used hiking backpacks for my travels, until convinced me to try the Osprey Fairview 40L backpack, which is designed specifically for travel. Its hefty hip belt allows for comfort despite heavy loads; this is crucial for me as a fan of packing cubes, which compress space but do NOT minimize weight. It opens from top to bottom, clamshell-style, and there are a few small and large compartments, including a laptop sleeve. The coolest feature about this backpack? The shoulder and hip straps zip up into a special flap. Before boarding your flight, neatly zip all loose straps away and stick the bag in the overhead storage, then keep your flight essentials under your seat in a smaller bag.

Obviously, the season or the destination will determine what you bring and how much you'll need. You most likely won’t be able to travel to Canada or Iceland in the wintertime with just a carry-on (incidentally, Canada and Iceland are 100% worth bringing that larger bag or suitcase).

Here is what I was bringing to Croatia for a 16-day trip (before Covid cancelled it all).

Packing for a two-week trip, solo woman travels, carry-on bag only
Before packing, lay everything out to ensure you have what you need. All items in this photo are listed below (and yes, it all fits easily into the green Osprey Fairview bag at right).


A good rule of thumb is to bring enough clothes for one-third of your time (so if you’re travelling for 15 days, bring 5 full outfits).

Make sure that your clothes are compatible (can be combined and layered together) to ensure maximum wear. I like to bring mostly neutral-coloured tops and bottoms, then add a dash of colour with a scarf, headband or hat.

Tops (7)

- 3 tank tops (2 Merino wool)

- 3 t-shirts

- 1 long-sleeved t-shirt (Merino wool)

Bottoms (5)

- 1 black capri pants

- 2 lounge pants (harem-style)

- 1 pair of shorts (in case of hot weather)

- 1 pair hiking pants

All my clothes (including my packable puffy jacket) fit into two packing cubes (a medium and a small).


- 2 sport bras

- 2 normal bras

- 7 undies (+ 2 thongs)

- 1 bikini + sarong


- Running shoes (+ 2 sports socks)

- Flip-flops

- Light Sketchers sneakers

I like organizing my tops and bottoms in a large packing cube (red) and my unmentionables, swimwear and scarves in a small packing cube (blue).


If you’re travelling with just a carry-on, you have three options: 1) Buy all liquid toiletries at your destination, 2) Bring a few travel-sized versions (this only works if you’re going on a 1-2 week trip or else you’ll go over your maximum allowance) or 3) Buy «hard» toiletries.

I like my face wash and day/night moisturisers, so I filled up a few silicone tubes and found a travel-sized version of my night moisturiser. (This would suffice for 16 days, but I would have had to go shopping at my destination for a longer trip). My travel-sized shampoo and conditioner, however, won’t last 16 days, so I would buy more in Croatia once I run out.

My liquids all go into a Ziploc bag for airport security (at right in left pic), and afterwards I'll transfer them back into my main toiletries bag (clear silicone bag at left in left pic).

FOR SECURITY CLEARANCE: All liquids go into a Ziploc bag for the flight (at right). At my destination, liquids get put back into my toiletry bag.
Toiletries should fit into one bag. Explore your pharmacy's travel section or invest in silicone tubes.

Another great option is to buy hard versions of everything (ex: Rocky Mountain Soap Company makes a very popular Rosemary Shampoo Bar and Avocado Face Wash Bar).

- Face wash

- Day moisturiser (SPF)

- Night moisturiser

- Toothbrush, toothpaste and floss

- Shampoo and conditioner

- Hair pic

- Tweezers

- Small soap bar

- Exfoliating glove

- Wet wipes

- Period stuff (if necessary)

- Travel towel

- Tide Travel Detergent Packets (or Dry Laundry Soap Bar or powdered detergent)


I keep my makeup and sleep stuff in separate Ziploc bags to simplify security checks (as both bags contain liquids).

- PJs and sleep stuff (eye mask, ear plugs and headlamp)

- Minimal makeup and hair accessories (elastics, bobby pins, etc.) - Inflatable travel pillow

- Travel scarf

- Buff

- Hat

- Jean jacket

- Warm down jacket (packable)


- Laptop + charger

- Phone + charger

- iPod+ charger

- Camera + charger

- Small speaker

- Headlamp

- Charging stick

- Earphones + small earbuds

- Travel adapters (3) for Europe


- Passport, banking cards and ID

- Travel health insurance papers and photocopies of passport, Visa, etc.

- Books (if, like me, you haven’t yet transferred to eReaders)

- Packable 20L backpack (will be used for in-flight stuff)

- Small First Aid kit (make sure all liquids are put in your liquids bag when you pass security)

- Collapsible water bottle

As I pack my packing cubes, I set aside the clothes I'll be wearing on the plane (usually the heaviest items). Anything I might want with me during my flight also goes into my packable bag.

Fully loaded, my carry-on Osprey bag now weighs 18.6 lbs (8.43 kg), which is far below the maximum allowed weight (by Air Canada restrictions). All my front compartments are empty (except for the laptop sleeve), as well as the large zip-up pouch inside the main compartment. There’s lots of room to spare; once I land, most items in my packable day bag will be put back into my Osprey and I’ll still have enough room for souvenirs.

Make sure that all electronics, batteries and toiletries that will be inspected at security are easily accessible, to save yourself time and dirty looks from other travellers.

And there we go! It's as simple as that.

Bon voyage !


  • Travelling with just a carry-on bag (backpack, luggage or duffel) keeps you free. There's much less waiting around at the airport (both before and after your flight).

  • Everything you need is accessible to you at all times. You will pack minimally, knowing everything you bring must be carried in a compact space.

  • The less rounded your bag, the easier you will maximize the interior space (especially if you use packing cubes).

  • Make sure your water bottle is empty before security; fill it up once you've gone through.

  • Use shower caps (rather than packing cubes) to pack your shoes; they'll ensure that accumulated dirt doesn't spread in your bag.

  • I do tend to roll my clothes into my packing cubes; here's a fun video by that suggests various packing methods.

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