- Buyer's Guide
How to Pack Light for a Week: Tips, Lists, and Bags
The best packing advice I’ve ever received was from a Colombian astronomer in Geneva, Switzerland. As he watched me heave my full 48L Osprey off the ground and on my back, he took a sip of espresso and said “If you want to pack lighter, get a smaller bag. Whatever size bag you have, you’ll always find a way to fill it.”
His advice stuck with me as I continued my 6-week journey through Europe: schlepping my things from train station to hostel; packing and repacking so as to fit it on a Ryanair flight; and the constant feeling of relief whenever I dropped it on the ground and abandoned it for a while. It would be nice to have a smaller bag, I thought. But what would I get rid of? Without the constraint of space, I wasn’t forced to pack less and struggled to envision traveling with less.
Five years and thousands of miles of travel later, I finally decided to act on his advice and downsize from a 48L to a 22L bag for week-long (and sometimes longer) trips. Even if it seems extreme, I recommend it for anyone who wants to:
– Avoid paying for checked bags (even on budget airlines or basic economy tickets)
– Easily take public transportation or walk a few blocks with your luggage
– Spend less time packing and unpacking
– Feel less burdened by your bags
Interested? Read on to see packing lists, tips, and inside my bag and get inspired on how to pack light for a week (or more) of travel.
The bag: Osprey Talon 22L
I’d spent the majority of my 20s traveling with the Osprey Kestrel 48. While it had begun to feel too big for my needs, it had some features I’d come to love and want in my next bag: the separate top and outside mesh pockets, comfortable hip straps, and lightweight, durable material. I also found the ability to access the main pack from the top and bottom handy, but knew it might be hard to find a smaller bag with this feature.
In the end, I decided to switch to the Osprey Talon 22, a day bag that excels at its intended purpose, day hikes and moving around town, but also, surprisingly, is a good fit for multi-day, ultralight travel. The Osprey Tempest 20 is the woman’s equivalent and, apart from fit, almost identically designed. After two years repurposing this day bag for week-long trips, here’s how it has fared:
– Value: At $110, it’s decently affordable and less expensive than some similar quality travel bags.
– Size and space: It’s small (which is a good thing for packing light) yet the main compartment feels more spacious than you might assume of a day bag. Plus, the multiple stretchy pockets on the outside and small inner pouch help keep my stuff organized while I’m on the road.
– Weight: At 1.6 pounds, it’s lighter than other similar bags in its category and a full pound lighter than the Kestrel 48.
– Comfort: The mesh-covered, foam ridge back panel and hip straps make this bag super comfortable to wear — even when full — while also breathable.
– Look and feel: The Talon 22 / Tempest 20 straddles the line between functional and stylish. While it’s not exactly what I’d call “fashionable”, the clean, rounded shape helps it look less obviously like an outdoor backpack and its simple, single color design means I don’t feel like I stick out with it.
– Durability: So far, it’s been sturdy enough to handle several years’ worth of trips and adventures — from exploring the jungles of Sri Lanka to day hikes around the deserts of California — with only some minor wear and tear.
– Warranty and support: Osprey’s All Mighty Guarantee is top-notch, and it’s always nice to know they’ll repair or replace my pack if anything happens to it.
– “Hackability”: Over the years, I’ve found some hidden hacks with this bag: like using the internal hydration sleeve to stash my laptop for easy access, or that I can use the external mesh pocket for items (like shoes) that I may want to keep separate from everything else.
– Access: The top-only access isn’t ideal for travel, although it does have a half-front panel so I can usually get to most of my stuff without unloading it all. If I were to upgrade on this feature though, I’d probably opt for the Escapist 25 instead.
– Organization: Since the Talon/Tempest lines weren’t designed for travel but day hikes and commuting, they lack a few travel-specific organizational features, like additional inside pockets or an internal divider.
The packing tips: How to pack light for a week in a 22L bag
Packing this light isn’t easy, but below are a few strategies I use to pack for a week well enough to fit in a 20-22L bag:
1. Pack three days’ worth of clothes and limit your shoes
Don’t assume you need seven outfits for a seven-day trip. Instead, pack three knowing you can mix and match those items to create enough options for your entire trip — while still being prepared for every situation. Shoes also tend to take up a large portion of our bags: bring 1-2 pairs max. I usually wear a pair of boots, then slip a thin pair of flip-flops or Toms in my outer mesh pocket (if you’re more partial to a sneaker, I’d also suggest Natives, they’re great looking and slipper-like).
2. Bring travel-size items only
With limited space to use, you won’t catch me traveling with a 12-ounce bottle of shampoo. Keep everything as small as possible — you probably need less than you think, anyway.
3. Limit your just-in-case items
“The space in our pack is a precious commodity. It should be used efficiently and guarded from our own laziness of packing items ‘just in case’. Yes, we should be prepared. But let’s be smart about it,” advises the Carryology HQ team in The Best Backpacks for One-Bag Travel. Though in reference to hiking, it applies to travel as well. Trust that you can pick up most ‘just in case’ items on the road if and when you actually need them. Stick to only bringing the “know I’ll need” items.
4. Pack a couple of days in advance, then revise
When you’re in a rush, it’s easy to pack too much — or all the wrong stuff. To avoid this, set aside time a few days before your trip to gather everything you’ll need. Then, the day before, take a second pass at everything. Is there anything you forgot? Anything you could omit? Do you really need five t-shirts?
5. Use compression cubes or stuff sacks
Packing cubes help keep items in your bag organized while traveling, but compression cubes also do this and help you fit more in a small space. Make use of compression cubes, such as Eagle Creek’s Pack It Specter Compression Set ($32 for two) or stuff sacks, like those from Sea to Summit, to make your items more compact.
6. Roll or fold, it doesn’t matter
The TL;DR on this debate is no, rolling clothes instead of folding them does not save you more space in your bag — though it does better organize it. Do whichever you prefer.
An ultralight packing list for a week in a 22L bag
Although your exact packing list will vary depending on your personal preferences, trip, and time of year, use this base as an example of what will fit and inspiration for figuring out your own packing list.
Clothes take up the most space in our bag while traveling, so it’s worth focusing a good amount of energy here. Pare down to the essentials, and pick items that aren’t overly bulky. You don’t necessarily have to go out and buy travel-specific clothing — there’s a lot you can do with just your existing closet — but there are a couple of items you may want to invest in. For example:
– Underwear: 5-7 pairs, depending on if you’re willing to do laundry or not.
– Bras: 1-2, with one as a sports bra
– Socks: 3-4 pairs, Smartwool’s Merino wool socks are easy to wash on the road.
– Tops: 3 total (e.g. 1 tank, 1 t-shirt, 1 long-sleeve). Uniqlo has great, affordable basics.
– Warm sweater or sweatshirt: 1 neutral, versatile option.
– Skirt/shorts: 1 total, not each.
For your toiletries, give yourself a “one bag challenge” (that’s right, no separate makeup and toiletry bag). Grab a small-ish bag and pack:
– Dr Bronner’s, which doubles as body wash and shampoo.
– Conditioner (optional)
– Toothbrush (I like Quip for travel)
– Makeup basics
– Mini first aid (bandaids and aspirin)
To save money, put your liquids in a reusable GoToob (they have 3oz and 1.25oz, I find the 1.25oz GoToobs fit enough for a week-long trip) and avoid buying travel-sized versions of your toiletries for every trip.
When it comes to gadgets, ask yourself: do I need more than a smartphone? If you do need something more — like your laptop for a work trip or camera for your favorite hobby — keep it as compact as possible. For example:
– External battery, the Anker PowerCore is a compact and durable option.
– Adapters, if you’re going to another country. Apple has a well-made set that lets you pack only the one (or two) adapters you need.
– Laptop (optional)
– Kindle (optional)
To stay comfortable while flying, you could go extra minimalist and pack nothing but a warm jacket, phone, and earbuds to keep you comfortable and entertained. But if you have extra room (which you should), add these items:
– Headphones: To save space, I stick to Apple’s EarPods. Other headphones may have better noise-canceling capabilities and comfort but when it comes to saving space, the EarPods are hard to compete with.
– Travel pillow: I’ve never met a travel pillow I liked and don’t pack one, but friends rave about the new Trtl Pillow, which is at least much more compact than a traditional U-shaped foam pillow.
– Travel blanket or scarf: I don’t usually have room in my bag for a blanket, so I’ll wear a blanket scarf (Zara has good options) instead.
You don’t need much beyond your clothes, toiletries, in-flight essentials, and electronics — especially since you’ll be able to pick up most emergency items on the road. But a couple of extras you shouldn’t forget:
– Passport (if traveling abroad)
– Wallet (if you usually carry something bulky, consider a slimmer travel wallet)
I also consider a pocket Moleskine an essential item, but then again, I’m a writer — you may not feel the same.
How low can you go?
Packing for a full week of travel (or longer!) in a 22L backpack may seem crazy, unnecessary, or just too difficult. But it’s also such a great feeling to travel without the burden of things on your back. So why not give it a go? After a little practice and thoughtful crafting of your own ultralight packing list, I’m sure you can downsize your bag and pack extra light for a week of travel too. Let us know how it goes in the comments below!