Packing a Lightweight Carry-on | Ultralight Carry-on Backpack

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ake a look at the travel habits of other travelers in an airport: oversized-carry-ons, stuffed and bulging to the max. I am a big fan of never checking any luggage, ever, but I am even a bigger fan of doing away with big, bulky carry-ons too.  

This is how to travel with just 10 pounds on your back, making you ultra-mobile and carefree for an extended warm weather trip.  

In these notes, I am going to show you one of my packing configurations; how to pack for a one-week to one-month vacation to a tropical destination with just a small, ultralight 18 liter backpack designed for short day-hikes.

This pack contains everything you need, and nothing you don’t, for extended tropical travel. And it is exceedingly light. This configuration is for a male traveler who will be spending time swimming, snorkeling, surfing and hiking, but also getting dressed up to go out in the evening. While this configuration is somewhat specific, it can easily be interpreted for the female traveler or other destination types.

One thing I will often notice in my own wheeled carry-on luggage is that the luggage itself forms the most bulk and weight.  When I remove the contents of the carry-on, I realize the clothing and toiletries weigh almost nothing. What would happen, I asked myself, if I just did away with the rolled luggage and packed everything in a double-bagged grocery bag?

What you Wear to the Airport is Key

An ultralight packer always knows that what you wear on your travel day matters. In fact, everything you wear during international travel days will serve a purpose at your destination.  By wearing these bulkier items and not duplicating them in your pack, you’re taking more weight and bulk out of the pack and onto you. I know of some world travelers who wear multiple layers of clothes while traveling in tropical climates, just to meet maximum-legal carry-on requirements.  But there is nothing extreme about my configuration.

Here is what you wear on travel day.

  • Long pants
  • Long-sleeved technical shirt
  • Sweater, mid-layer or warm jacket
  • Light wool hiking socks
  • Merrell water shoes
  • Travel documents, smartphone, headphones and cash.
  • A small pouch containing snacks and sunscreen

Second Pair of Shoes for the Ultralight Pack:

Merrell makes a great pair of water shoes that can serve equally as hiking shoes, a water shoe that protects your feet in wet sand, rocky tidepools or canyons, and feels like an understated tennis shoe for hitting the town. By wearing one of your bulkiest items, you’re keeping your pack light.  You still want backup footwear. To keep weight down to a minimum, my second pair of shoes is an ultralight sandals by Xero Shoes. They fit great, weigh almost nothing, and fit nicely in the hydration sleeve of a small pack to help support the rigidity of the pack.

Cotton versus Technical Clothing

Keeping cotton clothing to a minimum is key to a lightweight carry-on.  Cotton creates all kinds of problems while traveling: it gets damp, hard to clean, doesn’t wick moisture and isn’t adaptable in changing weather.  At the same time, I love cotton, and there is something about putting on a fresh cotton shirt at the end of a long day that makes long days of sun worth it.  In my pack, I carry two short-sleeve technical shirts and three cotton shirts. Because I’m wearing the third technical shirt, I have a total of six shirts.

I also have a small container of concentrated wash soap which is great for cleaning those shirts. I never bother with laundry services, and just wash my clothes in the shower or sink by the second or third day of travel.  As long as I wash and air dry clothes every two to three days, I am always way ahead on my clean to dirty shirt ratio.


I am always amazed how much bulk people add to their pack with their toiletries.  Just about everything in your toiletries kit is easily replaceable on the road. Reduce the weight of your toiletries bag by collecting small containers of various uses. Obsess over the size and weight of everything that goes into your kit.

Shorts and Board Shorts

I carry just one or two pairs of shorts and one or two pairs of board shorts.  Patagonia makes the Quandary Shorts, which dry quickly, are easy to clean, and can be used over and over again.  I especially like them for multiple zippered pockets, which adds a level of security for cash and small gear items.  I’ll often wear board shorts in place of shorts. In this way, this configuration gives me 4 pants.

Roll your Clothes, Strap down your Bulky Accessories

One more rule I like to have for ultralight packing.  Always leave room in your pack. Never overstuff it. Here is how I get all that stuff in a single small pack:

  • I pack my boxers inside the shorts and roll them into a long, tight tube
  • I roll each shirt into a long, tight tube.
  • I place my paperback book and lightweight sandals in the hydration pouch.
  • I place other clothing items towards the bottom of the pack, using enough force to get each piece to fill up the pack.
  • Items like monoculars, mask and snorkel are placed between clothing items, so they are snug and rigid in the pack.
  • Lastly, I use Sea to Summit accessory straps to tie my travel fins snug and tight to the exterior of the pack.  

Ultralight Carry-on Backpack and Heavy Items

REI Co-op Flash 18 Pack
10 oz.

Clothing List

Two pair Patagona Board Shorts
14 oz.

Three Boxers
9 oz.

One Pair Patagonia Quandary Shorts
7.2 oz.

Three Cotton Button-down Shirts
1 lb. 5 oz.

One Bandana
1 oz.

Nau Lightweight Windjacket
7 oz.

Minimal Gear and Toiletries

Paperback (Graham Green’s Travels with My Aunt)
7 oz.

Tiny Capsule for 10 Advil
2 oz.

Travel Toothbrush
2 oz.

1.5 oz.

Gilette Razor and Blade
3 oz.

1 oz.

Ben’s 100% Deet
4 oz.

Spare Contacts + Rubber band
.5 oz.

Opti-free Contact Solution
2 oz.

Contact Case + Rubber Band
1 oz.

1 oz.

10 lbs 4 oz.

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