The reason I have stuck with 40 liters for the majority of my travels is because that is the international carry-on size. Which means even with budget airlines, you will almost never have to check your bag which means no lost baggage, no waiting at eternity at the airport baggage claim and no lugging around an uncomfortable amount of weight.
This also means if you are traveling to countries without pavement and sidewalks everywhere; for example Thailand, Guatemala, Bolivia, etc., that you will not be miserable carrying your backpack from the bus station to the hotel or hostel.
Traveling light is its own type of freedom. Especially when you get off a 12 hour flight, zoom past everyone at baggage claim and hop on public transport to the city center where your backpack isn't out of place in the local cafe where you get lunch.
That's when you'll realize life is so much easier with less baggage.
Even more so when you look up 45 minutes later and see your hungry, exhausted fellow-passengers rolling enormous suitcases up the street and arguing about which direction the hotel is and you know you've avoided that particular hassle.
If you want to stick to the 40L carry-on size, make sure you shop for lighter, thinner fabrics. The key to packing this way is layering.
If you're like me, you'll want all layers to coordinate in a capsule wardrobe.
The trick to bringing less is to use the Marie Kondo approach, if it doesn't bring you joy, it doesn't get to travel with you. After all, you've paid a lot for the privilage of travel, and any clothing or accessories that make you feel uncomfortable or aren't functional don't have the right to come along.
Only bring what you love and only bring what you can layer.
Over the years, I've seen thousands of backpacks. I love to get into the gear details and have spent hours upon hours shopping online for the best backpacks. I have tried and returned some because they simply weren't practical enough.
My point is, I know what works and what doesn't work.
Here are the best 40 liter backpacks out there.
In hostels, busses, and trains, this is the most common 40 liter backpack you'll see out there, and that's because it's well-designed, durable, and comfortable. It's also very reasonable at $160.
Unlike backpacking backpacks, these two have large, zippered compartments so it's easy to access your stuff, compression straps to keep it all in place, and a laptop pocket.
The only thing this one is missing is a rain cover. I don't find rain covers to be that necessary and usually don't bring one, but it is a nice addition to have.
I have been really impressed by REI backpacks. I have the REI ruckpack in the 65 Liter version and it is by far the most comfortable backpack I have worn. It makes really heavy loads feel light. It also comes in a separate men's and women's version.
It's probably the best value for your money that you'll find out there at $139.
This backpack has absolutely everything you need and is designed for adventure travel.
Wallet with Wristband These are perfect for taking out of your backpack and using as a purse while out on the town. I like this one because it's big enough for your passport too. The metallics really brighten up any outfit, just in case you're doing something like going out dancing in Shanghai, like I did.
Packing Cubes I love my packing cubes. They help you stay organized and also add a little compression to your items so you can make sure everything fits. Packing cubes are one thing you don't need to spend a lot on. Just get a good set like the one linked above and you'll be good to go.
TSA Compliant Liquids Bag I think both me and the TSA agents got tired of seeing my ripped, tattered, Ziploc bag at check-in so I got a heavy-duty version.
Mesh Organizer Bags I like these for everything from my medicine bag to cords and cables. They are lightweight and you can see what's inside.
Toiletry Bag The problem with most toiletry bags is they are round or cube-shaped. This means you have to work harder to make space for them in your bag. This one from e-bags is my all-time favorite. It's low cost, packs flat, and lasts forever. For me, it was always the last thing to go in my bag and it always fit nicely on top of all the packing cubes.
Note*: Most backpackers will also bring a day bag that they bring on every tour, walk around town, etc. This is typically a messenger bag or normal-sized backpack. I have been looking for a replacement for mine for about a year now but haven't found one I thought was good enough to recommend but when I do, I'll update this post.
Let’s start with the outermost layers and work our way in.
Rain shell This has to be a sturdy, light layer that packs easily. Remember, as you add more layers, this will be the very top and so you may need to go up a size to make sure your other jackets can fit beneath. I've used a North Face Venture Jacket for about 5 years now. They come in a ton of colors and hold up and pack down really well.
Extra-warm Hoodie Usually, I bring a knit hoodie. For those traditionalists, a regular hoodie will do but if you can find one that has a knit fabric or a little more heavy-duty outdoor specialty hoodie, you will often find they take up less room in your suitcase and pack up very small. This one from Patagonia is a little expensive but I've had mine a year and I've worn it almost every day since I got it and it still looks great. Plus, Patagonia really backs their product and is environmentally conscious so it's a pretty good purchase to make.
Scarf Never leave the house without a scarf when you’re packing! This is such a great way to tie outfits together and stay warm at the same time! I personally prefer a light infinity scarf. That way, it takes up next to no room and is light enough for warm weather but still reduces wind in the cold.
Buff Again, this is an item I don’t like to leave home without. They’re just so versatile and take up so little room! I wore mine over my ears in the wind, to hold my hair back in hot yoga classes and as a scarf on several occasions.
Beanie A good hat is often the key to staying warm. Even though a knit beanie isn’t the biggest space saver, it’s totally worth it when you’re in a windy location or camping in the cold. If you’re traveling to unpredictable climates, don’t leave home without one. Did I also mention it’s great for bad hair days?
Sunglasses It’s best if they are both functional and stylish.
Tops are usually the focal point of outfits and should be items that you like and would be comfortable being photographed in, since they’ll make the most appearances in your travel pics. Here are my suggestions for tops that layer, look good and pack well.
Long Sleeves Typically I bring 1-2 long sleeve tops, max. Remember, you’re also bringing a zip hoodie to layer so you don’t really need more. I choose one that will layer well, again, not too tight and in a flattering color. When going to multiple climates, I chose one that was light so I could wear it at night in the tropics without being too hot, while still providing extra warmth in the cold.
Denim Button-Up This is great to have in both hot and cold climates. I wore mine while seeing the pyramids. It protects your skin from the sun while not being too hot and still helps you to look put-together. I always get mine at H&M because they tend to fit best and last a long time for the money.
T-shirts I only brought one t-shirt. This is because if you wear one in the tropics, you will get a farmer’s tan in the cold, you wind up layering it anyway. Choose one that looks cute tucked in to a pair of shorts or with jeans and without anything too distracting on the front so it’s not taking center stage in photos.
Tank Tops This is one item that you can bring several of; I bring anywhere from 2-4. All were in flattering colors that went with my scarf and zip hoodie and all were of a stretchy material. This is ideal since they will be worn A LOT both in layering and alone.
Hiking Pants Bring one comfortable pair of hiking/outdoor pants that you can use for rougher activities. It can even just be a pair of pants you love that are super comfortable but that are made with a heavy duty fabric. The only pair I have found that don't look like hiking pants are from Prana. Mine are skinny jean style which is great because I can still wear them around town and out to dinner without that overly outdoorsy look.
Jeans No matter where you are going in the world, jeans are always in fashion. I brought my favorite pair and I suggest you do too. Bring the ones you would live in if you could. Mine were skinny jeans so they paired well under boots, with sandals and tennis shoes.
Leggings Where were we as travelers without leggings!? This may be the single most important pant layer you bring because they are so comfy and versatile. Also, bring a pair that can layer under your hiking pants for cold days.
Demin Shorts Bring one pair that fits great. You will wear them lots in warm climates but not use them at all in the cold so choose the ones that make you feel best and save the space.
Athletic Shorts Choose a pair of shorts that are cute enough to walk around the hostel, a tropical island, pair with a swimsuit, and wear to a yoga class. These are a comfy material and are well-made. I brought the same Lululemon pair on every trip and they were one of my most worn items because of their versatility. But after the store was out of my size, I went on Amazon and found nearly the exact same shortsfor half the price and in colors I liked better too.
Shoes are always the biggest conundrum. Luckily, if you have a few versatile and comfy pairs, you will be set for the entire trip.
HikingShoes Bring one pair of hiking shoes. It’s best if they are lightweight. This is hard to find in a version that can be packed without an enormous amount of bulk so what I'm doing now is looking more for trail runners. I like these lightweight ones from Ahnu.
Sneakers Bring a stylish pair of lightweight sneakers that can be paired with jeans, a skirt or shorts. These should be a neutral color and comfortable enough to wear all day while sight-seeing. These ones from Superga are the most comfortable tennis shoes I've ever owned. I have them in several colors. They are so comfortable I have taken them straight out of the box and wore them for 3 days in Disneyland without a complaint. I don't know of another shoe that is that comfortable.
Flip-flops Another item not to leave home without! You will use these as slippers, in hostel showers, on the beach and everywhere in between. Just make sure it’s a well-made pair that won’t fall apart half-way through the journey. These ones from Teva are amazing and have lasted 4 years. They hold your feet in place a little better than the average flip flop too.
These are a few things that made my limited packing list more fun.
1 Dress or Skirt It’s important to have a dress or skirt if you are in warm climates, or need an excuse to dress up in cold climates. I prefer skirts since you can mix and match tops depending on the weather. These skirts from Amazon are awesome because they flare which is flattering and they have built-in shorts so you don't end up in a Marilyn moment on windy days. This one also transitions nicely from summer to winter and is always in style.
SwimsuitYou will need it! Don’t leave home without it. One like this is great because it will look good paired with shorts or a skirt too.
One Statement Necklace True, you may be out in the woods for half your trip, but on the days in town, it’s great to feel a little dressed up. A statement necklace makes a big difference with a tiny bit of effort.
Several Pairs of Earrings They take up next to no space and can make you feel dressed up with almost zero effort. It's surprising what a pair of big earrings and bright lipstick can do to dress up any outfit.
This is awesome stuff! Plus, many of the items aren’t liquid, so they won’t add to your TSA restrictions!
Shampoo bars are shampoo but in hard soap form. You'd think they'd be drying and not very foamy, but that's not the case. These are awesome! You get your hair wet, run through from the root to the tip several times and then work into a lather (which happens really fast). They are good for your hair and also last me for several months! And I have pretty long hair.
Leave-in Conditioner My hair normally needs a lot of conditioner to be brush-able after a shower. The Coconut Smiles Leave-In Conditioner bars above help to detangle and are solid which also reduce the amount liquids you're traveling with so they are a win-win!
Dry Shampoo I don't how I got by before dry shampoo became a thing. This is the best for when you get off a long flight and go straight to sight-seeing. A little bit goes a very long way and it leaves your hair looking clean, rather than travel-worn and exhausted. I recently switched this one. I like it because the color isn't white so it shows up less in dark hair or dark roots, and it volumizes.
Tinted Chapstick This makes it look like you put in effort, while hydrating. This one is a little pricey but it's like a lipstick and a chapstick in one (Petal is my favorite natural-looking shade). This is one of the only chapsticks I've found that keeps my lips from getting chapped on long-haul flights.
Deodorant I tried so many different types of deodorant until I found crystal deodorant. It’s an actual crystal so it doesn’t add to your liquids allotment and it lasts forever.
SunscreenYou’d be surprised how often sunscreen is more expensive in other countries. This is definitely one you always want to have with you! A single sunburn can ruin your trip!
Make-up Remover/Face Wash WipesYou will be so glad you have these; long train rides, overnight busses, flights… Bring a few singles in your bag for the airplane or a small pack in your day pack. You’ll be happy you did!
Toothpaste Tablets For me, the travel-size tubes of toothpaste aren’t enough for an extensive trip. I’ve also found, they are one of the first items to leak in my bag and getting toothpaste on everything is so annoying! Toothpaste tablets are a great alternative and they don’t take up the space you could be using for other liquids in your carry-on. I put mine in a ziplock bag because the jars tend to take up too much space.
Moleskin Most of us walk more on vacation than we do in our day-to-day lives. I don't get blisters a lot, but bringing moleskin or other blister packs has been a lifesaver for me and others on the trip at times. I cut a few different sizes and bring them along just in case.
This has been a life-saver to me at times!
I always pack a small bag with a variety of commonly-needed medicines such as allergy tabs, ibuprofen, a sleep-aid (for adjusting to time changes), and a few options for when local foods aren’t agreeing with your digestion.
One really critical item is a vitamin C supplement. I take it when I’m traveling during cold and flu season because the last thing you want, is to end up sick on your trip - which I have done multiple times (France, Peru, Chile, Italy.....).
Also, you won't have room for full-sized bottles so I use these small individual bags and label them.
Of course, don’t forget any prescription medications you need as well!
Loop Plug Adaptor This is one item you really, really don't want to leave home without. Also, it's one you want to buy in good quality because if you don't, you'll end up buying a cheap one at the airport that will break anyway. This one also includes USB ports on the side so you can plug in several devices at once.
Sony a5100 I waited so long to buy a good camera and now I'm not sure why. This one is at a great price and is awesome for photo and video! It also has a selfie screen that flips up so you can see the image. This is exactly what you need as a solo traveler without being bulky.
Noise-Cancelling Headset These will save your sanity on long flights, trains and buses. I wasn't ready to spend the big bucks on a Bose set, although I love Bose products, and I found that these were a great budget alternative.
Okay, when you look at this 40 liter packing list, put all your things on your bed, you will feel like this won't work.
Remember, backpackers bring their backpack, along with another item of luggage like a normal-sized backpack or messenger bag. The things you use most often will go in the smaller bag.
Start fitting the other items in your backpack, remember, this will work.
First things, your clothes need to be in a packing cube. Mostly likely the mid-sized one is best. The job of the packing cube is to slightly compress the clothes.
Small items like socks must be packed into shoes.
Rigid items like flip-flops go on edge of the bag, pressed flat.
If you have rigid containers like bottles, boxes, or hard plastic cases, the items in them will most likely need to be transferred to plastic bags and other organizers.
Lastly, remember you'll most likely be wearing a few items on the flight.
My typical travel outfit is leggings, tank top, button-up denim shirt, and zip hoodie along with a bulkier pair of shoes.
It will be tricky at first but you'll get a packing system down and you'll find it's easy after a few days.
You can even stay organized and more sane with fewer items. You'll be glad you did!
I hope you find this list useful! I’ve learned a lot from my travels over the years, and these are the items that I found so helpful I wanted to share them with you too!