How to Pack Just a Carry-on for an Active International Tour | Adventure Unbound

How to Pack Just a Carry-on for an Active International Tour

If negotiating airport crowds, checking-in baggage, and dealing with lost luggage leaves you feeling stressed, this article is for you, especially if you’re heading off on an active international tour. Traveling with just a carry-on bag allows you to check-in a little later and walk straight off the plane into your adventure. No waiting around at baggage carousels or panicking if your luggage doesn’t appear. 

The idea of embarking on an active international tour might make you think you need a lot of gear. But it is possible to do it with just a carry-on in tow. Read on to discover tips and tricks for getting everything you need for an overseas adventure into a carry-on bag and within onboard weight restrictions.


An overstuffed red suitcase on a hotel bed


Choose the right luggage

First and foremost, you need to choose the right carry-on luggage. While the standard maximum dimensions for domestic and international carry-on bags are generally 56cm x 36cm x 23cm (22" x 14" x 9"), it's crucial to verify the specific guidelines of your airline, as policies can vary. Exceeding carry-on size limits can lead to your bag being gate-checked, resulting in delayed access upon arrival and excess baggage fees. 

When selecting your ideal carry-on, consider key factors like durability, weight, maneuverability, and number of compartments. Hard-sided luggage resists impact but weighs more, while soft-sided bags are lightweight and expandable but less protective. Carry-on luggage with wheels are convenient for getting you through terminal buildings but they have more components that can break. At the other end of the spectrum are backpacks, which distribute weight ergonomically for carrying but limit access to contents. 


Plan ahead and follow a packing list 

The easiest way to overpack and end up with way too much stuff is to leave your packing to the last minute. In a pressure-induced panic, you're much more likely to throw in everything you might need, rather than only things you will need. By planning ahead, you’ll have time to really consider your choices and whittle them down to just the essentials.

Most active international tours include a packing list and this is a great place to start when planning what to take. It will list everything that you really need, as well as a few optional extras. If it seems like the packing list "musts" are more than you can fit into a carry-on bag, consider opting for checked luggage instead or invest in items of clothing that have multiple purposes. 


A couple wearing all white linen while walking on the beach


Pack multi-purpose clothing

Rather than packing a new outfit for every day of your trip, opt for multi-purpose items of clothing that can serve different functions. This could be a linen shirt that provides sun protection at the beach but is also nice enough to wear to dinner. Or it could be a pair of hiking pants that zip off to become shorts, offering two items of clothing in one. 

For every piece of clothing you pack, think carefully about the situations in which you will wear it and how much use it will get during the trip. The goal is to ensure everything you bring is not only worn at least once but, ideally, multiple times. Remember, nobody is judging you on your fashion choices during an active international tour! It’s all about comfort and practicality. 


Close up of hiking shoes with red laces against a frosted grassy lawn


Wear your bulkiest items

A tried and tested trick for bringing more than your carry-on allowance offers is to wear the bulkiest items, as most airlines don’t weigh passengers, only bags. Have a heavy wool sweater that's going to keep you toasty warm but takes up a lot of space? Simply wear it instead of packing it in your luggage. 

If you're embarking on a hiking trip, opt to wear your hiking boots, rather than have them take up valuable space (and weight) in your carry-on luggage. Layering up is a simple way of getting more clothes to your destination, without having to pay for excess baggage.

The only challenge is if you’re departing or arriving in a hot and humid country. If that’s the case, you can carry your extra layers until you step inside the air-conditioned confines of the airport terminal building. 


Sleeping bags and other camping gear in stuff sacks in a pile


Pack lightweight and compact gear

Not only does carry-on luggage have a size restraint but also a weight limit. This is why it’s so important to pack lightweight and compact gear that is going to keep you within size and weight constraints. 

Today, lots of outdoor gear is lightweight and designed to be rolled up into a compact unit, allowing backcountry hikers to carry everything they need into remote locations. Many of these items are also suitable for active international tours that involve hiking, kayaking, cycling, and more. For example, look for rainjackets and windbreakers that compress down into their own bags and can easily be clipped onto a daypack for easy access. 


An array of carry on items sprawled out across a table


Minimize toiletries and personal care items

Regular-sized toiletries and personal care items tend to be bulky and take up a lot of space in luggage. Instead of bringing your normal shampoo bottle, deodorant, and sunscreen, opt for travel-sized alternatives or decant your toiletries into smaller plastic bottles that meet international carry-on aviation requirements (less than 100ml).

Instead of liquid shampoo and conditioner, you may want to consider a bar alternative that is lighter and takes up far less space. Also, rethink bringing anything you don’t really need - your multi-step nighttime skin routine can wait until you return home!

What not to forget is any prescription medication you need, as well as painkillers in case of headaches or other minor ailments. 


A pile of packing cubes stacking in a red suitcase


Consider packing cubes

Packing cubes bring a sense of order and organization to carry-on luggage while allowing you to fit in more than you might otherwise have thought. These handy little fabric cubes compartmentalize clothing, shoes, toiletries, and other travel necessities into their own neat sections. By dividing everything into separate cubes, it becomes much easier to see exactly what you've packed, allowing you to make smarter choices about what to bring and what to leave behind. 

For even more extreme space savings, vacuum compression bags are a great option. Simply place bulky sweaters and jackets inside and use a hand pump to suck out all the air. This compresses the contents down to a fraction of their original size, so you can fit twice as many clothes in the same space. That being said, you still need to ensure you are under the carry-on weight restrictions of your airline. 

The carry-on-only approach

Though it requires more preparation and planning, a carry-on-only approach gives travelers far greater confidence and control over their journeys. So the next time you’re heading off on an active international tour and want to spend as little time in the airport as possible, consider taking just the essentials onboard.