You know when you’re going on a trip, and you’re soooooo excited, and you sit down and make list after detailed list of every item you’re going to have to pack? And you mentally arrange your suitcase, and you think of all the potential weather systems, and all the places for which you’re going to need something to wear? (Please say yes.) And then you head off to wherever you’re going and realize: “This is the heaviest suitcase ever.” And you have to fight with people for overhead space on the plane, or wait forever for your bag at baggage claim, worrying whether the airline lost it, and then you have to drag it around with you, heave it in and out of taxis, and finally dig through it to find the first thing you need, which is always at the bottom, disrupting all of your careful folding until there are clothes, shoes, cords, and makeup strewn about the room. And for what? You didn’t even use half the stuff you packed!

Overpacking. I’ve been there. I found a list back from before I learned to travel light. Check it out:

Look at all that shit I wanted to pack! Pair upon pair of shoes, new outfits every day, going-out clothes, more than one bra! BAH. You don’t need all that crap. I am going to teach you how to power-pack. One week (ish). One bag. That. Is. All.

Four years ago, I went from working at an office temp job that I hated in Minneapolis to becoming a Serious Business Traveler when I applied for a job on Craigslist that sounded fake. The job was based in Seattle, and I applied to be something called a “program manager.” What did a program manager do? A program manager spent Sunday morning through Friday night traveling around the country setting up education seminars in big hotels. It meant traveling to a different North American city every day for nine months of the year. And lots of not-so-major cities. (How you doin’, Fishkill, New York? Miss me yet?)

And you know what I learned? As much as you may like a lot of your stuff, you don’t want to haul it around with you everywhere. Do not bring your home with you, you’re not a turtle! Being a one-bag girl is great. You breeze smugly through lines at the airport. Once at the airport, you’re free to browse magazines, go to the bathroom, grab some Auntie Anne’s, whatever, without having to negotiate your suitcase every time you move. You never check your bag, so you never pay extra (unless you fly Spirit, who charge for overhead space, and seriously, NEVER FLY SPIRIT). You never have to wait for baggage claim, and your bag never gets lost.

So, splendid! Let’s pack a bag for a week! Here’s my bag (with Timothy Maxwell Thumperton for scale):

It fits, no problem, in the overhead storage bin on a plane, looks fancy and vintage, is really sturdy, matches all my shit, and is a breeze to carry around with one hand, leaving my other hand free to hold caffeine at all times. (Samsonite made millions of this exact bag in the ’60s and ’70s, if you like vintage travel gear.) Your bag might have wheels. If not, choose a LIGHT bag that you can easily carry on your back, on your shoulder, or in your hands.

1. First things first: toiletries. You know, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, body-scrubbing pouf, face soap, face moisturizer, body lotion, razor, shaving gel, deodorant, hair products, hair brush, hair ties, contact solution, Q-tips—WHOA WHOA WHOA. If you’re only going somewhere for about a week, you only want the essentials! If you’re staying in a hotel, just use the hotel shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and the bar of soap. And guess what? Most hotels have an AMAZING amount of free crap at the front desk. They don’t want you to know this, but often, they not only have little toothpaste tubes, but they also have razors and toothbrushes and combs and shaving cream and every phone charger possible for every possible phone.

If you don’t want to use the hotel’s chemical-y bath products, a good all-purpose organic solution is a tiny bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, which you can use to shave, wash your hair, wash your body, and wash your clothes in one fell swoop. Somehow—probably because it is magic—it can even be used as mouthwash.

For everything else, decide what’s really essential and either (a) get a travel-size version or (b) pour your big containers at home into little bottles. Put all your little toiletries into a gallon- or quart-size Ziploc baggie (see-through and leak-proof).

And if you really forgot something important that the front desk isn’t hoarding? Well, where are you going? If you forgot something and you’re going to stay with your aunt in Columbus, Ohio, it’s not serious. If you’re going to the Australian outback, well, see, you probably should’ve been making those lists!

2. Next, makeup. If you wear makeup, you don’t need to bring your whole makeup bag. Just grab a Ziploc and put the stuff you actually wear in it. Maybe you don’t need your peacock green glitter eye shadow, or the burgundy mascara, or the violet Lip Tar for, say, a week in Philadelphia or Cancun. It could be that you randomly go out somewhere where you suddenly want special makeup. But that is why Wet ’n Wild was invented. My regular, everyday makeup bag looks like this:

My travel makeup bag looks like this:

L-R: concealer, red lipstick, black eyeliner, mascara, powder, blush stick

3. Clothes! This is where the serious planning happens. Here’s an ideal one-bag list. Obviously, there are some contingencies, particularly if you are going from one extreme climate to another. But I think these rules can be adjusted accordingly. Keep in mind: monochromatic items are your buddy! Nearly everything I travel with is black, white, or red. What colors do you wear all the time? Pack around two or three easily-paired colors and watch how your outfits come together.

  • One pair of all-purpose jeans. No one ever, ever, ever notices when you wear jeans over and over (and over) again. Pick the pair that goes with everything and wear them when you leave the house.
  • One pair of black tights or leggings (optional). This is for variety, if you wear them, because they don’t take up much space, and leggings can double as workout pants if they’re opaque enough. They can also be good for unexpectedly chilly weather.
  • Three pairs of socks. I’ll mention washing in a minute.
  • Three pairs of underwear. (Ditto.)
  • One dressy skirt or simple dress (optional). Try to choose materials that don’t wrinkle easily, like jersey or heavier cottons.
  • Three shirts: one dressier one to go with a nice skirt or the jeans, and two shirts for every day.
  • One warm thing to wear when you’re leaving the house, like a fuzzy cardigan or hoodie or coat, depending on the climate. Obviously, the colder the destination, the more these essential items matter. Swap long underwear for leggings. Throw in a pair of gloves and a hat. Wear a really warm coat. Layering is great for every day, but a good down coat will keep you warm no matter what you’re wearing underneath, and it’s comfy for sleeping on during the plane ride.
  • One bra, in a flesh tone or black. You’re wearing it.
  • Whatever you sleep in. Note: a big night shirt can double as a beach cover-up.
  • One pair of flip-flops. Even if you’re not going to the beach, they can be good if you find your circumstances less than hospitable, or for walking around the hotel, etc.
  • One swimsuit. There’s always a chance of IMPROMPTU SWIMMING! Hotels have pools, and there’s nothing worse than a pool that you can’t go in, because you don’t have a suit.
  • One pair of good shoes that go with everything and that you can walk in. These are part of your outfit as you leave the house. Comfortable boots or flats are the most versatile. Sneakers are essential if you plan to do a lot of outdoor activity or exercise, in which case maybe you can throw in a pair of flats or sandals as an extra shoe for dressier occasions.
  • Book/something to do/read on the plane.
  • Your signature jewelry/accessories. For me, glamour begins and ends with enormous gold hoop earrings.
  • Laptop/laptop charger (optional). It seems these are becoming more of a necessity these days, but ask yourself: what do you really, really, really need it for? Can you live without it for a week? Have you ever, um, tried? If it’s email and Facebook, just bring your phone. Usually hotels have a business center if you’re in a bind, and there’s probably an internet cafe close by. But seriously, try taking a VACATION FROM TECHNOLOGY. It’s kind of amazing. If it is essential for work and so forth, I recommend lighter laptops that you can try fitting in your bag. (Never, ever check a bag with expensive electronics. Things get stolen or broken this way.)

Now, as for packing itself, there’s all these schools of thought about how to put stuff in your bag. I’m a roller, not a folder, meaning I lay my clothes out flat, fold them in half once, then roll them up into tight little rolls that look like this. Rolling gives you a bit more room in the bag. Here’s the inside of mine, with everything you just saw in it:

Hell, there’s even room for stowaways.

So: you’ve packed light! You’re at your destination! But three days have gone by, and suddenly you’re out of socks and underwear and you feel filthy. Well, using the hotel soap or Dr. Bronner’s, I suggest putting the socks on your hands, work up a good lather, and scrub them together. Same with the underwear. Rinse well in the sink, then let them hang dry on a balcony or towel rack or heater, etc. I will actually get into the shower in my jeans and a shirt to give them a good scrub, too, but this might be more wet clothes than you bargained for.

The funny thing about packing light is: you won’t miss all that stuff. I promise. You’ll be having so much fun on your trip that you won’t notice the absence of that fourth bikini, or the flip-flops that match the fourth bikini. It kind of makes you wonder: do we really need so much stuff in our regular lives? Is our crap weighing us down? Are we living wrong? All right, all right, I know. It’s just a suitcase. Now be on your way. ♦