Packing Light with Kids: a Minimalist Travel Experiment
33 days, 2 adults, 2 kids, and 1 type of weather.
One 40 litre backpack, one 16 litre backpack, and one stroller.
“Wow! How did you do that?!” is the refrain we’ve heard a lot when we describe how we approached packing light with kids for our inaugural travel-family-adventure to Thailand.
For a 5 week trip, for 2 adults and 2 kids, we took one 40 litre Osprey Farpoint backpack, one 16 litre Mountain Hardware fold-up backpack, 1 fold-up cloth bag, and a Guzzie & Guss Pender umbrella stroller – that was all our luggage! Here’s how we did it, packing light with kids.
I love that I could carry ALL of our luggage by myself! Jonathan definitely becomes our sherpa, but at least I knew I could if I had to!
First of all, we took a throw-away outfit for the first leg of our travel, where we flew to Vancouver and spent one night and one day in the city before we flew to Thailand. We hope that the room cleaners honoured our note to donate them to someone in need, but we just left them behind in the hotel room so we could fly out on the long trip to Thailand in clean clothes! (well, clean until it was time for Aria to eat…).
Going to Thailand meant we didn’t need a lot of clothing options, which is what made this possible. If you are traveling somewhere that requires warmer clothes, or a larger variety of styles/layers, you’d need a bit more room – but not much!
It’s all about adjusting your mindset regarding what you actually need versus want, and being prepared to do lots of laundry and occasionally wear slightly dirtier clothes than you might otherwise! (TMI warning: I only wore underwear inside out once…)
“Our basic mindset was actually a motto my Uncle Mike used to share when I was a kid: bring half as much stuff and twice as much money as you think you’ll need.”
I took the packing photos as we packed up to leave Koh Tao and start our journey home, so it’s not exactly what we left with, but it’s the equivalent – there are a few more items of clothing, and a lot fewer diapers.
When we left Canada, we had 40 diapers vacuumed sealed (yes, Jonathan vacuum sealed diapers!), which lasted much longer than we expected. So, on our trip home, we took fewer diapers and bought more in the airports as we needed them.
Here is how I packed all of our items into the two backpacks:
Step One: this shows everything we took to Thailand for 4 people for 33 days.
It’s only missing the toys that we carried for Charlotte in a little fold-up cloth bag.
See below for a fully itemized list of everything here.
Step Two: all the clothes, toiletries and other small items are packed into the Eagle Creek Packing Cubes, which all fit into the large black Osprey Farpoint backpack along with a few loose items like the contact boxes, hairbrush, travel highchair, and that damn baby monitor (it was honestly the most annoying thing and we NEVER used it!)
The other loose items that are needed during travel days (books, toys, diapers, snacks) will all fit into the smaller Mountain Hardware daypack.
Step Three: Everything is packed into the two backpacks, except what we will wear.
Everyone is sleeping in their underwear, so there are minimal clothes to add to the bags in the morning!
Step Four: we each put on one backpack, and off we go!
It is such a stress-free, simple way to travel.
As long as you stick to your guns and don’t overload yourself with a lot of last minute items, that is.
Poor Jonathan has been on the losing end of extra bags of snacks and toys one too many times, so we’re really trying to learn how to only pack what fits in our bags!
Our basic mindset was actually a motto my Uncle Mike used to share when I was a kid: bring half as much stuff and twice as much money as you think you’ll need. Chances are, you won’t need the stuff, but if you really do, you can always buy it. Packing light with kids is possible when you approach it this way!
This approach turned out to really work for us. We each bought a few items of clothing, because it was also fun to buy from the little markets there (well, I use the term “fun” loosely… we quickly learned to NOT shop after dinner when the kids were tired and Mummy was hot and cranky!).
We also bought toiletries that couldn’t be included in carry-on luggage or that were larger and bulky, like razors, and we just kept buying small containers of things like toothpaste as we needed them.
It worked out well, because as we shed some of the things we’d brought with us (diapers, my daily contact lenses, some toiletries), it opened up a bit of space for a few purchases (shoes for Charlotte, new clothes, toys for Charlotte, etc.).
Amazingly, there was nothing that we didn’t pack and wished we had! There were only a few things that we packed and wished we hadn’t: our baby monitor (which was a last minute impulse decision – beware those with this kind of packing! Everything takes careful consideration and planning), and my old sunhat (thinking maybe the new one wouldn’t fit right).
The key item for making all this work when packing light with kids was our packing cubes. We bought two sets of Eagle Creek packing cubes, and they have changed my life! They keep everything so organized, make it so much easier to pack up, and you can squeeze so much more into them than just straight into a bag or suitcase.
We LOVED how freeing it was to travel lightly – it gave us more hands, and attention span, to take care of our kids, and it was much less stressful than traveling with a lot of luggage. We were even able to bring home an original painting from a Thai artist we met!
Here are some of the key things that turned out to be essential. Most of these either involved a debate between Jonathan and I about whether or not they were worthy of taking up space, and/or we had to buy them, as they weren’t something we already owned. In the end, we were VERY happy that we brought all of them!
- the mini Bluetooth speaker: saved a few days from descending into whiny chaos by enabling instant dance parties wherever we were.
- the soother strap: I hadn’t had one before, and it made things SO much easier and cleaner!
- mini first aid kit: it meant we didn’t have to run to the pharmacy the first time Charlotte scrapped her knee, and kept coming in handy on the beach for scrapes and cuts.
- sippy cup for Aria: we avoided SO MANY SPILLS with this.
- a few packs of baby oatmeal and a spoon: this was essential for surviving jet-lag mornings in Bangkok before the hotel breakfast buffet opened and the girls were awake at 2am and 4 am!
- travel pack of laundry soap sheets: we ended up buying laundry detergent powder in small bags, but this tiny pack was handy in the first few days, and when we would run out of powder.
- Kobo Aura H2O – a water proof, light-up e-reader for me: I got to read 7 books in 5 weeks! That’s a lot with two kids running around…
- fold-up mini baby carrier: Boba Air is the brand we used, and it was fantastic – I highly recommend it for travel!
- fold-up fabric high chair: not everywhere had high chairs, and it made many meals much easier with Aria contained.
- Finally, and most importantly: our Guzzie and Guss Pender Umbrella Stroller. We debated back and forth for months about whether or not to bring it, as many blogs recommended NOT bringing one because the sidewalks can be really uneven. In the end, we decided to bring it, and we were thankful almost every day that we did. We could put Aria in the carrier and Charlotte in the stroller and be mobile with both kids strapped in and safe at any time (especially handy and reassuring in airports and on the streets of Bangkok). It also prevented many meltdowns when Charlotte needed a rest.
It was the quickest and easiest loading-of-the-car to head off the airport that I’ve ever seen!
Here is the full list of what we fit into our bags (of course, we were always wearing one outfit from this list):
- 4 light weight long sleeve shirts (1 each – mostly for the plane travel, but occasionally handy for bug protection or early mornings)
- 4 pairs of long, light-weight pants (1 each – mostly for the plane travel, but handy for visiting temples with modest clothing requirements and for bug protection)
- 4 t-shirts/tank tops each
- 2 pairs of shorts each for Jonathan and me
- 1 pair of shorts for each girl (and an extra pair of capris for Aria – man, can that girl get dirty quickly!)
- 2 sundresses for me, 4 for Charlotte, 3 for Aria
- 3 or 4 pairs of underwear each
- 2 bras for me (one regular, one sports bra – you know, for that one yoga class and one morning beach run I managed to do! But oh how blissful they were…)
- 2 pairs of socks each (one for Aria)
- 1 pair running shoes, 1 pair sandals each (except Aria: she just had one pair of little shoes that we used exactly once)
- 2 bathing suits each, including sun shirts for all of us
- 3 handkerchiefs (which could double as bibs, napkins and emergency wet wipes for Aria, baby blankets for Charlotte’s dolls, and sun hats for Aria)
- 1 extra-light scarf (doubled as light blanket and sun protection for the kids)
- 2 sarongs (not shown – I forgot to lay them out)
- 6 sun hats in total (2 that Jonathan and I could actually use interchangeably, 1 old one of mine we never used, 1 for Charlotte and 2 for Aria, because we weren’t sure ahead of time what she’d keep on her head)
- 2 pairs sunglasses in 1 glasses case
- 2 pairs regular glasses in 1 glasses case
- 2.5 boxes of daily contact lenses
- 3 small bags – Ziploc medium size – of toiletries (I will list these in a future blog post on Carry On Toiletries!)
- 1 hair brush
- 1 comb
- 1 pack of wipes
- 6-12 diapers (number ranged from 40 vacuum sealed at the beginning to about 12 for regular traveling around – we just kept buying small packs as we went)
- 1 mini Bluetooth speaker
- 2 pairs earbuds
- 1 pair kids headphones
- 2 iPhones
- 1 deck of playing cards
- 1 Kobo Aura H2O e-reader for me
- 3 books for Charlotte
- 1 book for Jonathan
- 1 book for Aria
- 1 Chirp Magazine (saved us SO many times from boredom meltdowns!)
- 1 mini craft kit (mini markers, post-it note pad, mini colouring pages, blank paper, stickers)
- 1 small cloth baggie of Shopkins and other mini toys for Charlotte
- 1 pack pipe cleaners (you’d be amazed at how many hours of fun Charlotte and I can have with them!)
- 1 sippy cup (we only drank bottled water, so we didn’t need travel water bottles for the rest of us)
- 1 fold-up lightweight baby carrier (Boba Air – purchased at Due North Maternity)
- 1 fold-up fabric high chair (purchased at Angellina’s Toy Boutique)
- 2-3 small snacks (this was the hardest thing for me, to not have an abundance of snacks on hand! But we did fine – the airlines all fed us, and we just bought what we needed beyond that)
One area I didn’t document properly was the accumulation of toys for Charlotte. We promised her that she could buy a doll and a few toys in Thailand, so along the way, we amassed 2 dolls (with bottle, soother, and oh-so-important potty!), 2 tiny teddy bears, 1 elephant stuffed animal, and a princess crown. These got carried around in the fold-up cloth bag, along with the larger sun hats.
We didn’t bring any toys for Aria, as her favourite toys consisted of our wallets and toiletry kits. However, while we were in Thailand, she started to want everything her sister had, so Charlotte worked really hard on her sharing skills!
So, that was it, for one month traveling around Thailand!
We stick to beaches and cities usually, so no jungle trekking involved – that might require different footwear and/or better bug protection clothing. This would affect how packing light with kids might work for you
It made packing up to move from place to place quick and easy – I could do it in about 1.5 hours. I suppose if you had big suitcases and were just throwing clothes and toys in willy-nilly, you could do it faster.
But this wasn’t a vacation in one spot, where we were packing to go home and then throw everything in the washing machine. By packing carefully and properly each time, we arrived at our next destination with clothes organized by person, rolled and ready to wear, and everything else sorted and organized.
It also meant no waiting at baggage carousels, and less time required to check in. We still show up extra early because of the kids, but the time saved on check in means more time in the lounge! We never had to worry about bags not showing up, or about needing something from our checked bags during the long flights or layovers.
It is a bit more annoying to haul all of your bags around the airport and onto the airplane, for sure, but for us, the positives of carry-on-only far outweigh the negatives.
And with only one large and one small backpack for the four of us, we had far less luggage per capita than a lot of people who each had a rolling carry-on suitcase AND a personal bag.
All in all, this carry-on-only, minimalist packing experiment was a huge success, and definitely shaped how we travel for the future. Packing light with kids IS possible!
About Meredith Kenzie
I am a full-time traveling Mum of two adorably blond and mischevious little girls (isn’t it a good thing nature makes babies so damn cute?). I love to explore new places, finding the fun little places for my littles to play, and getting immersed in different cultures. I like to write and share about our travel adventures while keeping it minimalist and vegan as much as possible! Oh, and I love yoga, ballet, reading, baking, and time with friends.
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