Packing for travel can be daunting for anyone, but especially for women who have acquired (as most of us have) a sense of duty to be dressed right for any occasion.
Try to balance a minimalist packing list with all the sartorial wants and needs: stylish clothes, active wear, sports gear, clothes for cold climates and hot weather, and simple comfort. Then think about shoes, outerwear, make-up, medicine, chargers, emergency kits and that perfect accent scarf – and it’s understandable some people balk at the whole idea of travel. But break it down and it’s as simple as getting dressed in the morning. That's how you'll end up with your ultimate packing list for women.
This post is an October 2023 update of a post originally outlined before COVID, when we were traveling constantly, taking long-haul flights for long-term travel. Most of our itineraries still involve international travel. This ultralight packing list for women, however, applies equally for a short trip or a longer trip.
Some posts on Travel Past 50 may contain affiliate links. If you buy something through one of those links, we may earn a small commission. As an Amazon associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
In fact, you can use these packing tips on your next trip no matter where you are going or how long you'll stay – and no matter how you get there. (For multi-day backpacking trips, however, we suggest you look at our Camino de Santiago post about backpacking gear.)
For guys, see Tom's Ultimate Ultra Light Packing List for Men.
For women, let's start with what bags to carry and the benefits of traveling light. Find what to pack for your trip, how to pack these items, and our best tips for your minimalist style and comfort.
Table of Contents
What to Pack, Where to Start
Thinking about your trip is a good start. Consider the destination’s climate and customs and the season and weather variables. Obviously, a warm climate vs. a cold climate will affect your choices of what tho take. Evaluate your itinerary and activity level, always assuming you’re going to be on your feet more than you imagine. And realize if you yearn for anything, it'll be that cozy lounge wear or T-shirt you want at the end of the day when you curl up in your room. No one sees it!
Before packing, keep in mind your means of travel, too. Luggage is handled differently on trains versus buses versus flights. Are you getting around big cities on your own using public transportation? Will you be spending many hours on a tour bus? Or in a car? What do you want to have at hand? Will you be unpacking or living out of your suitcase? Can you lift your bags easily to board a train or go up a flight of stairs? Are you staying in an AirBnB, a hotel, a ship, or at a friend's house?
We don’t necessarily pack different clothes for those alternatives, but the way we pack may be adjusted. At the least, you are reminding yourself to go light.
To carry on or to check?
We’re not strict about either choice but evaluate this with each trip.
Good reasons to carry on all your luggage are if you have tight flight connections (these days that means under 2-3 hours) or if you have a firm deadline for departing on a tour for which you really want your accompanying luggage. The last thing you want is to be boarding a 10-day river cruise with only the clothes on your back because your checked bag didn't make the connection.
On the other hand, when we plan to be in a destination for several weeks, or when we want to pack hiking poles, tripods, a pocketknife, liquids, or other items which can’t be carried on, we check a bag.
Take note of your type of aircraft. It’s not always possible to fit a big bag, even those supposedly within proscribed measurements for carry-on, into the overhead bins of small old planes. Flight attendants may require you check a bag you thought you'd be carrying on. Plan and pack accordingly.
Part of our motivation to check is that we’re already carrying plenty of weight in cameras, laptops and other work-related accoutrement, so the idea of juggling everything around multiple airports and on and off aircraft isn’t that appealing.
I suppose we could check one bag between us and carry another on, but that would require way too much thinking. Tom and I each pack our own bags and keep everything separate.
Read more about carry-on packing below. The main reminder here is that if you check a bag, do keep an extra set of clothes in your carry on, along with electronics, medicine, wallet, documents, and eyewear.
Join the 3000 other travel enthusiasts getting our best advice right in their inbox.
Best Bags for Ultralight Packing for Women
Easy. The right bag is a small bag. It's the same principle as the diet plans which encourage serving control by using smaller plates. Unless you are moving your entire home, there's no reason to use a big suitcase. Your large bag should still be small enough to comply with carry-on sizes.
Do not expand the bag when packing for your vacation or long-term travel. You'll be glad to have the expansion space to bring gifts back home.
I use either Lite Gear 20 Inch Hybrid Carry-On or this Eagle Creek International Carry-On (or the “Tarmac” version) as my main piece of luggage. Both are two-wheelers, lightweight, and with straps or handles that can piggyback a second small pack.
My carry-on bag, the Lite Gear Mobile Pro women's backpack, is not the smallest available, but can handle my laptop, camera and other carry-on essentials. Best of all, there's still room with its expansion feature to consolidate my purse (a small backpack that I use as my day bag) and light jacket so that I can still board a flight with just two bags when not checking.
See more about the bags we carry here.
Basic Clothes: What to Pack
Let’s start with the nitty gritty of what’s going into that main compartment. These guiding principles to packing come from the well-traveled: ourselves, nomads, flight attendants, luxury and cruise travelers, adventure travelers, slow travelers, RV travelers, and many others we’ve met along the way.
Philosophically, we adhere to the “less is more” theory: No dresses or different outfits for “special occasions,” and no counting “outfits” to keep up with the number of days on the road. No matter how long your travel, you are packing clothes for a week or so, and doing laundry. (Besides, you are generally seeing different people each day. Nobody cares that you're wearing the same pants and shirts several times a week.)
Pack clothes that are easy care, lightweight, and quick dry. That probably means you are leaving that favorite pair of jeans at home. If you are shopping for clothes, you might need to rethink your approach, as I did, from shopping quality that would last a lifetime to shopping for clothes to wear constantly for a year or so and then cycle out of your wardrobe. Either way, simple lines and classic versus trendy styles will serve you well. Find travel essentials that match your everyday style.
PRO TIP: It's easy to wash underwear or T-shirts while you're in the shower. Just use some of that hotel shampoo and squish clothing under your feet as you shower. Rinse clothing in the sink and hang to dry.
The Rule of Twos
I subscribe to the Rule of Twos. Maybe I made that up, but it’s my mantra as I set clothes out. HINT: Go ahead and pull more items out on your bed as you pack, and then eliminate to meet the Rule of Twos. These ‘twos' don't count the clothes I travel in.
When you are selecting your wardrobe using the Rule of Twos, think of how everything works with everything else. That's why it's helpful to spread options out and then eliminate. Our friend Annie B, long time flight attendant, traveler, and teacher, keeps it simple: “Two basics colors (like black and white or navy and tan) plus an accent color. That’s it.”
Two Pairs of Pants
Besides the pants I'm wearing in flight, I pack two pairs. For the most part, I'm selecting from my wardrobe of Athleta pants or other brands from REI. I like to include something that looks sleek and something that is tough enough for trails. Look for styles with zippered or hidden pockets.
Long-sleeved, button-down shirts with collars work equally well for hiking or dinner. This Colombia shirt is a good example. I usually include one solid color and one check or print, just to avoid boredom. Often I purchase shirts with sun protection and/or insect guard.
Short-sleeved or long-sleeved, or a couple of each, depending on the season and destination. My favorite brand of T-Shirt is Unbound Merino Wool. They look dressy enough, are super comfortable, and easy to wash and wear. These T-shirts can been worn solo and are super useful for layering with shirts and sweaters. (Note, I tuck another raggedy cotton T in with my lounge wear.)
Skirts or Shorts
For warm weather destinations or hiking vacations, I pack a pair of shorts or a pair of shorts and a skirt. Skirts work with the same tops as pants. Consider the cultural norms at your destination. Shorts and short skirts may not be appropriate outside of resorts.
Options might include one or two sweaters, light fleece, or thin sport zip-ups. Think more about layering for warmth (evening and unexpected weather changes) than for style, and that means low profile, not bulky. Again, I usually opt for a combination of a nice-looking lightweight cardigan sweater for evening with a light zip-up for athletic wear.
Underwear and Lounge Wear
This is where packing cubes come in handy. There is nothing magic about the packing cube sizes; they are just what I acquired along the way. Fully stuffed, they are about two inches deep. But except for the tiniest, mine are never full. Mostly they serve as a super easy way to live out of a suitcase, each cube serving as a dresser drawer, if you will.
- 4″ x 8″ packing cube of underwear. I can usually fit a dozen pairs of underwear or more in this cube. The Give-N-Go Bikini Brief by ExOfficio is perfect. Look for styles with minimal seams; any pair that doesn't bind.
- 5″ x 15″ packing cube of bras, socks, handkerchiefs. Pack two comfortable bras plus a sports bra. I usually pack three pairs of socks, two for hiking or serious walking, plus another light weight sock, if needed, for the second pair of shoes.
- Small (7″ x 11″) packing cube of t-shirts. This includes the nice T-shirts above plus and sleep or lounge tops. Alternatively, these could be rolled into corners of your bag, but the cube system makes accessing your wardrobe easy.
- Sports bra and/or camisole for sleeping, packed in one of the cubes above. I’m always prepared in case I need to rise from sleep to walk down a hall for a bathroom, a good habit leftover from walking the Camino de Santiago
- Gym shorts (or capri leggings?) and a soft snuggly t-shirt for lounging. Do not forgo the clothes you can really relax in, in the comfort of your hotel room, or wear to the fitness center or pool.
- Jacket. As much as I'd like to pack a jean jacket sometimes, I've lived exclusively with my lightweight, warm, and versatile down sweater jacket for the past ten years. I keep the stuff sack in the pocket while I'm wearing it and, when it's squeezed into the bag, it doesn't take much space in my day pack, purse, or carry on.
- Rain jacket and windbreaker. I always pack a Patagonia hooded rain jacket and a super lightweight Mountain Hardware nylon shell (windbreaker) in an outside pocket of my suitcase. Either or both can be accessed or stashed in an instant as you transition between the airport and local weather.
- We return to REI regularly to restock and replace our travel wear.
PRO TIP: layering a T-shirt with a long-sleeved shirt, plus a shell or sweater layer, plus the rain jacket with stocking cap and gloves will set you up for the most inclement weather.
As a general rule, I travel with three pairs of shoes. That can grow to four styles of footwear if planned activities dictate. Check out our separate post on the Best Travel Shoes for Women for more details.
- Hiking or walking shoe. On the plane, wear your bulkiest shoes, such as a hiking boot, trail runner, or winter boot to save on packing space. The low waterproof Oboz trail shoe, and Xero's lightweight road runner HFS style are among my current favorites.
- City Shoe. In my bag I pack a second pair, equally good for walking. A secon sport shoe is OK here, but I prefer something that can dress up a bit. I refer to them as city shoes – the ones I wear for long days on my feet in the city, or in the evenings to give my feet a happy change form the day's walking shoes. Changing back and forth between two pairs of comfortable shoes really helps avoid foot problems. Check out a couple favorite brands that are lightweight and offer great support: NAOT Shoes or OOmg styles by Oofos.
- Flip Flops. Third are a pair of flip flops or sandals, not leather. These are great for slipping on in the middle of the night, or for wearing around pools or water. Wearing sandals also gives your shoes, socks, and feet a chance to air out.
- Scarf. A lightweight scarf serves as fashion accessory, provides warmth, and can double as a head covering or shawl.
- Jewelry. Remove any precious jewelry, wear your most comfortable basics (earrings you can sleep in and that won’t fall out during flights). I may take an extra pair of earrings, and an extra ring or bracelet for fun, but I often forget to even wear them unless my trip is more than a few weeks. Only pack jewelry in your carry on, never in checked bags.
- Watch. Watches have mostly been overtaken by smartphones, but it's nice to have something simple with a light-up face for a back-up. All the better if you can count steps or set an alarm via your watch. Don't for get the charger.
- Hat. A sun hat is important. I pack this with my other sports gear.
- Small purse. I pack a small faux-leather bag, a clutch size with long strap I can wear over my shoulder. This is a great way clean up your look and lose some bulk while stepping out in the evening for dinner. Suddenly I feel more like a resident than a tourist when I can downsize my purse.
- A nylon bag that doubles for laundry or shopping. It might even hold snacks, books, and water for long bus or car trips.
- Sunglasses. I pack prescription sunglasses and non-prescription to use when I'm wearing contact lenses.
- For prescription medication, we recommend you refill well in advance. Pack any pills in plastic pill pouches which can be provided by your pharmacy along with labels to attach. I use this method whether I’m on the road and at home, because its lightweight, compact, and easy to access.
- Soaps and hair products. Depending on the length and style of travel, you can use provided product. I generally pack my own hair conditioner and styling product, if not shampoo. Check out shampoo bars versus liquids for a lightweight alternative. (BTW, we favor environmentally conscious hotels that supply bath products in bulk. Give them kudos for avoiding all the little plastic bottles!)
- Regarding make-up and other first aid and body products, first eliminate the multiples that may have found their way into your ditty bag. Think about checking sunscreen or insect repellent or purchasing small quantities at your destination. Go with your faithful standbys – products you use regularly, not new products – and don't overfill your bottles. You don’t need choices and back-ups on the road. There are stores for that.
- A first aid kit, or at least antiseptic or cleansing wipes with band-aids should be included. Antibiotic ointment and cortisone cream are always in my go bag.
- Forget manicure scissors and just carry a good quality paper emery board. If you are checking, you can toss the invaluable mini Swiss Army knife with tweezers, toothpick and tiny scissors into your checked bag.
- In order to pack toiletries in one thinner layer atop your suitcase, and to help you find small articles, we suggest multiple smaller pouches. I use one for shower/sink products, another for medicine, another for make-up/sunscreen/general, and a little sleeve for eye pencils and lipstick (with sun protection).
Sports Gear List
- Trekking poles, unfortunately, can't go in carry-on luggage, says TSA. (Another reason we frequently check bags.) These are super light, women's size, and Z-fold for easy packing.
- Hiking/biking day-packs. Anticipating day trips and day hikes, we tend to pack an empty little hydration hiking/biking backpack at the bottom of our checked bags. Bike helmets, however (we're partial to our own), can just be clipped to the outside of your carry-on.
- A bathing suit (always)! I pack a one-piece if I think I’ll just be doing laps in a hotel pool, or 2-piece with rash guard/sun cover if I think I might be doing water sports. The gym shorts and T-shirt (see Lounge Wear section) can double as swim cover-ups, too.
- Travel Towel. One option is a small microfiber towel. It doubles as a pillow cover, and is useful for quick drying hair or laundry with a good squeeze. I also like the option of a larger cotton towel. Drape it for privacy when you're changing into a swimsuit at those beaches with no changing room.
- Knee braces. Be prepared for minor twinges or heavy hiking by packing these every time.
- Remember, rental equipment is available for most sports. Even ski clothing is available to rent at exceptional places like Copperhill Mountain Lodge in Åre, Sweden.
Packing List for Cold Climates
Starting with the basic packing list for women above, just select heavier fabric weight for your pants, pack long-sleeved instead of short sleeved T-shirts. Your sweater selection will include polar fleece and the light down jacket. You are already including a windbreaker and rain jacket plus scarf in you basic packing list.
To that, simply add a heavier parka or coat, plus gloves and stocking cap. Add an extra pair of heavy weight socks. For snow and winter activities, I like to include long underwear like these leggings from Unbound Merino, and a pair of rain pants to layer over the underwear and trail pants.
Packing List for Hot Weather
Starting with the basic packing list, just select short-sleeved T-shirts, lightweight pants, shorts and/or skirts (perhaps instead of one pair of pants). Then add these items to be sure you are protected from the elements:
- Neck gator or bandana, sun hat, sunscreen
- Bug repellent, first aid kit with antibiotic and cortisone creams
- Light washable gloves
What to wear on long flights
Set out the clothes you intend to wear while flying (or whatever mode of travel you are using) as you are packing.
We've written a complete guide to what to wear on a plane to make flying easier and more comfortable, complete with His and Her suggestions.
What to pack in your carry-on bag
If you aren’t checking a bag, remember your carry-on allowance is TWO bags, one to fit in the overhead and another below your feet. So, ladies, if you usually board carrying a backpack plus a purse or briefcase, note these must be combined to allow for the carry-on suitcase. Organize so that as soon as you board you can remove the smaller bag containing all the important things you need in flight.
Take care to pack your carry-on with TSA security checks in mind and for easy access to the items you will want in flight. Pro travelers know to have these items at hand before stashing bags in the overhead bin.
- Prescription Medicines
- Hand sanitizer
- Reusable water bottle. Be sure it's empty through security and all airport transfers.
- Sunglasses/spare glasses/contact lens
- Sweater or warm layer
- Phone charger/adapter
- Earbuds and/or noise cancelling headphones
- Kindle or book
- Camera with spare batteries and cards. Maybe you are traveling with a phone camera only. (Consider a dry bag for your phone if you plan to be out on the water.) But if you’re more serious about photography, decide on your camera, lenses, and accessories, and gather the necessary data cards, batteries and chargers. In this post, Tom goes into detail on the photo equipment he uses when traveling.
- Phone, of course. Check out the phone apps we recommend and download what you want in advance.
- Passport of course, along with any necessary contact and travel docs
- Jewelry, if any
- If you require a neck pillow, select an inflatable version.
- One change of clothes, or at least a change of underwear.
- A couple ziplock bags
Special notes on wallets, IDs and Money
Wallets. For international travel, I shed credit cards, affinity cards, punch cards, and other accumulated crap from my wallet. (I use a lightweight little folding wallet for travel.) Take out all those extraneous or local credit cards that you won’t use. Do keep your ID, at least one credit card and at least one debit card. I also carry extra identification (passport card, Driver's License, and/or Global Entry ID) and my health and travel insurance cards.
Money. I might also have up to $100 or $200 in U.S. cash, but we never change to the destination currency before travel. In fact we rarely use cash in any country. But I do keep foreign currency and metro cards leftover from previous trips in my desk at home, separated by continent for easy grab and go.
How to Pack
If packing is stressful, it’s probably because you are looking for everything all at once. Break it down and gather some items together days in advance.
To avoid staying up all night before departure, I like to prepare my toiletries in advance. (If you live out of your travel toiletries a couple days in advnace, you'll be sure you have everything and eliminate excess, too.) Be sure electronics are charged and all the cords and adapters are in one place. I also gather sports equipment and special gear for warm or cold weather in advance, and toss them in the corner where I'll be packing.
PRO TIP: Always pack your basics in the same pockets and same manner. It's like muscle memory: You'll be less likely to forget items as you are coming and going, and you always know where to find and retrieve them.
Here's how I pack my suitcase:
- First, be sure any hidden pockets (where I might have stashed paperwork or souvenirs from a previous trip) are emptied out!
- Hiking and seasonal gear goes in first at the bottom of the bag.
- Loungewear and swimsuit plus a hat and other accessories get packed next, rolled into corners.
- I hang 2-3 shirts together on one hangar and gently fold them into the zippered section on the inside top of my bag.
- Note: my rain jacket and windbreaker are always packed in an exterior pocket of my bag.
- Shoes next. I pack shoes heel-to-toe in plastic or cloth bags in my suitcase. To save more space, consider attaching a pair to the outside of your carry-on bag.
- Sweaters and pants next.
- Cubes get tucked around next (2 small underwear cubes plus a T-shirt cube).
- Toiletries go on top for easy access by TSA or myself if need be, though that shouldn't be necessary.
When I get to my destination, I hang my shirts, take toiletries to the bathroom, and place my shoes on the floor. I am quickly “settled in”. Getting up and getting dressed each morning will be easy.