How to Pack for an Active Holiday in a Carry-on Bag

Man with rucksack on train station platform

One bag to rule them all?

If you’re travelling on a budget, you can still get your hands on low-cost flights. That is, until you look at the extras. If you’re wanting to check-in a suitcase for your holiday you could end up doubling the cost of your flight. Travelling with just a carry-on bag means you have extra cash for a nice meal out, expensive museum tickets or many, many ice creams. But can you really pack everything you need for an active holiday into your hand luggage?

In most cases, the answer is yes. If you’re planning a hiking, cycling, running or multi-sport holiday, a lot of the time you’ll be able to fit everything you need into a small carry-on bag. The main exception is rock climbing holidays. As you can’t hire climbing gear (most climbers wouldn’t want to even if you could) and there’s no way you can fit ropes, hardware, harnesses and shoes into a carry-on bag, you’re going to need to check-in at least one bag. But similar principles apply. My husband and I usually pack all of our climbing gear into one duffle bag that we check-in and take everything else in our hand luggage.

If you’re wanting to avoid being ripped-off by airline baggage fees, then check out these top tips for packing for an active holiday in a carry-on bag.

Plan What You’re Going to Do on Holiday

You don’t have to plan every day of your holiday in detail (though for some people this is part of the fun!) but knowing what activities you’re going to be doing will help you decide what to pack and what to leave behind.

If you’re going on a cycling holiday, or a hiking trip then this is pretty straightforward. But if you like to do a bit of everything then it’s worth considering what you’ll actually have time to do so you don’t end up packing a load of stuff you don’t need.

For example, I’m just about to come home from a trip to Genoa. We hadn’t planned exactly what we were going to do before heading out, but we were hoping to have a few days running along the coast, possibly a day hiking in the hills, some sightseeing time and a few trips to the beach. Add into the mix visiting various family and friends in the area and possibly a nice dinner out and that’s a lot of clothing combinations! I decided to take one pair of trail running shoes that could double as hiking shoes, so I could leave my walking boots at home. I chose layers that could be worn together if the weather was cooler and lots of vest tops (as they don’t take up much space and I was hoping it would be warm!).

Wear Your Bulkiest Clothes (and Shoes)

If you’re trying to make the most of your carry-on bag, then you may have to sacrifice style on the plane. It makes sense to wear your bulkiest shoes and clothes to fly in. So, if you’re going on a hiking trip, wear your walking boots on the plane. My bulkiest clothes are typically jeans and jumpers, so I usually wear or carry these on the flight over.

The exception to this is if you’re going on a cycling holiday. No one is going to advocate hobbling through the airport in a pair of SPDs…

Check the Weather Before You Travel

Let’s face it. Packing for travelling to southern Europe in summer is pretty easy. You can be sure that the weather will be hot and sunny and, as summer clothes take less space than winter clothes, you can fit more into your hand luggage. But if you’re travelling during the winter or to a country with a changeable climate (hello, Britain) then packing can be a bit trickier.

Weather forecasts are rarely a hundred percent accurate, but they will give you an indication of what to expect so you can pack accordingly. For example, if it’s looking cool and there’s a lot of rain forecast you may decide to take a rugged waterproof coat, whereas if the weather is likely to be mostly dry you can get away with a light packable jacket.

If you could be faced with all types of weather on your trip then opt for lightweight, warm clothing and layers that can be worn together or separately depending on the temperature.

Merino wool t-shirts are great as many are smart enough to wear around town or even for going out for dinner. Buffs are a packable option if you want something to keep your neck or head warm without packing a woolly hat. A light scarf can have many uses, from keeping you warm in cooler weather to covering your head and shoulders in summer (particularly if you’re visiting religious sites or are in a Muslim country).

Check What’s Available at Your Accommodation

Towels are necessary but bulky. If you get them included with your accommodation, this is ideal. If you don’t then trek towels pack up reasonably small and are definitely a better option than filling half your carry-on bag with a beach towel.

Depending on where you’re staying, you may also have toiletries provided and hair dryers, umbrellas and other useful, but bulky, items. If you’re not sure, it’s always worth asking in advance.

Cut Down on Liquids

One of the challenges of travelling with just hand luggage is fitting all your liquids into that tiny one-litre plastic bag. A set of reusable travel bottles means you can take your favourite toiletries with you without having to buy the expensive travel-sized versions.

If you’re travelling for longer than a few days, it’s often worth buying bulky items such as shower gel, shampoo and toothpaste from the supermarket when you land. If you’re travelling with friends or family, club together to buy large bottles you can share which you will either use up or can leave behind when you go home.

Carrying makeup can be a nightmare when you’re trying to fit everything into your little plastic bag. I know a lot of outdoorsy people would scoff at the idea of carrying makeup on an active holiday, but I’m not one to judge. Whilst I personally wouldn’t take makeup on a six-week hiking expedition, I’ve suffered from bad skin for years and typically take some makeup on a mixed, multi-activity holiday.

My main tips for this would be to try and rationalise what makeup you take, and to travel with men! Often male companions will have a bit extra space in their plastic bags and may agree (if you ask nicely) to carry your deodorant or shampoo so you have a bit more space. Look for products that take up less space; for example, a stick foundation is much more packable than a glass bottle of liquid foundation. There’s a great guide to travel makeup here.

Coconut oil is a super useful multi-purpose product. You can use it as a makeup remover (pack a small face cloth), moisturiser, a replacement for shaving cream and a hair conditioner.

Choose the Right Carry-On Bag

Your choice of carry-on bag will depend on what you’re planning to do on holiday. If you’re on a hiking trip, then you’re likely to take your hiking pack as your hand luggage (make sure it meets airline requirements!). If you’re a keen photographer, then you may opt for a plastic suitcase to protect your camera gear in transit.

My husband and I both have Osprey Quasar packs, which we love! They have a padded laptop sleeve (useful for me as I take my laptop everywhere), lots of pockets for organising gear, a fair bit of space and are comfortable to carry. Hubby usually carries a rolled-up 15-litre running pack in his bag which we use for day runs or hikes.

There’s a great article from Outsider Online which discussed the pros and cons of different types of carry-on bag. Always check to make sure your bag meets the airline’s size requirements – an expensive mistake if you get it wrong.

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