Figuring out how to pack your life into your carry-on is a game changer for easy, minimalist travel. The trendy “capsule wardrobe” has been in the headlines of popular blogs and even an intriguing documentary in the last year or so. Here, you’ll find out how key items, packing aids, and a few accessories and short-cuts can make big fun out of a small bag on your next holiday, no matter how long or short your trip.

travel capsule wardrobe

Photo Credit: Amanda Williams / Rural TravelingMom

Carry-on Capsule Wardrobe Rules

  1. If you don’t love it, don’t pack it.
  2. No more than three pairs of shoes.
  3. Choose a color scheme
  4. You need only one purse.
  5. You also need only one jacket.

Basics of the Capsule Wardrobe

capsule wardrobe travel

Photo Credit: Amanda Williams / Rural TravelingMom

ONE Dress for Occasions and Parties

You will be able to add some flair to this Carrick dress from Aventura if you want to wear it more than once or twice without feeling like you’ve maxed out your ability to “get away with” wearing the same thing in one trip. Even if you’re in the same dress in half of your vacation photos, no one will even notice once you hone your styling skills!

And, remember, just as Gretchen Rubin stated as one of the “Secrets of Adulthood” in her best-selling book, The Happiness Project: “People don’t notice your mistakes and flaws as much as you think.” I really liked this dress for summer/tropical/warm weather getaways. The dress packs well and is dressed up with accessories.

TravelingMom Tip: Packing a pair of black capri-length leggings takes up little more space than a pair of socks and can make a third option for this dress and a casual way to cover your legs if the situation warrants!

capsule wardrobe guide

Photo Credit: Amanda Williams / Rural TravelingMom

Simple Shirts

This is the place where you can really get creative OR use the most basic items from your existing wardrobe to supplement your more trendy or bulky top layers. I use a heather gray shifty tee, a basic tank top, and a long-sleeved base layer to round out my options in the upper body department.

I have a 3/4 sleeve Marmot hooded t-shirt which I love to put over a sundress or pair with jeans. It’s pretty easy to pair it with anything and it’s a basic gray (pictured above.) I found it at an outdoor gear swap and it’s been one of my most treasured textiles since!

TWO Bottoms (One Pant, One Short)

I like the versatility of having a pair of pants AND a pair of shorts for a vacation. That takes care of night, day, rain and sun. Bonus points for zip-away, quick dry pants, BUT they don’t often style well for dressing up more in the evenings. For my minimalist packing project in this instance, I chose to go with Toad&Co pants and the Aventura Arden shorts.

Normally, for bottoms and versatility, I would say go for a neutral color for optimal ability to mix and match. However, since I am trying to come around to modern styles and the next rule (see below) is pack something trendy, I opted for maroon (officially Sangria, which is even more fun) in the Lola Slim jeans.

These Arden capris are much more conservative and neutral, though. They are also cut for moms. I mean this in the best way as in–they are NOT mom pants, but rather cut in such a way that you won’t look like you’ve just robbed Forever 21 and are in the middle of an identity crisis. The length allows them to be paired with a nice blouse and your adorable flats to pull off a more formal, flowing summer look if you need to class it up a bit for dinner or at the resort.

capsule wardrobe travel trendy

Photo Credit: Amanda Williams / Rural TravelingMom

Pack Something Trendy

If you’re bored with all of the plain or neutral tops and bottoms in the capsule, choose something a little more trendy which you can replace season by season as needed. Good examples here include white jackets for summer, ponchos for winter, or a neat pattern which has everyone rushing to the mall their favorite internet store to acquire.

I like to get my trends from Saved By the Bell (so I usually seek advice from my friend who owns a salon when it comes to these matters). Incidentally, some of the Zach Morris and Lisa Turtle wardrobe IS becoming a thing again! I love the pattern (subtle and still trendy) of the Papyrus Flowy Three Quarter Tee Toad&Co carries. It’s easily one of the items that can be styled in 3-4 different outfits on a vacation, so long as you are careful when you have ketchup!

Wear a Cute Hat

Nothing brings an outfit a quick dash of panache like a well-appointed hat! This is not just a vanity item, but also a great functional item to have if you’re planning a sunny, warm season or tropical vacation. I like the Canal Hat by Toad&Co. for this purpose. If it’s not very packable, so if you don’t feel like wearing a hat in the airport on travel day, try the Crusher hat from Duluth Trading Co. (It seriously regains its shape so easily!) It’s not as fashionable but it’s just as fantastic for keeping sun off your shoulders and it can get scrunched into any bag or nook for travel.Not sure packing light would work for you? It can--once you learn the secret savvy travelers know: How to create a capsule wardrobe that will work no matter how long your trip will be. Really.

Accessories

Sure, most would call a hat an accessory, but I call it a necessity! So in this category, I include anything super packable that can create a new look entirely. This is where you include a well chosen scarf, a few pairs of earrings, a bracelet and two necklaces. Maybe you can rock a headband or a clip. Sunglasses. Anything that will give the appearance of a new you and is small goes in this section.

For this trip, I’ve chosen a travel-inspired long cardinal stamp necklace, a colorful trading bead necklace from Tanzania, peacock feather earrings, and cruelty-free tilapia scale earrings from Costa Rica. They are all a little more bold than you might think necessary — in fact, a friend of mine chooses really basic studs and a simple wooden bead bracelet to go with most of her outfits… It’s all in how you want to style it!

Mixology – The Art of Mix N Match Ensemble Assembly

A capsule with around 8-13 pieces is ideal. This is a mix of both tops and bottoms or single pieces like your signature dress!

Lay out all of the clothes on a clean bed. One outfit at a time, figure out what you’d need to make it work. Take your jeans and find at least 2-3 tops to style them with (complete with the scarf, earrings, and shoes you’d wear.)

It might (and should) mean using items you already have in your wardrobe. Having a capsule wardrobe for travel doesn’t mean you need to run out and get all new clothes. Quite the opposite! By having this go-to arsenal of ensembles, you’ll likely spend less each season chasing the latest fashion options on the rack and opting instead for your classics that work!

Items chosen for this capsule are high quality and not found in the fast fashion world of big box stores. This decision was made based on quality, performance, and the need for reliable gear. There is a time and place for a bargain, but when only a dozen items are in your pack, you need all 12 working for you!

Time to Pack!

Once you’re able to find at least four outfits (with one being something a little  more dressy) you’re ready to start fitting it into your carry on! In the photo below, you can see most of my selections fall into the same or similar color schemes within a neutral range. I stuck with grays, greens, and maroons in this capsule wardrobe. The bright blue sun shirt is the exception, but it’s almost always on over my tank or bathing suit. The rest are able to mix and match freely, because they aren’t so peculiar that they require a specific and complimentary match. This is the key to creating capsule wardrobes!

capsule wardrobe color wheel

Photo Credit: Amanda Williams / Rural TravelingMom

Let There Be Layers!

A travel capsule wardrobe, even one for warm climates, is still one in which you should implement layers. Ocean breezes in the evening and an impromptu seasonal downpour prove the need for layers.

Channel your inner Girl Scout when you’re planning your packing attack. Tempting fate by packing only what is simply enough has led me to extensive research and trial and error in the minimalist experiment, myself serving as guinea pig! I’ve found something uniquely humbling about realizing you don’t need a million options to be comfortable in your own skin. But when in doubt, pack an extra layer.

My layering for this warm weather example includes my Marmot t-shirt, a bright blue Terramar Sports sun and sport performance base layer, and my Kavu jacket, another great find while trawling hippie towns while traveling. You can bring along a cute, super packable rain jacket or something a little more feminine and elegant. Cardigans rock in this category.

travel capsule shoes

Photo Credit: Amanda Williams / Rural TravelingMom

Something for Your Feet

You’ll hear more than one TravelingMom sing the praises of Tieks. These simple, patent Italian leather ballet flats have “blue prints” on the bottom. The padded blue addition aids comfort according to claims. Chic ballet flats easily dress up an outfit. They pack well. Any flats are good in my book! Treat your feet nicely. Heels are hard on feet and if you’re going to Europe especially, or a place where the going is rough or has cobblestones, you will grow to hate your favorite heels if they do not kill you first. I’ll take the flat-foot look any day and these flats make it cute.

For anything and everything else except really deep snow or needing to be formal, I wear Chacos sandals. They are excellent for hiking or a day at Disney and though they are rather chunky, making pretty casual, they are great for rugged use or even rain. With high arch support, you can balance out your ergonomic options by wearing the flats one day and giving your feet a lift with the more form-fitted foot bed of a strappy sandal the next.

If you don’t like ballet flats, and I’m beginning to think I might be in this camp, try these sandals for a more formal look. They are my go-to more formal flats which also pack up nicely and are eco-friendly! A pair of moccasins or athletic shoes can be worn on flight day, same as the cute Canal hat.

capsule wardrobe cubes

Photo Credit: Amanda Williams / Rural TravelingMom

Use Packing Cubes like a Pro

Even with a capsule wardrobe you still need some of your everyday staples. [Socks, underwear, bras, etc.] I for one, cannot wear the same socks two days in a row. You don’t need socks if you stick to chic ballet flats and sandals! Socks take room too!

Use this pro advice and techniques along with the perfect packing gear to keep extras like socks and toiletries organized. My fave? Eagle Creek–for the win! I especially like the Clean Dirty cube for carry-on travel, since even with the barest bones basics, you still end up with soiled laundry. This separates the good from the bad and the dry from the wet.

The compact Pack-it Specter “On Board” kit is a perfect stow and go carry-on luggage kit for storing all of your personal hygiene and incidental items. Just be sure to remember the 3-1-1 rule, since you’re not checking anything! The handy hook makes organizing for your sojourn a breeze, whether it’s a hostel or a hotel. I like the Specter series because of the ultralight nature of the material. No sense in packing your allowable weight in the infrastructure of your packs!

Carry-on My Wayward Moms

Have we covered everything? Well, probably not. I know what you’re thinking: There’s no way. Try. I am trying to be more of a minimalist all-around. Marie Kondo would probably fire me though. My closets runneth over. However, I’m done schlepping luggage around LAX, JFK, and ORD.  And for the record, I also carry a small Duluth Pack purse. So I guess that makes TWO bags total if I’m not with my family. If you decide once you arrive at West Palm Beach or Dubai or a B&B just one state over, you can always purchase a few things or even check something on the way back. What do you have to lose?

Are you a minimalist packer? Share your secrets with us!