I used to pride myself in how light I could travel. I traveled to Russia for 2.5 weeks with simply a carry-on bag, and Mexico for a week with just a cross-body bag (I rewore the same clothes a LOT on that trip). It was nice to move through the world unencumbered by too much stuff.
Then we had kids, and packing light was a skill I had to relearn. There is so much gear to contend with, especially in the baby and toddler stages. Minimalist packing with babies and toddlers is really tough. You have to worry about a bed for them, whether to bring a stroller or baby carrier or both, and what to do about car seats.
If you want to avoid overpacking when traveling with young kids, you have to be strategic and do a lot of planning ahead. If you’re flying and want to avoid checked bag feeds this can feel like an insurmountable obstacle. But I’m here to tell you that minimalist packing with kids is not only doable - it’s more fun! Here are my best tips for how to avoid overflowing suitcases and more luggage than you can feasibly handle.
TIPS FOR MINIMALIST PACKING WITH KIDS AND HOW TO AVOID OVERPACKING
BRING TRAVEL-SIZE CASTILE SOAP
You can wash clothes in the sink or bathtub, then hang them to dry. I also use Castile soap for hand soap, facewash, and in a pinch, shampoo. It’s gentle enough for the whole family, fairly cheap, and no added chemicals or junk.
STAY SOMEWHERE THAT HAS A CRIB AVAILABLE
Most hotels offer cribs or pack & plays. Call ahead to make sure the hotel you’re staying at has one. Better yet, stay at a kid-friendly Airbnb or find a place through Kid & Coe. In a pinch, you could always co-sleep!
Get $40 off your first Airbnb when you use my link!
At home, our kids tend to wear pjs for only one night before washing them. Kids can stand to reuse the same sleeping clothes for the duration of your stay.
TRY TO STICK TO 1 OR 2 PAIRS OF SHOES PER PERSON
Shoes take up a lot of space and can get very heavy. If you can find a comfortable pair of walking shoes or sandals that are also somewhat cute and match everything, you’ll save a lot of space. Wear your heaviest pair on the plane or while traveling.
When we’re traveling to warm weather destinations I use a pair of Greek sandals that I ordered custom from the Etsy shop Leatherhood. Because of my diastasis recti after having kids, I’ve been following the MUTU System and working on posture and alignment. Part of that is walking with a completely flat and flexible shoe, so I ordered cute sandals but asked them to make it with a flat Vibram sole. They’re cute enough to wear with dresses and skirt, I can walk long distances in them comfortably, and they work for the pool or the beach, too. (If you don’t want to custom order, here’s a similar type of sandal on Amazon that should be comfortable for walking).
We haven’t done much cold weather travel yet, but I would probably order a pair of flat boots that could be dressed up or down. Maybe a Minnetonka moccasin-type boot?
For the kids, I look for comfortable walking shoes or sandals. For the boys, we use our trusty Crocs (I know, not fashionable) or kids’ Keens sandals (or similar).
For the kids, I find that
PACK NEUTRAL COLORS
Grays, blacks, and earth tones don’t show dirt as easily, and we all know kids find a way to get every piece of clothing dirty no matter what the activity. In addition, you can mix and match outfits if everything sticks to the same color scheme. Don’t forget that you’ll all look coordinated in pictures, too!
USE PACKING CUBES
Packing cubes will help compress clothes, and you’ll be able to pack more than one person per suitcase by separating their clothes into packing cubes. They act like drawers within the suitcase keeping you organized throughout the duration of the trip.
GET A HARD SHELL SUITCASE
Hard shell suitcases hold a surprising amount of stuff, and most come with organizational compartments on each side of the suitcase. The lightweight and durable exterior protects the contents of your suitcases and prevents you from overpacking. You can’t pack it if it doesn’t fit!
Related: Best Carry-On Suitcases for Families
BUY DIAPERS WHEN YOU ARRIVE AT YOUR DESTINATION
If you’re trying to limit yourself to only carry-on luggage and you have babies and toddlers, your best bet is to pack only enough diapers and wipes for the journey (or maybe a few extra just in case), then buy some when you get there. Most destinations will have convenience stores or grocery stores where you can pick them up.
USE AN UMBRELLA STROLLER or BABY CARRIER
A lot of minimalist packing tips will say to ditch the stroller and use a baby carrier, but if you’re ever had a toddler as active as our third child, you’ll know that’s not always the best choice for every family. I love that a lightweight stroller can hold our water bottles and act as a home base for our other kids to hold onto while we walk briskly through airports. A stroller can be gate-checked and can keep your toddler corralled until you get on the plane. Sometimes you just need a spot where you can stick your kid and give them snacks.
If you’re set on leaving the stroller at home (more power to you!), try a carrier like the Lillebaby that can be used for all ages, and has 5 different carry positions. (Read my review here).
RENT A CAR SEAT
If you’re going to a destination where you’ll be renting a car, you can always rent the car seats when you arrive. Most airlines will also allow you to check your car seat for free if you’re really wary of the the car seats at the rental place or don’t want to spend the money.
YOU DON’T NEED AS MANY CLOTHES AS YOU THINK
With babies and toddler, I’ll admit, they tend to get messier faster, so it doesn’t hurt to have extra clothes. However, I tend to go overboard and pack tons of “what if” outfits, then always have to remind myself to take those out because we’ll be just fine without them. And, of course, there’s always the option to wash and rewear!
STOP PACKING TOYS
You don’t need them. The kids will be more entertained by the in-flight magazine, the people around them, the unplugged sound machine, a paper plate, or a remote control with the batteries removed. Seriously. Try a Kindle Fire Kid’s Edition (if your kids are old enough and you’re ok with a little screen time on the road) with educational apps, books, and a few tv shows for long-haul flights(seriously, Little Baby Bum has SAVED me on so many plane rides).
HAVE THE KIDS BRING THEIR OWN BACKPACKS
I put the kids in charge of packing their own carry-on bags. I guide them to bring a Color Wonder coloring book and their Kindle & headphones, lovey, water bottle, and snacks, but other than that they’re free to bring whatever can fit, and they are in charge of keeping track of it. That might seem harsh at 3 and 5 years old, but I want them to be aware that they can’t just bring anything and everything on a trip because someone has to carry it.
They are learning to limit their toys and miscellaneous items on their own, because their backpacks are pretty small!
BRAINSTORM WAYS TO MAKE ITEMS MULTIPURPOSE
Baby wipes are for diaper changes, sure. But they’re also great for cleaning messy hands, wiping up crumbs inevitably left behind by your kids, and cleaning surfaces on airplanes. Muslin blankets can keep baby warm, be a nursing cover, be a makeshift pillow, cushion electronics in your bag, or act as a spit-up rag in an emergency. Use your imagination!
GALLON-SIZED ZIPLOCK BAGS ARE YOUR BEST FRIEND
They keep the inside of your carry-on organized, they hold an extra change of clothes in case of blowouts, they hold the dirty clothes post-blowout, they collect garbage (kids eat a lot of snacks and generate a lot of garbage), they hold dirty diapers in case you’re nowhere near a garbage, and they keep bottles and liquids from spilling or leaking onto the rest of your stuff. Always throw a few in your bag before a trip.
CARRY AN EMPTY WATER BOTTLE
Each person in our family has a water bottle they are responsible for. Carry an empty one through security and fill it up at a water fountain inside the airport. In a pinch, a large water bottle can even act as extra storage space!
BRING ONE SIPPY CUP
This will save you lots of messes and really doesn’t take up much space. Use it on the plane, at restaurants, and in the hotel. It can also be used as a makeshift bowl for snacks or dry cereal.
EMBRACE A SENSE OF ADVENTURE
Packing minimally when traveling with babies and toddlers means a lot could go wrong, and you could be left doing some extra work or buying/renting extra gear at your destination. But the reward is a feeling of freedom and lightness as you move through the world with your kids. You learn to rely on community and strangers and your own creativity. It’s actually a marvelous feeling, and a great lesson to teach your kids.
At the end of the day, it’s really not about how much or how little you bring on the trip. Try not to get too caught up in bringing the smallest amount of stuff possible for pride or bragging rights. Figuring out what “minimalist packing’ means to your family and work with that. Travel is about having new experiences together that bring your family closer and make your time together richer.