How to Pack a Capsule Wardrobe for Carry-on Travel

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capsule wardrobe travel
Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Figuring out how to pack your life into your carry-on is a game changer for easy, minimalist travel. The trendy “capsule wardrobe” is the answer! 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.

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

travel capsule wardrobe
Photo Credit: Amanda Williams

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.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Packing a pair of black leggings takes up little more space in your suitcase than a pair of socks. But it can make a third option for this dress and is casual way to cover your legs if the situation warrants! We like these:

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 hooded t-shirt which I love to put over a sundress or pair with jeans. It’s pretty easy to pair it with anything.

This is a great, simple t-shirt that will go a long way to expanding your wardrobe.

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 Earthworks jeans from Toad&Co.

These Arden crop pants are much more conservative and neutral, though. They are also cut for women. 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

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 that you can replace season by season as needed. Good examples here include white jackets for summer, ponchos for winter, or a neat pattern that has everyone rushing to Amazon to acquire.

This cute demin jacket is a hit!

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 this Furtalk hat for this purpose. It’s UPF 50 and comes in several neutral colors. It’s not very packable, so if you don’t feel like wearing a hat in the airport on travel day, try this Scala hat — it packs easily and pops right back up when you’re ready to head to the beach.


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 couple of well-chosen scarves to give your capsule wardrobe a dash of color and transform the look from one day to the next.

You’ll also want 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 counts as an accessory for your capsule wardrobe.

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!

capsule wardrobe color wheel
Photo credit: Amanda Williams

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. 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 a t-shirt, a bright blue Terramar Thermasilk long sleeve top, 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

The Right Shoes

You’ll hear more than one SheBuysTravel contributor 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 formalwear, I wear Chacos sandals. They are excellent for hiking or a day at Disney and though they are rather chunky, making them pretty casual, they are great for rugged use or even rain. With high arch support, the form-fitted footbed of a strappy sandal is a great alternative to ballet flats.

How to Choose and Pack Your Capsule Wardrobe

A capsule with around 8-13 pieces is ideal. This is a mix of tops and bottoms and 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!

Packing Your Carryon

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 carryon suitcase.

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!

SheBuysTravel Tip: Plan to wear the bulkiest, heaviest and least packable items on the plane. That means jeans, a jacket and that cute sunhat (unless you went with the packable version).

capsule wardrobe cubes
Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Use Packing Cubes like a Pro

Even with a capsule wardrobe you still need some of your everyday staples — socks, underwear, bras, etc. Keep extras like socks and toiletries organized with packing cubes. My fave? Eagle Creek for the win! I especially like the Clean Dirty cube for carry-on travel, since even with the barest 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 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!

Amanda Williams is a journalist in rural Minnesota. Her stories have been published in Matador Travel Network, Midwest Living, Family Handyman, and several other publications. A solo mother of two young boys, she writes about adventures from National Parks to waterparks. She loves sharing tips and insider information for others to use to make their trip just a little bit better. She and her kids scuba dive and live for new experiences and thrills. Road trips are always on the horizon and she’s embraced van life and has driven from the Midwest to Alaska (via Canada) with her kids encompassing 32 days of wild adventures. Amanda is classically trained as a wildlife biologist and has worked as a National Park Ranger, in addition to other exciting jobs like being a wildland firefighter and even playing the part of a living historian, as a cook in a turn-of-the-century logging camp. Because of these outdoorsy experiences, stories relating to outdoor adventure are often a focus of her writing. She hopes to inspire other solo parents to take on Disney, camping, and trips abroad with their families with the confidence to make those memories, even as the lone adult in the mix! Her most recent obsession is photographing adventures from the land, water, AND skies, as a licensed small unmanned aircraft system (drone) pilot. Learn more about her at or follow her on Instagram, @WayfaringMandy.
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