How I Travel with Only a Carry-on Using the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” Packing Method

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folded clothes, shoes, and accessories on a bed with burnt orange sheets and a cream travel tote bag next to it
Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

Whether you’re embarking on a road trip or taking to the skies, we have ideas for making your vacation as stress-free as possible. This content is presented in partnership with Hampton by Hilton; it was created independently by our editorial team.

Most people can’t stand packing for a trip. It’s tedious, causes decision fatigue, and inevitably leads to something even worse: unpacking. Having a default packing list can certainly help you pack faster, but sometimes the hardest part of packing clothes is figuring out how many items you actually need in the first place. And let’s be honest, there’s nothing worse than lugging around a huge bag full of stuff you’ll never wear.

I was a chronic over-packer for the majority of my life, but when I was preparing to embark on my longest trip to date — a three-week backpacking trip to Europe — I vowed to learn how to pack lightly. I researched packing methods and came across a blog post featured on a pair & a spare, a fashion and lifestyle blog by Geneva Vanderzeil, that changed the way I pack for good.

The blog post is called “How to Pack: The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Guide,” and it breaks down one of the smartest approaches to packing I’ve ever seen. The formula goes as follows:

  • Five tops 
  • Four bottoms
  • Three dresses or rompers and  
  • Two swimsuits and two bags 
  • One hat, one watch, and one pair of sunglasses
Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

This packing method allowed me to travel for three weeks using only a carry-on, and I’ve used it for almost every trip I’ve taken since. Over time, I’ve adjusted the formula slightly to suit my needs. My now includes the following:

  • Five tops and five bottoms (I typically swap out one dress or romper for an extra pair of pants or shorts)
  • Three pairs of shoes 
  • Two dresses (instead of three), two swimsuits, and two bags 
  • One hat, one watch, and one pair of sunglasses (plus one belt) 

By sticking to one color scheme, I can mix and match my items to create numerous outfits. And for longer trips, I do laundry halfway through and re-wear everything at least once.

For winter travel, I bring a heavy coat as one of my five tops and swap out one or both of my swimsuits for a scarf, pair of gloves, or both. If I need additional layers, I wear them on my travel days so I can fit everything in a carry-on.

Using this formula takes the thinking out of packing, prevents me from ever having to check a bag, and helps me get ready faster when I’m away from home because I have fewer items to choose from. If you’re ready to kick your over-packing habit, too, I (10 out of 10) recommend trying the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” packing method.