Extreme minimalism: How to fit everything you own into carry on luggage

 

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I left New Orleans on Wednesday, fitting everything I own into my carry on luggage or on my person. Hooray and yay and other such words of triumphancy.

By my count, I now own 59 things, though that number is somewhat subjective, as you’ll see. Some things I group together and count as one, such as socks and toiletries.

Why group things like this? The honest answer is that the smaller my number of possessions, the better the initial shock value. I’m hoping people will see 59 and feel inclined to take a closer look. While I don’t believe fitting all your belongings into carry on luggage should be everybody’s aim, I do believe that everyone can benefit from minimalist principles, and I’d like to get as many people familiar with them as possible.

Plus, I’m just really bad at counting. I struggle like a mofo when I hit the 60’s ;-)

All 59 things I own

Note that there are some affiliate links in the list below, but only for products I use and highly recommend. I ask that you only buy items I recommend if you have a clear need for them. A percentage of the sale price will go towards supporting my writing.

  1. Macbook pro (with charger and backup discs)
  2. Canon Powershot SD1000 camera (with charger and mini tripod)
  3. iPhone (with charger and headphones)
  4. Motorola mobile phone (with charger – will be ditching this if I can get my iPhone working in Ireland)
  5. Mouse (and mouse mat)
  6. After Eight tin (acts as a container for my small electronic equipment and cables)
  7. Tech Air laptop bag/backpack (I’ve had this for years, still going strong)
  8. Neck pillow (for travel)
  9. Stationary (3 notebooks and a pen)
  10. Universal power adapter
  11. Headphone/microphone set (handy for Skype)
  12. Laptop lock
  13. Money clip and contents (credit card, debit cards)
  14. Wallet (I prefer the wallet to the money clip on occasion)
  15. Check book
  16. Mail/documents for keep (immigration papers, birth cert, etc.)
  17. Passport
  18. Gloves
  19. Flask (I fill this up at water fountains to avoid buying bottled water)
  20. Toiletries bag
  21. Toiletries (disposables like razors, toothpaste, shampoo, etc.)
  22. Grooming kit (small scissors, nail clippers, tweezers)
  23. Toothbrush
  24. Towel
  25. Running shorts
  26. Basketball shorts (worn mostly while sleeping/lounging, not playing basketball)
  27. Underwear (7 pairs)
  28. Socks (14 pairs)
  29. Undershirt
  30. Undershirt
  31. T-shirt (navy Sound)
  32. T-shirt (teal Loyola)
  33. T-shirt (black Loyola Saints)
  34. T-shirt (CCC 10k 2010)
  35. T-shirt (brown NOLA)
  36. T-shirt (white Loyola leadStrong)
  37. T-shirt (green NOLA Dirty Coast)
  38. T-shirt (gray Megaphone)
  39. Long sleeve shirt (dark grey/blue)
  40. Polo shirt (blue Cape Cod)
  41. Polo shirt (light blue/brown)
  42. Dress shirt (black striped)
  43. Jacket (black/grey Champion)
  44. Hoody (grey LSU)
  45. Hoody (navy/blue zip)
  46. Jeans (dark)
  47. Jeans (light)
  48. Slacks (grey/red/blue cross-hatch)
  49. Belt (black)
  50. Airwalk runners/sneakers (white/grey)
  51. Vibram KSOs, black/camo (<– not an affiliate link)
  52. Amazon Kindle (a recent purchase, and I’m loving it)
  53. Book: The 4-Hour Work Week (I can’t recommend this book enough)
  54. Book: Affluenza (holding for my cousin in Ireland)
  55. Book: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (holding for my cousin in Ireland)
  56. Heys XCase, black (<– not an affiliate link)
  57. Canvas grocery bag
  58. Plastic laundry bag
  59. CD – My Wiener Touches the Ceiling (<– not an affiliate link)

How to whittle down your belongings to the bare essentials

Like I said, such extreme minimalism is not for everyone. It may not even be for me. This is very much an experiment I’m trying. I own 59 things now. I may have more or less in a few months. It will take me a while to find my sweet spot. The same will be true for you.

I started getting rid of items 7 months ago. I’d only been in the US three years and hadn’t arrived with much more than one big suitcase, but when I did my first count back in April I found that I had around 350 items. I started getting rid of stuff in batches. First to go were the clothes I never wore, and such things as old magazines, unused kitchen appliances and my paper shredder.

Then I moved from my apartment into a sublet for the summer, negating my need for furniture, dishes, cutlery and the like. I also got rid of a bunch of books around this time, and some more clothes.

Beyond that, I was just getting rid of small batches every few weeks, as I figured out which remaining items I really used and which were dead weight. I started scanning important documents and taking pictures of sentimental things like birthday cards, then ditching the originals. I got lasik eye surgery so I could throw away my contacts and glasses.

I was down to about 130 items during my last week of work, then promptly donated all my business casual clothes the day after I quit my job. I’ve been steadily getting rid of some remaining items over the past couple of weeks to ensure that I could fit everything into my carry on luggage. I bought a Kindle so I could still read without acquiring and carrying around physical books. I sold my Jeep and gave away my bicycle since I was leaving town for good. I wanted to keep a pair of dress shoes but had to ditch them in favor of a few extra t-shirts and underwear (not everything would fit in my XCase).

Like I said, I’m not sure how this will work out for me. I might really miss those dress shoes, or maybe I’ll discover that I really don’t need 7 pairs of underwear ;-P

I’ll keep an updated list of my possessions here if you’re interested to see how I progress.

Selling vs. donating

I feel many people hold onto things they don’t want or need because they feel it’s wasteful to just get rid of them. They’re looking for a buyer with deep pockets or else throw their excess crap in storage to be dealt with some other time. Bad ideas.

I donated most of my items rather than sell them. Finding a buyer and negotiating a sale price can take a lot of time. Being rid of unneeded items is more important to me than the money I could get in exchange for them. Plus, I always try to consider the use someone else will get out of an item. Why should I keep a good book sitting on my shelf long after I’m done with it, when I could give it to someone else who would really benefit from reading it? Same with that baking tray I use maybe once every six months. It’s better that I give it to someone who bakes regularly.

Let go of the unneeded things in your life. Others will get more use out of them.

There’s also that whole karma thing. I ask for a lot of favors. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you’ll know what I mean. I ask people to support various causes, for a lift to the airport, and all kinds of other things. But I balance this out by giving as much as I can of myself. This blog is part of that giving. The writing I do here seems to help some people. And when it came to whittling down my possessions, it felt right to give most of them away for free. I got back a lot of gratitude and goodwill in return.

Minimalist freedom

Having everything I own fit into carry on luggage is a nice feeling. I can now pack up everything I own within minutes and go anywhere I want with little planning. It’s also harder to lose or misplace things. There are some downsides to such extreme minimalism, but for me those are far outweighed by the benefits.

I am no longer a slave to my possessions. I don’t have a car payment or a mortgage or a DVD collection holding me hostage. I am the master of all that I own.

How about you?

Niall Doherty's possessions

Me and everything I own. December 1, 2010. New Orleans International Airport.

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43 Comments

  1. Wow, that is fantastic! I’m a big fan of donating rather than selling. Good experiment, and best wishes on finding that sweet spot.

    Although I can easily travel for days with a single carry-on bag, I’d find it emotionally difficult to limit all my possessions to such a teensy space. I don’t think my memorabilia box would fit. It’s a lidded basket measuring 14 x 11 x 7.5 inches with these contents:

    • my high school diploma
    • my college degree
    • the two papers I’ve published
    • the three best scripts I wrote for museum programs
    • one book of days (family birthdays, anniversaries, death dates)
    • 25 archival envelopes containing family photos (1920-2010)
    • one small baby book with the family tree
    • one mini scrapbook
    • my current journal
    • my late dog’s first puppy collar
    • That adds up to 38 things, including the box. That’s assuming I count the photographs by envelope and not individually (there are about 12-36 pictures per envelope).

    I dunno, call me nostalgic. I just like having the originals of my sentimental things. I don’t even own a scanner. Or a camera or a cell phone, for that matter. ;-) I do have a nice little MacBook Pro.

    Will you see the redwoods north of San Francisco while you’re in the area? There’s nothing like them. The tide pools to the south are also fun, if you get the chance. It should be easy for you to find food. Lots of lovely vegan options!

    • I haven’t seen my high school diploma or college degree in years. I am sure they are sitting on top of something else that is also useless. If I find those degrees I should burn them. they were useless to me and what I do for a living.

  2. Tracy, thanks for your comment!

    I’ve already had some good vegan feasts since I’ve been here in San Fran; one restaurant had a 100% vegan menu. I was in heaven!

    I’m not sure if I’ll get to travel North much. I fly out of LAX next Wednesday and haven’t figured out how I’m getting there yet.

    And I hear you about being nostalgic. I used to be a lot more that way. I even kept a big box of movie ticket stubs. I’m not sure what changed with me, but I was able to gradually release my attachment to such things. It’s different for everyone, though. Minimalism is all about priorities, and since those possessions you listed obviously mean a lot to you, I encourage you to keep them.

  3. Good to see you on your way! I am slowly getting rid of my possessions. But if I see you, I think I am going to slow! Still pretty hooked on some items that won’t fit in my carry on suitcase! ;-)

  4. That is great Niall! I’m in the process of getting rid of stuff in batches for my departure 9/2011, but I’ll keep some of my memory items like Tracy and have a friend store it for me. I have a question – how did you handle selling your vehicle? did you find a buyer and then make an agreement to not make the transfer until you were leaving? I know I’ll be needing my car pretty much up until departure and will then get help with a ride to the airport.

    Loving your blog btw! Minimalism is a goal of mine eventually, I’m just not sure to what extreme yet.

  5. Thanks for the comments!

    Robin: There’s no hurry. Just keeping chipping away at it. Give yourself some time to decide how much certain items really mean to you. I ask myself regularly, “If this item was lost or stolen, would I really miss it? Would I have to replace it?”

    Sherry: I sold my Jeep a week before I left New Orleans. I kept my bicycle until the very last day though (I would have been screwed without it methinks). I sold the Jeep to a CouchSurfing friend. It was pretty easy in the end, just took a trip to the notary and got everything signed over within an hour. I did call ahead though and had the notary people explain the whole process over the phone to make sure we had everything we needed and there were no surprises when we arrived.

  6. Good luck and I look forward to hearing more from your journey. It feels liberating to get rid of “STUFF” and to get on the move.

  7. Though I travel 7 countries with hand luggage + winter clothes, the rule “it became harder to lose anything” surprisingly doesn’t work for me.

    In Costa Rica I lost all my medicine, somewhere in the way I lost pair of socks and boxers, here in Malaysia I lost my swimming glasses.

    I sometimes wonder what I will lose next :)

    Before the trip started I moved away lots of unneeded stuff though some stuff is still holded by parents. To remove all is quite extreme for me at this time.

  8. Congratulations, I know how liberating it is traveling with little stuff.

    My journey to minimalism took around a year and a half. Most of my stuff consisted of things that I made, it took quite a while to emotionally part with it all.

  9. This is awesome, congrats! I want to eliminate all my rubbish once I graduate so I can move around more easily. The only thing is I want to be able to include my kitchen possessions like bowls, cutlery, pots and pans and my duvet which is going to be hard. Have you got any tips on becoming a walking home? Your carry on luggage seems to only be useful for when you go travelling on holidays etc. I want to live everywhere in and out of the country and I don’t plan to stay in one place for more than 3-6 months. I wont be able to afford to live in hotels that supply everything and eat out all the time so packing everything is ideal.

    • Hey, Emy. I can’t afford to live out of hotels either. I’m in Spain now, and I’m sharing an apartment, so all the kitchen and bedding supplies were already here for me when I moved in. Most non-US apartments seem to come furnished, even if you’re not sharing.

      So I have access to bowls and pots and pans and everything like that. I’ve only eaten out once in the past two weeks. The key is remembering that access trumps ownership :-)

    • Hey Emy, How did becoming a ‘walking home’ go for you? I’m planning on doing this myself.

      Did you end up bringing your kitchen stuff and duvet?

      J

  10. Wow. I have admiration for what you have accomplished. I have entirely too much crap in my little cottage. I believe that clutter keeps us from fully living because we become a slave to our possessions. I want to do something similar to what you have done.

    • Go for it, Tiffany! Just take it one drawer, one cupboard, one room at a time. It’s incredibly liberating. I’m actually hoping to downsize even more so I can fit everything into one backpack.

      Thanks for your comment!

  11. I’ve been living out of a carry-on for about a month now, no problem. Five shirts, one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts, five boxers and five pairs of socks. Just keep re-washing. Plus my laptop and laptop accessories and a couple of notebooks. That’s it. Been doing it since June 12 2011. It’s easy and low-stress.

    • Love it, Dean. I’m aiming to be that light when I leave Spain next month. Just ordered a backpack that I’m going to fit all my possessions in. Will have to get rid of a few things, but no worries, haven’t needed as many as I thought.

  12. Hello Niall,

    Enjoyed your post very much! I am at the stage where I live out of one large suitcase (checked in luggage) plus small carry on suitcase and messenger bag… I am aiming now to scale down to just carry on!

    One question, I notice in the list you have:

    Grooming kit (small scissors, nail clippers, tweezers)

    Is it okay to take these items in carry on luggage? I always put mine in the checked in suitcase cos I thought they would be confiscated from carry on, but if I can take them in carry on that will make me very happy!

    • Hola, Janice! I’ve taken those things on board a plane several times now, in my carry-on luggage. So far it hasn’t been a problem. The scissors is tiny, so I guess they’re okay with me having it. A sharp pencil would probably be more dangerous :-)

      Thanks for the comment, and all the best with the downsizing!

  13. Don’t you ever face the winter, Niall?

    Also, what about the odd occasions where you have to wear dress shoes, a suit jacket, etc?

    Living in Korea and having to maintain what clients believe is a “respectable” image, I have to wear a long coat in the winter, with a suit and dress shoes, scarf, gloves, hat etc to bear the weather.

    • Great questions, Bryan.

      I’ll be doing my best to avoid cold climates as I travel around the world (I have a definite preference for warm weather). Right now I’m in Ireland and it’s starting to get chilly, but I’ll be in Greece by December :-)

      I’m not opposed to picking up items of clothing temporarily, as dictated by the weather. For example, I’ll be in Zurich in November, and I expect it will be pretty cold there. I’ll probably buy a cheap sweater or coat in a thrift store and then donate it back before I leave. It’s like renting instead of buying.

      As for formal wear, I don’t go to many formal events. Just not my scene. Although my cousin got married a few weeks back and I wore a suit for that. It was a suit my brother had bought for me last year for his wedding, and I’ve only worn it twice now. You could definitely count it as an extra possession of mine, even though it sits in a closet at my parents house most of the time. I never take it with me on my travels.

      I get that you have to dress up for clients and present a certain image. I’m structuring my work life in such a way that what I wear isn’t an issue. The vast majority of my clients will never meet me face to face.

      You’ll have to figure out what’s best for you and your situation. I have nothing against owning formal clothing, but it’s just not for me.

  14. well congrats to you! i have to check your updated list to see how you’re doing with this now {i’m very curious}.

    i can definitely see the benefits of down-sizing and to some extent i’ve down-sized myself in recent years. BUT i really can’t imagine only owning 59 things!

    i do purge on a regular basis and have been thinking about having a garage sell for a while. i know there are things i own which someone else will enjoy so much more. so i guess its time to purge once again – thanks for the inspiration!!

  15. Hey this is really cool, I’ve been considering trying it for a long time but am currently unable to until I graduate. But one question: If you played a musical instrument that you were extremely attached to and in love with, would you carry your own with you or rent one wherever you go. You see I play guitar and it’s probably the one thing I own that I would never want to part with and can be really cumbersome to take anywhere any time.

    Thanks

    Jasper

    • Great question, Jasper. If you were a minimalist interested in learning a musical instrument, I’d recommend the harmonica :-P

      But in your case, I’d recommend taking that guitar with you wherever you go. That’s what I’d do if I loved to play. It would also act as a great conversation starter and perhaps even a source of income. It would be worth carrying around for all those benefits.

  16. I’m trying this route, albeit more slowly. To deal with memorabilia I’m taking photos as I release these things and keep them on a thumb drive instead of in a box. At this point I’m trying to weave the purse, the tote, and the lumbar pack into just one normal size backpack with everything I need to survive.

  17. Minimalism is something I want to start getting into, I am not sure how to say it but recently I have started to realise that having stuff holds you back somehow, stops you from letting go, from moving forward, from being able to enjoy life somehow. As I am sure people know we have been conditioned to buy stuff. Its as if the things you own somehow define who you are which is bollocks they don’t. I am starting to hate the term “consumer”.

    The things I would be loath to give up most is my book and CD collection , I have spent over ten years putting it together and I genuinely do enjoy books and music more than anything else

    I would give up my TV in a heartbeat though I can go through days without ever switching it on. I used to watch a lot of TV, but I have found that it is getting less and less attractive to me. I cancelled my satellite subscription a few months back and have never missed it (except the football sometimes). It is certainly a vice that I am glad to have

    What advice would people give me on starting out as a minimalist? I have already gutted out my wardrobe and ditched a lot of school stuff I had been hanging on to as well as some other bits and bobs.

    Gary

    • Hey Gary. Sounds like you’re on the right track. For me, it helped to make a list of everything I owned. Then I could really see what I needed and what I didn’t. If you’re on the fence about something, put it in a box and if you find you haven’t taken it out six months later, get rid of it. Assuming it’s not some kind of seasonal item of course, like a snowboard or something.

      • Thanks Niall

        I like the six month idea with the box, that sounds good. I know it’s ultimately going to come down to the books and cd’s, can I ever bring myself to give those things up?

        What was the hardest things you found letting go of?

      • Books were relatively easy for me since I really love reading on the Kindle. Now I get to carry around my whole library in a small electronic device. As for CDs, I never had very many. I usually listen to personalized Internet radio (like Jango.com), or if I want to hear a specific song, I go to YouTube.

        As for the hardest thing I let go of? I honestly don’t know. I’ve really felt good about getting rid of all my things, a little bit freer each time. And I definitely haven’t regretted letting go of anything, at least not yet.

  18. I have one question?
    I was wondering I have 5 dolphin glass collectibles can I take them on my carry on baggage or is there a limit? Can you please help me with this its my first time on a airplane and i want to be safe..Thank you..

  19. Niall,

    I really appreciate your website man! Just started looking around. I have a feeling I’ll be spending some more time here.

    I’ve graduated from highschool this past June. I recently decided that it would be better to forget about schooling for now to meet new people, see new places and face some fears of mine (I love your approach to overcoming fears by the way). I’m planning to leave my folks place within the next two weeks for Boston, Massachusetts which is about two hours from where I’ve grown up my whole life

    I’m writing you today because I’ve been able to think much clearer since getting rid of most of my possessions and it makes sense now to make a list similar to yours so that I can stay organized and don’t buy things I don’t need.

    Anyways, I’m considering bringing an air mattress and a blanket with me. Is this of any use or have you found a place to sleep in most places you have traveled to?

    Another question: I’ve been eating a Paleo diet for almost a year now to great benefit. I think you metnioned that you eat Vegan. What advice can you give me for staying healthy while traveling? Would it be useful to have a cooler/container and cooking utensils? Is there anything you brought originally that you didn’t end up needing?

    What else should i know before heading out? I’d appreciate any thoughts from your readers as well.

    Thanks Niall.

    Keep on keeping on,

    Jackson

    • Hey Jackson,

      Thanks for the comments and the kind words. Sounds like you’ve got an exciting adventure ahead!

      I never brought any bedding with me. Worst I’ve ever had to rough it was sleeping on a bench in a bus station. But as long as you have a bit of money for hostels or some time to arrange Couchsurfing hosts, you’ll never really need an air mattress or a blanket. Unless of course you want to experience sleeping outside. Some people love doing that.

      As for diet, just use common sense. Try not to skip many meals, and don’t eat tons of junk food. Exercise when you can. I never brought utensils with me. I always made do with eating out or else I’d rent a furnished apartment or look for a hostel with a kitchen I could use.

      What did I bring with me that I didn’t need? Limiting beliefs, haha! But seriously, this will be different for everyone. No matter how well you’ll prepare you’ll end up making adjustments as you go.

  20. Love the blog post, but US airlines must have a very generous carry on allowance! In Australia they would make you check in that suitcase (as you can generally have a backpack or suitcase but not both).

  21. So glad I found this site!

    Due to life events that just keep happening I have been moving over and over for years which has required me to slowly get rid of more stuff because I am so SICK of lugging it around. (For one, I refuse to waste money by commuting so I move wherever I get a new job lol.) Needless to say after only six months at my recent place I have AGAIN started a new job and am “again” moving. My friends and family think i’m crazy but i just cant explain why i do this!

    Well my new place is even smaller and while I “thought” I didn’t have that much stuff due to repeatedly getting rid of so much I come to find out (while trying to pack at midnight) that I’m being overwhelmed at the ridiculous amount of shit that I do in fact still own! I even bragged to my friend that I would be packed in a day. Ha, yea right!

    Then while I stare at it all (half of which I forgot about and am pulling out of some invisible friggin black hole from somewhere in my tiny apartment) I am fighting with myself on whether I should get rid of it. Picking up the odd item and staring at it, hmmm its so pretty I’ll keep it, then moving it around the apartment, then go back to it b/c I obviously don’t need it if its been in hiding for 6 months, I touch it and then….it starts all over again. Arhhh! I think to my self YOU ARE INSANE JUST LET IT GO!…

    Thanks to you I am sitting here getting a reality check. I already have less stuff then everyone I know but I still have too much! I want it all to fit in one car load. I also started falling in the trap of holding on to stuff because I think it’s worth something rather then just donating it. I don’t know what the heck goes on in our heads or why we actually have physical reactions when considering throwing something out but my inner mantra ends now! I’ve already conquered going into a store and only coming out with what I’ve gone in for so the next step is keeping ONLY what i need and use. So thank you, you have set me back on track! I wish you all the best.

    Kate