How to pack light when traveling with kids

How to pack light when traveling with kids

If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that we’re big advocates for traveling with young kids. We spent 15 months living on the road, traveling internationally from when our son was one-and-a-half until he was 3. The real kicker: we did the whole trip without ever checking a bag

Now that we’ve welcomed a second baby into our family, we wanted to get started early and see if our pack-light mentality was still feasible. This summer, we decided to spend two months living on the East Coast, 3000 miles from our San Francisco home. 

I’ll give away the ending: we were able to make the trip with only carry-on luggage. Not only that, we packed light enough for us to take public transit to the airport, and remain hands-free during the journey. Here are our top tips and tactics for making it happen.


Two happy kids at the airport

“Bring, Borrow, Buy”

In creating our packing list, I always start with 3 sections: bring, borrow, and buy. This serves as a helpful reminder that we don’t need to bring everything, and that there are plenty of resources for renting and borrowing supplies, especially in larger cities. 

The “buy” items are largely easy pharmacy pick-ups: we only packed a day’s worth of diapers and wipes, knowing we could shop upon arrival. We similarly left sunscreen, bug spray, and extra bottles behind, simply adding them to our shopping list. 

We focused our “borrowing” efforts on the large, bulky items. We borrowed a crib, car seat, and changing pad from neighbors in the area we’d be living in. We leveraged Facebook Marketplace and “Buy Nothing” groups for other comfort items like a baby bath and diaper pail.

The “bring” section included everything else (which I’ll cover in more detail below) – a list significantly slimmed down, with each item having undergone some amount of scrutiny to justify its place in our luggage.

Pack for the likely case, not the worst case

Another critical mentality in packing light is to imagine the likely case, not the worst case. In talking to friends about travel, I’ll often hear questions like, “but what will we do if there’s a bad cold snap, or if she goes through 8 diapers on the plane?” This worst-case mentality can lead to some seriously heavy luggage. 

Our approach: focus on the likely case, and trust in your creativity and resilience to handle the outliers. If baby typically goes through 3 diapers in a day, pack 3 (maybe 4), for the trip. If the weather does turn bad, consider what you might be able to layer on as you strategize about what to do next. Rather than being fully prepared, focus on being equipped – equipped to buy yourself time and adjust your plan if the unexpected occurs.

What’s in the bags

Now, let’s get tactical: what did we actually bring in traveling with two adults, a 3.5-year-old, and a 4-month-old? How did we manage the luggage as we made our way to and through the airport?

We traveled with our Babyzen Yoyo stroller, a Patagonia Black Hole 45L backpack, a Patagonia 26L Refugio daypack, and a Nuna infant car seat. This arrangement afforded us flexibility. If our toddler needed a rest, he could sit in the stroller while one parent wore the larger pack, and the other wore the baby and carried the carseat (the smaller pack could hang from the stroller handle). Alternatively, if our toddler wanted to walk, we could pile the bag and carseat into the stroller, enabling one parent to stick with him. 

We treated the daypack as our activity bag: it contained snacks for the flight, diapers and wipes for the baby, and a few toys, books, and activities. This is the bag we kept at our feet during the flight, while the larger pack went into an overhead bin. 

For the larger bag, we subdivided it with packing cubes, granting each family member one cube to fill (and then giving me one extra small cube, just because). To be clear, this is definitely minimalist packing! My husband and I each stick to neutral staples (3-4 dark t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of pants), and we aim to be equally lean in packing for the kids. We skip out on extra shoes, bulky toiletries, and fancier attire, instead relying on pieces that can cover nearly all scenarios and withstand multiple wears. 

A few unmentioned mentalities

You may have made it this far into the article, and still feel like it’s hard to picture exactly how we travel so lightly. There are a few additional mentalities or strategies that I want to name explicitly, which may help connect those final dots: 

  • Baby wearing makes travel so much easier: even in our day-to-day lives, we’re baby-wearers. We use our stroller less than 10% of the time, and almost always have our baby in a carrier when we’re out and about. This serves us well in traveling: our daughter is extremely comfortable napping in a carrier, and we’re able to bring her along while remaining hands free. 
  • It’s ok to wear the same thing nearly every day: our approach above certainly isn’t one focused on being stylish. Instead, we really aim to select clothes that can handle a lot of wear between washes. This is particularly useful for the kids, as kid and baby clothes can get bulky fast. Key to First Peak’s mission is creating items that resist stains and odors, while also drying fast enough to be easily sink washable.
  • “Toys” can really be anything: our daypack is able to be small, largely because we don’t bring all that many toys or books with us. We got a library card within a week of arriving on the East Coast, and we left all but one or two toys and stuffed animals at home. This does require us to get creative with our son and help him see the fun all around him: our rental has a doorstep piled high with sticks, and we’ve spent many days making games of basic kitchen items.

Above all, I hope reading this allows you to walk away with a sense that it is indeed possible to travel light with kids. The narrative that family travel simply “isn’t worth the effort,” or requires you to “bring everything,” holds families back and fosters unnecessary anxiety. I hope we can serve as one method for traveling light – and I'd love to hear how you craft your own strategies too. Tag us @firstpeakbaby on Instagram with your favorite packing tips, or comment below!

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