packing light | family travel with economy



Deciding what is essential to pack for each family trip can feel like simplifying a complex math equation, one that includes a limited travel budget, growing children, and shifting weather. Roughly nine years ago, when I had three babies under four and all the baby things to transport [and all of the eye rolls from Mark while packing them], I began honing my packing lists––really considering what we need to travel as a family. About five years ago, I began keeping an online file of my packing lists, titled with the date and location of our travels. I’m realizing, as I type these words, this might be a little neurotic, but having a record has helped me pack well for new trips and even share the lists with others at times. They also function as a journal of sorts, revealing odd family quirks and things like diapers and blankies as they disappear from the list altogether.  

Although having a list doesn’t mean everything occurs as planned or that I never forget something, it does save money in our budget and space in the car. Travel is a beautiful gift and an additional expense to our typical budget, so when it comes to preparing for it, I want to purchase only what is necessary and use the rest of our budget on good food and special experiences together. Below are some tips for how I efficiently shop and plan vacation essentials for our longer family trips away from home.

make a list two weeks before travel /  When it’s time to plan for packing––typically a week or two before travel–– I open a new document on my computer, titled with the location and date, for example, “Colorado, June 2016.” To save time and thinking power, I often copy/paste from a previous travel list and then revise the details using these minimal packing tips. I categorize each list so it’s easy to see what the kids or I might be missing. On a side note, printing a list for everyone in the family to hold, make notes on, and cross off might be very helpful. Consider dictating a list (or printing one) for older children to pack themselves, too. My children enjoy the independence of having their own part to manage.

borrow or shop secondhand  / With growing children, it seems there are always holes in the wardrobe to fill: outgrown, stained, or seasonal clothing and shoes. I note the things we need on the same packing list in a category “THINGS TO PURCHASE OR BORROW.” This list helps me stick to what we need and not be distracted by everything else. When possible, I borrow items from friends that my kids might not use again after our trip, especially seasonal items that might not be sold right now. I also often shop secondhand to stretch our budget, although in the last year or two I’ve had less time to run out and browse our local shops for what my kids need and more often shop online, looking for the best sales. I recently learned about thredUP, an online store that sells like-new items secondhand, and was able to find almost everything we needed there for our trip and summer closet. High. Five. I found a like-new REI fleece and pair of shorts for the boys, a couple of Crewcuts sundresses for the girls (one even still had the tags on it), and a light-weight denim J.Crew top for myself. The best part? I paid a fraction of the original cost, saving $362 which was enough to purchase groceries for the week, plus send the boys down the zipline and the girls bungee jumping at the Durango Mountain Resort. My children each had a missing piece or two of their wardrobe filled, and Mark and I still had enough money set aside for the experiences we really care about.

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set a bag limit for each family member / When anyone travels by plane, the airline sets a bag limit (and size) both for fuel efficiency and the capacity of the plane. Somehow that doesn’t always transfer to car travel, and early on in our family years, I lived by the unspoken mantra, “when in doubt, throw it in the car.” But this is cumbersome and exhausting for everyone involved. It impeded travel space and sometimes also safety, when it blocked our mirrors. Our family now has an inferred bag limit for travel. Each member gets one duffel or backpack for clothing/toiletries and one small book bag to keep at their seat. This naturally forces us to pack efficiently and positively turns our attention to the experience itself, instead of feeling as though we’re preparing for a family move. Here’s some quick ways we keep packing light:

pack clothing within a similar palette / In general, I prefer to purchase clothing in similar palettes for myself and my children. That way, we can more easily mix and match pieces again and again to recreate what we wear. I stand by the same philosophy when packing for a trip. And I loved that thredUP not only allowed me to limit searches by size but also by color. I quickly browsed sundresses in the blues and purples and found one for each of my girls that worked, and also a black fleece for Burke (the color he requested).

choose clothing for more than one purpose / Packing minimally requires each piece to work harder. My rule is every piece must be able to work for more than one purpose. Pack a sundress that is loose enough for playing and hiking, but nice enough to wear to a museum or to dinner. Pack shoes or sandals you can wear anywhere, and also get wet in a river or by a pool (Saltwater sandals and Keens are family favorites, and here’s a pair on thredUP!)

be realistic about the activity bag / I notoriously overpack on books, often because I’m wanting to make too much of the time. I’m learning to really consider how I’ll spend the time away, and now encourage my children to do the same. This trip, they each packed a couple of books, a sketch pad, colored pencils, pencil, and headphones for audiobooks and music.

This post is sponsored by thredUP. Cloistered Away readers can save 40%OFF on your first order by using the code CLO40 before July 31. Thank you for supporting businesses that keep this space alive.

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  1. Loved this post. I’ve always used Tsh’s downloadable packing list and it has served us well. I love that it’s divided into kid and adult sections as well as winter/summer. It helps me not forget things.

    Thanks for a new website to check out when we need new items! We get a lot of clothes passed down to us from friends, but shoes and a few other items I often have to purchase.

    Where is your lovely straw tote from? So pretty!

  2. This is a great post! We rarely take more than a short weekend trip, but I am thankful for a mother who taught me the art of packing lists! She however was (and is) not a minimalist.
    Back in my teens I was headed on a trip with some church friends and a wise older guy in the group told me – “pack only as much as you can carry by yourself for a mile.” Now while I think he was just avoiding having to help me if our van broke down, I do think that his advice made a lot of sense. It helps me to envision how much to help each family member pack.
    So glad you found ThredUp! That has been one of my favorite places to shop for several years now. Be sure to download their app, because they frequently have coupon codes for mobile orders. Often, if I know I need something but I am not in a big hurry, I will wait to shop until a coupon code is available!
    My other favorite tip is to not just sort by color but by brand. I have favorite brands that I know how they fit. I will usually select those first to narrow down the items to look through.

    So glad you are enjoying the summer!! Hope to see you around town soon!

  3. This post illustrates minimal packing better than the one you linked to (minimal packing tips – this one’s describes reasonable packing, in my opinion, ’cause three pairs of shoes which is far from minimalism). Here you list the three points in a way that both embodies minimalist concepts and gives practical advice about packing. Also the similar pallete is an interesting tip I read only here. Thanks fir sharing!

    1. Author

      You see? It shows how I’m growing all the time. Thank you for sharing and I’m glad this was helpful for you, Lydia.

    1. Author

      I realize not everyone is a list maker, and there are some who can generate a mental list that is good enough. I am not one of those people. I more often have hundreds of things swirling through my head and tend to have this lingering feeling I’m forgetting something important. Making a list, here or at other times, helps me take factors in my head out and put them on paper in a really practical way. I’ve always packed myself and four kids, and as my kids are older they enjoy packing themselves more. They ask me things like, “what do I need to pack?” Helping them think through the activities on our trip and how they might repurpose clothing for more than one day is helpful for all of us (and I hope training them how to do the same). I like to think of the list as an assistant of sort, I suppose. ? Happy travels, Claire.

  4. I love this post!! :) I am notorious for over packing for the “just in case” scenarios, but that becomes too much as a family of 5. Luckily they’re all boys (except myself of course), so they tend to pack light or not need to bring as much—however, it’s with having babies that can add on to what you bring ha!! So thank you for sharing these great tips. Also, I have looked into threadUP before in order to possibly sell some items, but have yet to go through the process. After reading this, you reminded me of how useful, cost-effective, and worthwhile it can be to do it so I think I will give it a try again! ;) Have fun on your adventures, and safe travels to you & your family!!

    1. Author

      I know! My husband has always been the ultimate minimalist packer in our family, and I’ve learned so much by watching him over the years. My children are growing to be more and more with each travel, which is always exciting to see. I’m so grateful these ideas were helpful for you. This was the first time I had tried thredUP, too, and it was entirely wonderful. I hope the easy shopping is as helpful for you. Happy travels, Jessica!

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