What to pack in your carry-on travel capsule wardrobe

Confession: I’m a chronic over-packer – or at least I used to be. I’ve been on countless trips where I basically threw half my closet in a giant roller bag because I was too lazy to think about what I needed, or I didn’t look at a travel checklist before packing.

Since schlepping a 40lb. bag around isn’t my idea of a good time, I finally looked online for a better solution. Enter: the travel capsule wardrobe. This is a minimalist approach to packing a wardrobe, and includes only the staples you need for almost anything while travelling. I quickly realized that there are few things more satisfying and freeing than travelling with just one main bag.

Here are six packing tips to help you create your own travel capsule wardrobe, along with packing lists from me and James Brittain, MEC designer (and frequent world-traveller), to share what we like to bring in our bags.

6 travel capsule packing principles

Tip 1: Start with your activities

If your trip will involve hiking, running or a going to a special event, then use those wardrobe items as the skeleton of your travel wardrobe and expand as needed. For example, start with active-wear pants for hiking and running or a wrinkle-free dress for dinner, and think about ways you can build from those pieces.

Tip 2: Multi-function for the win

Pack things that are versatile enough to wear multiple times and in different scenarios. For example, stretchy, breathable pants are good for both running or sitting in the car or plane for long chunks of time. If you’re bringing something dressy, make sure you can also dress it down with casual runners or flats (or even tights, if it’s a dress). Bring a tote bag to use during the day and at the end of your trip use it to stuff dirty laundry in.

Tip 3: Pick a colour scheme

Stick to neutrals with one or two accent colours. My wardrobe consists of lots of white, grey, black and navy, with occasional pops of red or yellow. Most of these colours go together, so if I’m stuck with only a few clean options there’s a good chance I’ll still look pulled together.

Bag packed for travel
Tip 4: Limit your footwear

Shoes and boots are heavy and awkward to pack so limit yourself to a couple pairs. The first pair of shoes that make the cut should be the most practical (running shoes or light hikers) that you can wear whether you’re going on a hike or sightseeing around town. Go with neutral-coloured and supportive.

The second pair should be something more formal that you could wear out in the evening. Pack something you can wear with nice pants, a dress or jeans. Depending on the weather, you could also swap out boots for sandals or casual walking shoes. I like these classic Birkenstocks.

Tip 5: Pack your bag wisely

Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Roll, don’t fold your clothes, because it creates less wrinkles and takes up less space.
  • Stuff smaller things, like socks or underwear, into your hat to help them keep their shape.
  • Put everything that you need to easily access in your backpack so you can keep it under the seat on the plane, train or vehicle. Things like your wallet, phone, earphones, book, gum, snacks, water, scarf, an extra layer, pen and glasses or sunglasses.
Tip 6: Carry-on all the way

For plane travel, I’m a fan of the sleek carry-on roller bag in the overhead bin plus a small backpack or tote under the seat. This gives me enough space to pack the essentials without needing to check a bag.

I’ve been using the Fast Track rolling bag for a couple years now and haven’t looked back; it’s designed to fit in almost any overhead bin. For my small pack, I usually go with something minimal, like the Intercity daypack. It has enough cushioning to be comfortable, fits my laptop and looks good with almost anything. James’ pick when he’s going streamlined with his packing is the Outpost pack, which is compact enough to work as a carry-on.

Missy’s picks: women’s travel capsule wardrobe

1. Rain jacket: I aim for windproof, waterproof and with a minimal silhouette. The Nola rain jacket easily works for fancy-ish dinners or thrown over a tank and tights.

2. Cardigan: I like to have a layer like the Teslin cardigan stashed in my tote if the temperature dips or you get blasted with air conditioning.

3. Vest: Layer it over your striped tee or under the rain jacket. This Tremblant Lite down vest packs into it’s own chest pocket so it takes up less space than a pair of shoes. Also, the face and lining are woven together so down can’t escape!

4. Long-sleeved tee: Wear it under your cardigan or vest, with active pants, jeans or joggers. This organic cotton stripey top that’s Fair-Trade Certified and a great price? Easy choice.

5. Active tank: For an easy transition from the gym to happy hour. Look for a running tank top that has breathable mesh fabric with antimicrobial treatment to keep it from getting stinky.

6. Tote or small backpack: Because I don’t want to lug around my roller bag. I use something like the Travel Light tote to hold essentials like water, camera, phone and chargers while I’m exploring the town. Bonus: it has adjustable straps and packs into it’s interior pocket.

7. Dark denim: It’s flattering, barely shows dirt or spills, and is easy to dress up or down – any dark-coloured jeans are a great option.

8. Active pants: I have a love affair with the Timeless pants.

9. Tights: To wear on the plane, to do something active, or to layer under your dress if it gets chilly. The Sculpt High Rise tights in navy or grey are my choice. They are super flattering and have held up really well after several washes.

10. Dress: Because it’s nice to have something nice when you’re going out or if you want to catch a live show. Pack along a simple dress or tunic. Choose one that has a bit of stretch for travel.

11. Swimsuit: A must-pack in case you come across a hotel pool or a dip in the lake. The Lahari suit is my pick for a classic one-piece halter.

12. Scarf: Wear it like a regular scarf, as a shawl, or as a blanket on the plane. I go for something with a bit of colour to break up the neutral tones.

13. Backpack: I like the neutral color of the Intercity Daypack, plus it fits my laptop.

14. Boots: Bring a comfy and stylish pair of boots. They might take a bit more space in your bag, but it’s important to be super comfortable for hours on your feet (bonus if they’re waterproof). They’re easy to wear with your dress and tights, or just jeans.

15. Runners or light hikers: Something like these Nike Free Runs, so you can squeeze in being active on your trip. Running is a great way to see a city when you have limited time.

16. Toque: I always travel with a beanie since they’re so lightweight and can cover a bad or lazy hair day in two seconds flat. Go with a neutral tone or pick one with a pop of colour to mix it up.

17. Fedora: Okay, so you might not be convinced that a fedora is a travel staple. But this Wallaroo hat instantly makes me feel pulled together, especially when I don’t have time to blow-dry (one splash of water and I’m a frizzball). I’d rather be exploring than blow-drying my hair. In fact, it’s so perfect for travelling that the company made a video (below) on how to pack it so it doesn’t lose shape.

18. Sunglasses: Choose a pair of sunglasses with a mirrored lens and they double as a compact mirror if you need to check your teeth for food or fix your hair.

James’ picks: men’s travel capsule wardrobe

1. Packable down jacket: Something packable and warm can save you on a trip. If you get cold on planes you can even use it to grab a nap while the A/C is going. Choose from different packable down jacket options.

2. Waterproof shell: The Hydrofoil Stretch jacket doesn’t take up much space in my bag and I’m in the habit of always having a shell handy. Rain or wind protection, I use it for both.

3. Sweater for layering: I always keep the Synchilla pullover close by in the evenings for when the temps drop. It’s also great for quick dayhike or camp-out.

4. Cozy flannel shirt: Feels like a bit of Canada comes with me everywhere I go. A cozy flannel shirt is a great midlayer in fall weather too.

5. T-shirt: This simple t-shirt is organic and super soft too. I like to pair it with the comfortable pants and a trucker hat as a go-to outfit.

6. Workout shirt: I always like to start the day with some exercise when I travel. I’m a runner so I bring a performance tee that also works in the gym, and packs down small.

7. Casual pants: I like to bring a pair of pants for city trips that I can also roll up and wear with sneakers for crisp, fall mornings. Also available in a slim fit version.

8. Jogging pants: So handy for long flights, chilly morning runs and hotel hang outs. I love the Gravity pants.

9. Workout shorts: A pair of workout shorts not only work great in the gym, you can use them for running and can even use them as swimshorts in a pinch (especially if you get a quick-drying pair).

10. Lightweight pack: I like to stash the Travel Light daypack in my roller for day adventures and everyday use. It gives me a little more storage on the way home if necessary too.

11. Toque: A slouchy hat is handy for adding a little warmth to any outfit and for when you just need to hide away from the world on a flight.

12. Bad hair day hat: Early morning breakfast, last man standing and everywhere between. A trucker hat is another of my travel uniform items.

13. Sneakers: Nike Free RN shoes pack down nice and small in your bag. I always run – always.

14. Sunglasses: Find a pair of sunglasses that look great and don’t break the bank either. Perfect for packing into a bag without worrying too much about them.

15. Lightweight dry bag: I take the 5L Nano dry bag for wet bathing suit transfers and then for daytrips when the weather looks like rain. It keeps all my valuables nice and dry in my lightweight pack.

16. Packing cubes: Cubes. Are. The. Future. I use one packing cube for cables. One for sweaty workout gear. One for laundry… it doesn’t stop. My bag is like a game of Tetris and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

17. Backpack: The Vapour Overnighter bag is the perfect sized bag to pack everything into. Has a laptop sleeve, rugged handles, and zips all the way open so you can find everything easily. The Vapour series is one of the coolest projects I’ve ever worked on at MEC. It’s such great value in terms of function, performance and aesthetic.

Other favourite travel items

A few essentials can make your trip even smoother. Once you’ve got your capsule wardrobe sorted, here are some other items you might want to include:


Travel towel

PackTowl is hands-down the most popular travel towel thanks to its compact size and quick-drying fabric.

GSI Glacier Steel Camping Mug

Travel mug

Bring your own mug to feel like a local. Plus it means one less paper cup. This spill-proof Thermos keeps drinks hot for hours, and this stainless steel camp cup feels like an actual mug from home.

Platypus soft bottle

Water bottle

Forget about buying bottled water and fill up at the tap; it’s cheaper and kinder to the environment. This Kleen Kanteen bottle fits nicely in most daypack side pouches, and collapsible bottles fold up for travel.

Goal Zero recharger

Battery pack

Travelling with your phone, camera and iPad for reading books? This Goal Zero Flip 20 Recharger can do a couple of charges for smaller devices.

Have any other travel wardrobe essentials that you think we missed? Let us know on our MEC Facebook page.

Photo of James Brittain by Nicholas Lagopoulos

Missy Shana
Missy Shana

A social media specialist, Seinfeld-quoter who repeatedly travels vast distances for good food.