The Ultimate Guide to Plus-Size Packing

Packing for plus-size women can be a challenge. Our clothing genuinely takes up more space. With the added terror of checked baggage being lost and visiting a place  where fat-friendly clothing options are limited (or non existent), I almost always carry on only. Here’s how I pack for a two-week trip using only a carry-on:

What I pack is as important as how I pack. It differs depending on weather, activities planned, modesty of the country I’m visiting, etc. But the example below is versatile enough for most destinations and covers what to pack, the best luggage choices, how to pack it all including toiletries, and other tips.

Wear to fly: Be comfy! I wear long black pants with pockets. Mine have rouching at the bottom so they are comfy, stylish and can be made into capris if needed. Long sleeve shirt, sneakers, light jacket/windbreaker, bralette and undies.

In your carry on luggage:

2-3 Pants: A nice pair of black capris and my grey Columbia hiking pants come with me everywhere. Even if I’m not hiking, they are perfect for travel because of how lightweight and small they roll up.  I also bring a pair of pattered leggings. They are perfect to wear with a dress, or to use as extra pajama bottoms, or as an added layer for cooler nights outside.

2 dresses: I have a couple knee-length swing dresses that I can wear alone or with a cardigan or leggings (when modesty is called for) and use as a coverup when headed to the beach.

7 shirts: A combination of 3/4 sleeve, short sleeve and tanks. I like lightweight shirts in a variety of colors and styles, but tend to stick to solid prints for travel. And if I use a print, I make sure that it matches both grey and blank pants and a cardigan to mix it up.

3 accessories: 1 cardigan in a neutral color that you can add to almost all of your shirts to add a layer on cool mornings or evenings, or to dress up an outfit before dinner. 1 cardigan in a print or a bright color to add a special pop but that still matches more than 1 top. 1 multicolored scarf that you can wear different ways with different shirts.

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Shirts that match this multi-colored scarf
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Favorite magenta cardigan matches 2 tops and 2 dresses
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Versatile neutral cardigan matches lots

1 bathing suit

4 socks: 2 socks to wear with sneakers. 2 liners to wear with slip on shoes.

2 shoes: One pair of comfy cute slip ons that you can walk in for longer periods of time and one pair of sandals – I like Merrells. They are super comfy, the lattice straps  make them look a little dressier, and they can also be worn to the beach and dry quickly if they get wet.

2 bras: 1 bralette or sports bra style, and 1 regular bra.

3-4 undies: mesh or synthetic materials. Ex-officio makes a brand of underwear that is easily washable on the go.  They don’t technically come in plus sizes, but the XXL fits fine. Some stores have a mesh version that tries to imitate Ex-officio, but they aren’t as good.

Here’s the magic that makes this light packing possible:

Laundry: I have used hotel laundry just a handful of times. Mostly I wash stuff in the bathroom sink. I bring Sea to Summit Pocket Laundry Wash with me everywhere. They are small, biodegradable “leaves” of soap that allow me to hand wash clothes in the sink. They don’t froth much, but do a good job if you’re just ridding your clothes of daily sweat or light dirt (not heavy stains).

Pack towel: These lightweight, quick dry towels are great for trips to waterfalls or rivers, and are great for wringing out clothes after in-sink washing. You could also use a spare hotel towel.

Dry time: depending on climate I find that most things dry overnight, but when possible, I wash a couple items when I’m at a hotel for two or more nights to ensure they have ample time to dry. And no roommate I’ve had minded clothes hung on chairs and such in the room.

How to make it all fit

Luggage: One carry-on sized rolling duffel and one backpack. Duffels with wheels are great for a variety of reasons – they are easier to store when space is tight; they are lighter than a soft or hard sided suitcase; they have more packable cubic inches; and they have compression straps that make the entire bag smaller when your load is lighter. I looked at Osprey’s convertible backpack/rolling duffel (too much structure and not enough room for actual stuff) and Patagonia’s rolling duffel (too pricey and not quite small enough to meet carry-on standards), and ended up purchasing one from an Eddie Bauer outlet store ($40!!!). I wasn’t totally sold on the idea when I bought it, but I love it now. It’s got a spacious main compartment and an external pocket for easy access to liquids.

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Packing cubes and rolling clothes: yes this works! Packing cubes, especially the compression kind, allow me to pack more clothes than I otherwise could, and provide valuable organization to my rolling duffel. Without them, things get disorganized quickly! Rolling clothes also works. I’m not sure it truly helps with wrinkles but it definitely saves space. The compression packing cubes, once closed, can create some odd-shaped empty spaces in my duffel, which I stuff with the pack towel,  scarf or hat.

Laundry bag: I bring a stuff sack for clothes that are coming home dirty. You can fit a lot by jamming clothes into a stuff sack, making room for souvenirs!

Here’s everything laid out on my bed:

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3 pants, 2 dresses, 7 tops, 2 cardigans, 2 shoes, 1 bathingsuit, PJs, hat, socks and underwear
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Medium sized compression packing cube
Packing photos
Everything listed above is in these packing cubes.
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Most rolling duffels don’t have internal organization so packing cubes are essential
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Packed with cubes, fill empty spaces with pack towel, hat, etc. Put shoes at the bottom so that it stands easier on its own.
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Still lots of room!

Since I still have room in the example above, I added another pair of pants, a rain poncho, a sweater and a thick fleece. This is simply to show how you could modify the number or type of clothes if you need warmer clothes, a couple nicer options, hiking boots, etc.

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With those additions, It’s fairly stuffed.

But what about toiletries!

  • Prioritize essentials like sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Use bar soap and bar shampoo. This saves a ton of space in my liquids bag. I still bring one container of shampoo+conditioner because the bar shampoo builds up in my hair. For bar shampoo I use Lush and I like it so much that I use it most days even when I’m not traveling.
  • Detangler – a little goes a long way compared to using conditioner to get the knots out, and comes in handy after windy days, boat rides or jeep excursions.
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Looks are deceiving, but I can fit my one quart bag of liquids in this extra spot – perfect for taking them out at security,

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Other tips:

  • Pack dryer sheets! Throw a couple in your bag to keep things fresh. I also stuff them in my shoes at the end of each day. I have very smelly feet so this helps keep my shoes from stinking too much.
  • Inflatable neck pillow. I have a delightful beaded one, but then I have to lug it around during the whole trip. With the inflatable I can stow it away while I’m not using it. I also have noise-canceling headphones, and again it aggravates me that I need to lug around something I only use for a little while, so I only bring them for really long flights.
  • Don’t underestimate how much space you’ll need for medicine!
  • Most modern appliances are dual voltage, so I leave the converter at home. I invested in one adapter with multiple prongs so I’m prepared anywhere, and it has two USB ports so I can charge two things at once.

A standard day-back or book bag counts as a personal item as long as it fits under the seat. In my backpack I bring my camera, medicines, charging cables, one change of shirt and underwear, journal and tablet. I move one shirt and underwear from the packing cubes –  super-backup in case overhead compartments are full and I end up needing to check the bag. For that reason, I also take my adapters and medicine in my backpack. I bring an REI cross-body as my purse, which goes into my backpack while flying. It’s the perfect size to hold my camera and a small water bottle while I’m out and about at my destination.

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