Even if you don’t enjoy the process of packing, being intentional about creating a well-packed toiletry bag or dopp kit will contribute to smoother, stress-reduced travel. Pack too little, and you’ll spend more of your vacation in a foreign pharmacy than on the beach. Pack too much, and you’ll be pleading with airport security to let you bring your bottles and bobs past the gate. All it takes is a little preparation and a little restraint. Take this from a former Scout and Girl Guide! The guide below should get you through most travel scenarios efficiently and elegantly.
Level 1: The Minimalist Basics
If you are going camping (see also note about first aid kit below), on an overnight trip, or to visit your parents for the weekend, you could get away with bringing a very minimalist pouch. Challenge yourself to pack only these 10 items:
- Toothbrush. Avoid the large toothbrush cases (they trap moisture and bacteria and take up too much space) and opt for a small toothbrush head cover instead to keep your toothbrush clean.
- Toothpaste. My dentist gives me a new travel-sized toothpaste every few months, but this is an easy one to pick up in the drugstore or from Amazon. You can even go smaller and bring an airplane amenity-kit sized one.
- Face cleanser. If you are camping or going on a bit of an “adventure”, both Dr. Bronner’s Soap or Camp Suds are fantastic multi-use products to clean almost anything from your face to the dishes. For hotel travel, I bring a travel-sized foaming cleanser (I have several products from Innisfree and Muji’s sensitive skincare line at the moment), and often use it as body wash too if the soap at the hotel is subpar. If you are at all concerned about the quality of tap water where you will be going, bring a small bottle of Micellar water.
- Face moisturizer. Bring whatever moisturizer suits you, but remember that plane travel and foreign environments can be extra drying.
- Sunscreen. Everyone should be wearing more sunscreen, and there are plenty of high-quality stick versions available that are travel-friendly.
- Versatile lip balm. The original Rosebud Salve is the best product I have found for moisturizing your lips which can also be applied to protect dry cuticles and small cuts. If you’re not into the rosy glow and smell of the product, consider a tiny jar of Vaseline.
- Medications. Pack your medications in smaller containers along with an ingredient list in English as well as your destination language if applicable.
- Deodorant. Bring a small version if you need it. However, I strongly advocate not bringing perfume or cologne. If in the woods, your scent may attract bears. If on a plane, your scent may contribute to others’ headaches and sneezing fits.
- Band-Aids. If you’re prone to hurting yourself regularly, the chances are even higher with travel.
- Floss. You know you should be flossing daily (my dentist also gives me a travel-sized one each time I visit), but floss is also good for a bunch of random uses. In a pinch, you could use floss as a temporary shoelace, for cutting through cheese and charcuterie without a knife, or for starting a fire. Seriously!
Level 1 Toiletry Bag: Muji is my favourite place to buy easy, high-quality basics for streamlined travel. My tiny toiletry bag from them has now been retired/redesigned, but I still use it for the travel situations listed above with room for a little more.
Level 2: A Realistic Medium
This is the toiletry bag situation you should consider for anything from a long weekend up to a month-long trip, with the underlying thought that it should fit easily into your airport carry-on (scroll to the bottom of the post for tips about this). This is also the “level” where men and women’s preferences will become more evident, so take my recommendations with your personal grain of salt. Pack everything in Level 1, plus the following:
- Comb or small hairbrush. A hybrid folding comb is a great idea. I found mine (pictured below) in a random corner store in Taiwan.
- Shampoo and conditioner. General rule of thumb: I don’t pack these for any trip less than three days. Hotels always have them, and my hair will survive one to two washes on less-than ideal products (and a few days in the woods without any washing). Anything more than three days and I will opt to bring my own in refillable silicone tubes.
- Multi-purpose oil or hair wax. Many people already know that coconut oil is one of the most versatile natural products on the planet. You can use it for everything from shaving, to make-up removal, to moisturizer, to hair care. Argan oil and Marula oil are luxurious alternatives, but less versatile. Double-seal your containers!
- Essential skincare “indulgences”. I have a pretty in-depth at-home skincare routine featuring Deciem products, but most of it gets put on hold for short-term travel. In order of importance, a toner is key for me because I have dry skin, and I add a small vial of hydrating serum and eye cream if there is room. You should know your own skincare needs. Plan accordingly.
- Minimal makeup staples. For me, that includes only eyeliner, mascara, eyebrow gel and one lipstick. I get a lot of travel-sized items from Benefit Cosmetics, but Sephora has miniatures of everything. Just remember that you are your own harshest critic and most people would never think to judge you for not lining your lips or priming your eyeshadow.
- Razor. There are some excellent tiny ones out there if you do use razors. Pro tip for men: grow a beard if it looks good on you so you can greatly reduce your shaving time.
- Bobby pins and extra hair elastics. I’ve never learned to pick a lock with bobby pins, but they are good for keeping your hair out of your face, as a paper clip, holding up a hem, keeping a bag of chips closed or resetting your electronics. Hair elastics are also basically high quality rubber bands.
- Nail clippers. You decide how long you can go without bringing them, but know that you can indeed bring them in your carry-on.
- Tweezer. These are important for personal grooming and for first aid. There are tiny ones out there!
- Safety pins. Safety pins should be in everyone’s first aid kits, but they should also be stashed in your toiletry bag. They are good for fixing wardrobe malfunctions and could be used for other fabric-related situations such as drawing your curtains closed in the hotel.
Level 2 toiletry bag: I would recommend this Muji Hanging Travel Case to almost anyone. It is light, surprisingly spacious, has both structure and give (polyester on the outside, nylon on the inside), and is easy to clean. It also has a great organizational system to keep things separate and secure, and a solid hook (that tucks away in the side pocket) for hanging it from a door handle, mirror, towel bar, or tree branch. A few other handsome (and more expensive) kits I have my eye on include this dopp kit from Bellroy, this toiletry bag from Sterkmann, this wash pouch from Peak Design and this toiletry bag 2.0 from Nomatic.
Level 3: Longer-term Travel
Finally, there are times when you’re really going somewhere for awhile and need to be consistently presentable and/or professional. Think summer internships, semester-long university exchanges and secondments to sister corporate offices. You’ll want to be set up for success and daily comfort, and you’ll definitely want to pack this toiletry bag in your checked luggage. Pack everything in Level 1 and Level 2, with the following adjustments:
- Shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Bring a little product in the refillable containers for the first few days, and for short trips within your big trip. You should consider purchasing full-sized versions of these items at your new destination to lighten up your suitcase. Plus, you might find a new brand that you really like and want to bring home with you.
- First aid kit. Organize all of the “first aid” items above into a small first aid kit consisting of at least: Band-Aids of varying sizes, tweezers, antibiotic ointment, safety pins, cotton swabs, medications, and alcohol wipes. You could also buy a pre-made travel first aid kit.
- Well-curated skincare routine. Instead of mindlessly packing all your random skincare items, take this opportunity to design a new skincare routine based on your current knowledge of your skin, and the anticipated environment you will be in. I suggest a modest but thorough routine of cleanser, toner, exfoliator, serum, eye cream, moisturizer and sunscreen, adjusted for destination humidity and temperature, pollution conditions and UV exposure.
- Your full makeup kit (but seriously consider what you actually need). Packing for a “temporary move” is a great opportunity to consider what you really need to look presentable, and toss anything that hasn’t been serving you well. Plus, buying makeup in foreign countries can be one of the greatest joys of travel. You may find yourself picking up a bronzer in Australia, and a BB foundation cushion in Korea. Leave plenty of room to bring back your new discoveries!
- Doubles of items you cannot live without. Most importantly, this applies to any of your personal medications. However, you may be shocked to learn that many of your favourite toiletries are in fact, not universally available. Specific examples: deodorant, insect repellent, feminine hygiene products, acne treatments and “skin-coloured” makeup. Do a little research, but also keep an open mind. You may come back with a new perspective on why things are they way they are.
Level 3 toiletry bag: In these cases, I opt to bring my large Muji Nylon Makeup Box. The one they sell now is a little different than my original one (which has lasted me eight years and counting), but has a similar look and function. The best part about this kind of packing is being able to customize your own Polypropylene makeup boxes that can be taken out and use for counter-top organization.
A Note on Liquids and Carry-on Luggage
By now, most people heading to airports know about the “3-1-1 Rule”, which means each person is allowed to bring liquids and gels in containers up to 3.4 fluid oz. (or 100 ml), in a clear bag to a maximum of 1 litre. I know this is a bit controversial (apply my rules at your own risk) but I pack my stuff in the toiletry kit sans clear bag because most of my gels and creams do not cause issues for security. In my experience, it is the liquids over 50 ml and aerosol products that you should pay attention to. I try not to bring them at all if I can avoid it (goodbye Avène thermal water mist), but when I do, I will pack the “bigger liquids” and aerosols separately in a side pocket of my carry-on bag for easy access.
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