Imagine living out of a suitcase full time. What does it make you think of? Wrinkled clothes, the frustration of finding things; the cramped space that bulges, the zippers that strain to accommodate all of your stuff and all the stuff you want to buy as you travel.
This might sound strange but, living out of a suitcase is all we've known for the last 2 and a half years and we've actually come to enjoy it.
When we first set out to travel back in 2014 we packed a lot more than we needed and it became clear, early on, we were carrying way to much stuff with us. We had so many extra items, we ended up ditching some of them on route to our first destination! Furthermore, we have continued to leave certain things behind, replace stuff with better stuff and learned a whole bunch of other long term packing lessons along the way.
So, are we packing experts? Um, definitely not. But we have become disciplined and, dare I say, more realistic as to what we need to carry in our bags. Here's how we came to find what works best for us.
After 900 plus days hauling everything we need across 14 countries on three continents we've had lots of time to analyze and test what we really need and want in our bags. We have packing down to science, for us anyway. Actually, now we rarely, if ever, unpack. Most things stay and go back in our bags, not placed in a drawer or hung nicely in a closet. We try to carry only things we know we need and use often. Keeping all those things in our bags, not spreading out, prevents us from losing things and leaving stuff behind.
Our travel style
We travel on a budget, we are not budget travelers. Here is what we think those differences are and how they affect our approach to packing:
Budget travel packing- Traditionally, budget travel options are bare-bones (eg. staying in hostels and minimal accommodations you may need to carry your own bedding and towels).
We don't carry a bunch of day to day provisions that won't be readily available most times when choosing the cheapest option.
Travel on a budget packing- We look to book accommodations that offer everything we need (entire place rentals with Airbnb; full kitchens, washing machines. Or find a house sitting assignment; all of the creature comforts available just like home).
We choose options that provide the things we need so we don't need to carry additional items with us as we travel.
Our caveats (disciplines)
This part is key, to be successful traveling as light as you can for as long as you can you need to be disciplined. Establishing disciplines took a lot less time than getting the right stuff in our bags to adhere comfortably to our self-imposed packing rules. Here are our caveats to packing:
- We re-evaluate regularly (eg. If we haven't worn something, season permitting, during a stay of a month or more in one place, we leave it behind).
- We don't choose to pack clothes solely based on weight Synthetic clothing is super light, it holds color well, and dry's incredibly fast. That said, all three of us hate wearing synthetic shirts, they don't breath well and make us smell bad fast. There is a definite benefit to synthetics for the heaviest things, though, like pants, fleece, and coats. We do have all of those items in synthetic fabrics in our bags.
- Clothes need to be multi-purpose There are no "special occasion" clothes in our bags. Almost everything, clothing wise, can be worn year-round (except shorts). Clothes that coordinate color wise, perform well alone and layered are what we choose to pack.
For all other items and incidentals-
- Toiletries for the first day in a destination only - No shampoo bottles, and no aerosols. We travel slowly so we buy cumbersome and heavier toiletry items when we arrive at a destination, we don't carry them in our checked bags.
- Particular indispensable household and security items are the only things we carry in our bags that we don't use regularly.
- The weight of the bags themselves counts too, luggage must be light and durable.
Here's what we carry when we travel- essential travel items we use and love
I'll start by saying we bought all of the items I've listed below. We have no sponsorships and did not receive and any of the products free or at a discount from the brands that make them.
However, this article contains some links to products that we use and love. If you are interested in buying any of them, a small commission would be paid to us when you purchase but the product won't cost you any extra.
All of them have been tried and tested by us. I've included weight information where I could and tips and tricks we've learned along the way to reduce weight, save money and make your quest to find the best quality travel items a bit easier based on our experience.
1.Luggage and bags that hold our stuff-
- The Eagle Creek Switch Back 26 - I love, love, love this bag! The Eagle Creek Switch Back is a 58 liter wheeled backpack that weighs a mere 7 lbs 15 oz. It's tough (over 40 flights and counting and still looks and performs like new) and it's comfortable to roll (awesome tough wheels and pull handle) and wear as a backpack with breathable padded straps and comfortable stowable hip belt.
- Marmot Kompressor Daypack - A pack that weighs next to nothing at 10.22oz, when not in use it packs in my bag super small and is made of a durable ripstop fabric. I still own the first one I bought four years ago and it's been our go-to day pack all that time. I think everyone should own a Kompressor Daypack!
- The Eagle Creek Gear Warrior 32 - This tall slim bag holds 89 liters of stuff and still is light at 8 lbs 7 ozs! Like my Switch Back, Rob's Gear Warrior has taken a lot of airline abuse and still looks and functions like new.
- Messenger bag- A light over the shoulder messenger bag from IKEA
- Camera gear backpack- Rob has carried a camera backpack and a messenger style camera bag in the past. His current camera messenger bag strap just broke and he's leaning toward a backpack again because he feels it will be more comfortable to carry. The Osprey Farpoint 40 is the one he's leaning toward buying this time.
- A light 10-liter daypack
- Osprey Ozone carry-on wheeled suitcase - This is Mak's toy case and he is responsible for transporting everywhere we go. It carries a selection of his favorite toys and his laptop. The bag itself is super light with excellent wheels making it easy for him to maneuver.
- Eagle Creek Load Warrior 26 - This bag is roomy, 67 liters expanded, and super light at 5 lbs 6 oz.
Items for organization, compression, and waterproofing in all of our bags
- Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes - One Shoe Cube Medium (holds 3 pairs of shoes), one 10.5 liter Clean Dirty Cube, two 5 liter Clean Dirty Half cubes, one 5 liter Pack-It Original Half Cube. These are the essentially the drawers in our dressers and we absolutely love them.
- Ziploc bags- Mainly used to prevent leaks, we always have large and small Ziploc Freezer Bags on hand. Great for holding snacks and leftover food, they also work well to compress items and keep small items organized and together (like underwear,socks and small electronic bits and bobs).
- Small Rubbermaid storage containers- Mak carries Lego while we travel and we keep it organized in small low profile Rubbermaid food storage containers.
2. The stuff that's in our bags-
I am not going to list details on everything that we pack but, there are specific items and brands I'm going to call out because they have performed better than anything else we've tried for comfort and quality.
- Columbia clothing- No single apparel brand makes everything we need that fits great, and does everything we want it to do well. But, for light fleece and travel pants, Columbia makes our absolute favorite styles. The Women's Back Beauty pants and Glacial Fleece half Zip tops are my absolute favorite travel clothing.
- Cotton tees- Shirt fabrics we love are thin cotton and poly-cotton blends. Our two favorite brands for light weight quality tees are Arc'teryx and American Apparel 100% cotton tees. Both wear incredibly well; thin but durable and hold color well.
- Cold/ wet weather stuff- Our coats include compressible down coats; Mountain Hardware Nitrous Down Jackets and light waterproof breathable coats. We use the waterproof coats for rain, wind protection and as a layer over our light down coats to make them wind and waterproof in cold wet climates.
- Beach/ warm weather stuff- 2 bathing suits and 2 pairs of shorts each.
- Multipurpose items- A beach wrap/blanket, running/hiking/waterproof shoes, a light sundress/sleepwear.
Kitchen implements and other household odds and ends-
- Plastic tongs and flipper
- Wine opener
- Bodum plastic loose tea cup - Works great as a coffee press as well.
- Ikea bag clips- For open bags of snacks or spices.
- Duct tape
- Scrubba Washbag- The best thing for doing laundry on the road. Essentially a dry bag with special nubs on the inside like a flexible washboard to get clothes clean without making a mess, and sore knuckles from scrubbing by hand.
- LifeStraw- Straw water filter.
- Two headlamps
- Leatherman Multitool
- One large Sea to Summit travel towel
- PacSafe 55 L Backpack and Bag Protector- Staying in hostels and even Airbnb's we always lock our valuables in our PacSafe when we go out.
- PacSafe Security Cable
- Lanyard with a plastic sleeve- Mak wears it under clothing with contact information card (phone numbers and address where we are staying) if we should get separated somehow.
Space saving tips and tricks
Using soft-sided luggage we've had some flexibility when it comes to how much we can carry. They will stretch to accommodate more items or compress when we carry less. What we carry and how we carry our stuff continues to evolve but, making everything fit well with the space-saving tricks that we've learned will remain the same.
Here are our best packing tips for saving space. Applying them helps us travel lighter as well.
- Fold, don't roll clothes in packing cubes- I realize this is not the general consensus for saving space in suitcases. Most people say roll don't fold, but I disagree! Folding and stacking like items alternating seams, and necklines turns out way flatter than rolling the same items in a packing cube.
- Fill shoes or compress them together with rubber bands- Fill shoes that need to maintain their form with socks or other small items. Not fans of dryer sheets, if shoes are a bit smelly we use small freezer bags for the thing we stuff in shoes. My shoes are all soft minimalist shoes so I find using thick rubber bands to compress the three pairs I travel with saves me space.
- Consider what can be shared- We used to travel with duplicates of certain things, like one travel towel for each of us (a small, medium, and large one). We rarely need to use a travel towel so we opted to share the large one if we need to.
- Distribute weight thoughtfully inside your bag- Everything fits better if you consider weight when filling your suitcase. Pack shoes at the bottom near the wheels and the heaviest items next and along the back of the bag if need be. Pack light items toward the top of the bag and along the front of as well. Doing this will prevent your suitcase from tipping and garner you more squishy space throughout the top of your bag to fit in smaller items.
- Ziplocs or mesh bags for small items to stuff in cracks- There are no cartons of anything in our bags. Tampons, Q-Tips or anything that comes in a box gets thrown into a Ziploc bag. Larger freeze bags can also be used as little compression sacks for items like fleece.
Our biggest packing lessons learned so far
We know there are lot's of brands and products we're not familiar with that could work well or even better than the gear and clothing we're using right now. Saying that, we will continue to try different things and replace items in our bags as we always have.
There are certain lessons we've learned about packing that now influence our packing choices:
- High-quality, light luggage is worth every penny- Consider durability and weight when choosing a bag and read customer reviews to get details on both points. Airlines are really hard on bags so they need to be tough to last. The bag may look, feel, and claim to be bullet proof. But if it's really heavy as a result you will regret buying it when you need to pull it long distances or carry it up multiple flights of stairs. Eagle Creek Luggage is by far our favorite. The tough fabrics they make their bags with are light. And their wheels and handles have stood the test of time (and abuse) and endured impeccably for us as well.
- Pack items you know you like to wear not just the lightest travel clothes- Taking one pair of your favorite pants is way better than three pairs of the lightest pants if they don't fit as well.
- Soft-sided luggage is better than hard-sided luggage- Soft sided luggage is more flexible. You can over pack or under pack and a soft sided bag will fit whatever you're carrying with or without the outer compression straps. If you under pack a hard-sided bag your stuff knocks around inside and items can get damaged as a result. We've also had hard sided luggage crack externally as well.
- If you're questioning whether or not you should bring an item leave it at home- Don't bring items you're on the fence about or pack things "just in case". Doing adds unnecessary weight and wastes space for things you may want to bring back from places you visit. Besides, if you find you needed something you chose not to bring when you arrive at your destination you can most likely buy it there.
I haven’t listed any of our electronics or camera gear in this post. We are in the process of replacing and adding to a lot of those items and I will update this post with that information soon. We will also update this post as we ditch items and acquire new and better ones.
I wrote a post outlining our best travel tips learned from experience, http://expatexperiment.com/59-best-travel-tips-learned-595-days-perpetual-travel/ . It outlines tips for all aspects of travel if you're interested in learning more on how to travel better cheaper.
As I’ve said, we don’t have all the answers when it comes to packing for long-term travel. Have you learned any valuable packing tips during your travels? Please feel free to share any lessons you’ve learned in the comments below.
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