Last updated on August 14th, 2019 at 01:49 pm
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 5 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.
5 years of traveling experience.
After 2000 plus days hauling everything we need across 20 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, if it is a stay less than a month 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. We have had a few longer house sits, two 6 month sits and a couple that were 2-4 months when this happens we do unpack somewhat but still keep everything in the same place such as a drawer so we don’t lose anything when we pack up to leave.
Travel on a budget not budget travelers.
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 – Traditionally budget travel options are bare-bones (eg. staying in hostels and minimal accommodations you may need to carry your own bedding and towels). They usually choose the cheapest option. Budget travelers may sleep in train stations and airports, and use shared accommodation or dorm rooms.
Budget travelers will often carry a bunch of day to day provisions that may not be readily available when choosing the cheapest option.
Travel on a budget – 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 with 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.
Caveats for packing successfully when traveling long term.
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.
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 sponsorship’s 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 referral links to products that we use and love. If you make a purchase after using the links we may receive a small commission, this 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. The best luggage and bags that hold our stuff.
- Eagle Creek Switch Back 26 – I love, love, love this bag! The 26 inch Eagle Creek Gear Warrior is a 65 liter wheeled backpack that weighs a mere 5 lbs 12 oz. It’s tough (over 50 flights and counting and still looks and performs like new) and it’s comfortable to roll (awesome tough wheels and pull handle). Watch for Eagle Creek’s “No Matter What Warranty” it covers the Lifetime Warranty promise plus the added insurance of repair or replacement due to product failure during the product lifetime, regardless of the cause!
- 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!
- Eagle Creek Gear Warrior 34 – This tall slim bag holds 110 liters of stuff and still is light at 9 lbs 4 ozs! Like my Switch Back, Rob’s 34 inch Gear Warrior has taken a lot of airline abuse and still looks and functions like new. The only issue is that it is easy to pack too much stuff and go over weight with the airlines restrictions.
- Messenger bag – This light over the shoulder messenger bag from IKEA that we bought in Romania. It has held up remarkably well as it is now going on 4 years old, and being used every day.
- Osprey Farpoint 40 – This backpack is Rob’s carry on. He primarily carries his camera gear, computer and other electronics in it. In the past Rob has carried his camera stuff in a messenger style bag. He used a Timbuk2 Command Laptop Messenger Bag but replaced it when strap just broke crossing the border between France and England. He decided to replace it with a back pack as it was too awkward to carry 2 messenger style bags and he felt this combination would be more comfortable.
- 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 is a new bag for Makai (it is the same as Tracey’s) We went through 3 bags that we had purchased before we started traveling, cheaper luggage and we thought they would do for Makai. Unfortunately they were crap, one was destroyed on the very first flight it was on. It pays to buy quality, Eagle Creek and Osprey are the best bags you can buy.
Items for organization, compression, and waterproofing in all of our bags
- Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes – One Shoe Cube Medium (holds 2-3 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. They come in sets and you can choose different colors so members of your family can easily identify which cubes are theirs.
- 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, different currency coins, bits and bobs).
- Small Rubbermaid storage containers – Mak carried Lego while we travel and we keep it organized in small low profile Rubbermaid food storage containers.
2. Clothing for long term travel.
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 – T-shirt fabrics we love are thin cotton and poly-cotton blends. Tracey’s favorite brand for light weight quality tees are Arc’teryx. They wear incredibly well; thin but durable and hold color well. Rob on the other hand favors random cotton graphic t-shirts, primarily with Calgary Flames, Star Wars and local designs from where we travel.
- Cold / wet weather stuff – Our coats include compressible down coats; Mountain Hardware Ratio 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 – 1 bathing suits and 2 pairs of shorts each.
- Multipurpose items – A beach wrap/blanket, running/hiking/waterproof shoes, a light sundress/sleepwear.
Believe it or not kitchen implements and other household odds and ends.
When you travel long term you learn that you miss certain things when you are cooking for yourself. Going on a week long vacation and you may not cook dinner once but when you travel long term, you cook in almost every night. Eating out just is not financially feasible.
So after staying in many many Airbnb’s we discovered that there are certain things that almost every place was missing. House sitting is so much better as you are living in a person home and the kitchens are usually fully outfitted.
- A good pair of tongs and spatula / flipper
- Wine opener / Cork screw
- Bodum Travel Press Coffee and Tea Press
- Bag clips – For open bags of snacks or spices.
- Duct tape – you will surprised at how much you will use this.
- 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 we bought one of these before we left the first time but since then they have been making water bottles integrated with the life straw.
- Two headlamps
- Leatherman Multitool
- One large Sea to Summit travel towel
Travel security essentials.
- 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 – Locks items together and / or to a secure fixture.
- Lanyard with a plastic sleeve – Mak wears it under clothing with contact information card (phone numbers and address where we are staying both in English and in the local language) if we should get separated somehow.
- Portable Door Lock or door wedge.
Travel packing 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.
Electronics to take when travelling long term.
This is where it can get excessive and over pack. Both Rob and I work online so we both need laptops and Makai, being 10, needs to stay in touch with his friends and they play games online with them so he has one as well. Tracey uses a fairly basic Lenovo IdeaPad 330, Rob and Makai have a bit more powerful laptops for different reasons. Ron works a look with photo and video so he needs a more powerful graphics processor, and Makai play online games and video chats with his friends so he also needed a coputer with a more powerful graphics processor. Rob uses a HP Omen 5, and Mak uses a MSI Gaming Laptop combined with a high speed 4TB external hard drive to store all of the downloaded games.
For cameras, our main camera Rob choose a FujiFilm X-E3 because it is a smaller mirrorless camera, he also has a couple of lenses although this 18 to 135 mm lens would do for most if not all traveling situations. We also have a point and shoot FujiFilm X10
We used to also carry a tablet but that was left at home the last time we went for a visit.
A few miscellaneous items would include:
- A Nintendo Switch – for portable gaming and can connect to the TV to play on a big screen.
- An Andriod TV box – For watching TV in English no matter where we are.
- Bluetooth speaker for music.
- Various plug adapters and a travel surge protector.
I wrote a post outlining our best travel tips learned from experience . It outlines tips for all aspects of travel if you’re interested in learning more on how to travel better cheaper.
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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