If you’ve been on a 1- or 2-week trip, you know how much “fun” it can be to try to pack everything you’ll need, especially if you’ll have varied activities like snorkeling and hiking. Now try imagining packing for an indefinite journey. Yeah. I’ve been asked several times what we pack, so I figured it was time to share some of my packing tips.
Backpack versus suitcase
Since Tigger was 9 when we began, he carried his own backpack and had a small computer bag for his netbook and Nintendo DSi. He had a 30-liter pack from REI, one that was adjustable so that it could grow with him for a while. I started out with a 42-liter Osprey backpack which I really liked.
Unfortunately, one of my many physical challenges is a congenital deformity of my spine. It usually doesn’t cause me too many problems, but the slightest thing can irritate it and cause me major trouble. After a brief run-in with a recurrence in Honduras, I started considering whether it wouldn’t be wiser to move to a suitcase.
By the time we were back in Mexico, we were sick of our packs. We bought some wheeled suitcases, and Tigger upgraded his small computer bag to a messenger bag. That bag didn’t have an adjustable shoulder strap, and after multiple complaints of shoulder cramps, he switched to a daypack.
I also carry a daypack, although it’s really a camera bag in disguise. It has my DSLR, lenses, filters, and a small area for our Kindles and some odds and ends and important stuff. It also has a laptop compartment.
For the most part, we really prefer the suitcases; however, they are a royal pain when having to deal with lots of stairs. Until recently, he wasn’t able to handle his suitcase going up and down stairs, so I had to wrestle with my 20 kilos and his 15.
It was really even less fun in the sweltering heat of Bangkok let me tell you.
As far as which is better, it really comes down to your preference. Since we’re on an indefinite journey, I do carry a bit more items than I would for a short trip. I had to cram those into the backpack, and with a suitcase I can organize everything much more easily. Things are more accessible, as well.
Some things to consider:
- Do you have mobility or health issues that could be complicated by carrying a pack for an extended period of time? If yes, choose a suitcase.
- Little ones are probably going to be able to handle a wheeled suitcase much more easily, and it’s a great experience for them to have some responsibility for their own things. They look darn cute wheeling a suitcase behind them, too.
- Will you be doing a lot of trekking or going to rural areas that may have mostly dirt roads? We have no problems with suitcases on most surfaces, but during the rainy season a dirt road is going to make your life miserable if you’re walking with a suitcase. Cobblestones can also make it challenging for a suitcase over long distances. If you don’t anticipate long walks over uneven surfaces, then a suitcase should be fine. Otherwise, you’ll want a backpack.
- When preparing to purchase a backpack, go to a reputable store like REI. They have weighted bean bags you can use to load the backpack so you can see how it feels when loaded. They’ll also do fittings for you. In addition, REI has a “no questions asked” return policy. If you aren’t in a rush, find out when a big sale will be happening. For members, you get a huge discount once or twice a year (I forget which). The inexpensive lifetime membership is completely worth it, especially if you’re going to still be in the States as a base.
- What will the climate be like? When it’s super hot, carrying a backpack is not too much fun. Also, rain can get through a backpack’s fabric much more easily than most suitcases. That’s something to consider as well.
What to pack
People have a tendency to over pack. In most cases, you’re going to be able to buy most things you need while you’re on the road. There’s no need to buy a year’s supply of shampoo.
I consider packing cubes to be a traveler’s best friend. They are absolutely incredible for keeping things organized, they don’t take up space, and if you’re doing a weekend trip and leaving the big bags behind, you can use these as a weekend bag. If you invest in any special travel gear, I can’t recommend these highly enough. You can buy them online through various retailers as well as at shops like REI and some camping or travel stores.
I use 2 large, 2 medium, and 1 small bag for all my stuff.
- I put my shorts and pants in 1 large cube.
- Shirts go in a medium bag, and underwear and socks go in another.
- Small stuff like soap, shampoo, sunscreen, etc., all goes in one large cube.
- Finally, I use a small cube for all my toiletries, a Swiss Army knife, and medicines.
Laundry has been super cheap to do almost everywhere we’ve been. I have 2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of sweat pants, and 1 pair of jeans; 3 T-shirts and 1 long-sleeved shirt; a few pairs of socks and underwear; and a swimsuit. That’s really it for clothes. I rotate wearing them so one item doesn’t wear more quickly than another.
I initially only had shorts. When we arrived in Bogota, it was just too cold, so I added a pair of jeans. In Morocco, I added the sweat pants because they were more comfortable. Now that we’re in Australia during the winter, I’m glad I held onto those.
I also have a light winter jacket and Fleece gloves for when we’re in cold climes.
As far as footwear goes, I have 1 pair of cross-trainers, 1 set of flip-flops, and 1 pair of slippers. The shoes were a new addition after Colombia because of the cold. They’ve come in handy for hiking as well, but I usually live in my flip-flops.
In addition to clothes, we each carry a set of fins and a mask for snorkeling and scuba diving. I also pack a messenger bag. This has come in handy for walking around town with my camera (since it doesn’t scream tourist), for grocery shopping (especially in Morocco), etc.
Probably the most unusual thing I carry is a stretching band. With my multiple joint and connective tissue problems, I need to do muscle stretches. This is really handy after long walks and when I’ve been sitting for a long time on a bus or plane. I was introduced to this particular band during physical therapy, and I like it much better than resistance bands.
In Vietnam, I added a small one-cup press-pot so I could make coffee because after 2 years of travel I simply couldn’t handle drinking Nescafe anymore.
In my daypack, I also carry a small travel umbrella.
Packing for kids
Tigger was a hoarder, so it was a bit of a challenge helping him figure out what to pack. I stuck with the same idea of 3-4 shirts, 3-4 shorts, 1 swimsuit, 1 pair of pants, and a few pairs of socks. As far as toys, stuffed animals, etc., it was great having the backpack because I could simply say: You can bring whatever will fit as long as you carry it. It made for no arguments, no fussing, no whining, and no complaining.
In addition to his clothes, he has his Nintendo gaming systems, some games, a couple of bags of Legos, and a few stuffed animals that are special to him. The only things that belong to him that I carry are important documents like his passport.
Tigger suggests kids pack:
- Video games (handheld, not like a console)
- 2 pairs of shorts and a swimsuit.
Sarongs are your friend
I highly recommend getting a sarong, even for you gents. We’ve used them to cover up during air-conditioned bus rides, for blankets on the beach, as towels when a hotel or hostel didn’t have them, etc. They’re super lightweight, compact, and are incredibly versatile. Pick up 1 or 2!
If you don’t know, that stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. I know people who pack some very interesting things. You truly don’t need that much. Sometimes it’s fun to have to figure out how to be innovative. It’s also incredibly liberating to not have a bunch of extra stuff! When it’s time to move on, we can be completely packed in about 10 minutes, which includes some double checks.
Living a more simple life without the extra clutter is so much more enjoyable. Try it out!
Each time we pack to move to a new location, we always look at our items and ask ourselves what else we can get rid of. That keeps us from hoarding or accruing unimportant things.
Try to make photos and experiences your souvenirs rather than a bunch of tchotchkes.
What are your packing tips? Is there anything you carry with you that might be considered unusual?