Packing Tips for Long-Term Travel

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.

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.

packing tips

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.

packing tips

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 tips, packing cubes

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.

packing tips

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)
  • Netbook
  • 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!

Remember: KISS

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?

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  1. Packing cubes are incredibly wonderful. Can’t recommend them highly enough. Hope you survive the kids being gone. 🙂

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  2. Wish I had read this BEFORE I put my kids on a plane this morning…LOL! Those packing cubes are awesome and would have been incredibly helpful to have when packing their suitcases (although I’m sure I packed way more than they actually needed….I am an over-packer and I admit it). Thanks for your post about packing. Always great to glean new tips to try for next time, and those packing cubes are definitely on a “to buy soon” list for me. Thanks T.

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  3. Great post, the messenger bag is a great idea and I’m currently trying to decide where I just use one of them and my backpack or I get a messenger bag, daypack and backpack. I’m all for simplicity and there’s a very satisfying feeling knowing you have all your possessions and worldy needs strapped to your back.

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    • I use the daypack mostly as a carry-on bag when I’m on a bus, train, or plane. For just walking around, running errands, etc., I find the messenger bag to be more worthwhile. Although, if I didn’t have some camera equipment to carry, I’d probably just stick with the messenger bag and forget about the daypack altogether.

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  4. Great advice, Talon. Yes, you really don’t need that much! My partner, Zab, has the same packing cubes as you, and he swears by them. I think actually less than half my stuff in my backpack is clothes actually so I haven’t bothered with one…yet. I may be persuaded.

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    • The cubes are good for more than just clothes! Really helps things stay organized, and when you need something you don’t have to go hunting. You just know which cube it’s in, and you can pull that one out.

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  5. I’m with you on the packing cubes, love them. We have the same pink ones. I wish I’d brought more underwear, it’s hellish to replace, and expensive for decent bras ( you won’t have that problem) I’ve lost 2 bras already. Also, I’m rapidly losing weight, I knew this would happen so I brought one pair of pants that were too small, they now fit, I’m throwing out my “fat pants”.

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  6. Great post – the bit about having a backpack and telling my DD she can bring whatever cuddly toys that fit in is a good one. Honestly that girl is a hoarder! Not sure how big would be too big for her though, she’s 11, so I think we’ll be heading to a store and taking a look at some.

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    • Makes it so much easier when they can only bring what they can carry.

      My son had a 30 L when he was 9, so I’m sure that would work for her. Definitely a good idea to try them on, though, especially with weights.

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  7. Ahh, I was thinking more along the lines of the airlines allows me to bring one large 50# suitcase, a 20# carry-on, and a backpack under the seat in front of me, how much can I pack to bring along? We’re thinking at least one year in each new country so we wouldn’t have to get up and move every few weeks/months. My list includes items like measuring cups and spoons and my favorite natural peanut butter. Obviously, my list is a work in progress. You could say we’re being “forced” on the road due to immigration’s 10 year bans but I’m trying to look at it as an adventure and new chapter in our life. Thanks for the blog post, I’ve been wanting to know your packing story for a long time now.

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    • LOL I’m sure the airline will allow you to do something like for an extra $200 or something. 🙂 Measuring cups and spoons? Oh my. 😀

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  8. Great post. It’s funny, I tend to pack light, but as an innkeeper I continue to be stumped by how much STUFF guests drag along for a 2 or 3 night stay! I agree whole heartedly with the KISS philosophy!

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    • I hear you! I’ve seen people pack more for a weekend trip then I used to pack for a 3-week trip!

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  9. Tony & I are both carrying 45 L packs, which we both adore. They’re small enough that it’s simply not possible for us to pack to the point of back pain, but big enough that we can carry everything we need. Truth be told, I wish we could go smaller, but given that we’re carrying snorkels & masks, an underwater camera housing and a hammock at this point, smaller packs just aren’t possible. We’ve streamlined as much as possible and when we reach Europe & the aforementioned items become redundant, it might be possible to get by with smaller packs, but that would lead to the big issue of what to do with our current ones!

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    • I wish we could go even lighter as well. I could if I didn’t need my snorkel gear, which is a NEED for sure. Although we’re pretty much down to minimum. Every time I look at my stuff and wonder what else I can get rid of, and really I just can’t see tossing anything else. I’d love to get rid of the pants and jacket, but we’ll need those for winter in Japan for sure.

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  10. Very good tips here, traveling light is the best and as you said there are so many things we don’t need to carry with us! While in Taiwan we bought some UNO cards that are now traveling with us, we also carry some instant coffee. I’m wondering how long it’ll take for us to buy a proper travel coffee maker like you did.

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    • I couldn’t wait to buy that Vietnamese single pot-press. Nescafe just doesn’t do it for me. We have UNO cards as well. It’s a fun game.

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