Updated on September 4, 2016
Updated on September 4, 2016
I’m going to blow the secret right off the bat instead of leaving you hanging.
Mary Poppins’ backpack.
Just kidding. The secret of course is that there is no perfect packing plan. Especially for nomads.
Think of all the articles you’ve read about the perfect packing solutions and I can tell you what’s wrong with every single one of them for a nomadic person. Then again, I can tell you what’s right about every single one of them too. I mean, that’s really just how it goes. We’ve tried just about every type of (carry-on-only) packing strategy and they’ve all got their pro’s and cons. But not one of them is perfect.
Before we go too much further in this conversation though, let’s establish the one thing that I really do see as a rule (as much as anything could be.)
(You can read about the minor havocs caused when you don’t follow that rule here.) That is one suggestion I really will make for just about anybody wishing to travel and wanting packing advice.
I feel I’ve discussed the carry-on strategy enough that I won’t spend too much time on it here, but I will give just a few reasons why carry-on packing is a necessity for budget travel and for nomadic travel:
1.) Checking bags makes changing flights mid-route or getting bumped from flights harder or impossible.
2.) Bringing baggage that’s more than you can easily carry yourself makes transit more exhausting and often more expensive because it makes you more likely to take taxis instead of public transit or instead of walking, and it makes carpooling strategies like blablacar harder.
3.) If your luggage gets lost, a nomadic person will have a mess of a time reconnecting with that baggage. A normal vacationer can always send the luggage back to their home if it’s clear they’ll never get it at their destination in time. A nomadic person moves constantly, so the address where that luggage can be sent would move constantly. It would be a mess. I left my glasses at a hotel and we had to send it three hotels into the future to meet back up with them, and even then we almost didn’t get them.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about why the one-size-fits-all type advice for packing ends there. I’ll do this by first laying out the unique challenges for nomadic travelers.
1.) When you’re trip is not a vacation with an end date, you have to pack in a way that’s more sustainable than you would for vacation packing.
For instance, depending on the vacation, I used to just leave my laptop at home. In fact, I left a lot of things at home assuming I could easily go without them for a week-long trip.
But when we pack now, I have to make sure I have the things that I might need over the next 4-6 months (as that’s often how long we travel between pit-stops.)
For instance I can do without my finger-nail clippers for a week but I can’t do without them for 4-6 months. I can do without some basic first-aid-kit items for a week but not for 4-6 months. I can do with only one or two SD-crds for a week-long trip but need either more of them, or a card-reader to back up photos for a trip of 4-6 months.
2.) The kind of nomad lifestyle we’ve established requires working as we go. That requires a few extra items too.
For instance our tech gadgets: my lap-top, my wacom tablet, a hard drive or two, and even something as simple as a notebook and pens.
3.) We don’t make single-destination trips. This means we often have to pack for multiple climates or multiple contexts. For instance for this trip, we needed to pack for Europe in the winter, Oman, and a safari in Kenya.
Think about that. I needed something for a frigid climate, something for a hot climate, and something for a hot climate that requires modest dress like covering arms and legs. Imagine the challenge that posed in trying to find “versatile” articles of clothing.
What it really means is that my blouses (in attempt to be light enough to suffice for Oman) are not warm enough here in Europe and will probably be too warm in Oman.
So, really the only kind of pack we haven’t tried is the giant backpacking backpack. We have only ever either traveled with school-sized backpacks, (guess you could call it a daypack), and carry-on sized rolling bags, or some kind of combination of both, (and one small trip where I tried an over-the-shoulder duffle.)
So let’s go over the pros and cons of each pack we’ve tried.
Backpacks make public transit easier because you can hold your backpack in your lap or squish it underneath your seat if you need, or at least at your feet.
Backpacks are particularly good when traveling in lesser developed areas where you wouldn’t be able to or want to roll a rolling bag. Like India. If you’re crossing non-paved terrain, a backpack is so much easier.
Backpacks are also easier to take onto discount airline flights. Again because you can kind of just squish it into the size it needs to be. And, I have a theory that if a bag is going to get scrutinized for weight and size compliance, it’s less likely to happen to a backpack than a rolling bag. Just my theorty.
Backpacks never hold as much as you think they will, (unless they’re those huge packs that are super cumbersome).
Backpacks are not the most protective materials. Hauling my hard drive in a backpack would make me a bit nervous.
Backpacks can be a bit harder to organize. And then of course, if you need to reach that item at the bottom of the bag…you likely need to just take everything out of it to get to the bottom.
Rolling bags are really the best way to get exactly the size allowed for carry-on, and thus, the best way to be able to pack as much as possible. For instance, I feel confident I’ll have enough space in my rolling bag to fit my winter coat when I fly from Europe’s winter cold to Kenya’s heat.
I find it easier to access things quickly in a rolling bag. This is convenient for times when we move to a different hotel every night. (Often the case when there’s a promotion or when we are in an expensive location like Europe.) Because I am very grateful that I can get what I need out of my bag without unpacking it only to pack it right back up again.
My tech gadgets are arguabley a bit safer in the harder body of my rolling bag than they would be in the soft body of a backpack.
Rolling bags are kind of a pain on crowded buses, subways, etc. They don’t fit easily into small spaces and don’t fit comfortably or easily on your lap when using a city bus that doesn’t have storage underneath.
Rolling bags are a pain when you have to go up and down stairs.
Not all terrains are nicely paved and ready to accommodate a wheeled bag. Again, a dirt road in India or Peru would not be an ideal place to have a rolling bag, though it would probably still be doable.
Pros: Hmm. None.
Cons: Over-the-shoulder is the absolute worst and most uncomfortable way to distribute the weight of your luggage around your body. Even if the duffle is small and is only holding shoes or something like that.
I’m not against trying it sometime. In fact I always kind of envy those smaller backpacking backpacks. The ones that seem sort of like a compromise between the day pack and this bigger one. Honestly one of the reasons we never used the huge backpack strategy is because the one I had was a really old one made of heavy material. So…we just didn’t have big backpacking backpacks to use. Plus we didn’t feel like we needed that much stuff.
Also, by the time we did feel like we needed more space, the rolling bag seemed like a more efficient way to maximize space. The main benefit of a backpack after all is the ease with which you can throw it around in transit. A GIANT backpack seems to kind of nullify that perk.
But again, I’m not against trying it out.
The truth is, traveling and especially traveling nomadically is going to cause some inconveniences. There is no packing solution that will give you just the right amount of clothes and just the right amount of comfort and ease. At least not if you’re traveling extensively, for a long time, or through a diverse range of climates.
But that’s all part of the adventure! Those of us who travel like this do it despite the draw-backs. And at least in my experience, there will always be that thing you really wish you could have brought…but that doesn’t mean you should have brought it. And there will always be moments where you feel exhausted hauling your things, even when you have packed lightly. That’s part of this tradition of compulsive roving. We live without some luxuries and with some inconveniences because we find travel to be so rewarding that it’s worth it.
And aside from the recommendation to pack only what you can carry-on, and pack only what you can comfortably carry as you rush for a flight you’re late for, every trip may demand its own thoughtful packing system.
Now, if you are trying to be nomadic, you must try to make your packing system as sustainable as possible- both sustainable in what you’ll have available and sustainable in what you’ll have energy to carry. And that is going to require some stamina for inconvenience on either side of that spectrum. Inconvenience in what you have/don’t have and inconvenience for what you must carry.
But again, that’s part of it. It’s a unique lifestyle and it’s amazing. It teaches as much about simplicity as it does about the world and destinations we visit. That’s part of what I love about it.