The question everyone asks a full-time traveler: what to pack


I can’t believe it but people are constantly asking Drew and I what we pack for non-stop travel.  I keep putting off writing a post about it because …I don’t know…maybe it feels like giving fashion advice and Drew and I are the last people who should be giving fashion advice.  But I suppose we have learned a thing or two about what’s worth taking along and what’s not worth taking along.

So here it goes.  For whatever it’s worth…


11 rules I follow when packing for indefinite amounts of time and undetermined temperatures.

That’s right.  A list of things to pack when you could be hitting the Alps in the dead of winter (like we did) AND the beaches of Mexico (like we did) before ever returning to your closet to repack.

(I am going to skip the things that are obvious.  Underwear, tooth-paste, etc.)

1.) Only one pair of jeans.

That’s right.  Jeans take up so much space and as soon as I’m in a warm climate I start wondering why the heck I brought a pair of jeans at all.

Weren’t jeans invented to be worn out like crazy anyway?  They were invented for miners and cowboys apparently.  Sounds like something that’s meant to get dirty and worn. So don’t fret about only having one pair.  It’s made to be worn out.

2.) At least one jacket (stuffed into a space-saver).

I don’t know how many times we’ve accidentally routed through a freezing country and I’ve kicked myself for not having a coat around.  Luckily we found an awesome thrift store in Bratislava and I remedied that problem with an awesome weather-proof jacket.

The key here is that I purchased my coat based on how small of a ball I could bundle it into.  Thanks to Drew we have two old camping space-savers that I can cram our jackets into.  It’s not the thickest coat in the world but when combined with a light sweater, it’s perfect.

Point is, if you’re traveling to multiple temperatures and you’re trying to convince yourself that because you’ll only be in the cold for a few days you won’t need your coat…bring it anyway.  That way you can grab a mistake-fare to Milan when it comes up in the dead of winter. Plus I promise if you follow all of these rules, it will fit.

3.) Exactly two pairs of footwear: sandals and sneakers

Occasionally I like to go running.  Often I like to go hiking.  And I’m always walking.  And we can assume every few months we’ll make it to a beach.  So I’ve discovered that a pair of sandals and a pair of running-worthy tennis shoes can fulfill all of these needs.  The only thing lacking there is something to look nice in but to be honest….I almost never need to look nice.

I stuff one plastic bag in my backpack for each pair of shoes we bring, just in case I’ll need to pack them inside my backpack as opposed to inside the little outer pouches or just in case they get totally disgusting after a hike or something.

Sidenote. One time Drew got sick in a taxi and I handed him one of those stupid plastic bags just in time for him to throw up in it.  …Yep..I never regret having plastic bags on hand.

4.)  Ladies, (or any other skirt wearers…), I always bring to-the-toe-leggings.

Remember how I said I only bring one pair of jeans?  BECAUSE of this, I also bring a pair of full-length, to-the-toe leggings.  This way if I can’t get around to washing my jeans frequently enough, I can turn any of my summer options into cool-weather options.  It’s like a second pair of jeans that takes up a fifth of the space.

5.)  One light, long-sleeved shirt.

Even if I’m only going to warm-weather places I’ll bring something super-light but long-sleeved.  In Bali this came in handy when it wouldn’t stop raining or in Fiji when the temperatures got cool after sundown.  Or heck on the plane when the air condition is freezing.  It’s good to have something for when that jacket would be overkill.

6.)  A long skirt and a scarf of some kind.

These are items I have on my list so that I can dress in a culturally appropriate way in Muslim countries or wherever else it may be appropriate.

For instance when we stepped inside St. Andrew’s Church in Kiev, I quickly realized every woman had her head covered so I slipped my scarf over my head.  Some places (like Bangkok’s Royal Palace) require a woman’s knees to be covered and her sleeves as well and for those not appropriately dressed, they’ll rent you outfits you can wear.  I’d rather just plan ahead and wear my own clothing.

7.)  A laundry bag.

Do I need to explain this one?  We use a lightweight mesh laundry bag.

8.)  I keep my toiletries in a clear plastic zipper pouch.

I do this because TSA will permit this as an alternative to sticking everything in a little ziplock baggie that will break in two days.  Plus, I like to go through the baggage line as quickly as possible and so I like all my toiletries to be in one, contained place.

9.)  I always stick to carry-ons only.  No checked bags.

You can read a bit more about that in my post about the time I broke my carry-on rule.  But basically I believe that sticking with carry-ons helps you to be more flexible with your flights when you need to be, and makes you more capable of budget travel.  If you can walk with your luggage comfortably, you will be better off when looking for a hotel, using public transport, carpooling, and the list goes on.

10.) No souvenirs.

This is not something I really recommend for those who find souvenirs really meaningful, but it’s a rule we have chosen to follow.  I take thousands of photos and whenever possible, I journal.  To me, those are some of the best souvenirs I could ever get.  Especially as more and more souvenirs are imported from elsewhere and lack the locally, hand-made nature they perhaps once had.  The more countries we visit, the more impossible it seems to try to leave space for a souvenir from each place.  Not to mention I have no home to adorn with my souvenirs.

Again, if souvenirs are really meaningful to you, than I’m sure there is a way to save extra space for them or to find flexible, fabric, or post-card-type souvenirs that will pack easily.

11.) So THEN once I’m done securing space for the 10 things listed above, I determine how much space there is for extra shirts, shorts, etc to try to help lessen the need to do laundry ridiculously often.  I’m petit so I can usually fit 3 shirts and 3 tank-tops into my carry-on, and if I’m lucky, an extra skirt or long-sleeved shirt.


Didn’t like this list?  Hey I’ve always thought that what-to-pack lists are sort of funny because there are as many packing-styles as their are clothing styles or life styles.  So in some ways it seems pointless to try to offer advice about what to pack.  But in other ways, I realize that backpacking is less about fashion than function and simplicity.  So perhaps some of this can be helpful.

In any case, this is my list of rules I TRY to follow.

What’s yours?




5 Comments on “The question everyone asks a full-time traveler: what to pack

  1. My list is very similar, but I particularly love ‘quick dry’ materials in items like socks, t-shirts, etc. It’s the worst to have to pack damp items when you’re running out for a flight! I got them deeply discounted at Target years ago, but there’s some pricier versions at outdoorsy stores like REI.

    • Agreed!
      I have a quick-dry towel that takes up no more space than a pair of socks and I love it.
      Yes I think those recreation/camping stores actually have some great little gems for travel.

  2. Some things I picked up that have been useful:
    Sneakery things by Merrell that have vibram soles and are a dark grey color. I think they are these minimal shoes that you aren’t supposed to wear socks with, they’re fine either way. They’re not ridiculously ugly/obvious as sneakers, they fold up well, better for hiking than regular runners.

    “Borrowed” Thai airways fleece blanket- this thing has come in so handy lately. It’s thinner than an average fleece so rolls up great. I threw it in a sleeping bag sack with my towel, it’s thin enough you can jam it in with a sleeping bag in there too. Works as a nice beach towel too.

    Sandals- I always make sure whatever sandals I have are both fashionable and waterproof. Had some nice gold color ones by Teva but they broke finally.

    Depending on where I am going I bring a pair of loose pants instead of jeans. But I’m not a full-time traveler.

    Jacket: a rainproof “dressier” one with thin fleece lining (best overall coat). Looking to get a packable down jacket for real cheap in Japan, I heard you can get them for around $20 at uniqlo there.

  3. On not purchasing souvenirs: I thought I would add what I do for souvenirs. I purchase a postcard for each day that I am traveling. Each night before bed, I write myself a dated postcard describing my favorite moments of the day and I mail these cards home to my parents’ house. When there are enough of them, I plan on binding them all together as one big travel diary. It’s cheap to mail postcards home, and the postage stamps on the cards are souvenirs of their own. This also makes up for those times when, for whatever reason, my passport does not get stamped. Overall, my passport is my favorite souvenir. 🙂

    • That is a great idea! Sort of like a pictorial travel journal. Love it!

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