If there’s one thing I’ve learned from over a decade of long haul travel it’s this…
Every Trip’s the Same
You are not a beautiful snowflake, neither is your once in a lifetime journey. An 18-month trek from Alaska to Chile is identical to crossing Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, hitchhiking Europe, or an Indonesian surf safari – at least as far as your bag is concerned.
There are exceptions of course (tweet me any you can think of) but long trips all face the same obstacles – lengthy transportation, harsh weather, shifting cultural norms, and budget issues, to name a few. At it’s core, packing is about overcoming these obstacles.
You can’t prepare for everything, but if you master these three packing pillars – Mobility, Multi-Purposing, and Compromise – you’ll be well on your way to long haul travel bliss:
Disclaimer: Just to be clear, this article is about travelers on the move for trips of 3 months+. It is not intended for people moving to a single location abroad. That’s totally different.
Spartan Packing, A Good Coat, and Day-Bag Danger
Fewer Clothes = More Travel
When we hear “packing tips,” we always think of clothing, but longer trips actually need fewer clothes than short ones. In fact, clothing should take up less than half of your carry on bag for any trip over three months.
Long term travelers have different needs than people traveling for just a few weeks – remote work, specialized gear, climate fluctuations, and shifting cultural norms. Limiting your wardrobe to essentials frees up room for those other concerns.
Barring OCD hygiene habits or Arctic exploration, this basic wardrobe template is a great start:
- 2 pairs of comfortable pants
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 swimsuit
- 3 t-shirts
- 3 tank tops
- 1 long sleeve shirt
- 1 button up/collared shirt
- 1 pair of boat shoes
- 4 pairs of underwear
- 2 pairs of socks
- 1 stretchy belt
- 1 wool knit cap
- 1 light water resistant windbreaker/jacket
Tank tops are perfect for the beach, or hiking, as well as being cheaper and lighter than overpriced “wicking” gear (bonus: you’ll actually want to wear them). Avoid zipper pant/shorts combos – they’re awful pants, ugly shorts, and don’t work for any social occasion. If you’re traveling exclusively in warm weather, swap one pair of pants out for another pair of shorts.
The knit cap is a great cold weather alternative to a bulky sweater or coat, and you don’t need much more because everything else in your bag – tanks, t-shirts, long sleeve shirt – which all layers well for warmth. If you’re traveling exclusively in cold weather, add a fleece.
Pro Tip: Get a Good Coat
I rarely advocate high-quality gear (a.k.a. expensive), but your coat is what makes your wardrobe weather-proof and is all that protects you on overnight bus rides with the AC on high. Don’t skimp.
I found a quality light-weight, seam-sealed jacket with a billed hood at the annual REI sale. The inner “passport pocket” is great for keeping items secure, and the two exterior zip pockets have enough room for a book, gloves, or an iPad; making it a decent day bag substitute.
Disclaimer: This list works best if you do laundry every 2 weeks and limit yourself to one pair of shoes.
Beware the Day Bag
Travelers, like goldfish, expand to fill all the available space. A secondary “day bag” can quickly become an extension of your carry on, adding 10-20L of weight, fees, and hassle.
“But everyone needs a day bag!” you squeal. Yes, day bags are awesome, but only when they are part of your carry on, not an additional bag. Let me put it this way:
Your fully loaded day bag needs to fit inside your fully packed carry on bag.
Why? Because the stuff in your day bag is the stuff from your carry on. If you pack your carry on to the brim and then pack a full day bag you now have two bags – a checked bag and a carry on. Plus, you have to wear the bag on your chest which is so terrible I can’t even stand the thought of it.
Find a day bag that rolls up to fit in your carry on, or put what you want in the day bag, then pack it at the top of your carry on for easy access. Commit to one bag.
Full-Size Toiletries and MacGyver Athletic Tape
No area requires more multi-purpose mojo than your carry on toiletries. Liquid restrictions suck, but don’t sweat the 3-1-1 because it’s easy to pack for months without breaking the TSA rules.
Here’s what to bring:
- 1 full-size deodorant stick
- 1 3.5 oz tube of toothpaste
- 1 regular toothbrush
- 1 roll of floss
- 2 3.5 oz bottles of combo body wash/shampoo
- 1 quick dry towel
- 1 roll of athletic tape
- nail clippers
- 1 tube of rosemary scented hair gel (oh yeah)
- 1 tin of solid cologne (it’s a thing)
The key to carry on compatible toiletries that go the distance is simple: avoid most “travel-size” items. You need deodorant for months, so buy one that lasts more than a few weeks. A 3.5 oz. shampoo bottle is tiny, so bring two. Fill each with body wash/shampoo combo and refill as you go. It’s ok to use full-size stuff if you limit your total number of items and use dry goods when possible.
If you clean your teeth, wash your hair and body, and smell nice you’re getting the job done. *Golf clap.* The only exception is travelers with contact lenses. That’s a whole different thing and I feel your pain.
Whatever you do, don’t compromise on dental hygiene. Travel toothbrushes are a waste of money, and floss only weighs a few ounces. Do your mom proud and just floss already.
Pro Tip: Pack Athletic Tape
A small roll, of course. It’s a waterproof band-aid, custom-sized blister pad, bag repair kit, and a billion other things.
Computers, Chargers, and Smartphones Oh My!
Every item in your bag is a compromise; doubly so for the long haul carry on traveler. Luckily, the value of each item really only comes down to two factors:
- How heavy is it?
- How often do I use it?
Nowhere are these two questions more easily answered than your tech and gear. So let’s trim the fat without losing too much function.
“The Rule of Two”
Do not pack more than two tech items. Phone, laptop, DSLR, tablet, e-reader, music player – each one is useful, but you can’t bring them all. Below are pros and cons for each:
Smartphones are so useful that I assume you’ll travel with one. The question then is how to best travel with your phone so it can replace other heavier tech.
I use T-mobile’s Simple Choice International Plan on my totally-not-unlocked iphone and it’s awesome. I can text and browse the web from 120+ countries without roaming fees. However, losing my phone in Colombia and reminded me that while phones keep you connected on the road, it’s easy to disconnect from where you are.
To bring or not to bring. The answer is easy:
If you don’t work regularly from the road do not bring your laptop.
A laptop doubles the liability factor of your bag. They’re fragile, valuable, a target for theft, and heavy. Don’t forget that hefty charger and all those cables.
I’m currently lugging around a modded 17-inch MacBook Pro. I got an amazing deal on it (thanks Chris!) and it’s sweet for editing audio and video and making graphics, but I’ll opt for the lighter Macbook Air or even a portable keyboard and a big screen smartphone on my next long haul.
Tablets, iPads, and e-readers
I love my ipad mini. The battery lasts forever, I have hundreds of books, songs, and it travels well. However, I can’t really work on a tablet. It also doesn’t have the “pocketability” of a phone. For the long haul, tablets and e-readers don’t quite cut it, unless you’re super lean and don’t need to do much work.
I’m gonna be harsh again: If you aren’t a professional photographer – someone that makes money or displays their work – do not bring a DSLR.
A DSLR completely changes how you travel. A decent set-up includes: multiple lenses, a padded case, flash, extra batteries, charger, SIM cards, carrying strap, tripod, and possibly an external mic. DSLRs are bulky, heavy, fragile, and expensive. Worse, you might not even use it that often. The stress of theft or damage might be worth it for short trips, but definitely not for the long haul.
Plus smartphone cameras are getting ridiculous. Upwards of 16-megapixel resolution, water-resistant cases, 4K video, and all kinds of software and apps like Hyperlapse let you shoot quality video. The days of traveling with a DSLR are numbered.
Mp3 Player – Music players are cheap, portable, durable, and last for days without recharging. Load one of these up with a few hundred songs and podcasts, and breeze through your next 18-hour bus ride. However, a smartphone does the same thing.
Headphones – Quality ear buds are worth every penny. Steer away from Beats and over the ear style headphones (they’re big), but its ok to drop an extra $20 for a pair with noise reduction or dynamic bass. You’re going to wear them a lot.
Fitbit – Seriously?
Adaptors – When I first started traveling I had a massive universal adaptor with all these prongs and connecting parts. It was heavy, never fit well, and always sparked. It scared the hell out of me actually. However, on this trip I’ve been to eight countries on two continents on and haven’t used an adaptor once. Progress.
There’s no one “right” way to pack for the long haul. Anyone that tells you there is, is a crazy liar. However, if you use this framework to pack light, multi-purpose items, and you’re not afraid to compromise, you’ll be traveling the world for years.
- Pack Fewer Clothes for Longer Trips
- Splurge on a Good Lightweight Coat
- Use Multi-Purpose Toiletries and Dry Items
- Only Bring 2 “Tech” Items
Notable Things NOT to Pack:
- Laundry Soap
- Hiking Boots
- Zipper Pants/Shorts
- Travel Hair Dryer
Image: gr8sublime (Flickr)