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6 Months. One Carry On: Your RTW Packing List

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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 pack well and carry the right bag – 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 or more. It is not intended for people moving to a single location abroad. That’s totally different.

Choosing a Bag

If you’re headed on a two week beach vacay to Cancun with a free airport transfer and bag service, it doesn’t matter that much what you pack in, does it? But when you take off on long term travel, that RTW packing list becomes something you begin to obsess over and the right bag is a crucial decision. Your bag needs to be tough enough to stand up to the rigors of long haul travel, well designed, because you’re going to live out of it, and comfortable, because your body has to carry it and your body matters. Wouldn’t it be nice if your stuff also stayed dry and organized on the hard days?

The Outbreaker travel backpack is, simply, the best backpack for urban travel, and let’s be real, most of the time on a long term trip is spent in urban environments. Hotels, coffee shops, airports, museums, public transportation, these become home away from home and your bag should be easy to maneuver and not scream, “Traveler!” to the whole world.

Add the packing cubes for inner organization and the wet/dry bag for those laundry issues that become a daily reality on a long haul trip, and you’ve got the perfect travel system, for a week or a year on the road.

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 long term travel packing list is a great start:

Warm Weather

Tank tops are perfect for the beach, or hiking, as well as being cheaper and lighter than overpriced “wicking” gear, and 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.

Cold Weather

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.

A packable duffle that rolls up to fit in your carry on, or a packable daypack that you pull out and use for your everyday adventures on the road are both great choices. Just make sure it fits inside your carry on.

Commit to one bag.

Toiletries

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
  • 1 nail clipper

Fancy Upgrades:

  • 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.

Electronics

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:

Phone

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.

Laptop

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, & 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.

DSLR Camera

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.

Honorable Mentions

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.

TL;DR

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

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Chip May 8, 2017 at 11:15 am

On the tech items, I am still considering three for a two week safari to northern Botswana (on our own–not a tour group):

I love my iPhone 7-Plus for landscape and creative photography and emergency commo, so I am taking it.

I need a DSLR for wildlife and bird photography closeups, but I am replacing my beloved Canon EOS-7D and 400mm lens (big, bulky, and heavy) with a new Panasonic LUMIX 600mm camera that is compact, light, and gets even closer shots. It has more bells and whistles than I need (or understand so far), but it is perfect for the light packer.

As with your article, I considered leaving my MACBookPro laptop at home, but I’ve found that if I don’t organize my photos every day in my photo files (and keep a daily journal), I tend to forget where I was and what I did when trying to review the photos weeks or months later back home. So I’ll take it, but like the author, will get an air book for the next generation.

As for the Packing List–right on.

Reply

Shawn Forno May 8, 2017 at 11:30 am

Hey Dr. Chip,

1) Heck yes, bring your iPhone 7. The iPhone 7 is one of the best pocket cameras around, and now thanks to the added depth of field it’s even better. Perfect for shooting, storing, and sharing your pics.

2) Bulky lenses are always a tough call, especially for safari/wildlife shoots, but I love Panasonic. I actually use a Panasonic point and shoot—the Lumix LX10—and it’s fantastic. Great macro too.

3) A pro is great for heavy editing, but a bit overkill for storing photos. A travel friendly alternative is to get a RAV Power FileHub ($30) and a 2TB external hard drive ($99). You plug the RAV into the HD, connect your phone or insert a memory card, and boom—you can upload and backup your photos on the go without a heavy computer. The HD should be part of your kit anyway, so you’re really just adding a $30 FileHub to go mobile.

Bonus: The RAV FileHub is also an external battery charger (3000 mAh) so you can charge your iPhone on the go and upload pics to the HD at the end of the day. Perfect combo.

Hope that helps, and thanks for reading!

Reply

Christina May 8, 2017 at 6:42 pm

Perfect timing as I’m going to Europe in a couple of weeks and debating whether to take my hiking boots or just make do with my leather Springcourts (which I’m also bringing along for city sightseeing). For a RTW trip I wouldn’t consider bringing the boots but my next holiday is a 3.5 week trip (carry-on only) with 8 days in the Swiss Alps and the Dolomites. Would you make do or minimise everything else and just take the hiking boots? Thanks!

Reply

Shawn Forno May 8, 2017 at 8:34 pm

It’s a tough call, Christina, but I wouldn’t bring hiking boots to Europe for a few weeks. 8 days in the Alps sounds like a lot, but that’s less than a quarter of your trip. Three and a half weeks in just a carry on bag means you’ll have to wear those hiking boots every single day (packing hiking boots takes up so much room in your bag).

You’ll have to wear the boots on the flight, on trains, and while you’re walking around every city you visit. Seriously, there’s no greater feeling than slipping on your shoes, slinging your light backpack on your shoulders and heading out to explore. Hiking boots change the way you travel. Again, that’s just me, and if you’re gonna hike a ton, bring the boots. Just know that they’ll weigh you down.

Plus, Springcourts are awesome.

Thanks for reading and reaching out. Hope that helps and you have an awesome trip!

Reply

Christina May 8, 2017 at 10:11 pm

Thanks for your reply Shawn. Streamlined lightweight travel makes such good sense!!

Reply

Kris Roszko May 9, 2017 at 12:11 pm

I’m going to Iceland for a 17 day self drive tour in June. I had planned on taking my Solomon hiking boots, as I am going to be going all around the country and hiking to the waterfalls and fjords and as many trails as I can find. Everything I have read says to wear sturdy shoes/boots around the waterfalls and on the rough terrain. Should I not take them? The only other activity shoes I have are my gym tennis shoes, and they’re pretty slick on the bottom. Any happy medium? I’ll be in a different location every night – hopefully I’ll be able to wash socks/undergarments and let them dry in the car as I drive!! Also – it will be 24 hrs daylight during my trip…do you have any suggestions on how to acclimate to that? I have an eye cover I got on a plane once…. I’m taking notes from all these articles and trying to minimize the items I’m taking. I’m having a hard time with the concept of wearing the same set of clothes for 2 weeks, but its a small price to pay so I don’t have to lug around a big suitcase every night. Thanks! Kris

Reply

Jennifer Sutherland-Miller May 14, 2017 at 2:26 pm

Hi Kris, WOW!!! Sounds like an amazing adventure. Iceland is one of my favorite places and I want to do the ring road, by car or bike, one of these summers. Perhaps one of these alternatives to hiking boots will be the happy medium you are looking for. You might also find our Iceland Summer Packing List helpful. Shawn addresses the 24 hours of daylight thing and how to cope with (and pack for) that! Let us know how your trip goes!

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