Packing & Purging for a Cross-Country Road Trip

May 09, 2016    /    digital nomads + full-time travel, travel how-tos

When I sat down to write a piece about packing for this year’s North America adventure, I stumbled across an old post that outlined my packing philosophy from about a year ago.

It resonated so deeply and outlined my feelings about the things I carry so perfectly that I thought, instead of writing a whole new post, it made more sense to re-share an updated version of those past thoughts with an updated list of what’s inside my bags these days.

Because, past me? That girl knew what she was talking about:

Let’s talk about packing.

Before I traveled full-time, I thought of packing as a collection of the essentials for a trip. It was about pragmatism. About keeping things light while also having what I needed on the road. About the delicate balance of need and want.

And perhaps that’s what packing for short-term travel is. Pragmatic. Useful. A clever puzzle to get you comfortably from A to B.

Luna

But three years into traveling full-time, packing has become something different for me.

Certainly, it’s still a goal to travel somewhat light. Certainly, I need the essentials. But because there are no home comforts to return to, it’s also started to become about loving everything I have with me. I have so few possessions, I want all of them (or as many as possible) to not only be useful, but also bring me delight.

When I see my shoulder bag hanging on the back of the door, I want to feel a thrill of pleasure at how cute it is and at the memory of buying it in that little shop with a big sale on pretty Gozo. When I smell the sweet honeysuckle scent of that handmade bar of soap, I want to smile and relax and remember the Paris Christmas market where I picked it up. When I smell my olive-scented lotion from Switzerland, I want to think of Thun, a lakeside town with a magnificent castle and a shopping street where I bought the lotion.

I’ve realized that packing is no longer just packing for me. It’s a tally of my minimalist lifestyle.

I also see packing as a fluid process now. It’s not something you someday perfect. It’s not something that is precisely the same for every traveler, even if they’re traveling to the same place at the same time of year. It’s something that shifts with my preferences, my mode of travel, and my goals. Not only do the things I need change over time (pretty winter boots in winter and fall; flip-flops in summer) and with location (umbrellas in rainy places; sunscreen in sunny ones), but the things I love change with time.

I used to carry a curling iron, an unnecessary luxury that I used often and carried happily. Then for a year or two, I started growing my hair out and stopped using it, and so I gave it to a friend. A few months ago, I decided I wanted to encourage my curls again, and bought another one.

And that pretty handbag I bought in Gozo…the one I mentioned in the paragraph above? I loved it dearly for about five months and then joyfully gave it away to a woman whose luggage was stolen, along with a number of other things I really didn’t need anymore and she needed more.

slippers

So I take pleasure every time I move (which tends to be every month or two at the moment) in whittling down, leaving behind the things I no longer need, and picking up a few new things that bring me joy. Like in Spain, where I bought two (luxury of luxuries!) gorgeous notebooks for days spent sitting in the sunshine and brainstorming business and life ideas. Or the cute purple stuffed lamb I bought for Luna, which amused both me and her for countless hours before she figured out a way to rip it open.

And on the other side of that coin, there is the pair of sandals I left behind in southern Spain because they hurt my ankles and I can’t afford to carry anything that harms me…and the pretty belt that served me well in 2013 and sat in my closet in Switzerland all 2014 because it no longer matched my wardrobe.

And so packing has become a fluid, artful thing for me. A happy project. A dance. And naturally, over time, I’ve also found that I need less.

Which is why I recently downsized from an 80 liter hiking backpack to a 40 liter one…a massive drop, but one that came far more easily than I would have expected. I carried that 40-liter pack for about six months, and then upgraded to a more middle-ground 65-liter pack (the Osprey Aura 65 AG), which seems to be my happy medium.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not as much of a minimalist as many nomads. I don’t travel carry-on only. I don’t wash my underwear in the sink every night. Other travelers still broke into laughter when they saw me with my backpack, bike, and dog carrier last summer and Chad keeps giving me skeptical looks about the quantity of paperback books I’m currently hauling around. I do like my luxuries. It’s just that they’ve slowly shifted into something more compact.

Clothes

Recently, I asked what questions people had about my lifestyle and one that came up a few times was “what’s in your bag?” Keeping in mind the fluidity and joy-based shifting I mention above, as well as the fact that for the next six months or so I’m traveling by car (and therefore have more space than usual), here’s an attempt at an answer:

Clothes
Two tennis skirts, like these (great for cycling, hiking, and sports and fine for sleeping in, as well)
One pretty black pencil skirt
Two additional skirts (in purple and black and white)
Three pairs of jeans
One casual dress
Two nicer dresses
Four tank tops
Four sleeveless shirts
One blouse
Five lightweight long-sleeve shirts/sweatshirts
10+ pairs of underwear
5+ bras/bikini tops
One bikini bottom
7+ pairs of socks (and several pairs of tights to last out the leftover wintery weeks)
One pair converse sneakers
One pair sandals
One pair sneakers (for hiking)
One pair nice flats
One winter coat (like this)
One spring coat
One warm vest
Two lightweight scarves/shawls
Two beanies
One warm scarf
A small bag of jewelry
Sunglasses
One small handbag
One pair slippers (luxury of luxuries!)

Toiletries

Toiletries
Shampoo
Bar soap
Deodorant
Toothbrush, paste, floss, mouthwash, & gum picks
Razors
Tweezers, scissors, & nail clippers
Tinted face moisturizer (like this)
Sunscreen
Chapstick
Mascara
Foundation powder, one small eye shadow, & three makeup brushes
Eucalyptus spearmint lotion
A small bottle of hair de-frizzing stuff & another of curl cream (both of which are temporary bag additions)
Clear nailpolish
Hairbrush, ties, & bobby pins
Laundry powder
Band-aids, ibuprofen, & other first-aid items

work stuff

Work & Electronics
Computer, power cord, & plugs for both Europe and the US
iPod & charging cord
Kindle Fire & charging cord (though if I had to do it over, I’d get an iPad)
Portable hard drive (like this)
Camera & charging cord
Large notebook & pens
Envelopes & a few blank greeting cards
USB drive
Business cards
Screen cleaning cloth & spray
Earphones
10+ paperback books (which my car allows me the luxury of carrying and will be left behind in North America once finished)

Books

Super Essentials
Passport & Pet Passport
Wallet/money/all that jazz
Birth control
Luna’s allergy meds in case of serious reaction

Luna’s Stuff
Carrier
Tennis ball
Small toy made from old socks
Shampoo (baby shampoo)
Harness, leash, & collar
Two small tupperware containers that serve as bowls
Poop bags
Baby wipes (which we share)

Random
One cloth grocery bag
Eco-friendly, giant wet wipes I’m testing out (called epic wipes)
Tea & a tea strainer
Flashlight

Luna with a toy

Temporary
And, finally, right now, since I’m about to go on a road trip, I’m carrying a few extras that I wouldn’t normally carry, including:
Bedding (blankets and pillows, which I bought for my stay in Arizona) for a few nights we might spend in the car
Scented candle (a gift from my lovely aunt)
Cooking supplies (leftover spices and oils from my Arizona stay, as well as a handful of kitchen essentials for eating on the road)

So, that’s my bag. For the moment, at least.

And I’ll wrap this up by saying something I think we need to hear more of: there is no one-size-fits-all solution for something like packing. All the “Live Super Happy With Just Two Pairs of Underwear & a Toothbrush!” packing posts are bullshitting you. That person may well be super happy washing his (I say his, because I’ve never seen a “her” attempt one of those posts) underpants in the sink every night and being single forever. But most of us wouldn’t be.

And so my packing list may not be your packing list. Two-underpants-guy’s list may not be your packing list. Even your all-time favorite travel writer’s list may diverge greatly from your own needs.

I’m glad I carry scissors. I use them all the time. But does that mean you need to carry scissors? Nope. Same goes with eye shadow. Or my tablet, which is a new addition and something I lived happily without for the last three years on the road.

So take any nomad packing list with a grain of salt. And pack the things that make you happy, that improve your life. If that’s two pairs of underwear and a toothbrush, more power to you! And if it includes a curling iron or a paperback book or a small bottle of your favorite perfume, don’t let anyone bully you into thinking you’re doing it wrong. If you use the stuff in your bag, you’re definitely doing it right.


So, what’s in your bag?

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6 Comments
  • Ali
    May 9, 2016

    OMG I *hate* washing underwear (or any other article of clothing) in the sink. Underwear is one of the few things I overpack every single time because it dictates when I need to do laundry. I’ve gotten good at whittling down my packing list to the bare necessities, but I do have a home to go back to, so even on a longer trip of a month or two, I’m generally fine without some of the more luxury items you pack (and you pack them with good reason). And yet I will still bring anywhere from 7 to 12 pairs of underwear. I will wear the same shirt 2 or 3 times before washing it in most cases, but I will not wash my underwear in the sink unless there’s been some kind of laundry disaster.
    Ali recently posted…Loire Valley Castles & Wine Tasting Tour ReviewMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      May 9, 2016

      Yes!

  • Brianna
    May 10, 2016

    I loved this post and how you emphasize that packing reflects personality, values, and priorities. As I travel more for work, I’ve become more thoughtful about my own packing. I have doubles of nearly everything so that when it’s time to pack for a trip, I just need my clothing and shoes and I know I’m taken care of.

    I’ve also started washing things in the sink–since it’s become a priority to run/work out every time I travel, I’ve started to wash my workout cloths in the sink to be able to pack only one set. I’ve started wearing daily contacts to make that one aspect easier.

  • Leah
    May 12, 2016

    So helpful! I’m packing for my own journey and have been scratching my head a bit about what clothes to keep and what to get rid of. It’s also harder emotionally letting go of certain things than I thought. Thanks for sharing!

    • gigigriffis
      May 12, 2016

      Glad it’s helpful!

  • Marie-Anne
    July 12, 2016

    Travelling in a car offers so many opportunities for other non essentials to magically travel with!! like the 4, not one extra, but 4 of hair mousse, discovered this evening while unpacking all our copious baggage train worth of things. All of this for my grand daughter and my one week vacation.
    What was I thinking? One for each hand x 2, lol!!
    Being a seasoned traveler, usually.. note, usually, there is much planning, setting out on the bed, double checking and preparing for overseas trips.. lightening the load, and trying in general to see that no extras creep in.
    Put me in a car and driving to my destination and all logic flies out the window with the first breeze that whips my head around it seems.
    Minimizing is an art.. often one that is learnt by looking back on previous trips and what was not used or needed. During my 4 month trip back to South Africa including 6 weeks visiting family in Mauritius, I realized that favorite comfy pieces were being worn by me often.. a good 3rd of the clothing I had could have stayed at home. My only challenge was once back home in Canada, some were put away for months, as I had over worn them, if such a term exists.
    For the past year I have been practicing choosing seasonal items from the ideas of Courtney Carver and her Project 333 closet capsules. Light bulb moment for me.. got to really love it to keep it!!

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