The Art of Packing for Full-Time Travel

Jul 13, 2015    /    digital nomads + full-time travel, travel how-tos

Photo: How I packed before full-time travel.

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.

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 smile as I think of Thun, a lakeside town with a magnificent castle and a shopping street where I bought the lotion.

Notebook

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. But in the last year I started growing my hair out and stopped using it, and so I gave it to a friend.

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.

And 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 last year because it no longer matches 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.

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 break into laughter when they see me with my backpack, bike, and dog carrier. And I do like my luxuries. It’s just that they’ve slowly shifted into something more compact.

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, here’s an attempt at an answer:

Clothes
Three tennis skirts, like these (great for cycling, hiking, and sports and fine for a day in the city as well)
One pretty black pencil skirt
One red pencil skirt (which is currently on probation and if it doesn’t get worn more soon it’s heading to the donation bin)
One casual dress
One nicer dress
five tank tops
Two sleeveless shirts
One blouse
Three lightweight long-sleeve shirts/hoodies
10+ pairs of underwear
5+ bras/bikini tops
One bikini bottom
7+ pairs of socks
one pair converse sneakers
one pair flip-flops
one pair trail running shoes
One winter coat (like this)
A small bag of jewelry

Toiletries
Shampoo
Plum-scented bar soap
Deodorant
Toothbrush, paste, & floss
Razors
Tweezers, scissors, & nail clippers
Tinted face moisturizer (like this)
Sunscreen
Chapstick
Mascara
Foundation powder, one small eye shadow, & three makeup brushes
Olive-scented lotion
A small bottle of hair de-frizzing stuff (probably on its way out)
Hairbrush, ties, & bobby pins
Laundry powder
Small multi-use super absorbent wash cloth (like this, but smaller)
Band-aids

Toiletries

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
Small notebook (& the remainder of a large notebook that I’ll be finishing up soon)
Envelopes (a few)
Pens (a few)
USB drive
Business cards
Screen cleaning cloth
Earphones
One paperback book (which will be left behind once finished)

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 (small bottles)
Special shampoo for hives (small bottle)
Harness, leash, & collar
Two small tupperware containers that serve as bowls
Poop bags
Baby wipes (which we share)

Luna's stuff

Random
Spoon (for on the go meals)
Small spray bottle (currently full of water I’m using to spritz myself during the heat wave here in Europe)

Temporary
And, finally, right now I’m about to go on a cycling trip, so I’m carrying a few extras that I wouldn’t normally carry, including:
The bicycle itself
Air pump & tools
Towel and baby blanket for Luna’s basket
Tent (like this) & sleeping bag
Various bungee cords and ropes
Panniers

fully packed bike

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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8 Comments
  • Neens Bea
    July 13, 2015

    I love love love this post! As a fellow minimalist who is also owned by a dog, I recognise myself in most of this and had several laugh-out-loud moments (or – let’s be honest – cackle-out-loud moments) while reading. I live in a 33 m2 flat so like you, I only keep stuff that I either love or really need for practical reasons. Plus, of course, a small crate full of dog toys in various stages of destruction, and my dog’s carefully curated collection of found tennis balls… ;-)
    Neens Bea recently posted…Palma Cathedral – La SeuMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      July 13, 2015

      Yes! I hear you on the various states of destruction. Luna’s purple lamb went through several metamorphases.

  • Ali
    July 13, 2015

    I love this! You know I love packing carry-on only, but I’m fully aware that everyone has different needs. And there’s no practical way you could pack carry-on only with Luna and the extra stuff she needs. I always pack plenty of underwear because that’s really what determines when I need to do laundry. But I almost always have too many pairs of socks with me. I usually only own one pair of jeans at a time but I totally understand that other people might want to have a few pairs of pants. Basically, I pack for the way I dress at home, because if I wouldn’t wear it at home, why on earth would I wear it while traveling? The only exception to that rule is a hat for spending lots of time in super sunny/hot places. I hate hats, but they are occasionally necessary.
    Ali recently posted…Atlanta Food Walks: A Food Tour of the SouthMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      July 13, 2015

      Amen, sister! I love that –> “I pack for the way I dress at home, because if I wouldn’t wear it at home, why on earth would I wear it while traveling?”

  • Melissa Adams
    July 13, 2015

    Hope you have spare tire tubes in case of a flat. I was always afraid to cycle solo…even though I know how to change a flat, my hands aren’t strong enough to do it easily. Good luck!

    • gigigriffis
      July 13, 2015

      Yep. As part of my “tools” I’ll have spare tubes (as well as tube repair tools).

  • Kathryn
    July 13, 2015

    Things can get a competitive with the whole ‘my pack is more minimal than yours’ attitude. I hate handwashing underwear and will only do it in an emergency.

    I laugh at these posts about travelling with just carry on when it turns out the writer is going somewhere for a week. I could do that with just my handbag. But travelling long term definitely calls for some luxuries. I recently bought a tea mug – I don’t really need it but I like having my own :)
    Kathryn recently posted…Prague – the good, the bad and the ugly!My Profile

    • gigigriffis
      July 13, 2015

      Yes!

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