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.
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:
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
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
Plum-scented bar soap
Toothbrush, paste, & floss
Tweezers, scissors, & nail clippers
Tinted face moisturizer (like this)
Foundation powder, one small eye shadow, & three makeup brushes
A small bottle of hair de-frizzing stuff (probably on its way out)
Hairbrush, ties, & bobby pins
Small multi-use super absorbent wash cloth (like this, but smaller)
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)
Screen cleaning cloth
One paperback book (which will be left behind once finished)
Passport & Pet Passport
Wallet/money/all that jazz
Luna’s allergy meds in case of serious reaction
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
Baby wipes (which we share)
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)
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
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?