After lugging 70lbs on my back for 6 weeks in Europe (many years ago on my first adventure abroad), I vowed never to shoulder such a load again.
A couple years later, I was once again heading to Europe, this time for about a year. Clearly learning from my previous experience, I didn’t try to stuff my entire life into a single backpack– I used 2 backpacks…and a duffel bag.
Needless to say, trying to pack for every situation that could arise over the course of a year on the road is an exercise in futility (and probably an early warning sign of madness). Fortunately, I retained the bulk of my sanity (barely) and finished packing in time to make the flight, though it required staying awake for 36 hours and nearly missing the flight due to falling asleep at the gate.
Thankfully, living out of backpacks for a year in addition to the many short (1-2 week) excursions I took across Europe during that time equipped me with strategies that helped me to make peace with packing.
3 Simple Rules
Constantly trying to divine whether you’ll need one item or another while on the road for any length of time is tedious and stress-inducing. These days, I have 3 simple rules that make packing a breeze and even (almost) fun!
1. You don’t need nearly as much (clothes) as you think you do
I get strange looks when I tell people this, but I basically wore the same pair of jeans for the entire year I spent in Europe. Having said that, the bemused stares usually make an appearance when I tell people how many (or rather, how few) times I washed that pair of jeans.
Despite packing an entire week’s worth of clothes, I found that 1-2 pairs of pants and 2-3 shirts more than sufficed. A single pair of pants can be worn a surprising number of times between washings (especially if you alternate it with another pair of pants) and pairing it with a different shirt each day supplies a never ending array of different outfits that you can rotate through. One compromise I won’t make: undergarments– I make sure to pack enough to always have a fresh set of skivvies between laundry days.
Aside — Ladies may think such a paltry collection of clothes is unrealistic to survive on, but my wife has had zero issues on our travels armed with just 2 pairs of pants and 4-5 shirts.
The key is to pack with versatility in mind. For example, pack both a light and a dark-colored pair of pants, making sure that both pairs can be used for casual and somewhat more formal situations. Also, make sure to select colors and materials that do not easily show wear or (gasp) stains. Throw in a few wisely selected shirts and you’ve got the fixin’s for an outfit well-suited for any occasion.
2. The longer the stay, the less you need
In the face of a long stretch away from home, your inclination may be to pack more, but in reality you should be doing the opposite for a few simple reasons:
You’ll wash clothes
It’s impractical to pack a daily set of clothes for even a week, let alone a year. Instead, pack less and wash clothes once every 1 or 2 weeks and you’ll easily have a fresh set of a clothes every single day for as long as you’ll be on the road.
Pro tip: With some strategic rotation of garments, you can stretch the interval between laundry days to once a month! (Just be prepared for the weird looks when you tell your family and friends about your month away from the laundromat)
Save your back by punishing your wallet
I’m as frugal (I prefer cheap) as they come, but even I can recognize the many benefits of buying what you need while on the road in lieu of trying to pack in advance for every eventuality. For one, you will likely find that you won’t even need half of what you packed, so you benefit from only adding additional bulk if it becomes necessary. Secondly, if you require specialized items for your destination’s environment or conditions, chances are you’ll find the most appropriate options at your destination. I’m almost certain that I would find more suitable attire for skiing down the snow-capped mountaintops of the Alps upon arrival in France than you would find in Hawaii (my home).
Protip: If you’re traveling with someone who loves clothes, remind them that your destination might be the perfect place to refresh their wardrobe so it would behoove them to pack lightly.
3. Be ruthless about packing light
The key to comfortable and enjoyable travel is packing light. Therefore, you must be vigilant about keeping bulk at bay. Not sure if an item is truly essential? It’s out. Think that 2 is better than 1? Take 1 and buy a 2nd on the road if you really need it (hint: you won’t). Can’t be stored in a carry-on (i.e. it must be stored in checked luggage)? It stays at home. Finally, once you’ve pared you luggage down to the bare essentials, take out half of what you packed and leave it at home. You will now be much closer to having what you actually need.
Remember, your priority is enjoying the experience of traveling and to do that you need to be ruthless while you pack. So whether it’s deciding if you should pack 2 pairs of shoes or if you’ll need that spare pen, let this be your mantra:
No checked luggage = no waiting at the baggage claim
You have no idea how awesome it feels to walk straight past the baggage claim carousels while the other passengers await their bags until you’ve done it.
Bonus tip: The secret change of clothes
Always remember to factor in the extra outfit we all have: the one you’re wearing! What you wear on the plane can be added to your rotation of clothes for the trip which means you can pack even less!
I’ve already touched on some of these items, but here is our complete packing list for the next 5 weeks in California:
Clothes (per person)
- 2 pairs of pants
- 3 shirts (not including the dress shirt I’ll be wearing on the plane)
- 7 sets of undergarments
We’re basically only packing what we’ll need from the first day. Everything else will be bought as need arises.
- Toothbrushes (2)
- Toothpaste (travel size)
- Hand wipes (small baggy of packets)
- Baking soda (deodorant – 3oz, easily a 3 month supply)
- MicroNet Suede Ultra-Compact Microfiber Towel (Large)
- Camera gear – The subject of another post, but all gear fits in a relatively small messenger bag.
- Acer Aspire One AO722 Netbook — As this will be a working vacation, I needed a computer that would allow me to work on projects without taking up a lot of space. Acer’s AO722 netbook, with its 11.6″ screen is about as small as you could go while still maintaining a decent level of usability. On the downside, no one would mistake this netbook for a computing powerhouse. I’ve set it up and done some testing, and while I think video editing is definitely out of the picture, I am looking forward to finding out how well this downsized laptop meets my needs while on the road (primarily web development and consulting). The netbook will also be used to backup photos and videos amassed during the trip.
- Monster Outlets To Go Power Strip — This little guy packs 3 standard (3-prong) outlets and 2 USB charging ports in a compact unit about the size of a deck of playing cards. This means we can leave the phone chargers at home and still have ample outlets for charging camera batteries and the like. We’ll also only need one outlet to charge all of our devices, which is very nice since you can almost always find a single outlet.
- Hard copies of itineraries/reservations – Unfortunately, hard copies are still required for many things in this digital age. I’ve printed on both sides to cut down on the sheets of paper we’ll have to carry (every ounce counts).
Protip: Packing cubes are incredibly useful for keeping things as compact as possible. A large double-sided cube was perfect for both of our pants and shirts, while a small cube helped to keep loose items (computer cables, etc.) together. I picked up a set of packing cubes with multiple sizes over a decade ago and they’re still going strong.
By following 3 simple rules, everything for 2 people fit in just over half of a carry-on sized duffel bag. Even so, we split the items into 2 carry-on bags to have extra room for supplies we pick up along the way.
The packing is done and all we have to do now is relax until our flight tomorrow!
The Whole Story
- 37 Days on the Road
- Packing Light (you are here)