Packing for an overseas trip

How Does A Permanent Nomad Pack?

Derek Travel Gear, Travel Tips & Advice 166 Comments

Packing a suitcase

Never did I think that I would actually write a post about how I pack for my travels. It’s not that I have anything against such posts (in fact, I always read them all with great curiosity!), I just never felt that my packing style could be of any interest or value to anyone else. It’s really nothing exciting. I normally just take my pile of possessions, stuff them into my trusty Kelty Redwing 2900 backpack that I’ve been using for the past 11 years and be on my merry way.

However, while sorting out my current pile of possessions this morning, I had what could only be described as a brilliant revelation, although now that some time has passed, I guess it was really just an interesting thought. Regardless of it’s classification, this idea has set me off on a mission that I have now become obsessed with.

My goal is to travel to the Middle East with less stuff, and carrying less weight, than I’ve ever carried before at any time during the past 11 years.

What does this mean?

Well, typically my backpack weighs about 13 kg (28.5 lbs) when fully packed for a trip, but this time, I’m aiming for no more than 8 kg (17.5 lbs). I’ve even gone back and forth toying with the idea of abandoning my Kelty Redwing backpack altogether and only traveling with my tiny REI Flashpack instead.

To travel with only a daypack would be a dream! But at the same time, I’m not so sure I really need to go to that extreme.

All I know is that when it comes to packing, the less weight I pack, the easier it is to travel. There’s a huge difference between hopping from bus to bus, from guesthouse to guesthouse and from town to town with 17 lbs on your back as opposed to 50 lbs worth of stuff crammed into a backpack the size of a larger-than-normal hippopotamus, such as the hippopotamus that keeps popping up in my dreams as of late for some strange reason.

And so right now I’m about to see if I can make it all happen. It’s going to take some effort but I’m feeling quite confident that I’ll be able to reduce the weight I carry and reach my goal.

Below is the pile of stuff that I’m about to tackle…

Packing for an overseas trip

UPDATE!

Well, forty-five minutes have now passed and in the end, after a most painful process of saying goodbye to many items I had previously not planned on saying goodbye to, I managed to end up with this….
Kelty Redwing Backpack

(the pillow is just there for size comparison purposes)

Kelty Redwing Backpack

Yes! Weighing in at 7.5 kg (16.5 lbs), my Kelty Redwing is the lightest it has ever been and it’s practically half empty! I just wore the packed backpack around the apartment for a few minutes and I barely even noticed it. This is going to be pretty sweet!

And in case you were wondering exactly what a permanent nomad takes with him on an open-ended trip, here’s my list:

(Keep in mind that I will be wearing some of the clothes each day, so what’s listed below is more than what I had in my backpack photos above.)

CLOTHES:

Packing clothes for a trip

3 shirts
1 pair of pants
1 pair of shorts
1 pair of hiking/athletic shoes
1 pair of sandals
3 pairs of socks
2 pairs of Ex-Officio boxers
1 North Face jumper

ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT:

Packing for a trip

Acer Aspire Timeline 1810 (the 11.6 inch laptop that I love!)
Panasonic Lumix FZ-38 Camera
Blackberry (which is not in the photo because I can’t find it!)
Chargers for laptop, camera and phone
Plug adapter

MISCELLANEOUS:

Packing for a trip

1 book (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”)
1 pair of sunglasses
1 “Tek Towel” travel towel (20 x 40 in.)
2 boxes of extra contact lenses
1 bottle of contact lens solution
1 sarong
1 box of Nag Champa incense (will buy in NYC tomorrow)
Basic toiletry items

So there it is. I’m about to embark on a trip that could keep me away from the US for a year or more, and a total of approximately 30 items, weighing a reasonable 16.5 lbs, is all that I need. And even that amount is starting to sound like too much! Perhaps I’ll reduce the weight some more before I leave on Monday.

As always, I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Do you think I’m still taking too much? Or perhaps not enough? How do you pack for your trips?

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Comments 166

  1. Pingback: Not just a winter wonderland – exploringcanadablog

  2. Richard John Merlin

    I’m planning on going to Nepal in November for several months and travelling light. Having done several long trips around India and Central Asia with just about as much as I could carry, most of which wasn’t used on a regular basis, I now will try the minimalist approach. I am probably going to Crete for a few weeks next month, (from my home in Bulgaria), and will just take a day-pack with me, which I can take in the cabin on the flight, so no hanging around baggage carousels ! I’ll be using this as a dry run for November. Another valid point for travelling light is you can buy many items in the place you are going to, usually cheaper, and also helping the local economy.
    The only thing I would take that you mention that you don’t, is a reasonable first-aid kit. Many times I have used mine to patch up others who have had minor mishaps. One I recall, on the island of Sark, in The Channel Islands, was a young girl who had fallen from her hired bike, onto the nasty gravel. Her family had nothing with them to help her, so I was able to clean her gravel rash and patch her up and reduce her tears.
    I prefer taking a tablet rather than a lap-top, as it’s so much lighter and I can put in a shoulder bag, (very handy to have), which I use when leaving back-pack in digs. My Canon digital camera is another must take. I took over 1,600 photos on it last trip and it weigh’s very little, even with its charger. Another point you don’t mention, is to take as much in your pockets onto plane , train or boat. It is usually where I put my books, LP guide etc. I also carry my passport, bank-card & medical card in a small pouch around my neck, under my shirt. It’s also handy for cash.
    Safe & happy journeys.

  3. Brittany

    Wow your minimalism is highly enviable! I think this may be limiting in terms of where you could go and what you could do with such little gear and clothing options. But you seem to really have something figured out here!

  4. Jessica Wang

    Hi Earl.

    I recently went to Chicago, and although nothing compared to the distance you cover and the places you go, I loved being in a new place and seeing everything. I’m also debating on a life of travel like you. I subscribed yesterday and I’ve been reading what you have on this website and I love everything. Super informative and so enlightening. I never really imagined that one could get by traveling around the world – truly, a nomad.

    Please continue writing and sharing with us!

  5. Suzanne

    Earl,
    I will for sure be reading more of your work. I’ve done a little bit of traveling (nothing or at least to me not enough, but to my friends they call me the World Traveler). I always have my packing list near by. Very excited to see what you pack. I use a backpack myself & always trying to lighten up. Thanks for sharing. I “daydream” daily about traveling. Headed to Peru for a medical mission trip this July. Looking sooo forward to it.

  6. Michael Whiteside

    Nice packing job. I always find that the lighter I go the more I enjoy it. It makes moving around so much easier.

  7. tom lehr

    Hi Earl,
    If you are doing a carry on, how do you get that large of a size of contact solution onboard when the limit is much smaller?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Tom – In many countries, contact solution can be taken on as it is considered ‘medication’. I’ve never had a problem bringing it on a plane.

  8. D

    Hi Earl! 🙂
    I’m in my moving to Cambodia permanently (from South Africa), so I’ll be an expat. What do you suggest for travel/medical insurance. My question is, if I purchase annual ongoing travel insurance say, from World Nomads, would I have to pay out of pocket for a hospital visit and claim later? If so, is it possible to receive the payout in Cambodia or do they only payout when you return to your own country. Obviously in my case I won’t be returning, maybe only after 2 years for a visit. Your advice or anyone else on here would be appreciated.
    Thanks.
    Cheers
    Des

    1. Robert

      Hi…. in my opinion, When you are in Cambodia, if you ever need the hospital for something important…. you should try to get to a good hospital in Thailand. Most of the doctors Thailand have been trained in the U.S., Canada, or Europe, Australia…and the quality of of doctors and hospitals is higher than in Cambodia..
      I can’t speak for everyone… but I’ve had good experiences with Thai hospitals..

  9. Shae

    Hi Earl! I was recently on a trip to Madagascar with a group of friends and I ended up taking a 70 litre pack that weighed about 14kg! Although, I will admit that once I was in country, I only needed half of the stuff I took with me. I was wondering, that if you were to travel for longer and eventually settle down, when you do, how will you have enough money for a house/retirement/etc… I LOVE your blog and it inspires me to also become a nomadic explorer but I just keep thinking about the money and what I would do if I decided to stop and settle down?

  10. Pankaj

    Hii Earl, Do you plan to settle sometime(ever planned to get married) or will be forever lone traveler. just a random question.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Pankaj – I’m not sure and I don’t think too far into the future. If I wake up one day and decide to stop traveling, then that’s what I’ll do 🙂

  11. Mayur

    Hi Earl,

    It has come time for me to get a new travelling bag (RIP my old eurohike one!) but am thinking of going lighter as mine was 65 liters. I see you recommend 50 liters for a year’s travelling, I’m going for 5 months so am thinking to go with this. But I have a question about when travelling with your laptop, if you want to take it out with you to a cafe or something similar do you just take the Kelty out with you and leave your clothes etc at the hostel/guesthouse. Or do you have your day pack fit into your Kelty and then take that out with you when required.

    thanks

    Mayur

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mayur – I carry a separate daypack with me that fits into my Kelty and I use the daypack whenever I go out, for the day.

  12. Ben

    Great post! I pack a similar amount on my travels – in the past when traveling for business, I’ve done 6-8 weeks out of a “boarding bag” (half the size of a standard carryon). Now that I’m living the digital nomad lifestyle, I’ve got a Gregory Z40 – and I pack a similar amount of clothes and electronics.

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    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Michael – I’ve never traveled with a sleeping bag or a backpackers tent and never really needed either at any time.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Bill – That can be done by any local laundry place very cheaply or I just splash some eater on my clothes, smooth them out and let them dry, that works too.

  14. Priscilla Rollins

    Ok so why only 2 contacts? Where do you replace them while you are gone. Mine are 30 day and was thinking about just glasses but they are a pain. Also why that type of incense and for what?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Priscilla – Two boxes of contact lenses is enough for a year for me and then, whenever I’m back in the US, and I’m running low, I just order more. Likewise, if I need more while in another country, it’s quite easy to get them pretty much anywhere. And the incense is just my personal favorite incense and I use it in my hotel/guesthouse rooms as, to me, it helps create a nice atmosphere.

  15. Kiwi

    Hey! Awesome how you pack your stuff! I went to New Zealand for 11 months and had a 55+15l backpack. It was my first backpack and my first big travel adventure. After half my trip I realized I don’t need such a big backpack. I carried stuff with me I did not really need just because I had space for it…
    So I’m thinking about buying a new backpack (even though the other one was not cheap!). But I just want to be more mobile…Your Redwing 50 sounds pretty cool 🙂

    But here is my actual question: What daypack do you have? You have your Redwing 50 and leave it at your accommodation, so what pack do you use for going into town, museum, walk to the beach or whatever?

  16. MJG

    Ok, because I was wondering if I would travel through India where would I do my daily laundry? But I guess it is probably possible to find a shower or sink just about anywhere.
    I did not think of that!

    Also, another question that really bugs me is: what do you do when you get sick?
    I am so scared of getting sick and being somewhere in the middle of nowhere in India or another 3rd world country and not being able to get the medical attention I need.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mary Jo – If you get sick, you’ll go to a hospital or doctor and get treated, just like anywhere else. For most things you might get, there are easy treatments and you can find the medical care and medication you need just about anywhere.

  17. MJG

    Hello Earl!

    I do think what you do is fascinating, but how do you get by with so little clothes? I am sure you get very dirty (sweaty) every day (especially in a hot country), but you can not change your clothes every day. Especially underwear needs to be fresh everyday. How does this work?

    I could not live without a bathroom and fresh clothes everyday, but I do wish I could travel all the time!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mary Jo – I travel with several shirts and several underwear and it is always possible to do laundry somewhere. And if I’m stuck, I just wash some in the shower or in the sink and in a hot climate, they’ll typically be dry by morning.

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  19. Tracy Askew

    I consider myself a Nomad wannabe. I’ve gone on 1-2 year trips, come back for 6 months or a year than go out again. The one thing I have found out is that whatever you think you need, cut it in half and that is what you will actually use. You only think you will need to wear something different everyday. I found myself actually wearing the same thing 2-3 times a week. No one cares or knows the difference when you are away. My first stint away I carried a 32 inch roller case. My 2nd time a 22inch carry on that weighed about 30 lbs. My latest adventures I traveled for 2 years with under backpack that also converted into a roller that came in under 16lbs (it included my mini laptop)…and I’m a city girl! Not to mention, if something comes up, you can always purchase a skirt or pants or whatever oversees. You may even find a one of a kind item.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Adel – It depends on the person as everyone has a different ‘comfort level’ when it comes to packing. I have friends who have been on the road for over a year and carry only 30L pack with them and others who need an 80L pack! Whatever you feel comfortable with, that’s what you should take.

  20. Phoebe

    I think this probably sounds stupid but,
    So you bring that packed bagpack, a daypack and you’re off for a few months? That’s really amazing..
    And do you leave your bagpack at the place you’re staying before you go around exploring? Or do you carry it around since it’s pretty light?
    And, do you ever have to sleep in the open/do you always have a place ready?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Phoebe – There’s no stupid questions! I never sleep out in the open as there are almost always places to stay, whether it be a hostel, guesthouse, budget hotel or even a couch from couchsurfing.org. As for my back, I just leave it in my room every day while I’m outside. All I carry with me is my daypack with my camera and anything else I might need inside and that’s about it.

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  22. Four Letter Nerd

    Excellent blog. There’s a few things I consider essential that aren’t on your list. I’m curious if you don’t use them or if they’re acquired as needed.

    – Sun hat for less heat and less skin cancer. Larger head than most means I have to bring, not buy.
    – Flashlight. I use mine almost every trip to find something small I’ve dropped on the floor in a dimly lit room.
    – Plastic plate, bowl & utensils. Private rooms and cheap hotels don’t have them.
    – Tiny plastic screw top container with enough detergent for one wash.
    – Luggage tag.
    – Poncho (in season). Every poncho I’ve bought in tourist areas was so flimsy it lasted about 2 – 3 uses. If I don’t have one, I could get drenched looking for one.
    – Laundry. Some sinks are tiny so I carry a Sea to Summit 20 liter lightweight dry sack. Can wash 4 items at the same time inside it. Weighs 4 oz. Also holds all my electronics if I must go outside in a downpour.

    1. Wandering Earl

      @Four Letter Nerd: I don’t bring a hat with me but my afro tends to keep the sun out of my eyes 🙂 I have a flashlight app on my phone that works better than any flashlight I’ve tried. As for utensils/plates, I’ve never needed them as I simply use whatever I can find. With detergent, I buy it by the single use packet when I’m traveling so that I don’t have to carry it around with me. Never had a luggage tag and never traveled with a poncho either. And if the sink is tiny, I normally will wash clothes in the shower.

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  25. Verena

    Hey Earl,
    how do you handle it with your contact lenses? Do you wear them everyday and can you buy new ones in foreign countries easily?
    I only have a light debility of sight and am not sure if it’s worth the effort of taking the lenses with me, because I’m worried about the heat resistance of the contact lens solution when in India. I also don’t wear them regularly at home (only glasses when I’m watching TV, and the lenses for school or longer days outside), so I’m not sure if I’ll really need them. What do you think? 😀
    Thanks in advance,
    Verena

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Verena – I do wear my contact lenses every day and I normally just stock up on one year’s worth of lenses every time I’m back home. However, there have been a couple of times that I needed to buy them overseas and it’s quite easy to do in most countries. Just head to a major city, find an optician and they’ll get you what you need, usually for decent prices. I’ve never had a problem traveling with a few boxes of contacts for long periods of time though.

      As for contact solution, in India, it’s actually quite cheap and you can buy it at most pharmacies, and it’s the same stuff you buy back home as well. Hope that helps!

      1. Verena

        Okay, thank you very much for your answer. I think I’ll give it a try, as I won’t need a year’s supply of lenses, but only two pairs actually 😀

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  27. Luisa

    Sorry to bother again Earl, just one more question:

    Do you use travel-specific clothes? You know, those made of special fabrics that dry super fast and don’t wrinkle much (so that one can wash it before going to bed and it’s dry in the morning). Most books and recommend these and I was curious if it’s something you vouch for or if it isn’t all that relevant to you.

    Thanks!

    1. Earl

      Hey Luisa – I don’t really use such clothes. I just stick with the same normal clothes I would wear when I’m not traveling and that has seemed to work out just fine for me over the past 13 years!

  28. Luisa Sousa

    Hi Earl,

    Did you ever felt the need to take a first aid kit with you?
    How about health/travel insurance, do you have any or since you’re on the road permanently you just don’t feel the “need” for it?

      1. Luisa Sousa

        Thanks Earl, that was very helpful indeed 🙂 It’s always amazing how you manage to always write the most useful posts! Your blog is a must for anyone thinking of long-term travel!

  29. Pingback: thoughts about traveling | normal existence

    1. Earl

      Hey TJ – I do laundry about once per week I guess. Rarely do I wear socks as I’m wearing sandals almost the time and if need by, I can quickly wash a pair of boxers in the sink and they’ll be dry by morning!

  30. Phoebe

    Hi Earl,
    I love your site. I know this is an old post but just wanted to say to the girls commenting that you can pack really light too! Last trip I went on was for 6 weeks in SE Asia and my bag weighed 5kg. It was awesome. That was including toiletries, camera a large medicine kit with all my malaria tablets and antibiotics etc.

    Also Earl, I was wondering if you have lived in different places within the US? I’m an Aussie and want to live there for a year next year (then maybe check out South America or whatever). I read that you dislike cold places (so do I) so I was wondering if you have any recs for where would be a good city to live in which is really warm and a good vibe?
    Thanks for the great site.
    Phoebe

    1. Earl

      Hey Phoebe – I’ve traveled quite a bit around the US and some good places to consider (at least in my opinion) would be something like Charleston, South Carolina; Santa Barbara, California; and Savannah, Georgia. Or maybe Hawaii 🙂

      1. Phoebe

        Fantastic, Santa Barbara was on the list but not the other two! I’ll check them out! Love your work, Earl. I check out your site when I feel like I’ll burst if I don’t get a one-way ticket this minute! My boyfriend is a little sick of hearing about you and your ethos 😛
        Only a few months left until I sell all my furniture and belongings and get on a plane! Keep up the good work.
        Cheers, fellow world citizen 🙂
        Phoebe

    2. Christine Trembly

      I’m from the Pacific Norwest (Idaho, Oregon and Washington) If you love the outdoors, this is heaven. Everything from white water rafting to the bat caves. This area is lush and green. Come visit between May and October if you don’t like our wet, cool winters!

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  32. Naomi

    Yep, once you drop down the baggage weight you wonder why you ever thought you needed all that “stuff” before. I too carry a similar amount of clothes (though 3 knickers 2 bras) and minimal toiletries and just buy what I need on the road. I’ve been wearing continuous wear contact lenses for the last 5 years, meaning not having to pack cleaning solution and no hygiene issues around removing them daily. Bit more expensive but so worth it for travelling.

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