What’s Inside A Full-Time Traveler’s Suitcase

What’s Inside A Full-Time Traveler’s Suitcase

By |2017-07-29T03:21:09-04:00July 29th, 2017|Everything Else, Travel Gear|50 Comments

Full-time traveler
It turns out that a full-time traveler doesn’t really need much stuff.

One pair of ripped socks. Boxer shorts with a tear in the back (oh my, these are old). A yellow t-shirt with all kinds of Vietnamese soup stains on the front. Two small tin boxes I bought for no reason at an antique shop in India earlier this year. And a blue belt that I hadn’t seen in about 14 months.

That’s a quick glimpse of some of the stuff I just found when I gutted my suitcase this morning in preparation for this post.

In fact, I think it’s the first time I’ve taken absolutely everything out in about two years.

Did I say suitcase? Yes I did.

After spending my first 16 years or so as a full-time traveler using my trusty Kelty Redwing 44 liter backpack, I’ve now spent a good portion of the past 2 years traveling around with my Eagle Creek Load Warrior 42 liter rolling suitcase.

Have I gone mad? Perhaps.

All I know is that this little sturdy suitcase, which is indeed smaller than my Kelty backpack, helps me keep things more organized, it’s super easy to pull along wherever I go and it’s still compact enough to take as a carry-on. And as I get older, that all seems slightly more appealing than carrying my stuff on my back.

I still love my backpack but for the travel I do now, a 42-liter rolling suitcase suits my needs.

What I Pack as a Full-Time Traveler

After 18 years of travel, one might think that my possessions have gone through a series of transformations based on my travel style or needs. Well, apart from some more advanced technology that I carry today, things really aren’t too different now than from 1999 or 2003 and so on.

I’m not sure if I should be happy, embarrassed or sad about that.

Anyway, here is the complete list…

Full-time traveler - all my stuff

The Main Bag

  • 3 pairs of shorts (one gray, one blue, one orange as I spend significant amounts of time in hot weather)
  • 1 swimsuit (if there’s a beach nearby, I’m going…I actually had 2 swimsuits but some coconut oil leaked through my daypack last month and caused the red material of the bag to stain the swimsuit, so that one had to go)
  • 2 pairs of jeans (1 blue, 1 black…I’ve tried wearing actual pants but always prefer my jeans in the end)
  • 9 t-shirts (might sound like more than I need, but this full-time traveler spills a lot of soup on his t-shirts so I always need backups)
  • 1 button down short sleeve shirt (I love this shirt but only really wear it when I need to look a tad more dressed up, which isn’t too often actually)
  • 1 button down long sleeve shirt (I’ve been carrying this one around for the past 1.5 years and haven’t worn it once)
  • 1 sweater (a recent purchase from when I was in Sweden last month and it was quite cold outside…haven’t used it since)
  • 1 navy zipper hoodie (I wear this ALL the time…in fact, I probably should wash it soon)

Full-time traveler - jumper and travel towel

  • Travel towel (I don’t know…about twice per year I find myself dripping with water and without a proper towel around…that’s when this thin travel towel comes to the rescue)
  • 7 pairs of socks (you can’t wear flip-flops in European cities during the summer, you’ve got to put on some socks and shoes!)
  • 8 underwear (yup, I do wear underwear and only one has a hole in it, I think)
  • 1 pair of sandals (after spending many years only wearing Crocs Modi Flips or Hurley Phantom Free flip-flops, I recently purchased a pair of Sole sandals…oops, big mistake and when I get back to the US in a couple of weeks, I’ll be going back to one of my favorites)
  • 1 pair of New Balance shoes (I’m a New Balance person – they’re comfortable, durable and they have an “N” for “nomad” on the side)
  • Sarong (the one thing I know I’ve carried with me from day 1 as a full-time traveler…it plays so many roles – sheet, beach blanket, bag, sweat rag, clothing, etc)
  • Amazon basics laundry bag (super sturdy, rolls up into nothing and well, pretty much does what you’d expect)
  • Shoe brush (with only 1 pair of shoes, they can get dirty, so from time to time I give them a scrub down…unfortunately, it doesn’t help remove the car oil stains that I somehow got on my shoes)
  • Bar of soap (some guesthouses/hotels/hostels/apartments don’t provide soap and I’ve realized this way too many times after getting under the water in the shower…so, I carry my own just in case)
  • Ohuhu toiletry bag (the best one I’ve found by far…fits everything, remains compact and is super easy to clean…why I need to carry around 3 things of deodorant is a different story)

Full-time traveler - toiletry bag

  • Philips electric toothbrush (last year I made the switch to an electric toothbrush and naturally, it was a great decision… here’s a tip for travelers though…I went with Philips because it can be charged anywhere overseas…the ones from Braun require a voltage converter)
  • Contact lenses and contact lens solution (kind of a necessity)
  • Bag of money (not as exciting as that sounds…just a pile of currency from countries I think I might visit again soon…or just a pile of money that is getting dirtier and smellier as time goes on)

Full-time traveler - bag of money

  • Small medicine pack (ibuprofen, Claritin, paracetamol…actually, I can’t find this thing right now so I might have lost it)
  • 2 tiny tin boxes (no idea what I’m going to do with these things, probably just carry them around for a few years)

The Small Bag

In terms of a small bag, a couple of years ago I made the switch to a Timbuk2 messenger bag. For me, it’s more comfortable and holds everything I need in a more organized manner. And it’s red, which apparently nobody wants, because it was on sale for about 50% off the regular price.

Here’s what’s inside:

Full-time traveler - messenger bag

  • MacBook Pro laptop (can’t travel/work without it, and after 5 years, it’s still going strong)
  • Kindle (lately I haven’t been reading as much as I wish but do you have any book recommendations?)
  • Samsung Galaxy S7 (it’s my phone and my camera these days)
  • Credit card holders (I don’t use a wallet…I stuff money and the cards I need each day into my pocket…what I don’t need, I keep in these two things…no idea why I don’t use a different system…any good travel wallet recommendations?)

Full-time traveler - credit card holders

  • Pouch for SIM cards (when I saw this felt pouch in a tiny store in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan a few years ago, I thought to myself, “That would be a perfect SIM card holder”…well, not quite like that but I liked the pouch and that’s what it has become)
  • Symphonized NRG 3.0 earbuds (My Symphonized earbuds are one of my best ever gear purchases…for $25, the sound quality is simply awesome and as a bonus, I actually just used them last night as ear plugs due to the barking dogs and naying horses outside the window – don’t ask)

Full-time traveler - earbuds

  • Business cards (Ah yes…I’ve been carrying around a couple of hundred business cards since 2012 and have probably handed out a grand total of 9)
  • ButterFox electronic gear case (it all fits inside – chargers, wireless mouse, small HDMI cable, plug adapters, laptop screen cleaner and these colorful little rubber twisty tie things that I thought would be useful but which I’ve never used)

And finally, I also carry around…

  • Passport (completely worn out, partly torn and with three extra sets of pages inside, two of which are sewn in and one which is taped in…talk about suspicious)
  • Yellow Fever certificate (only needed to use this once but good to have)
  • Sunglasses (for the first 35 years of my life, I never wore sunglasses but the last 5 years, I’ve worn them almost every day)
  • Pen (high-quality little pen I bought at a random pen shop in Singapore about 4 years ago)
  • USB stick (no idea what’s on this thing)

Full-time traveler - passport and stuff

That’s everything!

Total weight:

Suitcase – 11 kg / 24 lbs
Daypack – 5 kg / 13 lbs

And while all of the above might sound like a significant amount of stuff, here’s what it all looks like when nicely packed up:

Full-time traveler - all packed up

Final Notes on Packing

Carry on or checked luggage?

My current setup, whether with the backpack or suitcase, can always be taken as a carry-on. I usually take it as a carry-on if I am flying direct. If I have a layover somewhere, I check my backpack or suitcase simply because I don’t like to lug it around the airport. But I’ve never had any issues with size or weight when taking it as a carry-on, including on many budget airlines in Europe, Asia and Africa.

The good and the bad of packing light

Pros: My life fits into one small bag. It’s pretty simple, everything I need as a full-time traveler is right there and I can pack up and go in minutes if I’m being chased by local authorities …um, or I just suddenly decide to head to a new destination. There is also a sense of freedom involved with having such few possessions and having that ability to move around the globe so easily without having to think of what to do with excess stuff.

Cons: On the other hand, sometimes I wouldn’t mind some extra stuff. Another shirt or another pair of shoes, for example. I don’t need them but when you’re on the road for this long, some added variety wouldn’t hurt. Also, whenever I see something that I’d like to purchase, something that would look great in my home, I have to remind myself that I’m a full-time traveler that lives out of my suitcase and that there is no room in there for cool Moroccan lamps or a hand-woven Pakistani carpet.

Packing cubes

A friend and I have been going back and forth recently about the benefits of packing cubes. He sees a ton of benefits. I see zero benefits. I know they’re a popular thing but when a bag is all packed up with packing cubes, to me it just looks like my suitcase when it is all packed up, except that there are these cubes that now need to be opened in order for me to reach my stuff. Why have that extra step?

Is the above really all I own?

Pretty much, yes. I do have one box in a closet at my mom’s place that is filled with some extra clothes and a few gifts I’ve purchased for myself while traveling but I haven’t looked at it in a long time. It’s probably full of bugs. Apart from that, all of my possessions are literally in my suitcase and messenger bag.

So, the question is, could you live out of a suitcase? How do you pack, or think you’d pack, for your travels?

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  1. Izy Berry September 11, 2017 at 4:34 am - Reply

    Living and travelling all to one suitcase! Nice. And only one hole? Unlikely but ok. Lol. I don’t think I’d manage living out of one suitcase!

  2. Eden Salilig September 6, 2017 at 8:44 am - Reply

    Hi Derek,

    I was just wondering, do you have a home base somewhere? A place that you particularly like to come back to? Or do you have plans of slowing down on travel soon? My fiance and I like to do slow travel too but we are considering having a home base that we can always come back to. Don’t get me wrong. We’re not settling down in one place until we grow old (lol) but it would be nice to have that one place that you can call home, has all your stuff, etc.

    Would love to hear your thoughts! Always love hearing your stories.

    All the best,

    • Derek September 7, 2017 at 3:29 pm - Reply

      Hey Eden – At the moment I don’t have a base but over the years I have had bases from time to time. Last year I was based out of Mexico, before that it was Bucharest. But I do come back to the US around 3 times per year to visit family and friends as well. As for slowing down, yes, that is probably going to happen starting next year. Not sure exactly where it will be but the idea of a real base is definitely more appealing at this point.

  3. dani August 12, 2017 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    Hi I love this post and admire you and your lifestyle. As a former flight attendant, I had the art of packing light down to a science at one point long before minimalist lives were enviable and luggage fees became a nuisance. You have the most amazing thing of all-life experience and travel that most people cannot imagine. The best part is that you share your ideas and encourage others to take the plunge. I will travel like this again one day when my kids are done college. I can’t wait to pare down again. The happiest people I know travel the lightest because they know that stuff doesn’t make them happy.

  4. Ray August 10, 2017 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    Since you carry so few clothes, how often do you wash them while on the road?

    • Derek August 16, 2017 at 2:56 pm - Reply

      Hey Ray – I generally figure out a way to do a wash about every 10 days or so.

  5. Army (ClimberMonkeysAbroad) August 8, 2017 at 10:58 pm - Reply

    Wandered into your blog for the first time today (through the Dengue Fever post from a while back)!

    My fiance and I are going to transition into our digital nomad life in a few months and I really hope we can pack all of our things this compactly. As much as I love dreaming about traveling ultra light, we’re rock climbers and will be visiting some awesome crags in every city we travel to (Oliana! Krabi! DROOL!)… which means each of us will have a duffel full of climbing gear on top of our electronics bag and main bag full of clothes and such. Checking in 3 bags each time we fly will be such a pain (but what a great problem to have!).

    I’ve already started foregoing hair products and stylers (such a girl!) to lighten the load at least. 😀

  6. Victoria @The British Berliner August 8, 2017 at 5:28 am - Reply

    Ha! Ha! Ha! ‘Love it!

    Could I live out of a suitcase? Probably, but I’m not sure that I want to.

    I love the fact that you’ve returned to suitcases Earl. Me too! I “lent” my travel backpack to my son who was awfully pleased and uses it for hiking and camping with the Boy Scouts of America (I’m British by the way).. whilst my husband and I use our suitcases. Besides, we tend to go to fancier places these days, and a smelly bagpack doesn’t cut the mustard.

    p.s. I don’t think I’ll get my backpack back anymore…!

  7. Craig O July 31, 2017 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    Great idea with the suitcase. I had switched to a backpack only a few years ago, but soon realized that the older you get, and when you travel to cooler environments that require heavier clothing, that lugging around everything on your back gets tiresome. I will have to consider the roller suitcase too. Also, love that your entire life consists of such few possessions. Very free-ing!!

  8. Leslie Price July 31, 2017 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    So nice to see another full-time traveler who uses a suitcase instead of a backpack! I started my nomadic life with a backpack and ditched it at my first stop. Someone in Bangalore is probably using it today…

  9. Ofek Ron - Carmel July 31, 2017 at 1:18 pm - Reply

    Great post! very interesting idea – traveling with a suitcase instead of a backpack. I’ll consider it myself!

    What about one of this small backpacks that are super light, folds completely, weights almost nothing and fit into everything?
    You can easily make a daypack out of these, and they don’t use any room in your suitcase. Have you ever thought about using them?


    • Derek August 6, 2017 at 9:01 am - Reply

      Hey Ron – I tried one of those for a daypack but for me it doesn’t work since I need something sturdier to hold my laptop.

      • inca September 7, 2017 at 5:25 am - Reply

        Derek, I use those collapsible little packs instead of packing cubes. They help me categorize/compartmentalize my stuff: I have to carry extras compared to your list as I work with photography and video. When I am at a destination, I can easily empty one of those and take me as the carry-on for the day, instead of the larger laptop bag. Doesn’t have to be too sturdy if it’s just for a day or two side-trip. Ones I have can carry the MacBook Pro.

        I don’t know if it’s OK to mention brand names here, but I find most of my things in Decathlon stores. Good quality for reasonable prices and they have something for everything.
        I like the sailing section because they have to be creative with sturdy materials that are light and don’t take space on a boat, which are great for travelers.

  10. Mary Elizabeth July 31, 2017 at 9:12 am - Reply

    That’s a great list! I’m not a full time traveler, but I love packing light when I do travel. On my first international trip I packed way too much and left belongings in many hostels across England to lighten the load. Now I stick to my 40L Osprey backpack and a small purse or collapsible daypack. I was even able to use this method for a recent two week trip to Iceland by wearing my hiking boots and heavy winter coat on the plane.

    Some of my recent favorite reads include ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr, ‘The Brothers K’ by David James Duncan. ‘East of Eden’ by John Steinbeck is a great classic. Of course if I don’t have anything else to read, I usually reread Lord of the Rings… can’t go wrong with that. 🙂

    • Derek August 6, 2017 at 9:00 am - Reply

      Thank you for sharing those favorite reads Mary!! East of Eden is a great classic.

  11. Zascha July 30, 2017 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Very useful post! It is important to pack light when travel and only carry the essentials. I’m loving the credit card holders, they are so much better.

  12. Greg stemmler July 30, 2017 at 10:18 am - Reply

    Glad mom set u straight on storage at her place…
    Very interesting to see that all you described fit into those bags

  13. Trace July 30, 2017 at 8:18 am - Reply

    Hi Dek – great post. Question please. Do you come across Op Shops/Opportunity Shops? Charity Shops etc in other countries? Ever buy from them or donate clothes when leaving a country? 1.5 years, lose the shirt! Trace xx

    • Derek July 30, 2017 at 2:32 pm - Reply

      Hey Trace – Yes, you can find those pretty much in most places. I have donated before or sometimes I will ask a local contact for organizations where I can leave clothes or other things I no longer need or want to give away.

  14. Tom King July 30, 2017 at 6:42 am - Reply

    Travel light is the golden rule: no bottles of liquid of any kind – meaning shampoo and suchlike. I use the
    remains of my Lush shampoo bar with negligible weight. Goes on for ages. No heavy clothes – fabrics vary a lot in weight.
    Lightweight shoes – 1 pair. Paper weighs heavy so no Lonely Planets, just scans or photocopies of relevant pages.
    I travel widely with one medium size back pack weighting about 4kg

    • Derek July 30, 2017 at 2:30 pm - Reply

      Hey Tom – That’s pretty good and definitely light! And I agree with it all. My only thing is that I can’t seem to trade in my heavy-ish jeans for lightweight pants. No matter how many times I try, I go back to the jeans!

  15. Tami July 30, 2017 at 4:35 am - Reply

    This looks cool. Do you wear sport shoes while traveling?
    Greetings from Afghanistan.

    • Derek July 30, 2017 at 2:29 pm - Reply

      Hey Tami – Yes, my New Balance shoes are sport shoes / lifestyle shoes.

  16. Mildred Roesch July 29, 2017 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    No shaving materials? No army knife, small scissors, nail file? You sleep naked?

    • Derek July 30, 2017 at 2:50 am - Reply

      The shaving materials are in the toiletry kit of course. I didn’t name every tiny thing in there but of course it contains my toiletries or else I wouldn’t need the kit 🙂 But I don’t carry scissors or nail file. And I sleep in my underwear.

    • Tom King July 30, 2017 at 6:44 am - Reply

      scissors and penknives preclude the cheap budget flights unless you check in your bag, normally at extra cost

  17. sendaiben July 29, 2017 at 9:39 pm - Reply

    Really impressive. I’d love to get that light 🙂

    One suggestion for the smelly money pile: I use small ziploc bags (sandwich size) and put all the bills and coins from a country together. You can also put in any business cards or similar that go with them. Keeps it all organized and means you can pull it out when you land and load your wallet while putting the current contents into the now empty ziploc.

    • Derek July 30, 2017 at 2:51 am - Reply

      Thank you for the suggestion! I was thinking of scrapping my ‘save some money from each country’ thing I do since I’m not sure of the value but for the money I already have, your idea is definitely a good one.

      • Linda August 6, 2017 at 7:04 am - Reply

        if you do scrap your foreign bills, please scrap them my way. I have a friend who does displays in elementary schools. It connects many students and they are so excited to see their country represented. She lives in Kitchener Ontario and I’ll be sure to send her way or I can give you her mailing address. Great posts. Less has always felt better at “less”. Always one pair of closed toe shoes for me, and one pair of water shoes.

  18. AJ July 29, 2017 at 8:39 pm - Reply

    Great post! Always love seeing other traveler’s packing list. I love flip flops so much I don’t know if I could last a summer in fashionable Europe .

    Would love to see the face on some immigration officials looking at that passport with all the add-ons! Cheers Derek!

    • Derek July 30, 2017 at 2:52 am - Reply

      Hey AJ – Yeah, it is tough not to wear the flip-flops. Just need to make sure I have enough beach time where I can put them on!

  19. Alexandros July 29, 2017 at 7:14 pm - Reply

    Where do you typically shop for clothing and other accessories since you are in different places all the time?

    • Derek July 30, 2017 at 2:53 am - Reply

      Hey Alexandros – Usually I pick up clothing when I’m back in the US for family visits since it has the biggest variety and it’s probably the cheapest overall for good clothes. But if needed, I’ll pick things up while in Europe as well. One quick trip to a local mall usually does the trick.

  20. Mom July 29, 2017 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    Just a reminder that you also have a huge box filled with baseball cards, your first stuffed animal and college papers. Most important is the cookbook you made me in first grade.

    • inca September 7, 2017 at 5:30 am - Reply

      we love you for this comment, Derek’s mom 🙂

  21. Lorena July 29, 2017 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    It is a liberating feeling, traveling light. I travel with 4 sets of socks and 4 sets of
    undies, so I must do a small amount of laundry in my room about twice each week. Do you have tips for doing laundry on the road?

    • Derek July 29, 2017 at 6:44 pm - Reply

      Hey Lorena – I generally do laundry at local laundry places (which I find in most countries) or if it’s in a pricier country, I’ll just do it in my room. But since I also like to book apartments (Airbnb) these days, those often have laundry machines too. So it usually happens that every couple of weeks I’m somewhere where I can easily do laundry for very little money.

  22. Karen Stephens July 29, 2017 at 5:53 pm - Reply

    Great read as always!

    Talking of reading, add Burial Rights by Hannah Kent to your list.

    • Derek July 29, 2017 at 6:44 pm - Reply

      Hey Karen – Thank you for the recommendation, it is now on my list!

  23. Lora July 29, 2017 at 2:44 pm - Reply

    Very interesting! You are very organized. No sunblock, first aide kit?

    • Derek July 29, 2017 at 6:47 pm - Reply

      Hey Lora – If I’m traveling somewhere where I need sunblock, I’ll just buy it there. Otherwise I don’t carry it around all the time. And I’ve actually never had a first aid kit in all my 18 years of travel. Maybe I’m lucky but I’ve never needed one either, apart from the occasional ibuprofren or Claritin, which I do carry around.

  24. Noah July 29, 2017 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    Helpful/Funny post! I always wonder how travelers determine the pants/shirts ratio. I would like to keep an equal balance, but that can be difficult.

    • Agnes July 29, 2017 at 2:53 pm - Reply

      Nope. Definitely need more shirts than pants. Especially in hot countries!

    • Derek July 29, 2017 at 6:48 pm - Reply

      Hey Noah – It can be difficult. I realized that shirts get dirtier more easily than pants so I need more of them. My current balance seems to work as everything is generally ready to be washed at the same time!

  25. Agnes July 29, 2017 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    Hahaha. We have more in common than I thought. Like the flash drive without knowing what’s on it. And the dislike of packing cubes -in my humble opinion they just add to the weight without being useful. I do now swear by my surface 2 in 1. Full-size laptops get heavy to carry around and this one does the trick. With a lightweight USB DVD player for my learning Arabic dvds. My main quirk is my flute. Which makes for some interesting questioning in middle eastern airports.

    • Derek July 29, 2017 at 6:49 pm - Reply

      Hey Agnes – I’m sure it does! And you travel with a DVD player?? That’s impressive!

  26. Eurobubba July 29, 2017 at 10:30 am - Reply

    After glancing at the headline, I was disappointed when I realized the hyphen is between ‘full’ and ‘time’ and not between ‘time’ and ‘traveler’.

    • Derek July 29, 2017 at 6:49 pm - Reply

      When coming up with the title I confused myself…and naturally, I was also disappointed that I haven’t spent the past 18 years time traveling.

  27. Lori Haveman July 29, 2017 at 8:08 am - Reply

    So much fun to read this post. You did recommend Allet wallets and my husband loves his even though he’s not a traveler

    • Derek July 29, 2017 at 6:51 pm - Reply

      Hey Lori – That is true and those are great wallets! I actually have no idea why I stopped using it. Somehow I just ended up back with the method of stuffing everything in my pocket 🙁

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