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…
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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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:
- 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?)
- 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)
- 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)
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:
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.
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?