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Packing for Indefinite Travel? A Pep-Talk to Keep You From Banging Your Head Against the Wall

When it comes to packing for a trip, there are numerous approaches. I’d wager that your packing behavior depends on your personality. Maybe you’re…

  • An overpacker: You absolutely need a hairdryer, curling iron, straightener, along with 20 different hair products, and eight outfits. For a weekend. You just never know and you need to look goooooood. To impress, I don’t know, some bartender you might run into when you have to drink by yourself at the bar.
  • A last-minute packer: You suddenly realize that your flight is in two hours so you run around in a frenzy tossing anything and everything in your luggage. You obviously don’t have time to double-check, so you’ll just buy the stuff you “accidentally” forget to bring.
  • A meticulous packer: You’ve already packed everything the night before, twice, and put all of those mini-liquid bottles in a plastic baggy like the TSA requires you to. You do a few “luggage packing hacks”, like stuffing your socks and little doo-dads into your shoes. You try to convince yourself you don’t need something and start to take it out, but change your mind.
  • A so-called minimalist: You probably think, “Are you impressed by how I can pack my entire life in one bag? No? You should be.”

Chances are, you’re probably a combination of the above.

Become a trueadventurer and

I know that I tend to overpack and have the obsessiveness of a meticulous packer. It must be the control freak in me. I remember packing for my first long-term trip to Japan. Initially I had planned for three months — from fall to winter — but I ended up extending the trip to nine months.

A lot happens in six months, you know. You might have been prepared for cooler fall weather and blisteringly cold winters. But within six months, the weather and climate very quickly drag your favorite sweaters, leggings, boots, and heavy jackets into obsolescence. Then you’re like, “Shit, I need to figure out what to do with all this extra crap, stat!”

Lesson learned.

What had happened for the remainder of the trip, probably, was locals quietly snickering at the sight of this solo female traveler lugging around a bulky, polka-dotted rolling luggage — one that she couldn’t bear to part with at first — and grimacing with each tug and pull to get those stupid wheels to go over bumps and cracks in the sidewalk. I ended up buying new clothes for the quickly warming weather and shipping the stuff I didn’t need back home. I later returned to the U.S. with not only new luggage and new clothes, but also a new perspective on how much shit is too much shit.

That brings me to minimalism, which seems to be in vogue right now. But let me tell you: if you’re hoping to learn how to travel in minimalist style, you won’t find that with me.

I never understood how people managed to stuff their belongings for the next several months in one of those oblong-shaped backpacking bags, which kind of look like they’re carrying a giant burrito on their back. They’re insanely unwieldy and make things awkward when you have to navigate crowded streets and trains. Plus, nothing quite screams “I’m a tourist, wee!” than a giant burrito on your back does.

I am also, admittedly, a bit of a high-maintenance traveler.

As a kid, my mom had hammered into me an elaborate skincare routine. It’d help preserve my youthful-looking skin, she said. And you know what they say, mom knows best — who am I to question the science here? I want my skin to be healthy, dammit, so I usually have a small bag dedicated to just my cosmetics. Before you wonder if it’d help to keep this stuff in travel-friendly, miniature bottles (and it obviously does), I’m way ahead of you: I’ve already downgraded the size of the bottles and made the decision to skip over any extraneous steps in my daily skincare routine.

But it’s not just my mandatory skincare policy that makes me a high-maintenance traveler. I also bring my own Aeropress coffee maker and Hario portable grinder (sometimes I leave this one and just get ground beans), because what is life without coffee? I also tend to bring a couple of outfits for working out, my travel-friendly workout shoes (Merrell Vapor Gloves typically), and suspension trainers to help me keep up my fitness, wherever I am.

Essentially, I pack things that other travelers and nomads would simply forego or scoff at. But I put up with them because they’re that important to me. My philosophy: Nobody makes the rules on the right or wrong way to pack (other than restrictions on weight and the dimensions of your luggage — oh, and liquids). So the real questions are:

What are you willing to compromise? And are you willing to put up with wearing the same clothes over and over again?

Whenever I have to pack, I mentally comb over the above questions and a series of other questions, including:

  • Are these clothes versatile enough to let me comfortably adapt to the changing seasons and climates?
  • Would I be willing to ditch this stuff if needed? Similarly, are there certain things I’d be willing to buy at the destination?
  • What are my priorities and “bits of home” that I can bring with me?
  • If I bring these things, how can I reduce my overall packing weight?

“Bits of home” simply help beat back my homesickness with a stick. This is why I go through the trouble of bringing an odd-shaped Aeropress with me. The daily ritual of making coffee wherever I am helps me establish a routine and comforts me with feelings of “home”.

When it comes to clothes, think about your comfort level — physically and emotionally. I would feel less-than-confident in a raggedy, ol’ “I Love NY” t-shirt. Then think about whether those clothes can carry you through the changing weathers and seasons if you’re going to be out and about that long.

I was initially flummoxed by how to accommodate so many changes with limited space, but the answer was layers — that is, wearing many layers of clothing to help insulate heat and also so that you can remove one at a time like an unsexy striptease — and packing cubes. Packing cubes of varying sizes can help you compartmentalize your shit. You can roll all sorts of clothes into them, and they keep things more compact.

I can go on and on about my packing “philosophy”, but here’s the deal: bring at least one rain jacket, a down jacket, and many different layers (thermals, long sleeves, button-ups, hoodies, etc.) if you’re going to be traveling through a winter season. In fact, I’m going to leave you with this handy packing list that you can now reference for your own long-term multi-season packing trip.

Yes, it’s still helpful if you prefer to go minimalist, but good luck if you want to fit all this in a giant burrito. I mean, it’s possible. Just look at how some seemingly impossible Chipotle burritos are rolled.

My packing checklist:

Essentials

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card
  • Charles Schwab ATM card
  • Passport
  • Sleeping mask
  • Pack of earplugs
  • Small medical kit that includes band-aids, antibiotics, ibuprofen, hand sanitizer, hydrocortisone (for skin breakouts)

Clothing

  • 4 t-shirts
  • 8-10 pairs of underwear=
  • 2 regular bras
  • 2 sports bras
  • 1-2 nicer shirts/blouses
  • 1-2 long-sleeve shirts
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 down jacket
  • 1 hoodie
  • 2 moisture-wicking workout shirts
  • 2 tank tops
  • 2 pairs of jeans (different colors preferably)
  • 1 pair of sweatpants
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • 8 pairs of high-quality ankle socks
  • 2 pairs of workout tights
  • A microfiber camping towel (something like this so lightweight)
  • A bathing suit
  • Merrell Vapor Glove shoes (for working out and hiking)
  • Chuck Taylors or Vans (walking and they match everything)

Toiletries and Skincare Items

  • Toothbrush
  • Refillable bottles with shampoo, conditioner, and body wash
  • Deodorant
  • Mini brush
  • Caudalie cleansing milk face wash
  • Skin toner (used to use AD+ Atorrege and now use La Roche-Posay)
  • Shiseido face sunscreen
  • CeraVe moisturizing cream (for day use)
  • Caudalie night cream
  • La Roche-Posay eye cream
  • Tweezers
  • Nose hair trimmers (with rounded edges to appease TSA)
  • Nail clippers
  • Stila eyeliner
  • Wet & Wild brow kit
  • Eyebrow brush
  • Biore makeup remover wipes

Gear

  • Suspension trainers
  • Laptop
  • Kindle
  • Earbuds

Miscellaneous

  • Ziplock bags
  • Zip ties
  • Paper notebook
  • Whey protein
  • Vacuum-insulated water bottle
  • Combination lock (for the occasional locker use)

If I forget anything or come across a situation where I lack the necessary clothes or items, I just solve the problem with $$$. Happy packing.

P.S. You might also like to read Why Is It So Hard to Get Rid of Shit You Don’t Need? It’s an article about decluttering, which is related to packing, methinks.

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