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RTW travel packing is both an art and a science. This year-long trip around the world has made me finesse my approach to travel packing. After a few painful lessons, I can proudly say I am on a year-long trip around the world, and I’m not checking luggage. Say wha?? That’s right. I know what you’re thinking: That’s ludicrous. But it’s true, and I’ll tell you how I packed for a RTW trip without checking luggage.
Now, my trip didn’t start off that way. I checked my backpack for the first three months of the trip, but I’ve been able to streamline since we’ve left home. It was particularly challenging because we planned to do several big ticket activities that were gear/clothing-specific. We planned to hike Kilimanjaro, so I needed certain items, like sturdy hiking boots, pants, gloves, headlamp, beanie, and warm jackets. A few months later I would do a month-long yoga teacher training in Bali, which meant a lot of hot weather clothing and yoga pants. This is the first time I’ve had to pack for a multi-season/multi-activity year-long trip around the world, and I learned a lot in the process.
I recommend two. You need one slightly larger bag for your clothes, shoes, and the majority of your stuff, and one smaller bag for essential items like your passport, wallet, and electronics should the airline make you check your larger bag. Most women I know are accustomed to having a purse anyway, so the concept of two-bag travel isn’t out of the ordinary. The bags I started with are not the bags I currently use.
My first instinct before packing for this trip was go to Osprey’s site and buy the newest, shiniest bag I could find. That’s all the thought I put into this process at first. I decided on the Osprey Aura AG 50 liter pack in rainforest green. Fancy!
Although it’s a beautiful, well-crafted bag, I don’t love it for long-term travel. The pack can only get so small. It has larger frame and built-in suspension and hip support for women, which makes it feel ultra-lightweight on your back, but it’s bulky, and I find that its shape is cumbersome for schlepping around airports. I had a hard time fooling airlines into letting me carry it on. The pack is more useful for trail hiking. After using it for three months, I sold it to a friend in Bali. I hope she gets great use out of it.
I also started out with an REI daypack as a small carry-on for essentials. It’s a good, little pack for day hikes, but I also used it as my daypack for Kilimanjaro and often got frustrated with its lack of form. My Macbook was also quite large in comparison and didn’t fit well inside. I needed something slightly larger.
I used these two particular bags for the first three months of the trip. I had to check my larger Osprey bag and carried on my REI bag. I felt ridiculous carrying two bright green bags, and in general, I would much prefer a more subdued, fashionable pack, but I’ve discarded my sartorial pursuits since leaving DC.
For long trips, I am a huge proponent of the two medium-sized bag combination, instead of the one large bag/one small carry-on combo. In general, I want a sleek pack that can easily pass the airline overhead muster test.
On long trip, you have to learn how to let. shit. go. Non-attachment is a huge theme in yoga and should also be applied to long-term travel. If you find that a particular item isn’t serving you, get rid of it. It will only weigh you down. But what if I need my clunky hiking boots that gave me blisters when I finally get to New Zealand six months from now? NO. Get rid of them. Find charities on the road where you can donate your items, or ask people you meet along the way if they’re interested in taking your stuff. I have done both. H&M and Uniqlo are ubiquitous — they are godsends for travel. You can buy whatever you need on the road.
I’m serious, here’s a list of stuff I’ve ditched:
…or at least be skeptical. Ask yourself if you actually need the specific product they promote. Bloggers get a commission for everything you buy on Amazon from their site and are therefore incentivized to list a bunch of stuff you don’t actually need. There is some useful stuff on these blogs, but if they list things like a paracord rope, a spork, bedsheets, a pillow, a travel vest, or a calculator, ask yourself if you really need these things. Here’s a hint: you don’t. You’re just visiting a foreign country — you don’t need to be entirely self-sustaining. All that stuff is just extra weight you have to lug around.
In my preparation for this trip I forgot that I am actually a seasoned traveler. Prior to leaving DC, I traveled for a living for years. I could pack for a work trip in 20 minutes and be on an emergency flight to Cairo that same afternoon. I generally know what I need to bring on the road, and I know that anything else I might need I can likely buy.
The mistake I made was too much googling while preparing for this trip. I read blogs to get a sense of what I should pack. Some of the information was helpful. For example, the suggestion to pack a dry bag has turned out to be quite useful. In SE Asia, ferry rides are a common mode of transportation, and I want to make sure my electronics are safe from the water. The dry bag also doubles as a semi-compression sack that I stuff my puffer jacket into while we’re traveling.
Some of the packing suggestions on the travel blogs I read were not useful. I even bought a few items using their links, including a compression sack, a door stop, SteriPEN, a long skirt, and other various and sundry items. I love the idea of a SteriPEN in theory, but I’ve only used it once while hiking Kilimanjaro, and even then it was superfluous given we were also using water purification tablets. It’s now dead weight in my pack. I keep thinking it might come in handy for India next March though, which is why I haven’t donated it yet.
Don’t let the multi-functionality fool you, those pants are hideous. You don’t need them. In fact, skip all travel-related clothing. It’s ugly and screams “I’m a tourist!” There is no need to spend a lot of money on travel clothing, unless you are doing something that requires technical gear. I recommend wearing what you would normally wear. The travel gear market is a racket.
You don’t really need $20 Ex-Officio underwear, regardless of what Tim Ferriss says. (Why would you want to carry around only one pair of underwear for a trip anyway?) I don’t want to do laundry every day, and most underwear for women these days are tiny slivers of fabric that take approximately 2.5 seconds to dry.
And on that note, getting your laundry done isn’t as cost-prohibitive as you might think. In SE Asia, for example, you can do a load of laundry for $1. The most expensive laundry I’ve found has been in Tokyo, but that still only cost $7. I haven’t washed my underwear in a sink yet this trip. In fact, I don’t think I’ve done that since backpacking Europe in college. I am pro finding local laundromats while traveling. Underwear is the least common denominator as far as laundry goes. Bring several pairs, or you’ll find yourself doing laundry more frequently.
These are incredibly useful for staying organized on the road. I have three main cubes that I use for sorting clothing, one smaller cube for keeping my shoes separate, and another small cube for miscellany. I also carry a spare cube to put dirty laundry. It doesn’t matter which brand of cubes you buy.
I ended up buying a small hanging Osprey toiletry bag. It’s lightweight, has 3 different compartments, and includes a clear detachable pouch for liquids for going through airport security. I wish the detachable pouch was bigger.
As I mentioned, I’ve gotten rid of several items. This list is not exhaustive nor is it meant to be prescriptive. This is to give an idea of what’s passed the test of time.
My one criticism of my shoe collection is that I don’t have a nice pair to wear out. I love a fancy a cocktail, and luckily I’ve been able to make it work with what I have. In the future, I may pack black flats or black sandals in the place of flip flops. RTW travel is a continual learning process.
I hope this post about my experience with packing is helpful. What I want readers to take away from this is that what works for me might not work for you. Do your own research, read blogs, but if something doesn’t seem or feel right to you, listen. Long-term travel is a continual learning process for all of us.
For more on this topic, Tyler wrote up a great post about tech gear for digital nomads.