RTW Travel Packing Guide Using Carry-on Luggage

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RTW Travel Packing Guide Using Carry-on Luggage

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.

 

How I Managed to Pack for RTW Travel

1. Find the right bags.

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.

 

The Change from Checked Luggage to Carry-on

Tyler, who is a travel gear aficionado, bought the chic Outlier Ultrahigh bag in October, and I took his Osprey Porter 46L and AER duffel

I am much happier with this bag combination. They are both medium-size and fit within the one carry-on and one personal item airline limit. The Osprey Porter allows for lay-flat packing as opposed to stuffing your items into the bottom like with most traditional packs. It makes it so much easier to find what you’re looking for this way.

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.

 

Osprey Porter 46 L - my current pack

Osprey Porter 46 L – my current pack

AER Duffle

AER Duffle

 

2. Practice non-attachment to items.

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.  

 

boots

Exhibit A

I’m serious, here’s a list of stuff I’ve ditched:

  • Hiking boots – My hiking boots were humongous (see Exhibit A), but they were already broken in, and I didn’t want to take chances with new boots on Kilimanjaro. Normally, for a long-term trip, I would recommend a smaller hiking shoe that can double as a tennis shoe. You probably don’t need big clunkers like the ones I brought. They were a pain to carry after Kili. I would wear them while flying because they were my largest pair of shoes, but I always felt like a ridiculous and overprepared intrepid explorer as I trundled through the airport. I ended up giving them to someone in Zanzibar. I’ll talk more about shoes later on in this post.
  • Long underwear and gloves – Again, I only needed them for Kili. We had discussed hiking the Annapurna trail in Nepal sometime in the spring, but that was 8 or 9 months into the future, and the rest of the time we’d be in warmer climate in SE Asia. Donated! 
  • Tank tops – I brought too many to begin with. I also learned that it is not acceptable to only wear yoga clothes every day in other parts of the world. Sigh.
  • Long skirt  I never wear long skirts. Not sure why I thought I needed one for this trip.
  • Long dress – This was superfluous. I bought it solely to look fabulous in Croatia.
  • Trendy jacket – I wore this maybe once per country when we would go out for a nice dinner. Impractical and took up too much space in my pack. 
  • Yoga towel – I wanted it for my yoga teacher training and also as a camp towel for hiking. I hardly used it before giving it away to a friend. I do think that a smaller micro-fiber camp towel is useful for a long trip. I just didn’t buy the right kind.
  • Nalgene 1L water bottle – I bought this with the intent of being good steward of the environment and saving money from buying bottled water. It was useful for Kilimanjaro to have something in addition to camelbaks, but it was too bulky to carry around the rest of the time. I clipped it on to the outside of my bag using a carabiner, but the plastic top eventually broke and I tossed it. If you want to carry your own reusable water bottle, there are inflatable ones that are much more compact.

 

3. Pack less than you think you need.

What you pack is just as important as what you don’t pack. Most people overpack for trips, myself included. What if I need that one specific thing?! If I forget it, my trip will be RUINED. This is a trap. You need less than you think, and it’s important to understand that you can usually find what you need on the road. Although, beware women’s toiletries in Asia — many products have skin-whitening agents. You might think you’re buying face moisturizer or deodorant, but then you discover that you bleached your face. Not that I know from experience…

 

What Not to Pack

  • Products that travel bloggers try to sell you using affiliate links.

…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.

drybag

Sea to Summit dry bag

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.

 

  • Convertible Hiking Pants and Other Travel Clothing

zippypants

So bad.

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. 

 

Staying Organized

  • Packing cubes. 

These are incredibly usefpacking cubesul 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.

  • Toiletry bag. 

I ended up buying a small hanging Osprey toiletry bag. toiletryIt’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.

 

What I Still Have

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.

Clothing

  • Skinny black pants – 1 – I find that black pants are more versatile than jeans. You can dress them up more easily.
  • Hiking pants – 1 – NOT the zippy pant variety.
  • Yoga pants – 2
  • Sun dress – 1 – I recently threw away one because it was getting ratty, and I’m heading to New Zealand where I won’t need it.
  • Shirts – 4 –  Including one nice black blouse
  • Tank tops – 4 – I needed several for my yoga teacher training, but to be honest, I could get rid of more…
  • Shorts 2 – One for wearing outside and one for lounging/exercising.
  • Flannel shirts – 2 Okay, two flannel shirts is a little excessive…but I love them.
  • Puffer jacket – 1
  • Fleece – 1
  • Rain jacket – 1
  • Sports bra – 2
  • Regular bra – 1
  • Underwear – 7
  • Socks – 3 – tiny white ones
  • Bathing suit – 2
  • SmartWool hiking socks – 2 – although I could probably do with 1 pair now
  • Scarf – 1 – I always travel with a scarf. They’re versatile. I use it as a blanket, a towel, and a way to dress up.

Shoes

  • Flip flops – 1 – These are my go-to shoes in warm climates.

    nike

    Nike Free running shoes

  • Running shoes – 1 – I love my Nike Free shoes in black. They’re incredibly light weight and have turned out to be great shoes for day-to-day wear and for exercising.
  • Chuck Taylors – 1 – These are definitely superfluous, but I just can’t seem to get rid of them…  Since writing this post, I finally got the courage to donate my Chucks. It didn’t make sense to have those and my Nike Free shoes.
  • Hiking shoes – Since leaving Africa, I went several months without a hiking shoe. We just arrived in New Zealand where I just picked up a new pair of North Face hiking shoes for the trails here, and I love them so far!

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.

Toiletries

  • Make-up – foundation, powder, blush, mascara, eye shadow, eye liner, chapstick
  • Vaseline – I use this as a make-up remover and for chapped lips/hands
  • Deodorant
  • Disposable Razers
  • Brush, comb, hair ties 
  • Toothbrush with cap, toothpaste, floss
  • Nail clippers, nail file, tweezers
  • Travel size shampoo, conditioner, and lotion stored in Go Toobs. I like packing my own shampoo/conditioner.
  • Melatonin – This is the best natural remedy for jet lag.
  • Diva Cup – I love my Diva Cup and think every woman should have one. No more searching for tampons every month around the world. Read more on their site.
  • Medication and vitamins – I stocked up on medication I’d need throughout the year, including Malaria pills, which I discovered were actually MUCH cheaper in the US than in Africa. Yay – America is finally good at something in healthcare. Also included in my little medical kit: inhaler, ibuprofin, presciption meds, altitude sickness pills for Kili, bandaids, antiseptic wipes, medical tape, allergy meds (Note to all allergy sufferers in the US: it is hard to find Allegra-D/Claritin-D around the world.)

Miscellaneous

  • Passport, vaccination card – I don’t normally bring my vaccination card on short trips to developed countries, but you should for a round-the-world trip. Some countries require proof of certain vaccines, like Yellow Fever, at immigration (Although I have yet to experience anyone asking me for my vaccination card…)
  • Other important documents – travel insurance card, dive certification, driver’s license, health insurance card, credit and debit cards
  • Wallet and extra USD 
  • Passport photos – These are useful for obtaining visas on the road.
  • Headlamp – This has come in handy several times — for hiking and during various power outages in developing countries. Thanks for the random Christmas present, Mom!
  • Multi-converter – No more scouring airports for adapters for each new country.
  • Earplugs and eyemask – I’m addicted. I can’t sleep without either.
  • Moleskin notebook and pen – Sometimes inspiration strikes, and I need to write something down. You also need pens to fill out immigration cards.
  • Small lock – It comes in handy staying in hostels
  • Sea to Summit dry bag 
  • Sunglasses and small case – I love my Raybans. Or I did. Until I lost them in Bali.

Electronics

  • Macbook Air – Not everyone wants to lug around a computer, but I knew I would need mine if I wanted to keep up a blog!
  • iPhone 5 – I kept my normal US phone plan. T-Mobile has free data and web in 100 countries. It’s been amazing for this trip.
  • Kindle – I bought a Kindle specifically for this trip, and it’s incredibly convenient for long-term travel.
  • Headphones – I am a podcast junkie.
  • Canon Powershot G16 camera – I opted not to bring my Canon SLR and extra lenses because of space constraints. This little camera is great.
  • GoPro Hero 4 silver 
  • External hard drive – This is great to have to back up your photos when you have slow wi-fi. When I have faster Internet, I then upload everything to Dropbox.
  • Chargers 
  • Extra Battery – I bought a cheap battery in the market in Kuala Lumpur. It comes in handy when you need to charge your phone and can’t find an outlet.

 

RTW Travel Packing Summary

  1. Find the right bag combination.
  2. Practice non-attachment to the things you have. i.e. Get rid of stuff!
  3. Pack less. You can always find what you need overseas.

 

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.

 

Do you have any RTW travel packing tips? If so, I’d love to hear about what works for you.

 

 

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  • Robin Batsel Sherman

    Emily Ehlinger shared your blog. Good list! My annual long travel is only 3 weeks, but I only do carry on. It keeps me from spending my time packing and unpacking – and from losing things. Even with only two bags, I always come home with things that never left my bag. Each trip, I get better. One small Osprey bag and a roll aboard that converts to a back pack – handy for jumping on and off trains. Enjoy New Zealand – we just returned from 3 weeks there. My favorite places – Kaikoura on the North Island – swimming with the wild dolphins – and Franz Joseph on the South Island – helicoptering to the glacier.

    • Hi Robin! Thanks for reading. I love hearing about other people’s travels, and I love that you only do carry-on, too. I think it’s a great way to minimize stress when traveling. Packing is always a learning experience, and I agree that you learn new things with each trip. We’ll definitely have to check out some of your NZ spots. We’re doing a heli hike on Franz Josef on Christmas Eve — can’t wait! Take care.

  • Kate

    I just did my first carry-on only trip, and it was only 2 weeks in Hawaii. I’d been there before, so I knew what things I always took but never used and kept cutting down until I could fit everything into my 50L backpack. Didn’t even take a personal item. I’m totally hooked on carry-on only travel now. Loved your post- gotta learn to let that stuff go!

    • Hi Kate, kudos on managing one carry-on! I find it very liberating to travel with only carry-on luggage. There’s a lot of trial and error involved with packing, and no matter how much I travel, I have to keep reminding myself to let go of stuff! It’s a continual learning process for all of us. Great to hear from you, and thanks for reading.

  • Dale Bryant

    I just ordered an AER Duffel after reading this post. That bag is exactly what I was looking for!

    • Hi Dale! I’m so glad you found the post helpful. Hope you enjoy your new AER – it’s been a great bag for me. All the best!

  • segacs

    Love your blog! I’ve been trying for years to downsize to carry-on only for my travels. I can manage fine with the size and weight; my downfall is invariably liquids. I’m a low-maintenance woman, but I’m picky about what I put on my skin, and the 3-3-1 bags are tiny! How do you manage with things like sunscreen, cosmetics, etc.?