Figuring out what to pack for a short trip is hard enough; deciding what to pack for extended or indefinite travel can feel overwhelming! (You can scroll down to get to the actual packing list, or keep reading to first learn about why I don’t travel carry-on only, what’s changed over the years, and more.)
My packing list has changed over the years as my destinations and style of travel have changed, and it’s run the gamut from pretty light to super heavy—I traveled around the world for nine months in 2004–2005 with a ~50-liter backpack and no electronics except for a digital camera, but then I moved to Argentina indefinitely with two massive suitcases (maybe that doesn’t count?!). Read on to find out my current approach to living out of a bag while traveling the world and working from my laptop.
I bought new luggage in 2012 when we decided to go more nomadic, and I have been using the same bags ever since: a 22-inch TravelPro MaxLite suitcase, a Dakine laptop backpack, and a black shoulder bag (it’s always been black, and always been a shoulder/messenger bag, but I started out with a Manhattan Portage bag, then swapped that for an old Esprit bag that I found at my parents’ house—in the picture below—and replaced that in fall 2015 with one from Baggallini).
Why I Check My Bag
Technically, my suitcase is carry-on size, but I usually check it because I choose to travel with a few things that can’t be carried on, like a Swiss Army knife and some toiletries that exceed the TSA limit for liquids. Sure, there are a lot of advantages of traveling carry-on only, but there are some downsides as well, like not being able to travel with more than a small container of your favorite shampoo. And if you have sensitive skin like I do, it’s not just about personal preference but also wanting to stick with what you know you can use without a reaction instead of taking your luck with whatever you can find in your destination.
So for now, checking our bags works well for us. Almost all of our flights are international, which means we don’t have to pay a fee to check our bags, and the few times we have had to pay (like on Air Asia in Southeast Asia and on domestic flights in the U.S.) it still seemed worth it to be able to have everything we wanted with us. Yes, I’m sure it’s lovely to stroll right out of the airport without having to wait at baggage claim, but we travel slowly and I don’t feel like the time saved at the airport a couple times a year is worth giving up months and months in one location without those things I wouldn’t be able to carry on. And yes, there’s a chance that our bags could be lost, but—knock on wood!—we’ve never had any problems.
Because I check my bag, I could arguably use something larger, but having a smaller bag prevents overpacking, and I like having something that’s small/light enough that I can lift it on my own. Unfortunately, we do still travel like backpackers sometimes, which can be a pain in the ass with a rolling suitcase—I remember all too well struggling to wheel my suitcase over rough dirt roads in Mar Azul, Argentina, after the local bus dropped us off a few blocks from the place we were staying, and I cursed my bag the whole time I was lugging it up and down stairs in the New York City subway. (We are starting to get better at sucking it up and just paying for a cab to avoid situations like these!)
Things I’ve Ditched/Added over the Years
Deciding what to pack for a nomadic lifestyle takes some trial and error and ongoing tweaking as you learn along the way and your needs and preferences change. There are things I started out with that over time I decided I didn’t need anymore, like a travel pillow (didn’t make me any more comfortable on long flights/bus trips) and a travel towel (can’t remember the last time we stayed somewhere without towels, or where I couldn’t use my sarong instead). There are lots of things I’ve added, too, like a laptop stand and an external keyboard to save my neck and shoulders.
Because we return to our apartment in Buenos Aires about once a year and pass through the United States fairly often, we’re able to swap things out, picking up or buying new things and leaving behind or donating things we no longer need on the road for whatever reason. We sometimes buy things on the road if necessary, but I prefer to buy most things—especially toiletries, clothing/shoes, and electronics—in the States, where I’m more familiar with the brands, there are often more options, and the price-to-quality ratio is often better.
I used to carry nail polish and remover, but didn’t use it very often and figure I can always go to a nail salon if I really want my nails painted. I also used to carry fragrance-free, hypoallergenic laundry detergent when my skin was particularly sensitive, but thankfully it’s a bit better now (and I can often find something locally that’s less harsh than the typical stuff). We’ve also sometimes carried a laundry soap bar, which can be handy if you’re doing a lot of hand-washing. It ran out last year and we haven’t felt the need to replace it yet.
Even after putting a lot of thought into a major wardrobe overhaul in fall 2015—long overdue after wearing the same items for several years!—I’m still not completely satisfied with what’s in my bag, and there are a few things I’m planning on adding and subtracting on upcoming trips to the States.
I’m not much for shorts and haven’t owned any in years. I rarely wear skirts or dresses either, but have tried a number of different ones over the years, especially when we were in Southeast Asia. None of them made the cut over the long term, though—some were too heavy/hot, some were too revealing for more modest countries, some I just didn’t like—and I’m still searching for my perfect travel dress/skirt.
I have a number of extra things with me right now because we knew we would be spending this past winter in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where it can be cold at night and, due to the concrete construction of the houses, during the day it can be much colder inside than outside. I was really grateful for the extra layers!
When we headed to Mexico in late 2015 I also brought along a yoga mat and an immersion blender I had in Buenos Aires and was planning to get rid of (which means we checked a small additional bag on our flight from Argentina to Mexico). When we left Mexico in mid-2016, I left these things and some other household items with a friend there, on the assumption that we’ll be back at some point.
My Digital Nomad Packing List
So without further ado, here’s a (heavily annotated) list of what’s in my bags these days. The two specific things I don’t have right now that I would like to add are a lightweight dress or skirt that can be dressed up or down, and a pair of ballet flats or some other slightly dressier shoes. You’ll see below some notes about things I’m planning or thinking about getting rid of (when you’re dealing with a fixed amount of space, it’s even more important to follow the “one in, one out” rule). Even putting together this list has made me question some of the things I have with me, so there may be more changes coming. Like I said, it’s a constant work in progress!
These are both my personal items and items we share that I usually carry. (Stay tuned; I might be able to get Roberto to add his list here at some point!)
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3 pairs of jeans (two skinny, one thin capri)
1 pair black stretchy capri pants (for yoga/exercise but nice enough for regular wear too)
1 pair cotton knit pajama pants
2 tank tops for yoga/exercise
1 camisole tank for sleeping
1 long-sleeve long-underwear shirt for sleeping
4 tank tops
5 short-sleeve shirts ranging from dressy to sporty
2 long-sleeve tees
1 three-quarter-sleeve tee
2 thin sweaters
1 thin black flowy cardigan (like this)
7 pairs of lightweight, quick-drying underwear
2 regular bras
1 sports bra
8 pairs of socks (mix Darn Tough crew* and anklet socks, and WrightSock like these*; I had two pairs of SmartWool socks that didn’t last long, but the Darn Tough have a lifetime guarantee and have been awesome so far)
32 Degrees packable down jacket (the Columbia Mighty Lite III* synthetic down jacket I had before wasn’t warm enough for the times I ended up in colder weather)
North Face waterproof shell (I can wear the down jacket underneath this if it’s really cold; I can’t find the style I have online but it’s more city than outdoorsy and I love it!)
Shoes and Accessories
Sanuk flip-flops* (not the best option for the cobblestone streets in Mexico, but I lost my last pair and really missed them when we were on the beach in Costa Rica so decided to replace them)
Merrell Solo* shoes (I bought these in purple—they call it Plumeria—to replace my running shoes and my Converse Chuck Taylors; they’re great for daily wear and hikes and have a kind of retro look that is cooler than regular hiking/running shoes)
Gray-metallic ballet flats from the Walking Company
Slippers (the tile floors in Mexico are freezing! If we go elsewhere, I probably will leave them behind)
Sunglasses + case
Eyeglasses + case (to avoid computer eye strain—though I don’t wear them as often as I should)
Super-compact and lightweight umbrella
2 thin acrylic scarves (between them they go with all my clothes and are a great way to add a little warmth/sun protection/pizzazz to any outfit)
Cotton sun hat (I’m not really a hat person and hardly ever use this, but every once in a while on a hike I’m glad to have it)
Cotton bandanna (in the heat and humidity of SE Asia I often wished I had one, but rarely use it anywhere else)
Small fabric bag of jewelry (yet I wear the same earrings, rings, and necklace almost every day, so I’m not sure why I bother) + small cloth to clean silver jewelry when it tarnishes
2 small coin purses (one for local money and one for coins from elsewhere—why am I holding on to those??)
An RFID cardholder
Reusable shopping bag
Sports waist pouch (okay, it’s basically a fanny pack! my exercise pants don’t have any pockets, so I thought I would use this to carry phone, keys, etc. but I’ve rarely used it since buying it about six months ago)
Lightweight ChicoBag backpack (from World Domination Summit 2012—I use this for day hikes and when we go to a cafe to work; it holds my laptop and other essentials perfectly)
Knit cozy for my phone (so I can throw it in a bag without scratching it)
Fingerless gloves (another lifesaver for chilly days working in our casita in Mexico over the winter)
Small embroidered purse from Thailand
Warm hat and gloves (left both with my parents in the States, then bought another pair of gloves in Portland this past winter and knit myself a new hat)
13-inch MacBook Pro Retina + neoprene sleeve (because the laptop sleeve of my backpack is really big for a 13-inch, and to protect the laptop if I carry it in another bag) + small cloth to clean screen (came with the MacBook)
Western Digital My Passport Ultra* 2 TB external hard drive + case
? GB USB flash drive (swag from the 2016 7in7 conference)
Logitech wireless mouse* + case
Apple wireless keyboard + case
Roost* laptop stand + travel bag
Universal plug adapter (like this, except mine doesn’t have USB ports—the next one will)
Battery pack (there are lots of newer options; I bought this in 2012 after dealing with my phone constantly dying on a road trip that required heavy GPS use—it also has a flashlight)
Apple battery charger + batteries (six total, for mouse and keyboard + extra pair)
Audio-Technica ATR-3350* lavalier microphone (for recording videos—I haven’t used it in ages, not sure why I’m still carrying it around)
Sandisk Sansa Clip mp3 player w/ earbuds (this way I don’t wear down my phone battery just listening to music, and it’s much easier to carry when exercising than my phone)
Kindle Keyboard 3G + case (still kicking after almost five years; many people love the newer Paperwhite version)
Canon PowerShot S120 digital camera + case + battery charger
Motorola MotoX Pure Edition unlocked smartphone w/ earbuds (yes, I have two pairs of earbuds; it’s more convenient to have a pair that stay with my mp3 player and a pair that I use for my phone and computer)
Miscellaneous charging cables for all of the above (Roberto actually carries most of them)
I started carrying a sweater buzzer—like this—after noticing that a bunch of my new tops get fuzzy really fast, so this keeps them looking good through lots of wear; I left it in Portland in Dec. 2016 because I was running out of space, and I really wish I had it!
General toiletries (in two toiletry bags): shampoo, body lotion, soap, face wash, face lotion/sunscreen, razor, shaving lotion, toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, mouth guard + case, chapstick, deodorant, styling cream for my hair, various ointments/creams to handle skin issues, comb, tweezers, nail clippers and file, miscellaneous hair clips, hand sanitizer, small mirror (some of this I keep in a small bag in my purse)
Body poof/loofah thingy for the shower
Small make-up bag w/ mascara, concealer, lipstick, eye shadow (I never wore make-up when we were in SE Asia, but in more temperate climates I do break it out now and then)
Compact dual-voltage hair dryer (I hardly used one for years, but have discovered that my shorter hairstyle really doesn’t do well if I let it air dry—I kind of hate being someone who travels with a hair dryer, but there you go)
Various vitamins and supplements
Pedometer (this one; I also considered going for a FitBit or Jawbone UP but decided to keep it simple)
First-aid: Band-aids, moleskin, anti-diarrheal pills, etc.
Yoga towel* + Yoga Paws* (I have a regular yoga mat I brought from Buenos Aires to Mexico a couple years ago and have left here when we come and go; I now use the towel and paws so rarely I may ditch them)
Notebook for taking notes in coaching calls, etc. (when I fill a notebook, I scan the important stuff and shred the rest)
Tiny notebook for writing down addresses, travel notes, etc.
Small coloring book* (I’ve started drawing my own designs so probably don’t need the book anymore)
Pencil bag with colored pencils, pens, and markers
Set of interchangeable knitting needles and cables, crochet hook, tape measure
3 decks of regular playing cards + Fluxx (I wouldn’t carry so many but the game we play the most, Spite & Malice, requires three decks! I learned this game from my grandmother—these rules are a little different but give you the general idea. Roberto also carries dice for one of our other favorite games.)
Plastic portfolio folder with essential papers
Business cards + lightweight aluminum holder
Klean Kanteen* 18-ounce stainless steel water bottle
Thin cotton sarong (can be used as a towel, sarong, picnic blanket, tablecloth, blanket, pillow, and more)
Clothesline* + a few clothespins
Mini sewing kit
4 packing cubes (This is a new thing for us and I’m loving them so far! You can squeeze in a lot more than you’d think and they keep everything organized, which makes it easy to find things and is great when you’re not staying somewhere long enough to really unpack. Between us we have a few from eBags and some from REI—I love how lightweight the REI one is, and it has a bit of compression to it thanks to an extra set of zippers, but we’ll see which are more durable over time.)
Swiss Army knife
Yellow fever vaccination card + insurance card
Credit cards and ATM cards (several of each from different banks, just in case!)
Emergency cash in US$
What about You?
Phew, I think that’s it! It looks like way more when it’s all written down like this.
I’d love to hear whether this list has given you any ideas for things you want to take—or leave behind! What things do you find are absolutely essential when you travel, and what have you discovered you don’t need at all?