nHow and what to pack for a gap year or long-term travel? What a dilemma! In this post I give some tips for packing and a detailed account of how and what I packed for our career break traveling through Europe, North America, Central America and South East Asia. I hope my packing tips and steps will get you started and organised, and also give you some idea about what (not) to pack.
You would think that it would be kind of fun, packing, as you’re all excited about getting ready for your trip, but really – most of the time it’s a pain. Just as every person is unique, every trip is unique as are the contents of your suitcase/backpack/wheeled luggage. There is no ‘one packing list fits all’ solution. Steve and I read some great travel blog posts and watched many a Youtube packing tip video before starting to pack for our trip. Even with all those great tips for packing available online, it was still a bit of a nightmare.
So far we have visited cities, beaches, jungles, mountains and pretty much everything in between. We’ve had sunshine, rain, and snow – so all sorts of weather too, which makes packing all the more challenging. We also keep pretty active on the road (see Steve’s post on keeping fit whilst traveling), so we needed to pack hiking and workout gear in addition to the standard stuff.
We made a conscious decision from the start to not attempt ‘minimalist packing’ although I have to admit there have definitely been moments we wished we had (for example wheeling over cobble stone streets in Athens)! I have to say I have a LOT of respect for minimalist packers/travelers who manage long trips with a carry-on bag only. I know it can be done but it’s not for the faint-hearted, and certainly not for me. I need a few creature comforts. Also – many airlines are becoming more and more strict about the weight and size of carry-ons so minimalist packers may find themselves having to check their bags regardless.
When setting out to pack, I wanted to find a bit of a happy medium of not quite the minimalist packing way, but also not overpacking (which is what I used to do on every single trip I took). I’d like to call our style the (completely made-up term) ‘versatile mediumist’ packing style, which tries to say we have a reasonable amount of stuff, whilst still keeping it quite manageable.
We both travel with an 80-litre Osprey Sojourn wheeled bag, plus day-pack sized backpacks as carry-on bags (see my review on Eaglecreek backpack), and hand/shoulder bags (see my review on Pacsafe handbag).
My initial packing goals were, and still are:
- Having reasonable variety whilst not overpacking. I wanted a reasonably varied, sensible, appropriate and comfortable wardrobe and gear. I don’t want to wear the same two t-shirts for 15 months (you have my full respect minimalist packers but I just can’t do it!).
- Keeping to minimal purchases on the road so that we: a) can stick to our travel budget; and b) don’t add more weight to our luggage.
- General ease of packing/unpacking. Maintaining a relative ease of packing and unpacking has been important, as there has been a lot of that on this trip. This is where packing cubes come in!
Tips for packing – 9 steps to packing success:
1. Before you even start planning your packing, do some research on the destinations you’re going to visit. Not just in terms of the weather and climate, but also the local customs and norms. You want to be mindful of the local customs, so don’t only pack tiny little tops and shorts if you are planning to visit temples or churches, or just in general if you’re visiting a more conservative country. Respect the local culture and do your research beforehand as to what is appropriate to wear.
2. Think about what type of luggage/bag you want to travel with and what is going to work for your trip. We wanted wheeled luggage that is easy to maneuver around and that converts into a backpack, as we anticipated we would need to occasionally carry the bags on our backs.
3. Think lightweight, quick drying and versatile clothing, and also materials you don’t have to iron.
4. Lay out some outfits, think about what you feel comfortable wearing and what goes together. Only bring items you know you will wear and that are appropriate to activities you’re planning to undertake.
5. Invest in packing cubes! You may think that they add bulk and they may seem expensive, but they are a MUST. They will make packing so much easier and keep your bag organised. You’ll have an idea where things are, especially after a few times of packing-unpacking-packing. The cubes can be used to compress things, so even if they add a tiny little bit of bulk, they also pack things tighter. You will also find unpacking and repacking a lot easier. If we stay in one place for more than one or two nights, I tend to unpack, at least partially. My packing cubes are Kathmandu but there are many others such as Eaglecreek that are lightweight and durable.
6. Roll, don’t fold. Rolling your clothes when packing means a better use of space and less creases.
7. ‘Practise pack’ at least once, well in advance before your trip, to test how full and heavy your bag gets. Test carry/wheel the bag around the block and carry it up a flight of stairs to see how comfortable/uncomfortable the bag gets. If it’s feeling heavy and you’re struggling, you know what to do!
8. Know your airline checked baggage allowance and keep within it to avoid being charged extra. The allowance is often only 20kg (roughly 44lbs) – or none, and your luggage allowance must be purchased as an extra according to weight.
9. Don’t pack your bag to full capacity, in particular if you have planned frequent stops on your trip (=constant unpacking/re-packing). It takes much longer to pack everything perfectly back into the bag. If you have some wiggle room in your bag repacking is going to be much easier. Also, you probably want to leave some room for that most amazing souvenir you absolutely must have!
Detailed Packing List
Here’s what looks like a horribly long packing list! I’ve provided some commentary on most of the items. Please see my bare-bones packing list if you just want a packing list without the detail.
I have five pairs of footwear and I know this is probably too many pairs, but in fact for a lot of ladies this is shockingly few pairs for a year!
- Thongs, or for the sake of this post, flip-flops. I have probably worn flip-flops more than anything else on this trip.
- Nike training shoes (not running shoes): I love my Nikes! They are lightweight and look quite stylish (in kind of a ‘sporty chic’ way), and they are versatile enough so I can wear them with most of my clothes. They’re very lightweight and black with black soles so they are nice and understated. Sketchers also have some great and super comfy walking shoes that would be great on a long trip and could double up as training shoes.
- Walking sandals: We walk a lot and my sandals are super comfortable, yet still quite cute (for walking sandals). They are Merrell.
- Black leather ballet flats. They are versatile and comfortable, and I tend to wear them if I need to ‘dress up’.
- Hiking boots. We do quite a bit of hiking so they are a must. Mine are Salomons and I have had them for years. Super durable and comfortable. They are quite heavy though and take up a fair bit of space so if you are not going to do any hiking, not having to take big boots will save you a lot of space.
That’s it for shoes! So.. no heels or boots (beyond hiking boots). Flats are really the way to go as they are the most versatile and comfortable to wear. You need to keep shoes to as few pairs as possible as they tend to be heavy and take up space.
I found that clothing was by far the trickiest part of my packing. Since we are traveling in different climates and regions, we need quite a few different items. Comfort and convenience are the key, but I also have a couple ‘smarter’ things for cities and the occasional night out.
- 4 sleeveless lightweight tops
- 2 T-shirts
- For layering: 2 cardigans and 2 long sleeved T-shirts.
- Basics: 3 singlets/strappy tank tops.
- 2 pairs of jeans. Many packing lists/videos tell you to not pack jeans because they are heavy-ish and don’t dry quickly. This may be true, however we have visited lots of cities so jeans have been a must for me. One pair is jeggings rather than jeans and they are actually quite light and quick drying.
- 2 pairs of shorts, of which one pair also doubles up as my hiking shorts (a quick-dry roll-up pair from The North Face, similar to the ones on their website but in black). The North Face roll-up shorts are quite long so they are also great in countries you need to dress more conservatively in.
- 1 black skirt, fitted. Stretchy cotton material.
- 1 pair high-quality leggings (yoga pants), very versatile.
- 2 knee-length casual dresses. Versatile and light.
- 1 ‘beach dress’ (a recent purchase from Thailand)
- 1 maxi-dress.
Lounge & sleep wear:
- 2 comfortable tops
- 1 pair cropped leggings
- 1 pair full-length leggings
- 1 pair of woolen socks for colder climates (I get chilly very easily… plus my mum knitted them for me so they have sentimental value!)
- 10 pairs of underwear
- 4 bras
- 7 pairs of socks
I could get away with fewer if I had to, however ladies’ underwear tends to be pretty compact so they don’t take up a lot of space.
- 1 pair of bikinis
- 1 pair of board shorts
- 1 rash guard
The last two are for surfing/body boarding, kayaking & other watersports.
- 1 pair of workout/yoga pants.
- 1 workout/yoga top.
- 2 pairs of workout bras.
All Lululemon which I’m quite obsessed with. All really quick-drying so you can just rinse/wash them after each workout and they’ll dry for the next day.
- 1 pair of lightweight hiking pants (Eddie Bauer). They roll up to knee-length and are made out of a slightly stretchy material, which makes them very comfortable. If we are hiking somewhere warm, then I wear the North Face shorts (listed above under ‘bottoms’). Ideally you would have zip-off hiking pants that convert to shorts so you wouldn’t need a separate pair of shorts, but I’m yet to find a pair that I actually like.
- 1 thermal long-sleeved top
- 2 pairs of hiking socks. Yes, a little bulky but will make your hiking experience so much more comfortable. And yes, I need two pairs if we are on a multi-day hike.
My workout top (listed above in ‘workout gear’) doubles as my hiking top.
For hiking in the Glacier National Park in Montana, US we got pretty unlucky as it snowed in early September. I had to get some extra clothing to keep me warm, including a beanie and some gloves that I’ve kept (listed under accessories).
- 1 lightweight layering jacket. I got a Lululemon jacket a few years ago and it’s actually for cycling, but I pretty much wear it with anything. It’s lightweight but provides some warmth as an extra layer, plus it’s really nicely cut. Sorry – no product link as I don’t think they make the style any longer.
- 1 shell jacket (Halti). Mine is a heavier shell jacket, which together with a thermal top will keep you pretty toasty and absolutely dry. I’ve had mine for a few years but it’s similar to this Halti jacket (mine’s black). Very durable!
- 1 lightweight & packable rain jacket (also by Halti, but they don’t seem to have the jacket in stock at the moment). It is a lightweight waterproof jacket that packs into its own pocket. Super handy for unexpected rain showers especially in warmer climates where the shell jacket is too heavy.
- 4 scarfs! They are a great way to dress up an outfit, layer up and cover up. I probably have too many but they are lightweight and versatile.
- 1 Buff (multifunctional headwear). Tiny and super versatile.
- 1 sarong. My trusty sarong works as a beach towel, a cover up (bigger than a scarf), a blanket, a beach dress etc.
- 1 thin leather belt.
- 2 hats. I love a stylish hat but I’m limited to a cap and a floppy brimmed hat as they are packable and compact.
- Jewelry: I have 5 sets of earrings, 4 rings, 2 bangles and 2 very light necklaces/pendants. They are all very small pieces, and I actually tend not to change them around that much, so I could ditch a few. I also don’t travel with my engagement ring and wedding band; I left those at home just in case. Instead I wear some silver rings on my ring finger.
- 2 pairs of sunglasses.
- 1 beanie.
- 1 pair of gloves.
Toiletries and makeup
This is quite a challenge! If you’re only traveling for one or two weeks, small travel-sized toiletries are great. But if you’re going for a long trip you may wish to opt for products in slightly bigger packaging, as otherwise you’ll be spending lots of money on travel-sized things as they are proportionally much more expensive.
- I have a hanging toiletry bag and it contains the usual stuff; tooth brush and paste, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, moisturizer, eye cream, deodorant, cotton tips, nail clippers, and nail polish. I pretty much brought along what I was using at home before we left. As I have to check my luggage anyway I don’t have to worry about liquid restrictions when flying. It’s easy to go overboard with your toiletries though and they do really add up, so choose your packaging sizes wisely.
- Sunscreen is really essential. You can of course buy more as you go along, as with pretty much anything else, however we have noticed that sunscreen tends to be more expensive and not as widely available in some regions (e.g. Central America) so we stocked up before we left Sydney and then again when we were in the US. I’m also a little picky with my sunscreen as I prefer to wear physical sunscreen (i.e. zinc oxide) on my face rather than chemical, and it can be harder to find. My favorite brand is Invisible Zinc which is an Aussie brand and hard to find in some regions.
- Make-up. I don’t have that many items as I don’t wear make-up on most days. In my small make-up bag I have: eye liner, mascara, concealer, mineral powder, mineral blusher and eye shadow. I could probably ditch the eye shadow as I can’t remember the last time I wore any.
- Medicine: I have some ibuprofen/painkillers, anti-histamine, traveler diarrhea medication, and melatonin. I also have antibiotics that I got beforehand, just in case I urgently need some and we aren’t anywhere close to a doctor. Steve is also carrying band-aids, antiseptic wipes and cream.
- I don’t have a hair dryer or straightener, instead I have a few old-school soft curlers that you can sleep in (if I feel like actually doing something ‘fancy’ with my hair – the curlers have been floating around the bag for months unused but they weigh next to nothing and take up very little space so I’ve kept them).
- Driving license. We also SHOULD have gotten international licenses in Australia before we left but we accidentally overlooked this detail. We haven’t actually needed them as of yet and have been fine renting cars and scooters everywhere, however technically you need to have one for example in Vietnam to be allowed to drive. If there’s an accident and you don’t have an international license there could be some ramifications. An international license is quick and cheap to get in most countries so get one before you leave. Better safe than sorry.
- Credit card
- Some cash in US$
- Print-out of my travel insurance policy, also stored on my laptop and email
- Pictures of my passport biopage stored on my laptop and in my email
- Scuba diving certification
- Vaccination card
- Spare passport photos.
- 11 inch Macbook Air
- Sony NEX-5N camera
- GoPro Hero4
- 1 multiregion adapter
- Chargers for all the gadgets.
Steve’s carrying more of our electronics, for example our hard drive.
Miscellaneous useful items
Antibacterial hand wipes
- 1 travel towel. I have a Sea to Summit Pocket towel in size ‘large’. This towel is fantastic; it packs into its TINY bag and dries super fast. Although most places we have stayed at have provided towels it has been handy many many times (as a workout towel, on the beach and the odd time when there have not been towels at our accommodation).
- 1 folding daypack. I have an Eddie Bauer Travel Daypack that I got in the US on sale. It’s small and lightweight, and packs into its own pocket. Yes, I also have an actual backpack but it’s much larger and also I would actually need to first empty it in order to use it. This bag is the perfect size for most day trips or hikes. There are many folding backpacks that are actually much more compact and lighter, however this also means their straps are super narrow, as is their material, and they’re a little too flimsy for a daypack in my opinion. I originally had a very lightweight folding daypack but it pretty much fell apart after the first couple uses.
- 1 folding tote/shopping bag. It is so tiny and lightweight that you can’t go wrong. It’s useful as a shopping bag or general to-and-from.
1 silk sleeping bag liner. Mine’s Sea to Summit and again, packs into a tiny pocket. The liner is an item I have only used a few times so far, but I would still bring it along. It’s small and lightweight and when you do need it, it’s great to have. You can feel nice and protected against icky sheets in your lovely silk cocoon.
- 1 small dry bag for kayaking etc.
- 1 set of ear plugs
- 1 basic sewing kit (i.e. couple needles and some thread)
- 3 combination locks (to lock up my luggage and carry-on bag)
- My very nerdy ‘in-flight kit’ which has noise-canceling headphones, blow-up neck pillow and footrest, flight socks, and ear plugs. Who cares if you look nerdy if you can just get some shut-eye on those long-haul flights.
- Several extra ziplock bags in a couple different sizes. Handy for all sorts of stuff.
- A small travel journal. I make short entries in the journal every day as I’m a bit old-school and love scribbling down my notes.
- Yahtzee game. Lightweight and provides hours of fun (especially if played after a glass or two of red wine).
- A plastic, lightweight, stemless travel wineglass. I stuff the ‘glass’ with a couple tops when I pack so it doesn’t take really any extra space in the bag. We’ve used the wineglasses tons at motels etc where there are either no glasses at all or they are some tiny things.
- Insect repellant.
Things I don’t have in my bag but wish I had
- I am yet to try any shampoo bars (i.e. shampoo that looks like a bar of soap) but I’ve heard many good things about them, in particular Lush shampoo bars.
- I’ve seen some great convertible dresses/skirts you can wear multiple ways. Many travel brands seem to do them. I just wasn’t able to find one that I liked before we left.
- I just saw this amazing article on the MORF shirt on Huffington Post and I so want one! Unfortunately it’s not available yet but it looks very promising!
- Hard drive (we have one between the two of us, and on the list of things to purchase is another one, so we each have one).
- A Steripen water purification system (here’s a great post about the Steripen from Laura R from Teacher at Recess that inspired me!).
The combined weight of all my items (including the weight of the bags) is about 25kg (or about 55lbs). Of this, about 19kg (or about 42lbs) is my main luggage and its contents, and about 6kg (or about 13lbs) my carry-on and handbag and their contents.
You CAN definitely travel with a lot less than this, especially if you’re going to travel in warm climates only, but this has worked for me. As said, every traveler is unique and so is every packing list, but I hope this post has helped you in some way to plan your packing!
Have I missed anything? Do you have some great tips for packing?