What to Pack For Long Term Travel: Tips & Tricks
When the time to leave on your year trip starts getting closer, thinking about what to pack can be daunting. In my case, I just ignored it the best I could until only a few weeks before our trip.
When Joris said I should start thinking of the things I needed to pack, my initial reaction was: “Wait a second... how does anyone —without the use of sorcery or magic— pack for long term traveling. In our case, pack for one year!”
Not just clothes but toiletries, shoes, travel essentials, electronics, chargers, etc. and all of it in a hand luggage sized backpack!? It turns out I was overthinking it... I looked around the internet, got some advice from Joris and came up with a solution my brain could cope with.
How and what to pack for long term travel
It’s actually pretty straight forward. Want to pack for one year? Pack for a week!
Start packing like you would if you would be traveling for a week instead of one year, enough to assemble one outfit a day and only a few extras just in case.
Our ‘travel style’ is all about budget, comfort and being practical. Because we’re traveling to countries with different weather and we want to be respectful to all cultures, all the garments we packed are light, comfy and appropriate everywhere.
Related read • Things to Know About Long Term Travel
But first, how big should a backpack for long term travel be? Honestly, not too big at all. Whether you’re a guy or a girl, we recommend backpacks which are not bigger than 40-50L. Ours are 40L with the option to enlarge them to 50. We haven’t had to expand our backpacks and don’t think we’ll need to.
Keep in mind you will have to carry this around every few days and sometimes will have to endure long walks with it. Also, the bigger your bag is, the more you’ll pack. Trust me, you don’t need that extra weight.
When you travel on a budget for a year, you’ll have to go for low-cost flights that will charge you extra if you want to check in your bags, so this is another reason to keep your backpack small enough to fit in the overhead compartments of the plane and weighting close to 7 kilos max.
Look for good quality backpacks (doesn’t have to be expensive) that have useful pockets and a rain/weather cover (or buy it separately). The cover will also be useful if you travel by plane and you have to check in your luggage as it will help keep the straps safely tucked in.
Something else to keep in mind is how the backpack opens. Many backpacks are top-loading, with a drawstring to close it at the top. That sucks. It means having to dig around to get something from the bottom.
Solution? Front-loading. Bags with a clamshell design are much nicer: you just zip them open face down, with everything within instant reach. Super convenient. It’ way more comfortable, especially when traveling long term. Remember, you have to open and close it almost every day!
We both bought a Quechua Escape 50L, but they seem to be discontinued. Here are a few good front-loading backpack alternatives on Amazon.com.
The magic packing cubes
Joris really wanted packing cubes. I was sceptical but he got them anyway; a set of six and boy, he proved me wrong. They turned out to be super useful. They come in different sizes all with zippers and some should have a mesh on the top. The magic of the cubes is that they keep everything in place and gives structure to what would otherwise eventually and unavoidably become a hot mess.
For better use of your space, a little trick is to first fold and then roll your clothing items before tightly accommodating them in the cubes.
We each used one of these extra cubes with a mesh for the t-shirts and pants, another meshed bag for dirty laundry (lets it air out so it doesn’t get too stinky) and finally one for the toiletries and a smaller one for medicines.
Our backpacks already have something similar attached, a wide pocket with a zipper which we use for smaller pieces like underwear, socks, bathing suits and our compact microfiber towels.
We totally recommend getting a good set of these when you pack for long term travel. Ours were cheap and after a few months of traveling, they started to wear out. Miraculously, they made it through the year. Keeping your bag organized is a big deal when you have to pack every 2 or 3 days, so these are definitely a must.
Pack clothes for one week or less
At first it might seem that you haven’t packed enough clothes for a whole year of traveling. Don’t worry too much about this. Instead, leave space for things that you really need and that would be hard to find in the countries you’re traveling to, like an electric travel trimmer for your man beard or your electric toothbrush if your teeth need it.
We took long and short pants, t-shirts, one sweater for me and a long sleeved shirt for him. Needless to say underwear, socks, walking shoes, comfy shoes, flip flops, sunglasses... plus everything else.
A week worth of clothes is more than enough when traveling long term, on a budget and carrying a backpack. In a lot of countries, you’ll even get affordable laundry service from your accommodation. If not, just ask for a Laundromat and once a week, wash.
Eventually, if your clothes wear out after a year of traveling (or if you just feel like it) you can always replace some items with new ones along the way. If for example you end up in a very cold country, buy a warm second hand jacket and donate it to someone before you leave.
We actually decided to buy some lightweight windbreaker jackets in Malaysia before we went to Indonesia because we realized we would be hiking up volcanos where it would be really windy and cold. In our case, we felt we could keep using it during future travels, so we went to a mall and got good quality ones for a reasonable price.
Something to consider: If you’re traveling for one year to countries with certain ‘dress codes’ like India for example and you want to be sensible about the different cultures and religions, do a little research of the places you want to visit so you can dress appropriately. As a woman, covering your shoulders and knees can in some places reduce how much people will stare at you and covering up a bit is often a requirement for going inside temples or other holy places. Think about that when packing of one year.
Go small on toiletries
Aside from clothes, you’ll need to pack toiletries and it just so happens you can get small versions of toothpaste, cream and other things. Those are perfect to pack for long term travel. I even bought a smaller hair brush! Be creative and find out how else you can go smaller like getting a shampoo/conditioner combo.
Normally we get shampoo samples and little soaps at our accommodations and when we’re running low I collect 2 or 3 for those few times it’s not available.
Remember that you can always buy extra items while you travel. If at some point they don’t fit in your bag, make an inventory and donate or leave behind whatever you don’t need.
Keep in mind that if you’re flying with your backpack as your carry-on, you won’t be allowed to carry liquids or cream products that are more than a 100 ml. They won’t pass the security check and you’ll have to throw them away. For an easier transit, pre-pack these items in a zip lock bag.
If you’re planing to go to small towns, always have a roll of toilet paper with you (also handy if you have to go to a public toilet) and a compact cotton travel liner. This is a thin sleeping bag-like blanket which I find a tad uncomfortable, but it will come in handy if your mattress is dirty or if it’s hot and the blankets provided are too thick (this actually happened while we were in India).
Related read • India for Two Months: How Much Does It Cost? [For A Couple]
Another good item to carry is a compact micro fiber towel, specially useful when you go to the beach but also in case or dirty or inexistent towels in your room.
In the end, if you find accommodations with good reviews and you’re willing to pay more for it, you’ll likely never need basic items like soap, shampoo, blanket or towels. In our case, we had simple but comfortable rooms that didn’t always had what we need. It will all depend on where you go, your budget and what’s good enough for you.
Health and Medication
To be safe, always have available basic medicine like painkillers, diarrhoea tablets, antibiotics, disinfectant, malaria medication. To that, add...
All of these things are easy to find in most countries so always go with small versions and replace them later.
Think about other things you might personally need, like special medicines or creams.
It’s a very good idea to make a consultation with your doctor before traveling because they can tell you what you might need based on the countries you’ll be visiting. Also ask for vaccinations as it is extremely important to avoid nasty life threatening diseases. If you’re planning to go really off-road or doing dangerous activities, buy a basic first aid kit in advance. Hopefully you won’t need it and you can give it away afterwards. We don’t carry one…
Keep your valuables safe
A day-pack is super useful for any traveller. (Only use it when you're already traveling. Don't stuff it before you leave.) Ours is just big enough to keep a laptop, an iPad and my small messenger bag with my wallet, phone, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, a bit of toilet paper or wipes and other little things. But we don’t always carry it with us, I usually only take my messenger bag for comfort. Joris always carries his camera bag with his phone and a special pouch with money and our passports.
If you’re taking a laptop and/or iPad with you, which you probably need when traveling for one year, you won’t want to carry them around all the time. A great option to keep your electronics safe when you leave them at your hotel, is a Pacsafe Travelsafe.
The mighty pouch
We suggest buying a pouch to hang around your neck or store in a safe place in the bag you always carry with you. When traveling for one year, your passport and credit cards are probable the most important things to pack and keep safe.
We bought the Pacsafe Coversafe X75 with a metal wire in the neck strap. This will hold your most valuable possessions... passport, money, credit card. Keep this with you at all times either around your neck. Don't make a ahbit of putting it in whatever bag you see first cause it will go wrong eventually.
Apps and smartphone
Assuming you own a smartphone. If you want to make your trip more enjoyable, an essential tool to have is a map app. For Joris, who is usually the navigator, the best one to have is Maps.me because it’s super easy to use. With it you won’t get lost and it will take you anywhere.
And best of all, you don’t need mobile internet. You download the maps and you can use them offline.
Check the internet before hand for the places you want to visit and then pin the locations on your map to use the app offline.
When you’re traveling with a limited amount of money, another app you might want to have, is one to help you keep an eye on your budget. The one on my phone is Tripcoin. Again, super easy to use and by adding location and categories, you’ll get all the basic information about where and how you’re spending your money.
Are you ready to pack for one year of traveling?
It’s a good idea to plan ahead. After you buy a comfortable, preferably lightweight luggage/backpack, make a packing test. Start by packing only the essential things: a week worth of clothes, basic shoes, basic toiletries, medicine, laptop, chargers... then add the rest but never over pack.
I hope our experience with packing for one year of traveling can help you guys take another step towards planning your first or next trip.
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