We’ve been on several extended travel adventures to date and have found that determining which items to pack and which to leave behind is incredibly stressful. And while we’ve improved over time, we still don’t always get it right. So we’ve compiled a list of the things that we would never ever consider leaving behind plus some helpful tips that we’ve developed after making our own packing mistakes.
Note: We’re not sponsored by any of these brands – it’s all just gear that we love! This post does contain a few affiliate links. They won’t cost you anything to use, but we’ll get a tiny bit of commission from your purchase which will help us to keep on keeping on and for that we are extremely grateful!
Nick’s Top 5:
I might have done yoga twice in my life and both times under duress. These pants are absolutely the most comfortable thing I have ever worn. They are lightweight and can pass as a decent pair of slacks in pinch. It was actually a Deloitte consultant that first told me about them and he wore them to work every single day. He may not have been the epitome of modern fashion, but if it’s good enough for Deloitte it’s good enough for me! (Plus I don’t think anyone travels more than consultants).
The pants are surprisingly durable considering they are essentially classy stretchy pants. I abuse mine constantly and they have held up admirably. Plus if you ever have any issues with the pants, lululemon has an incredible return policy (plus free lifetime tailoring). These pants are pricey but worth it!
Footwear is one of the trickiest parts of travel packing. To be prepared for all types of situations – wandering around the city, hiking in the mountains, heading to the beach – with the least amount of shoes.
It seems a trademark of budget “backpackers” is a pair of heavy hiking boots. But I find the majority of time is actually spent in the city – museums, cafes, bars, clubs, etc. Would you go to these places in a pair of hiking boots in your home city?
The beauty of Chukka Boots is their upper is just made of a single layer of leather meaning they compact down nicely when packed away, and if you get a pair with a simple foam sole then they are super lightweight. I easily fit them in my bag along with some running shoes and a nice pair of leather flip-flops – ready for anything! As far as a particular brand I happen to like SeaVees but there are lots of options out there.
As I write this blog post I am actually at the beach with my cell phone plugged into my portable battery. I carry the Anker PowerCore 26800 Portable Charger, purchased on Amazon. This battery has never let me down – keeping our phones charged on long bus/plane rides, camera batteries at full capacity on multi-day backpacking trips, and the tunes going at the beach (a lightweight water-resistant speaker also should be on this list!). Since you can plug 3 things in at once you don’t have to fight over who gets to charge so it’s a marriage saver! And I have never once totally run out of juice. It’s a bit hefty to carry around but oh so dependable.
This is always tucked away in my backpack – in fact I usually forget it’s there (it only weighs 4oz) until I need it. Whether it is getting caught in a surprise monsoon, deciding to swim to an offshore island, or boarding a very dodgy looking watercraft this bag always gives me peace of mind that my photography gear and whatever else I happen to have stuffed in my backpack that day will arrive back home dry.
In addition to being lightweight the bottom of the bag allows air out while still being water proof. So you can compress it down even after its closed. Technology! (I have the 35 liter size bag if you’re wondering which one to get.)
These boxers are super comfortable, lightweight, and they dry super fast (important because many foreign countries still dry clothes on the line). Cotton underwear is heavier, bulkier, and takes forever to dry. Enough said – get some ExOfficio underwear and never go back!
Note: ExOfficio claims you only need 2 pair for any trip – one being washed and one on your body. Don’t believe them. You should take more than 2 pairs of underwear on your trip!
Val’s Top 5:
When I first started traveling extensively back in 2013 I was so excited because I had just gotten a massive roller bag for Christmas and I was certain that it would suit me quite well on our upcoming 15 month trip abroad. Nick rolled his eyes at me but knew I had to see for myself. That bag lasted all of 4 weeks before I purchased an $11 woven duffel from Bolivia and sent the worthless roller bag back to the states. The biggest problem wasn’t even the size, or the weight – although the bag probably weighed 8 pounds without anything even in it. That might not seem like that big of a deal until you’re hoisting a 40 pound bag on airplanes and buses and lugging it up staircases. Actually the biggest issue was that many streets outside of the US aren’t paved. They are dirt paths or rocky uneven roads or cobblestone streets. And there are stairs… so many stairs. So most of the time the wheels were more of a hindrance than a help.
And we see backpackers all the time carrying around giant backpacks – the kind that are meant for trekking. I’ve only used that kind of backpack for multi-day treks and when I do I absolutely dread it. Want to get to that one pair of pants at the very bottom of your pack? You’ve got to dump everything else out to find it. Also, you’ve taken up your shoulder space so if you have another, smaller day pack you have to look like a dork and wear it on your front. Plus you just ooze dirty backpacker when you carry one.
That $11 Bolivian bag served me quite well during those 15 months of travel although the straps ripped several times so I had to hunt down local tailor shops to get them repaired. In the last few years I’ve fallen in love with Nena & Co bags and I’m currently traveling with a Weekender bag for my clothes and a Convertible Day Bag that can be used as a purse or a backpack for my more delicate treasures. They are hand-made in Guatemala and one-of-a-kind treasures. Also super easy to spot on the luggage carousel!
Okay, I can feel your judgement through my laptop screen. But here’s the thing, when you travel for an extended amount of time or even just on a vacation you probably aren’t really making time to workout and you’re always on the hunt for the most delicious local cuisine (which is rarely a salad). And if you’re like me you’re probably enjoying a glass of wine (or 3) with dinner and a beer (or 4) on the beach and some gelato while strolling around the city and before you know it you’ve put on 10 extra “vacation” pounds. And if you’re on a very long vacation, that number keeps steadily increasing. Plus you see yourself in the mirror everyday so the gradual weight gain isn’t totally noticeable until you step on that scale. It’s tiny, it only weighs 20 ounces, and it helps to keep you in check.
Nick mentioned this already but it is really difficult to pack shoes that fit all occasions. Of course you’ll need a pair of flip flops for the beach and a pair of running shoes for outdoor activities but what do you wear for a fancy dinner? Or with a dress? Or if it’s cold? Or raining? They also need to be lightweight and durable. On our first trip abroad I started with a pair of knee high boots and then ditched those and bought a pair of high heels and then ditched those for more boots. I never could get it right. This time around I’ve opted for a pair of Sorel Joan of Arctic Wedge Mid Boots. They are super durable, waterproof, and can be dressed up or dressed down depending on the situation. But the best thing about these boots is that they are oh so comfortable – I can spend an entire day and many miles exploring a new city and my feet never complain.
This is a bit generic and the type of hat you’ll need will depend on where you’re headed. When we were hiking and camping around Patagonia my North Face Chunky Knit Beanie was literally the only reason I’m still alive today. When camping in the cold keeping your head warm makes all the difference in the world.
A hat will also hide a bad hair day and allows you to wash and/or brush your hair less often. Your future dirty-haired-backpacker self will thank you.
Enough Pairs of Hanky Pankys and Sweat-Wicking Socks
If I have access to a shower and have some deodorant on hand, I can go a pretty long time without doing laundry. Which actually works out quite well when traveling since it can be really difficult to do your laundry. In Thailand it’s pretty easy – you drop it off with a lovely lady at a roadside wash shop and pick it up a few hours later, clean and folded (although you’ll occasionally end up with lost items or someone else’s clothes or both). In India it’s pretty much impossible to do laundry that doesn’t cost a fortune which means you’ll have to wash it all in the sink of your hotel room and then turn every surface into a drying rack.
The laundry situation really only becomes dire when you run out of socks and/or undies. The more you have, the longer you can go between washing. I currently have 15 pairs of each with me which has has more or less worked out so far. I opt for Hanky Panky panties for a few reasons – they are super cute, super comfortable, and they have fantastic customer service. I got small holes in two pairs and they replaced them for free and fast!
I also opt for ankle sweat-wicking socks to wear both with my Sorel boots and also with my running shoes. And I like to have a little heel padding as well. They keep my feet comfy and dry for the many miles that we put in every day.
Plus, socks and undies are lightweight and don’t take up much room in your bag so no harm in throwing a few more in than you think you’ll need.
Val’s Complete Packing List:
- 2 pairs of regular pants – jeans and corduroys
- 3 pairs of stretchy pants
- 1 pair of jean shorts
- 1 pleather jacket (purchased in Macedonia when I threw out my puffy down jacket because the weather was so nice. Plus I wanted to fit in with the fancy Europeans)
- 1 hooded sweatshirt
- 1 rain jacket
- 4 dresses (2 long and 2 short)
- 1 long sleeve button-down shirt
- 2 short sleeved shirts
- 3 tank tops
- 1 scarf (purchased in Bosnia and Herzegovina)
- 1 nighttime outfit
- 3 swimsuits (I started with 2, 1 was purchased in Albania)
- 1 regular bra
- 2 sports bras
- 2 hats (1 trucker hat and 1 brimmed hat purchased in Greece)
- 3 pairs of shoes (1 pair of tennis shoes, 1 pair of flip flops, and 1 pair of Sorel boots)
- 15 pairs of socks
- 15 pairs of undies
- Hair straightener
- Curling iron
- Hair ties
- Lotions/shampoos/soaps/toothpaste (all of which we purchase once our plane lands so we don’t have to check a bag)
- Travel scale
- Toothbrush and floss
- Allergy medication
- Passport (most important!)
- Drivers license and credit/debit cards that have been cleared for international use
- Cell phone
- 2 pairs of sunglasses
- Chargers and converter
- Hydroflask water bottle
- Travel journal
- DSLR camera
- Fanny pack (I’m a dork, I know)
- You don’t have to shop for all new “travel” things. In fact, the worst thing you can do is buy something new and get it to wherever you’re going only to realize it’s not comfortable or flattering or you just don’t like it. Just pack the clothes you wear in your normal life – the ones that are comfy and make you feel great. And bonus if they don’t wrinkle easily. If you wear hiking boots in your normal life and they are comfy and lightweight and you love them, then take them (but no one wears hiking boots in their normal life so please just don’t).
- You can buy pretty much everything you need everywhere you go. Seriously. Unless it’s a super particular brand of something that’s only sold in the US. Every country sells deodorant and toothpaste and lotion and clothes and everything you could ever need along your journey. So if you forgot something, don’t sweat it. Also, there’s no real benefit to buying a bunch of travel sized stuff for the plane if you’re staying somewhere for a while. Head to the market when you land and buy what you need for less than it would cost you in the US.
- But don’t bring things that you’re not willing to let go of. If you are traveling for an extended amount of time, you are going to get sick and tired of everything you own and you’re going to want to swap it out. It’s inevitable. So if you bring your favorite college sweatshirt that you’ve had for 20 years and want to keep forever and ever, I promise you’ll want to replace it at some point and you’ll be really annoyed when you spend a fortune shipping it back home. Whenever I buy something new, it means something else has to go.
- Pack for comfort AND style. You’ll have some days when you go hiking and some days where you go out to a restaurant in a city. So you’ll want to have clothes that suit both. We went out to a bar in Bolivia once with a few other backpackers and we were all wearing these weird llama sweaters and our holey jeans and tennis shoes so when we set off from our hostel together we thought we looked quite normal. But everyone at the bar, all of the Bolivians, were all wearing lovely dresses and heels and looked amazing. Obviously us backpackers all stuck together in our awkward, unfashionable circle and didn’t mingle with anyone else. Don’t be that awkward backpacker in the corner.
- Consider the weather and the customs of where you’re going. For instance, if you’re going to Patagonia, you’ll want some warm stuff. If you’re going to Thailand, you’ll want some shorts and tanks. And if you’re going to India, you’ll wish you could wear shorts and tanks but you’ll need to cover your shoulders and knees at all times. Loose, cotton fabrics are great for more modest countries and you can carry a scarf to cover your head if necessary.
- DON’T STRESS AND HAVE FUN!!!