Us drifter chicks have limited space, patience and capital for more stuff (all the things that threaten to clutter up, bog down and overcomplicate our portable existence). So the objects we do decide to schlep around on buses, trains, ferry boats and airplanes have gotta be gangbusters awesome to be worth our while.
I gave up the stationary life to become a full-time traveler in early 2016, but I still fancy myself a planner who has a special knack for being prepared. After a lot of window shopping, product research, testing, and life hacking, I’m passing on my best nuggets of drifter wisdom in the following packing list.
Whether you’re just getting ready to start your first big adventure abroad or are a seasoned vagabond, below is a thorough list of the objects I found most valuable to own during my maiden year as a nomadic woman. This list does not include your obvious necessities, but focuses more on the unique items and specialty products a person might not think of until they’ve spent some serious time on the open road.
A sneak peak at the categories I’ll be covering:
Call me the crazy bag lady all you want, but when you’re on the go all the time, it’s essential to have the right luggage, backpacks, money holders, totes and organizers to get you from point A to B to C to D.
Choosing the best home on wheels
Major props to those who are able to shove their lives into a backpack (I’ve got back issues so backpacking is literally “not my bag”). Below are some shots of the medium-sized hardback suitcase I faithfully carried all last year, though I recently downsized my life into a carry-on canvas suitcase, woot woot!
- 4 Wheels (always better than 2)
- A combination zipper lock (so you can lock up your suitcase on the bus or in your room) or you could also buy a freestanding lock
- A zip extension (for those days when your shit just won’t fit)
- 2 Handles; one on the top and one on the side (making your bag easier to lift, hoist, lug)
People often ask which is better: hard or soft case luggage. In my experience, hard shells are more durable but soft canvas luggage is expandable and has easy access pockets, so it depends on your priorities.
These gadget backpacks make for great airline carry-ons to shove under the seat and are also ideal for days when you’re in a crowded place with valuable cargo. Pacsafe bags are super sturdy, have anti-theft features, and awesome padded compartments, though I recently upgraded to a slightly larger, very well designed Osprey backpack in London.
A small, lightweight collapsible backpack
Is great for hiking, beach days, hauling things on your motorbike and hot weather climates. I’ve worn through a few of these, but they are pretty inexpensive at Target or on Amazon.
A fanny pack
I suggest swapping out your handbag or purse for a fanny pack or money belt that will fit your everyday essentials (passport, cell phone, dinero, lip gloss). Keeping things close to your body not only makes them easier for you to access, they are less likely to get lost or stolen. My “butt-bag” has an expandable strap so I can wear it around my waist or crossed over my chest like a small purse.
Best. Thing. Ever. Why did I ever wear a purse?!
Collapsible tote bags
I travel with two: a medium sized tote for laundry days or grocery shopping, and a large collapsible duffle bag for the dreaded “overflow days.” Bags with zippers are extra handy for avoiding theft or spills.
Space saving & organizer bags
Some people swear by packing cubes or space saver bags designed just for travel. I like to roll and compartmentalize all my clothing into Zip Slider Storage Bags (that you can get at any U.S. grocery store). I also started re-using those plastic zipable bags that curtains and linens are sold in, all of which will maximize space in your luggage by keeping clothes air-tight and compact. If you label each clear bag with a sharpie marker, then finding what you’re looking for on the fly will become significantly less painful.
Sandwich & snack-bags
I use ziplock sandwich and snack bags to keep small items organized and easy to locate (so they don’t get swallowed whole in the luggage abyss). Here are some of the items I have on hand that make life easier and the categories that keep them organized:
Pencil kit: pens, pencils, sharpie markers, eraser, sharpener.
Tool kit: rubber bands, twisty ties, zip ties, combination pad lock, Swiss Army knife, lighter, small bungee chord.
Friendship kit: I buy friendship bracelets during my travels to give to the people I connect with.
Medicine kit and first aid: Because I was struggling with a list of health problems when I left home, I initially traveled with a small pharmacy on hand. Since then I’ve swapped out most of my big brand, Western drugs for homeopathic meds and other natural remedies (things like Turmeric and Spirulina), but I still have some Pepto-Bismol tabs and Aleve on hand when the greener stuff doesn’t do the trick. Bandaids, cleaning wipes and NewSkin are always good to have around too.
Nail Kit: Nail polish, emery boards, nail clippers.
Sewing Kit: Needles, thread (black & white), buttons, safety pins, seam ripper.
Packing your clothing is a super personal thing, so I don’t see much point in telling you exactly how many pairs of this or that to bring. I say start with one of every standard clothing item and then add multiples of the things you wear the most (or that best support the kind of climate you see yourself in).
If you don’t absolutely love it, then don’t bring it. You’re a traveler, you don’t have space in your life for things you “might wear one day” anymore.
But here are a few suggestions:
At least one LBD (Little Black Dress)
It’s true that black fabrics attract heat, but dark colors are also more forgiving to dirt, stains and wear. A simple, elegant little black dress can give you a ton of mileage. They can easily be dressed up, down or adapted into a fresh look with the right accessories. I travel with two LBDs, one that’s form-fitting and a second that’s loose and flowing. After a year of steady wear they still look great!
A light kimono or sarong
Both are in fashion around the world so you may not need to buy either before taking off for your travels, but these simple, beautiful sheets of fabric are probably the most versatile and useful clothing items you can own. A kimono or a lightweight sarong can be worn as a shawl, a scarf or a skirt wrap (see above). I even drape my favorite sarong over lampshades to create ambient lighting and also use it as a top bed sheet when none are provided.
The Japanese clothing store Uniqlo (which you’ll now find in most major Western cities) has the best clothes for travel I’ve found so far. They have great rain parkas and light down jackets that pack neatly into a zip pocket or fold into a small drawstring tote like a sleeping bag.
Quick drying, breathable and versatile basics
Uniqlo sells great, affordable and cozy basics made from breathable, moisture-wicking materials that are perfect for days when you have to do laundry in the sink and hang it dry. I love my pair of Heattech leggings that are meant to be worn like long johns under other layers in cold weather, but are also crazy comfortable and light for hot climates. Best of all, their fabrics are high quality and long lasting!
I recently purchased this collapsible sun hat from Amazon. Love.
Packing a cohesive color combo
Lucky for us, clashing patterns are still in fashion. An easy way to design a wardrobe with lots of mix and match options is to buy multiple pieces that all fit within a cohesive color pallet. Back in Mexico I was rocking a lot of clothes in black and white, but have since shifted to a brighter and more playful blue and orange collection.
Before trying to add anything new to your travel wardrobe, make sure that it combines well with the other items you already have.
Tip: There’s no need to pack a full wardrobe
You can buy beautiful, affordable, weather-appropriate clothing on the road. Check out some of my favorite finds from my travels bellow:
Laundry detergent pods
Detergents abroad can be full of perfumes, so I use All brand’s Free & Clear laundry detergent pods, made for people with sensitive skin, that are super easy to take to a laundromat or wash-and-fold. When doing hand washing at home I just poke a whole in the pillow with a pin so I can use only what I need. But It’s best to pack your pods in a Tupperware container so they don’t get smashed in your luggage.
Aside from my 10 days in Iceland, these have been all the kicks I’ve needed for the past year: a pair of sneakers, ballet slipper flats, and a sturdy pair of sandals. Hiking boots take up way too much weight and space, and my Nike Flyknits are versatile and sturdy enough for most terrains and climates. Like with most things I own, I believe in wearing something out until it’s shot beyond repair (and even then I still hunt down a shoe cobbler to see if I can resuscitate them).
Not all rental flats come with kitchens, and the ones that do often don’t come well stocked. Having these items on hand will enable you to eat, drink and be merry even in the humblest of temporary homes.
A Metal Camelback water bottle
Will keep your water cool no mater how much sun is beating down.
A French-press travel mug
My amazing coffee-making travel mug has been admired and envied by a lot of fellow nomads. Instead of upping your housing budget for place with a coffee pot or buying your daily fix at a cafe, invest in your own French press travel mug, buy a bag of high quality grounds and enjoy the freedoms of being self-sufficiently caffeinated.
This little gadget will save your fingertips from getting singed while lighting the many manual gas stovetops you’ll find in foreign kitchens. I found this awesome little zebra print utility lighter in a gas station on my way to Burning Man in Nevada, it’s even refillable!
A hunting or camping knife
If you enjoy cooking at home, you’ll find that sharp knives can be hard to come by in rental units. Having your own foldable cutting knife will make home cooked meals a hell of a lot less frustrating to prepare. Just make sure you pack your knife in your checked luggage and have the blade folded or sheathed and the TSA won’t give you trouble.
I got mine at a Gander Mountain and really like the quality, but I’d reccommend getting one with a longer blade.
These are great to take food on the go for travel days and picnics, but really any Tupperware with a liquid-tight seal will do.
A soup-can-sized blow dryer
Small, light and powerful. Need I say more? I’ve had my BaByliss Pro TT Travel Dryer for years and it still works like a dream.
You don’t have to stress about buying it before takeoff (because they sell this stuff everywhere) but coconut oil is one of the most versatile products I own.
Here are just some of the ways that I use aceite de coco:
- skin and lip moisturizer
- to treat skin irritations
- eye makeup remover
- hair conditioner, detangler and damage treatment
- a replacement for shaving cream
- cooking oil and salad dressing
- natural allergy medicine (rub it on the inside of your nostrils)
- non-toxic, natural sunscreen (studies estimate that it’s actually SPF 8)
- because it’s antimicrobial, it can be used to treat yeast infections
- for itch relief from insect bites and also as a bug repellant
- to treat stains
- massage oil
And the list goes on!
An electronic toothbrush
I use a Philips Sonicare battery operated toothbrush that I got at Target, but the plug-in models are great too (though that’s one more device you’ll have to charge). Be sure to stock up on replacement brush-heads before you go!
A Mach 3 Men’s Razor
They give you a superior shave for a fraction of the price of most women’s dinky pink razors. I buy ten replacement razors every time I’m state side.
A Diva Cup + Thinx Period Panties
These two products will change your monthly visitor time forever. In some countries it can be difficult to find tampons and pads that aren’t full of perfumes and other toxins, but this combination of products will free you from your dependence on non-renewable feminine hygiene products. Trust me, they work.
A small camping (or school locker) mirror
Lots of rooms/apartments for rent don’t have mirrors and there might be a day when we want to put makeup on your face again. Amazon even sells “unbreakable mirrors” that are great for clumsy or superstitious types.
I use mine to cover up the offensively bright LED bulbs that hang bare-assed from ceilings all over the world, threatening to screw up our natural sleep rhythm and REM cycles.
Superior to those awful neck pillows, these are great for an airplane, bus or train ride, but also come in handy in case your rental room has lumpy pillows (or just doesn’t supply them).
A sleeping mask and earplugs
An eye mask, or as I like to call it, a “face bra,” will be a lifesaver if you ever hope to fall asleep on an airplane, sleep in a room without curtains, or find yourself in Iceland during their six months of sunlight.
A whole bag of earplugs in case you loose them. Babies on airplanes. Roosters. Construction. Need I say more?
An external hard drive
Because there will be days (weeks or months even) when you don’t have reliable data or wifi and will not have access to cloud backups. I recommend getting a drive with at least 1TB of storage so you can back up all your files and photos regularly.
A Waterproof battery pack phone case
This durable phone case will not only help your smart phone stay alive during a long day of travel, but it will also waterproof and shockproof your devise so you can feel confident using it just about anywhere. Protect your phone from accidental spills, take photos and videos in the rain, on a boat, and even while you snorkel.
My preferred brand is the LifeProof FRE POWER Waterproof Case, but know that if you purchase on Amazon you may not be covered under LifeProof’s warranty. They cost around $100 USD but are well worth the expense.
These are is crucial when your power goes out or you’re camping, but also makes for a great reading lamp. I like the ones that have several light settings.
A mirrorless digital camera
I invested in a Sony a6300 Mirrorless Digital Camera with a full photography bundle a few months ago and am absolutely loving it. The camera is super lightweight and looks like an unassuming point and shoot (and is therefor much less of a theft risk than the DSLR I used to carry). It takes phenomenal, professional quality photographs in all kinds of lighting conditions, and the settings can be adjusted so you can snap away in absolute silence.
A MacBook Air or an iPad with an attachable keyboard
Great for working, writing, photo editing and web surfing on the go.
You don’t need lots of equipment or an expensive world-wide gym membership to stay in shape as a nomad. I just try to keep active and walking, eat a healthy diet and do some floor exercises at home and am very happy with the results. If you want to give this approach a try, here’s what you’ll need:
A Yoga Mat
I’m not a die-hard yogi, but I still travel with a folded up yoga mat in my suitcase for my at-home workout routines.
7 Minute Workout App
The 7 Minute Workout is a quick, simple and effective way to get or stay in shape. All you need is a yoga mat, one clear wall, a chair and a Smartphone App. I do it a few times a week followed by a bit of Pilates and the two routines combined really work wonders for me.
There are many versions of the 7 Minute Workout app available for your smartphone, but I suggest starting out with the one from Johnson & Johnson because it has great instructional videos that will help you become familiar with the exercises. I now use UOVO’s free version because I prefer the app’s interface and audio options once I got the hang of the routine.
I hope my list of travel tools and tips will serve you well on all your big adventures.