How To Pack Your Life in a Carry-On: What I packed in my backpack for 2+ years of travel
The decision in buying the right travel backpack to carry on with you that fits the TSA guidelines is a big decision as you travel for a weekend or plan your longterm travel. This guide will give you what you need to make the right choices to pack what is important for your trip.
My husband and I left the U.S. in February of 2017 to travel the world, meet new people and experience new cultures. We knew we would have to leave our everyday comforts. Our decision to travel long-term was fueled by precisely this, our belief that one must do things outside of your “comfort zone” in order to grow, to change, to transform.
Prior to leaving, we knew we would follow the sun as we traveled the world across South America, Europe, India, Southeast Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Central America which would also make for much easier packing. Or so I thought…
The moment you have to pack your entire life in one bag, carefully choosing each piece of clothing you will bring along with you, each pair of shoes, what electronics and toiletries you will bring, suddenly you begin to realize just how small one carry-on backpack (TSA approved) indeed is.
I remember having moments of doubt and anxiety as I contemplated how I would possibly fit all that I needed inside such a tiny space. I had pep talks with myself about having to part with my fabulous wardrobe and having it reduced to a limited number of outfits and shoes that I would repeatedly have to wear over the next 2+ years.
Looking back over our journey so far, I have learned several things about living out of a 46L carry-on backpack. For starters, you can live with very little and be just fine. As I said, before leaving the U.S. I was full of anxiety over packing and would lose sleep over what to bring on our extended travels around the world.
I would go over lists in my head of clothing, shoes, electronics, and products I knew I had to fit into my one bag. I suppose some of my sleepless nights were due to the anticipation of our upcoming travels but in hindsight, losing sleep over what to pack is just plain stupid.
You can purchase ANYTHING around the world (or variation of), and I have since ditched articles of clothing that were not practical and travel gadgets that were utterly useless and a waste of space. Another thing I have learned is that no one but you knows that you have been wearing the same clothing several days in a row.
Of course, we all love to take pictures of the fantastic places we have been. Posting photos on our Instagram and Facebook accounts is fun and a way that we stay connected to each other, but promise me when I tell you that no one will send you an inbox message commenting on the shirt you wore in one picture noting that you wore the same exact shirt the day before. And if they do… excellent! You have a true fan that is following your every move and notices every detail of your travel adventures!
Another thing I have learned about living out of a carry-on is that less is more. The less you pack, the more time you will have to spend doing other things and NOT deciding what to wear for the day. Also, the less you pack, the more mobile you will be as your bag will be much lighter.
I have discovered some travel packing systems and must have essential items/ travel gear that I have continued to use throughout our journey. Here is what I have used along the way in hopes that it will help you as you start preparing for your travel adventure.
Choosing the Right TravelBag- We decided on the Osprey Porter 46. This ultralight backpack (1.5kg) easily fits both our work and personal items as it has a laptop sleeve and sizeable front-loading main compartment. It also has lockable zippers, multiple compartments to neatly store your extra things, and compression straps to compress the bag to a smaller size.
The bag also has padded walls to protect your contents, a padded hip-belt and harness that both can be stowed away for when you want to check your bag, and a built-in safety whistle in the chest strap. The material is also water resistant.
*Note: Carry-on TSA luggage has limitations that vary from airline to airline. There is no official carry-on size. The dimensions of your luggage can be found by measuring your luggage’s height x width x depth. As with size, there is also a weight limit for carry-on luggage that varies from airline to airline. Some airlines just require that your carry-on fit in the overhead compartment while others will weigh your luggage at check-in. To date, we have only had one carrier request that we check our Osprey Porter 46 because it was over the weight limit (8kg).
Travel Clothes- Personal Packing List (Nikki)
•10 underwear •3 Smartwool Ph.D. Run Ultra Light Micro Socks
•2 bikini tops •2-floor length, long sleeve, Chiffon, Maxi-style dresses
•1 bikini bottom •1 Nike Dry Modern Tempo Running Shorts
•1 bra •1 Zella Racer Tank Top
•2 Jeans •3 Long Sleeve Plaid Shirts
•2 shorts •1 Zella Jogger Pants
•3 t-shirts •2 Zella Live In Terra Slim Fit Leggings
•2 Sports Bras •1 J. Crew Everyday Chambray Shirt
*Note: There are a couple of points I would like to touch on here. Socks are the single most important purchase you will make for your travels in my opinion. Blisters and sore, smelly, wet feet will ruin your trip. The Smartwool PhD Run Ultra Light Micro Socks will keep your feet dry and cushioned. The thermoregulating properties of the Smartwool help to keep your feet cooler in the heat and warmer in the cold while wicking moisture when you are active and sweating. The wool also has natural antibacterial properties so that your feet do not smell!
As for bathing suit options, I chose to bring two bikini tops and one bikini bottom (black) so that I could save space in my bag by not having to carry another bikini bottom. By packing two bikini tops that both look great with black bottoms, I could create the illusion that I was traveling with 2 swimsuits. My t-shirts are plain (navy, dark gray and army green) so that I can wear alone with my pants and shorts options and also layer with my long sleeve plaid shirts.
Seeing as how we are following the sun and typically spend most of our time in summer weather, I chose long sleeve, cotton/ polyester blend, plaid shirts for UV protection and breathability/ quick-drying, to keep me cooler in hot conditions. I use the Zella Jogger Pants as sleepwear. They are super comfortable, lightweight, and work perfectly in shared accommodation.
•New Balance All Terrain Trail Running Shoes
•1 pair of Leather Sandals
•1 pair of Havaianas Flash Urban Sandals
*Note: Finding the right shoe for traveling is a crucial packing decision. I cannot tell you how much I love my New Balance All Terrain Trail Running Shoes. They are perfect for trail trekking, walking, hiking, and everyday wear. They are both sturdy and light. I chose a dark color so that they would go with most of my outfits and I would not have to worry about them getting dirty. As for sandals, I needed to have something that was both versatile and durable. I chose a cute brown, leather embellished, flat sandal by Steve Madden. I decided to go with Havaianas Flash Urban Sandals for my every day beach footwear as they are waterproof.
•Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket
•Nike Dri-Fit Element Running Half-Zip Hoodie
•Black Leather Jacket
•Lululemon Vinyasa Scarf
•Patagonia Beanie Hat
*Note: Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket is ultra light, will keep you warm in up to 30 F (-1 C) weather, water-resistant, and windproof. The jacket also travels well as it quickly compresses down into the size of your fist. I also brought along a more chic jacket option for when we decided to go out, hence the aforementioned black leather jacket (which has come in handy on many scooter riding days or windy days where it has kept me very warm). Instead of a traditional hoodie, I brought the Nike Dri-Fit Element Running Half-Zip Hoodie. The hoodie is super lightweight and perfect for chilly days, evening workouts or just lounging around the Airbnb. One of my most favorite travel, outerwear purchases is my Lululemon Vinyasa Scarf. This scarf can be worn 10+ ways which is great when you are traveling around the world and need to cover your shoulders, head or face. I have even used my scarf as a beach towel, sarong, and a blanket/ cover-up on chilly bus and airplane rides. It is super warm and comfy!
Travel Organizers/ Cases
•Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Starter Set (3-piece packing cubes)
•3 Go Gear Silicone Travel Containers (3 oz)
•BUBM Universal Electronics Accessories Travel Organizer
•Joto Cellphone Dry Bag
*Note: I could not manage to get everything I have listed in this blog post into my Osprey Porter 46L bag without the help from the most fantastic travel hack listed above, the Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Starter Set packing cubes. The garment folder holds 8-12 shirts or pairs of pants and comes with a full size and half size packing cube that helps to organize your travel bag (I have used the other packing cubes to pack my underwear, bras, socks, toiletries, etc.). The packing cubes help organize the contents of my bag and help keep my travel gear wrinkle free!
Go Gear Silicone Travel containers are also a must-have. These bottles have saved me so much money! I can purchase toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, lotion, etc., and keep the remaining quantity that I do not use and travel to my next destination without having to throw away the bottles due to TSA regulations (the 3oz rule). I have been using the same silicone containers for 5+ years now, and they have still not leaked!
The BUBM Electronics Travel Organizer is also a great time saver for me as I travel around the world. All of my electronics (iPhone cords, Blink, Amazon Fire Stick, USB car charger, portable battery charger, headphones, etc.) are all kept in one convenient location. When I go through TSA security, I only take my BUBM bag out and place it in the bin along with my Google Chromebook for a security check, and I do not have to worry about taking out each electronic device separately. I highly recommend this travel organizer.
•Google Chromebook •Headphones
•iPhone 6S •Travel adapter
•Portable Battery Charger •1 BLINK Security Camera System
•Amazon Fire Stick •2 iPhone USB cables (3ft/ 10ft)
•Dual USB car charger
*Note: My favorite gadget besides my Google Chromebook that allows me to write blogs and stay connected to my friends and family is the BLINK Security Camera System. It is essential for us to know if someone has been in our room for the obvious reasons, but also so we do not accuse anyone of stealing, just in case we simply misplaced something.
BLINK Security System is very easy to use, and you can arm, disarm and monitor your room from the BLINK mobile app. We have 3 BLINK cameras in our home in the U.S. that we use to monitor our home while we are away on our travels and the best part is that we can monitor all of our cameras (travel room included) in one convenient location on the BLINK mobile app.
•Toothbrush •Deodorant •Toothpaste
•Boscia Self-Defense Vital Antioxidant Moisture SPF 30 (1.4 oz)
•Philosophy Purity Made Simple Cleanser Mini (3 oz)
•Nail kit (carbon nail file/ nail clippers)
•Gillette Fusion ProGlide Razor
*Note: Before leaving the U.S. I decided I would not wear makeup for 2+ years. I also realized that although it was going to be difficult, I was going to have to part with using some of my most trusted and favorite products (Philosophy, Boscia, and Lush brand products) merely because they would not be available abroad.
I packed a travel size version of my favorite moisturizer and facial cleanser hoping to find a Sephora or Lush in South America and every country along our journey, but just as I suspected, this was not an easy task. I found that a lot of moisturizers abroad contained facial whiteners and did not have SPF protection. Trusted brand name facial cleansers that exist in the U.S. are unheard of in certain countries overseas (Neutrogena, Noxzema, Oil of Olay, etc.).
I decided a couple of months into my travels when my products ran out that I would go the natural route and create my own natural face scrub. After a day of hiking (and several months of traveling, harsh sun rays, pools filled with chlorine, etc.), a natural, exfoliating DIY face scrub is just what your face needs. This simple, 2 ingredient face scrub takes 30 seconds to make, and it is a life changer!
You will need one tablespoon of your favorite olive oil and 2 tablespoons of sugar (I try to use coarse sugar, larger sugar than regular, white granulated sugar, for a better exfoliating scrub). Just combine the olive oil and sugar in a small bowl and stir. Rub the sugar scrub onto your face, neck or any area of the skin using a gentle circular motion for approximately 30 seconds (I recommend doing this over the sink or in the shower to avoid a messy bathroom floor or countertop). Rinse dry with warm water and pat dry with a fresh, clean towel. Repeat process if needed (not more than twice weekly).
For a facial moisturizer, I typically use Oil of Olay (when I can find it). The Gillette Fusion ProGlide Razor is the best razor I have ever used. The blade lasts several months, effortlessly delivers a close shave around tricky areas like knees and ankles, and does not cause irritations to the skin. The only other product I make sure I purchase along the way is a high quality, broad-spectrum sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection. I typically choose a sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) of 50.
•Imodium (loperamide) tablets •Rolaids (calcium carbonate) tablets
•Benadryl (diphenhydramine) capsules •Saline eye drops
•Neosporin (triple antibiotic) ointment •Band-aids
•Cortisone cream •Pepto Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) tablets
•Cipro (ciprofloxacin) tablets •Zithromax (azithromycin) tablets
•Advil (ibuprofen) tablets •Tylenol (acetaminophen) tablets
*Note: I highly recommend that you travel with a medical kit with you at all times. Some countries do not have the same over-the-counter medications that we have in the U.S., and you may be too ill to go to the pharmacy, or the pharmacy may be closed at the time you are in need of the medications/ medical supplies. I have provided a list above of what medications/supplies I keep on hand with me at all times for a good base for your medical kit.
I keep Cipro, Azithromycin, and Imodium on hand in case of traveler’s diarrhea. Benadryl for potential allergic reactions and symptoms of the common cold. Saline eye drops for dry eyes due to long flights, Band-aids and Neosporin for any minor cuts and scrapes and Cortisone cream to treat insect bites, poison ivy/oak, dermatitis, and generalized rash.
Rolaids come in handy for heartburn, upset stomach and indigestion due to increased stomach acid and Pepto Bismol helps with nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach and diarrhea due to overindulgence of food. I also make sure to pack both Advil for general aches and pains and Tylenol for fever reduction.
•Travel laundry clothesline •Door Stop
•Sunglasses •Sewing kit
•Luggage Lock •Tactical Pen
*Note: These miscellaneous items are anything but ordinary. They are must-have items that I cannot live without and use regularly and highly recommend. The travel laundry clothesline I chose has surgical quality rubber braiding and no need for clothespins. I cannot tell you how many times we have used this clothesline. It is unbelievable how hard it is to book an Airbnb with a washer and dryer or even find a place to wash your laundry in town (coin laundry or dry cleaner) in certain countries. We have had to hand wash our laundry on several occasions, and this clothesline has allowed us to easily hang our clothes outside or in our home to air dry.
Although I do not use the door stop at every stay, there are circumstances in which we have shared living spaces and the door stop simply provides peace of mind. A luggage lock will not prevent someone from stealing your carry-on bag, but it will avoid quick “grab and go” theft. If anything it helps act as a deterrent and will hopefully make a thief think twice.
We carry our tactical pen with us everywhere. It serves as both a self-defense weapon (it can break glass too) and a writing pen. Although I thankfully have never had to use this pen for self-defense, it helps me feel more secure and confident when I am walking alone or in a new area that is unfamiliar to me.
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