How to Pack for a Nomadic Life (and the 79 things I packed).

The 79 things I packed for a trip around the world.
BY Taylor Davidson | July 20th, 2009

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Patagonia MLC and stuff

People always ask long-term travelers what they pack for trips, with cries of surprise at how little (or how much) they carry with them on their journeys. At the same time, long-term travelers are always curious about the decisions other travelers made when faced with similar decisons, part of the continual game in living a nomadic life. Therefore, to continue the conversation and peek into my own decisions, here are the details behind what I packed on my current jaunt.

How to Pack: “Heavy packs kill light lives.”

As a constant traveler, always packing or unpacking from one trip or another, I’ve been on the search for the perfect bag for a long time.

But I’ve come to recognize that the perfect bag simply doesn’t exist.

Instead, I’ve come to enjoy different packs for different adventures: a Gregory Shasta and Mountainsmith Ghost for backpacking trips into the wilderness (although both bags have been on long-term trips abroad in the past), a Mountainsmith Tour as a camera bag, and my Patagonia Critical Mass as a do-everything briefcase / gym / weekend bag.

But for trips I’ve come to depend on my Patagonia MLC; it’s a pack that doesn’t look like a pack, has a comfortable shoulder strap, works surprisingly effectively as a backpack while traveling, has a low-profile and is sized to carry-on airplanes and squeeze into small spaces. Yes, at 43 L (2610 cubic inches), it has less pack space than most packs people use for long-term trips. But that’s a virtue, not a weakness; “heavy packs kill light lives.”

Seriously, if there is just one bit of advice I would pass on to someone getting ready to take a trip: take less. There are few joys greater while traveling than walking off a plane and heading directly into the world without stopping to pick up baggage, without having to worry if the bags made it to your destination, or by being able to navigate cities, hotels, restaurants and daily life without dragging a huge bag behind you.

Selecting a smaller pack helps make that a reality by forcing you to re-evaluate what you bring because the size of your pack is a very real, tangible constraint. Embrace constraints.

Pack: 1 item.

Clothes: “What you pack, breaks your back.”

I use the adage “take half as many clothes as you think you need and twice as much money”, but still find that I take too many clothes.

My hack? I take or wear a couple bits of clothing that I intend to discard while traveling, lightening my load and building in some space in my pack for poor packing decision-making.

What did I take on my current trip? Excluding what I discarded:

  • 1 pair jeans. Yes, they are heavy, bulky, and take forever to dry when you wash them, but jeans are a go-anywhere uniform for the world.
  • 1 pair black pants. Why do I carry a pair of black pants? For business, for more formal and dressier affairs, and to avoid looking like a backpacker at all times.
  • 1 pair North Face khaki hiking pants. Not zip-off convertible pants, just lightweight, simple, wear-anywhere, quick-drying, decent-looking pants for travel, hiking and relaxing.
  • 1 REI One soft shell. A go-anywhere, lightweight, flexible jacket to wear in all conditions. Not needed everywhere at all times, but it’s a security blanket more than anything else.
  • 1 dark pinstriped blazer. A reminder of my “what would James Bond do” mantra; unnecessary, but one of my travel comfort items.
  • 1 tie. Mostly to wear while flying, to help stand out from the usual sweatpants-wearing American flyer.
  • 3 long-sleeve button-down shirts. White, black, and a blue North Face travel button-down. I am almost incapable of wearing a long-sleeve shirt without rolling up the sleeves, so these basically function as short-sleeve shirts.
  • 1 pair Columbia khaki shorts.
  • 1 pair Nike running shorts / bathing suit.
  • 1 Nike Dri-Fit Pullover. If you know me, you’ve seen me wear this shirt a couple times over the past five years. Still going strong.
  • 2 short-sleeve polo shirts. White and Black.
  • 2 pair Patagonia Silkweight t-shirts. Indestructible, functional, perfect to wear anywhere, anytime.
  • 1 pair Saucony Jazz black vegan trainers. A new beloved, wear-anywhere pair of shoes, suitable for any situation given the right attitude.
  • 1 pair black shoes. Soon to be ditched.
  • 3 pair Smartwool long socks, all dark colors.
  • 1 pair Smartwool short socks, white.
  • 1 Mountain Hardwear light fleece tuque. Again, not needed everywhere, but very small, lightweight, and can be used to pack and pad electronics.
  • 1 pair Manzilla light gloves. Ever since I got frostbite back in 2003, I always carry a pair of gloves when I travel.
  • 1 scarf. Unnecessary, I know. I’ll probably never wear it. I just like scarfs.
  • 1 pack towel. I always carry a towel.
  • 3 pairs underwear. Cotton and Patagonia silkweight.
  • 1 belt.

Granted, this list includes some of the 18 things you don’t need, but it works for me and how I want to live.

When I pack clothes I pack for multiple uses; I hesitate to bring anything that only works in one combination, or for one specific use. Basic clothes can be mix-and-matched with anything; building flexibility into your wardrobe is the key for minimizing the amount of clothes you need to bring.

And remember one thing: clothes are sold all over the world. If you forgot it, or didn’t bring it, you can buy it.

Clothes: 30 items. Total so far: 31 items.

The Tools to Live: “Bring, Buy and Discard”

I’m always surprised how the rest of the stuff adds up; we think carefully about the clothes we pack and how we’ll use them, but the rest of the “stuff” adds up quickly and is typically disposable and replaceable.

  • 1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3. No dSLR on this trip. Attempting to embrace creative constraints, but kinda regretting my decision, the first time I have traveled extensively without a dSLR since 2005. But still, loving this little camera. ( 1 charger and 1 USB cable)
  • 1 Lowepro Rezo 50. Case for the camera above.
  • 1 8GB Sandisk Ultra SD card, 1 4GB Sandisk Ultra SD card, 2 2GB Sandisk Ultra SD cards. Kinda unnecessary, but worth it.
  • 1 Apple MacBook Pro 15″. The best and worst thing I carry, for many, many reasons, my tool for creating and connecting, my tie to another world. ( 1 power cable and 1 2GB USB thumb drive)
  • 1 unlocked Nokia GSM phone. Necessary for traveling abroad; but make sure you bring the right kind, and despite the fact I used to work in the wireless industry in the US and Europe and should know better, I still brought a GSM phone that wouldn’t work in Europe. C’est la vie. ( 1 locked Nokia GSM phone, acquired in London, 1 charger for each phone)
  • 3 plug adapters for various countries.
  • 1 Sea to Summit dry sack. In case of rain, to keep electronics completely dry, just in case.
  • 1 cloth shoulder sack. It’s a shoulder sack I bought in Chiang Mai, Thailand back in 2005, and it’s continued to stay in my pack ever since, because it’s lightweight, it rolls up, it doesn’t stand out, and I have yet to find a replacement.
  • 1 Masterlock combination lock. One of things that can be a pain to get when you need one; my nearly 20 year-old Masterlock combination lock failed in Austin this past March, forcing me to get a new one, sadly.
  • 1 Petzl headlamp. For looking like a geek at hostels at night.
  • 1 Timex watch. For running, wandering, and tracking the time when your phone is otherwise useless.
  • 1 REI ditty sack (to store stuff inside the pack), 1 laptop case (to protect the laptop inside the pack), 2 Ziplock bags.
  • Toiletries. A small, limited selection, just the necessities, in a carry-on ready plastic bag. (counted as one item).
  • 1 Offbeat Guide to Tokyo (since discarded), 1 city map for London, and 1 French phrasebook (unnecessary).
  • 1 Passport, 1 copy of passport, printouts of air tickets, printed maps of where I’m staying (counted as 4 items).
  • 1 notebook, 2 pens, keys from home, 1 carabiner, 2 knee braces (for running), 1 sunglasses, 1 eyeglasses, 1 checkbook, hotel and airline loyalty cards and random foreign cash from past trips (counted as 12 items).
  • I also “travel” with Mozy’s online backup system, backing up my laptop automatically online every time I get access to Internet, giving me some peace of mind from the inevitable hard drive failure (not counted). Stuff: 47 items. Total so far: 78 items.

Although pretty different in composition, the total number of items I am carrying is close to the 77 items that Carl Nelson has packed, and a fairly successful attempt at my version of the 100 Things Challenge.

What would I have changed?
I would have brought an dSLR. So it goes. And given the hot European and Japanese weather I have seen so far, the jacket, toque, gloves and scarf have been completely unnecessary. We’ll see if I end up wearing them.

The most important item I brought: Me.
More important than anything else, we shape our experiences with our attitudes, viewpoints, energy and openness to explore far more than any physical item we can bring. In another life, I could imagine traveling in medieval times with nothing but a walking stick and the clothes on my back; yet different times call for different measures.

Me: 1 item. Total: 79 items.

When I pack for a trip I like to reflect on my travel goals: to explore, to experience, to learn from the world, to create memories, and to give back to the world, sharing ideas and experiences with people throughout the world. If the stuff I pack doesn’t help me do that, then there’s really no need for me to bring it.

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This post lingered in my mind for a long time, finally written during a train ride from Kyoto to Tokyo, staring at Mt. Fuji in the distance, then polished and posted from London, listening to the sounds of the city waft through the morning air.

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Posts from other travelers past and present about how to pack for long-term travel: