It’s weird to be feeling relief in unpacking large boxes into my new apartment, yet here I am getting settled in (at least for now.) Although my technical world travels lasted me three months, by happenstance I’ve been primarily surviving out of a suitcase just short of a full year… So it makes sense while one part of me is itching to see the world and living vicariously through my former roomie, another side of me is ready to be domesticated.
From traveling to moving to being relocated due to an environmental disaster to moving again, the past 11 months have taught me a lot about how to deal with living from an amount of stuff you can carry. Here are some of my packing tips for surviving out of a suitcase that I’d like to share with you.
1. Stay F###ing Organized
Oops, you caught me talking to myself again. Remember how I mentioned how much this situation of surviving out of a suitcase has taught me? I didn’t lie, but I also didn’t say how much I actually learned. I would go in waves and degrees of organization throughout my travels and simply living out of a suitcase. What works best for me is to be well set up with the proper tools to allow for organization.
Packing Cubes are great for traveling with limited space, but not needing to dig through all of your belongings just to get to a new pair of socks. You could buy a whole bunch of these to fill your pack, or just use a few to separate a few choice items like dirty vs clean. These also help in organizing your toiletries to keep from spilling liquid foundation all over your wardrobe.
Once you feel you have the tools at your disposal, you will want to ensure that you follow through with your organization and REPACK EVERY TIME. It will be worth it, I swear, to take the extra 15 minutes to properly fill your pack in an order that makes sense. Keep the items you will need first more accessible and heavier items at the bottom. The moment you drop the ball on repacking nicely is the moment you will feel more stressed out trying to get ready or leave items behind.
2. Choose a Proper Bag
This is definitely a point that could go on for it’s own post, so I’ll make it brief. The ideal traveler’s pack should be lightweight and comfortable(ish) to carry. I personally believe a front loading pack will save you eons of stress and annoyance of unpacking your whole pack for one item. Make sure your bag is the right size for you. A 5’3” woman, as much as she may want to bring, should not be attempting to carry an 85L pack (unless she is fully prepared for a long journey through the Himalayas.) My Osprey Porter 46 is a dream, easily carried by myself, is regulation carry on size, and packs all that I need for long journeys. Personally I am a huge advocate for backpacks as your main pack, but if you’re traveling and staying in a handful of modern cities, the right rolling pack could be the one for you.
3. Don’t Pack Like a Maniac
You’re going on a trip, not preparing for the apocalypse. If you have enough clothes to wear for 2 weeks, you have enough clothes to live indefinitely. I promise. Make sure your clothes are complimentary to each other so you can mix and match pieces. If you’re shopping for a trip look for fabrics that won’t wrinkle like polyester blends (its not as bad as they say) or knits. Don’t be afraid to wear items more than once before washing them. People you meet will understand that you’re a traveler. Take advantage of the slack they give. We are not all world traveling instagram fashionistas. Anyways, I’m sure you remembered to pack deodorant, right?!
Also know your climate! The hot humid climate of Hong Kong you see on TV may not be there when you visit in January or the middle of monsoon season. You can survive a trip through the Scottish Highlands in July without a snow parka (although I did buy another sweater… it was a souvenir!). Yes, this is common sense stuff, but this is also how I meet suffering travelers who shiver their whole trip because they only packed funny T-shirts.
The best advice I can give when it comes to packing is really assess the kinds of shoes you will need. Going through Singapore, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and the UK I survived on 3 pairs of shoes. A walking sandal (my go-to weather permitting), a streamlined sneaker (note: you will probably be immediately recognized as an American especially in certain sneaks), and casual beach/ shower/ hostel flip flops. I did end up purchasing a pair of black jelly flats in Hong Kong as a “dress” shoe in case I went somewhere that would necessitate a nicer looking shoe, but never used them and just took up space in my backpack.
4. Air Your Dirty Laundry
Doing your laundry sucks. Doing your laundry on your one day in Positano sucks even harder. So plan ahead. Pack clothes that will dry overnight (and don’t wrinkle in bags!!). Get a quick wash in your sink and hang over your bed post overnight to dry. I like to use dry detergent in small packets, nothing to explode in your bag and lightweight to carry a handful. Check to see if the hostels you’re staying at offer a laundry service. When I was in Dublin, I was about 3 days past due in doing my dirty laundry. But the hostel I ended up staying in offered an overnight laundry service where they took care of the waiting around for you. I woke up to a clean bag of laundry at the front desk. Granted, this did come at a cost, but I often value time over money.
In the interim between sets of laundry, separate your dirty clothes from contaminating your clean clothes. I like to use a plastic bag (which I usually obtain at some point early on in my travels) inside one of the packing cubes. For added freshness, pack a few dryer sheets to mingle with your smellies.
6. Take only what you can carry
And take only what the airlines will carry for you! My main pack mentioned above is regulation carry-on size. I’ve only been on one flight where I simply could not make the bag fit (small jet stuffed with 30 seats). While that main pack held all my clothes and my laptop, I needed another bag to hold my camera, water bottle, and other items I’d use on a daily basis. Many travelers opt for a smaller backpack, but as I refused to be a waddling pack myself with one on the back and one on the front. I chose a messenger bag. I wish I had spent as much time shopping around for my daily pack as I did for my main pack, but it sufficed. Although there were times I had to carry it in my arms to relieve my aching shoulders.
5. Keep an inventory
Now this is a super organization tip for the dedicated traveler. You may not need to keep a detailed list of everything you brought WHERE ARE MY PINK AND YELLOW STRIPED SOCKS?! but make note of the things you value. This could range anywhere from the DSLR that would end your trip if it was lost or your favorite comfy cardigan. Electronics and items used a lot are often the items that go missing as you just expect them to always be there.
At some point in my trip I had left behind a universal travel adapter with USB plug ins. That shit was my world. And just like that, it was gone and I had to spend half a day trying to find a good enough replacement. Now when I look back on my trip it’s broken down into two parts: the time I had a universal converter and everything was always well charged, and the time I had to sit in the hostel as my phone charged so I could have a map to get around. If you packed well, nearly each item in your bag should be worth noting and not leaving behind. Sometimes the time it takes just to find a replacement is the worst part of losing an item. Although now I can describe in detail the small hole-in-a-wall electronic shops of Ireland.
7. Pack Clothes You Actually Like
I mean clothes you really, really like. If you notice on your daily life a tank top gets more use than others, pack that. Cause you’ll be seeing yourself in that tank top a lot. Although I usually preach packing less, it’s not a bad idea to have a few choice accessories that can make an outfit a bit more fun and keep you from feeling like a cartoon character. Originally I had packed a floppy hat to accessorize, but it ended being the item that made me feel most like I was wearing the same thing every day. The sunglasses I picked up in Sorrento ended up being the most fun item, and the accessory I overuse even now.
Surviving out of a suitcase does not have to be a hassle. It will definitely change your viewpoint on living minimally. You may come back home and donate half of your house when you realize how much stuff you actually have! You may come home and realize how trivial picking an outfit from a stuffed closet can be. You may just want to go on not just surviving but thriving out of a suitcase forever! Or not…