Take a look around your room. What can you live without?
Your extra winter jacket? Your high heels, your mouse pad?
Could you live without your bed? Your dresser? Your Ipad? Your Alexa device? Could you fit all of your favorite things into a 55-liter backpack? Would you even want to?
That’s what we do every day. Though to be fair my backpack is 70 liters and Matt’s is 55. Though we both started out with about 55-liter backpacks.
Being a digital nomad means giving up a lot of stuff. And while saying “I’m not a materialistic person” is easy, not BEING a materialistic person is hard. At the end of the day we have to decide… do I want a house full of things when I am gone? Or a portrait book full of memories? For us, it was memories. We can’t take the stuff with us when we die, but the memories, those become part of who we are, they are embedded in our soul and become part of our life story.
One of the most common questions I get from people looking to travel long term or considering the digital nomad lifestyle is “What should I pack?” The answer is…well it is different for everyone.
The process of developing our gear kit has been long and drawn out. We’re constantly modifying, adding and subtracting from it.
There are some basic rules of thumb when considering being a digital nomad…
1. Weight is more important than volume.
I have a 70-liter backpack and Matt has a 55-liter backpack. Both packs will fit in the overhead bin easily, or under the seat in front of you, though it’s not as comfortable under the seat in front of us.
We fly a lot of discount airlines. This is a foreign concept to most US citizens, as flying from San Francisco to LA (which is in the same state for people reading this from outside our fair country) costs an average of $125/ per person. We just flew to Rome from London for less than that for the two of us and our luggage… total.
Actually the luggage cost us more than our tickets at 40 euros per person. If you are a maths person yes, we flew to Rome for less than $15 USD each… I know it’s madness.
That said the discount airlines tend to follow the rule of, 1 free personal item that can fit under the seat only, and any items additional cost more. For us fitting all our belongings needed for a long term trek around the world in a personal item sized bag was not going to work, BUT when you can find flights to other countries for less than $20 USD per person we don’t mind paying 40 euro per person to check our bigger bags. Plus it is less to carry through the airport. We’re thinking of experimenting with Ryanair on our next flight to see if our “big bags” can be carried on the plane without hassle. I’ll let ya know how that goes.
It should be noted that most airlines in Europe limit the weight of the bags to 10Kilos (around 22 pounds) and 20 kilos (around 44 pounds), which is about 6 pounds less than the average US airline which typically allows 50-pound checked bags. Our bags are 13 Kilos and 9.8 kilos respectively. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on who has the bigger bag. Things like shoes, toiletries etc, those are extra weight! So pack sparingly. You also want to leave space for souvenirs and consider sending souvenirs home periodically to prevent the weight from piling up.
2. Practice packing
Most people start packing about a week before they leave, or like an hour before they leave for the airport.. if you’re my mother. If you’re going on a personal holiday for a week or two this method is totally OK.
BUT for someone going on a long term trip, this is a mistake. We started packing about two months’ prior to our trip.
We ordered stuff from Amazon, went to REI multiple times each week, changed out clothes and shoes until we found a combination of items that made us happy.
We also found packing cubes to be really helpful. I went through a period of brief craziness where I got rid of all our packing cubes because I thought they were holding us back from fitting everything we needed in our bags… I now realize the error of my ways and ordered some new ones. Packing cubes help us remain organized and allow me to locate important items quickly in a pinch. It also prevents stuff from shifting around in transit.
We also brought all of our gear to REI when we bought Matt’s backpack to ensure that we got a pack that fit all of his belongings comfortably. REI even has a table specifically designed for this. So don’t be afraid to be that person!
3: Choose the right bag
We LOVE our Farpoint by Osprey Bags. They are AMAZING.
But they aren’t the first bags we got for this trip. I actually bought two others, one for me and one for Matthew. The bags I bought we actually loved (especially my ebags motherload weekender pictured below) using for short weekend trips but we noticed that they hurt our backs, and weren’t easy to carry for long periods of time. We thought if they were hurting our backs after only an hour or so of carrying them. what would they do if we had to schlep them across a continent?
We both knew we didn’t want a roller bag. I know for some people roller bags are a necessity but since our first stop was europe we knew roller bags and cobblestones would suck. Plus it is easier to haul a backpack up a 5-floor walkup in Edinburgh than a roller or duffle bag. BUT what you choose is up to you. You by no means need to choose the same bags we did.
If you do go the backpack rout the fit of your bag is super important. REI will fit you for your backpack at no cost. You don’t even have to buy a backpack from them. I purchased a women’s Osprey Fairview without getting fitted and ended up exchanging it for a men’s Farpoint because I have the shoulders and torso of a lumberjack. I also had to switch out the waist strap as the one provided wasn’t quiiiiite long enough for comfort.
4: Pack fewer clothes than you think you need and invest in moisture-wicking fabrics.
I wish I would have done this. I have a clothing obsession and care a lot about the clothes I wear. It was REALLY hard for me to pair down my wardrobe, and I had to make tough choices on function over form. I went from having over 20 different pairs of shoes to having 2, then down to 1, and replaced the other pair later.
4. You can always buy stuff when you get there.
If I could go back I would have just brought less overall. I could have purchased things like shampoo, conditioner, and many of my clothes when we crossed the pond. And frankly, finding those items is a big part of our adventures!
It is fun and interesting to go shopping at outdoor markets, and grocery stores in foreign countries. You end up meeting people because you have to ask around to find out where stuff is located. We’ve met lots of followers of our journey because we asked where to buy things like Shampoo, Gluten-Free bread, packing cubes, etc. Your accent will give you away as a traveler and most people are excited and interested in hearing about why you’re visiting, where you are from. The less stuff you bring with you, the more opportunity you have to experience life in another country and make friends!
Also, it’s cheaper because as we said earlier.. LESS WEIGHT IS BETTER!
5. Accept that you’re going to go without some creature comforts.
This one is hard for people. It was and continues to be hard for us. There are things you have at home that you just don’t take with you on the road. It’s impractical and unnecessary but it’s something that you likely wouldn’t go without if you were living at home or going on a short vacation. For me, it was a wide range of outfit options, makeup choices, and hair products.
I love doing my hair and makeup in the morning, playing with clothing combinations and picking a different lipstick every day. But it’s just not practical. There are even items of clothing I’d wear frequently that were impractical to bring (like my oversized wool sweater that would take up half of my bag if I had brought it along). I left my curling wand and straightener and blow dryer behind. I don’t have cute dresses or outfits that I dawn for special occasions and I can’t just pick up something cute whenever I want, because everything costs both money and precious real estate in my bag.
For Matt, the creature comforts were more significant. He didn’t get to bring a lot of items. Mostly tech-related. He had a desk, and monitors, a work chair, desk lamps, and fancy bulky headphones, a fancy mouse and several other peripherals that made his work zone extra comfy and cool. He gave up his Wacom drawing tablet and our King sized bed…. (This was a bigger deal for him than for me).
But the trade-off for all these things is an extraordinary life. While there are moments where we both wish we were waking up in our comfy Tempur pedic mattress, for the most part, that feeling goes away once we look out the window and see the Eiffel Tower, or overlook the vast green and purple rolling landscape of the Scottish Countryside.
In my experience, unless you are independently wealthy (Which like if you are good for you! Also would you like to adopt two 28-year-olds?) the best way to travel is to travel light. Not only for comfort but for the expense. At the end of the day keep your eye on the prize? Are you going to Paris to maintain the environment you left? No, you’re going to EXPERIENCE PARIS! So let the experiences happen to you. Changing our mindset to focus on the places around us, rather than the things we own is what allows us to travel full time. It’s a choice of simplicity. The trade-off for which is an extraordinary life.