packing-strategies

We began this blog as a means of chronicling our first “around-the-world” trip back in 2011. In the years since, we have taken many more trips and visited dozens more countries. To this day, and with nearly every new trip, we are still finding ways to further refine both what we pack and how we pack it. The one consistent practice is that we very rarely check any bags. We strive to minimize the size of our luggage while compromising as little as possible on comfort while traveling.

MEI Voyageur carry-ons & North Face XS duffle “personal item” for electronics

If you’re someone who routinely checks a couple of bags for every trip abroad, it may seem completely unrealistic to travel with just a carry-on. I’m here to tell you: it’s not. There are certainly trade-offs with packing “too little” vs “too much” and there is a lot of wiggle room for what might be helpful or even essential for certain travelers in certain destinations for certain purposes. However, you should start with the understanding that packing just what you need, what you really need, takes a lot more time and care than stuffing a couple of suitcases full of everything you think you might need and a bunch of extras “just in case.” Everything you pack should be brought because of a high likelihood that it will be needed, with as little duplication as possible.  Most of the time, everything in your bag should fall into a few broad categories, so let’s try to break those down a bit….

Clothes
Regardless of the length of the trip, we generally use an adaptation of something like a “4-3-2-1” rule:

4. (each) Shirts, Undershirts, Underwear, Socks
3. (total) Bottoms (Pants, shorts, skirts, etc)
2. (total) Shoes/Sandals
1. (each) Jacket, belt, hat, gloves, bathing suit, etc.

If you’re on a short trip of a few days to a week, this is no problem. If you’re on a longer trip, you simply need to account for doing some laundry while abroad. The easy approach would be to have your hotel/hostel wash some items for you or to stay at an AirBnB with laundry facilities. The latter is what we have opted for in recent years. Barring that, we have a very small laundry kit that we pack that allows for hand washing and hang drying items if need be.

Laundry Kit: Braided latex clothes hanger with carabiner, bar laundry soap (cut one small piece off with razor), drain stopper

Different destinations will demand different adaptations, such as the addition of swimwear or formal wear. The trickiest itineraries to follow this approach have been ones where there is a hot, tropical destination as well as a very cold one. Clothes for hot weather take up little space and are versatile. To minimize the luggage impact from a cold destination, we have stuck to packing one light jacket and a few upper and lower base-layers as well as tops that we can add as layers.

As for how to pack all of these items…. Start by selecting heavier clothing items for your transit days and long flights, which might be helpful anyhow. We use a cube packing method to bundle the clothes. This allows for tighter packing with less wrinkles at the expense of difficulty extracting single clothing items. It seems to be the best compromise and has worked well for years. All of your clothes should fit into a single packing cube to be tucked into the base of your carry-on bag.

All clothes for extended trip, staggered for packing cube folding
Clothes folded into 14x11x5″ packing cube

Here’s the whole sequence again to get everything into a packing cube….

Start with pants one direction and tops staggered in the opposite direction. Underwear and socks form the square that will go in the packing cube.One Shirt is halfway folded, then the opposite one, then the first shirt is flipped back over the second shirt.Continue with all shirts, tightening into a snug square about the size of your packing cube.The pants will reinforce and wrap around the bundle.

Last step is to cinch the pants around the bundle.

Toiletries
Done right, this can (and should!) take up very little space in your pack. Unfortunately, it seems to be a sticking point for many people. I’m here to tell you that regardless of how “high-maintenance” you think you are, you can do this just fine. The key isn’t skipping items that you normally use as part of your daily routine. You simply need to get creative in transporting them in much smaller quantities.

First thing, create both “wet” and “dry” toiletry bags. Your wet bag needs to conform to the TSA 3-1-1 rules, so… a single 1-gallon bag and items inside should not have any more than 3oz (100ml) each. Make sure any liquids or gels actually have the volume marked on the container, as they do check at some overseas airports. For these toiletry bags, don’t pack up the stuff you usually use… get duplicates that will always stay in these bags. This way, you won’t ever have to worry about “packing” these items; They’re already there! All you need to do is top off any liquid or consumable items.

Wet and Dry Toiletry bags

For your dry bag, you should be able to keep this quite small, foldable toothbrush, small comb (or a VERY space-efficient brush, if you must), razor with case (check out the “razor keeper”), travel nail clippers, meds, etc. You know what you need in this department, but spend some time thinking about how you can make this as small as possible. The first step would be picking a bag that is very minimal, as you can waste a lot of space simply with a bulky toiletry bag.

Dry toiletry bag: try to procure travel versions of all your daily use items

For your wet bag, there is a lot of room for creative solutions. Getting small refillable silicone bottles for shampoo, shower gel, etc. is an easy first step. Another easy space saver is consolidating as many products as possible (e.g. bring only one toothpaste if traveling as a couple). Here are a few other tricks:

Refillable Atomizers

Pick up a refillable atomizer for your preferred cologne/perfume
(like the “Travalo”, also can be found at Sephora stores)

Cosmetic container jars

Pick up a pack of small (~5-30 ml) empty clear container jars for small volume creams and lotions (I use one for Art of Shaving shaving cream)

Premium “sample” stockpile

If you regularly buy cosmetics at department stores or shops like L’Occitane, do your best to get them to hook you up with “samples” of premium stuff that comes in tiny little foil packets. If you ask nicely, they often give out a fistful. Those little guys are perfect for multiple trips.

Disposable Loofah

Disposable loofahs… sold in multi-packs on Amazon. They expand once wet. Bring a fresh one along and toss at the end of your trip.

Electronics/Photography
This is an area where, depending on your priorities, you might have some wide variation in how much of your luggage you’re going to need to allocate. On the extreme low end, bring your phone and a charger: you have a camera with photo editing and web browsing capabilities. Done.

If (like us) you’re a bit pickier, you’re going to be shelling out some cash and spending a lot of time balancing functionality and portability. We have used Olympus Micro-Four-Thirds system products for our photography and a small MacBook for editing, uploading, and blogging.

Olympus E-M1 II with assorted lenses
Camera wrap
Olympus E-M1 & 3 Pro lenses
Olympus bodies, Five lenses total, GoPro & accessories, DJI Mavic Drone and all accessories

Over the years, we have upgraded throughout the Olympus camera system, from early Pen models to the E-M5 OM-D. We recently upgraded our entire photography kit substantially. We are now traveling with two E-M1 bodies and a selection of four or five lenses for a given trip. When reasonable, we will leave a few lenses at home and try to take only the most versatile glass along with us. This system is definitely bigger than a phone or basic point and shoot, but it does pack down much smaller than a full size dSLR kit. We use a padded camera wrap to hold the body and basic lens cases for each lens. All camera gear is stowed in an ultralight dry sack and kept in a “personal item” bag while flying. We don’t take any purpose-made camera bags. While out overseas, we use a packable daypack to hold extra items we anticipate being used during the day.

Portable tripod options

If you want to actually be in some of your photos and aren’t going to do the selfie approach, then a travel tripod will definitely make your life a lot easier. If you’re traveling with a smaller interchangeable lens camera or a small fixed lens, the Tamrac “Zipshot” has proven to be a very portable and reliable basic tripod. It won’t be great for long exposure stuff, but it’s perfect for grabbing full daylight shots with groups of people. The Manfrotto compact aluminum tripod is also a nice and inexpensive option that provides a bit more stability without taking up half your bag.

2017 Macbook

As of this writing, the humble “MacBook” beats out the “MacBook Air” in both size and weight by a substantial margin. The tradeoff of course is that you’re going to be living with some dongles for some very basic stuff. For my purposes, it’s absolutely worth the weight and small footprint. Blogging and business is much less painful with a real keyboard, and using Adobe Lightroom for RAW file processing makes it nearly essential.

Amazon Basics Universal Travel Case for Small Electronics

Ok, this thing. It’s small. It’s inexpensive ($10.49). It’s absolutely indispensable.

Amazon small electronics kit

I’ll walk you through some stuff here. First, pick up a plug-in USB charging hub (This is the white Anker 40w 4-port). That allows for charging a couple phones and other devices with only one wall plug. You can skip the iPhone/iPad/etc wall chargers. Bring a couple wall plug adapters specific to the destination you’re traveling to. We have only used the mechanical adapters, never any transformers or bulky multipurpose ones. Just bring 2-3 of the adapters applicable to your itinerary. We have a bag with adapters of every type and we just pick from there when packing for a trip. Also make sure you have a few short high-quality cables for phones or other devices. Much like the toiletry kit, this electronics kit has stuff just for travel, so we don’t have to search around the house for cables and connectors when packing. It’s already ready to go. Next, if you check out the top right of the above picture, take note of the right-angle plug for the camera battery charger. You may need to bring a battery charger or two. If so, hunt down right-angle power adapters for your chargers so you don’t have to pack any lengthy power cords. As for odds and ends in the kit: extra SD-card reader, USB flash drive, Lens pen for cleaning lenses, and a few other random connectors.

Wall adapters for multiple countries

Miscellaneous
Typically, inside my MEI bag, I have a packing cube in the base with all clothing, a pair of sandals and a travel tripod reinforcing the sides, dry/wet toiletry bags up top and accessible, and a small electronics zippered case and laptop case on top and accessible. Finally, I have one more small packing cube with some odds and ends.

Second, smaller packing cube for miscellaneous stuff

Ok, so here in this cube we’ve got a couple umbrellas and ponchos, a packable daypack, sunglasses, and (just in case) an Osprey “Airporter” backpack cover. All electronics are stowed in a personal item sized duffel. In the unlikely event that a smaller airline insists on gate-checking my MEI (which has never happened), I I’ve got a tough cover to toss it into, and nothing in the MEI is particularly valuable or fragile.

Ok now…. let’s put all of that together….

MEI Voyageur all packed up
All photography gear packed up in small “personal item” sized duffle
Carry-on and Personal item
In the event you are forced to gate check on a small plane, here’s the MEI with an Osprey Airporter, Small size

And that’s pretty much it. As you can see, we have a pretty sizeable amount of electronics there: Two camera bodies, multiple lenses, GoPro, Tripod, Mavic Drone, Macbook, and all the connectors and chargers that go with that stuff. In all likelihood, most people can travel with way less: pare that down to an iPad and a nice fixed lens camera. Stuff like a drone or a GoPro are also certainly optional and not appropriate for every trip. For the purposes here, I’m trying to show what it looks like with the most gear possible.

In  closing, here’s a more detailed rundown on some our favorite products that have traveled the world with us:

“Carry on” bags:
Over the years, we have used one bag, and only one bag, as our primary luggage: The MEI “Voyageur.”  We chose these bags years ago after much research and have never regretted it. Hands down, our absolute favorite travel item, and made in the USA by a great company. After years of use through dozens of countries, the MEI Voyageur has held up perfectly for us without a single zipper malfunction or loose stitch. They’re perfect. We had also considered bags by Red Oxx and Tom Bihn, but this classic model seemed the best choice: locking YKK zippers, no divided compartments (allowing for packing cubes), no extraneous pockets, standard carry-on size of 14x9x22″, and it can be used as a backpack with hip belt or as a shoulder bag. The Voyageur doesn’t include a shoulder strap, and we decided to go with the Tom Bihn “Absolute” strap pictured below.


The bag can also be used as a backpack and has moldable metal frame inserts:

Day Packs:
On non-transit days, when out and about we usually have one of two bags for carrying any gear with us: a Pacsafe Citysafe 200 (the old model) or a “packable daypack”. We used the Eagle Creek daypack (pictured below) for years until it became too worn. Since then, we’ve gone through a couple models, but none we’re especially enamored with. You can find a selection of these types of packs on Amazon or somewhere like REI. The concept is fantastic, but we just haven’t found a particular model that we have stayed in love with.

Packable Daypack Packable daypack open

Security:
It probably bears mentioning a couple items in this department. Make sure on that packing list, in addition to a fistful of TSA-friendly locks, you through in a metal cable in case you need to secure your bag to something fixed temporarily. Eagle Creek locks have been the only ones that haven’t broken for us over the years.

Travel/Security Wallets: Lots of different options in this department. Pacsafe as a rule seems to make really good quality stuff. I’m on my second “walletsafe” from them and they’re definitely the way to go. Bill separator and a zippered change pocket. The whole thing secures together nicely with an elastic strap (old model had velcro). We also have the Pacsafe Coversafe 125 and Coversafe 75.

We rarely take raincoats or ponchos, but when we do it’s just cheap disposable ones. Really portable umbrellas have proved a better option. We used these Samsonite “Ultra Mini” umbrellas (9×1.5×1.5″) for several years before replacing them with the new version.

Decent headphones/earbuds are a must. Size constraints make earbuds the better choice… I was never able to get a satisfactory fit with ANY earbuds until I got custom molds done. These are Bose IE2 earbuds with molds from Earsound Customs. I really love them, and if they get stolen, not only will they be mostly useless to anyone else, but Earsound already has a scan of my molds on file so a new set can easily be reordered.

As you might imagine, we have a few rubbermaid containers of travel gear that has been used a few times and is either not that helpful or only beneficial for certain types of destinations. This is definitely not a comprehensive list. I tried to refine this gear rundown to the stuff we are typically packing for every trip as a guide for a starting point. Hope this is helpful to some! Please feel free to throw any comments/questions below…

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