Essential Gear For Long-Term Travel

A year ago, as we packed up our house and got ready to go, I scanned various lists developed by travel experts of essential items to pack, and I invariably ended up more conflicted about what to bring for our round-the-world trip. We made a commitment to travel light — just one easy-to-carry clothing bag each, plus a communal gear bag and as few carry-ons as possible — and yet all these lists were telling us to bring so much stuff.

After 10 months of family travel, I don’t have a comprehensive packing list to share (here’s a good one for starters if that’s what you’re looking for), but I can detail some of the gear and clothing we found indispensable. A lot of essential items seem obvious, so I left them off this list; e.g., our Mac laptops, photography equipment, running shoes, and the iPhone to which we’re truly addicted. (We had the iPhone unlocked and replaced the SIM card in every country to get a local phone number and GPS, which is a pain but doable — and worth it.) Instead, I listed personal favorites that travelers might not think to pack.

I also listed useful supplies for “roadschooling,” and finally a few items we could have left at home — things we brought because we thought we should, but it turned out we didn’t need them.

For families heading off for long summer trips or sabbaticals, I hope this helps make your packing job easier. For those of you who’ve traveled for long stretches of time, please add your tips on what or what not to pack in the comments below.

Can’t Imagine Traveling Round the World Without These:

Colly and me catching a train to Venice with our Osprey Porter packs on back and our daypacks (with laptop holders built in) on front.

Osprey Porter Packs: After months of having this luggage virtually grafted to our sides, it’s hard to imagine life without our Osprey convertible packs. They held up great — no busted zippers or other malfunctions — and we found them comfortable and well-designed. I loved being able to pull out the straps and carry mine on my back when need be; then I’d tuck the straps back in to make it more of a duffel bag when checking it on board. Morgan and I each got the Osprey Porter 90and for Colly we got the smaller Porter 65. For Kyle, we went with a rolling convertible backpack, the Osprey Sojourn 22.Note: I am a firm believer in not using suitcases with wheels, since the wheel frame adds significant weight and you end up having to pick the bag up frequently to carry up stairs anyway. (The very useful site has a good discussion on “Wheeled Bags and Other Bad Ideas.”) But Kyle was too small to carry his, so we got one with wheels so he could pull it. We also used an old, small Tumi suitcase with wheels as a “mobile office” filled with books and gear. I hated that clunky, heavy suitcase and wish we could have done without it.

REI Travel Document Organizer: We use this 6″x10″ case to hold our passports and extra credit cards and money. I carried it with my laptop pack, which I always kept in hand or looped around my leg while sitting, until we reached our lodging, and then I’d lock it in the safe (or hide it in folded clothing when no safe was available). I believe in hiding passports and extra credit cards and money with belongings left in the locked room rather than carrying those essential documents while sightseeing because pickpocketing or car break-ins seem more likely than room thefts. When we walked around, we carried only a driver’s license for ID and one credit card so that in case of theft or loss we’d have to cancel only one card. The document organizer made it easy to keep these things together and hide them.

Black Fleece Pullover and Rain Shell: Since I had only a few outfits that I wore repeatedly, I learned to dress in layers for warmth and to wear black as much as possible so dirt won’t show. I dressed up outfits and added color with scarves but basically lived in my black fleece pullover (and a few T-shirts made of high-tech synthetic fabric that dries easily and won’t wrinkle). The kids and I all had waterproof shells rather than thick coats, and they were warm enough for almost-freezing temps when coupled with the fleece underneath and gloves. Morgan decided to bring a thicker waterproof jacket and ended up glad he did, even though it’s fairly heavy, since it’s so versatile¬† and dressy enough to wear out. In Barcelona, I finally broke down and bought a thicker, dressier jacket to look more fashionable in European cities, but it felt like a luxury rather than essential, and I had to get rid of other clothes to make room in my pack for it.

These are the jackets I recommend, seen here when we're in the cold of Patagonia last October. I'm also carrying the Eagle Creek packable daypack recommended below.

Kindles:We love our Kindles! We started out with two and ended up getting a third, plus we use the Kindle iPhone app for another reading device. Given all the reading we did on the trip, it was a godsend to have a lightweight reading device in lieu of heavy books, and to be able to easily purchase books in non-English-speaking countries. The iPhone Kindle app was particularly useful for travel guides; several times in Italy, for example, we downloaded a Rick Steves guide to a particular city, and we’d refer to it on the iPhone while getting around town and touring a site.

My pack with some of the compression clothing sacks pulled out.

Eagle Creek Compression Sacks:The plastic bags are like giant Ziplocks that come in small, medium and large sizes to hold clothing. You pack your clothes in and squeeze the air out to make the clothes as compact as possible; plus, they work as organizers so you can separate your clothes into different sets rather than having them all jumbled together in the bag.

Swiss Army Knife: I’m amazed by how many times we ate out of cans and used our Swiss Army knife for opening them, or used it for myriad other purposes. I’m also amazed by how many times I forgot that it was in my carry-on bag and it got through airport security anyway.

Our lovely braided rubber clothesline, strung between two chairs in the sun and doing its job.

Braided Rubber Clothesline:We washed clothes in the sink once a week on average, and this little clothesline came in handy every time. It’s designed so you can hang several pieces of clothing from it, rather than just a few pieces draped over. We also stocked up on individual packets of hand-wash laundry detergent.

Headlamp:A lot of packing lists say to bring a flashlight, but I say get a headlamp instead! A couple of times we were in places where the power went out at night, and it was reassuring to have a headlamp so that both hands were free. Also, since the four of us often shared a single room, one of us could use the headlamp as a reading light when the others wanted to sleep.

Shoe Tag ID:Any time I go off on my own to run, I make sure I have this ID tag on my shoe so that if, heaven forbid, I were hit by a car or in some other accident, then I wouldn’t be a Jane Doe. What I like about this new generation of interactive tags from Road ID is that you can update the contact info online, so that emergency responders can go online or call a phone number on the tag to get your medical and contact info and then contact loved ones. This is particularly useful for travel when your contact info frequently changes. I also got two of the company’s dog-tag IDs for the kids to wear around their necks on travel days, in case we got separated in airports or big cities and they couldn’t communicate with authorities about their personal contact info.

Portable External Hard Drive: Prepare for the likelihood your laptop will get stolen or broken during travel. We backed up ours weekly with the Western Digital My Passport for Mac and made sure to pack the hard drive in a separate bag from the laptop carrier.

Really Handy Extras:

GoLite Mini Rain Shell: This paper-thin but powerful windbreaker folds up and stuffs into a pocket-size, ultra-lightweight triangle. I took it with me running and sightseeing frequently, just in case I needed an extra layer. It’s amazing how one thin layer provides so much wind and rain protection. I couldn’t find a link for it online, but the GoLite site (a great company for lightweight adventure gear) might offer it again or something similar.

Running with my GoLite rain shell in the Lake District of Argentina. This jacket weighs only a few ounces and folds into a pocket.

Eagle Creek Packable Daypack:This thin lightweight daypack folds up into a pocket-sized pouch. I liked it better than regular, heavier daypacks for hikes and sightseeing, and it was useful to have another bag to carry things like groceries.

Cheap Plastic Flip-Flops: I bought some in New Zealand when we stayed in lots of campsites with communal showers. They’re useful to slip on and wear in showers with icky floors.

Scissors: We use the scissors in our homeschooling kit all the time. I also brought along high-quality hair cutting scissors to cut Kyle’s and Morgan’s hair from time to time.

Portable Power Strip:We used this small power strip to increase the number of outlets in our lodging to accommodate our laptops. Coupled with the Apple World Traveler Adapter Kit, we could power up anywhere.

Roadschooling Essentials:

I’m listing some of our schooling supplies because they can be useful for family travel even if you’re not doing school on the go.

Pencil Box with Supplies: We have a 5″x12″ hard plastic pencil case that contains pretty much all the supplies the kids need: pencils and sharpeners, scissors, markers, paper clips, ruler and protractor, PostIts, tape, dice and playing cards. The only thing that doesn’t fit in it that we also use a lot: a stapler.

Small White Boards with Dry Erase Markers: We have three 9″x12″ white boards and use them constantly for lessons, especially math problems. They cut down on the need for scratch paper.

E-versions of Books: Most of the kids’ schoolbooks are online or in PDF form. We got login access for their math and science texts, so they can read them online. Colly’s history book publisher didn’t have an online version, so we purchased the book, removed the binding, and took it to a copy story to have the whole thing scanned as a PDF. (Halfway through our trip, however, I decided to get and carry her heavy math book because I was unhappy with the online interface, and our Internet connections were spotty and expensive.) We got most of their books for pleasure reading in Kindle format. We supplemented their e-books with online resources, our favorite being Brain Pop. I can’t say enough about how fantastic Brain Pop is, and it provided a great substitute for TV.

Mobile Scanner:This lightweight gadget is only 11″x2″. We scanned and sent a lot of their work to their long-distance teachers, and this scanner also came in handy a few times when we needed to scan something for personal business.

Journals and Paper: Even though the kids used the laptops daily, good ol’ paper and pencil were still the best for creative writing and drawing. We also brought graph paper for math.

Things We Thought We Had To Bring And Never Used:

Travel Towel: Every place we rented — even the RV — provided towels and other linens. Unless you’re camping the whole time or staying in hostels where no towels are provided, don’t bother bringing a towel.

Toiletry Kit for Carry-On: For the first few months when we flew, I’d include a toiletry kit with our essentials in my carry-on bag in case our luggage got lost. I never used these travel-size duplicates of things in our main toiletry kit, and it ended up being clutter we didn’t need. Keep in mind that unless you’re traveling to a very remote area, essential medicines and pharmacy supplies can be purchased pretty much anywhere.

Guidebooks and Maps: All the info you need is available in e-book format, from websites and from tourist info offices in destinations. Leave the heavy books at home.

Sink Stopper: Why is this on all packing lists? We brought one and never used it, even though we always did laundry in the sink. A plug was always available, or we could have plugged it up with a washcloth.

Final words of advice: Travel light so you can easily carry all of your belongings!

Kyle and Colly packed and carried all their own stuff for the year.

So many times we had to run to catch a train or squeeze into a small cab, and each time we expressed relief that we didn’t have more luggage. It really is possible to live out of a couple of small bags. Plus, there’s the added benefit of teaching our children (and ourselves) to be more self-reliant and less materialistic. The less you bring to carry, the happier you’ll be on the go.

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