I like to travel.
Since 2007, I’ve visited twenty countries and eighteen states (where “visit” is defined as “spent the night”). I’m not on some mad quest to uncover every corner of the planet — although that does sound fun — but I like taking time to travel to new places.
Travel isn’t without its annoyances, however. Bad taxi drivers, sketchy hotels, and long layovers are just a few of the headaches we all encounter. To make things easier, most frequent travelers develop certain systems to make life easier.
I just returned from a week in New Orleans, for instance. Yesterday, I rode to the airport with my friend Ryan Guina (one of the funniest and friendliest men alive). To make his life simpler when flying, Ryan does a couple of things. For one, he wears shoes that slip on and off with ease. He keeps his belt in his carry-on until he’s through security. And most importantly, he carries a ziploc bag that contains everything else that would normally be in his pockets.
Smart man. I think I’ll have to copy his ziploc bag trick.
Doing so shouldn’t be too tough. You see, ziploc bags are actually the cornerstone of my own packing philosophy. In fact, when Kim and I returned from Ecuador a couple of weeks ago, I made this short video that explains my entire packing system — ziploc bags and all.
This video contains the exact same info found in this article — but in visual form.
For those who’d like more detail (or who aren’t interested in watching the video), here’s how I pack for long trips.
First up, let’s talk about bags. I’m a self-confessed bag junkie, and my closet contains about a dozen packs and suitcases of different shapes and sizes. None are perfect but some come close.
When I travel abroad, I take three bags.
- First, there’s my main bag. This contains my clothes and my “kits” (explained in a moment) and is almost always (95% of the time) a carry-on sized bag. If I think I’ll be stationary, staying in the same hotel for days or weeks, I might take a suitcase. But generally I take a backpack. My preferred pack is a discontinued model from REI, the 46-liter Vagabond Travel Pack. (There’s an updated model of this pack, but it’s smaller.)
- Second, there’s my personal bag. This is where I keep the stuff I want close to me at all times: my cameras, my computer, my writing. Whereas I might sometimes check my main bag, I never check my personal bag. This is usually a briefcase-type bag, although sometimes it might be a smaller backpack. My current personal bag is the 72-hour briefcase from Filson. It’s expensive, but I love the layout.
- Finally, I carry a light, collapsible daypack in the main bag. This is the bag I use while traipsing around Paris or Peru. When I leave my hotel, this is on my back. My current daypack is another discontinued item from REI: the Flash 18 pack. There’s an updated version of the Flash pack but it sucks. The new model has a rigid back which totally defeats the purpose. I don’t know what I’ll do if my Flash 18 gets cut or torn. It’s a workhorse!
These three bags are the backbone of my packing system. Next, lets look at what I carry inside them.
As my ex-wife can tell you, I’m not a fashion-conscious fellow. That’s probably a good thing because travel clothing tends toward the functional rather than the flattering. Or at least my travel clothing does.
When I travel, I usually take two pairs of shoes: a main pair and a comfortable pair. Often, my main footwear is a pair of hiking boots, which I wear on transit days in order to save room in my suitcase. My comfortable pair is usually some sort of sandal (flip-flops, Birkenstocks). Rarely, such as last week in New Orleans, I’ll carry a third pair of shoes for dressy occasions.
On long trips overseas, I bring Ex Officio travel underwear. It’s not flattering nor especially comfortable, but I can wash and dry it quickly. (For shorter trips or for trips in the U.S., I stick with my normal cotton undies.)
Also on long trips overseas, I bring my zip-off pants. Zip-off pants have detachable legs so that they can convert from shorts to slacks quickly and easily. They also tend to have lots and lots of pockets. Some people hate these pants, and I get it. They’re pretty damn ugly — but they’re also pretty damn handy. Do I look like a tourist when I wear them? So be it, I look like a tourist.
When I travel, I always take three to five wool t-shirts. Why wool? Simple. Wool stays cool when it’s warm outside and stays warm when it’s cool. Best of all, wool does not retain odors. I can wear the same wool shirt for several consecutive days and it’ll never stink. I know a guy who once took a single wool t-shirt on a long trip. This was his only shirt. He wore it every day, and he even did daily runs in it. He didn’t have to wash it the entire trip. I swear by my wool t-shirts. You should too. (All of my wool shirts are Icebreaker shirts like this one.)
Lastly, I’ll carry three or four button-down shirts designed for travel. These might have secret pockets or special vents for hot days hiking through the jungle. Which shirts I pack depend on the country I’m visiting and what I plan to do when I arrive.
Earlier I mentioned that I carry “kits” when I travel. That’s because I practice what I call “modular packing”. Simply put, modular packing means I separate my gear into groups of similar items and then pack each group into its own ziploc bag. For instance, I pack everything related to sleeping — my eyemask, my earplugs, my nasal strips, my sleeping pills, my doorstop, etc. — into a single bag.
This is an instance where watching the video
will make more sense. If you’re not sure what I mean, go take a gander at my modular packing system.
I have kits for most major activities. I have the afore-mentioned sleep kit, a dental kit, a hygiene kit, an outdoors kit, an electronics kit, and more. Each kit gets its own labeled ziploc bag, and all of the bags live together in a small plastic bin when not in use. I don’t need every kit for every trip. For last week’s trip to New Orleans, for example, I didn’t need the outdoor kit. When I’m packing, I simply grab the bags I need from the bin and I’m good to go.
This system works well except for on transit days. On transit days, I have to transfer all liquids to an extra shared bag so that I can get through security. Once I reach my next stop, I return each liquid to its respective kit.
Perhaps the most important kit in my modular packing system is the bag for travel documents. This is where I keep my passport, along with any vouchers and tickets. As I get receipts on my trip, they go in here too. This is also where I keep my travel itinerary, which is the final piece of my travel gear.
I’ve learned that for a long trip, it’s vital to have a written itinerary. This document becomes the organizational backbone of the trip.
At the moment I start planning my trip, I create a text document. To start, I include my passport info and my frequent-flyer numbers. As I make my plans, every scrap of info gets placed in the itinerary.
- When I book my flights, I put the flight numbers, the schedules, the confirmation codes, and everything else into the itinerary. (I’ve developed a standard format for this info.)
- When I book my hotels, I put the address, phone number, confirmation codes, and other bits of info into the itinerary.
- When I book a tour or a shuttle, that info goes here too.
Here’s an example of my actual itinerary for our trip to Ecuador last month:
This document is so important that I carry two printed copies with me. One lives in my pocket at all times and becomes very worn by the end of a long trip. The other lives in the document kit with the passport and my other vital info. Plus I store a digital copy in Dropbox so that I can access it from anywhere in the world.
Note: During our recent trip to Ecuador, I used airmiles to upgrade to business class. Perhaps that was a mistake. Having never flown other than coach, I was unaware just how truly awesome the first-class experience can be. No waiting! Ever! Free airport lounges! Delicious hot food! Hot towels! Free drinks! Priority baggage unloading! Traveling first class takes all the trouble out of travel. It comes with a cost, of course, but sometimes that cost is worth it. For whatever reason, my recent flights to New Orleans didn’t cost much to upgrade — so I did. From now on, I’ll go out of my way to find cheap ways to fly first class. It’s worth it to me.
So, that’s how and why I pack the way I pack. How do you pack? I’d love to learn some new tips, tricks, and tools to make life easier while on the road.