How I Pack for Travel

23 September 2014 · 20 comments

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.

The Bags

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.

The Clothes

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.

The Stuff

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.

Note: 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.

The Itinerary

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:

A sample travel itinerary

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.

1 Ryan September 23, 2014 at 09:33

I like the modular packing idea. I keep a travel toiletry kit and ziplock for TSA screening ready at all times, but that’s the extent of it right now. (Although when I was on active duty in the Air Force I had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. So I had a similar system to your modular packing). I will work on setting up a system like yours. It seems much more efficient!

Ziplock bags are great. I keep a Ziplock or a folder for all of my receipts when traveling for business, and I also keep two copies of my itinerary at all times. I haven’t used Evernote for keeping a copy of my itinerary, but I will do that going forward. I do use Evernote for keeping track of where I parked. The last thing I want is to return from a long vacation and wander around long-term parking while clicking my key fob to zero in on my car’s horn. :)

2 Chris September 23, 2014 at 10:44

Great tips, I do the same thing with itineraries by using a Google Doc.

I learned years ago that to save a ton of space when packing you simply roll your clothes – shirts, pants, socks, underwear – instead of folding them. Since then, I’ve traveled to other countries for 2-3 weeks and have only taken a small duffle with me (Filson, model #70110).

3 Glen Craig September 23, 2014 at 11:00

I’m really liking Exofficio underwear and I’m thinking about adding other items, likes shirts and pants, to my arsenal. JFK is dangerous as they have an Exofficio store there.

Interesting to hear about the wool shirts. I’m going to have to look into that.

I’ve been meaning to get an all-plastic web belt for traveling so I don’t have to worry about taking it off when going through security.

When I used to camp more I’d have more of a modular system. I haven’t thought to bring that to airline travel and such. Duh. Thanks for showing your system. I’ll be re-thinking mine now. Oh, and I have a go-to item list I keep in Evernote. Without a good packing list there’s always at least one item I forget.

4 stellamarina September 23, 2014 at 13:12

I use a zip lock system too. Just want to add that the most important bag is a flat money belt that is worn under your shirt. However, even with the all plastic type, if you go through one of those new xrays security sceenings the TSA is going to see your moneybelt on the xray and ask you to remove it. So it is better to just leave it in your carryon until you get through security.

5 The Godfather September 23, 2014 at 13:40

Excellent tips. I’ve been traveling more lately, although only domestic travel for now, and I’m quickly discovering that my typical approach (described best as disorganized procrastination) isn’t cutting it. Unlike my recent trip to New Orleans, where I needed to bring lots of conference materials with me, I should be able to get by packing very lightly. Bookmarking this for my next trip next month.

6 jdroth September 23, 2014 at 14:49

In related news, here are Anthony Bourdain’s travel tips. I don’t agree with everything he has to say — he checks luggage because he doesn’t like when people use overhead bins? his loss — but then, as I often say, “do what works for you”.

7 bethh September 23, 2014 at 16:07

This is more about what to bring rather than how to bring it, but I only bring clothes that can be worn with every other piece of clothing I bring with me. No matter how much I like a given item of clothing, it has to go with everything else or it can’t come on the trip.

I always bring a stuff sack for dirty clothes – it tucks them nicely out of the way and is easy to find.

I just did Cycle Oregon again, and always have a flashlight and my toothbrush in my walk-around-camp bag, so I don’t have to make extra trips to my tent as it becomes dark and time to get ready for bed!

8 Jennifer September 23, 2014 at 17:43

Our packing methods are very similar and it’s what my husband and I have used for years. I travel frequently for work and acquire a ton of miles and I almost always get upgraded to first class because of my status with the airline. My husband and I just returned from a three week trip to Italy on which we traveled coach (award tickets) – we thought we were going to die and swore we’d always book business class in the future. It’s crazy how spoiled we get when we treat ourselves. It’s good to see you posting.

9 Rebecca @ Stapler Confession s September 24, 2014 at 05:33

I am a big fan if modular packing, too. This summer, I packed a plastic bin of outdoor toys and gear (sand toys, towels, hiking packs, water botyles, etc.) for our family vacation. That way, we never brought it into the cottage and it was always with us when we went out.
Thanks for the tip on the wool shirts. My husband will love one of those for Christmas!

10 Japhy September 24, 2014 at 10:24

I certainly understand the need for a physical paper copy of the itinerary. However, having it in dropbox or evernote or…. whatever is a hassle.

Try Tripit (free) or Tripit Pro (free with certain credit cards). When you get your flight info, hotel and car reservations, tours, etc you forward those emails to trip it. They format all of them and create an itinerary for you that is easily accessible, thru either your phone or online. Its a much simpler and cleaner format.

I’d be curious to hear what others that use Tripit think.

Thanks for some great ideas JD

11 jdroth September 24, 2014 at 15:33

I used to use Tripit, but found it a hassle. It was just ONE MORE THING, you know? But because I work in a text editor all day long, it was simple (for me) to collate everything there. Somebody who spends most of their days in Excel might find that the most convenient way to track things. I think Tripit is a keen idea, but it just doesn’t work for me…

12 Tina September 26, 2014 at 16:32

I’ve been using Tripit free version for about 2 years and love it, all my travel details in one place and easy to view in the palm of my hand. Since I travel for work a lot it makes simple to access all my flight info and also which rental car company will be used. Normally I don’t print or write anything out, but will be traveling to Europe later in the year and so might have a paper copy of some of the details out for Airbnb and train station details.

Great packing video JD! Good tips on your plastic bags to make traveling easier and organized. I just recently got some travel cubes and think they will be nice to keep business and casual outfits separated.

Tina

13 PawPrint September 24, 2014 at 15:12

If you’ve left your luggage in the storage area in the train car, be sure and grab the right bag when you exit the train. Looking at the ID tag helps–having ID on the bag helps even more. As an honest person, you may take the wrong bag back to the station, but the person who took your bag may not. Okay, not really a packing tip. My cheap train trip became an expensive lesson when I had to replace my new boots, my rain jacket and a bunch of other stuff including my sister’s Christmas present.

14 Charlotte September 24, 2014 at 15:30

Forget ziploc bags. I use packing cubes.
http://www.rei.com/product/866241/eagle-creek-original-pack-it-cube-set
They come in various sizes, see through, re-usable and washable.
Modular packing is the way to go especially when you use these little cubes.

15 bethh September 24, 2014 at 15:48

I use those too! I have several sizes and usually sort tops in one, bottoms in another, socks/underwear/etc in a third – they work great and last forever. I think I’ve had mine over 15 years (jeez).

16 Luckyvik September 27, 2014 at 05:37

Great tips. I’m currently on a trip in Europe using packing cubes but I’m starting to think it might be better to have little bags with a top, underwear and socks off each day as at the moment I have to open different bags to get each thing. I really like the kits idea, I will be implementing this, particularly a dental kit and a shower kit.

17 Jean September 29, 2014 at 09:53

Have you talked about airbnb before & I overlooked it? I’m curious to know about your experience & reviews/ratings. As an airline employee I can usually fly for close to nothing (depending on my destination) but I’m always looking for ways to save money in other areas. People think that airline employees are always jetting off on vacations/trips/getaways since it doesn’t cost us anything to fly, but they don’t think about the money that you have to spend once you arrive at your destination (food, lodging, entertainment, etc).

18 Sandi October 4, 2014 at 21:50

JD, sounds like we have similar systems – I use Ziplocs for prescriptions, liquids (per TSA regs), and wet bathing suits/dirty laundry.

I have also found that using zippered mesh pouches for travel docs and receipts works well – I keep a pen in mine, along with my passport, itineraries, email confirmations, etc. I got my set from Barnes & Noble – and since I bought the red set, they’re easily findable among the travel bags:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/p/home-gift-black-grid-mesh-pouch-set-of-4/12917388

I also find that a carry-on that has backpack straps is hugely helpful when traveling in international airports – I don’t fatigue my arms and hand by gripping the travel bag – but it’s got more sections, so I can keep my travel items more organized. Mine is a Samsonite, with three compartments, including a padded one for a laptop or tablet.

Finally, getting the right carry-on roller has been a struggle. Many are too large to carry on, and the smaller ones are not always well thought-out. I recently splurged on a Briggs & Riley one that is 22″, and I can carry 2 weeks’ worth of clothing in it. Highly recommended.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005HMSUM6/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_dp_ss_1?pf_rd_p=1944687762&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe-1&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=B007ECE6UC&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=1FMEWB08PGMD16WJDJHB

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: