Over the years as a nomad, living out of my suitcase, I’ve picked up a few tricks on how to pack your stuff right. This post is meant for fellow nomads, although most of these tips are generic enough to be useful for your standard holiday-packing as well.
Picking the right suitcase
Most airlines have a 23 kg or 50 lbs weight limit. That isn’t a whole lot to fit your entire life into, so you’ll want to pick an extremely light suitcase. Every kilo of suitcase is one kilo of clothes you’re not going to bring with you. So when you see that hard-shell suitcase with the strange gizmos that weigh an extra two kilos, ask yourself if you are willing to sacrifice eleven of your favourite t-shirts for it.
As for the size, apply the Goldilocks principle. You obviously don’t want it too small, but neither do you want it too big, even disregarding the weight consideration. Too big and your stuff will tumble around and get damaged. If you get one that is ‘just right’ then your stuff will be snug and secure.
My suitcase is a Ricardo Montecity. The dimensions are 60cm x 40cm x 23cm (24″ x 16″ x 9″) and it weighs 3kg (7lbs). I’ve found that it is the perfect size for me. (If you’d like to buy it from Amazon, please use this link and I’ll get a small commission.)
You’ll also want a suitcase with four wheels and a handle on top, bottom and side. Those handles will come in handy when manoeuvring the bag in and out of busses, cars etc.
An accordion expandable section is useful for going to colder climates when you need more space for bulky yet light jackets and pants.
The lid should have lots of compartments and sleeves. More on this later.
The backpack a.k.a. hand luggage
You’ll need something as your hand luggage, and you’ll need a backpack for everyday use. So, combine them. Don’t get a specific hand-luggage suitcase as where will you then pack your backpack?
When going to the airport, this is what you’ll want in the backpack.
- Anything you need on the plane.
- Anything that is expensive and fragile, like your laptop. As I wrote in ‘The Paranoid’s Guide to Backups’, your external hard drive backups are an exception to this rule. They need to be separate from your laptop at all times.
- If you are carrying too much weight, you can drop anything heavy into your hand luggage. No one ever checks the weight of your backpack boarding a plane. (Need to unload more weight from your bag? Wear your jacket no matter how hot it is and fill your pockets with heavy stuff!)
You will use your backpack a lot, and it will take some beating, so don’t skimp on the cost of this important item. Get one with good seams, untearable fabric and a separation between the back of the bag and your lower back. You’ll sweat a lot less for it!
I’m using the Deuter AC Lite bag. I bought it about eight years ago, and it hasn’t failed me once! Not a single thing has broken in all these years. I wish my relationships were this durable! (Again, if you’d like to buy it from Amazon, please use this link and I’ll get rich rich rich!)
Finally, the backpack is overkill if you are just going to the beach or taking a tablet to the park, so also bring a satchel. You’ll use it.
Getting to your frequently used stuff.
If you are staying a few weeks or months in one location, you’ll likely unpack everything and nest in your new ‘home’. But, there will be times when you cannot or don’t want to unpack the suitcase, and then you need a system to easily get to your stuff while it is still in the suitcase.
First thing is the lid of your suitcase. Most suitcases came with one or two large compartments on top of the lid and a few smaller on the inside of the lid. This real estate is gold!
Socks and underwear go into one of the big top-side compartments; dirty laundry goes in the other. These items have a tendency to spread like cancer throughout your bag, cluttering it up.
The inside compartments is for everything else you might need on a daily basis that is small, like chargers, tablets, sunglasses etc.
T-shirts and other clothes are too big to fit into the lid, so stack them up on one side of the bag. Have one stack of t-shirts and one stack of bigger items like jeans, sweaters, shirts etc. You’ll only have 2-4 of these anyway, so it isn’t hard to get to the bottom one.
You might want to roll up the t-shirts and put rubber bands around them. The space saving is negligible (I’m constrained by the weight of my stuff, not size.) but you’ll be able to rummage through your t-shirts, looking for the right one, without making a mess.
Your toiletries should all go in one bag. These might fit in the lid, but you’ll want to bring them to the bathroom, so keeping them together in a bag is a good idea. Better yet, get a bag designed for toiletries with a hook to hang it with and a fold-down lid with compartments for toothbrushes, shaving gel etc.
Organizing the rest of your stuff
Packing-blocks have become popular lately. These allow you to pack your stuff into easily movable blocks of related items. It is a great idea, but they are often opaque. You want to be able to see what is inside. There are transparent ones, but why bother? Ziploc bags will do just fine and they are easy to replace. Get good quality bags in a few different sizes, all with zipper-like lock mechanisms.
Although these should be kept to an absolute minimum, you’ll always have some stuff that you rarely use. (E.g. spare charger cable, first aid kit, passport.) Put all of this into one bag and bury it somewhere. The idea is that the more rarely you use something, the further your bury it.
Protecting your stuff
Your suitcase will be abused in the hull whenever you fly, so it is important that you protect your stuff. The most fragile and expensive stuff should be kept safe in your backpack, but there will be some stuff that needs to be in the suitcase.
First line of defence is bubble-wrap and rubber bands. For extra safety, put the fragile item inside a sweater and as close to the middle of the bag and the lid as you can. (Remember, your lid is lined with underwear and dirty laundry, so it is more protected than the bottom.)
Some stuff, such as your external hard drives, require hard-backed cases for extra protection.
If you have flat stuff that should not bend (e.g. a board-game playing surface) then get a clipboard, remove the clipper-part and put it together with the flat stuff inside a plastic sleeve.