Packing Like a Nomad

18 October 2014. Filed under category Nomad.

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

Ricardo Montecity

Ricardo Montecity

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

Deauter AC Lite Backpack

Deauter AC Lite Backpack

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.

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.

Perhaps too organized?

Perhaps too organized?

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

Yours truly

Yours truly

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

Wrap it in bubble wrap!

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.

Travel Updates

I’ve left the US and gone to Brazil. I first spent a great week in Sao Paulo with an old friend from London, Lufe. I then took a flight to Belo Horizonte where I’ve now spent almost three weeks. I’ll be writing more about these two places shortly after I’ve gone to Rio, which is where I’ll be flying on Monday 27th October.


What are your top packing-tips?

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  1. Mike Jennings says:

    Informative post Gustav! Hope you’re doing well buddy. Enjoy Brazil. I’ve had the pleasure of traveling there a couple of times and really enjoyed it. Cheers! Mike

  2. Crys Klier-Hoffman says:

    Well , of course, even the name of your suitcase is sexy!!!!

    Stay out of plastic bags…..

    Enjoy Rio….. as if you wouldn’t 🙂

  3. Sandström says:

    Good post. Even if i’m far from as an experient traveler as you I need to correct you on the weight of the hand luggage. Once flying from Sturup (Malmö Airport) the carrier weighed everyones hand luggage, which costed me around 30 EUR :(! At that time I also lost my 125ml tooth paste which by then had almost travelled the whole world. Of course a very traumatic experience….

    1. Maybe this is the time to add that I am in no way allowed to give legal or behavioural advice for how to scam airports.

  4. Magnus says:

    Surprised you did not apply rolling your cloths together or vacuum bag solution (with small hand pump or without) to save space.

    Furthermore I still like to stress the benefits with using traveling loyalty cards as you get extra kg on all flights but, even more important, extra mileage, also when buying toothpaste or a beer at any pub, so you can keep nomading, getting cheap rental cars and hotel discounts everywhere. Maybe time to explore this? 🙂

    1. Like I wrote, I am constrained by weight, not space. So I don’t care about making my t-shirts smaller.

      Good points about the loyalty cards. I have to confess I know nothing about them at all. Are they loyalty credit cards?

      Anyway, the majority of my flying is done as a non-revenue stand-by passenger, so I wouldn’t benefit from a loyalty scheme. Still, this might be a useful piece of info for my readers. I’ve never allowed anyone to guest-blog on TMN, but perhaps I should make an exception, if you are interested in writing it?

  5. Willow says:

    Hi Gustav-thanks for writing this info about packing. I’ve been pretty nomadic for the past 8 or so years. Packing is one of my least favorite things and something I have to do amazingly often. I agree with one of your readers that hand luggage gets weighed a lot of the time. I am a photographer and I have a lot of breakable equipment which I want to hand-carry. I used to bring a small rolley bag but my things got weighed almost every time. Luckily, with Asian airlines they make exceptions most times when I ask nicely and smile but sometimes I still have to pay extra. For some reason, I’ve had a lot more luck smashing everything into my backpack, even though it is way too heavy for my back. But it cuts down on that stress of being questioned and bags being weighed.

    I may be superstitious but when I see lots of people having to take things out of their bags and paying overage fees, I try to be extra kind to the airline workers. I know it must be stressful working with angry customers. So, I speak their first language if possible, and otherwise am friendly and I have less problems this way despite being over by a few pounds.

    I did a good packing job last time I flew except I didn’t pack some peanut sauce well and it spilled in the bottom of my suitcase-ugh!

    I’d like to hear more about what Magnus speaks of with loyalty cards since I have frequent flyer miles from every possible company but have never been able to use them. I go for the cheapest flight most times so I bounce around a bit. Doing flights from Indonesia to the US for example, sometimes the difference in price can be really large. I got a flight for $530 one way when usually I see flights for $900 one way so I shop around. I’d like to have your situation though, Gustav! Sounds like a dream!

    1. Maybe I wasn’t very clear in my post, but you touched on what I was thinking when writing, “No one ever checks the weight of your backpack boarding a plane.” Backpacks very rarely get checked because they are less conspicuous than the bags designed to be carry-on luggage. I have no statistics to lean on here, so don’t sue me when your backpack gets weighed.

      Eight years of being pretty nomadic? That is pretty impressive! Only joking, it is totally impressive. I hope this blog might give you some tips even to an expert. Perhaps it is worth subscribing to? (forgive the shameless plug)

  6. madeleine says:

    Åh. Jag kan bli helt sjuk av längtan att få rensa ut allt i mitt liv som inte går ner i väska. Inser ju mer jag läser av din blogg att jag snart inte kan skjuta upp det nomadiska livet längre. Måste ‘bara’ komma på hur jag ska försörja mig o vad jag ska göra med sambon:). Lev fint därute, för alla oss som ‘aldrig’ kommer iväg.

    1. Det går fint att göra det första utan att göra det andra… Och med det första steget taget så vem vet? Kanske sambon också vill leva lite mer rörligt? Kanske dela med dig av bloggen till hennom?

  7. I wish I could pack my cats and bring ’em along on those far and wide travels! Otherwise, great advice 😉

  8. Levin says:

    Where can I get one of those vacuum-packed Gustavs?

  9. Alain says:

    And of course, your suitcase/backpack shouldn’t be black—or else it takes time to locate it at the luggage claim. 🙂

  10. Lucy says:

    Great post!
    I’m curious, was there anything you wished you could take with you, but just weren’t able to?
    And did you take anything that’s not really functional but is more for pleasure?
    I like carrying a harmonica with me, I’m not really good at it but I guess I just like having a musical instrument with me 🙂

    1. There were many things I couldn’t take with me, like my masks, my big board games and much of my leather.

      My pieces of luxuries are a two-three boxes packed with small and portable board games.

What are your top packing-tips?

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