How a Family Packs for Long Term Travel
That’s one approach.
We took another. We traveled some before we had kids, but we waited until we had a tribe to hit the road in earnest, on purpose. We wanted travel to be a big part of our children’s long term educational plan, and so we sold our house and most of our stuff in 2008, and we hit the road, ostensibly, for a year.
Except that we’re still going.
We don’t travel fast, or hard; often spending three to six months in a place. We aren’t interested in gimmicks or goals. We aren’t trying to check things off of a list or set any records. We’re just trying to spend the little time we have with our kids doing things that we all enjoy and learning together.
The first question everyone asks is, “How do you afford to live like that?” We work. We lower our needs vs. wants equation.
The second question, inevitably, is “What do you do about school?” We teach them, obviously. The oldest two are on to university pursuits now.
The third question is logisitcal: “What to do you pack? How do you pack it? How do you move around with six people??”
It’s impossible to ask that question succinctly. I’ve watched people try.
The tricky part, of course, is that there isn’t one answer. How a family packs is definitely different than how a solo “boots & a backpack” traveler packs. The type of adventure changes how and what we pack.
For example, a year around Europe and N. Africa, on bicycles, required very different packing than this past winter in Guatemala, where we rented a house and spent a lot of time resting and hanging out. The age of the children changes how a family packs. The percentage of the weight in my sons’ packs taken up by lego has diminished proportionally as they’ve aged. Special needs within a family also changes the equation. My friend travels with five kids, one with severe cerebral palsy; Sparky requires some gear that most ten year olds don’t.
All that being considered, it’s not an impossible question to answer. There are some overarching generalizations that can be made and some things we’ve learned over our seven years on the road with kids, between four and eighteen, that have streamlined the process.
As little as possible
When people ask me what to pack, my knee jerk reaction is, “As little as possible.”
I prefer to travel with only a carry on when I travel alone. I’ve packed our family of six (with four teenage sized bodies) into one carry on sized Tortuga Backpack for a five day overland trip between Guatemala and Honduras. Minimalist travel with children is absolutely possible, but it’s not always preferable. With kids, a little comfort matters a lot. The younger the child, the truer this becomes.
Instead, with kids, I recommend packing as little as possible of the essentials so that you leave a little room for some comfort items. That all important blankie, or bear, a pound of legos in a ziploc bag, or a set of drawing pencils.
Basic packing list
So, what is our basic packing list as a family of six, regardless of the type of adventure we’re taking?
- 3 t-shirts or base layer tops (Hannah and I prefer athletic tank tops)
- 3 bottoms (light weight travel pants or shorts for the guys; I prefer skirts)
- 1 long sleeved warmer shirt
- 1 fleece jacket
- 3 pair of underwear
- 2 pair of socks
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 travel towel
- 1 pair of shoes, on our feet
- 1 hat, I prefer a scarf
- 1 rain jacket
Work and school
I mentioned that we work and school as we go. This requires some stuff. Each person is responsible for containing this in his personal item bag which is kept within reach at all times, regardless of mode of transportation. Our travel backpacks might be checked on a plane, or put under the body of the night bus in Vietnam, but our personal item never will be, because this is where the stuff that’s important and expensive to replace lives.
- 1 laptop, per person, pretty much. The younger boys share one
- 3 iPads (dad’s, mom’s and one the kids share)
- 4 iPhones (we don’t buy our kids phones, and they don’t qualify until they are driving age, just our personal policy)
- 2 iPod Touches (very important for reading, and for our kids ability to communicate with friends and family, we provide these once, any loss or upgrade requires the child replace it)
- School books (we keep physical books to a minimum, but there are notebooks etc.)
- 2 Cameras (1 DSLR, and one underwater. Photography is an obvious high school elective for travelers!)
- 6 TB back up drives (NOT carried in the same bag as the machine they back up. Duh.)
- 2 Battery packs with USB ports (we use Energizer’s but there are others that are better)
- A fleet of thumb drives
Health and emergency kits
Obviously, different families will carry different sorts of health kits. It is important to remember that you can get almost anything you need for a health kit anywhere in the world unless you’re seriously off the grid in an outback adventure.
However, I’ve always felt that having the basics with me freed me from the added stress of trying to find bandages, antibiotics, or something else in the midst of a crisis with a sick or injured child. Our health kit takes up a disproportionate amount of space because we are a big family, we engage in a lot of “adventure” activities that carry a marginally higher risk, and I have a boy scout mentality that predisposes me to be prepared for any eventuality, at all times.
I’m quite sure you could get by with far less than this, but we carry:
- 1 stick/suture kit (including syringes, IV starts, suture kit. I had one ER moment in the third world that made it obvious that having this on hand was smarter than not)
- 1 albuterol inhaler (none of us are asthmatic)
- Basic meds: cough, cold, flu, diarrhea, analgesics, prescription migraine, antibiotics, allergy, tums, anti-gas meds, and others
- Vitamins: the ones we take, a one month supply
- First Aid Kit: bandages, saline, betadyne, triple antibiotic cream, burn gel, elastic bandages, finger splint, sterile bandages, tape, scissors, butterfly bandages, super glue, among other things
- Dental filling emergency replacement kit
- Eye wash
- Digital thermometer
- Chemical ice pack
- Rehydration salts
- Grapefruit Seed Crush Extract (for cleaning fruits and veg and for treating viruses and parasites when taken internally)
Our Emergency Kit is a small, secondary mesh bag, about the size of a softball when packed, it includes:
- Patch material (for thermarest, rain coats, or whatever)
- Needles and thread
- Sharpie marker
- Duct tape (wrapped around the marker)
- Razor blades
- Velcro zip ties
- Elastic bands
- Safety pins
- Clothes pins
- Parachute cord type rope
- A tiny, packable clothes line (smaller than a silver dollar when packed)
If you can’t fix it with that, you can’t fix it.
Reducing weight through technology
When we took off traveling in 2008 we carried far more physical objects than we do now. The leap in personal technology in the past decade has lightened our load significantly. We have a range of apps and devices that replace books, papers and other gadgets.
Where we used to carry paper copies of immunization records, passports, insurance documents, we now carry digital copies of those things and have a library of thousands of books in our pockets. Instead of multiple physical back up drives stored in various places around the world, we now use the cloud.
Invest in the best quality devices you can. We have chosen to use Apple devices, almost exclusively, because they last a very long time, and they all work together, and universally.
Technology should make your life easier, not increase frustration!
The App store is your friend.
Investing in quality: What matters at the end of the day
What matters at the end of the day, when you’re traveling with a family, is being dry, and warm, and comfortable. To that end, invest in the highest quality gear that you can afford.
The year we biked and lived in tents, we bit the bullet and purchased Hilleberg tents. They were so good, and held up so well, that we’ll never own anything but a Hilleberg from here on out.
When we were hitting New Zealand just as winter descended, we headed straight to the Icebreaker outlet and purchased each family member a couple of merino wool base layers. When you’ve only got three outfits each, they need to be functional and reliable.
Do your research. Spend the money on a few very quality items, and you’ll find it much easier to pack less and enjoy your trip more.
Multi-use and high quality; those are your watchwords.
Traveling long term is different than traveling for a couple of weeks, or even just a couple of months. The longer you’re on the road, the more important it is, especially with children, to create home as you go. Leave room for a few little things that will bring comfort to the whole family.
For us, that means a selection of photographs that I often tape to our various refrigerators, of friends, family and loved ones abroad, as well as photos of other adventures we’ve loved. I have, for 21 years, carried a green, red and white checked table cloth that we were given as part of a picnic set for our wedding. It graces every table we eat from, even in a hotel room, or on the grass by the side of the road. I carry a particular paring knife that I love, and a wine pull, of course. What mother doesn’t travel with a wine pull?
We also travel with four musical instruments. Sometimes five. That’s insane. I’m well aware. We curse them when we’re wrangling our way in and out of taxis and tuk tuks in Bangkok. We hate them. But we also love them. Music is important to our family culture. Several family members play every day, sometimes for hours. At the moment, we have two guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin, and a drum that Ezra hand carved from avocado wood and stretched goat skin on, himself, this winter in Guatemala. For us, life wouldn’t be worth living, on any continent, without music. So we suck it up and carry our family sized band with us. Everyone who stays with us knows why it’s worth the effort, inside 24 hours.
There will be items you carry because they make you happy, even if they make no sense. Don’t apologize for that. It’s your trip, you’re allowed.
Carry your own stuff
From the time our children were about five, we’ve had a firm, “Carry your own stuff,” policy. Tiny backpacks were procured, safe weight guidelines adhered to, and our littles were allowed to pack whatever they liked into their carry on bags, but they were expected, at all times, to carry it. Anyone who’s witnessed a five year old whining and crying his way through an airport with an overstuffed backpack and a big bear trailing behind him might feel that’s harsh, but it’s not, really. It’s how kids learn personal responsibility. It’s how they learn the difference between what they need and what they want on a trip. It’s how they become lighter packers and tough travelers later. Did we make exceptions? Of course. If they were injured or sick, but very rarely apart from that.
Here’s the thing: If you’re going to travel long term with your kids, they’re going to need to pull their own weight, even if that’s only five pounds. You’ll be carrying enough other stuff. Trust me on that.
Are you planning a long term trip with your kids and sweating the “stuff” factor? Shoot me a note, I’ll be happy to help in any way I can!
Read more about traveling as a family and packing for a big trip:
- Read Giving Teens the Freedom to Travel
- Read Making the World Your Global Classroom
- Read Why You Should Hostel with Your Family
- Check out our travel gear page
- Read How to Pack for a RTW Trip
Photo credits: Irisska, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.