Packing is all about prioritization… identifying what you don’t need to make room for what you do. Despite our destination, when we’re paring down our packing list, this stuff always makes the cut!
Read on to find out what items keep us well-organized, working efficiently, and exploring comfortably on our travels. Are any of these items on your packing list?
Diana and Ian’s Essential Travel Gear
The backbone to our packing strategy, these items help us keep our stuff organized and secure.
Why we picked ’em: We wanted something well-made and not too flashy. But most importantly, these bags are carry-on size, so we never worry about lost luggage or checked baggage fees. They’ve even passed for personal items on flights with carry-on bag fees! Nonetheless, everything you see here on this list fits inside these two backpacks.
We share one Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Starter Set (3 pieces)
Why we picked it: After extensive research for my recent STG articles on packing cubes, I really wanted to try a garment folder. This set is well-reviewed, colorful, lightweight yet durable, AND the cube sizes work well with our backpacks. I use the garment folder (which I LOVE, by the way) and the small packing cube for my clothes, and Ian uses the large packing cube for his. It’s amazing how much you can fit in them! Plus we found the pink (“beet”) set for 20% off at REI’s winter clearance sale right before we left for Costa Rica, so it was the perfect time to give it a try.
We have one Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Packable Daypack
Why we picked it: Frankly, we were freakin’ amazed at how gosh darn SMALL this thing packs down to. I can fit it in my purse (and my purse is TINY). It was a little pricey, so we hesitated at first, but since REI’s got a 100% satisfaction guarantee, we went for it in the end. It’s proven extremely useful for bringing groceries home when we’re walking to the store (almost always) as well as for a plethora of day excursions. Once we’ve arrived at a destination, we MUCH prefer bringing this along on day trips instead of one of our larger backpacks. Since it packs down when we’re not using it, it’s never an unnecessary hindrance.
We have one 12-liter PacSafe Travelsafe
Why we picked it: It started with a review I read by long-time traveler Adventurous Kate. I’d never really heard of anything like it before. It’s basically a slash-proof pouch with a cable that allows you to secure it to something large and heavy (e.g. a bed frame) or immobile (e.g. a pipe). Of course a professional thief could steal it anyway, but it provides protection against the amateur or opportunistic thief. Since we’d rather not take chances on having our laptops and cameras stolen, we bought one at REI (another lucky sale item) just two days before we were scheduled to depart for our trip to Costa Rica and Mexico. Though we always choose safe places to stay, having the peace of mind is pretty awesome. Our travel safe is easy to use, fits in our backpack for packing purposes, and it fits all of our valuables (two laptops, two cameras, passports and e-readers).
Diana and Ian’s Essential Travel Gadgets
We may blur the lines between work and play, but we rely on technology to make a living on the go.
Why we picked ’em: As photography bloggers, we’ve tried a LOT of cameras. We wanted our daily cameras to take professional quality photos but not be too big or heavy. I decided interchangeable lenses were no longer an absolute necessity for me and am extremely happy with just the zoom on my RX-100. And its selfie mode works perfectly when we need it (and we often do). I think Ian misses his Sony a7S, but we decided it was way too pricey of a gadget to bring on our current trip, so we sold it and replaced it with the a7 II for now. Ian’s got no complaints on functionality — it’s a great camera — though it’s a little heavier than what’s reasonably comfortable for a daily camera.
UPDATE: A few months after we returned from this trip, Ian sold the a7 II and repurchased a Sony a7S.
International Smart Phone
Diana’s: LG Nexus 5 / Ian’s due for a new one, but he’s getting by with his Nexus 4.
Why we picked ’em: There’s one main reason we picked the phones we did, and that’s international capability. I used to have a contract through Verizon, but last year I dumped it for a T-Mobile no-contract plan. And when I did, I had to get a new phone… which I found extremely annoying. Sure, I was happy to be getting something new, but it seemed so silly that the phone I had would ONLY work with the Verizon network. I needed something that would work with our traveling lifestyle, and this phone did the trick. When we’re in the States, I pay $30/month for a T-Mobile plan with unlimited data and 150 minutes per month.
Psssst! If you’re switching to T-Mobile, you can get us some referral credit by using our referral link. (Every little bit helps when it comes to budget travel!)
When we’re traveling internationally, I either go without regular cell service (if WiFi is prevalent) or I may pay for local service during my time in a particular country. (We’ve done this in Vietnam and Mexico so far.) It’s so nice to be contract free!
UPDATE: Ian’s now using a OnePlus 2.
Why we picked ’em: Among a plethora of other reasons, they’re low profile, lightweight, and work great. Ian and I both do work in digital illustration, photo editing, and graphic design, and Macs are the most efficient machines for getting this work done. Yes, they’re expensive, but I expect them to last for a LONG time. We also bring along one or two external hard drives, which are an absolute necessity for blogging photographers… who also like to play video games that take up a lot of hard drive space.
Diana and Ian’s Essential Travel Wear
These important apparel items keep us comfortable and prepared for changing weather without hogging too much room in our packs.
Why we picked ’em: I bought my rain gear before a backpacking trip to Big Sur, back before we started our traveling lifestyle, but I held onto both my jacket and pants because they’re lightweight and packable (are you noticing a trend here?) Ian’s had his jacket for awhile, too, though it didn’t get a ton of use when we were living in California. Our rain gear was well-used more recently, however, during our rainy hanging bridges hike with Sky Adventures in Costa Rica, and it has also come in handy in Mexico. When we’re packing ultra-light and not expecting rain, we usually like to take some super compact cheap-o plastic rain ponchos with us. (I hate being cold, and being wet AND cold just sounds terrible to me.)
Why we picked ’em: Before our trip to Vietnam, I was shopping for shoes that would work for hiking in wet caves. I also wanted them to be something I’d continue to wear after our trip, too, so I opted for lightweight, comfortable, and breathable shoes that I could use for running and also wear on a casual day with jeans. The material is VERY breathable, kind of mesh-like, so they can be worn comfortably without socks (ideal for wet conditions like hiking in a wet cave). Ian’s shoes he picked mainly for running, when we were trying to run regularly for exercise last summer, but they work well for everyday casual shoes, too. Both of our shoes are great for exploring new cities!
Diana’s: fedora (warm weather) or handmade crochet beanie (cool weather) / Ian’s: baseball cap
Why we picked ’em: With my fair skin and SUPER sensitive eyes (I get terrible migraines), I need as much sun-blocking protection as I can get. And here I choose mainly based on style. I like fedoras because they can work in both city and beach destinations. It’s unlikely I’d ever actually pack a fedora, so if I’m not wearing it on the plane, I’d plan to purchase a cheap one at a sunny destination. I found one for just 60 pesos ($4 US) in Mexico just last week! Ian wears a hat only occasion, so we pack just one baseball cap for the two of us; I’ll wear that instead of the fedora on a windy day at the beach. For cooler weather, I always have the crochet beanie I made, to add a little extra style to an outfit.
Want to know where we shop for our travel essentials? Find out in Where We Shop (and Why).
Non-Essential Travel Items We Frequently Pack
- Steripen (easily sterilizes water whenever drinking it is questionable)
- Camp Towel (has come in handy on several occasions)
- Power Adapter Plugs (depends where we’re going)
- Dry Bag (to keep the cameras and/or phones dry in splash zones)
- E-Readers (for relaxation time)
- Travel Mice (as I mentioned before… video games…)
If packing is as painful for you as it used to be for us, identifying your essentials can make it easier. How many essentials are on your list?
P.S. Do you like my doodles?!?! I thought they might be better than a boring photo of each item… what do you think?
About the Author
- In March 2014, Diana called it quits on her traditional American working life and set out to explore the world with her partner in crime (and love of her life) Ian Norman. They now live a sustainable life of full time travel, working for themselves and seeking adventure at the same time. Here on North to South, Diana documents their journey in achieving and maintaining this "road less traveled" way of life.
- Travel Gear2018.11.20North to South’s Gear of the Year 2018
- Colorado2018.11.13A Magical Morning at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)
- Florida2018.10.30The Best and Worst Rides and Attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Orlando, Florida)
- Nevada2018.10.28Burning Man 2018: Portraits of a Camp