My backpack on travel day is overstuffed. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue during security screenings because I’m careful about the items I cram in there.
One time, a TSA officer smirked and said, “Gee, you must be new to traveling” with as much condescension as he could drip onto me.
I wanted to sass back and say, “Actually, I’ve been to dozens of countries in the past two years alone.” Instead, I swallowed and pointedly said, “No, I’m not.”
Judgmental passengers might say that an overstuffed backpack suggests a lack of organization. What they don’t know is that for someone who won’t see home for eight months at a time, I actually pack quite light. The last time they moved apartments probably consisted of a truck full of boxes. The last time I moved residences was last week and I only have two suitcases and one backpack to make that happen.
So how do I make that happen? I’ve compiled what I’ve learned since I’ve traded furniture for suitcases. I have a few cheats, as you’ll see, but I’ll mostly stick to travel tips I’ve learned for myself or from my traveling colleagues.
Only pack for 10 days
Packing for an eight-month tour can seem daunting. However, I soon realized that packing for a month-long contract and a full year are basically the same. Toiletries, dishes, shoes — these are all items that I’ll reuse daily for months. What does change is the clothing I wear each day. I know that I do laundry once a week, so I really don’t need to pack eight months of outfits. Instead, I need to pack for one week of clothes, plus a few days in case I don’t make it to a washing machine that week.
Tourists who only have a two-week vacation probably don’t want to spend time searching for a laundromat when they can be sightseeing. But for people who live on the road all year, frequent laundry days are the way to go. The money you’d spend at a laundromat — if you don’t have any complimentary washers and dryers in a hotel or Airbnb — is significantly less than what you’d pay than if you had weekly overweight fees at an airport.
For a year-long contract, I know I need to pack for multiple seasons. But instead of 10 separate sweaters, I know I can wear a sweater over my springtime T-shirt and wear that sweater more than once. As for shoes, I pack four pairs: running shoes, walkable daily shoes, flip-flops, and nude or black high heels that go with everything. (For winter, I’ll throw in boots, as well.)
If you don’t want to sacrifice your unique fashion identity, you do have other choices. I like to utilize light accessories like scarves to bring variety to my outfit. Depending on your budget, you can also shop throughout the tour and mail other items back home. However, if you still depend on clothing variety, you can prioritize clothing in your suitcase by using my other tips.
Distribute and redistribute
While it would make sense to keep all of the same category in each bag, it’s better to organize your luggage to balance your weight. For example, many of my coworkers put all of their clothes in one bag and toiletries, dishes, and miscellaneous other items in the other. However, my shoes, jeans, and sweatshirts are some of my heaviest items, so I’ll rearrange those items into my smaller suitcase to ensure that my larger one doesn’t became too heavy. On some tours, I’ve traveled with only one suitcase and one carry-on. In that case, I’ll put all of my shoes and dishes (except knives) in my carry-on so that I don’t hit the 50-pound maximum in my large suitcase.
Nobody wants to be caught behind that person in the airport who has to rearrange their luggage at the check-in counter at the airport because they weighed their suitcase at 60 pounds. To avoid that, I used to travel a luggage scale; now, I can determine if a bag is close to 50 simply by lifting it with one arm and judging how it feels. However, I still place my heaviest items at the top of my suitcase and place a rolled-up tote bag in my carry-on backpack. If my suitcase is too heavy, I know that I can quickly take out my heaviest item from the top and use the tote bag as my second personal item on an airplane.
Research what’s available to purchase
You don’t need to be fully stocked at the beginning of the year. I don’t need to have my yearly toothpaste supply available before the tour starts; I know I can buy that anywhere. This year, I also needed a new winter coat, but I knew that buying one before leaving from Myrtle Beach would be unnecessary. Instead, I waited until November to buy from the northeast so that I wouldn’t have to travel it during the summer and autumn months.
But sometimes, you do need to come prepared. When I was in Europe, I ran out of dental floss. That’s easy enough to find in a drugstore back home, so I figured it wouldn’t be difficult. Unfortunately, I was in a country where English wasn’t the primary language, and when I spent several minutes searching the shelves in vain, I tried to ask a store employee for help. This is when I learned that the pantomime for dental floss is not universal. I gestured by making two fists at an angle near my slack-jawed mouth and waving them in unison, pretending that I was sliding a string of floss near my front teeth. This was met with a baffled expression and awkward laughter. I never did find floss the rest of that tour.
The takeaway for that story is that for any toiletry that is difficult to describe or apparently rare, I’ll bring extra. And if you have a favorite brand of deodorant, it’s worth bringing. But if you can research if your travel destinations carry decent shampoos ahead of time, you don’t need to travel a whole drugstore in one suitcase.
Anticipate complimentary items
I haven’t bought toilet paper in years. Could you picture how much space that would take in my suitcase? I’m simply accustomed to harder toilet paper. I couldn’t imagine switching to a softer variety now.
Again, everyone’s priorities are different. I could cut out some weight if I used shampoo and conditioner from hotels, but I prefer traveling my own to maintain my long hair. But depending on where you’re staying while you’re living out of a suitcase, your accommodations will likely provide towels, bedding, and soap. That cuts out several items from your packing list. And if you stay at a hotel with a breakfast and/or manager’s reception, you’ll cut back on your food budget, as well.
Be selective with your souvenirs
Two-foot metallic replicas of Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower may look pretty on your mantel back home, but they’re not doing your suitcase any favors for the rest of the year. I learned early that not every place I visit needs a large souvenir. For me, photos are much more memorable.
Some of my coworkers purchased Starbucks tumblers or Hard Rock mugs from every country. Soon enough, they had to slow down their collections by only purchasing those souvenirs in major cities or countries that they really enjoyed.
Personally, I prefer a keychain or magnet collection. Every store at a tourist trap sells them, so they’re not hard to find, and traveling 20 keychains in my backpack is going to be an easier time than the 20 tumblers lining a suitcase.
Buy only as much food as you need
At the start of tour each year, we jump into 12-hour rehearsal days. There’s rarely any time for proper grocery shopping. So, I come to tour with enough granola bars and cans of tuna to sustain me for a couple days before I have a break. But after that, I’m careful with the amount of food that I travel.
If I have a mini-fridge in the hotel for the week, I buy enough food for a week. I usually split my food with my roommate, and sometimes we split larger meals four ways with our friends so that we don’t waste anything. If I know we’ll travel in a bus for a few weeks, I’ll travel a tote bag of spices. If it’s a flight day, we throw our spices in a trunk that travels with our show equipment.
However, if there isn’t a fridge available, we simply eat out most of the time. This is expensive, but it’s a budget tradeoff. What I’m not paying in Internet and cable packages, gas, or rent by living on the road goes toward my hefty food budget. But I try to cut back on food waste by being mindful of exactly how much I eat in a week and sticking to that plan.
Make room for homemaking items
Most of my tips recommend ways to cut down the weight of your suitcase. However, in order to actually live out of a suitcase, it’s important to find ways to improve your quality of life.
Candles and scents give your room a personal touch. If I can’t be home for the holidays, it’s nice to at least smell pine trees and Christmas cookies in my hotel. And if it’s summer back home but I’m in a climate with winter, a beach scent brightens my mood.
And while I live in hotel rooms, I can visually trick myself to think it’s my own space. A pillowcase in my favorite color brightens my bed and makes the pillow feel like it’s my own, even though it’s not. In any case, whenever I have my own place, I will never decorate the beds and walls in off-white. I have stayed in too many hotels for that to happen.
Tiny homes may be trendy now, but backpacking and living out of a suitcase are the original mobile home. You can make a lifestyle out of traveling without the bare minimum of backpacking. By prioritizing what I use on tour and making sure I bring items that make it feel like home, I’ve comfortably lived out of a suitcase for several years.