How Our Family of 4 Travelled and Camped for 2 Months In 6 Countries with Only Carry-Ons

How Our Family of 4 Travelled and Camped for 2 Months In 6 Countries with Only Carry-Ons

I love the philosophy of minimalism and have been trying to let it influence my decisions for years. But I still struggle sometimes with a lot of aspects—I love buying toys, for example, and even though I gravitate toward open-ended, non-plastics, we still have way too many! Because I’m a wannabe minimalist, I really REALLY love packing for a trip; actually, maybe I should say that I love planning what to pack for a trip—the packing itself is often a last-minute affair where we’re up half the night before a flight waiting for laundry to dry so we can finish.

This trip was a perfect exercise in light traveling; our trip lasted just over 2 months and included a good range of weather, activities, and needs. Specifically, we’d be in multiple hot and sticky climates—the Samoas and the Philippines—as well as wet and cold—New Zealand. We’d be hiking, swimming, city sightseeing, attending church, and spending extended periods driving. We’d be camping in close-to-freezing temps. And we’d have some brutal flights, not only long ones, but some that involved multiple middle-of-the-night transfers and some on itty-bitty regional airlines with strict weight limits.

So our challenge was to keep everything small and light while also meeting a lot of needs. My rules for packing are as follows:

  1. Don’t be ambitious, at least not when that ambition requires gear. Don’t bring running shoes if you don’t otherwise need them and haven’t been jogging in months. Don’t bring five different books for a week on the beach if you normally only read that much in a year. Don’t bring a yoga mat with visions of doing sun salutations every morning in your hotel room. Don’t pack only skirts if you prefer pants. Don’t pack a silk scarf if you’re not in the habit of wearing them. Don’t bring a big floppy sunhat if you’re more of a baseball cap person. In other words, don’t let visions of Ideal Vacation You induce you to bring a bunch of stuff that Everyday Regular You doesn’t usually use more-or-less daily. Trips can be a great time to shake up your normal routine, try new things and pursue goals. But you can almost always use what’s on hand instead of packing ambitious items. On the other hand, if your ambition can be contained within something you’re already bringing, go big! Download that meditation app, and that HIIT app too while you’re at it. Load 100 books on your Kindle. Pack a pair of shoes that can work for the hotel gym, but that you can wear daily anyway.
  2. Focus on minimizing bulky items, especially shoes. Shoes are a packing nemesis—bulky, heavy, dirty and hard to pack, eliminating shoes will make the biggest difference in staying light and small with your luggage. We love Keen sandals for this purpose—they’re great walking and hiking shoes, sturdy and stubbed-toe-proof, they dry quickly and work well for the beach, and when paired with warm socks, they can get you through most kinds of weather. Fashionable? Not the most. But to us, it’s worth sacrificing the aesthetic for a great, all-purpose shoe. Keens are the only shoes the kids brought (I think they’re adorable on kids, anyway.) I brought my Keen sandals as well and David, who doesn’t have the sandals, brought his low-top hiking boots (also coincidentally Keen.) David and I also brought our Birkenstock sandals, more necessary for him so he didn’t have to wear boots every day. 
  3. Know yourself and bring what you really like and really use. We brought along the clothes that we wear over and over again at home. In trips past, I tried to pack things that I hadn’t worn much before so I wouldn’t get sick of wearing them again and again. I always regretted it. David and I are creatures of habit; we like our clothes to be super comfortable and to fit just right. So while packing the tried-and-true certainly doesn’t lend itself to novelty or fashion, it works perfectly for us. Another example: I love wearing basketball shorts at pretty much any moment when I don’t have to look very presentable. So I always bring a pair to use as pj’s, even when a true minimalist would just sleep in her unders. On the other hand, I didn’t bring makeup. I don’t wear it every day, so it didn’t come—and it’s been so hot and humid for much of our trip that I wouldn’t have wanted to wear it anyway. 

Here’s what we brought along:

Clothes:

We didn’t bring a lot of clothes, but we also didn’t go super minimalist, just because we didn’t know how often we’d be able to do laundry.

  • 4 shirts for Madi—1 long sleeve, 2 tees, 1 button-down that could dress up or down
  • 4 shirts for David—2 tees, 2 flannels
  • 5 shirts for Margie—1 long sleeve, 1 lightweight sweatshirt, 3 tees; Homegirl’s clothes are still tiny and she gets dirty the fastest, so she got the most clothes.
  • 4 shirts for Graham—3 tees, 1 polo
  • 3 pants for Madi—2 long pairs from Prana that work equally well for hiking and sightseeing, 1 lightweight cropped pair for hot weather (also from Prana)
  • 2 pants for David—jeans and some khaki-colored pants from Kühl that work for both hiking and church
  • 4 pants for Margie—2 lightweight leggings and 2 more durable denim pairs
  • 2 pants for Graham—comfy stretchy denim and some durable Carhartts that are great for hiking and can also be worn with a polo for church
  • 2 pairs of pj’s each for Graham and Margie
  • 1 pair each for Madi and David—a tee and basketball shorts (the shorts also came in handy for wearing on hot days, over swimsuits, etc.)
  • 1 pair of lightweight-but-warm sweatpants each for Madi and David—for red-eye flights and freezing nights
  • 3 pairs of socks for David
  • 1 pair warm, woolen socks each for Graham and Margie (for layering with Keen sandals in the cold)
  • 1 dress for Mom and 1 for Margie. I have tried before to be a skirt person whilst traveling—they’re lightweight and easy to pack and to wear, perfect for hot weather—but at this point in my life, I just don’t enjoy wearing them very much. So I stick to pants, even though they’re bulkier, and save the dress for church-wear.
  • Unders for all! 5 pairs each, except for the un-pottytrained Margie, for whom we packed a small supply of diapers and bought more whenever we needed them.
  • Swimsuits for everyone—both kids have a swim shirt for protection from the sun; Margie wears a reusable swim diaper with hers and that’s her whole swimsuit.
  • One warm jacket each—hooded zip sweatshirts for the kids, Patagonia fleeces for David and I
  • One rain jacket each—we each have a waterproof shell, and when layered with our warm jackets, it’s a perfect combo for almost any kind of weather
  • One sun hat each—baseball caps for David and I, a swim hat for Margie, and Graham’s Jr. Ranger hat
  • One warm hat each—woolen stocking caps for all

Toiletries:

  • Toothbrushes and toothpaste—David and I have a Sonicare electric toothbrush that is in my top-ten favorite possessions. No matter how dirty we get camping or hiking, our teeth always feel like we’ve just had them cleaned at the dentist. We use the same electric base and carry a head for each of us. The toothbrush has a charging case that can be plugged in with a USB, but the battery really holds a charge and lasts us 2-3 weeks.
  • Contacts, extra contacts (my greatest travel fear is losing my contacts and glasses on a trip and not being able to see), and 4 travel-size bottles of saline (I go through one about every 2 weeks, cleaning out my contact case daily).
  • Travel-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and Dr. Bronner’s soap—I got bottles from Walmart that hold the max 3 oz. so that we could carry everything on and filled them up with our bigger bottles from home.
  • Deodorant—non-gel varieties don’t count as a liquid, so you can carry them on without fuss.
  • Sunscreen—again, I filled a 3-oz. bottle from our go-to mineral sunscreen from home. We also brought a stick mineral sunscreen for easy application on faces; it’s Badger brand.
  • Cold medicine—I swear by Zicam for warding off impending colds. And since having a cold when you’re far from home is kind of the worst, we always bring along both Zicam and some decongestants.
  • Melatonin gummies—Talk to your doc before using them for your kids, but we love them for adjusting to a time change or helping Margie fall asleep at a reasonable time after an accidental late nap. 
  • Comb
  • Nail clippers

Electronics:

This is where things get both heavy and bulky. Because David is working from the road and because he takes so many pictures, we probably bring along more electronics than the average traveler.

Laptop

4 external hard drives—a crazy number, but they’re all necessary to keep photos, videos, and client work organized and backed up. They inevitably have to take some rough handling so we use Lacie Rugged portable hard drives

Camera—we have the Sony a7rii and love it for its light weight and high quality, especially when shooting video

3 lenses—a wide angle, standard zoom and telephoto

GoPro camera—for any photography that involves getting wet

Chargers

Camping:

We spent most nights in New Zealand sleeping in our minivan. We bought an air mattress and pump when we arrived there and got all other essentials for cooking, etc. from our rental company, Traveller’s Autobarn, so we only brought a few things:

  • 2 sleeping bags—ours are down from Enlightened Equipment and we love them. Super lightweight and warm, they compress to about the size of a cantaloupe. While we did get 2 more sleeping bags from Traveller’s Autobarn, we brought these along just in case and they came in handy as they were warmer than the rental ones.
  • 2 inflatable pillows—ours are Sea to Summit; they pack up to pocket size and are extremely lightweight. Useful for airplane travel, too!

Sundries:

  • Credit cards and cash—of course
  • Passports, with copies
  • Sunglasses
  • Eyeglasses
  • Sketchbook and pencils, for David’s work
  • Ergobaby carrier—for hiking, long walks around cities, easy carrying through airports, on-the-go naps. We love this thing.
  • Toys and books, airplane leg rests, car seat, and white noise machine—more on these in this post about travel gear for kids.
  • One turkish towel—for campground showers, beach days and—in a pinch—a light blanket or a coverup. 
  • Kindles—one each for David and I. Oh man, I have so much to say about these. I have always been firmly on Team Physical Book. David has had a Kindle for a few years and kept trying to convert me, but I stuck to my guns, mainly because I read a lot and I didn’t want to have to buy every single book I wanted to read—that’d get real expensive, real fast. I was also wary of the reading experience because reading is such a tactile thing for me. But before this trip, I figured it’d be a good time to bite the bullet and try it out. We were packing for way too long for me to bring physical books. So I bought a Kindle Paperwhite, the same kind David has, and before we left, I set out to load it up with good reading material. Here’s what I discovered, and it’s really swayed me toward the Kindle: 
With Kindle Unlimited, there are tons of books available for free download. You can try it free for a month, which is what I did; I’m not sure I’ll pay the subscription for it because it doesn’t have enough of the specific books I want, but it was awesome for guidebooks (there are tons of Lonely Planet titles available free with the service). If you’re not looking for specific titles, Unlimited seems like it would be a good value. 
Loads of classic books are available from the Kindle Store for free or for $0.99. You can get the complete works of most major authors from before 1930 or so and only pay pennies. This makes up the bulk of my Kindle Library, and it’s forcing me to read classics I’ve been meaning to check out for ages.
With a New York Public Library card, I can borrow a huge collection of ebooks—your library probably has a similar service. This hasn’t been super convenient while traveling, because I needed to preload most of my books, but I’m excited to try it more when I get home.