RTW in 4 Seasons: A Packing List for Carry-on Travel across 6 Continents

Looking out over Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
Looking out over Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand with my trusty backpack

What to pack? This was one of the first questions I asked myself after deciding to leave my job and travel the world, and it took a while to answer. When your entire life is packed in a carry-on sized backpack, each and every item inside needs to serve a purpose commensurate with the space it consumes. I’m the kind of person who researches every single purchase I make, reading Wirecutter, Outdoor Gear Lab, and Amazon reviews until my eyes bleed. I also want my stuff to last a long time. You can imagine, then, that my process for choosing what would go into my backpack was methodical and perhaps overly thorough. I hope that the countless hours I spent toiling over my gear will eke out a little more use through the packing list on this page.

Round-the-world backpacking gear
My gear in all its humble glory, shot from our room in El Chaltén, Patagonia

You’ll notice I haven’t labeled this a women’s packing list or a packing guide for females. That’s because the information and packing principles here apply to everyone. If you’re a guy, feel free to ignore the line item for bras.

TLDR: Here’s the complete list in a Google Sheets document for easy reference!

Preparing for any season or climate

I’ve had over a year to fine-tune what I carry with me on the road, and I’m pretty darn happy with what’s in my bag. Because we’re never sure where we’re going next, I pack for a variety of climates. While I may not be equipped for all of the extremes, I have most situations covered. I can always pick up a warmer pair of gloves or a set of board shorts for stints at the cold or hot ends of the spectrum. From January in Scotland to August in Bali, this set of gear has served me well.

Organizing gear for life on the road

Zipline across Rio Túnel in Patagonia
My trusty : Kelty Redwing Reserve following me across the zipline in Patagonia

Choosing a backpack

A good travel bag needs to be comfortable to carry, easy to pack (and unpack), and simple to organize. For us, our bags also need to be airplane carry-on size, because we’ve made the commitment to save money and hassle by carrying on instead of checking our luggage (this book is a great resource for that). Roller bags are great for short city jaunts, but unless you have a physical limitation I would recommend using a backpack for long-term travel. Backpacks make it easy to navigate nimbly through all types of terrain, and they usually weigh less than suitcases.

I made a mistake with my first backpack, falling for the easy organization and packability of the Tortuga Outbreaker 45L but cursing its terrible ergonomics. After some more careful research and test runs with Brandon’s Kelty Redwing 44, I couldn’t be happier with my Kelty Redwing Reserve. It has a lightweight internal frame and sturdy waist belt that allows me to carry the backpack comfortably for long distances; the opening zips down far enough in the front to allow access to the whole main compartment; and there are just enough pockets for organization without losing track of where I put what. It’s survived over a year of travel, including several backcountry stints, without so much as a loose thread or sticky zipper. Oh, and it was half the price of the Outbreaker. I hope it lasts me a lifetime.

Corralling the bits and bobs

I also carry a Patagonia Lightweight Travel Courier, which I use as my everyday bag, my personal item on the plane, and my hiking bag on short jaunts. I feel secure walking around cities with it, since it’s a cross-body bag with zippered pockets, and it is surprisingly roomy for its size. It also packs into its own pouch when I’m not using it, which is handy on flights where only one carry-on item is allowed.

Packing cubes and other organizers are useful in helping you find things quickly. They’re less space-efficient than stuffing everything into your bag individually, but cramming as much as possible into your bag isn’t worth it when you have to rip your bag apart to find what you’re looking for. Eagle Creek’s Specter packing cubes are ultra-light, durable, and come in a variety of sizes and colors so you can easily tell which cube holds what (e.g. underwear in the green one, shirts in the blue one, etc.). They also make a compression version, which cinches the cube down using a second zipper, helping save space in your bag.

Organizers are also helpful for wrangling toiletries and electronics. Ensuite bathrooms are certainly not guaranteed when traveling the world on a budget, so it’s nice to have something to tote your toothbrush to and fro. This Osprey ultralight zip organizer opens up into a hanging position and holds my toothbrush, deodorant, razor, etc., while my liquids go in a TSA-compliant durable clear bag. I keep all of my charging cables, extra batteries, and adapters in this BUBM bag, which more than makes up for its extra bulk in its utility. I keep it at the top of my backpack, so I can always reach for a charging cable while in transit.

Strategizing what to wear

Downclimbing on Mount Sebastapol
Downclimbing on Mount Sebastapol in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

My personal style is best described as versatility over fashion while hopefully steering clear of frump. Carrying pieces that can mix and match allows for more variety in outfits and therefore less stress choosing what to wear for the day. You also won’t need to do laundry nearly as often if you can wear any top with any bottom, helping extend the life of your threads.

When it is time to do laundry, it’s important for clothes to dry quickly. Many places with laundry facilities will not have dryers, and we have often found ourselves doing laundry the day before departure. Merino wool and lightweight polyester (<15% elastane) are your friends, cotton your foe. Fortunately those two fabrics are also great for active pursuits, keeping you cool and dry when you sweat. Plus, merino wool has the added benefit of natural anti-microbial properties that help stave off travel stank and increase the number of times you can wear something before having to wash it. Here are the clothes that I pack:

Tops

  • T-shirts (5): All of my t-shirts are merino wool. The up-front cost is higher than most performance shirts, but I like them because they dry quickly, they don’t stink, and they look less sporty (important for versatility). My only complaint is that some of my beloved Icebreaker merino shirts have developed small holes over time, and Icebreaker doesn’t stand behind their products with adequate warranty or repair services. I replaced one of my Icebreakers with a shirt from Woolly in hopes of better durability. So far, so good.
  • Long sleeve shirts (3): My long sleeve shirts provide three different weight/warmth options depending on the conditions. Icebreaker Tech Lite merino as a lightweight layer, Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck that’s slightly more insulating, and Arc’teryx Rho LT that can stand on its own in cool weather and provide a layer of insulation in colder climes. I chose synthetic over merino for the warmer layers, because merino becomes much heavier and less pack-able the thicker it gets.
  • Tank tops (2): For workouts and hot climates.

Bottoms

  • Pants (4): I started off with three pairs of pants, all quick-drying stretch, all Prana brand. I love Prana, because their pants strike a great balance between practical and stylish. I also feel good about buying their products as well as Patagonia’s, because they are conscientious about their businesses’ impacts on the environment and employ practices to reduce their footprint on the planet. I went with the Halle for hiking, the Briann for around town, and the Pillar Capri leggings for workouts and camping. I ended up wanting one more pair that could serve as a lounge/travel pant, and the Columbia Anytime Outdoor pant fit that need perfectly.
  • Shorts (2): Also Prana, also quick-drying stretch. 

Underwear

  • Bras (5): I carry 2 normal bras, 2 sports bras, and one in-between, the Patagonia Barely Bra. It’s great for long travel days, because it’s comfortable enough to sleep in and avoids the uni-boob problem many sports bras create.
  • Underwear (13): I started off with several different brands in my bag, but I’ve converted all my pairs to Knixwear (including two “period-proof” pairs). They’re lightweight, comfortable, anti-VPL, and I can fit 13 pairs into an extra small Eagle Creek packing cube. You might think 13 pairs is a bit excessive, but I appreciate that I’m not forced to do laundry nearly as often. It’s a little uncomfortable talking about “unmentionables” in a public forum, but hey, all in the name of helping fellow travelers, right?!
  • Socks (8): I go merino wool here as well, with enough socks to get me through the week (5 ankle, 2 crew length). Darn Tough and Smartwool both make comfortable, quality socks, and Darn Tough even guarantees theirs for life! I also carry a pair of light compression socks that I wear on planes. They noticeably reduce the swelling I usually get on longer flights, and I land feeling a lot better on my feet.

Accessories & special occasions

  • Belt (1): Lightweight and flexible, keeps my pants in position.
  • Robe (1): For those trips to shared bathrooms where modesty is important. Brandon’s tailor in Singapore gifted me one in a beautiful satin blend, and I’m surprised at how often I wear it!
  • Scarf (1): I have a colorful, lightweight scarf that I use to dress up outfits, make my dress a little more conservative, or provide a little extra warmth.
  • Dress (1): I wear this Toad & Co Montauket dress in black whenever I want to get fancier than jeans and a t-shirt. I dress it up with a pretty scarf or wear it as-is in hot weather. It’s come in handy several times when dining at nicer restaurants, plus its long length makes it modest enough for religious sites.
  • Swimsuit: This Prana suit is flattering and stays on in ocean waves, which is something I can’t say about the first suit I brought.

Equipping for the elements

Losing a battle with the wind in the mountains near Wanaka, New Zealand
Losing a battle with the wind in the mountains near Wanaka, New Zealand

We spend a lot of time outdoors, and it’s true what they say: “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” I try to pack for a wide range of weather conditions, and I use layering to get the most out of each item in my bag. I can always pick up a rash guard for an extended stay in Australia or a warm hat for winter in Scotland, but I hope that the gear in my bag will do the job most of the time.

  • Waterproof jacket: It is going to rain on you. Depending on where you go (I’m looking at you, New Zealand), it’s going to rain on you a lot. Get a good waterproof shell that packs down small. Look for models with Goretex like my Arc’teryx to keep you dry, but if those are too pricey, some brands use their own proprietary fabrics that work well for the money.
  • Compressible puff: An essential layer for any cooler climates, a down puff provides a lot of warmth in a small and light package. If money were no object, I’d be carrying the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer, which consistently ranks as the lightest, warmest, most packable down jacket out there. I settled for my Macpac Uber Light Hooded down jacket, which I picked up for a steal (US$70) on sale in Christchurch. It packs down to the size of a 32oz water bottle, and keeps me toasty warm.
  • Windbreaker: I lost my Patagonia Houdini Jacket in Patagonia, of all places. It was essential for the windy days down there, so I found a worthy replacement in the Marmot Air Lite Jacket.
  • Hats (2): A lightweight, breathable baseball cap for the sun, and a small wool beanie for colder mountain weather.
  • Merino wool buff for sun protection and face warmth in cooler climes. This was especially handy in the ever-windy Patagonia.
  • Gloves: My Icebreaker merino gloves won’t get me through a snowstorm, but they’re warm enough for how small they pack down.

Getting around on two feet

Dolomites and Sven
My Dolomite CinquantaQuattro shoes with our buddy, Sven the Viking

Figuring out which shoes to pack involved a lot of deliberation. Shoes are heavy, and they take up a lot of room in a bag, so I needed to keep my pairs to a minimum. I decided on three pairs: one for walking around town and hiking, one that could function for nicer occasions, and one for warmer weather and questionable shower situations.

  • Walking/hiking shoes: I bought my Dolomite CinquantaQuattro shoes in Stockholm, Sweden after several weeks of struggling in my original choice. I began my planning what to pack with high aspirations of going for runs in exciting and exotic new places, so I chose a shoe I thought would serve as an urban walker/mountain hiker/road & trail runner. In reality, we were walking/hiking a lot and running never, and my Altra trail running shoes didn’t function particularly well in either scenario. I love my Dolomites; they’re the perfect combination of function and fashion, and by fashion I mean inoffensive.
  • “Nice” shoes: I wear my ballet flats from Yosi Samra the least of all my shoes, but they’re perfect for when we visit less casual establishments like higher-end restaurants or bars. These flats are by no means fancy, but they are simple and modest enough to pass for fancy while remaining comfortable and pack-able.
  • Sandals: When packing with a minimalist mindset, you start to really appreciate classic function and style. That’s how I’m describing my Teva Sanborn sandals, no matter what anyone else says. I can walk all day in these, they dry quickly, and they weigh next to nothing. I can’t say that about the ever-popular Chacos, and I tried.
Sitting on the ridgeline over Lyttleton, New Zealand
Tevas even work for light hiking!

Bringing life’s necessities (and nice-to-haves)

These are the things I could not travel without (along with some others that just make life easier).

  • Passport w/ RFID-blocking sleeve: I don’t know if the sleeve is necessary from a security standpoint, but it’s lightweight and protects my passport from wear and tear, too.
  • Water bottles: Camelbak Chute 750mL, Platypus 1L for extra water on longer hikes (Do not buy this one. The attachment point between the clip and the mouth is a weak point, and mine developed a leak that even duct tape can’t fix.)
  • Sawyer mini water filter: After spending time in Bali, where drinking the tap water is not advisable but plastic 1.5 liter bottles littered every nook and cranny of the island, we decided to add a water filter to our bags. Filtering our own water eliminates our disposable plastic bottle consumption, benefiting the planet, most importantly, but also our budget.
  • Ray Ban Wayfarer polarized sunglasses
  • Wallet: Slim for carrying cards and cash, like this one.
  • Headlamp: Petzl’s eLite is great for its size.
  • Sleep mask and foam ear plugs
  • Travel pillow & case: Useful for camping, long rides, and even in situations where the pillow provided just isn’t supportive enough. Case for cleanliness and comfort. 
  • Towel: This packable, quick-drying towel is useful in many situations, including at the many hot springs in Iceland!
  • Mesh bag for dirty clothes and washing bras.
  • Stretchy clothesline, which we’ve jury-rigged in many an Airbnb!

Cleaning up

I’ve never had an elaborate beauty routine, but traveling has certainly pared down the number of toiletries I use on a regular basis. I can’t say I really miss anything I left behind, either!

  • Osprey Ultralight Zip Organizer: I use this to wrangle all of my non-liquid toiletries, and it does a great job.
  • LUSH shampoo bar with tin: Most places we stay provide shampoo and conditioner, but this is for when they don’t. This bar smells great, lathers well, and lasts a long time. When I do need to replace it, LUSH locations are relatively ubiquitous.
  • Container of bar soap (varies with what’s available)
  • Deodorant
  • Quip toothbrush: My Sonicare was too big to bring along, so this is the perfect alternative. It’s an electric toothbrush with a timer, a triple-A battery that lasts months, and a cover that doubles as a stand!
  • Floss: Every day, folks. Especially when this is the first time in my memory I’ve gone without regular six-month exams.
  • Travel razor: The Venus Snap Embrace is the best razor I found for size-to-performance value.
  • Q-tips
  • Hair ties/clips
  • Nail clippers
  • Various pharmaceuticals: Ibuprofen, Benadryl (part antihistamine, part sleep aid!), Tylenol, and a few prescriptions from the travel doc, all stored in in GoTubb plastic containers.
  • Liquids bag: A TSA-approved, durable clear plastic bag from REI.
  • Hand sanitizer: Essential for the many situations where soap and water aren’t available.
  • 3oz GoToobs with conditioner and face wash: These reusable containers are durable and easy to squeeze. I refill these with whatever I can find locally.
  • Face lotion
  • Toothpaste
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Poopourri: This is a recent addition to the bag after finding out how well it works during a trip home. Everybody poops, and when you’re living in close quarters, this is a nice courtesy.

Brandon and I share some liquids which he keeps in his bag:

Staying connected

Brandon shooting the Southern Patagonian Ice Field from Paso Viento
Brandon shooting the Southern Patagonian Ice Field from Paso Viento

Electronics and the internet make life easier on the road, especially when it comes to booking travel and accommodation. Sites like Google Flights and Skyscanner aggregate nearly every route and fare in the world, and Rome2Rio seems to know all the ways to get from point A to point B. We often use Airbnb or Booking.com for accommodation, because there’s comfort in knowing where we’re sleeping before arriving in a new place. As much as our travels seem like one long vacation, we still need computers to keep up with personal finance and other less glamorous tasks. We’re also avid photographers, so it’s important to have high quality, versatile camera setups that don’t weigh us down.

  • Laptop: I carry our 13″ MacBook Pro, and Brandon has our Chromebook. We decided not to share a single machine, because we found that if one of us was working the other probably was too. The Mac is ideal for photo editing and other more complex tasks, and the Chromebook works well for anything web-based.
  • Mobile phone: iPhone 7 with service from Google Fi, which provides international data and texts for about $30/month. It has worked in every country we’ve visited so far, and it saves us the hassle of relying on WiFi or getting a new SIM in every country we visit.
  • Watch: I use a Fitbit, which helps me stay active and well-rested while traveling. It tracks steps, workouts, and sleep; plus, competing on steps with my friends and family around the world keeps me honest!
  • Headphones: I was sold on these Bose headphones as soon as I tried Brandon’s. They’re pricey, but they provide high sound quality and great noise cancellation, which is important on planes, trains, and automobiles.
  • Kindle Paperwhite: For reading all of the books!
  • Electronics organizer: This little bag keeps my charging cables, hard drive, travel adapter, portable battery, camera batteries, and charger safe and easy to reach.
  • Portable hard drive: This Samsung SSD is lightweight, tiny, and allows us to keep all of our photos and files in a secure location separate from our laptops. Having a portable hard drive also saved us money on our Macbook purchase, since Apple charges a premium for storage and we could opt for a machine with a smaller built-in hard drive.
  • Travel adapter for plugging into outlets of all shapes and sizes.
  • Portable battery: I haven’t had to use this as much as I’d thought, but it’s still handy for camping and long bus/train rides.
  • Bluetooth speaker: We love music and use this all the time, so it’s worth the extra weight in the bag.
  • Camera: I love my Olympus OM-D EM10 Mark II for its powerful shooting capabilities packed into a small, good-looking chassis.
  • Lenses: 14-150mm f/4.0-5.6 do-it-all lens, 20mm f/1.7 street and portrait lens, and Brandon’s 7-14mm f/4.0 wide angle.
  • Camera accessories: Neoprene case, Lenspen, dust blower, extra battery, and compact charger.

Paring down the list

Since backpack space is finite, there are items that didn’t make the cut for our trip. Camping equipment was the biggest sacrifice we made in favor of smaller, lighter bags. Whenever we find ourselves in a place where we’d like to camp, we just borrow or rent gear instead. The same mentality applies for other activities requiring special equipment, like climbing. With few exceptions, I have been happy living with only the gear in my pack. I’ve actually left some items that originally made it into my backpack behind:

  • Sleeping bag liner: We thought we might need this for less-than-clean sleeping situations in hostels, but in reality this was an unnecessary “just-in-case” item that took up more room than it was worth.
  • Padlock: Another thing we thought we’d need for hostel dorm rooms, but private rooms have nearly always been the better value.
  • Journal: I brought this with good intentions of writing in it, but it just became a mental burden. I’ve chosen to use photos and videos to document my experiences, and I hope I don’t regret that decision.
  • USB data blocker: Apparently useful for blocking public USB outlets from stealing your data, but we never encountered a situation where we needed to use it.

The point is, you may need to make some tough decisions about what you actually need for life on the road. Just know that it’s possible to adjust what’s in your bag while you’re traveling, so don’t stress too much about getting it perfect the first time.

Pulling it all together

Cresting the tree line on the way to Brewster Hut in New Zealand
Cresting the tree line on the way to Brewster Hut in New Zealand

This packing list is catered to my lifestyle and preferences, so please take from it what you find useful and leave what you don’t. If you prefer to chase summer, then you can probably use a smaller bag or include some camping gear. If your phone is all the camera you need, you can spend less space and weight on your computer setup. There’s no wrong way to pack, unless you’re playing frontsies backsies with your bags. You can do better, and you look ridiculous.

My complete packing list is below, as well as on Google Sheets and in PDF form. What would you do differently? Any questions about my gear? Let me know in the comments!


4 thoughts on “RTW in 4 Seasons: A Packing List for Carry-on Travel across 6 Continents

  1. I loved reading your packing list with all of your in depth musings about why you chose what you chose. I just love reading anything you write and the pictures!!!! WOW! It doesn’t seem possible that you have been on this incredible adventure since your August 1, 2017 flight to Iceland. I am in such awe at the decision you made to travel and the joy you share whenever I get to read and chat with you. ILY Moo

    Liked by 1 person

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