A Digital Nomad’s Packing List for Ultralight International Travel

Over the past three years, I’ve been working and traveling as a digital nomad, backpacker, and dirtbag climber. I originally wrote this post in May 2017. After this trip, I took this same pack (and packing list) on extended travels in Morocco, Budapest, Italy, and London.

This is not a sponsored post, but it does contain some affiliate links.

***

I’ve been in Colombia for the past five weeks, primarily practicando mi español (still bad, but getting better). I’ve been living, working, and traveling with only an 18-liter CamelBak Cloud Walker pack. My father gave it to me four years ago, for my 20th birthday. It’s been on countless trails, climbs, and adventures with me. Now, it’s taken me all across Colombia.

Everyone I meet has been amazed at the size of this bag.

The Backpack

Image for post
Image for post
Guatape, Colombia, with everything I own on my back.

As I said, my bag is an 18-Liter CamelBak Cloud Walker. It’s pretty old, so it’s been through the wringer already, on hikes and rock climbs. Before I left, I did two things to make my pack more suitable for traveling:

  1. I removed the hydration bladder so I could use the back pocket as a laptop sleeve. The pack has mesh pockets on the side for water bottles, and as anyone who has used a hydration pack inevitably knows, they tend to leak at the worst of times. For my purposes, a computer sleeve was much better.
  2. I sprayed the entire outside of the pack, thoroughly, with the water-repellent chemical DWR. (This is the exact product I used — I’m very happy with the results). Since my pack is so small, it doesn’t have a built-in rain cover. In Colombia (where it’s currently the rainy season), that was a big problem. So I skipped buying a dedicated cover, and simply made the whole pack waterproof. Obviously I need to avoid getting caught in torrential downpours, but this setup has worked pretty well for me so far.

The Clothes

Image for post
Image for post
My pack, my shoes, and all my clothes (minus one short-sleeve shirt, the athletic shorts, and one pair of socks — I’m wearing those).

This is where your real space savings will happen, as a backpacker. Packing fewer clothes is the real secret to packing light for extended travel. I have been on four international trips in the last two years, and each time, I take fewer clothes.

So, what clothes did I pack for a two-month trip to Colombia?

So with that in mind, I put together a slightly dressier package:

1 pair raw denim jeans

1 pair light brown pant

1 pair athletic shorts

1 pair Clark Desert Boots

Image for post
Image for post
Here’s a photo of my boots after I got caught in 2 hours of rain on the streets of Santa Marta. As you can see, they look pretty wet. But my feet stayed dry, even after I walked through flooded streets, thanks to the waterproofing I applied.

The Clarks, for me, split the difference between an everyday tennis shoe, and a more specialized hiking boot, while still managing to look more fashionable than either. A win-win, especially in style-conscious Medellin, where I spent a month. Although they weren’t perfect for the job, I was also able to work out in them at many of Medellin’s free outdoor gyms.

Now, I’m up north, at the beach. Here, the Clarks are a little less than ideal. But, they work. I even spent three days bushwacking through the jungle in Tayrona National Park, crossing streams and generally mistreating these babies — and they came out the other side looking fine. Maybe in need of a little leather protectant.

An often-overlooked fact of travel, especially as you sit behind your computer at home, is that you can buy anything you need in the country. So if I’d decided I wanted flip-flops at the beach, I would have bought some.

Many people like to have flip-flops for the hostel shower — I skipped this in favor of packing ultralight. I wash my feet thoroughly.

3x pair underwear

5x pair socks

2x short-sleeve button down

1x long-sleeve button down (dress shirt)

3x V-neck T-shirt

1x Light Sweater

They don’t seem to sell the exact sweater any more, but it’s something like these.

1x Arctery’x Alpha FL Rain Jacket

Image for post
Image for post
Comes in this lovely, hi-vis shade of orange, too. This is everything I own.

The Arcteryx Alpha FL is a very technical jacket, actually designed for alpine climbing. It’s amazing. I love it. It works perfectly, fits well, and packs down small. I happened to have one already, so I brought it. You don’t need such a fancy jacket yourself — but you DO need a rain jacket for travel. In case of a serious downpour, I use this to cover my pack.

Image for post
Image for post
The jacket packed up. They definitely make ultralight rain jackets which pack down smaller than this one.

1x Pair Light Gloves

Digital Nomad Gear — What Gadgets to Pack for Working From the Road

Image for post
Image for post
Lonely Planet Book borrowed from the hostel — everything else travels with me.

I blogging and doing paid freelance work from the road. This meant I needed to bring some electronics gear I wouldn’t have needed otherwise.

On my last trip to Eastern Europe, I packed all my digital nomad gear, including my Roost Laptop Stand, a wireless keyboard, and a wireless mouse. I found I didn’t end up using them much last time, so I left these behind and went fully minimalist.

The only electronics gear I brought:

Macbook Air

If I didn’t need it to work, I would probably travel without a computer entirely.

iPhone

16000 mah RavPower Battery Bank

Image for post
Image for post

Power banks are ubiquitous these days — I’m sure you know why you need one. They’re great for extra peace-of-mind on that long day trip, or on that oh-so-cheap long-haul bus that doesn’t have charge points. 16,000 mah is a bit overkill (that’s about 5 full iPhone charges), but I like the convenience.

The more mAh your power bank has, the heavier it will be. I wish mine was a bit lighter, tbh. I think 5,000–10,000 mAh is a good balance between weight and capacity. (Here’s a 10,000 mAh one for $30 on Amazon).

Amazon Kindle

Still, for a minimalist, a Kindle (or other e-book reader) presents undeniable value. You can read books on your phone, but it will drain the battery quickly, and is more stressful on your eyes.

Chargers

Microfiber Cloth

Journals

Miscellanea

Rubber Bands

Image for post
Image for post
Bongo Ties (rubber bands) are great for keeping things orderly.

Super clutch item while traveling. Use em to compress your clothes, bundle up your cables nice and neat, or even seal off the top of a 5-liter bag of water (Colombia’s weird with that last one). Buy em at home, because small things like this always prove impossibly frustrating to find while on the road.

My favorites are Bongo Ties, which are literally the greatest rubber bands EVER. I now use these to bundle up my clothes and cables. They are made of super high-quality rubber which lasts forever, and have a unique fastening system. That said, any rubber band will do.

A few spare Quart-size Ziploc Bags

Passport Wallet

Image for post
Image for post

I use this Visconti Leather Passport Wallet ($25). Great purchase. Holds my passport, all of my cards, and has two compartments for cash. Bonus: it looks really good. I get a lot of compliments on this.

First-Aid Kit

My kit contains stuff like bandages, antiseptics, painkillers, cold medicine, antacids, etc. Nothing too intense — I fly with it all the time and although no one’s ever inspected it, I wouldn’t want to get in trouble if they DID decide to.

Toiletries

Water Bottle

If you are going to be traveling in places with unsafe water, I highly recommend a sterilization system. REI breaks down your options for water sterilization in this great article.

Travel Towel

Locks

Spanish Flash Cards

Why did I include these on this list? To show you that even with such a small pack, there’s space for the personal items that YOU want to bring.

WHY Travel With Such a Small Backpack?

Image for post
Image for post

I’ll be honest. Since I was traveling to and from Colombia using a combination of VivaColombia and Frontier, (both budget airlines with strict luggage rules): I didn’t want to pay luggage fees.

With all of those items inside, minus the outfit I’m wearing on the day of travel, that pack weighs less than 7 kilograms. It’s small enough to fit under the seat on any airline, no matter how budget. And because it looks like a daypack — it is a daypack — I am never asked any questions about it.

This pack has flown free on budget airlines on four continents, including RyanAir, AirAsia, VivaColombia, Frontier, and Spirit.

By my estimation, packing light saved me at least $70 in luggage fees on the journey to and from home. In addition, it gave me additional flexibility to use VivaColombia to fly around Colombia for cheap — if I wanted to.

Plus, as any backpacker will tell you, traveling with a big pack is kind of a pain. Small and light saves you a lot of hassle, a lot of money, and a lot of lower-back pain. So let’s just say you can’t put a price on comfort.

Let’s Talk About Laundry

Image for post
Image for post

I need to do laundry about once a week, or once every two weeks if I want to really stretch it. Since in most backpacker hostels and lavanderias (street laundries), prices are based on weight, I don’t end up spending any more money on this than any other traveler. I just need to get it done a touch more often.

What Are the Downsides to Traveling So Light?

  • Obviously, laundry is a bit more of a concern when you have less clothes.
  • You have no daypack because your daypack is your main pack
  • If your small backpack happens to get stolen or break, you’re really fucked. But I’d argue you face the same issue, regardless of your pack size
  • You will look the same in all your pictures

In my opinion, these are all small issues — easily outweighed by the savings in weight, cost, and hassle.

Would I Do It Again?

Absolutely! (And I Did!)

Image for post
Image for post
Six months after I wrote this post, here I am in Morocco — wearing the same Arcteryx jacket, and the same brown pants 😂.

Traveling this light has been absolutely liberating. I understand it may not be for everybody — and certainly not to this extreme — but it is for me. One of the lessons everyone learns while traveling is that stuff, ultimately, isn’t that necessary. I view my pack as an extension of this lesson.

I know what I need to live the life I want — and all of that stuff happens to fit in 18 liters.

Que Chevere, no?

Always adventurous. Occasionally political. I write creative stories about life, love, climbing and travel. thisisyouth.org

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store