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.
Since I get asked about my pack so often, I’ve written a detailed breakdown of exactly what’s inside it, as well as my reasoning. If you’re interested in ultralight international travel, this post is for you.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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?
Colombia’s pretty easy, because I was able to focus entirely on one, warm climate. My traveling companion Dylan, who had been to Colombia two years prior, informed me that Colombians, in general, dress quite nicely. “Only tourists wear shorts,” he said.
So with that in mind, I put together a slightly dressier package:
1 pair raw denim jeans
The bulkiest item in my bag, raw denim jeans are perfect for a number of reasons. One, they look good. Like, real good. Two: You actually aren’t supposed to wash raw denim — enthusiasts say you should wash them anywhere from once a month to once a YEAR. For a backpacker who wants an excuse to avoid doing laundry, these are the perfect pants. I bought mine on sale in Bozeman, Montana, for $80 a pair, which is still pricey, but in my view, has more than paid for itself.
1 pair light brown pant
I brought these pants for my trip to Thailand a year and a half ago, and I found them perfect when I wanted a dressier look in a hot, humid climate. A good, light, pair of slacks packs down small and pairs with almost anything. The manufacturer, toddland, calls them the “greatest pants in the universe,” and after using these for three years in a dozen countries, I have to agree. They’re great.
1 pair athletic shorts
Since I was traveling with my friend Dylan, a personal trainer, I knew working out was going to be a big part of my trip. Athletic shorts were a necessity. Since I’m a man, these also double as my swimsuit.
1 pair Clark Desert Boots
A key decision I had to make was what shoes I wanted to bring. Shoes are big, smelly, and heavy. So I only brought the one pair. The Clark Desert Boots were the perfect shoe for my needs as a traveler here in Colombia. They are stylish AND comfortable for walking long distances in (which is key when traveling). I also sprayed these with the DWR before leaving home, making them waterproof (or close to it).
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
Besides the shoes, the other two obvious choke points for ultralight packing are underwear and socks. I chose three pairs of underwear and five pairs of socks. Two pairs of underwear are fancy Ex-Officio travel underwear, which I think is great. For an ultra-minimalist packing list like this one, the synthetic underwear comes highly recommended. It’s smell-resistant, packs down small, and needs to be washed less often. When you DO need to wash it, it’s basically designed to be washed in a hostel sink.
5x pair socks
Again, a trouble spot. I went with five pairs, because in my experience, socks get dirty, gross and smelly faster than underwear. Two pairs are hi-tech SmartWool socks — which are smell-resistant, sweat-wicking, and can be worn a few times more before needing to be washed. If you’re asking why ALL my socks aren’t SmartWool — to be honest, it’s because I can’t afford ’em. At $10-$20 a pair, these babies are like rocketships for your feet. The only reason I own ANY of these at all is because my father gives them to me as Christmas presents.
2x short-sleeve button down
Perfect for pairing with long pants on a hot day. Great look. One of these shirts is a 100 percent linen one that I bought in Thailand — performs amazing in hot weather or when it’s drenched in sweat. The other one is a beachy teal shirt. Good color on me and a perfect shirt to pack for colorful Colombia.
1x long-sleeve button down (dress shirt)
I always like to dress nice when I fly, so this is primarily a outfit for flying. Having a dressier option also came in handy for going out clubbing in Medellin, or going on Tinder dates. (Dressing nice won’t save you from the language barrier, though).
3x V-neck T-shirt
I like v-necks. Probably one of these should have been a crew-neck.
1x Light Sweater
The item that brings it all together. In Colombia, where the temperature rarely falls below 15 degrees (60 F), you don’t need winter gear. But sometimes, like after a rain, it can get a little chilly. That’s where this ultra-light Egyptian cotton sweater from Alternative Apparel comes in handy. Layer it over a button-down for a preppy/dressy look, or I can also wear just the sweater, with nothing underneath.
1x Arctery’x Alpha FL Rain Jacket
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.
1x Pair Light Gloves
I did not end up needing these at all. If I had the opportunity, I’d replace these with another pair of underwear. Or simply leave space for souvenirs.
Digital Nomad Gear — What Gadgets to Pack for Working From the Road
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:
After being used for three and a half years and traveling to 20+ countries, this baby is beginning to slow down somewhat. Still, the packability combined with the performance means I won’t be buying anything else until this one bites the dust.
If I didn’t need it to work, I would probably travel without a computer entirely.
Camera and navigation device. Everyone who has been on the South America backpacker circuit for a long time seems to have either broken their phone or had it stolen, so… eyes open. A cheap Android would do the job nearly as well as the iPhone. When this one dies or I sell it, I think I will replace it with an Android device. An iPhone, although quality, stands out a bit too much in certain areas.
16000 mah RavPower Battery Bank
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).
Using a Kindle to travel is WAY more space-efficient than bringing paperbacks. Although, I will admit, I find myself picking up books from the hostel book exchange more often than I find myself turning to my Kindle. I once brought a 1,000 page Murakami book HOME from Serbia, while I was traveling with a Kindle, so… YMMV.
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.
2x Lightning, 1x USB micro-A, 1 x Macbook Charger, 1x Charging Block. If you lose these they are cheap and ubiquitous, no matter where you are in the world.
For cleaning screens.
For writing, remembering, drawing, flirting, etc… Buy it in-country for a useful and memorable souvenir.
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
Your toiletries Ziploc is going to get destroyed. Probably sooner rather than later. And you’ll be glad to have the spares when that happens.
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.
I rarely travel without one of these. Although you CAN acquire most medicines in most places, it’s just easier to have some of your favorites with you. For instance, when I flew to Amsterdam with the flu, I was unable to purchase night-time cold medicine there. (The Dutch say it’s unavailable because it doesn’t work — sorry Dutch people, but you’re incredibly wrong). My stay in Amsterdam would have been a lot more pleasant if I had more NyQuil.
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.
Toothbrush, floss, soap, contact lens case, etc. I keep them in a simple ziploc bag.
I use a contigo auto-locking water bottle for travel. I find the act of bringing a bottle helps me cut down on my waste and plastic consumption. It also helps that in many of Colombia’s major cities, the tap water is perfectly safe to drink.
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.
I use a small camp towel I bought at REI. I use this when a hostel tries to charge for towels, or when I need to dry my hands. It packs into a pouch smaller than an egg, and I hang it off the outside of my pack with the included tiny carabiner. In a pinch, it works well enough to dry your entire body after a shower or a swim. It won’t work as a beach towel, though.
Two of these, one big beefy combo lock, and a smaller keylock. Lockers at hostels vary in size, so it’s helpful to have locks that can accommodate a range of sizes.
Spanish Flash Cards
My primary reason for coming to Colombia was to practice my long-neglected Spanish, so I’ve made sure to spend time learning and practicing new words, in addition to speaking the language as much as possible.
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?
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.
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
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?
- Especially in Colombia, where you’re sweating a lot, things can get a bit smelly
- 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!)
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.