How to actually pack for a year abroad

During my trip’s planning phase, I spent a pretty solid amount of time researching packing. I found a lot of results on how to fit a year’s worth of clothes into a backpack (read: maybe a week’s, and you do nothing but laundry the entire time you’re traveling), but that definitely wasn’t my plan. I mean, I was settling in to my destinations for months at a time. I didn’t want to get stuck wearing the same three shirts and doing laundry 6-10 times a month. I had a giant suitcase for it and everything. So what on earth was going in it?

So here’s the assumption under which I’m writing: you are a real human being who only wants to do laundry 2-3 times a month. You may be moving around a lot, but you’re still bringing a checked suitcase with you. What do you pack?

  1. Shirts: I suggest bringing around 10. Keep them mostly light and short-sleeved. You can layer.
  2. Undershirts: I recommend 2 thermals, in case you wear them enough in the winter that one smells bad, or something. One of mine is a thinner fabric (from UnderArmour I think? I got it thrifting and the label’s worn off), great for layering. Note: I brought four thermals and ended up ditching two, so if you need more, you can probably get away with it.
  3. Bottoms: go with the jeans you wear on the flight, a spare pair of jeans or chinos or whatever’s your vibe, and a pair of comfy-but-okay-in-public bottoms (or leggings if that’s your jam). You may think you need more. You do not. You’ll likely end up wearing certain favorites so much more often that the rest will be unnecessary – even if you wear them, it won’t be enough to be worth the weight. I brought, and ditched, several extra pairs of jeans over the course of my first few months. Just don’t bother.
  4. Sweaters and overshirts: this obviously depends on where you’re going, but even if you’re figuring on some chilly weather, limit yourself. I’d say 1 heavy sweater, 1-2 mid-weight ones, and 1 light overshirt. If you have the space for it and you like changing up your look, consider bringing extras in this department, but remember that if you end up somewhere warm, sweaters you like and don’t want to toss will become dead weight.
  5. Formalwear: I brought a blazer and dress shoes just in case I went somewhere fancy. It’s been six months and I have not. If you’re into spontaneous dress-up-worthy events, it might be worth it for you, but if you aren’t sure it’ll come up, skip it.
  6. Underwear: honestly, I think I have about 20 pairs of socks, and maybe like 30 underwear bottoms. I do not regret this. I hate doing laundry. If you need to wear tops, I guess I’d estimate on bringing a week’s worth. I have 3 chest binders, 1 sports bra, and 1 regular bra, and that’s been a good balance for me.
  7. Sleepwear: you really only need a pair of bottoms. I alternate shirts to sleep in, and if my PJ bottoms are in the wash, I’ll wear my comfy legging-ish bottoms, or just boxers.
  8. Jackets: wear a heavy, wind-and-water-proof jacket on your flight. Do not pack a spare. They’re bulky and weigh a lot.
  9. Accessories: you do you. They tend to be light enough and flexible enough in shape that you can get away with a few if that’s your vibe. I have 2 scarves (because they are warm and look amazing), 1 knit hat (which I wear whenever it’s mild-to-cold or I have shitty hair, so it was a good bring), 1 fashion hat (which I love too much to toss, but wish I’d left at home), and 1 cowl (which I picked up on the road, and served me well in the German winter).
  10. Shoes: go with 2 pair: one you wear, one you pack. For me that’s a pair of Converse and a pair of hiking boots. Even if you don’t hike, I’d recommend at least 1 of yours is water-proof and won’t hurt you after a long walk. For comparison, I also brought a pair of fashion-y boots (which I love, but don’t need) and a pair of dress shoes (which, being so bad for walking, I never wear). If I was packing for a year now, from scratch, I wouldn’t have brought either of them.
  11. Towels: I brought 1 just in case. The only place I’ve stayed that didn’t have them was my hellscape in Berlin. So they seem pretty unnecessary, but are also lightweight enough that it can’t hurt.
  12. Toiletries: unless you have a specific hard-to-find face cleanser or something, skip these. You can always buy more when you land. I did bring a stick of deoderant with me, because my travel is often overnight and I’d rather use up the extra space and not risk smelling when I arrive at my new home and immediately collapse on the bed without unpacking or showering.

That’s about it for the typical necessities. I can’t guide you much on tech, because I use such a wide variety of it that I pretty much filled up my carry-on with all of it. My one suggestion besides the obvious is to bring a Kindle. If you’re a reader you will miss reading. Just buy it and fill it and bring it with you. It holds infinity and fits anywhere. Other than that, all I’ll say (and this is probably obvious already) is that if you have technology you care about, you should not put it in checked luggage. It weighs a lot and could get lost.

There are a few miscellaneous extras I might be able to shed some light on, though:

  • Glasses: I brought all seven pairs I own (long story). This was stupid. The actual smart plan would be:
    • Sunglasses (1)
    • If you need glasses, the pair on your face and one back-up pair (2)
    • I can’t make suggestions about contact lenses, sorry. Have never worn them.
  • Swimwear: bring 1. I did not bring a swimsuit and I regret it. Luckily you can pick these up for cheap pretty much anywhere.
  • Umbrella? Should I bring an umbrella? (I’m assuming you can all make this decision on your own, so I’m mostly writing it for indecisive past Ev.) No. No, Ev. You will never use your umbrella. Even when you think about it in advance, you will end up going outside in your leather jacket and getting your hair wet. Do not bother bringing an umbrella. Note: if you’re the sort who definitely will use an umbrella, be aware that they are not allowed in carry-on luggage.
  • Extra bags: first off, this can help organize your luggage. Second, if you have a small bag, you don’t need pockets or a backpack. I had a smaller bag early on my trip, which broke, and now if I need more than I can fit in my pockets, I have to carry my camping backpack everywhere I go.
  • Travel sewing kit: things break. Things get holes you didn’t expect. Seams rip on beloved articles of clothing. You don’t need to be a fashion designer to fix something like this. Just bring it. Note: I have no idea if sewing needles are allowed in carry-ons; I had mine in my checked luggage.
  • Notebooks: When I left the states, I brought one writing book with me. I draw a lot, but I figured I could stick to digital art while traveling. Now I’m six months in, halfway through the writing book, and have picked up two sketchpads and two sets of pencils. Long story short: if you use any kind of notebook regularly, save yourself the hassle and just bring it from the get-go.
  • Make-up: I rarely wear any, so I can’t recommend much here, but I’d say keep it to a minimum. It adds up space- and weight-wise. I have a container of foundation, a tube of concealer, and a bottle of cologne; I use all of them often enough that I feel good about bringing them, but infrequently enough that I don’t think my trip would be much the worse if I hadn’t.

Long story short: even if you love something, if you wear it less than once a week when it’s in season, just don’t bring it. As you move around, you’ll inevitably end up taking on a few new things and getting rid of a few others, so your safest bet is to keep beloved non-necessities to a minimum. This way you can have enough variety to mix up your look and avoid spending all your time doing laundry, but can probably also avoid being that one guy with the 50-pound suitcase everyone in the airport is staring at (me). Sure, you may miss some of the more specialty items, but better to save the space preemptively than to risk needing to shed them as you keep moving. Those favorites will still be waiting for you when you get home.

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