I confess I see other digital nomad packing lists and they make me laugh. “Only ever travel with hand carry,” is never going to happen in our lives. Nor will we be buying or using a backpack for carrying our luggage in any time soon.
Our digital nomad packing list includes real luggage, a bunch of stuff we need and an acknowledgment that we all have different needs and wants from our baggage.
Let’s Talk Luggage
The best digital nomad luggage option is a hard-shell high-quality wheeled suitcase. This offers maximum protection for your stuff as you lug it around the world and you don’t need to carry it around with you, it rolls gently even if you pack it with enough weight to sink a small boat.
Megan and I own four such cases. They’re from a variety of brands: Delsey (my old faithful – it’s lasted 20 years, so far, on the road and though it’s the only one that is not hard-shelled it is insanely durable), Hugo Boss, and a couple of others that I forget the brands of.
They cost about $200-$300 each and it’s absolutely worth spending a decent amount of cash on a suitcase.
In fact, if I had a huge amount of spare cash – I’d chop the lot in and pick up some Samsonite luggage which is the best made of all the hard cases. Mind you at $4,000 for 4 suitcases, it really better had be too.
Why Hard Shelled Cases?
- Hard-shelled cases are easy to lock up.
- They are easy to store (they slot neatly into baggage compartments etc.).
- They can take a bit of a beating from a baggage handler trying to shift 300 bags on to a plane in 3 minutes.
- Nobody’s going to slice a hole in the side of one at a bus station and steal your stuff.
- You can sit on them without destroying your stuff.
I keep hearing the “but the roads aren’t very flat” argument but I often wonder what other people do with their suitcases when they travel the world and work.
This is how it goes for me. I pack up my stuff and put it in the suitcases. I weigh them (to make sure I am not facing any excess baggage payments at the airport). I call a taxi. I roll them maybe 10 yards or so to the taxi. The taxi takes me to the airport. I roll my bags through the airport (where no bumps exist) and to the check-in desk. There we part company.
At the other end, I pick the bags up from the conveyor belt and roll them to a taxi. Then, I roll them from the taxi into the new building, again maybe a 10-yard walk, maximum. Then they’re in my room and unpacked.
I have never had an issue with this. In fact, even on the occasion I was daft enough to drag 3 bags across the Cambodian border and had to walk a mile from Thai immigration to Khmer immigration, they were all easy to wheel and far easier to shift than dragging everything on my back.
Final Word on Digital Nomad Luggage
Backpacks have their place. If you’re moving destinations every single day and doing a lot of walking to find the cheapest hostel deal in every developing nation town – they’re brilliant.
Yet, almost no digital nomad travels like this. That’s how a gap year works not a life of work and travel.
Sure, you may feel a bit “corporate sellout” buying a hard-shelled suitcase, after all, where’s the romance in that? But, after a year or two of travel, you will be glad that you did.
We’d recommend investing decent money into your suitcases too. The better made they are, the lighter they tend to be, the less they break and most importantly, the safer your stuff will be.
Cheap suitcases are the worst and anybody who has experimented with them (as I once did for a week – both suitcases broke) knows they’re a terrible investment.
Digital Nomad Must-Haves
This is going to be short and sweet. You need money, you need a passport and possibly you need a visa.
You can, in theory, buy everything you need almost everywhere in the world. You don’t need to leave with anything as long as you can afford to buy it when you arrive.
There are no digital nomad must-haves, just things that are useful or handy in travel.
What To Pack?
I have had no permanent home for nearly 20 years now, Megan’s been doing this for nearly 2 years now too.
Some digital nomads will argue this is a great reason to travel with nothing and “be free”. Well, good for them but we prefer a few home comforts.
In general, when we move (vacations are different – we pack light for a vacation), we take 80 Kg of stuff with us in the hold and another 14 Kg of stuff in the cabin.
That breaks down into 4 x 20 Kg suitcases and 2 x 7 Kg hand-carry bags (one is a Targus 17” laptop case and the other my Tenba Messenger Bag for camera kit).
Why do we take this much stuff?
Other than the snide reason “because we can”, it’s because it’s easy to get 40 Kg of baggage on nearly every flight and it’s reasonably cheap to do so.
At the time of writing our next flight will be to Hanoi from Chiang Mai, it cost just over $200 for the two of us including that big baggage allowance, travel insurance, meals and the seats we wanted.
The flight after that from Hanoi to Danang is just under $100 for the same.
Also, the whole “but you have to wait for luggage” line? It is true that there is an occasional airport in this world where you might have to cool your heels to get your luggage but in most airports? If you wait longer than 5 minutes, I’d be amazed.
In fact, since I’ve been in Asia, I’ve only once had to wait more than 15 minutes for a bag, and I have flown over 300 times (I used to fly all the time for work).
So, don’t sweat it. Travel with stuff is both fine and convenient. Remember our routine from earlier? It’s the same here. Getting stuff to a from hotels etc. is easy and once it’s there, it’s there.
Our Digital Nomad Essentials
This is our list of things we consider to be essential when we move. Your list will almost certainly vary. I looked at a bunch of other nomad lists and some are carrying things like hand wipes (which can be bought in every corner store on earth) while exhorting you to pack light.
That makes very little sense to me, but it may float your boat.
- Yes, laptops plural. There are two of us and we both work. We were, at one point, carrying 3 of the bloody things around with us. Now, we carry an Acer Hybrid with a 12” screen and an ASUS ROG gaming laptop with a 17” screen. Both laptops go in our hand carry, but the chargers, external keyboards, mice and mouse mats all go in the hold luggage.
- When you spend as much time on a PC as I do, you need a mouse. Keypads suck. I am currently using a Razer Goliath but that is coming to the end of its life and I’ve already bought a Logitech G102 Prodigy to replace it with because I like my mice simple and I couldn’t find a decent Razer mouse here in Thailand. We also use cheap but large mouse mats (mine is a SIGNO E-Sport ICONIC-3) which is comically large but makes life easier.
- I buy cheap crap keyboards and then destroy them in a few months. They rarely survive to make it on the plane with us. Try typing millions of words a year and playing games when you’re not typing; you’ll understand.
- I have a RODE NT-USB microphone. Mainly, because I want to get into podcasting and talking-head video but also because I can pair it up with a speech-to-text recognition software when I need to type more than my fingers can handle.
- We don’t rely on these like some digital nomads. Megan has a Samsung Galaxy and I have an Honor. There’s no brand loyalty here for us, though we use Android and not iOS.
- I don’t need one, but Megan really hammers her smartphone in the day watching YouTube. A Powerbank means she can keep watching without being forced to sit next to a charger.
- I couldn’t live without my Kindle. It is like reading a book, but it allows me to carry thousands of books where before, I could have only fit half-a-dozen in my suitcases. I do still buy paper books, but I tend to leave them when I finish reading them.
- Backup drives. I think we have nearly 20 TB of storage now. I am not even sure how it ended up like this but a couple of back up drives are essential. The 20 that I have now are probably not.
- I have a Fuji X100S (which we will convert to Infra-Red use), a Fuji X100F and a Fuji X-T30. These are all small mirrorless cameras and only the X-T30 uses interchangeable lenses. They are used mainly for stills, but I am trying to get into video too.
- Camera lenses, etc. Then there’s stuff that makes your camera equipment work, we carry spare batteries, a DGI Spark Drone, a Zhiyun Weebill Lab Gimbal, a Godox flash, a Godox flash trigger, a tripod, filters and a bunch of other stuff.
As you may have guessed, whatever we can pack from the list above in our hand luggage – goes in our hand luggage. It’s much less likely to get broken or go missing if it’s on you.
Having said that, thanks to CCTV – light-fingered baggage handlers are almost a thing of the past. I still wouldn’t leave a good watch or expensive necklace in hold luggage, but most other things will be fine.
REMEMBER: Digital nomads that want to keep all their stuff and get through the airport easily, will read up on what items are restricted in hold and hand baggage and make sure that they’re obeying the rules. Your luggage is much more likely to be opened if a keen baggage handler X-rays it and finds you’re breaking the rules.
In our hold luggage we take:
- Clothes and plenty of them, while some digital nomads love to boast of only owning one t-shirt made of Merino wool and washing it annually, we prefer to dress like normal human beings. I have 7-10 t-shirts, 10 pairs of socks, 10 pairs of underwear, 2 x hoodies and a jacket. Don’t ask what Megan has. There is no end to her wardrobe.
- I struggle to buy decent shoes in South East Asia and may find I need 3-4 pairs of cheap crap shoes at any given time, instead. Megan is not Imelda Marcos, but she too has about 4-5 pairs of shoes.
- I rarely use them now, but I have 3 limited edition hand made belts from Poland. They’re awesome.
- Megan loves her makeup. Fortunately, I don’t wear any because I look stupid in makeup.
- I have a severe scalp condition which requires a medicated shampoo. I try to take a bottle with me everywhere so that I don’t have to find some in a panic.
- 2 x Large Towels. I am a big fat Westerner. Tiny Asian towels rarely go round me, and they certainly won’t dry me. So, the cross we bear is lugging 2 decent sized beach towels everywhere, even though, we never go to the beach.
And that’s about it. We don’t carry pots and pans or can openers. We normally buy a cheap frying pan and a couple of microwave containers on arrival in a place and sell them online (if they survived, if they look terrible, we leave them for the next people to use the apartment we were in) when we leave.
We try to exhaust toiletries as we leave and buy new when we reach a destination too.
One Other Thing
A very small handbag is also essential. OK, you can call it a “man bag” if you will. I’m not precious about this. A small bag in which you can stuff your passports, a pen or two, passport photos, ID, boarding passes, SIM cards, etc. can be massively handy when you’re flying anywhere.
For this we’ll recommend a bag we’d buy if we need to. My “man bag” was free in Starbucks in Cebu and it does fine. It only gets used when we’re flying otherwise, it sits on a shelf.
About Travel Insurance
Travel insurance and, in particular, airline travel insurance (which is supplied under various conventions) is often total crap for things in hold luggage.
They have a huge list of things they won’t pay for (cameras, computers, jewelry and the like) and often, particularly in South East Asia, they won’t pay out very much for the things you do lose.
You may want to leaf through your insurance policy carefully before you fly and if necessary, shell out a few bucks on a policy which protects your livelihood in the way you’d want it to be protected. Digital nomads who lose all their stuff are rarely happy nomads.
There’s no “right way” to travel and no “right way” to pack. I admire those who travel the globe with next to nothing, but I don’t want to be them.
My whole life comes with me on the road. I have no home to go back to. I am in my 40s. I want a little bit more than a single t-shirt and I can have it too.
That’s why I recommend you pack a hard-shelled suitcase or two and enjoy digital nomad life on the road. Yet, you can make your own call on this, you’re an adult – pack what you want.