Packing for the family is an art and I must admit, I’ve kind of mastered it for the whole family. But it wasn’t always that way. I packed like an amateur for my three-month solo trip to Europe and five weeks in Mozambique. Never again! Well, that’s what I say every time I find something neatly folded and unused in my bag upon returning home. I have refined and improved my list of perfect items to bring on every trip. Flash back almost 20 years (!)…
She asks if I want my picture taken. I hesitate. I am in Venice, among the most fashionable people in the world, wearing my fleece jacket, stained jeans, and dirty boots. Awkward, only semi-comfortable, and unmistakably (and not in a good way) not-from-around-here. I hand her the camera, not because I want this moment memorialized, but because I know that someday I’ll want proof of my own existence in this moment.
And as you can see from a photo in this post, WAY too much stuff.
My friend Ben didn’t pack for his two-year stint in Peace Corps until the morning he left – and then he just tossed some socks and underwear in a bag and called it good. I don’t understand how that is even possible. If you are like Ben, you should stop reading here. In the spirit of transparency, Jay is more like Ben than me. He is a grown man, so I will not pack for him. However, I am kind and give him a checklist. When I say “pack for the whole family” this is what I mean. Small(ish) people get hands-on help and big people get checklists.
Here is the Kymber packing system.
2-3 weeks ahead: Develop checklists and see what’s missing
Develop a custom list for each trip based on our planned activities, temperature, infrastructure, etc…or use my RK Packing List. I print it out and keep it with my pile of things to take.
Think about what you don’t already have that you might need to buy or borrow. Ideally, you won’t have to buy much. Did I trash my favorite sandals on my last trip? Did Beija grow out of her only shorts? Will we need some special gear? If you need to buy and can’t find things you need locally (support your local retailers, don’t skip right to Amazon), online purchases will need time to arrive.
1-2 weeks ahead: Set a staging area
Find a place to put all the things you are going to bring. The way my brain works I’ll be making dinner and think, “I should bring that red notebook to Cuba.” If I toss it in my staging pile, then I don’t have to think about it anymore. There is a bed in our basement where I start putting all our things. At first it is just a pile, then I organize it. As my piles form and I refer to my checklist I start to see what is missing.
On the left are toiletries and other stuff, the center column is Beija’s clothes, and mine are on the right.
1-2 weeks ahead: Make strategic clothing choices
Choose your clothing wisely. Here’s my criteria for travel clothing:
- Must hide dirt or be easy to spot clean
- A top should match at least three bottoms and vice versa
- Everything should look OK slightly rumpled
- Every item should be practical for the weather and culture
- Must pack into small spaces
Beija is a pattern girl, but she still generally meets the criteria here. Some of these things will hide drips of ice cream well. Her wild skirts and pants have solid tees to go with them and she has some solid shorts to go with the wild print top. One sundress, one pair of shoes, one light long sleeve shirt, and one bathing suit. She’ll wear tennis shoes and the pair of long pants on the plane. These are already rumpled coming out of her drawer, so it seems like they’ll be fine.
It is so easy to go overboard. I have never been in a situation where we can’t get something washed, wash it in the sink, or rinse it out in the river. I suppose that there could be times when none of these things is available, but if that is true, the likelihood that you really need a clean shirt is low.
Shoes are great, some might say critical, but be judicious. I always suggest to my family that they wear their bulkiest pair on the plane. You will be bummed to be carrying around six pairs of shoes that you never get worn.
1-2 weeks ahead: Make strategic “other stuff” choices
Choose your other stuff wisely. Are there stores where you are going? If so, then skip the big bag of toiletry items. Take the items you can’t live without and buy the rest. It is always fun to see what unique things you can find locally.
You can probably find most of the things on the list below in this picture. Cotton sarong from Mozambique has been around the world several times and gets used a ton. Just to the left is my clothesline. Earplugs! Lots of sunscreen because we are pale Seattle cave-dwellers. A roll of Ziploc bags. Lots of tissues just in case there is no TP in the public restroom.
Third world: Make sure to consult with a travel clinic before you go for immunizations or other needs. We always bring antibiotics just in case, see this post on our Nepal adventure, but try not to use them unless there is a serious problem. Also be sure to bring water purifying equipment.
Stuff for kids to do: I know that a lot of parents go the video game and technology route. I just can’t. It crowds out family time or becomes another thing to have a power struggle over. See our post on teens, travel, and technology. I do get claims of boredom, but mostly it forces her to *be* with us and engage with the place we are in. We do bring the Kindles, and even those can turn escapist at times. But if I can sneakily fill the thing with books set in our destination then it is a win-win.
Check out my full list of “other stuff” for each trip in the printable PDF RK Packing List). For my airplane bag I include basic toiletries, the journals and activities, and travel documents.
2 days to 1 week ahead: Ruthlessly Reduce
Reduce all the stuff you’ve accumulated in your staging area by a quarter. There are three techniques:
- Analytical: Do a cost / benefit / risk analysis*
- Emotional: Hold each item to see if it sparks joy
- Pragmatic: Run three blocks with your bag on your back and see what still looks important
* This means balancing how likely it is that you’ll need each item, the likelihood of being able to get it while there, how bad it would be if you didn’t have it, and how bulky/heavy it is.
1-2 days ahead: Assemble
Assemble all the items that made the cut into your luggage. End state = [(one small bag per person that they’d be willing to carry through airports, heft into overhead bins, and hike moderate distances between transport) + (one tiny bag per person that they’d be willing to carry around on an all-day adventure)] – (all the extra stuff you won’t use).
Packing is one place where compartmentalizing is critical. I have small stuff bags for socks, packing cubes for clothing by type or by person, Ziplocs for drippy things, bags for things we’ll need at night, sacs for electrical cords and adapters, etc. etc. The more you can keep your things organized the less likely you are to lose it or need to tear apart your bag to find the one tiny thing you need. I also recommend making your stuff bags different colors. If all the bags are black, you are still going to need to open each one instead of going for the blue sock bag.
Beija’s stuff on the left, mine on the right (my clothes are bigger so I get two cubes). Inside the cubes are small stuff bags for socks and underwear.
My opinion on roller bags is that they are impractical for the kind of traveling we are talking about on Riveted Kids. They are bulky, don’t roll well on rough terrain, and encourage you to bring more than you need. A backpack lets you be hands free and fancy free. Check out my favorites from Cotopaxi – the Allpa 35L for long to gear-heavy trips and the 28L for shorter ones or for kids. Kids don’t have as much stuff as we do – or at least their clothes are smaller. Beija carried her own small pack even when she was very young.
Yep, that’s it! Jay will pack the day before and will bring too much stuff, but we love him anyway.
Throw your snacks and plane items in your carry-all-day bag and you are ready to go!