Yet another digital nomad pack list
Living a lot, with a little
I’ve been living the life of a so-called digital nomad for the last couple of years, and in this time I’ve tried my best to maintain a minimalist philosophy with the things I own and travel with. So when I mention to fellow travellers that everything I currently own hovers around the 10kg mark, I’m met with a range of reactions from the envious to the incredulous, though invariably I’m always asked:
How do you do it?
Having had to answer this question a few too many times in the last couple of months, I decided it would be worthwhile to thoroughly document my pack list; mostly as a way to audit all my belongings, but also to serve as a reference for aspiring/current digital nomads, backpackers, gear fetishists, and the generally curious.
Naturally, this approach is highly tailored to the work I do and the kind of travel I enjoy, but from the beaches of the Philippines to tower blocks in Tokyo, or from the glaciers of Patagonia to the deserts of Chile, it has so far served me well through a number of countries, cities, and climates.
The first and most important decision you need to make is determining what will actually carry all your things. I, like a lot of travellers, have opted for a combination of a large primary backpack, and a secondary, smaller bag for day to day use. Obviously a smaller bag size forces a limit what you can bring, but aside from the benefit of less weight and bulk on your shoulders, this also means being able to pack up and move with speed and ease. Imagine squeezing through subways, breezing through buses, and passing through planes with just a single, carry-on sized bag.
Carry-on backpack by Minaal
A surefire digital nomad signifier – the Minaal backpack is a popular choice, and with good reason. I own the original, and though it has been superseded by a newer version, the underlying principles of the Minaal are still the same – a stylish and highly functional backpack that fits everything you need into carry-on size. In particular I appreciate the the clamshell opening (allowing for lay flat packing, and multidirectional zip access) and the quick and secure laptop access through the dedicated compartment. While it has adjustable shoulder, hip, and chest straps, these can also be zipped into the bag allowing it to be carried briefcase style if necessary.
Lightweight Travel 20L Tote Pack by Patagonia
My main day pack, which helpfully collapses down and packs into its own internal pocket when not in use. When in use (which is often) it’s a fully featured backpack – complete with chest and hip straps, 2 additional zip compartments, and 2 elasticated pockets on each side. Furthermore, the shoulder straps can be packed away, allowing it to be carried by the top straps as a tote bag — when used with the Minaal this helps avoid the dreaded “how do I wear 2 backpacks” dilemma.
Garment cases by Muji
These garment cases help organise all my clothes and make packing and unpacking a quick and simple affair. I keep a smaller case for socks, underwear, and accessories, and a larger, double zipped case for tops and bottoms. Muji also offer deodorising garment cases, of which I keep one spare to transfer items into as and when they need to be laundered.
Padlock + cable by Eagle creek
Realistically, this is more of a casual theft deterrent than a genuine security measure, but the padlock and cable combination means you can pretty much secure anything to most fixed objects in a matter of seconds. Of course it should go without saying to make sure that your padlock can actually fit with the interlocking zips on your bag’s main compartment(s).
Of course clothing is the most personal and subjective part of any pack list — everyone’s preferences for style, size, comfort, and of course, price range, are widely divergent. Nonetheless I’d recommend spending as much as you can afford with quality over quantity in mind; for each item try to think in terms of cost per wear. Don’t be afraid of spending a little more on items that look, feel, and function better, because after all, you’ll be spending a lot of time in them!
I like the idea of personal uniform, which involves curating a small, concise, and consistent wardrobe which, for some, can remove that small but daily cognitive load that is figuring out what to wear every day.
This is easy enough if your idea of nomading involves tropical weather and not much else, but if you want the flexibility to feel comfortably dressed everywhere from Michelin starred restaurants in Macau to beach bars in Bali, you will need judicious layering, a good mix of technical and natural fabrics, and a perhaps a willingness to do laundry slightly more often than the average person.
I try to stick to simply designed basics with inconspicuous branding that work well together in any combination. Colour-wise, as you will see, this involves lots of neutral shades like greys, blues and blacks.
Now, though I believe the above applies universally, as a guy I will have to leave womenswear recommendations to someone more qualified than myself…
Slim dungarees by Outlier
These are probably the best pair of trousers I’ve ever owned: A jean-like cut, with the weight of a chino, and the near comfort of a sweatpant. These can be dressed up with an oxford shirt and sweater, or pinrolled with trainers and a t-shirt for a more casual look. Either way, they’re comfortable and durable enough for everyday wear, and as an added bonus are water resistant too. I’m a big fan of the crew over at Outlier, who in my opinion comfortably lead the pack of brands that combine great design with a more modern approach to fabrics and materials.
Ultrafine merino t-shirt by Outlier
A quick word about merino wool — it’s the best material for travel clothing, period. Naturally moisture wicking, it keeps you cool when it’s warm, and warm when it’s cool. More importantly, it has natural antibacterial properties, meaning it barely retains body odour and as such, can technically go many wears between washings. This particular t-shirt by Outlier uses extra fine merino fibres at a heavier weight, which feels great, drapes well, and is much more durable than the average t-shirt.
Eddy merino T-shirt x 2 by Finisterre
I have a couple of these merino t-shirts, each blended with around 20% polyamide. As they are a lighter weight and feel it’s a great t-shirt for daily wear.
Long sleeve merino T-shirt by Vulpine
While researching merino fabrics I stumbled across the British brand Vulpine, which produces clothing geared to the urban cyclist. While I’m not much of a cyclist I do appreciate their approach to designing stylish, yet functional clothing, and this long sleeve fits the bill as a additional layer for warmth or a standalone top for colder days.
Short sleeve merino T-shirt by Vulpine
Another merino shirt from Vulpine, this is more form fitting, and is cut slightly shorter at the front for more freedom in movement — great for running and general exercise.
NYCO oxford shirt by Outlier
A classic button up oxford shirt for more formal settings or as a light layer on top of a t-shirt. Its nylon/cotton weave ensures it’s durable, retains the feel of a classic oxford cloth, and more importantly, hardly ever requires ironing.
Merino sweater by Uniqlo
Uniqlo still remain a great choice for affordable basics, their merino range especially so, being available in a wide range of styles and colours. I use this lightweight sweater mostly as a layering piece, a quick way to get smart casual.
Bulldog swim shorts by Orlebar Brown
Killing two birds with one stone, these are not just tailored shorts: they have a number of material, construction and design considerations that mean they are just as easily worn in the water as they are out of it. While Orlebar Brown are renowned for a variety of styles, I find the length of the bulldog model gives enough freedom for swimming while still leaving enough to the imagination when worn outside of the water.
Running shorts by Nike
A simple pair of lightweight and breathable running shorts. When not used for running, I’ll be wearing these for general lounging/sleepwear, and in a pinch these can also double up effectively as shorts for the pool.
Airism boxer briefs x 5 by Uniqlo
While in a previous life I preferred simple cotton boxers, these Airism boxer briefs have taken their place due by being light, easily packable and quick drying.
Low cut socks x 7 by Uniqlo
Basic sock liners, these have antibacterial properties and a few ergonomic touches to help keep them on your feet while maintaining the ever important exposed ankle look. Considering the amount of walking, running and trekking I’ve done in the last few months, these have held up surprisingly well, but I think are soon due for a more robust replacement.
Lightweight Snow Socks by Patagonia
These are a lifesaver when things get really cold, but also the thicker merino fabric means they are a more comfortable and durable option for long treks or day hikes.
Light high neck hoody by Loopwheeler
Loopwheeler’s status is somewhat legendary amongst sweatshirt aficionados, as they are one of only two companies in the world that still produce authentic loopwheeled terry cloth on the original machines. The slow methodical nature of the loopwheel process means that the fabric can only be produced at a rate of one metre per hour, but the end result is is extremely comfortable, durable, and of course, particularly hard to get your hands on.
Adding to this is the obsession with quality and detail typical of Japanese brands, so I jumped at a chance to grab this hoody when I passed through Osaka. While probably not as magic a material it’s hyped up to be (that plaudit goes to merino wool) it’s definitely the best hoodie I’ve ever owned, and so naturally it’s accompanied me everywhere since.
Ultra light down jacket by Uniqlo
A versatile and affordable piece that instantly allows you to handle a fairly significant drop in temperature. I mostly use this as a layering piece for when it’s really cold, but on cooler days and nights it’s a perfect lightweight jacket. Best of all by stuffing it into its own carrying case it packs down to almost nothing and manages to somehow weigh even less.
Houdini jacket by Patagonia
A super light, waterproof windbreaker that also packs away into its own pocket. Again, a really useful layering piece, and as a light hoodie or running jacket. Unfortunately after small tumble biking down death road in Bolivia I managed to rip the elbow of one sleeve, so will be looking to replace or upgrade this in the near future.
As a recovering sneakerhead (at my worst I once owned over 100 pairs) footwear was and still is the hardest thing for me to be truly minimal with. With any type of travel, you will be spending a lot of time on your feet: walking, running, hiking, dancing, climbing — so it’s important to get this right.
In general, a pair of decent running shoes for any physically taxing activities and a comfortable casual pair for everything else should suffice for the majority of travel situations. Even so, I still think I could be making better, more practical footwear choices but right now I’m happy with the current rotation of:
Free 5.0 Flyknit NSW by Nike
I’m a big advocate of barefoot style running, and I’ve been putting in mileage with a number of variants of the barefoot style Free sole since the release of the original 5.0 way back in 2004. Previously I travelled with a pair of Free Run 2.0s before switching to a pair of APC Free OGs, but most recently I’ve become a Flyknit convert. Combining a knitted, sock-like upper on a Free 5.0 sole means these are high on the list of the most comfortable shoes I’ve owned.
Used for everyday walking, running and trekking, these have taken me up mountains in Patagonia, desert dunes in Peru, beach runs on the Chilean coast, and dodging dog dumps on the pavements of Buenos Aires.
Portability, weight, comfort, and above all, style, means that with this pair you do sacrifice water resistance, and, more importantly for some, the ankle support that heavier, bulkier hiking shoes may provide. Fortunately, being accustomed to barefoot style running and the Free sole means I’ve yet to suffer any ankle injuries despite a fair few trips and slips over the past few months.
Chuck Taylor All star II by Converse
A classic shoe that really needs no introduction — I’ve been wearing various incarnations of these for years, dressing them up and down as necessary. Previously I proudly championed the build quality of the Made in Japan line, but since the revamped version II with a lunar insole these have now become my go-to casual pair. Admittedly the white upper is not the most practical material for travel but there’s still something I love about a (mostly) fresh pair of white all stars. I’m still on the lookout for a more versatile pair than these but their ubiquity and relative affordability makes them tough to beat.
Top flip flops by Havaianas
Apologies to all my Australian friends but I believe it’s poor form to wear flip flops outdoors unless you are directly near a swimmable body of water, so as such I don’t have many strict requirements for pool side footwear. After my previous pair from Muji were stolen in Hong Kong (don’t ask), I picked up a pair of these as a quick replacement purely on brand recognition alone. While you can buy some fairly obnoxious Havaianas designs, these are popular because they are the most subtly branded in the Havaianas range. As it turns out I can highly recommend them, being the sturdiest and longest lasting pair of flip flops I’ve owned.
Folding wayfarer classic by Ray-Ban
The wayfarer is a timeless frame that looks great on pretty much everyone — but this version has an updated folding construction that is significantly more durable than regular pairs. Best of all, the compact size allows you to easily store them in the nearest convenient pocket, meaning that, in theory, they are a little harder to lose. Opt for polarised lenses if you can, your eyes will thank you.
Merino collar by Vulpine
An all purpose buff, again made from the almighty merino wool, from the guys at Vulpine. This triples up nicely as a scarf or hat in cold weather, and a headband in hot.
Snapback cap by Nike
Nothing too crazy going on here — just a generic snapback hat, used to keep the sun out, and the head protected.
Running gloves by Nike
A thin and light pair of gloves for running, cold weather, or once in a while, running in cold weather! I will eventually replace these for a similar pair with capacitative fingertips for touchscreen use.
Running belt by Flipbelt
A useful belt I found that is effectively one long circular pocket that slips around your waist and can securely hold any object flush against your body. I use this primarily on runs to hold my keys, cards, phone etc., but while travelling I’ve found it effectively doubles as a secure and discreet way to keep your money, passport, and other valuables close and out of sight/access from even the most determined pickpocket.
Aquapulse max swim goggles by Speedo
While I often find that lounging in a pool or in the sea can get old very quickly, I’ve recently begun to appreciate swimming as aerobic exercise, and so I try wherever and whenever possible to get access to a pool for some laps. I’ve tried a number of goggle styles and brands and have yet to find anything more comfortable than these for extended lap sessions.
Toiletries, bathing, and grooming
Again, everyone’s needs are wildly different, but of course I’d recommend bringing as little with you as possible — unless you have very specific medication or skincare requirements, almost everything you need can be bought on the road or at your destination.
The weight of all these liquids, pastes, and creams can add up, so I try to buy smaller amounts as and when I need them, trading one small inconvenience for another. Though these contents change from destination to destination, my personal essentials invariably include: moisturising cream, suntan lotion, toothpaste, toothbrush, shower gel/soap, deodorant, disposable razors, cotton buds, plasters, painkillers, anti-diarrhoeals, nail clippers, wet wipes, and bug spray.
Travel accessories by Muji
To keep all the above organised I can recommend picking and choosing what you need from Muji’s travel accessories range, which is full of simple, well designed products that often fit together in a modular ways.
Grid linen towel by Outlier
While you definitely can get by through renting towels along your way, there’s still a great deal of comfort and convenience owning your own. For this reason a lot of people travel with microfibre towels for their light weight and quick drying properties. I previously travelled with an XL PackTowl, which while very functional still felt like drying yourself with something more suited to your kitchen sink than your bathroom. For this reason I decided to try Outlier’s linen solution. Linen has a more natural feel, and its gridded construction means it soaks up a huge amount of water, quickly. While in my experience not as quick drying as microfibre towels the natural feel more than makes it worth the purchase.
Headgroom cordless hair clipper by Philips
I’ve kept a closely shaved head for the best part of a decade; perhaps this was my first, if tenuous, foray into minimalism. This ergonomically designed hair clipper is both wireless and waterproof, meaning that for styling and maintenance a weekly once over in the shower is all that’s required. As it requires its own AC plug I’d be keen to find a similar set of clippers that charge via USB.
Eclipse 0.7l water bottle by Vapur
A collapsible water bottle, when empty it rolls up and packs into an area not much bigger than its cap. BPA free, easy to clean, and super flexible, it makes a great alternative to traditional canteens or plastic bottles.
Thankfully the work I do requires not much more than a laptop and a stable internet connection, and with various local and cloud based software solutions I’m able to keep peripherals down to a minimum. For me the primary concerns are having a decent laptop and phone — these are the most useful, most valuable, and thus most difficult to replace items that you will take with you.
Again, don’t be afraid to pay a premium for portability and usability, if possible. You’ll be spending a lot of time with these too! For this reason too I cough up extra for device insurance in case the worst happens.
iPhone 6S by Apple
For me the war over hardware specs has been a non-issue for years. What should really matter for most people is the software ecosystem built around the hardware — and today that basically means choosing between Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Having been firmly in the iOS camp since the first iPhone, I still believe from a hardware and software integration viewpoint Apple are the best in the industry. Considering I have many years of investment in the Apple ecosystem, any future Google effort has to do a huge amount for me to contemplate making a switch.
Though I believe the iPhone 5 form factor is the pinnacle of iPhone design, I’ve been a slave to the upgrade process and have been using the iPhone 6S for the last 7–8 months. As well as being my universal device for messaging, navigating, reading, and listening, this also functions as my main camera. As someone who used to be surgically attached to a Canon with a 50mm prime lens, I’ve accepted that the iPhone camera is good enough for my needs to leave the bulk and weight of a traditional DSLR behind.
NGP case by Incipio
As nicely designed as the iPhone 6S is, the rounded edges and slim form factor mean a case is a prudent investment if you’re travelling a significant amount. This Incipio case is one of the thinnest around while still offering a degree of shock absorption and a protective lip around the screen.
Minimo lanyard by Ulysses
I discovered Ulysses, a Japanese brand specialising in camera accessories, while mooching around in my favourite Tokyo neighbourhood, Daikanyama. These hand carved wooden lanyards loop onto your phone and around your finger, acting as an additional insurance policy for the times you will eventually drop it.
Wide lens by Moment
As great as the iPhone 6S camera is, it could always do with some extra help with its focal length. By simply adhering a mounting plate to the back of your phone you can get access to a range of lenses which take seconds to attach. This one in particular takes things down to approximately 18mm, opening up the viewfinder and helping you capture those epic landscape shots.
Hero Session by GoPro
For certain places and activities where you need a camera more discreet, more durable, and of course, more waterproof than your smartphone, the session packs a lot of features into a tiny cube. Though it suffers from a clunky user interface and is not as technically impressive as its larger siblings in the GoPro family, for size and convenience the session is still a great secondary travel camera.
12 inch Macbook by Apple
Again, like with smartphones, any laptop decision really begins at the OS level. Given my investment in the Apple ecosystem and the fact that a good chunk of my work involves design and development, a macbook running OSX is the only choice. Luckily, I also happen to think that again Apple’s integration of hardware and software in the macbook line is the best in the industry, and so I’m willing to pay the premium.
I previously travelled with a 13in MacBook Pro, a decent balance between portability and performance, but when the screen decided to spontaneously die just days before a flight out to Buenos Aires, I was forced into a rush replacement decision.
I loved the design of the 12in MacBook when it was announced but dismissed its single USB C port as an impracticality too far. But thanks to a fortuitous discount and my complete lack of self control, I decided to take the plunge, eventually sold on its size, weight, and that sweet space grey finish. After 4 months of use the solitary USB C port has yet to be a significant issue, and despite some warnings about it being underpowered I’ve no complaints with performance or battery life.
Magic mouse 2 by Apple
Strange lightning port placement aside, this pretty much perfected the AA battery powered original. Some hate the form factor but I’ve always found it a very comfortable mouse to use even over extended periods.
Neoprene 12in classic sleeve by Incase
Case options for the 12in macbook are fairly thin on the ground, but I am partial to neoprene sleeves for the simple combination of protection and feel of the material. I’ve always loved the diver sleeves by Cote et Ciel, but as they don’t currently offer 12in versions this zippered sleeve by Incase is more than adequate for the job.
C5 series 2 headphones by B&W
Ideally, I’d love to have an additional pair of noise cancelling over-ears, but for portability’s sake I’ve had no issues travelling with just these C5s. Despite the strange fit adjustment mechanism, they are comfortable over long periods and even stay in place well enough that I can take them on long runs.
38mm Watch Sport by Apple
It feels like the jury is still out on the Apple watch, and with smart watches as a product category in general. Having owned one of these for the past year I find much of its touted functionality unused — for me it’s most useful as an activity/fitness tracker and a notification triage tool. The recent announcement of WatchOS 3 is an explicit admission from Apple that at the OS level much tweaking was needed. Hopefully the coming update will provide enough to justify keeping it on my wrist.
Lightning key by Nomad
A compact lightning cable that comes in handy when charging my phone on the move — it’s much easier to charge your phone in your bag or pocket without the tangle of a conspicuous half metre white cable getting in the way.
USB travel plug adapter by Swordfish
In the UK, we technically have the best designed plug system in the world, but the unfortunate trade-off for this is a rather unwieldy plug shape and size. I’ve been able to minimise this to a degree with this universal adapter. This seems to take everything I throw at it no matter the plug or voltage, and vitally it has two USB ports so I can charge my phone, battery pack, and MacBook simultaneously from just one outlet. Additionally, it has a small indicator LED that lights up when connected — so you can quickly diagnose when a plug socket is live and working.
2nd Gen Astro battery pack by Anker
My main battery pack, good for 3 or 4 full charges of an iPhone 6S battery. Things rarely get that dire but combined with iOS’s airplane and low power mode this could probably keep my disconnection anxiety at bay for the better part of a week.
Powercore mini battery pack by Anker
A much more compact version of the above, good for a day or so’s worth of charge, yet in a form factor that can easily fit in your pocket.
Backup Plus Slim 2TB hard drive by Seagate
While all my important files, documents, and photos are backed up through a number of cloud services (see the app & software recommendations below), an level of redundancy keeps system wide backups, photos, and other media on this pocket sized drive, with a generous 2TB capacity.
Moto E by Motorola
For all my loyalty to Apple, I do actually own an Android phone. Though this Moto E, perhaps the best device on the more affordable end of the Android spectrum, is only used as a backup. Just in case.
Apps & Software
While not tangible, there are a number of apps, tools and services that make travelling minimally so much easier. While covering a full range of these is perhaps a post for another time, I can highly recommend the below, specifically those which replace things that would have historically taken up valuable space and weight in a bag.
Google Photos for free and unlimited photo backups to the cloud. Comes with a very extensive archiving system that allows you to search and organise photos by date, location, objects, and even faces!
Dropbox for secure, cross device backup of all my most important files and documents.
Apple Music for, well, music. Combined with iTunes match it makes both my library and Apple’s whole music catalogue available on every one of my devices.
Google Maps for saving locations, transit directions, and offline maps access.
Instapaper for saving any web page for offline reading, synced across devices.
Google Translate for language assistance. In particular, the speech and text recognition in this space continues to improve and at times makes me really feel like I’m living in the future.
Cloak VPN for simple and secure connection to any untrusted WiFi network.
Supercard, Revolut, and Caxton FX for forex transactions and international cash withdrawals. Their accompanying apps allow you to monitor spending and transactions, as well as the ability to instantly block or pause card usage. I’d recommend all 3 in addition to your current credit/debit cards — multiple redundancies are a good thing when it comes to accessing your money!
A work in progress…
Of course this list will always be in flux. Some things need to be replaced, some get lost, some get upgraded, and depending on the food in a particular city, my waist size magically changes — but nonetheless the one thing I believe will stay constant is a continued minimal approach.