What to pack when you’re leaving for good.

What do you pack if you’re leaving your home and country with no plans to return?

My wife and I left New York City ten months ago on a vagabond adventure with no intention of returning to a permanent home in the near future. How would we pack for hitting the road with no end date, no exact itinerary, and no real home?

If this wasn’t enough to stress out our roller bags, we knew that we’d be living in warm climates, cold climates, urban and rural settings. We’d need to be prepared for mountain hikes but also be at home in a neighborhood coffee shop or trendy cocktail bar. That’s a lot of diversity to pack for. When we boxed up our Brooklyn apartment to head for Europe, we knew that we couldn’t bring it all, but we also didn’t want to leave everything behind.

We gave up our place and were leaving home for good, so we didn’t have a spot in the U.S. where we could stash things to be picked up if we returned sometime in the future. We discussed the merits of putting some items in storage. In the end, we couldn’t find anything in our lives that felt important enough for a paid storage locker, but yet not important enough to have with us. And so, our first rule was born: if it’s important, it comes with us. If it’s not — it’s eliminated from our lives, forever.

We separated our belongings into three categories that would make the trek across the globe. Everything else was donated to friends, family or charities. Here’s what we brought along for the ride:

Things that are sentimental. Sometimes the things that are most important are seemingly the most insignificant. One of my prized possessions that’s made the move: a coffee cup that I gave my mom years ago, as a summer camp souvenir. I found it in her cupboard after she passed away, and it served as a reminder of how much she loved me. She drank from this cup for decades. It requires very little space, and I get a reminder of her with my morning coffee.
Things that we use regularly. This was easy. If we haven’t used it in the last few weeks, it went in the “donate” box. Things that made the cut amounted to a small pile, comprised mostly of laptops, portable electronics and objects that fit into backpacks and carry-on luggage. We donated a LOT before leaving. I was surprised at how few things in my possession were utilized on a daily or even weekly basis.
Things that make us at home. Artwork was probably the most significant non-essential belonging that made the trip across the Atlantic. Our art isn’t particularly valuable, but each piece tells a story of a place we’ve been, an artist that’s inspired us, a family member that’s passed, or a moment in our lives. We didn’t need artwork to survive, but having it hung in each of our apartments has allowed us to personalize our space, and make each place feel peaceful and cozy.
We also brought books along for the adventure. This was difficult and illogical, because books are heavy, and take up space. I regretfully discarded my record collection years ago, and we didn’t want to make the same mistake with our books, knowing they would be difficult to replace. We gave most of them away, and kept the ones that were sentimental or that we were confident we’d read again. Throw in a handful of reference books that we count on regularly, and we were ready to go.

When we are all packed, our belongings fit into a good-sized cargo van. That’s still a bit more than we’d like to admit, and we pare it down a little bit with each and every move forward. It’s much more than some couch surfing friends have reduced their lives to, but a lot less than any of our friends in suburbia.

What did we learn in the process?

  1. Belongings don’t bring happiness. Unless they do. Our lives were never enriched by new couches or giant flat screens. But art that ties to family or sentimental events in our lives brings warmth to our souls every day they’re with us.
  2. Always be reducing. We purchased a mannequin head at a Berlin flea market and he’s been adopted as a permanent member of our family. This flea market find requires space. Since we’ve committed to constant reduction, something else has to go. We don’t intend to add belongings or souvenirs with every move we make, and hope instead to lighten our load with each and every place we live. So we do our best to get rid of something every time we buy something. When it comes to clothing, I like to eliminate two things for every single new item, as apparel tends to accumulate too easily.
  3. Everyone’s different. There’s no right or wrong way to pack for life as a vagabond. We’re all individuals, with unique lives, lengths of stay, and adventures ahead of us. What’s appropriate for us makes absolutely no sense to other travelers. Every day is a learning process, and that’s part of what we signed up for when we left New York City.

We half-jokingly chat about the day where we’ll settle down, and “have that house in Colorado”. That may happen. Or it won’t. One thing we know for sure: we won’t need a ton of closet space.