Pack Like a Minimalist Without Sacrificing

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We’ve all stood in front of our closet while packing for a week-long vacation, contemplating how to fit 16 outfits and four pairs of shoes into our carry-on suitcase. This used to be me, until my boyfriend and I moved into a 100-square-foot converted school bus to travel full time. This decision had the intended effect of forcing us to simplify – how we travel and how we live. It has been one of the most freeing experiences of my life. While bus life might not be for everyone, anyone can adopt a minimalist approach to traveling. Let me show you how to pack like a minimalist.

Make a List

As mundane as it seems, writing out a packing list will save you from over-packing, or forgetting critical items. Include quantities on your list (i.e. “five shirts”) to give yourself a limit when you get to the actual packing part. Otherwise, it can be tempting to breeze through your closet, grabbing all 15 of your favorite shirts.  We put together some packing lists to help you organize. Check them out at Packing Lists for Minimalist Travel

Thinking through your daily routine at home can help keep your list succinct and useful. Start with the things you need for your morning routine and progress through your day and night time needs. Be realistic about how many times you change clothes per day, and whether or not an article of clothing can be worn multiple times.  This planning guide can help walk you through the process.

Everything in our bus home was first categorized on a spreadsheet, and made the ‘necessity’ cut. Space is at a premium, so it is critical to have exactly what we need, no more and no less. We know exactly where everything is, and each item serves a purpose.

Plan for Specific Destinations and Activities

I knew I wouldn’t be eating at any fancy restaurants once we moved into the bus full time, so I focused my clothing choices on activities that I knew I would be doing: hiking, rock climbing, paddle boarding, and exploring the wilderness. I ditched my eveningwear and heels for workout clothes and hiking boots.

Our bus is not fully insulated nor does it have air conditioning; we chase moderately warm temperatures as the seasons change. This also factored into my decisions regarding what to bring with me; I won’t need snow gear, but my inflatable stand up paddle board is worthy of a few cubic feet. (You can read about my recommendations for iSUPs in the Best Inflatable Paddle Boards article.)

All of this to say: think about where you are going and what you will be doing. Planning according to activity and climate is much more effective than packing for every eventuality; and you’ll be sure to have what you need. Thinking like a minimalist will allow you to pack like a minimalist. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on clothing suggestions for different climates.

Pack Versatile Basics

The height of minimalism is owning items that can be used for multiple purposes. Apply this principle to your packing list by including clothing items that can be dressed up or down, or worn different ways.

Be practical with your choices. If you don’t wear or use something at home, chances are you won’t wear or use it while travelling. This applies to gear as much as it does clothing. We’re working on another great article: Multiple Uses for Common Items for inspiration. Check back shortly for that one.

Think quality over quantity. The less stuff you have to keep track of while travelling, the less stressed you will be. Invest in quality possessions that serve your needs exactly and will last for years.

I spent the year leading up to our bus move-in date slowly amassing high quality gear and clothing items. I made a list of adventure essentials. These included a backpacking tent, a fold-able camp table, new climbing shoes, a pair of hiking pants, a two burner camp stove, a Jetboil stove, and wool hiking socks, among other things.

Sale shopping was the way to go. The best places I found were REI DealsAmazon Warehouse DealsAmazon Outlet Deals, and I pored over product specs and customer reviews, compared prices, and placed orders. For Christmas and birthdays during this time, my boyfriend and I shared specific bus-approved wish lists with our families to keep with our functional minimalist lifestyle.

Planning ahead and shopping in this way eliminated the need to pay exorbitant “vacation prices” on the road, and filled out our existing arsenal of adventure clothing and gear. We were able to budget and spread out the purchases over a long period, while we still had our full-time job incomes.

No Overthinking!

I used to pack haphazardly, thumbing through every article of clothing I owned and thinking to myself, “Well, what if I need this for (XYZ unlikely scenario)? I’d better pack it just in case.” I would leave the house with a bulging suitcase, still stressed that I had forgotten something critical.

None of those unlikely scenarios ever came to pass, and not shockingly, I never wore my little black dress while camping in the wilderness.

Now, I don’t plan for outlandish possibilities. If something unexpected comes up while travelling, I make do with what I have. Chances are, you won’t remember what you were wearing, you will just remember that amazing experience! Remember what I said earlier: think like a minimalist = pack like a minimalist.

Don’t Be Afraid to Purge

This is perhaps the most important step of traveling minimally – if you simply don’t own too much stuff, you won’t travel with too much stuff.

Before we moved into the bus, we lived in a small one-bedroom house. My boyfriend and I both play drums and enjoy gear-heavy sports like skiing, hockey, and paddle boarding. While we had an admittedly large collection of music and sporting gear, it didn’t seem like we had that much other stuff – until we started packing!

Our move-out date coincided with Black Friday, so we did an anti Black Friday purge. In total, we donated five carloads of stuff to Goodwill and threw out an additional two carloads. We earmarked the sports gear, kitchen appliances, and pieces of art for storage. Everything else either went into the bus or out the door.

I felt so liberated, and haven’t missed anything that we purged. My personal philosophy is, if I haven’t used an item in the last 30 days, I don’t need it and won’t miss it (with the exception of some seasonal items of course).

We continue to eradicate clutter and jettison unused items, even while we live in the bus. Our initial “test” trip turned out to be a 44-day adventure from Seattle to Tijuana and back; which was more than adequate to highlight excess. We eliminated two shopping bags worth of unnecessary items and fine-tuned our organization even more.

If you return from travelling only to discover that you used just half of what you packed, revise your list for the next time accordingly. Simplifying your everyday life will directly correlate to simplifying and de-stressing your travel experiences.

If I can impress one thing upon you, it’s be intentional. In order to pack like a minimalist, you have to really consider every aspect of your journey. Planning ahead is great and will serve you well, but don’t let “what ifs” overtake intention. When in doubt, leave it out.

Adventure awaits, so ditch your extra stuff and get after it!

Cat Carroll

Cat Carroll is from Seattle, Washington, and currently travels North America full time in a converted school bus. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, climbing, paddle boarding, and soaking in hot springs. Her favorite aspects of being on the road are the simplicity of minimalist living, and meeting other travelers from all over the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram @stu.the.bus.

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Just great tips, no spam!