Since one of my readers asked me to write about clothing, and since I really don’t have it all figured out, I decided to write about living with minimal possessions in general, with clothing as a sub-topic.
First of all, I really admire all of those travelers who move around the world with only a small carry-on bag and then blog about their packing list!
But that’s not me.
If you want to read about minimal packing lists, here are some that I admire:
- Digital Nomad Packing List 2014 – Living Since 2008 With 2 Bags
- The Ultimate Digital Nomad Packing List for Travel
- Travel Gadgets Packing List for Digital Nomads
- The 2014 Digital Nomad Packing List
Six months at a time
As a slow-moving digital nomad, I like to live in a place for 3-6 months at a time. This is different from those who travel to new locations every few weeks. Instead, I like to settle in, get to know a place, and focus on my work. Of course, I also like to meet new people, so I can have a fun social life.
So that means I keep a bit more stuff with me than someone who is constantly on the move.
How much stuff?
So my usual set of bags consists of two rolling suitcases (the Delsey Medium Hardside Spinner is my favorite), and two small backpacks. I check the rolling suitcases and carry on the small backpacks – one for the overhead bin, and one for under the seat in front of me (the smaller one).
Sometimes, if possible, I mail one of the suitcases ahead, so I don’t have to deal with it at the airport. Yes, you can mail a suitcase (lock it up and wrap tape around it). Depending on the weight, it may or may not be more expensive than baggage fees. I sent a rolling suitcase from Vermont to Tucson and the nice people at the office that rented my apartment to me, agreed to keep it for me until I arrived (since my lease didn’t begin until the day I got there).
This is a lot of stuff compared to someone going on vacation for a week or two, but if you compare it to someone moving their household across the country — it’s very little!
When I make my packing lists, I use the following categories:
– personal care items
I’ll talk a bit about each of these categories.
Downsizing my possessions before I began
When I began this way of life in early 2013, I downsized and got rid of most of my possessions. See “Getting rid of stuff and feeling happy about it.”
I did it in stages, and it was hard to give up some items (my thousands of books, for example!) One thing that made it easier was to take photos of the spines of my books while they were still on my shelves, so I had a record of what I used to own. I never really did anything with those photos — it just made me feel better at the time!
These days I enjoy reading books in the Kindle app on my iPhone, iPad, or MacBook Air. I prefer ebooks to printed books because I always have all my books with me, either on my devices, or accessible in Amazon’s cloud. Also, I can read in the dark without a light, and adjust the font size and screen brightness so it feels just right for whatever conditions I’m in. The only place I don’t read ebooks is out in bright sunlight. I find that if I’m on a sunny beach I just want to stare into space and enjoy my surroundings rather than try to read.
If I really want to read a printed book (usually for some kind of travel or technology book that I want to skip around in), I go to a bookstore and read it there or borrow it from a public library.
Furnished apartments and living car-free
I usually live in a furnished or partially-furnished apartment, everywhere I go. And sometimes I house-sit or stay with friends. I also live without owning a car (I’ve been car-free since 2005 anyway). See “Five ways life is better when you don’t own a car.”
Avoiding winter weather
I also try to spend most of my time in locations where the weather is like spring, summer, or early fall. I keep my winter locations to a minimum. This past year I spent seven weeks in Boston and Vermont (mostly Vermont), so I could be with my loved ones for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In 2015 I plan to be in winter for only 2-3 weeks around Christmas time.
I don’t like to bring my winter clothes with me, so I leave a duffle bag of warm clothes with a friend in Boston. Sweaters, socks, gloves, hats, heavy winter coat — all of that I leave in Boston.
One thing I do bring with me is a very lightweight, packable, warm puff jacket. It’s good enough for an initial trip from the airport to my friends’ place in Boston when I arrive in the middle of winter. A cheap one from Target is good enough, since I only wear it a couple of days per year. My heavy winter coat stays in Boston with friends.
I have some hiking shoes that I use as in place of snow boots, and I keep those with me to use for hiking in rocky locations during good weather. They are made by Keen, and are very comfortable. They serve as good footwear to wear during winter weather in Vermont and Boston.
So here is my system for clothing. First of all, like many women, I used to have lots and lots of clothes! Once a year I would go through my closet and fill a huge bag to donate to a thrift shop. Somehow, clothing just kept accumulating! Especially shoes. Many of you can probably identify.
I had work clothes (though my workplace was very casual), weekend clothes, yoga and workout clothes, clothes for all four seasons, multiple coats of different weights, lots of shoes, boots, sneakers, and sandals, socks, scarves, hats, gloves, watches, jewelry, etc.
When I realized I would have to cut way back, I decided to make a system. First of all, let’s talk about pants and color schemes.
Since I’m usually in nice weather, I can either wear jeans, lightweight hiking pants, or shorts (I get old jeans from a thrift shop and cut them off). My favorite pants are made by Columbia Sportswear and are lightweight gray hiking pants. They are super-comfortable, even in hot weather, and the gray color goes with most everything. I love those pants. When they wear out, I will replace them with similar high-quality hiking pants.
Color-scheme for everyday clothes
The jeans are blue and the pants are light gray, so I decided that all my tops needed to go with both colors. So I settled on blue or black as the only colors my shirts could be. I have several different shirts that are mostly lightweight 3/4 length sleeves and short-sleeved T-shirts. Everything goes with both my pants and shorts.
The actual details don’t matter as much as keeping to one set of colors, so everything can go with everything.
If I want a splash of color, I have a bright green hoodie and that goes with navy and blue or gray. It’s almost worn out, though, so I’ll need to replace it soon. I really like lightweight hoodies, because I’m so often in spring-like weather and I use the pockets for my iPhone! Women’s pants aren’t known for having a lot of useful pockets, unfortunately. The gray hiking pants, for example, only have one pocket — a zipper pocket on the left thigh. So I need the hoodie pockets when I wear those! I carry a small daypack, but I like to keep my phone handy in a pocket.
I also have two thin scarves (useful when it’s a bit cooler out) — one is turquoise, and one gray and black patterned — those take up very little space in my bag and go with everything.
Jeans are great for pockets, and I look for ones where the pockets are deep enough for my iPhone 6+ — not true of all jeans. In the summer, cut-off jean shorts work well, for when it’s too hot to wear a hoodie. Thrifts shops are a great place to find jeans to cut off.
I have one dressy shirt for when I speak at a conference, and that happens so infrequently that sometimes I buy a new shirt in the location where the conference is. I can dress up the hiking pants with nice shoes, nice shirt, and jewelry. If it’s cooler, I can add a sweater or blazer. If I need something for another dressy occasion, I will buy something wherever I am. So far that hasn’t happened.
Before I began this adventure, I was chatting with my hairdresser (a very stylish person) and she asked me what I would do about shoes! She couldn’t imagine narrowing it down. At first I had a hard time, but here’s what I ended up with.
- Hiking shoes (for serious hikes on rocky terrain, and short visits to Boston in winter).
- Everyday cute sneakers (replace about once a year, since they wear out).
- Pretty sandals for dress up in summer (not that I dress up much!).
- Ordinary flip-flops for casual summer hot weather.
- Nice, but comfortable black shoes (“mary janes”) that can be worn without socks and look a bit nicer than sneakers when needed. The ones I have are Merrells. I like them.
That’s it. Five pairs total. It works well. I can wear the flip flops around the house if I want something on my feet — since I’m always in nice weather. I have some warm slippers in Boston with my winter clothes.
I mentioned before that I love hoodies, and I do! I have one black and one green — both are very thin and lightweight, since I’m usually in nice weather. I love having a layer with pockets. That’s the main thing.
I also have a perfect jacket for light rain that I bought in Seattle. It’s black, from Columbia Sportswear, has a hood, deep zippered pockets, and it’s very water repellent (but not totally waterproof — and so far that’s fine). It’s light, but not too light, so it’s perfect for rainy weather in the 50s, 60s, or low 70s — higher than that it’s too warm. I love that it’s thin enough to fold up and stuff in my daypack, just in case it rains. When I was in Seattle during the summer, it didn’t rain often, but when it did, it was very light — not a downpour. I left Seattle when the real rain began, in November.
I also have a completely waterproof raincoat from North Face, that I used to wear on rainy, pouring days in Boston (those dreary days in the 40s). It’s long and gives good coverage. But I’ve found that I rarely use it in any of the other places I’ve been. It stays rolled up in my closet. It came in handy a few times during the summer rainy season when I was in Oaxaca, but usually I would just duck into a coffee shop until the rain stopped, so I didn’t really need it. It was very predictable that it would rain between 4 pm and 7 pm for a little while and be nice the rest of the day and evening.
I have a small, foldable umbrella of good quality, and it comes in handy from time to time, but I don’t need to use it often.
A sun hat is a necessity in sunny Tucson (and I used it in Oaxaca from time to time). I have one that folds and is floppy and light. It does the job on sunny hikes.
I wear the same jewelry (with 3 options) most every day. Two rings, a watch, a little beaded bracelet, silver hoop earrings, and three different pendant necklaces. Keeping these to a minimum makes life simple. Nothing I have is expensive and all of it is easy to replace if I want to. I like to buy from independent artists on Etsy.com.
For sleeping, I have some lightweight sweatpants (or shorts in the summer) and a T-shirt, and for yoga class I have some yoga pants and 2 fitted T-shirts.
Overall, I have enough clothing to get me through a bit more than a week before I need to do laundry. I do laundry once a week wherever I am.
For laundry I have a packable duffle bag that I use to put my laundry in, in case I need to go to a laundromat. This bag folds flat when I’m not using it. I love this bag so much that I bought a second one to keep my winter clothes in at my friend’s house in Boston. These are super-convenient!
I also use Dropps unscented laundry pods. That way I don’t have to have a big bottle of laundry soap. I prefer unscented (that was hard to find in Mexico!). These are so convenient, can be packed in my luggage, and one or two bags of these lasts many months. I can order them online when I run out.
I’ve always loved bags, purses, backpacks, messenger bags, shopping bags and bags of all kinds! I got rid of many bags that I had, and here’s what I ended up with:
- Super-lightweight day pack — my favorite every day bag (see below).
- Small purse for when I want to look a bit less casual.
- Large laptop backpack for packing my electronics gear for carry-on to flights (see above).
- A few small, re-usable grocery bags that fold up to tiny size.
The lightweight day pack is my all-time favorite bag. It’s so useful, and my MacBook Air in a sleeve fits in it easily for daily use out in the coffee shops or coworking spaces.
All of this sounds like a lot when you describe it, but the clothing fits in one suitcase. It’s much less than what I had when I lived in one place.
Now that I’m in a one-bedroom apartment, it feels very spacious to have a closet! It’s an old-fashioned single closet (not wide) and I love that my few shirts and pants can hang there with plenty of room for empty hangers and seeing what I have. I have a few more shirts than I would wear in a week, but not many more.
There was no dresser or bureau in this partially-furnished apartment, so I bought two of those hanging closet organizers, made of cloth. Those serve as little shelves for things in my closet that don’t hang. It’s fine.
I love hooks! I have a few plastic ones that hang over doors. I’m amazed at how many places don’t have hooks built in. So I bring these with me and they come in handy everywhere. I hang my pajamas, scarves, an extra towel in the bathroom, etc. Really, hooks are the best thing ever, and the light, plastic ones don’t take up much room in your suitcase.
When I was staying in a friend’s apartment in Vermont while she was away (for a few weeks), there wasn’t room to hang anything because her closets were full. So I used these hooks on the outside of her closet doors and that was perfect. This sometimes also happens when you stay in an Airbnb rental in someone’s home — sometimes there isn’t enough room to hang your things if you’re staying in a shared space.
If you’re moving around a lot, I recommend getting some hooks!
Keeping things in the same place
When you move around and live in different locations, it helps to have certain places where you always keep things — like you would if you lived in one place. You need to learn new habits every time you move, such as the location of things you reach for automatically — like your toothbrush.
So my daypack is my go-to bag for important things. My driver’s license, credit card, and local bus or subway pass — those are the 3 things I always carry in my left front pocket. I keep those in the outside pouch of my bag when I take them out of my pocket (when I get home). That way, I always know where they are. I keep my keys in the outside pouch as well. I have different types and numbers of keys in each place I live, as you can imagine. And I have a favorite colorful key ring that I keep them on. In Seattle I had an electronic key for the micro-apartment. In Tucson I have regular keys for my building. In Vermont I had no keys at all because my friends (where I was staying) don’t lock their doors!
My slightly larger pack that I use for carry-on electronics on the plane becomes my home vault for important documents. It has so many internal zipper compartments. It’s a handy place to keep my passport, extra wallet, extra credit cards, checkbooks, etc. It’s my safe storage place for those important items.
I think that eventually all of these wallet things (and keys) will be electronic (credit cards, passport, checkbook, etc.) It seems we’re headed in that direction.
- The Digital Wallet Revolution – New York Times
- Ditch the Keys: It’s Time to Get a Smart Lock – Popular Mechanics
Multiple accounts for money
When moving around I find it’s reassuring to have more than one checking account and more than one credit card and debit card. That way, if I ever lose a wallet, I have spares of everything at home — for the other accounts. That will carry me over until I replace the lost ones. The only time I’ve had something lost or stolen was actually back in Boston, when I had my wallet taken out of my pack in a Whole Foods (I walked away from the cart for a bit in a busy store and left the pack in my cart). Dumb, I know. Anyway, it all got replaced and I didn’t have to replace everything, because my other cards and accounts were at home (at the place I was house-sitting).
Personal care items
This topic is boring to me, so I’m not going to bother to list these items. It’s the usual stuff. You can buy shampoo anywhere. I try to buy the kinds that are non-toxic and environmentally friendly. I keep a minimal amount of supplies and replenish as I go. I do stock up on some of my favorite kinds of makeup, since they don’t take up much space. I switched from contact lenses to glasses this year so I didn’t have to deal with contact lens solution sterilizing solution and saline. It’s simpler. I wore my contacts all through my time in Oaxaca, but it was difficult to find preservative-free solutions.
- Environmental Working Group: Skin Deep – database of info about personal care products
- GoodGuide – mobile app for ratings and reviews of products
This is a huge topic for me, so I’ll save it for another post! In addition to my Macbook Air, iPad mini, and iPhone 6+, I have a travel router, bluetooth speaker, external portable hard drive, good quality USB microphone for my screencasts, power strips, and several other things, including good in-ear headphones, etc. But I get by just fine without an external monitor, printer, Apple TV, and other large items I used to have.
I am looking forward to the day when electricity becomes wireless, so I don’t have to worry about so many cords and plugs!
When I’m outside of the U.S. it’s easier to find a fully-furnished place to live short-term without needing anything extra (for a reasonable price). But in the U.S. it’s a bit more difficult… so I bring a few things with me. Namely, a sharp knife (checked bag only!), my two favorite iced tea spoons (sentimental value), favorite kitchen towel (again, it’s the feeling of home), some ziplock bags (extremely handy), bag clips, a pair of scissors, a small wood lemon reamer (I love lemon water), my favorite loose leaf tea, with bags to brew it in.
Most everything else is either provided on site, or I can buy it locally. Since I lived in partially furnished apartments in Seattle and Tucson, I needed to purchase some items and then sell or donate them when I left –– such as: towels, sheets, dishes, wastebaskets, a broom, etc. That can get expensive, so I really appreciate it when I live in completely furnished places with everything provided, such as Airbnb or furnished apartments abroad.
Paper and printing
Even though I do everything electronically these days, I still enjoy writing in paper notebooks from time to time — especially if I’m brainstorming a list of ideas. So I have a few small blank books for that purpose — thin ones that don’t weigh much. And a couple of pens. If something is important, I take a picture of it with my iPhone and send it to my Evernote account — my main digital storage locker where I can find any important document.
I don’t need to print ANYTHING — it’s all on my phone, except shipping labels, which can be emailed to the local UPS store and printed out there. I’m amazed at how much I used to print when I lived in one place. When I moved, all of those papers went right to the recycle bin. I really don’t need to print things anymore. On my iPhone are boarding passes, concert or lecture tickets, directions, and more.
A few other things that are handy to have:
- packing cubes.
- thick rubber bands.
- business cards — even though everything is digital, it’s still fun to have something physical to give to people you meet. (MOO cards are great, see below).
- inflatable travel pillow (flat-back kinds are best) and ear plugs (I like “Earplanes” for relieving pressure when landing – they really work!).
- a few magnets and photos of loved ones to put on the fridge. (I like Printhug for easily getting a few prints made. It connects to my Dropbox account).
All my books are ebooks — I read mainly on my iPhone.
All my music is on my iPod touch and an external hard drive for my Macbook Air, but I mainly use Pandora or other streaming apps. I have a tiny Bluetooth speaker to stream music and podcasts to when I’m listening at home.
I use streaming Netflix for movies and television shows (with a VPN called TunnelBear so I can connect when outside of the U.S.)
All of this stuff fits in the two suitcases plus two small backpacks. This works well for moving around within the U.S.
But, if I go to Europe and Asia later, I plan to cut back even more, so as to not travel with so much stuff!
My storage space – soon to be gone
OK, I lied when I said at the top of this post that all my possessions were in those bags :)
Until recently, I still owned a condo in the Boston area and rented it out to tenants. Now that I’ve sold it (to my downstairs neighbors), I’ll need to find a place for those last few items that I was keeping in the basement storage room there. It’s a tiny room where I keep a snow shovel, extra paint cans, cleaning supplies, fans, old photo albums, and a few random possessions that I couldn’t quite get rid of when I downsized.
My friendly neighbors who bought it from me are letting me keep my things there until summer (I didn’t want to deal with it in the middle of winter). So in June I’ll go back and make a project of getting rid of most of it and probably store a few small boxes with a couple of Boston friends.
When I was there at Christmas time, I stopped by and got several bags and boxes of photos. While I was at my friend’s place in Vermont, I sorted through all the old photos and threw out a huge number of prints — enough to fill a large garbage bag! I kept the negatives, but I doubt I’ll do anything with them.
I kept several hundred of my favorite photos in a box a little larger than a shoe box. I sent that off to a place called ScanCafe — a really good service that scans your photos for you and sends you digital copies. You only have to pay for the ones you want to keep. They return the originals to you after they are scanned. It’s a huge time-saver.
I just received the whole batch of digital photos — they can even put them in your Dropbox account for you (I have the Dropbox Pro account with 1 TB of storage, so there’s plenty of room). Very convenient! Now I can enjoy these photos from my past and post some on Facebook for Throwback Thursday. The box of originals will be shipped back to my friend’s house in Vermont. She will store them in her attic for me.
I use Evernote to keep track of what I have in storage. I have a couple of boxes with friends in Boston’s South End, a duffle bag of winter clothes with a friend in Dorchester, and a couple of bags with my friend in Brattleboro, Vermont. I usually take a picture of what I have and make a list and store it all in Evernote, so I can remember where things are.
A great feeling — minimal stuff
I can’t emphasize enough what a good feeling it is to have less stuff! Even with minimal stuff, it still feels like too much sometimes! I need to have periodic times of purging and donating – usually at the end of each six-month stay.
I am so happy that so much is digital these days! Books, music, photos, important documents — it’s all so much easier these days than in the past!
Cloud storage + the ability to synchronize info between laptop and mobile computers has made my life so much more convenient. (I offer an online course on this topic, if you’re interested. It’s called Organize Your Life with Mobile Apps — on sale if you buy it before March 11, 2015).
Learning to let go, and the pleasure of collecting things
Doing all this has made me realize how strong the desire to collect things is! I think many of us have that desire — collecting books, music, comic books, or specific kinds of antiques. A quick Google search on the psychology of collecting led to many articles about going overboard with collecting, all the way towards hoarding — but I like this article: The Problem of Using Psychology to Explain Collecting. It’s mainly about our natural desire to preserve the past by collecting.
I used to collect books, now I collect ebooks. I used to collect pretty items for my apartment, now I collect pictures of pretty items using Pinterest. I can still satisfy the urge to collect, I just do it digitally these days. It’s fun!
Giving up most of your stuff is something you can do when you feel wealthy on the inside. I comfort myself by thinking about how easy it is to get anything in our society, even without much money — thrift shops are often full of great stuff!
If I was super-frugal, I would have tried to get top dollar for everything when I sold it. I would have stored everything that didn’t sell in the hopes that I could sell it later. Instead I donated all of my leftover things to a young couple who came to my sale (because I had to dispose of everything, since I was moving out to become nomadic). They were setting up a new apartment and I had so many items that they loved. It was fun seeing how happy that made them. I had hoped to make a bit more money from my sale, but in the end it felt freeing to just give up and give it away.
Also, some of my former possessions were purchased by close friends of mine during my various downsizing sales. One friend has my old dining room table and chairs, another has some pillows that used to be on my sofa, another even has the laundry basket that I used when I was married, years ago! This friend moved from Boston to San Francisco and when I visit him there and see that old laundry basket, it brings back memories of the 90s in Somerville. That’s actually fun.
If you’ve ever cleaned out the house of someone who has died or moved to assisted living (like we did for my mom several years ago), you know that eventually all your stuff goes away anyway. So why not downsize now and have the freedom from storing and organizing all that stuff? It’s a wonderful feeling.
Now I’m focusing on experiences and relationships, rather than things.
4 thoughts on “Living with minimal possessions: thoughts from a slow-moving digital nomad”
I’m no where near ready to do anything like this, but I enjoyed reading this entry immensely. Thank you for sharing your amazing life and all the details. I look forward to your future entries.
Glad you enjoyed it!
Thanks for including my packing list in your post! Let me know if you need any other digital nomad packing tips :-)
Will do ! :)
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