Living out of a backpack as a family isn’t as easy as you might think! We’re pretty good about mostly bringing along essential travel items in our bags.
But every once in awhile, something not entirely useful slips in to our bags: a journal that I haven’t opened in the four months that we’ve been traveling, a fancy dress for my daughter, or a suit vest and tie for my son. It’s inevitable when you’re traveling as a family!
This post was updated on April 30, 2020.
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Paring down to just the minimum essential travel items
I used to be the type of person who would pack for every kind of scenario. In the past, my travel packing list would be quite lengthy. These days, though, I’ve been much better about bringing only essential travel items when we travel.
In our quest to do minimalistic travel, we’ve been able to limit our bags to two checked bags and four carry on bags. These bags are able to carry all our must have travel items wherever we go. We’ve spent the last four months paring down our things, and I think we have a good handle on the minimalist travel essentials we need for our travels.
If you’re gearing up for a family trip, it’s a good idea to stock up on these essential travel items. All the items listed here are available online, so you don’t even have to make a trip to the store!
Essential travel items for traveling families
The travel packing list for each family varies, depending on the family. Every family has their own unique needs and circumstances when they travel.
For our family, we never go anywhere without our travel router. For families who don’t have to work while they travel, they won’t have as much of a need for nomad travel gear such as a router. And similarly, we like to take along a foldable hammock to give us options for lounging. But some families may not find that as something essential for their travels.
However, while some of the details of a family vacation packing list may vary, there are a few items that are mainstays in any travel packing list. Here are nine of our family’s essential travel items, plus a bonus item too!
Since we’ve been traveling in Mexico, we have been walking EVERYWHERE. I estimate that we average about 9,000 to 10,000 steps per day.
When you’re walking as much as we are, one of the essential travel items you’re going to need is a good pair of shoes. You want shoes that are comfortable, but will also provide you support for your feet. I’m not always one to buy brands. However, when you’re buying good shoes, you don’t want to skimp out on quality. If you do, you’ll end up buying new shoes every few weeks!
Our favorite brands that we’ve taken along with us are Keens, Chacos, and Crocs. These are great for all the outdoorsy stuff we’ve been doing. I also bring a pair of Danskos for me. They give me a lot of comfortable support, while still looking semi-stylish.
We try and drink a lot of water when we travel. In countries where the water may not be safe to drink out of the tap, traveling with a filter and purifier is a must. That’s why our GRAYL water bottles have become one of our favorite essential travel items. They have a built in water purifier and filter so that we can filter water on the spot.
GRAYL bottles work like a French press. You pour water into the outer compartment. Then you insert the inner compartment with the filter on the bottom and press down. The water goes through the filter, leaving you with clean drinking water.
For families traveling with young kids, GRAYL bottles are a must for your family vacation packing list. You can buy them directly through their website or on Amazon.
High quality backpack
Another item that’s always on our packing list is a high quality backpack. When you’re traveling as often as we are, having a strong and durable backpack is important. We use a variety of backpacks, that meet the individual needs of each family member.
My husband does a lot of web development work, and has to travel with two laptops for his job and his businesses. He needs a bag that can accommodate all his nomad travel gear. For him, we like using Cotopaxi bags. They have so many pockets, and allows for easy organization. They also come with a day bag, which is so useful when we’re walking around town.
For the kids and me, our backpack needs are not quite as specific. I used to travel with a Swiss Gear backpack. They have a separate laptop compartment from the main compartment, so that I can keep my items organized. These days, I travel with a North Face bag. They offer multiple compartments too, but are so much more comfortable to carry on my back. Our kids use Deuter Junior backpacks, which allow them to stuff all their items into one big compartment.
One of the best pieces of travel advice I can offer to new travelers is to pack layers. It’s sometimes hard to predict the weather, and you want to be prepared. Putting a sweater or cardigan on your travel packing list is a must.
When we planned for our travels, we deliberately chose countries that didn’t have harsh winters. But even here in Mexico, evenings and mornings can get close to freezing, especially in the mountain areas.
We travel with at least one lightweight sweater, which we layer over our shirts and under our jackets. This helps us stay warm, while allowing the option of taking it off if it gets too hot. When putting together your own family vacation packing list, be sure to include some lightweight and packable sweaters.
A waterproof jacket
Another one of the essential travel items that we never travel without these days is a waterproof jacket. Again, you can never predict the weather, and having a good waterproof jacket can serve two purposes. One, it can keep you warm on cold days. And two, it eliminates the need to carry an umbrella around.
We were quite intentional when we selected our waterproof jackets for our around the world trip. We wanted good quality jackets that were warm, lightweight, AND waterproof. Essentially, we wanted something that we can wear in both the mountains of Peru and the jungles of Sumatra.
The kids and I all have Columbia jackets. For our kids, their jackets have stitching that allows the sleeves to be extended when they outgrow the original size. This allows us to use the jackets for as long as possible. For me, I have a longer trench coat style jacket, which allows me to use the jacket both in the outdoors and in the city, without looking like a grungy backpacker!
My husband opted for an Eddie Bauer jacket. He liked the fit of the Eddie Bauer jackets better, and the lightweight texture of the material.
One of our must-have pieces of nomad travel gear are packing cubes. We honestly can’t travel without them!
We love how packing cubes allow our family to keep each family members’ clothes compartmentalized. Everyone knows which packing cube is theirs, and our clothes never get mixed up. They are so lightweight, and can squish into your bag much easier than those vacuum seal bags ever could.
First aid kit
When thinking about minimalist travel essentials, don’t overlook safety. Kids will inevitably get owies and boo boos, so you want to be prepared. It’s helpful to carry a first aid kit with you when you travel.
Our first aid kit is a hodge-podge of items we’ve put together for the trip. We have bandages, cotton buds, cotton swabs, and antibiotic ointment. We also carry over the counter headache medicine, cold medicine, antacids, and gas relief medicine. Our prescription medicines include antibiotics and medicine for traveler’s diarrhea.
In the last four and a half months that we’ve been living out of a backpack, we thankfully haven’t had to use anything more than a few bandages. However, it’s still good to be prepared with some of these essential travel items.
For traveling families like us, some of the best pieces of nomad travel gear come in electronic form. We love using apps for family activities when we travel. Since we are traveling in countries where English is not the main language, one of the essential travel items for us is a good language app.
We have two apps that we like. In terms of language learning, Duolingo is our favorite. It’s free to download, with some in-app purchases. For English speakers, there are thirty languages to choose from.
Another language app that has become one of our essential travel items is Google Translate. This app is free, and is available on both Android and IOS devices. Google Translate allows you to translate words by either typing in the words, or speaking the words out loud. It also has a camera function. So you can hold your camera in front of sign and it will translate that sign. Just like magic!
Call me old fashioned, but I still love using guidebooks when I travel. With so much information available on the internet, you can easily fall into a black hole when researching a destination. Guidebooks are my one travel packing list item that I’ve had since my college backpacking days.
Now that we’re trying to travel light, I prefer my guidebooks in eBook form, rather than carrying around a physical book. For our travels here in Mexico, the Lonely Planet Mexico guidebook has been a great reference book. We also like The Travel Book from Lonely Planet Kids, to give our kids a sense of the places we visit.
Bonus essential travel items: Carbon monoxide detector
Safety is one of the most important things for a traveling family like us. The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is something that we worry about, especially when we stay at old Airbnbs or hotels without good air flow. During a stay at an Airbhb in Mexico City, we almost had carbon monoxide poisoning because the hot water heater wasn’t venting properly. Fortunately, our carbon monoxide detector alerted us, so we were able to get out of the house before the gas became fatal.
Traveling with a carbon monoxide detector helps us keep our family safe. These devices are small and easy to pack in our bags. We like the Kidde carbon monoxide detector the best. It’s traveled with us to over eight countries so far!
Essential travel items for living out of a backpack
For traveling families like us, who are constantly living out of a backpack, these essential travel items have been so helpful on our journey.
Regardless of whether you’re packing for a multi-year trip, or a one week stay, the items I listed above should be on your travel packing list. If you’re thinking of items to buy for yourself or your loved ones for the holiday season, consider getting some of these travel essentials.
Did I miss any essential travel items that you and your family can’t travel without? Share them in the comments below.
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