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What to take and what to leave – a guide for packing your suitcase (or car)

I was amazed by the amount of packets of tissues my mum packed for our Italy trip last year and wondered whether can you actually get through six packs of tissues in ten days if you don’t even have a cold. While I watched her piling up clothes for all sorts of occasions  I also had to give her a detailed account of the content of my suitcase and answer questions like “Do you think I need a jacket? And what about shoes – how many pairs of shoes did you pack?”

Packing your suitcase is a lot easier when you know what someone else is taking along or  leaving at home. This experience was particularly difficult for me when we packed our van in Sydney where we pretty much moved from a two bedroom apartment into our van. We were going through questions like “what type of climates will we encounter? Will we need office clothes if we work in between? What sort of gear will we require for living and leisure?”

In the end, everybody is responsible for their own suitcase, but let me share a list of our mistakes so next time you pack an overnight bag, suitcase or entire camper van you have a check-list.

The biggest mistake we made falls under the category of “if in doubt, pack it”. Look at the picture of our van from two years ago – a picture tells more than a thousand words. There is nothing worse than carting a heavy suitcase along or rummaging through a car that’s so packed you can’t find anything. So the first few weeks when we made our way from Sydney to Cairns  we left a trail of things behind like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs .

What we really didn’t need:

  • Clothes: This is probably the hardest exercise, but familiarise yourself with the climate you’re expecting and DO NOT pack anything else. I also found counting every piece of clothes and only taking two weeks worth with me helps. Even when I had more clothes I ended up washing my favourite pieces before I had gone through my stack. An extended wardrobe is great, but not for travels.
  • Shoes: the most painful experience of my life is realising that I can actually live with two pairs of shoes and one pair of sandals. (See our Golden Rules below). Particularly for colder climate shoes are heavy – Thorsten’s are even gigantic! A range of footwear is great for a wardrobe, but not for travels.
  • Provisions: only take what you need for two weeks worth of travel (or less if depending on the length of your trip). If you can’t get to other gear because you have to rummage through two months worth of tissues, washing liquid, toothpaste and hand wash you will end up frustrated and you usually don’t need it. I swear, my mum brought at least four packs of tissues back home.Extra provisions of all sorts are great if you have a storage cupboard at home, but not for travels.
  • Extra food: if you travel in a  camper van make a plan of what you really need for cooking for a set period of time (plus a set contingent of emergency food). Don’t take more, because I guarantee you will never eat it. Also, familiarise yourself with import restrictions of food to other countries (or even States within countries like here in Australia for example) fresh food (vegies, fruit, meat, fish) will be TAKEN AWAY from you anyway or can even incur a fine. Extra food supplies are great for a pantry, not for travels.
  • Extra furniture: this really applies only to Camper vans – unless you fancy travelling everywhere with your favourite chair. When we packed our van back in Sydney the additional table sounded like a great idea, but it was the first item we parted with. A variety of furniture is great for an apartment, not for travels.
  • Kitchen utensils and Barbeque: in addition to our kitchen stove we also dragged a bbq along – in case we needed it. It was nicely packed and we ended up hardly every using it. We cooked most things on the stove or if we really wanted to over a camping fire – a bbq simply wasn’t worth unpacking and cleaning. As we love cooking we took plenty of kitchen utensils with us – they are great when you have a kitchen (and you’re guessing right), but not for travels.

After an initial phase of constant cursing and repacking  Thorsten and I created two simple Golden Rules (if you’re on the road for long this is handy, but you can also utilise it for de-cluttering your home):

1. If we haven’t used an item in three months we clearly do not need it and it has to be thrown out.
This is where most of my shoes and clothes went into the bin, outch! But you should seen how enthusiastically Thorsten suddenly practices his guitar every two and a half months.

2. If we really want a new item we have to throw something else out to make room.
Particularly when we are staying in one place for work we immediately start accumulating things again. Always remember: Once you’ve got an optimum level of gear, try to keep it that way!

If you’re planning a road-trip here is a list of things we considered throwing out, but ended up treasuring so much we never regretted taking them along:

  • Bicycles, snorkel gear and body boards: anything that’s your absolute favourite hobby is worth taking along if you know you will be able to use it (see rule 1. otherwise). For us its nice to go for a ride or get around without a car for a change. It’s great to find an amazing beach with awesome waves and simply hop in. Also, have a read of one of my first stories about our snorkel experiences and you’ll get my thoughts about wearing someone else’s wetsuit…
  • Jerry cans: this was one of the most difficult things to take along. Filled they’re heavy and dangerous to keep inside the van. They’re also bulky and take up heaps of room. Thorsten designed and built our jerry can holders and having the extra kilometers we can drive makes the difference of being able to get to a remote place or never being able to see it at all – for example the Bungle Bungles (pictured).

And to complete my guide, here a few items we replaced along the way, because what we had was good, but not quite right yet:

  • Comfy chairs: you won’t believe how many camping chairs we’ve tested in the last two years to find something that’s remotely capable of replacing a couch. Ok, the chairs we’ve got still don’t replace a couch, but at least they’re more comfy than others, yay!
  • Roof rack bag/box: Initially we stored many items loosely on our roof racks and also had a highly durable, waterproof bag. It’s a very romantic notion to tie all of your belongings on top of your car and the image of a horse-drawn carriage comes to my mind.  You won’t believe how tired you will get of climbing on top of your car to get things unlocked and untied ALL THE TIME. Yes, trust me, it sucks! You will end up avoiding the items on top of your car, which is what we did. We replaced the bag and packed everything into a roof top box that’s lockable. It’s easier and very neat.
  • Maps/GPS: we started our journey with a middle class GPS and purchased additional maps along the way. After we’ve accumulated a decent pile of paper maps that we may or may not use again we decided to invest into a better GPS that had most off-road maps already stored; definitely worth the money.
  • Books: I don’t know about you but without a TV I tend to read even more and so does Thorsten. Satisfying our thirst for entertainment we used to stock up on a decent amount of literature and exchanged books as much as we could along the way – but books are bulky and heavy and our library got out of control. We have invested in e-books that take up a whole lot less space and you can keep old copies too.

PS: Have fun packing next time and don’t forget it’s the experiences you’ll have that define your journey, not the items you take along!

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