A “Travel Light” Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads

So you wanna see the inside of our bags? That’s what this post is all about – a light backpacking checklist to show you exactly what a mom and dad (as opposed to just a single couple) bring while traveling with kids.

This is our third time backpacking for an extended period of time and so we’re getting a little better, but I think we’ve also gotten less strict.

On our first Big Trip we were newbie backpackers and keen to follow all the exact recommended guidelines we’d read about – bring only one pair of shoes, no jeans (or one at very most), 2-3 bottoms maximum (and definitely zip-off pants), etc.

Though we still do our best to travel light these days, we’ve not quite so militant and we’ve discovered it’s nice to allow ourselves little indulgences, even if it means a slightly fuller pack. For example:

  • Ryan wants two pairs of jeans. I tried to talk him down to one and his bottom line was since they’re his only pants (and he really doesn’t like travel pants), he’d like two to switch between, even if they’re bulky. End of story. Edited: Once he did a final pack of his bag, he decided to ditch the extra pair. 
  • I allowed myself three pairs of shoes. On our first trip, I had my Keens and thin flip flops only. This time I added a pair of cute sandals, because I got tired of feeling a little on the frumpy/sporty side when we weren’t doing something active.
  • I could probably ditch my black skort and be fine, but I really like the idea of using it as board shorts or something waterproof I can wear at the beach when I don’t want to wear swim bottoms. Same with two pairs of shorts – I could live with just one.
  • I’m ridiculous when it comes to a travel medicine kit. I’m very naturally-minded and knowledgable about home remedies, and bringing a good variety of them with me makes me feel better about 3 months in developing countries with kids, where we’ll be doing a whole lot of outdoor activities. I packed it as carefully and compactly as I could but still… it’s large.
  • We’re bringing our favorite new coffee (mushroom coffee – have you heard of it? We love it!). We decided to splurge and get a really large supply to last us most of the trip. Overkill? Totally. And we’re not 100% sure if we can fit it all (of course, we’ll use it up as we go along, so our loads will lighten). But sometimes you just want to bring things you enjoy.

Aside from those examples, we DO like to keep it light. When you’re trying to keep track of five children and their packs (including a baby in a stroller) packing light really is the only way to go.

Our goal is that when its required of us to haul all our stuff from Point A to Point B, we can literally thrown on one backpack per person, hold some little people’s hands and push a stroller, and voila. We’re portable.

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

The backpacks we use

You’ve already seen what we pack for our kids and the backpacks we’ve chosen for them here:

A “Travel Light” Backpacking Checklist for Children 

A “Travel Light” Backpacking Checklist for Babies & Toddlers

As for us, I carry the Osprey Meridian 22″ 60 L pack with a detachable daypack. Ryan carries the same thing, but his is the 28″ 75 L version (the daypacks are the same). Mine is technically carry on size (with the daypack off), although Ryan’s is large enough to need to be checked.

Both are wheeled convertible backpacks, meaning they have a retractable handle and wheels and can be pulled like a suitcase, but they also have backpack straps that you can unzip and pull out when you need to wear it instead of pull it. The daypacks snap right onto the front of the pack, so the whole thing becomes a single unit. It’s a clever bag!

So let me walk you through exactly what’s in each of our bags for our upcoming 3 month backpacking trip in Central America.

A travel light backpacking checklist for moms & dads:

What’s in Stephanie’s pack… 

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Starting at the top left and working my way clockwise:

  1. Our travel medicine kit (it’s just a waterproof packing bag filled up with stuff I chose)
  2. Black packing cube – my tops and bathing suit
  3. 3 pairs of shoes
  4. Money “belt” (goes around my neck – I rarely use it but I’ll wear it for things like long bus rides)
  5. Undergarments
  6. Jacket and sweater (note: I’ve since figured out how to compress my sweater more and fit it into the packing cube with my tops – hurray!)
  7. Turquoise packing cube – my bottoms
  8. Purple travel towels
  9. Scrubba
  10. Baby blanket
  11. Pink wet bag
  12. Red make-up bag

*Don’t worry, there are more details about all these items below. I just wanted to give you an overview. 

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Dress:

  • Dark gray knee-length dress (MEC) – It’s worth noting that I can’t nurse in this dress, and if I wasn’t down to nursing only in the morning and at night, I’d have chosen something I could nurse in. This is a travel dress, in a quick-dry fabric, and I love that it’s casual enough to wear for everything (including hiking or the beach) but the color makes it classy enough for dressing up if needed.

Bottoms:

  • Black maxi skirt (Reitmans) – I opted for a maxi skirt instead of a shorter one because my dress is already knee-length, and women dress quite conservatively in certain parts of Central America, so I thought I’d be more comfortable with this and it’s pretty cool and airy in hot weather.
  • Linen shorts (Athleta)
  • Black sport capris  (Athleta) – these are a perfect everyday bottom for almost any activity.
  • Blue/white batik ankle pants (Athleta) – These were a surprising purchase for me and together with the linen shorts, they’re replacing my convertible travel pants (pants that turn into shorts). We’ll see if I’m glad I went this route or not, but these are made with very light, strong, moisture-wicking fabric, and yet they look cute and classy. These pants plus the shorts fold up to about the same size as my convertible pants, so I felt like it was a fair switch.
  • Dark blue skinny jeans – my most lightweight pair for faster drying (Reitmans, again – clearly, I’ve officially become a middle-aged mom)). Edit: Since writing this (literally, before I even published it) I started questioning this decision and I’m currently leaning towards bringing modest jean shorts instead – I have enough longer items for when I need to be modest in more traditional towns/cities so again, the modesty issue. But we’re hitting mostly hot weather and I think I’ll genuinely wear my shorts more than my jeans. EDIT AGAIN: I ditched both the jeans AND the jean shorts. Instead, I’ll save the space for buying a modest sun dress on the road and I’ll take my chances on being chilly a few times, and will have to just wear my one pair of ankle-length pants whenever the bugs get bad. This had been bugging me for weeks, but I actually feel great about this new decision. See a longer explanation below in the comments. 
  • Black sports skort (I got this on clearance somewhere last summer) – I’ll use these like board shorts for the beach and for exercising. Edit: I found a pair of black sport shorts that pack up a bit smaller and that I prefer to the skort, because they’re comfier to use as sleeping shorts as well. Yay!

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Tops:

  • 1 long-sleeve button up shirt (Eddie Bauer – mine looks similar to this but in more of a light-blue, almost-chambray sort of color) – this is light enough to use for mosquito protection in hot weather, or I can roll up the sleeves and wear it unbuttoned, like a cardigan or beach cover.
  • 3 short sleeved shirts (this, this and this)
  • 2 sleeveless tops (one black – Eddie Bauer clearance from last summer, one purple – sold out)

  A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Outerwear:

  • Dark purple yoga jacket (Lulu Lemon four years ago) – I bought this for our original round-the-world trip and it still looks amazing! It’s discontinued but somewhat similar to this. It’s warm and classier than most yoga jackets. EDIT: I found a new yoga jacket on clearance that folds up smaller (the main downfall of this purple one) but still feels warm and cozy, so I’ve swapped it. Same basic function, but less packing space = awesome. 
  • Black rain jacket (MEC) – Lightweight and folds up small. I chose black because it looks classy enough for Europe or any big city, but it’s rugged enough for hiking in the jungle.

Footwear:

  • Keen’s Newport H2 sandals (Amazon) – I wore these on our big world trip and they’re still going strong (although this may be their last trip). I use them for all athletic activities – hiking, running, ruin climbing, etc.
  • Chambray & leather sandals (TOMS – discontinued) – I bought these last summer for a trip to Italy and I adore them. They’re so comfortable and just dressy enough for when I don’t want to wear Keen’s or flip flops.
  • Flip flops – I bought these four years ago while traveling in Israel, at a night market. They’re Havaianas and still holding up. I like that they’re thin, so they pack well.

Other:

  • 2 layering tanks – one white (fitted, thin straps), one coral (less fitted, thick straps)
  • 1 dorky summer hat – I bought this somewhere on our world trip when I was desperate and have kept it because I don’t have any other foldable summer hats. If I find something more stylish, I’ll replace it. If not, at least I’ll be cool in one way, if not the other.
  • 6 underwear – mostly ExOfficio and two pairs from MEC 
  • 2 socks – one SmartWool (REI – but mine are gray), one cheap cotton
  • 2 regular bras (nude & black), 1 sports bra (white)
  • Tankini swimsuit (Costco)
  • A thin scarf – for shoulder coverage in churches, to dress up an outfit, as a light shawl in the evenings, etc.

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

And because I know women care about this sort of thing, here’s a look at the clothes and some of the outfits they make.

Most tops can go with most bottoms, so I really do have a lot of options! (On a side note, I joked with Ryan that I was going to make him try on all his travel clothes so I could take photos of his outfits and he’s such a good sport that he was like “Well, ok” until he realized I was kidding. Do most men actually care about their “outfits”? I’m voting no.)

Other items in my big bag:

  • Baby blanket – Just a large, light blanket, like a swaddling blanket but big enough for a toddler
  • Our medicine kit
  • Wet bag with drawstring – for dirty laundry or wet bathing suits
  • Two small travel towels (Amazon)
  • Scrubba (Amazon) – super amazing, foldable bag for washing clothes on the road. This seriously saves my hands when I have to do a lot of hand washing. Plus it does a better job.
  • Eyeglasses
  • Make-up bag (also has hair elastics, extra contact lenses, small bag of earrings and a couple necklaces, a couple supplements I take daily, etc. Basically just my personal stuff.)
  • Coffee and tea. I like my beverages.

What’s in my daypack:

  • Kindle (Amazon)
  • Pencil case for homeschool (pencils, erasers, pens, a sharpener)
  • Homeschool books/blank paper – The blank paper is because we’ve found the kids often want plain paper for drawing and creating. We buy a large package of paper when we stop somewhere for a few weeks, then I carry a small amount in my daypack once we’re more actively on the road again. This time I’m trying to keep all our our schooling supplies to my Kindle, a pencil case, the iPad/laptops, as well as four duotang folders. I made one per big kid by ripping out the relevant pages of their math, language arts, spelling, etc. The three oldest will carry their own as well as a trip journal (where they’ll do daily journaling and writing/drawing assignments), and I’ll carry the 5 year old’s since his backpack isn’t large enough to fit it along with his clothes.
  • MacBook Pro 13 inch laptop
  • Diapers and wipes for Oliver (he’s 20 months old)
  • Trip details mini Moleskine notebook – this is where I write all our important details for flights, accomodations, addresses & phone numbers, important phrases in another language, etc. I learned to do this after having a hotel’s name and address stored on my email… and my laptop had died during our flight… and I couldn’t get WiFi anyways to retrieve it from my email… and it was 11:30pm in Buenos Aires and we were driving around lost in a taxi. Now I write it all down and keep it with me at all times.
  • Travel purse – I’ll pull this out when I just need a small bag for going out. It’s a Pacsafe CitySafe 50 Shoulder Bag. The idea is that it’s slash-proof, lockable, and RFIDsafe (to prevent card scanning through your purse). I like it in theory, but the strap is uncomfortable. For now, I’m using it until I eventually get something better. Within this purse I keep:
    • sunglasses
    • wallet/cash/cards/passport (when it’s not locked in a safe somewhere)
    • lip balm and eye drops
    • mini first-aid kit (a couple essential oils, band-aids, herbal salve, motion sickness meds, electrolyte powder, etc.)
    • iPhone 
  • Photocopies of important documents (passports, birth certificates, marriage certificate, travel insurance info – Ryan will also keep a copy of all these)
  • Foldable plastic baby bib 
  • Reusable shopping bag 
  • Bose earphones (Amazon)

What’s in Ryan’s pack…

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Top left, going clockwise:

  1. Family toiletry kit (the entire family shares this bag) – Ryan carries this since it has a couple containers larger than the 3 oz. carry on size and his bag is too large for carry on.
  2. Shirts
  3. Supplements (B vitamins and magnesium spray in an old CleanWell bottle)
  4. Contact lenses
  5. Shoes
  6. Jackets
  7. Socks/underwear
  8. Pants and shorts
  9. KidCo Peapod Plus portable baby bed
  10. Missing from photo… more of that mushroom coffee, LOL!
  11. Also missing: Boba Air Baby Carrier (it came in the mail the day after we took photos)

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Bottoms:

  • 2 pairs dark blue jeans – Edit: he took one pair out, so now it’s just one pair of jeans. 
  • 1 swim shorts 
  • 2 casual shorts (MEC) – one cotton, one quick-dry
  • 1 jean man-pri’s (I lovingly bug him by calling these his version of capris, but they’re basically extra long jean shorts)

Tops:

  • 6 tee shirts -most are some sort of athletic or moisture-wicking fabric – Ryan loves him some LuluLemon tees and he’s got at least one from MEC as well. Edit: when doing a final pack, he removed one, so he’s down to 5. 
  • 1 short-sleeved polo shirt – I wanted him to bring one shirt with a collar in case we run into a situation where we’re invited somewhere that a tee shirt just wouldn’t be appropriate
  • 1 sleeveless shirt (LuLuLemon, I think) – moisture-wicking, good for running or exercising
  • 1 long sleeve layering shirt (LuluLemon – moisture-wicking)
  • 1 long sleeve lightweight pull-over sweater (LuluLemon – are you seeing a trend? This is Ryan’s favorite brand for everyday. He hardly bought any of this specifically for traveling. I think it’s discontinued but it’s this style.)

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Outerwear:

  • Casual zip-up windbreaker (H&M) – This is more stylish and comfy than it is travel-savvy. He just likes wearing it.
  • Black shell jacket (REI – Arcteryx – similar to this but I think his is discontinued) – Lightweight and folds up small. It’s more of a shell than a rain jacket, but it technically serves both purposes. Edit: When doing a final pack, he removed this to save space and kept only the windbreaker. Personally, I’d have done it the other way around, and kept the coat with the hood. But he cares less about getting his head wet, so he’s happy with his decision. 

Footwear:

  • Merrell Moab Waterproof Hiking Shoe (Amazon) Note: He’s decided not to bring these and just bring his Skechers. He really doesn’t love these shoes (he has finicky arches and doesn’t like many shoes) and these are clunky and he figures realistically, he’ll hardly use them. If he truly needs another pair, he’ll buy some while we’re there. And he hates sandals, so there’s that.
  • Skechers Go Walk 3 Charge Walking Shoe (Amazon) – Ryan wears these shoes day in and day out, including indoors while walking on his treadmill desk. He wears them so much I think he’s on pair number four. He just keeps buying them again, so I guess that he means he likes them.

Other:

  • 5 underwear (Ex Officio)
  • 10 socks (cotton ankle socks, H&M) – the man likes his socks. At one point during our year of traveling, we were going through our bag and he counted (and I kid you not) almost 20 pairs he had accumulated!

Other items in Ryan’s big bag:

  • PeaPod Plus portable baby bed (Amazon) – This is going on the bottom of Ryan’s bag. It’s a little bulkier than we were hoping but can be squished down a bit and only adds 3.5 lbs.
  • Our family toiletry bag
  • Boba Air Baby Carrier (Amazon)
  • Supplements – B vitamins, magnesium, etc.
  • Extra boxes of contact lenses 

What’s in Ryan’s daypack:

  • Kindle (Amazon)
  • MacBook Pro 13 inch laptop (but lucky Ryan has a new one that’s way thinner than my old one)
  • iPad Pro and pencil – he uses the app Duet and connects it with a cord to his laptop as a portable second monitor
  • Packing cube with cords, international plug adapters, etc. Basically everything for charging our various gadgets other than our large laptop charging cord.
  • Diapers for Oliver
  • Sunglasses
  • wallet/cash/cards/passport (when it’s not locked in a safe somewhere)
  • iPhone 
  • Photocopies of important documents (passports, birth certificates, marriage certificate, travel insurance info – Ryan will also keep a copy of all these)
  • Laptop charging cord 
  • Bose noise reduction earphones (Amazon)
  • Eyeglasses
  • Productivity journal (Intelligent Design)

One item that’s missing from these photos are travel locks. We always lock our bags with these TSA-approved travel locks.

It’s funny how this list actually feels long to me when I write it out, even though it’s really a small amount of stuff. One of our favorite things about traveling is how light we feel living out of just backpacks, and how each time we return we wonder why we need so much stuff.

Got questions about backpacking with kids, or capsules wardrobes, or choosing what to bring? Leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!