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Packing So You Can Carry Everything on Your Back For As Long as You Are Gone

By default we travel with backpacks instead of suitcases. We made the switch for several reasons. First, if everyone in our family packed all they wanted to pack, we wouldn’t be able to fit into the car to get to the airport. Secondly, we have kids that physically cannot lift a suitcase on and off public transportation which makes kid + suitcase a travel liability. Next, the baggage fees on many airlines are terrible. That cost times the six of us suddenly makes a good deal not so good. Lastly, we are a big, sometimes hectic group who often goes places where the risk of pick pocketing and theft is pretty good. If we are all carrying a backpack, nothing is ever left just sitting there while we maneuver. At times, especially when we had booster seats, we would bring one extra suitcase or have a fold up duffle bag that we can expand and pack for the trip home.

Waiting on the tarmac in Rome to board our plane. Everything is easier when your hands are free!

Here are some common questions we get when people hear about our backpack travel:

1.How can you fit everything you need for a 3 week trip in a backpack (or one week for that matter)?

It’s not easy but we do it. First of all think about your normal life. Do your kids ever wear the things in the bottom of their drawers, or do they keep picking the same, newly washed outfits? Mine (and me included) wear the same stuff all the time. So, pick your favorite outfits, coordinate so you can mix and match and you suddenly have many outfits out of a few items. I tend to have color coordinated clothes so everything can be mixed into different outfits. I have two key items that make up most of my daily wear. Pants that roll into capris in grey and black and two lightweight button ups that also roll up to 3/4 sleeves. If it is cold pair I can add a long sleeve shirt, if it is hot with a t-shirt or tank. We also wash on any trip over one week. We have used local laundry services on down to washing in the sink and hanging clothes to dry on the sides of a boat. Our most inconvenient clothing related experience was arriving on a cruise on week 2 of 3 with all dirty clothes only to realize they did not have guest washing machines and it cost $10/per item to use their laundry service. They did sell detergent in the gift shop so we bought some, washed in the bathtub and laid our clothes all over the room to dry. Oh yeah, we also wear our pants and shirts more than one time before washing them (gasp—shocking as Americans I know)!

Who would have thought a Norwegian Cruise wouldn't have washing machines

Drying clothes on the cruise cabin floor because the ship didn't have a laundry machine like we expected.

2. How does your little one carry her backpack?

Her backpack is smaller and she has small clothes so it is easy for her to carry it. Plus, you pack really carefully when you know you are in charge of your stuff (yes, since age 4 my kids have packed for vacations themselves—maybe I’ll write about that later). Kid #3 just upgraded to an adult backpack once she realized her shoes and clothes got much bigger.

Everything you need is on your back, including your toys and stuffed friends for the trip.

3. What backpacks do you recommend?

We have Eddie Bauer backpacks and love them. We all went to the store one day and tried them on until each of us found the one that felt right. They have a main compartment that can hold shoes or tall boots and 5 outfits easily and back pouch for undies, socks, swimsuits and pj’s. The front has a zip part for toiletries and an extra pocket for the stuff you take out on the plane (book and treat bag usually) plus a water bottle/umbrella holder and a small pouch that happens to fit cords perfectly. On the bottom are two small straps where you can roll something (bulky coat, duffle bag, air mattress) and strap it in. See below for specific details.

4. What about my shoes?

This is where you need to be practical. Wear the bulkiest pair, pack another all purpose and throw in some flip flops or small sandals. In fall and winter I always manage to have a pair of tall boots with me, a pair of tennis shoes and possibly a small pair of boots if I forgo flips and just wing it if we go swimming. In summer or for warm destinations, I bring tennis shoes and a few pair of sandals that can double as pool shoes, or going out at night shoes. My oldest teen cannot master this and somehow always whips out 5 or more pairs.

5. What do you do with souvenirs?

I wish I could say we didn’t buy any, but with 4 kids you can imagine the amazing stuff that comes back. The smart child leaves some room when first packing so it is easy. Another option is to donate some clothes or shoes before you leave for home. If not, they all know how to look really cute carrying the extra shopping bag as they board the plane as not to get tagged to have to pay for the extra bag. If we know someone is going to buy a sweatshirt or shoes (Italy, Greece, Germany) at a destination we just don’t pack those items to start and the souvenir becomes part of the wardrobe.

The best souvenirs are the ones you can wear home.

The Birkenstock outlets throughout Germany have incredible prices and cool styles. We wore our new sandals throughout the trip.

The worst souvenir we ever bought--Mr. Penguin sat on her lap for 20 hours on the road trip back from NYC to MN with 7 people in the mini van.

When the souvenir is bigger than you, it might sit on your lap for the road trip home.

Parting Thoughts

Our most creative packing experience was a European trip where we flew into Iceland and ended in Rome which required clothing for winter and summer. We packed a large suitcase that was in horrible shape, put in the two booster seats we needed for our car in Iceland and our oldest winter coats, hats and mittens. When we arrived we asked at the car rental if they would donate our winter gear at the end of our trip and they said yes! We layered our clothes and bundled up with the outerwear we had. When we dropped the car back off, we donated the clothes and two boosters and threw the suitcase away. We left Iceland with only backpacks and clothes for summer European temps. Between the 5 inter-continent flights, a charter boat and multiple buses and trains we were on the next 2 1/2 weeks we would not have managed with that suitcase.

The epic packing fail goes to our daughter who decided that the 1Euro Rome Statues would be the perfect gift to bring home for 10 of her friends. Problem was that we visited several countries after Rome and she ended up packing and repacking them and carrying them for every flight we took. By the end I think she would say they were as heavy as the real Colosseum! I would love to be able to say it was the turning point and she would never do it again, but she still always ends up being the most overpacked on a trip.

Up next: Packing for specific types of trips, how to get your kids to pack for themselves and packing the car for a road trip.

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