Image by Kris from Pixabay

Editor's Note: While you may not be planning a year-long trip with kids, the following article offers valuable insights for travelling light for anyone and for any length of time.

"How do you pack for a year away?” Our approach was to bring as little as possible. A trip around the world seemed hard enough. Why add the burden of huge suitcases? We went light. Very, very light. One carry-on suitcase and one backpack, per person.

Teddy and I purchased one international carry-on-sized roller each. We settled on black Briggs & Riley roller bags with four wheels, which are soft-sided instead of hard and designed to open like a chest with a well and lid. We avoided hard-cased clamshell styles, which I find unwieldy. The kids each got roller carry-ons with two-wheels, which we regretted. Two-wheelers were harder for them to pull on their own.

Each of us got a backpack. Importantly, these backpacks fit under an airplane seat. Teddy and I each used a 35-liter model with compartments for laptops and other items. We opted for a dark gray style that gave more “work trip” than “Appalachian trail.” The kids’ backpacks were very small, a deliberate move to keep us from over-packing. If they were too heavy, the kids wouldn’t carry them.

Packing cubes were new to us but turned out to be the key to our success. Organizing our belongings into these individual zip-up containers meant everything fit in its proper place, just as it would in drawers at home. Underwear in a small bag, t-shirts in another, all things swim in a third. We could pack and unpack in minutes; we never had to rummage through an explosion of clothes to find, say, a deck of cards. There was a cube for those, and we knew exactly where to find it.

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We grownups also each had a smaller daypack that could be unfolded once we arrived somewhere new and used for stuff like snacks and sunscreen during walks and tours. This way we wouldn’t have to lug our larger backpacks around with us. I picked up a medium canvas tote for this same purpose that I could use as a slightly more elevated alternative when in cities.

Each person had a medium-sized drawstring laundry bag.

Finally, I bought a fanny pack. For someone prone to misplacing stuff, that fanny pack proved the single most important item I brought. In it, I fit my phone, a small card carrier with just a credit card, debit card and driver’s license and few extras like hand sanitizer, a hair elastic, a tampon, a few bandaids, a small pack of wipes and an extra contact lens. On travel days, my passport fit perfectly.


When it came to clothing, here was our approach (and some of what we learned along the way):

  • We packed about one week’s worth of clothing each, mostly solid-colored tees and soft pants that we could easily zip into packing cubes.

  • With an itinerary that followed the sun, we mostly prepared for warm weather with a few layers for chills here and there. We ended the year in Japan where it was winter and bought coats in New Zealand just before flying to Kyoto.

  • Surf shops, rather than outdoor or athletic clothing retailers, turned out to have the right mix of comfortable, relatively inexpensive traveling clothes.

  • We tried to keep our clothes to solid colors. Mostly for simplicity’s sake and easy mixing and matching, but also because logos, patterns and slogans don’t always age well in photos.

  • While our clothing didn’t vary much for weather, it did for our surroundings. I had white leather sneakers and lightweight slacks for cosmopolitan cities like Madrid, Paris and Singapore, and surf-y joggers and flip flops for more casual beach locales. Teddy had lightweight trousers and a few casual button downs for cities; shorts and tees for more laidback, rural environments.

  • One was enough: One sweater. One scarf. One bathing suit. One hat. I started the trip with three sundresses, which seemed logical at the time but turned out to be a major waste of space.

  • As a woman, I decided to err on the conservative side when it came to clothes. I didn’t bring shorts or tank tops. T-shirts and lightweight ankle-length pants worked just fine.

  • As for makeup, I had an eyebrow pencil and mascara, but nothing else.

  • A well-traveled friend advised us to overpack underwear. We did and he was right.

  • The only jewelry I wore was a gold wedding band. I left my diamond engagement ring at my in-laws’ back in the US. While I did buy some cool earrings and jewelry on the road, I shipped it all home to wear when we got back.

  • We didn’t need to start the year with a complete wardrobe and kit. We underestimated how much we could, and would, buy as we went.


Here is the complete list of what we had in our suitcases at all times:

Margaret’s suitcase

  • 6 tees (2x white, 2x black and 2x gray)
  • 5 lightweight solid-color/neutral pants (breezy, lightweight, loose ankle-length)
  • 1 thin sweater
  • 1 sundress
  • 10 pairs neutral/tan undies
  • 8 pairs white ankle socks
  • 1 nude everyday bra
  • 1 sports bra
  • 1 pair workout leggings
  • 1 short nightie
  • 1 bikini
  • 1 beach coverup
  • 1 lightweight windbreaker/rain jacket
  • 1 lightweight pullover puffer
  • 1 thin scarf
  • 1 wool beanie
  • 1 foldable straw fedora
  • 1 pair sneakers for walking/ working out
  • 1 pair white leather fashion sneakers
  • 1 pair flip flops

Bathroom kit (three-compartments; unfolded to hang from a hook)

  • Tweezers
  • Cuticle cutters
  • Nail clippers
  • Hair elastics (10x)
  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Face wash
  • Face moisturizer
  • Zit cream
  • Deodorant
  • Vaseline/lip balm
  • Eyebrow pencil
  • Travel-size mascara
  • Small concealer
  • Flat hairbrush
  • Travel dry shampoo (when I could find it)
  • Disposable razor
  • Contact lenses*

Teddy’s suitcase

  • 6 solid color cotton tees
  • 4 casual button-downs (used as a layer, often over t-shirt; a linen option was his MVP)
  • 3 lightweight casual slacks with some stretch
  • 1 pair lightweight joggers
  • 2 casual shorts
  • 1 belt
  • 1 lightweight puffer
  • 1 raincoat shell
  • 1 shirt-like fleece jacket
  • 1 light beanie hat
  • 1 baseball cap
  • 2 workout t-shirts
  • 1 workout short
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 1 shorts/swimsuit combo
  • 1 long sleeve UV-protection rash guard
  • 1 long sleeve workout pullover
  • 1 pair goggles
  • 7 pairs ankle socks (with some polyester which help them dry faster/not smell)
  • 3 pairs calf-length socks
  • 10 pairs underwear
  • 2 cotton handkerchiefs (seasonal allergies)
  • 1 pair casual/lightweight cloth slip-on shoe/loafer
  • 1 pair sneakers
  • 1 pair flip-flops

Bathroom kit:

  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Face wash
  • Face lotion
  • Hair gel
  • Shaving cream
  • Several razor blades
  • Small electric trimmer
  • Nail clipper
  • Contact lenses*

*We both wear daily contact lenses. That’s a lot of contact lenses when you’re talking about a whole year. We ended up bringing a six-month supply each, layered at the bottom of our suitcases, then had another six months’ worth shipped to a friend’s place in Singapore, where we picked them up halfway through the year.

Willa’s suitcase (7 years old)

  • 2 tees
  • 4 pairs shorts (to also wear under dresses)
  • 2 pairs long leggings
  • 4 dresses
  • 1 cardigan
  • 10 pairs undies
  • 6 pairs socks
  • 1 pair PJs
  • 1 raincoat
  • 1 pair sneakers
  • 1 pair waterproof hiking-type sandals
  • 1 pair aquasox
  • 1 sunhat
  • 1 wool beanie
  • 2 bathing suits with UV rash guards
  • 1 pair goggles

James’s suitcase (5 years old)

  • 5 tees
  • 4 pairs shorts
  • 2 pairs long pants
  • 1 sweater
  • 1 raincoat
  • 10 pairs undies
  • 6 pairs socks
  • 1 pair PJs
  • 1 baseball hat
  • 1 wool beanie
  • 1 swim shirt
  • 2 swim trunks
  • 1 pair goggles
  • 1 pair aquasox
  • 1 pair sneakers
  • 1 pair rubber waterproof slip-on shoes
  • The kids shared a bathroom kit (also a three-compartment hanger):
  • Toothbrushes/Toothpaste
  • Hair elastics (10x)
  • 2 small hairbrushes
  • Tea tree essential oil for hairline to ward off lice

Kit” Items

We traveled with a number of items that were not clothes. We bundled this additional stuff—which we came to refer to as “kit”—into packing cubes by category and distributed them among our four suitcases. They included:


  • Multi-outlet power cube
  • Universal converters
  • All relevant chargers
  • Extra portable battery pack
  • A small flat zippered case for cords
  • A small portable Bluetooth speaker

Games (Constantly revolving):

  • Deck of cards
  • Plus Plus blocks
  • Travel-sized games like Otrio, Rat-a-Tat-Cat, Spot It, Tiny Dot, a few logic puzzles
  • A soccer ball

When we got to a place where we’d be staying for a while or knew we’d be road-tripping instead of flying, we’d buy a ream of printer paper and let the kids draw and paint as much as they wanted. But we didn’t fly with blank paper.

School (one packing cube for each per kid)

  • Workbooks
  • Journals


  • Sunscreen
  • Cortizone
  • Bug spray
  • Iodine disinfectant cream
  • Neosporin
  • Gauze + tape
  • Bandaids


Crossed-out = items we packed but never used

*Most-replaced items

  • Advil*
  • Alka Seltzer
  • Aquatabs
  • Benadryl
  • Dayquil
  • Cough medicine (for kids too)
  • Dramamine
  • Excedrin
  • Cough drops
  • Imodium
  • Pedialyte
  • Pepto Bismol tablets
  • Tylenol for kids
  • Thermometer
  • Visine
  • All of our prescription Malaria pills, antibiotics and altitude sickness meds

Should’ve packed: Prescription for UTIs, drops for swimmers’ ear and extra Claritin.


  • A clothesline
  • A headlamp and flashlight
  • An extra packable market bag (for grocery shopping and other random needs)
  • About 5 packets of detergent
  • Sewing kit (used once I think)
  • Two inflatable booster seats for the kids


Here’s something we bought on the road and used religiously, but wouldn’t have thought to pack before we left: One of those magnetic phone holders for the dashboard of a rental car. So handy for GPS on a road trip.

Also, if you have room for a small set of binoculars, add them. Only too late did we realize how awesome these would have been to have.


In Teddy’s backpack, we carried a sealed plastic file envelope with important documents and cash:

  • Passports

  • Photocopies of passports

  • Photocopies of driver’s licenses, back and front

  • Original birth certificates (this would be easy to overlook, but many countries require you to carry them when traveling with children as an extra precaution against trafficking)

  • Photocopies of birth certificates

  • About $2,000 in USD at all times—hundreds, twenties and some ones, fives, and tens for tipping. American cash got us out of a few jams when credit cards weren’t accepted and we didn’t have anything local, including for visa fees at borders.

  • Vaccination papers proving we were up to date on all required shots, required for entry in many countries.

  • International drivers licenses from AAA

Kids’ backpacks

  • Tablets for movies and games
  • Headphones
  • Kindles
  • Pencil cases (set of colored pencils, one pencil sharpener, 4x mechanical pencils and 4x black felt pens)

Grownup backpacks

  • Tablet with portable keyboard (Teddy)
  • Laptop (Margaret)
  • Kindles
  • Headphones

Our strategy was to “follow the sun,” wending our way along a seasonal path of warm springs and summers, which had the added advantage of simplifying our packing.

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Book by this Author:

BOOK: Following the Sun

Following the Sun: Tales (and Fails) From a Year Around the World With Our Kids
by Margaret Bensfield Sullivan.

A must-read for any parent pondering extended family travel. Following the Sun offers a refreshingly honest account of one American family’s decision to uproot their conventional life and embark on a year-long adventure around the world with two small children -- with nothing more than carry-on bags to travel for a year to twenty-nine countries spanning six continents.

Following the Sun transports readers along their ambitious itinerary through vivid descriptions—cloud forests in Peru, horse races in Mongolia, sunsets in Zimbabwe—and in the process, answers commonly asked questions: What did they pack? Where did they go? How did they stay sane with their kids around all the time? It also answers plenty of questions no one asks, ever. Like what to do when your five-year-old projectile vomits on a crowded Saigon bus, or what not to do, under any circumstances, when piranha fishing in the Amazon.

More than a travelogue, Following the Sun reveals practical hacks and hard-won wisdom—about travel, about the world, about being parents—and offers a glimpse into what can happen when a family steps off the treadmill of daily life to experience adventure together while they still have the chance.

For more info and/or to order this book, click hereAlso available as a Kindle edition.

About the Author

Margaret Bensfield Sullivan is an author, illustrator, and family photo curator whose work combines a personal passion for archiving with the visual storytelling skills she honed over nearly two decades in brand marketing. Margaret was a partner at WPP's marketing and branded content agency Group SJR, where she designed storytelling campaigns on behalf of clients like TED, Target, Disney, and USAID. She left corporate life to spend a year with her husband and two young children crisscrossing the globe, visiting 29 countries and six continents. She wrote all about their adventures in Following the Sun: Tales (and Fails) From a Year Around the World With Our Kids (December 5, 2023).

Learn more at