Living as a digital nomad is all fun and games – until you need to figure out exactly what to take with you as you travel the world and work. There are a whole variety of philosophies on what should be in your digital nomad kit: some travel carry-on only, some use a huge suitcase (or two), and everyone has a few different necessities. (Read on for my strange and specific ones!)
But there are a few digital nomad gear essentials anyone who’s setting out should at least consider bringing with them. My list is (obviously) driven by my perspective as a female digital nomad, but you can decide for yourselves what’s critical. And hey, maybe this is the year of men embracing hairstyling products more – no judgment. So let’s go!
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1. The Right Bag
This is where it all begins – what kind of container for your stuff are you thinking about? By the right bag, I don’t mean some platonic ideal of The One True Digital Nomad Bag, as this does not exist. Don’t believe the marketers who will try to you otherwise. But what kind of digital nomad life will you be living?
Personally, I’ve tried a variety of setups. On my year of purely travel, I brought only a 35-liter backpack and lived in three outfits with basically nothing else. It wasn’t glam, but being such a minimalist made life much, much easier on the go. I never paid extra for baggage, never had to risk losing a checked bag, never had to drag a huge suitcase over Parisian cobblestones or into a tiny Athens elevator.
But I was living a very simple life then – no work, no need for a laptop or gear, just me and my little outfits and one perfect red lipstick and I was set. (Once I lost my hairbrush in a hostel and lived without one for three weeks – that was taking it a bit too far.)
But as a digital nomad, living abroad and also needing to work, life isn’t quite so simple. You need slightly more presentable clothes for meetings, more gear to get work done, and you’re actually living in places longer instead of just passing through.
Luggage Options I’ve Tried
- My 35L backpack and a tiny carry-on suitcase. This was the worst of all worlds and I do no recommend it. I still needed to check a bag, I only had slightly more room for stuff, and I got stuck (like REALLY stuck) in the gates of the Tube in London at rush hour. It’s hard to lug two things around even if they’re both small! Learn from me and do not try this.
- Next, I opted for the One Big Suitcase model. This was prompted by the Emirates Airlines baggage policy, but it was a pretty good option tbh. I could fit a decent amount of things, and I could fly with more than just a ziplock bag of liquids. This is a luxury I have not experienced in many years because of my addiction to cheap traveling. However, I did have to be careful to not pack it to be too heavy since I travel solo and need to lift it on and off of buses and drag it up stairs. Plus, lugging it over the cobblestone streets of Tirana, Albania at 7 am was not a wildly fun experience. But not having to sit on my bag to zip it was lovely.
- Currently, I’m back to just the 35L backpack life. This is partly driven by Covid concerns – traveling these days is pretty stressful as it is, and I didn’t know exactly where I would end up. Plus it was summer when I departed, which makes packing light a whole lot easier. Winter climates and the minimalist digital nomad life don’t really mix. But now I’ve been in Split, Croatia since August 2020, living in a lovely apartment. I’ve been able to buy a few more things and have more than three outfits again. (Not that there’s anywhere to go in those outfits except down to the pier for an alfresco beer, but I digress.)
Which bag option should you pick? I can’t tell you that. I will say, as a writer having a smaller bag is no problem for me as I don’t require gear other than a laptop, but that’s not true for other digital nomad jobs. Plus if you have a traveling companion to help you with your bags, those stairs can seem less onerous.
I adore my Tortuga Outbreaker and think it’s a perfect digital nomad backpack. It looks sharper than a typical backpack and has tons of compartments for all your gear and tech. Plus it really takes a beating well.
Someday in the post-Covid era I might go back to the big bag strategy, but that seems pretty far in the future right now!
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2. The Laptop
No matter what you do as a digital nomad, you need this. Unless you have a very cool job that requires no computer time at all, and then I am envious. Which one is right for you really depends on your digital nomad job! As a freelance writer, I mostly use the internet, writing programs, Zoom, and a few photo editing apps so I didn’t get anything super high-powered.
But I did splurge for a MacBook because 1. I love them 2. I am lazy and so everything I own is Apple so it all works together 3. My last MacBook lasted for over a decade and I’m hoping that will happen again.
Just make sure whatever you get is pretty durable and fits in your daybag. Mine can squeeze into my Longchamp backpack that goes with me everywhere so I can tote it to cafes for work, in some heavenly future when I can go to a cafe again.
I started my working abroad life with just an iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard – it worked, sure, but wow it was a lot harder to get stuff done! Full laptop life all the way. I do not have further recommendations in this area as I have purchased exactly one laptop in my life and I am writing on it now lol.
If you have a little extra space in your bag, a portable laptop stand can really save your back if you spend hours bent over your laptop working every day (hello fellow writers!). I don’t currently have room for this, but know other nomads who use it and love it – and plan to get one soon.
3. Packing Cubes
I don’t know how anyone even goes on vacation without these, but I am obsessed. If you live out of a suitcase or backpack, packing cubes are even more essential – keep yourself organized and save yourself some major irritation and stress!
My favorite way to use these is to keep everything sorted when I’m on the move so I don’t lose my only sports bra in a pile of clothes and have to empty my entire backpack to find it. And if you’re in transit, you can just put your clothes for the following travel day in the little cube and you’re ready to roll in the morning without repacking your bag.
Plus, packing cubes can help you fit slightly more clothing into your pack, which is essential if you’re a minimalist digital nomad.
Related: How I Became a Digital Nomad
Ah, the big hassle for many of us – carrying multiple devices that need to be charged regularly in a variety of countries with a variety of plug configurations. I have a random hodgepodge of converters and chargers at the moment.
My favorite is a European one that has two USB ports for one plug so I can charge my iPad and iPhone at the same time, or my headphones and Kindle simultaneously. However, this one works only in most of continental Europe so it’s fairly limiting.
I also recently purchased a universal charger that I use for my MacBook that works with pretty much all the possible world plugs, and it’s small and easy to pack. Highly recommend.
I am an avid reader and book addict – plus I like to frequently brush up on my copywriting and writing skills by reading about those topics. But with just a backpack, I can’t fit any physical books so I rely on my Kindle for everything. I still have a Boston library card (thanks guys!) so I check out most of my ebooks there, and buy the ones they don’t have.
The Kindle Paperwhite is perfect for reading in all conditions, from hostel rooms late at night to on a sun-soaked Croatian beach in the middle of summer. Mine was a birthday present from my parents before I left to travel the world for a year, and it’s still going strong 2.5 years later!
6. Beauty and Healthcare Products
While living out of a carry-on-only backpack might seem like I lack all but the essential beauty and health products, I actually don’t! I just buy them when I arrive at my destination.
Since I typically stay in a city for three months at a time, I just head right to a pharmacy or Boots to buy all my liquids that I can’t carry. Sunscreen is better in Europe anyways, which is my main base, and pretty much everywhere I’ve been in the world has access to everything I need.
Once my three months are up, I’m typically out of whatever products I bought at the beginning of my stay and I just repeat the cycle. I don’t buy anything that comes in a super-large size (except sunscreen in the summer for my very pale self).
And of course, when I need to get a little bit more glam than my usual low-maintenance look, I stick to my tried-and-true backpacking beauty tips!
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7. A Few Soft Silks
While the digital nomad life is full of variety and fun, it tends not to be a very luxurious one most of the time (unless you’re in a very lucrative career). But I like to have a little luxury in my life, so I always pack a silk pillowcase and eye mask so my bed feels a little more like home.
I haven’t slept in a bed that’s truly my own in 2.5 years, so making wherever I’m sleeping feel a little more like my own has helped me sleep better anywhere.
For someone else, that home feeling might mean making room in your pack for one or two items that help you feel at home anywhere. Digital nomad life can feel a bit destabilizing sometimes – you’re always moving and typically don’t have a real home base to return to.
Finding what makes you feel a bit more secure, whatever that means for you, is just as essential as anything else you carry.
Best Tips for Becoming a Digital Nomad
There’s no one right way to pack for your digital nomad life – it depends on your nomad lifestyle, your job, and your personal preferences and circumstances. But hopefully this digital nomad gear list has given you some things to think about as you plan how to pack for your exciting new life!