The Gear Post: What We Packed For A Seven Week Trip With Kids
For those following our crazy seven week adventure in Mexico, you might be wondering what we packed for our trip. Here’s the answer!
First a bit of philosophy. While we were on our trip, we wanted to be nimble and not encumbered by heavy bags. Large luggage with wheels means checked bags on airlines and the need to flag a taxi if you’re going more than a few blocks. We chose to pack light and take smaller bags so we could walk a mile or so if necessary without needing to take a taxi. Light bags mean we can stop at a store and grab something quickly without fumbling with huge luggage. Packing light also let us hop on and off local buses and subways instead of calling a taxi. This meant spending $1.30 USD to get to and from the airport in Mexico City, for example, instead of $20+ for a taxi. It also means we can exit the plane with all our luggage in hand and proceed directly to our destination and not wait 30+ minutes at baggage claim (if the bags ever show up at all!).
Our light packing made us look a little silly at times. We sometimes get the question “where is your luggage?” because we’re only carrying bookbags for a two month trip.
Another constraint on our gear is our general frugality. We’re cheapskates, so we don’t like to pay much for anything. This applies to luggage, tech toys, clothing, foot wear, and all the other stuff we brought with us on the trip.
We checked out larger backpacks that are designed for backpacking through the wilderness but often used by those “backpacking” across Europe or Mexico (usually by bus or air). Two packs we checked out were the 43-liter Kelty and the Osprey Farpoint 40 liter pack. Then we realized we might not need to buy larger backpacks if we commit to packing light.
We already had a pair of brand new largish book bags we picked up for free back in the days of Office Max giving away free book bags and other goodies via their Maxperks rewards program. The bookbags’ thick padding on the back and shoulder straps plus good, sturdy stitching and fabric made them worthy candidates for our gear hauling needs. An added bonus is a laptop sleeve built into the main compartment that fit my 15.6″ Dell laptop perfectly.
After a test run, we determined we could fit all our clothes, tech gear, and footwear into the book bags we already owned. They are the Ful Sweet Melissa Daypacks.
A casual daypack great for primary school. The Sweet Melissa features two main compartments, organizers, and stash pockets in the backpack
From this description at Amazon, it sounds like we’re traveling the world with an elementary school student’s day pack. I’ll take that as a compliment to our packing skills and minimalism.
We picked them up on sale for $30 each at OfficeMax a couple years ago (they were free after the Maxperks Rewards). Seven weeks in, they are holding up well even though I’ve loaded mine to max capacity with 20-25 pounds of gear (once I throw a few bottles of water in them). They are also fairly light at two pounds in spite of plenty of padding and thick fabric.
For the three year old, we went with a plush monkey bookbag ($8 at Aldi) that was a Christmas present. He likes it and is usually okay carrying it. And it makes people smile.
The older girls used old bookbags they used to carry to school every day. They are generic bookbags ($8 from Toys R Us) and the quality reflects the price. I had to stitch one of the straps back onto the bag to prevent it from ripping off completely. Otherwise, the bags are decent – lightweight and comfortable with enough pockets to be useful.
We have two smallish thin lightweight sacks (weighing 1 oz and 4 oz respectively) that we put any overflow into. Good for packing light stuff, maybe some snacks and water, and random crap that won’t fit into our backpacks.
The Ful backpacks are pretty big but easily fit into the airplane overhead bins. They fit in some bus’s overhead compartments and fit underneath the seat fine.
If weight weren’t an issue, we would each carry a full size 15 inch laptop. They are cheap, offer a large viewing screen and are very versatile. We can play games, watch movies, edit photos, surf, read, write, research, manage finances, and video chat all with one device.
The downside is the weight. A standard 15 inch laptop itself weighs about five pounds. Add in a mouse and the power adapter and it’s closer to six pounds. As a result, we decided to bring only one full size laptop and rely on tablets and a phone for other computing and entertainment needs. The 15 inch screen size worked well for watching Netflix movies or TV shows late at night after the kids were in bed. A little taste of normalcy while on the road, sometimes accompanied by popcorn.
I skipped a laptop case to save on weight (and money) and relied on the laptop sleeve built into my Ful bookbag. Once in my bookbag, the computer is padded by the plush back lining on one side and my clothes on the other so it’s fairly safe from damage while on the road.
I bought a refurbished Dell 3537 laptop a year ago for well under $300 and it has proven a good choice for our trip.
In the future if we do more extended traveling, I’ll be looking closer at ultrabooks and Chromebooks. Both of those share one thing in common: they are light weight. Otherwise they are completely different machines.
Ultrabooks tend to pack quite a bit of computing power into a compact form and usually weigh around three pounds (a two pound savings over run of the mill 15 inch full size laptops). Prices range from $700-$1,000+ but you get a lot of features even at the lower end. It’s like a half price Macbook that runs Windows.
Chromebooks go the opposite direction. They tend to have lower end CPUs, storage, and RAM but come with a price tag of $180-$300 to match the lower specs. Many come with smaller screens around 12 inches which pushes the weight down to the 2-3 pound range for the smaller devices. Since chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, I would lose access to some Windows programs and games that I own and that I’m already familiar with. On the upside, I’m a power user of Google apps and services that tend to be well-integrated with Chrome.
In addition to a laptop, we packed three Amazon Fire HD 7″ tablets so each kid could have their own dedicated device. These were new purchases for this trip, and we found each tablet for around $60-70 on eBay. In hindsight, the Fire HD 7 is a great tablet for kids (and Mrs. RoG enjoys playing Call of Atlantis on it, too!). The Amazon App Store has a ton of free stuff for the kids including books for them to read.
I spent $7 worth of virtual Amazon Coins I acquired somehow on Minecraft Pocket Edition which all the kids installed on their own tablets. That’s been a big hit with all of them.
The Fire HD 7 is solidly built. The three year old dropped his tablet (without any protective case) at least 20 times yet it still works flawlessly. Battery life is okay to great. Minecraft, for example, chews through the battery in a couple of hours but reading an e-book or surfing the net lets the battery last at least 5-6 hours.
One kid asked to buy an iPad but after seeing the price tag of 5-10x the cost of a Fire HD 7, she quickly decided that the Fire HD 7 was about the same as an iPad without the cost.
If these tablets ever do break, at least they were very inexpensive and won’t be burdensome to replace. If I wanted a tablet for myself, I’d probably spend a little more and get some form of android tablet like the 8″ Samsung Galaxy Tab 4. There are a few apps on the Google Play store that aren’t currently available on the Amazon App Store for the Fire HD like Google Drive.
Otherwise, the Fire HD 7 is a nice little tablet for goofing off and surfing the web. It only weighs about 12 ounces, so it’s great for carrying on the road.
I brought my Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone that I have activated on Freedompop in the States. The service doesn’t work in Mexico, but it’s a great device to use for offline maps with Google Maps. That’s been our go to navigation tool in Mexico. I’ll research places to visit and save them through google maps in my Chrome browser on the PC, then the saved locations automatically show up as little golden stars on my phone’s Map app. Pretty nifty, Google. It’s also really easy to select a city you’ll be visiting and save the whole city in an “offline map” so you can view all the streets even if you don’t have cellular data or a wifi connection.
The Galaxy S3’s Battery life is wonderful. I routinely make it through a whole day of intense navigation and other use and rarely exhaust the battery. It’s also not a brand new phone so if it’s stolen or I break it, I’m not out $500+.
We brought another phone, the Nokia 1616 dumb phone. It’s just a few ounces of extra weight and it’s been very handy a few times when we really needed to make a phone call but couldn’t get the phones or internet to work where we were. We’re on T-mobile’s prepaid plan, and calls in Mexico eat about $1.80 USD per minute. For an infrequent minute or two, that’s not a bad price since we have a big unused balance on the phone and rarely use it at home.
We unlocked the phone before leaving, so we would have the option of buying a Telcel or Movistar SIM chip for $5-10 USD if we needed to make calls more frequently. Telcel has a prepaid plan where you can put 20 pesos ($1.30 USD) on the phone and pay under 1 peso per minute (about 6 US cents) with the airtime lasting at least 10 days. Excellent choice if you need to order a pizza or call a taxi without using your own phone plan’s international rates.
The final tech item in our bag is the Canon A3100 12 megapixel point and shoot digital camera. It’s not a dSLR so the pictures are just okay. But it’s compact and weighs very little. If we were going to upgrade, it would probably be to something like the Canon EOS Rebel T5. Three times the price and three times the weight of our Canon A3100 point and shoot camera, but probably three times the quality, too.
For each person, we packed:
- 4 shirts
- 4-5 undergarments
- 4 socks
- 2 shorts/skirts (no skirts for Mr. RoG)
- 1 pants (except for Mr. RoG)
- 1 swimsuit/trunk
This turned out to be plenty of clothes since we had a washer and dryer for 99% of our trip. The Aloft in Cancun (where we are currently staying) even offers a free washer and dryer though we probably won’t have to use it.
We could have economized by packing half the amount of clothes and doing laundry every 2-3 days instead of every 4 days, but we had enough room so we went crazy and packed a four day clothing supply (with some extras for the three year old).
I bought a new pair of shoes before our trip because my old ones were falling apart. Since I didn’t want to have inferior footwear for 7 weeks, I bought what I hoped was a good name brand piece of footwear, the New Balance 750 V2 running shoe (around $30 on sale). At first, the shoes were a little uncomfortable while breaking them in at home.
While on the road they performed beautifully. Great on flat pavement, grass, sidewalks, rough trails, rocks, and slippery surfaces. The only problem I had was walking on the wet, slick, polished cobblestone pavement in San Miguel de Allende since the soles are very flexible and pliable.
The shoes themselves are well built with a light foam sole and a grippy but flexible rubber lining on the tread surface. The toe area is covered with a highly breathable material (great when it’s hot, sucks when it’s freezing out).
I didn’t buy any special socks for my trip and just packed my normal every day socks (the 8 pair for $7 plain white socks from Walmart). Small mistake. They are thin and lightweight which is usually a good quality for a sock. Until it wears through after walking miles and miles. When this happens at home I toss the socks out. On the road, I didn’t want to buy socks that don’t match the ones I already own so I tried sewing up the holes without lasting success. My workaround was wearing the socks upside down. This is a great way to get two times the life out of a sock, but now I have holes in my socks on top of my foot. Time to get new socks when I get home.
On our next long term trip, I might invest in some Thorlo socks. They are supposed to be the gold standard in comfortable and durable footwear. However they come with a gold plated price tag at roughly $10-13 for a single pair (around 10 times the price of the cheap but less durable socks from Walmart). The Thorlo socks get excellent reviews at Amazon and I’ve heard strong personal endorsements from many people. I feel like spending $60 on five pair of socks is crazy, but maybe it’s worth it if I amortize the sock cost over a very long period of time. Perhaps I’ll compromise and splurge on a brand new $7 bag of Walmart socks right before our next big trip.
We each packed a lightweight rain poncho except Mrs. RoG who packed a compact umbrella. We’ve used the ponchos once or twice. The umbrella gets used a lot to protect us from the rain and to provide shade. The ponchos only weigh 1-4 ounces whereas the umbrella weighs 8 ounces. We economized on weight by only taking a single umbrella. This mixed solution worked perfectly and lets one of us run out quickly and easily in the rain without donning the cumbersome poncho.
We carry one hand picked first aid kit with:
- tylenol and ibuprofen pain meds
- anti-diarrheal tablets
- dayquil and nyquil tablets
- Zyrtec (cetirizine) allergy tablets
- Benadryl allergy tablets
- menthol cough drops
- tums antacid
So far we have used half the stuff in our med kit. All of this stuff is available locally in Mexico but we already had it on hand from the $0.88 generic medicine section at our Walmart in Raleigh. And when you need medicine, you need it bad. I didn’t want to have to rush out and navigate the streets and stores of Mexico to track down these meds, so I packed a well rounded med kit ahead of time.
The only possible addition would have been a series of cipro antibiotics, but with our high deductible health insurance plan, it would be a very expensive doctor’s visit to get a prescription for “just in case”. It’s easy enough to pick up while in Mexico by paying $2 USD or so for a consult at the pharmacy or $20-30 USD for a real office visit with a real doctor. We didn’t need antibiotics, so it worked out in our favor to not get those meds ahead of time in the US.
We brought basic personal hygiene items like a safety razor, floss, toothpaste, toothbrush, and deodorant. We purchased shampoo and conditioner once we arrived in country since it’s so heavy.
Other random items on our packing list include a sewing kit, fingernail clippers and file, deck of playing cards, small pad, pen, hat, and sunglasses.
Mrs. RoG’s electric hair dryer didn’t make the cut for our final packing list. It’s probably a pound or two and pretty bulky. As it turns out, she still had access to a hair dryer for roughly half of the seven week trip. It was a sacrifice for her but probably a smart move since it would have pushed her into a larger piece of luggage.
The kids couldn’t bring any stuffed animals with them, and the only toy we packed was a small Thomas The Tank Engine for the three year old. I can’t tell that we’ve inflicted any long-lasting psychological damage by depriving them of thousands of toys like most kids their age have.
That rounds out our packing list. We tried to split out the loads fairly evenly between the adults and kids based on ability to carry loads. I carried around 20-25 pounds in my pack, Mrs. RoG carried about 14 pounds, the 8 and 10 year olds each carried around 7-8 pounds, and the three year old carried 3-4 pounds in his monkey bookbag.
Closing thoughts on travel gear
Every time I saw someone with huge backpacks or multiple large pieces of luggage, I thought about how we made the right choice in packing light. No regrets at all.
We knew we would miss some things while we are away from home, but we didn’t miss much of our stuff. Even though we have thousands of pounds of stuff at home, the 52 pounds of gear that traveled across Mexico with us proved perfectly adequate.
The only specialized purchases with this trip in mind were the three Fire HD 7 tablets. Everything else we already owned (like bookbags) or needed to buy anyway (like shoes). I anticipated spending a lot more to gear up for our big trip. But as it turns out, most of what we already own was “good enough” to get us out the door and all over Mexico.
If you were limited to just one large bookbag for a seven week trip, what would you put in it? What item would be hardest to leave at home because it wouldn’t fit?