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Family Gap Year: Ultimate Packing List for Full-Time, One-Bag Family Travel

full-time family travel packing list

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The following full-time family travel packing list was submitted by Megan Tenney. See all of our packing list posts here.


Our family of six travels full-time with one backpack each.

Let that sink in for a moment!

Can you imagine living long-term with only the contents of a backpack? It’s one sacrifice we make to live a life of travel, and we love it!

How did we get to this point?

Two years ago, my husband, Daniel, and I hit a wall. Our calendar was bursting at the seams, overloaded with activities, work, school events, church commitments, and so many extras. It was a full-time job just keeping track of our family’s schedule and we were completely burned out.

All of the activities we were involved with were, in theory, things that made us happy. But, in reality, we were just stressed and unfulfilled.

Long story short, we decided we needed a major change. I wanted to move back to the east coast where I grew up (we had been living in Arizona for 13 years), and Daniel was on board.

But, rather than moving across the country right away, we decided to take our time getting there — 9 months was the initial plan.

We booked an Airbnb near Seattle for the first month, loaded up our minivan with our four kids (and our backpacks), and set off on a 9-month adventure that turned into 26 months and is still going!

The Tenney family kids at chimney rock - family travel packing list
The Tenney family kids at Chimney Rock.

After Seattle, we visited Portland and San Francisco and drove the Pacific Coast Highway down to southern California. We stayed warm in the winter, in south Texas and Florida, and then spent the spring and summer making our way up the east coast.

In the past two years, we’ve visited 45 states and Washington D.C. We’ve enjoyed traveling so much that next we plan to take our adventures overseas!

Now that you’ve got the backstory, let’s talk about what we pack!

What to pack for a family gap year

To put it simply, you need clothes and screens. Clothes for obvious reasons and screens because that’s probably how you handle most of your work, school, and entertainment.

Toss in a toothbrush, hairbrush… maybe a first aid kit (including any prescriptions) and an umbrella.

Here are some more thoughts on the different categories of things you may want to bring, and then I’ll give the breakdown of everything we pack in our backpacks.

Clothes

I recommend bringing at least five outfits per person (wear one and pack four). Here are some things to consider as you decide which clothes to pack:

  • Will you hit different climates?
  • Will you need anything dressy?
  • Will you have access to a washer/dryer?

The best clothes to pack are those that don’t wrinkle easily, are versatile (such as black pants that could be dressed up or down), and can be mixed-and-matched. I just bought my oldest son some new clothes and everything is dark blue, tan, or gray, so he can pull out any top and any bottoms and have a match!

A durable pair of sneakers in a neutral color will serve you well in 99% of situations, but I also like to bring a pair of tan sandals that work well on the beach as well as a day of walking around town and can be dressed up or down.

full-time family travel packing list - dressing nice
Sometimes we get fancy!

Screens

It’s up to you whether you bring a laptop, tablet, and/or phone for every person. We’ve found that our older kids need their own laptops, since they use them for school and entertainment, and our younger kids do fine with a tablet.

Don’t forget the cords! Yes, you could save some room and share, but we’ve found it to be helpful to have one designated cord per device. And color code them!

Toiletries

You’ll want your own hairbrush and toothbrush, but anything that will run out, like toothpaste, shampoo, and soap, I recommend buying when you get to each destination. Most places will provide them for you anyway.

Towels

You can probably expect most places to provide you with towels, but we love to travel with microfiber towels. They fold up super flat, so they are easy to add in with your clothes, and they can double as a beach towel!

First Aid & Emergency Supplies

It’s always smart to have a first aid kit with bandages, first aid cream, and basic medications, including any prescriptions.

If you’re driving, be sure to have a set of jumper cables or (even better) a rechargeable jump pack in the car.

Other helpful items include an umbrella, small tool set, small sewing kit, and a water bottle for each person.

Miscellaneous items

You will almost definitely want to bring along some important documents, like birth certificates or immunization records. A lot can be digitized, but sometimes you need original copies, so I recommend bringing along one durable folder with these documents, as well as having digital files at the ready.

We’ve also found it helpful to bring along a mesh laundry bag and an extra backpack (preferably the kind that can be folded up to save space) for any time you find yourself with too many extra things while moving from one place to another!

Is that all?

Confession time! We actually carry more with us than just one backpack each.

While we travel in the States, we have plenty of room in our minivan so we do have a few extra things: a box of books, some toys, and even some musical instruments for the kids to use!

BUT, our backpacks carry all of our essentials, and when we do head overseas that is all we’ll bring: clothes, screens, the most essential toiletries, and maybe some notebooks and pens. We’ll go fully digital with books and schoolwork.

What about toys?

Kids need toys though! What do we do when we just don’t have room?

Here’s what we do. In each new location, we head to a local thrift store and pick up some toys just for that stay! Before heading to our next location, we re-donate the toys.

We’ve done this a few times, and yes, sometimes we’ve grown attached enough that certain toys came along with us! We’ve also found that many Airbnbs provide children’s toys, and that’s always exciting.

There’s nothing better than a new-to-you toy, so the kids are always perfectly happy to play with any toys that are provided and then look forward to something new at our next location.

One-bag travel tips

each family member has packed one bag
Each family member has packed one bag only.

One-bag travel is a bit of a trend lately and it’s exactly what we’ve been describing here. It means you carry everything you need in just one bag. Or six bags, if you’ve got a big family like we do!

Here are some general, helpful tips for one-bag packing:

  • Bring 4-5 outfits and plan to do laundry twice a week (or hand-wash and hang dry as you go)
  • Dress in layers so you can bring extra clothes without weighing down your bag
  • Pay attention not only to carry-on bag dimension requirements but also weight requirements
  • Get a travel backpack that has straps for carrying on your back but can also zip up the straps for easy plane travel
  • Bring clothes that are versatile and can be mixed and matched
  • Consider having one pair of jeans count for two outfits and save some space
  • Use the same clothes for PJs and workout wear
  • Use thermal underwear for PJs and wear them under clothes in cold climates
  • Buy clothes in lighter, wrinkle-free fabrics
  • Consider buying clothes and supplies when you get to your first destination rather than bringing them
  • Buy toys at a thrift store when you get to a location and re-donate them when you leave
  • Pack a foldable backpack in case you need some extra space for items when you travel between locations
  • Make a laminated card for each backpack with a list of everything that should be in there — this will make it easier for kids to do their own packing and to make sure you have everything when you head to a new location
  • Packing cubes can be great for organizing and keeping clothes compact
  • Microfiber towels fold very flat and are lightweight — they can be used for beach towels too!

Our backpacks

For Mom and Dad

Daniel and I each have an REI Ruckpack 40 (he has the men’s version, I have the women’s). If you look at the official measurements, they don’t quite fit the carry-on requirements, but they are soft and can easily squish into the carry-on measuring apparatus, so we expect we won’t have to check them on most flights, when it comes time to fly.

For the kids

Our four kids are currently ages 12, 9, 7, and 4. The two oldest carry large Everest backpacks, and the two littles carry medium Everest backpacks.

kids' backpacks and packing cubes - full-time family travel packing list
Kids’ backpacks and packing cubes.

Full-time family travel packing list

And now the good stuff: a full breakdown of everything we carry in our backpacks for full-time family travel.

In Dad’s Ruckpack:

  • Packing cubes with clothes inside
    • 4 full outfits
    • 2 sets of PJs
    • 1 swimsuit
    • 1 microfiber towel
  • Laptop
  • Laptop cord & mouse
  • Phone & charger
  • Wallet
  • Toiletry bag
    • Toothbrush
    • Hairbrush
    • Deodorant
    • Medicines
  • Sunglasses
  • Earphones
  • Umbrella
  • Plug adaptors (for international travel)
  • Foldable extra backpack
  • Laundry bag

In Mom’s Ruckpack:

  • Packing cubes with clothes inside
    • 4 full outfits
    • 2 sets of PJs
    • 1 swimsuit
    • 2 microfiber towels
Megan's clothing packed for full-time travel.
Megan’s clothing packed for full-time travel.
  • Laptop
  • Laptop cord & mouse
  • Phone & charger
  • Kindle & charger
  • Toiletry bag
    • Toothbrush
    • Hairbrush
    • Deodorant
    • Medicines
  • Makeup bag with makeup
  • Small first aid kit
  • 1 pair of sandals
  • Sunglasses
  • Earphones
  • Passports & important papers
  • Notebook/pens
  • Wet wipes
  • Small purse/wallet
Megan's (mom) backpack and packed gear.
Megan’s (mom) backpack and packed gear.

In Each Kid’s Backpack:

  • Laptop or tablet
  • Charging cord & mouse
  • Earphones
  • Notebook / pencils
  • Small toys / stuffed animal
  • In front pocket:
    • Toothbrush
    • Hairbrush
    • Deodorant
  • Packing cubes with clothes inside
    • 4 full outfits
    • 1 set of PJs
    • 1 swimsuit
    • 1 microfiber towel
What the kids pack for full-time travel.
What the kids pack for full-time travel.

Everyone Wears:

  • 1 full outfit
  • 1 jacket
  • 1 pair of sneakers

Some people think we are crazy to travel full-time with four young children, but it’s more doable than you’d think, and the memories and experiences are worth more than we could ever stuff into a backpack!

Packing it up (videos)

How Megan packs the REI Ruckpack 40 backpack with her full-time travel packing list.
Showing how to pack up the kids’ backpacks for their full-time travel.

About the author: Megan Tenney travels full-time with her husband and four children. At Family Gap Year Guide, she teaches regular families how to take life on the road! Grab her free guide on how to afford full-time travel and live your dreams of seeing the world with your family.

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Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

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