Always be ready
May 13, 2012 1:05 PM   Subscribe

I move a lot and often. Help me live out of my backpack.

I'm moving to New York next month, and it'll probably be a sublet so I'll be moving again in a couple of months. I learned that room-renting moves pretty quickly, so I'll have to be ready to get on a train on, like, a day's notice. I'd also like to be ready to move in on short notice, too, so I'm into the idea of being able to bring everything with me wherever I go.

It'd be great if I could travel light through all of this, and with the help of, I've decided it wouldn't be impossible. I don't own a lot, so I think if my bag was big enough I could fit everything I own into one bag. This is a much better idea than the time I mailed my things to myself in twenty small boxes.

I like this backpack because it's 85L and it's pretty cheap. I don't know if 85L is too much, but I would like to bring more than four days' worth of clothes. I also want to fit literally everything I own in it, of course. I'll take other suggestions under $100, but the one I found is looking pretty good. I'm female, 5'2 if that matters.

Since a lot of these rooms I'm looking at are unfurnished, I don't want to buy a bed every couple of months, so I'm thinking of either getting a cot (I like this one) or a sleeping bag (this one). Which would be more comfortable for the long-term? I used to have an airbed, and it literally took four days to start to deflate. No, thank you. I'm leaning toward a sleeping bag because it will fit in the previously mentioned backpack.

Should I get travel cookware? I'm starting to feel like I'm camping, but still...I have a small pot, but even that's pretty bulky. They stack together!

How could I make this sleeping situation more comfortable? I don't especially love sleeping on one thin layer, but to be fair my last sleeping bag was used and I had no pillow. I also used to have a futon, and it was worse than a sleeping bag. Mattress pad?

Would I look dumb walking around the city with a hiking backpack? The current alternative is an old, loud, big wheeled suitcase.

How many changes of clothes should I bring? I'm aiming for ten shirts and maybe five skirts, and as many undergarments as possible. I'll also have a hoodie, two sweaters, a winter jacket, winter boots, sandals, regular boots, and regular shoes. It's a little ridiculous, but what's more ridiculous is being unprepared for the fatal winter winds. I want to be ready to hand-wash my clothes, in case the laundromat is a hundred blocks away and costs $10 to wash my meager amount of clothes. So I guess I should get some soap or something.

Can I fit this thing on the Amtrak train? They're really lenient, but I at least have to fit it under my seat or up above.

Other thoughts? Packing tips?
posted by lhude sing cuccu to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I've travelled for 6 months with just a carry on sized bag, so this should be possible. Mind you, I had the luxury of knowing it was for a limited time. Will you? Also, I didn't have to worry about sleeping stuff, too much.

Maybe a bolster as a pillow? Check out some yoga sites.

Get packing cubes. One for shirts, one for underwear. Eagle Creek makes some. You want to compartmentalise as much as possible. You could also use a packing cube stuffed with clothes as a pillow.

You can get nice travel clotheslines that are twisted, so you can attach your clothes to them without clothes pegs.

You might prefer a non-top loading bag. If you're staying in one spot, this might not be an issue, because you won't be going in and out of the bag all the time, but if you are, it's a pain to have to dig something out from the bottom.

I use a sarong as a towel when I travel.

Packing cubes would be my number one suggestion.
posted by backwards guitar at 1:29 PM on May 13, 2012

I found this video helpful for packing clothes efficiently. It also helps if you're willing to pack things inside other things. When we move, for example, our shoes and boots are stuffed with socks and underthings, our knives ride in our frying pans, so on and so forth, it really helps save space.

You could get a sleeping pad to go with your sleeping bag, it'd give you a little cushion off the floor. It's like a yoga mat, but tends to be a little longer and wider. And you could roll it up and tie it beneath your backpack as you wander around the city, which might make it a little easier to deal with than a cot and give you more space in the bag itself.

If you walk around the city with a backpack, people will think you're a backpacker. If you walk around with a big suitcase, they'll think you're a tourist. However, it being New York, most of them aren't going to think about or acknowledge you at all unless you're gawking or moving slow on the sidewalk. There will be far weirder people on the subway than a girl wearing a backpack or dragging a suitcase.

In terms of cookware, how much cooking do you plan to do? If it's "little" or "none", I'd just get a hot pot like this for heating up water and making simple soups and such. If it's "some", I'd go to the store and find the most size/space appropriate sauce pan and single pot for however much you like to make in a batch of whatever you make. I don't know if you need a full set, persay. As long as you keep them clean, you can fill them up with stuff when you shove them in your bag. Like there's no reason a pot and sauce pan couldn't be loaded up with socks or something and tossed in the bottom when you move.

I don't know where you're living and I don't live in New York, but every time I've lived in an urban area, there've been a fair number of laundromats around because nobody has washers and dryers. I do know between the subway and buses it'll probably be pretty easy to get around, so were it a hundred blocks away, you could bus it. If you want to save weight and space, most laundromats sell little packets of detergent for about a buck, maybe two. I'd also bring a mesh laundry bag with a carry strap unless you want to be using your backpack to haul your dirty things around.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:32 PM on May 13, 2012

Would a steamer trunk be a better alternative to a backpack or suitcase?
posted by evoque at 1:35 PM on May 13, 2012

I've slept comfortably on a self-inflating mat on a friend's floor for several days. Mine was MEC-brand, but similar to this Therm-a-Rest one. They're portable, comfortable (relatively-speaking) and pretty rugged.

I used to have an airbed, and it literally took four days to start to deflate. No, thank you.

I also used a queen-size air mattress as my bed for about two years (with husband and two cats!). I had to patch tiny punctures twice, but it held up. It did need to be topped up with air once in a while, and you definitely need a layer of blankets between you and the bed, primarily for warmth.

Would I look dumb walking around the city with a hiking backpack?

What, once every few months? Maybe, but who cares? Use whatever works to carry your gear.
posted by bethnull at 1:36 PM on May 13, 2012

To me, "a day's notice" ≠ "I must fit my life into one backpack". If you're moving, then move. That means bringing along all your undergarments, even if you have to make two trips to move them every few months instead of one.

I understand the appeal of living like a backpacker, but it might end up costing you. Take, for example, your proposal of buying travel cookware. You're obviously going to outgrow it someday and have to buy a real pan or pot, and then you'll have bought something twice when you could have just allowed yourself a bit more luggage.

Finally, you might look into getting a shikibuton. Much smaller than a typical futon, but still converts nicely to a chairlike object even without a frame.
posted by acidic at 1:43 PM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Re: air matresses, I have a full-size aerobed, and it's awesome. It has an integrated compressor to inflate the bed, and buttons to push to make it softer or firmer. My parents used regularly in a second-home sort of setup, and I slept on it for a couple months before I got a job and bought my bed. I'm planning to bring it with me in checked baggage when I move again in a few months. They're bulky, but not too heavy. Clothes stuffed in a t-shirt makes a pretty darn good pillow, or memory foam pillows crunch down pretty small.

I agree with acidic that a little more stuff will allow you to be a lot more practical - I've moved overseas twice, for a year, with airline luggage allotments of stuff. Maybe figure on getting a cab to move between sublets? What will happen to the stuff you can't take with you?
posted by momus_window at 1:54 PM on May 13, 2012

I don't totally understand this question-- is the move to New York permanent? What is your timeline here? I guess I'm confused as to why you're forcing yourself to live like a backpacker when you're planning to be renting apartments for several month stretches at a time. You're talking about moving within the city, right? So obviously moving a ton of stuff every couple months would be a pain, but getting it down to 85L seems super excessive. If you have to take three shortish trips on the subway to move all your stuff from one apartment to the other a couple times a year vs one trip on the subway.... well, that seems worth it to me.

anyway, to actually answer your question--

Cots/air beds and sleeping bags don't really serve the same purpose-- one is something to sleep on, one keeps you warm. Sleeping bag (or blankets) you'll definitely need. I think you should revisit the airbed-- sounds like you just had a bad experience. They do develop leaks eventually, but I've slept on one for a couple years before that happened. They're cheap, [more] comfortable [than your other options], and very easy to transport.

You could buy backpacker style cookware but I don't think it would be cost effective. You're paying a premium for the portability. Just buy one saucepan and one skillet and move them. Don't skimp on cookware-- you'll lose money if it's too hard to cook and you just eat out all the time.

Re: soap. Again, it's not going to be cost effective to buy single use packets when you can just buy a big thing of soap. If you really don't want to lug the soap from apartment to apartment, it will probably cheaper to buy a normal size bottle of detergent, use it for two months and throw it out when it's halfway used rather than to buy single use packages for two months.

85L packs are pretty big-- I would guess you could fit all that clothing into it, but not so sure you could put it under the seat-- most amtrak trains have a rack at the end of the car for bigger luggage, though.

However, a suitcase has the advantage of potentially doubling as a table if you put a cloth over it!
posted by geegollygosh at 2:03 PM on May 13, 2012

Amtrak: If you are moving on elsewhere in the northeast after you live in New York, you can definitely bring that on the amtrak. They have luggage areas and I have travelled with two big suitcases and a backpack on the northeast corridor line before with no trouble.

You won't look dumb walking around the city with a hiking backpack when you're moving. You might look a little out of place if you use the backpack as your everyday bag, but there are always some backpackers around.

From your packing list it looks like you're not planning to bring trousers/pants. What seasons are you planning on being in New York for? I like pants in the winter, at least.

Seconding momus_window's cab idea. I've used taxis twice for moving and unless you're going across multiple boroughs its is a relatively inexpensive way to make the move much easier.

Where are you planning on living? I've pretty much never had to go more than 5-6 blocks in Manhattan, usually less, for laundry and it usually costs $5 or less for a week-sized load.

Also, unless you are on a very very tight budget (like, no spending) stuff like cookware you can buy when you get there and see what your roommates already have. There is an ikea in Red Hook (with a ferry!) and a bunch of restaurant supply shops on the bowery.
posted by zingiberene at 2:05 PM on May 13, 2012

I guess I don't quite understand.
You are moving to NYC, there are stores, you can buy stuff like soap or detergent there.
How long will you stay? Once you have a place, you will want to make it homey and not stuff everything in your backpack every day.
You talk about winter - that's like a few month down the line, why not sublet for a few month?
How often will you move?
There are furnished apartments. So maybe cookware is a little overkill? If you're going to live with roommates they are going to have all the necessities plus some.

About the backpack: get one for women, that is light and designed for smaller frames (sorry, didn't check your link). I am saying this because you might want to use the same backpack for future travels where you have to carry it for hours. Or if you decide to take the suitcase with you, that could work better for long term clothes storage.

About the moving part: In every big city you could even put your stuff in a shopping cart and roll it to your new address. Who cares.
Also: you are moving within the city, it is reasonable to make a few trips (even by walking/public transport) should you acquire more stuff along the way (clothes, books, home ware).
posted by travelwithcats at 2:06 PM on May 13, 2012

I couldn't speak as to the packing logistics of your proposal, but on the Amtrak trains I have taken enormous bags onto, all have had a special luggage rack in each car for fitting the more outsize luggage. My hundred litre bag fits there just fine. It sounds like you're in for a stressful time, but I doubt Amtrak will be adding too much to your woes.

Disclaimer: all of my Amtrak experience is on the west coast, hopefully they use roughly the same style of train nationwide.
posted by DSime at 2:10 PM on May 13, 2012

If you search for furnished rooms, you won't have to worry about the bed, and possibly a dresser, too.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:26 PM on May 13, 2012

Response by poster: I guess I'm confused as to why you're forcing yourself to live like a backpacker when you're planning to be renting apartments for several month stretches at a time. You're talking about moving within the city, right?

How long will you stay? Once you have a place, you will want to make it homey and not stuff everything in your backpack every day.

I'm becoming a minimalist. I'm always ready to move because I know I move so often. I know I can buy more stuff when I get there. I guess you're right about the pots and stuff though; I'll get that stuff while I'm there.

If you're moving, then move. That means bringing along all your undergarments, even if you have to make two trips to move them every few months instead of one.

Re: moving: I hate making more than one trip, even within the city. I don't know if it's like this in New York, but in Chicago I always had to take a train, a bus, and walk just to get anywhere. At least my first inter-city move will be between different boroughs, so it won't be that pleasant in any case.

Really, my biggest problem is my stupid bed.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 2:27 PM on May 13, 2012

Really, my biggest problem is my stupid bed.

You need to decide on the trade-off between comfort and convenience for moving. Choices include, from most to least portable: a camping-style sleeping mat, air mattress, cot, a traditional futon (fairly thin, made with materials like cotton and wool, and can be rolled/folded up), a "western" style futon (thick, often with a foam or spring core, not rollable), and a conventional innerspring mattress.

With a moving frequency of months and not days/weeks, or years, I think a traditional futon is your best bet. It won't fit in a bag and it will be a pain to take via public transport, but it will be comfortable. Plan on hiring a cab or car service when moving; there's no reason to suffer trying to drag it through the subway. Definitely don't get it or order it until you're in NY as there's no reason to move it from Chicago with you.
posted by 6550 at 3:02 PM on May 13, 2012

Minimalistic living means to compromise on comfort, I think. I can sleep just fine on a yoga mat with a sleeping bag. And I have slept in hammocks on travels. Those are easy to pack as well, only caveat is you need something to attach them to.
Did you try this lifestyle at home yet? I could imagine you could borrow a yoga mat from a friend, maybe even a hammock and give it a try before you buy it yourself. You mentioned an airbed, do you mean this? I had good luck with those self inflatable mats (don't recall the specific brand).
A guy I knew a while back had a mattress on milk crates. Crates could serve for storage too. They are certainly easier to move than furniture.
From my own travel experience I can tell you that having things that serve different purposes is neat. Like a sarong: could be a skirt, a light blanket in summer, a curtain, a towel, serve as a pillow etc.
posted by travelwithcats at 3:07 PM on May 13, 2012

I travel a fair bit for work, hate checking luggage, and hate carrying heavy luggage even more. So I really feel you on wanting to take just one trip when you're moving!

In my obsessive quest to travel light and organised, the two most useful things I've found in my pursuit of managing stuff are zip loc baggies and Baggu style eco bags. Zip locs for packing toiletries AND as defacto packing cubes ie all the socks in one bag, all the underwear in another. Smooshes down to nothing and saves time trying to find things in a tightly packed bag. I always have one Baggu with me for laundry while I'm wherever I'm staying. When I leave, the laundry gets packed in either a big zip loc or a separate suitcase compartment and the Baggu comes with me as a tote for all the bits and pieces I inevitably collect en route. If you don't like buying/throwing away zip locs, you can get decently sized packs from Ikea for $2 with cute patterns and quite strong plastic that last ages and withstand many, many uses.

Regarding the suitcase or backpack, honestly, forget about how you look and get the suitcase on wheels. It will be so much easier on your body than the backpack, so much easier to pack stuff into, and when you are all moved in, you can use it for storage or drape a scarf over it and have a bedside table.

I am also a fan of air mattresses. You don't have to wait for them to deflate, you take the plug out and press down to push the air out. As you roll or fold the mattress to pack it, you push more air out. They come with carry cases usually which you could easily balance on your suitcase as you pull it by its extendable handle.

And if it's not out of your budget, a down jacket squishes down to nothing, is super warm and makes a great comfy pillow.
posted by t0astie at 3:53 PM on May 13, 2012

I've done this a bit, and for a few months last year lived in a tiny room that was 8'x6'. It was actually really wonderful, and I realized how content I can be to live with almost nothing, out of a 42lt pack and a duffel bag. I have also traveled quite a bit, from 'backpacking' via couchsurfing and hostels to backpacking in the woods with an alcohol stove and fishing rod. Ultimately, it's much nicer to have have travel gear for traveling and a legitimate bed, desk, chair, and way to hang or fold-and-shelve clothes when you're living in one place. If you're moving every several months, the extra couple hours it'll take to make multiple trips on the subway/hire a cab/find someone with a truck on craigslist is immaterial in terms of personal comfort. I feel that a lightweight desk and comfortable chair and a mattress with real bedding are essential in terms of my feeling rooted in a place (I also like to bring 3-4 things to put on the wall, usually Nat'l Geographic maps that fold up small). It's not much of a compromise to own a skillet, a pot, a decent couple knives and pieces of cutlery, etc. Rather, don't get so preoccupied with the ascetic philosophy of minimalism to lose sight of the fact that you actually have to live, and that it's possible to live very sparsely without sacrificing comfort, or without inadvertently hinging your philosophy of minimalism around consumerism. You probably don't need to buy anything special or new to be a minimalist.
posted by tapir-whorf at 4:07 PM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

you know, moving a lot of stuff might be a hassle, but consider how to make the other ninety odd days pleasant too. i'd skip buying a crappy backpack, travel pots and other stuff which is not suitable or necessary for daily life. [cooking on travel pots at home sucks - food gets burned easily, they're too small and thin, etc]. don't buy any other travel crap, you don't need it. you can probably handle a medium backpack and a rolling suitcase on a single trip, easy, but really, sleeping on the floor for a year sucks. especially in short term rentals and sublets, which are not as nice and clean as minimalism porn. your line of sight inclues all of the outlets which weren't cleaned for a decade, all sorts of cords, dirt, etc. I know this because I hate moving my bed and I always end up sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag for a week or two before getting it out storage. you could find apartments with at least some furnishing. beds are pretty common in short term rentals.

if you insist on buying a backpack [the stairs + suitcase combo sucks, but in my opinion the extra volume is worth it], keep in mind that you're not going to be walking for more than 1-2 kms with a backpack, so really, anything with two shoulder straps will be fine. don't bother with anything which looks like a "hiking backpack" - it is designed with needs exactly opposing yours in mind. you don't need a fancy harness, stability system, rain cover, etc for short moves, spending 30 minutes tops out in the elements. packing a frying pan into one of these means you don't have space for anything else. i would get something which is well made and which will last. pay as little as possible for features that you do not need and premium for volume and construction. i can highly recommend north face expedition duffels, which have shoulder straps and will get high volume of heavy stuff from one place to another.
posted by ye#ara at 4:44 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would submit, for a bag, the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. I have one; took it last time I went to the family for the holidays. Held a week of clothes including a second set of shoes. I got the cubes to go with it, which helped in the packing (pants in one, shirts in another, socks and underwear in a third, and a clear-sided cube on top for toiletries). I checked a mostly-empty suitcase, but that and my computer bag went on with me with no problems. Strong material, integral backpack straps, optional shoulder straps, extra handles and pockets. (The computer bag is the Empire Builder which is also a good, solid bag.)

(Admittedly, I flew first class, but still, this was at the Christmas Holiday season, so there were actually people's bags getting put into the first-class section overheads.)
posted by mephron at 5:14 PM on May 13, 2012 first inter-city move will be between different boroughs, so it won't be that pleasant in any case.
This is a slight derail, but once you get to NYC, you can move cheaply using Arecibo or other car services. They have minivans, and charge the same amount for a cab ride as they do for moving a minivan full of stuff. Just make sure to tip well if you take a long time loading and unloading the van.
Depending on the distance between apartments, you can move 15 boxes from Brooklyn to Queens for about $20-45.
posted by DaveZ at 8:35 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding DaveZ. I moved my entire wardrobe—winter stuff, summer stuff, formal dresses, overcoats, undies, and about 30 pairs of shoes—via car service (Arecibo, New Day, Northside, Metroline, etc), 6 times in my first year here. You don't have to "camp out," or live out of a backpack. That said - I had a GIGANTIC rolling suitcase that contained everything. Worked amazingly.

You can also get furnished rooms, so no bed necessary. Is there a reason you aren't looking at furnished? And most sublets are in someone's apartment, so unless specified, you generally get to use their cookware.

And I hear you on the airbed thing, but is it really a big deal to flip the switch every night to fill it back up?

If you're just moving a few blocks, you can also do the whole Granny Cart bit. I did this twice, in that same year. (Total of 8 moves in a year. Ugh.) I used the cart to drag my stuff across Williamsburg. No big deal.
posted by functionequalsform at 10:28 AM on May 14, 2012

I own and love this ultralight cot. I bring it with me whenever I travel to friends houses so I don't have to sleep on a couch. It is expensive, but in terms of comfort/portability, it beats everything else in the universe.
posted by Freen at 11:02 AM on May 14, 2012

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