In search of organizational peace while living on the road
February 1, 2016 10:34 AM   Subscribe

In a few weeks I leave to spend 3 months touring and living in a van to do outreach for an animal rights organization, and I'm trying to devise a good system for my stuff on the road. In particular, I'm in search of a good, roughly duffel-sized vegan bag that I can use for this tour and beyond, plus a good way to keep my toiletries together. More general tips for staying organized while living on the road are welcome.

I'm looking to spend around $50-100 but up to $150 or so if it'll get me a good quality bag of dreams that will last me a long time and hold up well. The trick here is that I'm vegan, so anything leather (or wool, or silk, etc) is out. I'm looking to spend maybe $20-30 or so on a bag for toiletries, if I end up buying one.

I also toured with the same organization last fall, so I know what to expect. I packed pretty well for that trip, but I wasn't completely satisfied with my overall organizational system; the biggest annoyances with my system last time were:

-I had things split between two carry-on-sized bags (a duffel and a suitcase), which was both confusing and took up way too much space.
-My bags didn't have many useful compartments or pockets, so I ended up spending a lot of time fishing around for stuff in the main compartment of the duffel I used.
-I didn't have a good system in place for handling toiletries, especially soap. I pretty much constantly worried about leaving something in a public shower somewhere -- when nothing has a place, you have to fish through your entire bag just to confirm that you still have something.

This time, my goal is to feel together and well-organized -- I feel like I can save myself a lot of time and stress by having a good system in order. Here are some specific snowflake-type details:

-Space will be very tight between living in a van and sharing that living space with my tour partner. The less I bring, the better, so I'm really trying to get down to one bigger carry-on-ish-sized bag plus my laptop bag and maybe a smaller bag for showering. Having less stuff also just means less stuff to keep track of. Thankfully this time I don't have to worry about bringing my bedding on a plane on the way out (tour starts in my neck of the woods), although I will have to figure out a way to get it home with me.

-I won't have to actually carry my stuff very far. Mostly it's shuttling my toiletries/towel/next change of clothes between the van and wherever I'm showering (24 hour gym, RV park shower, etc) and sometimes (every other week or so) bringing all my stuff in and out of the home of someone who is hosting us. I'm open to a smaller bag for all my shower stuff and toiletries; taking a big bag in and out of a van over and over again gets annoying. The biggest thing is that since I will be living out of this bag, I want stuff in it to be easily accessible. As an example of not easily accessible, the big semirigid zipper flap on the carry on suitcase I used for one of my bags last fall was a huge hassle to open inside of the van, since it needed so much clearance to swing open.

-I'm packing a week's worth of clothes. For me that's 7 t-shirts, pairs of socks, pairs of underwear and 2 or 3 pairs of jeans and maybe some shorts, plus a hoodie and a light jacket. Also a pair of shoes and belt, plus some flip flops. Speaking of clothes, any advice w/r/t sorting/handling dirty laundry on the road is welcome.

-Beyond clothes, I only really need to pack toiletries (soap/shampoo/conditioner, nail clippers, lip balm, comb, deodorant, shaver or beard trimmer, toothpaste, toothbrush, floss) plus some essentials (glasses, sunglasses, my laptop, a water bottle, a phone charger). Aside from that I will probably bring a couple books, a mid sized journal, a pair of headphones, a few pens. Maybe some stamps for postcards.

-I think I want a good Dopp kit type bag for toiletries, although I'm also considering one of those things that hangs off a shower head so that I don't have to constantly worry about forgetting soap bottles on the floor of a public shower somewhere. Public showers seem to only have a ledge on which to put your stuff like maybe 30% of the time.

-If I employ smaller bags for shower purposes, I'd like for them to be able to fit inside of my main bag. Something about being able to carry all of my stuff in a single bag really appeals to me.

Any other packing/sorting advice you think is relevant is welcome. Thanks!
posted by Gymnopedist to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would get (or sew) a bunch of differently coloured cloth drawstring bags, that you can use to keep stuff separated inside your big bag, so you can easily pull out what you need. I do this for camping and it's awesome: a bag for clean laundry, a differently coloured one for dirty laundry, one for toiletries and so on. Much less rummaging around in that big bag.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:38 AM on February 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you're just looking for a sturdy, no-frills duffle, I cannot recommend the L.L.Bean Adventure Duffle highly enough. Four sizes, lots of colors, also comes in rolling version of you want that, totally nylon construction, lightweight, will last for ever and ever. It is, however, just a big empty bag with no organization slots or whatnot.
posted by anastasiav at 10:43 AM on February 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would get some packing cubes like these in different colors. Underwear and socks in one, T-shirts in another, dirty clothes in another, etc. You'll instantly get a feel for what is where. Plus they should sit fairly upright in a larger bag so you shouldn't have to pull them out. They have handles so you can take them to the shower, etc. Look on Sierra Trading Post for deals, and there are other companies that make similar products; this is just the first one I thought of. Target also sells collapsible fabric cubes you could use in your van to hold books, etc. For laundry days I highly recommend this hamper that folds flat. Store it in or under your bag when not in use.
posted by desjardins at 10:47 AM on February 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Is there a reason you can't just use a travel-size Dr Bronner's or other liquid soap? Otherwise get a mesh drawstring shower bag and a soap holder for your stuff.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:50 AM on February 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes packing cubes! I have a whole set of the Eagle Creek ones and I love them. Definitely get different colors and sizes, so you know easily which cube contains your tshirts and which your underwear. I bet 3-4 would work well - one for shirts, one for jeans & shorts, one for socks and underwear. Maybe one more to corral extra stuff. I really like the clean/dirty cubes for storing dirty and clean clothes separately, but of course they are more expensive.
posted by john_snow at 11:31 AM on February 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When my family took a huge road trip many years ago, one that took us nearly a month traveling in a station wagon across the country, we used bankers boxes. One for parents warm clothes one for kids warm clothes, one for swimming, one for parents hot weather clothes, one for kids hot weather clothes, one for "nice" clothes, one for toiletries, one for camping, one for things like laundry detergent, etc...

They stacked easily, were labeled clearly, and it made it super easy to pull out exactly what we needed for the day to carry into the motels--no rifling through a suitcase and disturbing everything else just to find the one thing. It was great.

Now, obviously you don't need a system THIS large for just one guy, but the theory is the same. You might think one bag is the easiest way to go, but compartmentalizing so you can pull out exactly what you need and no more really will make it so much easier. Too-ticky and desjardins are on the right path here.
posted by phunniemee at 11:31 AM on February 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Tom Bihn is the gold standard for this type of kit (see for instance, this glorious Night Flight Travel Duffel). That said, it's kind of pricey, so sometimes I just look at their things for ideas and try to get comparable stuff elsewhere. I did spring for this travel tray, though, and I really love it.

L.L. Bean tends to make really good quality stuff for the price point. Here's their medium duffel ($50). Used in combination with ditty bags, this should work to keep you organized.

Ditty bags or stuff sacks are indispensable. You can get cheap ones (like, $5 for 3) or make them yourself if you have a sewing machine and some ripstop nylon. You can use these to separate out your clean clothes from your dirty clothes, keep your random electronics/chargers/etc. together, or whatever you need.

A microfiber towel will save you a ton of space, and it dries much faster than a regular towel.

I think you're right to look for a hanging toiletry kit -- it definitely makes it easier to know where everything is, because you can see it right there. It's also easier to extract what you need without having to dig through a pile. L.L. Bean's toiletry kits are good quality and very handy. Here's the smallest version ($25). Here's another, cheaper hanging kit ($9) that looks pretty good.
posted by ourobouros at 11:34 AM on February 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think the packing cubes and hanging kit are both great ideas of how to handle this -- just popped in to say that LL Bean stuff is super indestructible, and if you think you're going to keep doing this, I'd highly recommend investing so that you don't spend $10 five times or whatever. It's always easier to have stuff that doesn't surprise you by dying at an inopportune time. I have LL Bean stuff that I'm pretty sure I'll donate to the Keith Richards Nuclear Survival Bank upon my death.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:51 AM on February 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just wanted to specify for DarlingBri that yeah, I use exclusively liquid soap. Last time I just used two smaller TSA-approved type liquid soap bottles (one for Dr. Bronner's, another for conditioner) and refilled them from larger bottles. I think that this time I'll just buy travel sized soaps along the way since I'll have a lot of opportunities to restock and because Dr. Bronner's goes a long way thanks to being so concentrated. I really appreciate the suggestions so far, in particular the idea to use packing cubes or similar to compartmentalize things, which I think I'll end up doing.

Also, yeah, I do foresee a lot more of this in my future, so suggestions for indestructible things that will hold up to lots of use are on the nose.
posted by Gymnopedist at 11:55 AM on February 1, 2016

I throw a nylon reusable grocery sack in my bag when I travel and use it to transport a change of clothes + towel + hanging toiletry kit (ourobouros linked a couple) between where I'm staying and the shower. They're almost indestructible and can be laundered if needed.
posted by asphericalcow at 12:27 PM on February 1, 2016

I use ziplock bags for keeping stuff organized. Socks in 1, underwear in another, etc. Shoes go in a recycled plastic grocery bag. I use a mesh bag for toiletries. I have a canvas bag that folds up fir going to the shower at camp or wherever.
posted by theora55 at 12:48 PM on February 1, 2016

Best answer: A couple of little things.
-Put a few postage stamps in you wallet. Don't overthink that one.
-Since losing things in the shower is an issue, deal with that specifically by putting the things you need for the shower in a mesh bag that is just for the shower. If you use some things both in the shower and in other places, get two. One for washing in the shower, one for using at the sink, for example. That way you know what you need in the shower and it is easy to grab, and it is easy to make sure you have it with you when you leave the shower, too.
-Separate out those toiletries that you want to have with you during the day (lip balm, etc.) Keep them together in a pocket, or in a pocket on your water bottle, for example, or sunglasses-case, or with your keys.
-Keep a mesh bag with you for dirty clothes. Carry it with you to the laundromat; carry clean clothes back and repack them. You don't need anything fancy for dirty clothes. A trash bag works in a pinch and keeps dirty-clothes-smells from permeating your clean stuff.
-Use your laptop bag/backpack for your pens, chargers, books, etc.

Beware of getting a suitcase with too many pockets. It is easy to lose track of which pocket something is in and waste time unzipping and re-zipping 14 zippers to find a phone charger. Ask me how I know.

Everything should fit easily into your main suitcase, whatever that ends up being.

Have fun!
posted by SLC Mom at 1:15 PM on February 1, 2016

This year I finally graduated from zip lock bags to zip mesh travel cubes and they are brilliant. I got mine at Marshall's or TJ Maxx. They were $brand names and came as sets of three in graduated sizes.

For shower runs, considered getting a small plastic bucket with a handle and storing your toiletries in that, saves zipping and unzipping in the shower, and it will loop over the shower head or set on the floor and won't take a long time to dry. Put a lid on it and it can sit in your duffel bag and give it some structure.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:10 PM on February 1, 2016

I did some living out of my jeep grand cherokee. I had enough space for a camping backpack. Mine had a pretty good sized frame, so maybe a day backpack?

product 1

product 2

product 3

As for dirty clothes, well, I just dumped mine on the floorboard. I suppose a smallish mesh sack would have been good too.
posted by Jacen at 7:40 PM on February 1, 2016

Packing cubes are great and using one for each kind of clothing is good, but because space and maneuvering room in the vehicle will be limited, consider packing all the parts for one outfit in a single cube. You could do this at the laundromat or in a hotel room where you'd have room to spread out. Easy then to fish one out when you're getting ready for a shower along w/ your toiletries and you're good to go.
posted by jvilter at 8:28 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For future folks searching this thread, here's what I ended up doing, which is working excellently for me as of two weeks into tour:

I got this duffel from Eagle Creek, and I really love it. It's got just enough pockets; it's super light; it fits well on my back when I have to bring it places; it has really good handles that make it easy to move around the van. No one suggested this one in particular, but I ran into it when I was checking out packing cubes and fell in love -- it's a good price for a really good quality bag. It fits all my clothes (listed below) plus some books, my toiletry kit, a tarot deck, a travel towel, my jacket + rain jacket, and some other misc. odds and ends. The advice upthread was helpful to me when I was picking it out. Also check out One Bag for light packing advice.

I got these packing cubes and these, two. The half cubes are really the best size. In the four half cubes (including the compression ones) I can fit:

7 boxer briefs
5 work t-shirts
2 off day t-shirts, including a long sleeved one
6 pair socks
1 pair jeans
1 pair sweat pants (synthetic material)
(I wear a full set of clothes, too)

I use the full sized compression cube for dirty laundry. I think I might get another half cube to use to take outfits into showers and gyms with me.

I got this hanging toiletry kit from Sea to Summit. It's awesome -- a lot of other hanging toiletry kits I saw online seemed way too big and awkward for constant use in lots of unfamiliar showers. This one is small, but not too small. I have 3 3 oz. bottles for soap/shampoo/conditioner in there, a thing of deodorant plus a thing of Certain-Dri antiperspirant (I could travel size these, but haven't gotten around to it), beard conditioner, my toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, lip balm, a gum stimulator (my dentist said to use it), plus nail and toenail clippers and some hair scissors for trimming my beard in the back pocket. I have room for more stuff in there if I wanted, but not so much room that it's awkward to use. Zipped up, the toiletry kit takes up a little less space than a half-size packing cube full of clothes. I really love it. Pro-tip: You might be tempted to hang it on the shower head, but it'll collect water (which eventually runs out, but not quickly) and your toiletry stuff will get wetter than you want. Instead, hang it on the shower curtain rod, where most of the water will miss it (depending on the shower).

I'm using a little laptop bag for my little laptop, plus occasionally books, charging cords, and other misc. odds and ends -- I like having the laptop in a separate bag because it means I can really throw around the duffel without worrying about hurting my lappy. The end result is I can fit everything I have with me on tour in two bags, one of which is very small and the other of which is carry on size. It's a nice feeling, and I definitely feel more together on this tour.

Thanks for all the help, everyone! I hope that this comment helps anyone seeking packing advice.
posted by Gymnopedist at 9:07 AM on March 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

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