Packing for your digital nomad lifestyle is a huge, hard task (I’m looking at you, overthinkers). If you’ve been laboring and excessively researching, I can tell already that we’re going to be friends. I was in that same position in 2017. 

I read dozens (maybe even hundreds) of digital nomad packing lists. I still had a salary and was hellbent on getting everything *now* before my salary was gone and I was a full-time freelancer. 

That pressure, paired with my inexperience traveling abroad, made me the world’s biggest sucker. 

How big of a sucker, you ask?? I even bought “travel socks.” That level. 

So, this advice is coming from a very warm and non-judgemental place. It throws no shade at other packing lists or people who like these products! My own digital nomad gear list is excessive by some standards. 

This blog post is just food for thought, and a little reassurance for you over-planners that only YOU can decide what to take. Just because X, Y, Z items are highly recommended doesn’t mean your travel experience will be improved by it. 

A more complete title would be “Don’t Buy These Pieces Of Digital Nomad Gear UNTIL Hearing This Out.”

If we got through this whole list and you still decide to pack every single item, then that’s a success! You’ve considered the cons as well as the pros and probably really will use these products.

Has this introduction been reassuringly positive enough? Let’s get into it. 

Don’t Buy These 9 Pieces Of Digital Nomad Gear Without Hearing This Out

1. An External Hard Drive 

Many digital nomads swear by the need to carry an external hard drive, but I’m still not sure most of the traveling population needs it. A simple alternative can replace the need for an external hard drive: 

  • Google Drive for desktop 

Google Drive does have minor inconveniences, most notably: if you’re working with an unstable WiFi connection, Google Drive will go online/offline and be annoying. When this happens, it’s best to turn off WiFi and work in offline mode until you’re back on a better connection. 

That’s an occasional inconvenience, compared to the daily task of having to back up your computer to an external hard drive. 

Are you prepared to do that?

2. A Phone USB 

Just like the external hard drive, are you going to routinely back up the photos on your phone? Phone thumb drives are handy for photographers, influencers, etc., but does the average traveler take that many photos? 

Consider this combo instead:

  • Digital minimalism 
  • A cloud backup 

Digital minimalism is the act of intentionally deciding what you want to keep and discarding the rest. Go wild – take 100 photos of a sunset, but then pick and edit the best three and delete the rest. 

Make sure that your phone is connecting to the cloud when you connect to WiFi, and all of your digital momentos are being preserved.  

I fell into the comfy Cloud safety net when I was in Colombia. My iPhone was stolen, so I bought an iPod and signed in with my Apple ID. All of my photos, apps, and notes were right there waiting for me. 

It’s hard to beat that convenience.

3. Aspirational Gear 

It’s an easy daydream to entertain: “when I travel, I’m going to finally _____.”

What’s something your ideal self does that you tell yourself you don’t have time for now? Common answers include:

  • Hiking every day 
  • Doing yoga every morning
  • Reading like wild

It’s good to have goals for your travel lifestyle. Starting new habits when you embark on your digital nomad journey is a great idea. Just be careful before making big purchases and allotting precious packing space to theoretical aspirations.

One of the big surprises of the digital nomad lifestyle is that traveling becomes the same as any routine. You have to find the magic within the travel lifestyle itself, and not just within the adrenalin.

Inside of that carry-on backpack is a pair of hiking boots! That I never used. Not once. It turns out that Travel Kayla did NOT like to hike more than Normal Kayla. Plot twist. Mexico, 2017

4. A Local Phone Chip Or WiFi Hotspot 

Travelers going off-grid (on a sailboat, in a van, etc.) will be exceptions to this, but the average hostel or hotel-hopping traveler can just connect to WiFi at their accommodation.

If connectivity is a concern for you, live by these two rules:

  • Finish EVERYTHING ahead of deadline. This remote work habit is a piece of digital nomad gospel that everyone can benefit from
  • Ask to test the WiFi before paying for accomodation

The piece of advice to “not go abroad without a local SIM card for your phone” is totally unfounded. I’ve read this so many times, but I’ve personally spent years abroad with an American phone in airplane mode and no local SIM card. It’s an extra.

Plus, isn’t part of traveling the chance to unplug? You can check Instagram when you’re back on WiFi at the hostel.

Workaround: always finish all of your work ahead of deadline and check WiFi before booking.

5. A MacBook 

Buying a MacBook won’t assure you anything – it won’t make you more productive, it won’t make you more money, and it won’t make you a better traveler. 

You should pack a reliable laptop, and a MacBook is just one of many choices! Personally, I had a bad experience backpacking with a MacBook Air. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, and I recently don’t have a vendetta against the brand (I’m a loyal iPhone fan).

It just means that there are no guarantees with ANY electronic purchase.

I just think that the conversation around the best laptops for travel is eerily quiet. The answer “Macbook, hands down” isn’t a compelling enough reason to buy one.

Instead, find your digital nomad laptop by answering these three questions:

  1. How discrete is this laptop?
  2. What’s my plan for repairs/replacements?
  3. What do I *really* want to use this laptop for?

You can read more about the importance of these questions and other tips in my article on choosing your best laptop for travel.

6. Combination Tools Like A Spork-Knife

That really needs an emoji after it, doesn’t it? Spork-knife 5000 ?

Picture a venn diagram with two circles. The one on the left is “people who absolutely NEED to travel with their own cutlery” and the one on the right is “people who CANNOT handle the weight of two utensils.”

Be honest: are you in that overlap?

I think most people fit into category one. Carrying travel cutlery is a really wise packing move! Not only does it make you a more sustainable traveler, but it opens you up to spontaneous meals.

Like this delicious number that I ate outside of a church before a day of walking on the Via Francigena. Reims, France, 2020

Take the plunge and take utensils that will actually do the job, and not look like some futuristic feeding device. A normal set of thrift store cutlery or a travel set will work wonders.

7. An External Mouse 

If a mouse isn’t vital to doing your job correctly back home, it won’t make or break you on the road, either. 

It also lacks practicality. Budget digital nomads should expect to find themselves working from all sorts of workspaces: 

  • Moving buses 
  • A hostel bunk 
  • Train terminals and airports 
  • A friend’s couch 

Digital nomads with the budget and the desire to pay for coworking spaces will be the exception to this. Consider your budget and think realistically about where you’re going to work from.

A woman (the owner of this blog) sits on a moving bus working on her laptop
Working while on a moving bus is one of the most zen digital nomad moments for me. Anyone else? You will work in odd spaces like this more than you think. France, 2020

8. A Laptop Stand

This is a Jekyll-Hyde moment because number 8 on my digital nomad packing list is actually also a laptop stand. But I’ll reiterate the same point I made there:

Not everyone will need a laptop stand.

Just like a mouse, a laptop stand is convenient to use if you have a table to work on. The list ends there, though.

The only digital nomad demographic that should really weigh the benefit of lugging around a laptop stand are people who are often on video calls. Specifically, online English teachers come to mind, with mindfully crafted “classroom” backgrounds.

9. Specially-Made Bags For Everything

Amazon will offer you everything: travel shoe bags, travel clothing bags, travel cord bags, travel hairbrush bags (okay, I might’ve made that last one up).

Before adding to cart, ask yourself:

  • is there a simpler way to handle this?
  • could I store this with what I already have?

An easy example is shoe bags. A Ziplock bag would do the trick. A shower cap would do the trick. A bandana would do the trick.

My favorite way to store shoes: a Dollar Tree shower cap. It’s waterproof and cleans easily – what more do you need from a travel shoe accessory!

Those items can all serve other purposes, as well.

Cord bags are another good example. Everyone’s cord needs could never be solved by one specific carrying case. We all have a different number of variously sized cords. Yet, the natural solution to store these might be to buy a cord carrier.

One size will not fit all, and by being so specific with gear purchases, it actually becomes more difficult to find the perfect solution.

Personally, I bought several back in my big-sucker days and none of them fit the bill. A pencil case from Target was 1000x more efficient.

General packing cubes and stuff sacks will serve you loyally and be more versatile than one-trick-solution bags on Amazon.

One notable exception to this is a laundry bag – mesh is a must.

Final Thoughts

Did this anti-packing list help offer more perspective on popular packing items? I hope it did, and despite the somewhat venomous title, I hope it didn’t feel negative.

This was an article that past-me needed to read: the soon-to-be digital nomad who felt so insecure and unsure that they would’ve bought anything piece of gear that they were told they needed.

I mean, travel socks?

Do you have questions about packing for your digital nomad journey? Drop them in the comments and I’ll try to help! One of the big lessons of the travel lifestyle is that you’re never done learning, and your packing list is no exception.