Even though I’ve never owned a home, as I traveled around the world I often felt as if my suitcase was my home. I might as well have mortgaged it considering I lived out of a suitcase for 16 months. I’ve lived in apartments for less time than that! At least with my suitcase I never had to deal with a fussy co-op board; except for my socks, but they never really gave me any grief unless they needed washing.

You may wonder how on earth you can live out of a suitcase or backpack. I can’t say it’s easy, but with a few of these tips, you’ll at least make sure your whole ‘home’ doesn’t smell like your dirty socks!

You are staring at your 4,000 cubic inches of space to fill getting ready for your long-term travel; if there was ever a time to be obsessive-compulsive, it’s now.

When you live out of a suitcase or backpack, organization is key!

These are the steps I used to manage my ‘studio apartment’.

1. Everything has its place

The key to organizing your pack is to not make changes. Always put things in the same place. Decide where you put your toothbrush and always put it back in the same pocket of your toiletry case. I had a backpack pocket that was specifically for my electronics, a place where my shoes fit, a special home for my earrings, my sunglasses fit perfectly into my sneakers, and I always knew where my bikini was. This ‘same-same’ strategy not only helps you pack quickly, but more importantly it helps you keep track of things and avoid losing them. You’ll know right away if you are missing something because it won’t be in its assigned ‘place’.

2. Manage dirty clothes grammatically

One of the hardest things to do is manage the smells in your suitcase; namely the segregation of dirty clothes and clean clothes. When traveling you can’t do laundry every day, and sometimes you can’t even do laundry for a couple of weeks; therefore I advise you to manage your dirty clothes through comparatives and superlatives. This means you separate your clothes into piles of dirty, dirtier, and dirtiest; or if you prefer smelly, smellier, and smelliest. To assess this, you often have to get close to your clothes, really close — and smell them. Assess the odor, and put it in the appropriate comparative or superlative pile, then see the next tip.

3. Go green

You can save the planet AND control your suitcase odor, what more can you ask for? As you travel, save plastic bags to manage your dirty (see comparative/superlative piles above) contents. If you can manage saving different color bags, this is even better. Put your smelly clothes in the pink bag, the smellier clothes in the white bag, and the smelliest clothes in the blue bag. You may want to consider ‘double-bagging’ that blue bag.

When you pack the smelly and smellier bags, these are potentially clothes you can still wear again; dirty, but not too dirty. So, make sure you don’t just chuck them in the bag, but you fold or roll them to keep them nice. You don’t need to close up the bag, you can let it breathe; you’re just providing a little barrier from the clean items. However when the clothes reach the smelliest bag, then you know that they are done. Close it tightly and don’t take them out again until they are to be washed! I also use plastic bags to put my shoes in as they tend to carry odors with them too, so it’s a good idea to separate them if you can. This plastic bag system is cheaper then buying expensive suitcase organizers; and it’s good for the environment!

4. Smell the roses

It’s a great idea to not only separate your dirty, smelly clothes in plastic bags, but I also recommend adding a whiff of freshness to those bags. There are a number of options here for trying to keep the bags smelling nice. I used to carry a little spray bottle of Fabreeze with me to douse the clothes before they went into a bag. Another great option is to purchase the little deodorant shoe balls and chuck a couple in each bag. Actually I had about eight of these little balls that I would use in shoes, in my dirty bags, in the bottom of my backpack and other little pockets. They are cheap, light, and they make a difference! If you want to go really budget and light, then simply pick up a packet of dryer sheets. They have to be replaced from time to time, but place them between layers of clothes and it will protect your pack from smelling like your shoes!

5. Clean house

The last step is obvious. Find a place to wash those clothes and enjoy the bliss of having a clean backpack. It’s just like sleeping on clean sheets — heavenly!

Looking to buy a suitcase for travel? Start browsing on Amazon. Or if backpacks are more your thing, see our best backpacks for travelling.

The Indie Travel Podcast is run by people who have been living out of a couple of suitcases backpacks since 2006. Read more about Craig, Linda and the Indie Travel Podcast

Your thoughts on "How to live out of a suitcase"

  • Wow; attack of the spam sites in the links to this post!

    on June 4, 2009 at 12:18 pm Reply
  • As for keeping your suitcase fresh, I always stick a few dryer sheets throughout my suitcase. It keeps things smelling nice and they are great to use if you end up actually doing laundry.

    on June 10, 2009 at 6:11 am Reply
  • They don't have dryer sheets in NZ?! Dryer sheets are simply the little, nice smelling, sheets that you place in the dryer with your clothes. They prevent static cling, soften your clothes, and makes them smell like a field of flowers; and they are also great for putting in your pack!

    on June 10, 2009 at 10:22 am Reply
  • For some reason when dirty clothes have been lost in the bottom of my backpack, and I pull them out again, I sort of trick myself into thinking they are clean. They certainly don't smell as bad as the ones I have on! I tell myself it sort of feels like Xmas to find something lurking around down there that I haven't seen in awhile...

    on June 10, 2009 at 2:57 pm Reply
  • Socks are a typically smelly culprit in one's backpack, which is why I tested out the claims by Smart Wool that theirs would last longer between washes (than an average pair) without getting smelly. And after using several pairs on my trip around the world, I can stand behind that claim. They cost a bit more, but getting a few extra days of wear out of them was worth it to me. https://www.smartwool.com/default.cfm

    on June 10, 2009 at 4:33 am Reply
  • Funny stuff. You know what is even worse than your clothes smelling bad? It is when you don't even notice how bad they smell. I have been there before.

    on June 10, 2009 at 6:03 am Reply
  • Good Morning Sherry! Loved learning about your suit case and how you organize your moving home. Darci is in Wichita this week baby sitting Benjamin and Sarah while John and Marci are in College Station, TX for his work. Spouses are treated royally with entertainment during this week so hopefully Marci is enjoying. Darci, Benjamin, Sarah and I plan to go to Lisa, John and kids today for a get together and maybe swim and view a couple of kids play softball at 6:00 PM before returning to Wichita. I do enjoy your website and learn about world for your writings. Interesting. Have a blessed by God Almighty day. Vonny Stay safe on your motor bike in all that chaos

    on June 10, 2009 at 7:57 pm Reply
  • I second the smartwool socks. They're the only brand I buy nowadays. I'm sure the magic will fade at some point, but I'm loving them. Margaret, please help me: what's a dryer sheet?

    on June 10, 2009 at 9:19 am Reply
  • I do 90% of our washing and I've never seen them. Then again, I've never separated a colour from a white item or anything like that either. If it can't get washed all together, it doesn't get bought :)

    on June 10, 2009 at 10:29 am Reply
  • We have dryer sheets in New Zealand definitely! The secret to travelling light and fast with clean clothes is to hop into the shower wearing your dirty socks, underpants and t-shirt; then remove them while in the shower and scrub them madly with soap and shampoo. Saves heaps of time and money.

    on June 13, 2009 at 7:29 am Reply
  • Why don't you use a basin or bucket to hand wash your clothes?

    on January 30, 2010 at 12:59 am Reply

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