What to Pack for your Family Gap Year?

One question we are regularly asked is ‘What should we pack for our family gap year?’ Or just, ‘what should I pack for kids?’ When we decided to take our four kids out of school and head off on a family gap year, there wasn’t a lot of good information to guide us. Instead we relied on past travel experience and a desire to keep our luggage to the bare minimum. I’d say we didn’t do too badly, but after traveling around the world for nearly 18 months, we are now expert packers.

Of course what you pack will depend on where you’re going, but the goal when traveling with kids should be to only pack the essentials. Do your kids really need five pairs of jeans when you’re going to have access to laundry? Sandals, flip-flops & sneakers? One of the many liberating things about traveling is you don’t have anyone to impress. You’re not seeing your same friends or colleagues or neighbours each day. You can wear what you love and wear it to death. Consider it your travel uniform, to be worn proudly day after day. Having a variety of outfits is just wasted space and extra weight for you to lug around each travel day.

Turns out that packing just the essentials isn’t so easy, so don’t leave it until the night before you go. Give yourself a couple of days to work through it. Start by grabbing everything you think you’ll need on day one. Place it in neat piles on your dresser or floor. Then go back on day 2 with the goal of cutting those piles in half. If you’re really ruthless, go for round three the next day. In the end you should be left with the things your kids really love to wear and just a few of each… except undies. Best to pack plenty of undies. ☺

For our adventure we decided to follow the sun. We were rarely outside of summer so we needed little in the way of cold weather gear. This really reduced the weight and bulk of our luggage. If part of your journey involves snow sports or high latitudes, you’re going to need a bigger suitcase.

Below is more or less what we packed for our family gap year. Actually it’s better. It is what we would pack for our kids if we were setting off again today with all the lessons learned.

What to pack for your family gap year

LUGGAGE

We wanted our kids to be able to tow their own luggage. With six of us going through myriad airports and train stations, this seemed a necessity for a family gap year. So each was packed in a carry-on size wheelie bag from Herschel Supply Co., which they could easily tote themselves. The older the kid, the bigger their clothing, the tighter the squeeze, but we made it work. In hindsight, even softer luggage could have helped when cramming bags for six into the back of small rental vans. Duffle bags, or better, duffle bags with wheels, might be the ideal.

what to pack in your child's carry on

Each kid also got to bring along their own backpack on our family gap year—also by Herschel Supply Co. They got to fill it with a few of their favourite things, but the deal was it couldn’t be too heavy. It was going to be their responsibility to keep track of their things and carry their backpacks through the airports. Plus, they had to save space for future souvenirs.

BACKPACKS:

-Books
-Work books
-Coloured Pencils
-Travel-sized games like Uno, Dobble and Monopoly Deal
-Favourite toy or stuffed animal

CLOTHING FOR KIDS:

– 2 swimsuits & 2 rashies for sun protection
– A sunhat (preferably one that folds up in a suitcase)
– 4 or 5 t-shirts for the boys
– 3 or 4 pairs of shorts for the boys
– 4 or 5 dresses for the girls
– 1 long-sleeved tee for each boy and 1 long-sleeved shirt for the girls (great for layering under dresses if needed)
– 1 cardigan for each girl
– 2 pairs of leggings for each girl (great for layering under dresses if needed)
– A cosy wool jumper (we did not bring along scarves or boots or mittens, though we bought some wool socks on a particularly blustery summer day on the Otago peninsula of New Zealand!)
– One raincoat/waterproof shell
– A pair of socks (though they were hardly ever worn!)
– 5 to 7 pairs of undies
– 2 pairs of pyjamas
Native Shoes – A sneaker and water shoe in one. Easy to put on and off themselves. Useful to have closed toes for walks
– A pair of Saltwater sandals or Birkenstocks
– A Turkish towel from Morihata — a very comfy take on these great space saving towels that dry quickly on the clothesline

KIT

In addition to the kids suitcases we had two other carry-on sized bags. These were for kit. The first was a mix of accessories such as phone chargers, camera lenses, power adapters, first aid kit and so on. The essentials in this bag were:

– Our portable speaker. We’ve since bought the UE Boom waterproof speaker that we love even more.
Waka Waka Solar Charger & Light. Having a spare charge and a torch/flashlight came in super handy.
– Portable Laundry Line
– Small, foldable duffel (for temporary items like dirty laundry that couldn’t be cleaned before a travel day)
Water Purifying Bottle. In the end we never used ours so we donated it to a family in Sri Lanka. Still, if you’re going somewhere with limited access to potable water it’s nice to have.
Medical Travel Kit: Not sure this is available everywhere but this compact kit with an assortment of antibiotics, topical treatments and first aid supplies was great to have along. Thankfully we didn’t use much more than the band-aids.
– Inflatable booster seats: For the bigger kids, these inflatable ‘Bubblebum’ boosters have made car travel so much easier.

The second kit bag was entirely home school supplies. In here we had:

– School books — We mostly used this series from the UK
-Reading books
– Workbooks/Practice books for handwriting, spelling, etc.
Journals – Our favourite momentos from the journey. We’ve written a whole other post on these. Full size and hardback is key. Moleskin offers a good option if you can’t find the Leuchtturn ones we used.
Blackwing Pencils with a good metal sharpener
– A ruler/straight edge
– Playing Cards
Washi tape & glue stick
– Watercolour paper and paint

Now, having gone through the grueling process of culling your items down to one small suitcase per kid we have a final piece of advice: Don’t take up surfing!!!  By the end of our journey we were lugging along two surfboards and five wetsuits from country to country. And to think Michael talked me out of packing a small travel-sized hair dryer because it took up too much space! Haha. ☺

20 thoughts on “What to Pack for your Family Gap Year?

  1. Haha! I actually brought a little travel hairdryer on our gap year trip around the world which literally just finished and I left it behind in Argentina as I never used it. My hair seems much healthier. Thank you so much for all your great advice we followed! Blog in progress after Travelpod closed down…@sophieytavelling on Instagram 😊

  2. Thank you for the comprehensive list. I really enjoyed following your travels around the world. I was curious how you handled liquids (i.e. Toiletries, hair product, face cream etc.)? Did you bring travel sizes in your carry on… or bring full sizes in your checked luggage? How did you replenish necessities once you ran low?

    Also, how did you replenish the children’s books throughout the 18 months? I’m wondering because although my kids love to hear the same stories over and over, they do go through books so quickly and I’m thankful for our local library. Thanks!

    • With regards to toiletries, we packed just the essentials (shampoo, conditioner, face cream, sun creams, toothpaste) and packed them in our checked luggage. Our timing worked out so that we didn’t need to replenish anything for the first few months (apart from toothpaste and sun creams which we could find in pharmacies in South America). When we arrived to New Zealand after 3 months of travel, my sister came to visit and brought new shampoo and conditioner for me. I managed to go the entire year with my one jar of face cream (it helped that we spent a lot of time in humid, tropical countries where I didn’t need as much face cream as I did when we lived in London).
      One of the things that helped when packing was just to remind myself that families live all over the world. If we ran out of something or needed something urgently, we would be able to find it (or an equivalent) when we arrived.
      I answered a question about children’s books in another comment. Again, it helped that after our first 3 months of travel in South America, we arrived to New Zealand where we were able to buy new books for the kids. We also found some great used bookstores when we were in Australia and I was able to buy all new picture books for the girls (and donate the books we’d already read dozens of times).
      xx

  3. Thank you!!!! We leave tomorrow for a year and this is super helpful and, as always, inspiring! Bella and family in San Francisco xx

  4. Thanks for sharing your list Courtney ! Did you have a similar clothing list for yourself and Michael also? I have found on my last couple of trips – one to the States and one to Byron that I just took my favorites and wore them multiple times over. Less to manage!

  5. This is so helpful! Thank you! We’re gearing up for a year long family trip next year and pondering books (for school and fun). My kids are voracious readers and we want to encourage that, but we want to be cautious when thinking through the slippery slope of electronics when our whole point is to see the world and not be tethered to a device. Did you do e-readers for your kids (and if so, which one?)? Take “traditional” books? Would love to hear your perspective.

    • Thanks for your comment, Anne. And how exciting that you’re planning a big family trip. I found that stage of planning and thinking to be so exciting — just knowing all of the adventures that await you and your family!!
      In terms of books, we managed to pack traditional books for our kids. (We too are not big fans of our children using electronic devices.) The biggest issue was packing enough for the 3 months we spent in South America, because we knew it would be tricky to buy new (English) books for the kids from there. Thankfully, our boys can read the same books, so they would swap after reading them. But we had to bring enough chapter books for them and also some chapter books for Ivy. (Obviously, we avoided bringing hard-back books because they were too heavy.) When we arrived to New Zealand, we were able to buy new books (thankfully our timing coincided with Christmas!).
      While we brought a selection of paperback picture books for Marlow, I will admit that this was the one thing we struggled with. Of course she got really bored of the books we had after about a month — so by the end of our time in South America, we were desperate for new books.
      As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we also listened to a lot of audio books.
      I hope this helps?
      Good luck with all your planning! x

    • Michael and I also each had a small, wheelie suitcase. Which meant that we had 8 small suitcases in total. When you put it all together, it was a lot (and sometimes we struggled to get it all into the back of a car – and we had to cram suitcases under the kids’ feet), but individually we travelled very light. x

  6. LOVE this. We travel a lot with our almost 2 year old and will be doing a family gap year after #2 is born. Thanks for mentioning he Bubble bum, great idea! What about for Marlow? She was so young, did y’all bring a car seat for her or rent one? Thanks!

    • Hi Carrie,
      Thanks for your comment. We didn’t bring a car seat for Marlow — we were able to rent them from all the car rental companies whenever we hired a car. I think it was pretty affordable to do so. x

  7. Hahah I love your last comment about the surfboards 🤣 We are 4 months into our 9 month sabbatical. We started out with a surfboard and one kite, board, harness and bar etc for kite boarding for my husband. The kids and I took up surfing in Sri Lanka and I also learnt to kite surf. Now we are lugging around 3 kites and two harnesses as well as all the other gear 😩 Thankfully we have found it quite cheep to rent surfboards throughout Sri Lanka and Europe, so that would be one thing we would leave at home next time. Also would save the wear and tear getting on and off planes and train for the delicate surfboards/babies 😉

  8. I love this. You have inspired me to go travelling again. We took our 4 children on an 18month bus trip around Australia. After trying now to settle down on the NSW mid-north coast the itchy bug has still got us. This gives me courage to head O/S especially Asia.

  9. Oh my goodness, this feels like you wrote this for us! We leave in 2 weeks time for an open ended year. We will be following a similar route to you and despite being uber organised initially it’s all getting a little bit out of control! Thank you for getting me back on track, I shall sit down this evening and cull my kids clothes. I find it easy to travel light for myself, my husband however currently has a whole 20kgs of clothes alone – wish me luck! Take care.

  10. Hiii! I love your inspiring trip!!! I wish I could do the same when i have kids!!! Fingers crossed! Just fYi for the people that are travelling soon, I am from Argentina, and we have Everything there!!! You just have to.go to the cities but you can find face creams and good ones! Also in airports! So there are no reasons to worry about daily product! You can even find books in English, for kids and adults quite easily!!! Let me know if you need addresses or something , but that is not a problem at alllll! Xxxxxx

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