Some Further Thoughts on the One-Bag Challenge

Jeremy writes in:

My group of friends has been kicking around an idea and I wanted to get your take on it. Let’s say you had to live out of a suitcase or a big duffel bag permanently. That’s all the possessions you could own. What would be in that bag and why?

I actually wrote about this a few years ago when I discussed a month-long period where I did this as a 30-day challenge. During that challenge, I aimed to live out of a backpack and a duffel bag. I gave a brief list of some of the items I carried in that bag, but I didn’t get into too much detail; instead, I moved quickly on to the things I learned from doing it, which I boiled down to six lessons:

  • Lesson #1: It is far easier to do this if you have living space of some kind.
  • Lesson #2: At the same time, this approach to life makes a very tiny apartment in a city much more reasonable.
  • Lesson #3: ‘One bag’ becomes more of a challenge with children.
  • Lesson #4: My hobbies would need a lot of re-thinking.
  • Lesson #5: There were some huge advantages, too, like reduction in household chores, easy travel, spontaneity, and reduced expenses.
  • Lesson #6: I would quickly start to put a very high premium on high-quality, sturdy stuff that just works, as well as stuff that takes up less space.

I would really encourage you to read that first article, as I’m going to try to avoid covering the same material again.

I kept a lot of notes during that 30-day challenge, so I have a list of what I originally kept in the bags when I was trying to do this. However, going back through that list with some further reflection, I would change some items. Here’s how I would pack for that kind of “one bag challenge.”

The Bag Itself

If I were to do this, I would want a sturdy and very well made duffel bag that could last for many years. I actually have a duffel bag that I love that I think would be perfect for this – the Best American Duffel #5. It’s incredibly well constructed, holds 85 liters of stuff, and has smartly designed handles and straps. If I were looking at a less expensive option, I would look for a duffel from an army surplus store.

The first thing I would put in this bag is a smaller backpack or large messenger bag. The reason for that is that there are many times when I want to take a small portion of my possessions elsewhere but not carry around the large duffel. For example, if I’m visiting someone but want to spend the day out and about, I’d want a smaller bag to do so, or if I’m going on a short trip, a backpack makes more sense than a huge duffel. I have used a North Face Surge II for many years for this purpose and it works well; I also have a Goruck GR1, which is an incredibly sturdy but overpriced backpack. I will likely never need to buy another one as long as I live, between the two I already have.

Contents of My Bag

So, what goes in the bag? This is a modification of the list I kept when I was doing my thirty day challenge and in much more detail than the earlier post. It’s worth noting that some of these items are in there because I’m not assuming things about where I’ll be staying. If I can assume that I’m always living in a home or apartment or hostel or something like that, many of these items can go away.

Clothes are the foundation of the bag. Not only do I need enough clothes to survive for a number of days between washings, they also provide the padding needed to protect some of the stuff in the middle of the pack.

Five shirts: Two t-shirts, one long-sleeved t-shirt, one dressier short-sleeved shirt, and one dressier long-sleeved shirt. I would buy items that are extremely wrinkle resistant and store them by rolling them up to minimize space.

Four trousers/pants: One fairly dressy pair of pants, two pairs of jeans, and one pair of nice shorts. This would shift a little depending on the climate, but I typically avoid shorts until it’s at least in the upper 80s and I live in Iowa, so this is appropriate. The dressy pants and shorts must be as wrinkle resistant as possible.

Five pairs of socks: Two pairs of athletic socks that I can sweat in, one pair of dressier socks, and two pairs of winter appropriate socks (probably thick merino wool socks). Again, this covers the various uses of socks. During the summer, I wear sandals 95% of the time, so these are mostly for workouts where I’m wearing shoes or cold weather.

Five pairs of underwear: This is self-explanatory.

Two pairs of long underwear: Again, this is more important in colder climates. This serves as an under-layer beneath my pants on cold days.

A hooded sweatshirt: Essential for several months out of the year in northern areas.

A cardigan: A dressier alternative to the hoodie.

One reasonably dressy fall jacket: This will be worn much of the time in the fall and spring and less intense parts of the winter. I want a sturdy jacket I can wear in a variety of temperatures.

One hardy winter coat: This will take up some real space, but isn’t needed in warmer climates. On a -20 F day in Iowa, though, I’ll pull out my arctic Carhartt. Keeping warm is far more important than appearance at those temperatures.

Winter accessories, meaning a stocking hat, gloves, and a scarf.

A summer hat, which is less expensive than sunscreen.

A tie for dressier moments.

A pair of dressy shoes: These are worn on nice occasions.

A pair of cross training athletic shoes: These can be worn for exercise most of the time. I would beat the snot out of these and replace them when they start to fail.

A pair of sturdy sandals: My default when it’s warm.

A pair of heavier winter shoes: My default when it’s cold and snowy and icy.

My clothing would take up about half of the bag’s volume. The rest of the items would fit in the other half, largely surrounded by clothes.

A couple of reusable bags: This would be useful for organizing and carrying laundry and keeping dirty laundry separate, as well as other carrying purposes.

A couple of plastic plates, bowls, forks, spoons, and cups: This enables me to eat with some civility in most situations.

A flashlight so that I can see in the dark. This would be a pretty small one.

A very basic tool set or a multi-tool so that I can open packages, make minor repairs, and so on.

A basic sewing kit to repair minor issues with clothing.

A tightly compressed sleeping bag so that I can sleep anywhere.

A pillow to rest my head on at night.

Two towels and two washcloths for bathing.

A bag of toiletries, including a toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, deodorant, soap, shampoo, conditioner, hairbrush, comb, a razor and blades, and a nail clipper.

A sturdy nylon rope for all kinds of things, but the big thing would be an impromptu clothesline.

A first aid kit including things like bandages, a bottle of aspirin, antibiotic ointment, tweezers, and so on.

A bottle of sunscreen so I don’t burn myself to a crisp.

A super-sturdy umbrella, something I wouldn’t skimp on. I usually use cheap umbrellas that break frequently, but if I lived out of one bag, an umbrella would be vital and I’d want one that was incredibly sturdy.

Insect repellent to keep bugs at bay.

A loud whistle in case of emergencies, to attract help. Believe it or not, I used to carry a whistle around my neck all the time, something that I did for much of my adult life until recently.

A security pouch that would contain a few vital documents, to be worn under my clothes much of the time. This would include things like my passport, my drivers license, my credit card, my bank card, some cash, and so on. This would be protected with the utmost care, rarely leaving contact with my skin.

A TSA-approved luggage lock to secure my stuff when I travel or when I’m not around my bag.

The remaining space would mostly be filled up with things that I personally would find useful and valuable. These would vary a lot depending on the person.

A sturdy laptop: I write for a living, so having a laptop to write on would be vital. I’d probably want a tablet, too, preferably an iPad with an Apple Pencil, but that’s not quite essential. I found room for it last time, though.

A Kindle would provide me with more than ample reading material for a very long time, so there’d be no reason to pack books. I’d load the thing up with books just in case I was away from an internet signal for a while.

A smartphone for communication and navigation as needed.

A GPS device in case my smartphone couldn’t navigate because of no signal or no data plan.

Chargers for those devices, including a solar charger so I can charge devices literally anywhere there’s sunlight.

A notebook and some pens because journaling is a major part of my life. Collecting my thoughts on paper is how I stay sane much of the time.

A deck of playing cards and one or two very small footprint games: Tabletop games are a big part of my life. It would be the hardest thing, space wise, for me to give up. I would definitely include a deck of cards and a book on my Kindle with the rules to many card games, but I’d likely find room for a few very small games as well. I’d likely include a small magnetic chess and checkers set. The publishers Button Shy Games, Oink Games, and Jordan Draper Games have some wonderful games with tiny footprints, too.

A water bottle and some water purification tablets: Obviously, I need something to drink. The purification tablets are needed if I’m not sure of the water source.

Some nonperishable food items: I’d have things like granola bars and protein shakes stowed away in there.

A hot plate and a small pot: Ideally, I’d want a hot plate with a magnetic stirrer and a bunch of stir bars, but this will do. This would enable me to make soups, pasta, vegetables, and a lot of other things.

These items would almost perfectly fill up the duffel described at the start of this list. I was able to largely live out of a duffel bag with a list of items very similar to this for 30 days (obviously, I didn’t abandon my home to do it, but I did make every effort to stick to the possessions in the bag).

Why Is This Useful?

While this list might be interesting, how exactly is it useful to real-world personal finances? What application does it have to the financial challenges most of us are facing?

First of all, it clearly shows that we don’t need as much stuff as we like to think that we do. I have far more possessions than I could ever possibly fit into a duffel bag, but the truth is that the vast majority of what I need or want to use in a given day could fit in one. Yes, I would miss some of my other possessions, and it would seriously cut into some of my hobbies (like cooking and playing tabletop games), but the advantages are numerous.

The big advantage is, obviously, you spend far less time managing and organizing and moving stuff when you have far less of it. This is the issue with having more stuff: you have to spend more time organizing, you have to spend more time moving, you have to spend more time cleaning, and that adds up to less time actually enjoying the stuff. Living out of a bag basically deletes that problem – you spend very little time cleaning or moving or organizing. Everything’s just in your bag, and when you want to go, you grab your bag and that’s it.

Thus, when you’re investing less time in cleaning and organizing and moving, you’re able to spend more time doing things. If my experiment with living out of a bag taught me anything, it was that such minimal living gave you a lot of free time for hobbies. The time I would have spent cleaning and organizing and such could be spent reading and hiking and so on – things I actually get deep personal value from.

Such minimalism also leads to incredible savings in terms of living space. If you adopt such minimalism with your possessions, it’s far easier to make do with, say, a tiny efficiency apartment or a tiny home. With the contents of the bag listed above, I would easily be able to live in a small single room, which would keep the rent quite low, and still enjoy most of what I have in my life right now. The less stuff you have, the less space you need, and thus the less housing costs you.

If you want to start down this path, start looking at your life through an 80/20 lens. If you spend some time evaluating your stuff, you’ll find that you spend 80% of your time using 20% of your possessions. The other 80% of your possessions scarcely get used… so why keep them around? They almost entirely take up space, and even if you’re in a situation where you would use one of those items, there’s often a substitute available for you.

Try this for a month: Whenever you use an item, put it in a place of commonly used items, maybe a table somewhere or something like that. As the weeks pass, notice that you’re frequently going to that table rather than going around your home for items. By the end of the month, most of your time retrieving items will be centered around grabbing stuff from that table. So, why do you have all of that other stuff? Why not just start selling it off and getting rid of it if you’re scarcely using it? It’ll make some pocket money for you, make your home a lot less cluttered, and not take away anything you use regularly.

While most of us are never going to live out of one bag for an extended period of time, experiments like these do demonstrate that we actually don’t use most of our possessions very much and we use some questionable justifications both to keep those possessions and to buy new ones. Those justifications add up to money lost buying those possessions we rarely use, money lost in larger living space to store those possessions we rarely use, and time lost taking care of and moving around those possessions we rarely use.

Take some time and think about what would be in your own “one bag.” Then, when you’ve got a good sense of that, start being extremely critical about your possessions – and particularly any new purchases – that would be outside of that bag. They’re going to cost you money and time and the likelihood is that you won’t use those new items very much – are they really worth the money you’re spending on them and the cost of storing them?

Good luck.

Read more by Trent Hamm

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.