I’ve known Simon Fairburn and Erin McNeaney for years, first meeting them in a bar in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in late 2011. I’d just built up the courage to start working from the road full-time, while they’d already been out there doing it for eighteen months.
I don’t remember the details of most of what we talked about back then, but I do remember one thing: being impressed they’d decided to travel full-time and run their business with just carry-on bags.
Skip forward over four years, and they’re still going strong, living and working around the globe. They’re doing even more now than they were back then — writing books, developing iOS apps and games, drawing web comics — but their carry-on philosophy hasn’t changed.
I sat them down recently to talk about travelling with less, how they decide which gear makes the cut, and running businesses from the road with a minimum of stuff.
You guys used to travel with checked luggage, but despite traveling full-time, have had just a single carry-on bag each for many years now. What made you decide to switch?
Erin: On each trip we’ve taken together since we were 19, we’ve managed to refine our packing list and take a little less. Experience has helped us learn what we really need. In 2008, we travelled the world for a year with 60-litre backpacks, but they weren’t full.
In 2010 when we left to travel as digital nomads, it felt like a natural progression to switch to carry-on-size bags. We knew not having to check luggage would make our travels easier. It wasn’t difficult to make the change.
Although it sounds impressive that we’ve been travelling carry-on only for six years, it actually makes no difference whether we are travelling for a week or years. We pack a week’s worth of clothes and then do laundry. We still manage to travel with a ton of electronics!
What are the best, and worst, aspects of the “carry-on lifestyle”?
Erin: There are so many advantages to travelling carry-on only. We save money on checked luggage fees. We save time at airports—if we check in online, we can go straight to security, and when we arrive at our destination, we don’t have to wait for our bags.
We don’t have to worry about airlines losing our luggage. We feel more secure being able to keep all of our stuff with us on buses and trains. We can pack our bags in ten minutes. We can walk around looking for accommodation without our bags weighing us down. Life with less is just simpler.
We really don’t find that there are any downsides. There’s nothing we want that doesn’t fit in our bags.
Which backpacks do you carry? Would you buy them again, or go for something else?
Erin: We both changed our backpacks in 2014 and are really happy with our choices. Simon has the 44-litre Tortuga, which is designed to maximise the amount you can take on a plane. There’s plenty of space, a sleeve for laptops up to 17 inches, and the padding on the back and hip belt makes it comfortable to carry.
Simon’s last backpack didn’t have a proper hip belt and he suffered back pain because of it. When you are travelling with heavy electronics, we think it’s a must to take the weight off your shoulders.
The Tortuga is too big for me, so I travel with the Osprey Farpoint 40, which I love. It’s fairly lightweight, has plenty of space, and the internal alloy frame provides excellent back support.
We would definitely buy them again, but I can’t see that we’ll need to anytime soon as they are both very durable. Osprey even offers a lifetime guarantee.
You can see our review of both backpacks here.
What technology choices have you made to help keep your bag size and weight down?
Simon: I haven’t compromised on my main gear to save space or weight—I have the 15-inch MacBook Pro and the iPad Pro, as well as an iPhone 6 and Apple Watch.
We carry an external hard drive each—the Western Digital My Passport and Seagate Backup Plus Slim are both small. Using a cloud backup service like Backblaze means that we can use half of the drive as extended storage for our laptop drives.
This additional storage partition isn’t included in our Time Machine backup, but it does get pushed up to Backblaze, which means the data is stored in two places.
I use the Kindle app to read on my iPad or iPhone, and Byword and Procreate Pocket to make notes and sketches on my iPhone, which has replaced my Moleskine.
There’s a great app called Astropad, which turns the iPad Pro into a Cintiq graphics tablet. I can have the power of desktop Photoshop or Illustrator with the pressure and tilt sensitivity of the Apple Pencil, and I don’t have to carry around a separate graphics tablet.
Erin: I think the MacBook Air 11-inch is the perfect travel laptop. It’s very light and I’ve never felt that I needed more screen space or power.
My Kindle Paperwhite allowed me to get rid of the four or five books we used to carry.
A few years ago I switched from a Canon 400D digital SLR to a mirrorless camera. It has saved me significant space and weight, and the quality is better than my old SLR. I use the Olympus OM-D EM-5 with the kit lens and a Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens, which is tiny but great for low light and food photography.
We save space by keeping the Apple laptop power block (the part that plugs into the laptop) but replacing the Apple power cord (the part that plugs into the wall) with a thinner universal power cord (kettle lead).
We have one with a Type C European plug and one Type A American style. One of these fits the plugs in almost every country we visit, enabling us to manage with just one international power adapter. I use one of the universal power cords for my camera battery charger, rather than carry a separate cord.
Are you entirely happy with the tech setup you have now? If you were starting again from scratch, would you make the same decisions?
Simon: Absolutely, I wouldn’t change anything. I was a Windows user from version 3.1 to version 7 and decided to switch to a Mac before I left on this trip. It’s one of the best technology decisions I’ve made. Having a laptop with a Unix-based OS made dealing with Linux servers for my web work so much easier.
I do still run Windows through Boot Camp for gaming and testing, so I feel like I get the best of both worlds. Apart from my wish that Apple would add beefier mobile GPUs to their MacBook Pro line up, I’m pretty happy with how everything all works together.
You work from the road full time as writers, graphic artists and web developers. Have you had to make any compromises to be able to fit everything into a small backpack, while still doing all of those things well?
Simon: No more than any other traveller. I carry the biggest laptop that Apple sells along with their biggest iPad, and it works out just fine. In fact, with the Duet app and a plate stand (much cheaper and lighter than an iPad stand), I can use the iPad Pro as a second Retina monitor almost as big as the MacBook Pro’s, which gives me plenty of room to work with.
Simon, you’ve recently splashed out on an iPad Pro to help with your graphic work. Those things are pretty big and heavy to travel with — what made you decide to buy one, and how has it worked out so far?
Simon: I’ve always been interested in drawing and design and was carrying around one of those chunky styluses (styli?) for use with my iPad Mini. When Apple announced it was making a pressure-sensitive stylus that would allow me to draw on the screen with precision, I was pretty excited.
I’d always liked the idea of one of the pro-grade Wacom tablets (which also allow you to draw on the screen), but as a dedicated device they were too big and heavy to travel with.
Despite the iPad Pro’s size, it’s pretty light for how big it is. Previously, I was travelling with a Wacom Bamboo graphics tablet, an iPad Mini, an A4 sketchbook, a Moleskine, and a bag of pens and pencils. Between the new iPad and a couple of apps, I was able to get rid of all of that and save weight.
It’s hard to overstate how delighted I am with the Apple Pencil. It makes my previous iPad/stylus combo feel like finger painting on cave walls. The Pencil is by far the most responsive stylus I’ve ever used (including any of Wacom’s), and it’s an absolute joy to work with. I’m now doing more drawing than I was previously, and I’m currently five issues in to a webcomic that I’m producing entirely on the iPad.
I’m using Adobe Comp with Typekit for the panel layouts and fonts, Procreate for the drawing, Workflow for resizing, and various social media apps (WordPress, IFTTT, Instagram) for publishing and promotion.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone else thinking about going carry-on only while working from the road?
Erin: Don’t feel you have to compromise on your technology to travel carry-on only, but make sure that everything you pack is something you use regularly and really need. Focus on saving space with the rest of your stuff.
Only pack 2-3 pairs of shoes, choose 10-12 items of clothing that can be mixed and matched, and use packing cubes or compression bags to squeeze your clothes down. It’s really not that difficult and makes travel so much easier.
Erin has just released her comprehensive guide to life without checked luggage, The Carry-On Traveller.
I read a pre-release copy, and it’s the most detailed guide I’ve seen on the subject. If you’d like to travel with less, whether for a week or a decade, check it out!
Great article! I *loved* my Farpoint 40 pack , until it eventually died ~18 months after taking a saltwater swim. The main compartment didn’t leak, so all my camera gear was okay, but the zips eventually succumbed to corrosion. However, I took it into the local Osprey distributor, and after they had a good look at it I walked out with a new bag (equivalent model). Such a good guarantee… sadly, the Farpoint 40 has been discontinued. I’d love a new version of that bag, with the laptop compartment against the back.
I’m very jealous of you carry-on types. The nature of my work makes it impossible for me, but the odd side trip with a small backpack feels amazing.
Looking forward to reading the book!
Sorry to hear about your backpack, but that’s great Osprey’s excellent guarantee worked. Has the Farpoint 40 really been discontinued? It’s still on their website and available on REI and Amazon. It would be such a shame if they get rid of it as I haven’t found a good alternative (the Tortuga is perfect for Simon but too big for me).
Really interesting read – thanks for sharing!
2-3 pairs of shoes?? That sounds like it would take up a lot of space!
Well, you wear one of them. If you can get away with just the pair on your feet then that’s great, but for multi-climate travel you probably want more options. Simon wears his hiking shoes on travel days and packs his sandals. I have sandals, ballets flats, and running shoes. I can wear one of these and still have plenty of space in my bag for the other two.
Some carry-on travellers we know take 4 pairs (mostly women with smaller sandals).