Minimalist Travel: Living on the Road with 4 Children

This is another guest post from the Smeenks, a Canadian family of 6 traveling overseas indefinitely. You can read Jenn’s initial post about preparing to leave Canada and how they let go of their possessions here. It’s a great read. Particularly if you have a larger home or many children.

Today Jenn is going to give us more details about how they travel and what they travel with. Reading it has given me more to think about for our everyday living. Quality over quantity can’t be beat. And I love hearing about the impact travel and living a minimalist life has had on the children. Enjoy and thanks again, Jenn!

You can follow the Smeenks adventures on their blog At Home in the World.

in Venice

Living on the Road with 4 Children
This past year, our family of six spent seven months backpacking through the countries of Spain, Morocco, Italy, Turkey, and France. Carrying our belongings with us was an important factor to consider.
This second post describes in detail what our minimalist travel lifestyle has been so far during our travels.
What do we travel with?
We started our travels with one large backpack and two carry on day packs for us adults and our two older children (ages 9 and 8 at the time). Our two younger ones had a small day pack each. We also had a small carry-on rolling red suitcase filled with our homeschooling books. Over time and a couple countries, we still found we were carrying way too much. So during our third month in Turkey, we sent home two of our day packs and many of our homeschooling books, and gave away our extraneous clothes and toys to the locals there.
Each member of our family owned 5 pairs of underwear, 3 pairs of socks, 1 fleece jacket, 1 bathing suit, a microfiber towel, a pair of sandals (the girls brought their black boots on top of their hikers and sandals), tuque, mitts, rain coats and rain pants, 1 set of pyjamas, 4-5 interchangeable outfits (1 sweater included, 1 dress for the girls and 1 button-up shirt and dress pants for the boys). I also brought my running clothes. As well, we ended up buying rain boots in Turkey.
We tried to bring as many light weight, quick drying clothing in dark colours. We brought SmartWool socks (keeps feet dry and warm, does not smell, and dries quickly) for the adults and black cotton sport socks for the kids. We regretted going cheap here and not buying the children SmartWool socks, and will certainly stock up before our next adventure.
We packed our electronics in our daypacks: A Garmin GPS (super handy with walking maps – we didn’t get lost in the chaotic mazes of Morocco’s medinas), Kindle e-Reader, 1 Canon digital SLR camera, 2 small point and shoot cameras, 1 digital video camera (we never used it and mailed it back), 3 Nintendo DSi’s, my Garmin running watch, 1 iPod shuffle, 2 laptops, and 2 netbooks (one for the girls and one for the boys for homeschool).
Important Miscellaneous:
4 international travel adapters, 1 red umbrella, toiletries, one pair of binoculars, first aid kit, medication kit, 4 head lamps for reading at night, 2 braided rubber laundry lines with carabiners, international rubber sink plug, a small bottle of liquid laundry soap, and sewing kit.


How long do you typically stay in a city?
That varied tremendously because of our goals and activities in each country; but typically, we’d like to stay at least one week to get a feel for the place.
In Spain we spent 1 month in an apartment in the Costa del Sol, which was a five minute walk from the beach. We lived there and homeschooled. We took day trips to the surrounding areas such as Gibraltar, La Ronda, Sevilla, and Marbella.
In Morocco we spent 6 days in Marrakech then took a road trip loop around the country across the High Atlas Mountains, through the Dades and Todres Gorges, stayed a night in two different Saharan deserts, then spent our last three nights in Fes.
After Morocco, we stayed in Barcelona for a week to rest and catch our breath. We walked around the city to admire the Christmas lights and decorations. We spent our Christmas and New Year Holidays in Rome and Vatican City, as we were there for 20 days.
After New Years, we stayed 2 months in an apartment in Turkey to rest and catch up on homeschool. We then spent our third month backpacking around Turkey, ending our trip in Istanbul. From there, we spent 3 weeks in Italy – 1 week in Venice, 1 week in Cinque Terre and 1-3 days in other cities like Milan, Florence, Bologna.
We spent one month in France with a week stay in Cannes, 2 weeks in Montpellier, and 10 days in Paris.

in Turkey

How long do you see your family traveling for?
This is an ever changing topic. We plan to be overseas for 3-5 years, returning home to Canada for the summers to be with family. Seven months was a good dip in the water for our first long term travel experience. It has opened our eyes to the possibilities of our future! Nothing feels more exhilarating to us than opening the world map and asking each family member where we’d like to go in the next few years. We’re dreaming big together as a family!
We’ve also learned that living out of a backpack and constantly moving is exhausting. We didn’t realize how stressful it can be to find appropriate accommodations for a family of six along the way, when most places take a maximum of 5 people to a room. We need and desire to travel more slowly!
Depending on our finances and time, I think we are going to be changing our travelling style by staying in one place for 6-12 months to get a deeper sense of a country and its culture.
We’re spending our summer at home in Canada to prepare for another year away. This August we’re returning to France and plan to live in Southern France for at least 6 months to immerse ourselves in the French culture. We plan to enrol the kids in the local French school there so they can continue to work on their second language.

How have the children reacted to moving and traveling? Do they ever 
ask for/about things you had back home?
I think one of the best gifts we’ve received from this whole experience of selling our stuff and travelling the world is seeing our children in a different light. We have seen first-hand how incredibly capable they are. Actually, my heart bursts with pride, joy and astonishment for them because they have shown us how naturally adaptable and cooperative they can be.
They’re great at walking several kilometres at a time, and have learned how to cross the street safely in all sorts of traffic. They’ve slept in trains, cars, and overnight buses. I am so impressed by how well they travel! I love their openness to new things and their positive attitudes in exploring different countries. On the other hand, who wouldn’t have a good attitude when riding a camel through the desert in Morocco, paragliding on a spectacular beach in Turkey, or visiting world famous monuments and museums? The world is their classroom and their playground! More than anything, we wanted to open our children’s eyes to the possibilities around them, like studying art in world renowned schools, and working, living, and volunteering internationally.
Travelling with school age children is great! They’re small enough to fit into a double bed and young enough to be half price for most admissions and transportation fares. We’ve received a lot of complements by strangers at how well behaved and patient they are. As well, our kids have learned how to watch out for each other and have developed closer relationships. We hope their childhood travel memories will bond them for life. Several of our family and friends have noticed a big change in our children. They’ve remarked at how mature they’ve become this past year. They’re less demanding and are able to sit still to think, read, or visit.
The things that they did miss were their bikes and some of their toys (especially their Legos and Nerf guns). However, backpacking for 7 months has taught us to look at our stuff differently. It helped us distinguish between our needs and wants. We discovered that we rarely needed anything, but we wanted so much; and that having too much unnecessary stuff to carry was a burden. What a valuable lesson!

What are the biggest challenges with having fewer things?

We discovered that things wear out quickly. Our limited supply of socks and clothes sprouted holes from the constant wearing and washing. The kids, especially the boys, sprouted holes on the knees of their pants. Yet overall, we never felt like we had fewer things. It actually felt more the opposite – because we carried our things, we always felt we had too much.

What are the rewards of having fewer things?
Less to worry about! Having fewer things brings simplicity in our lives, a detachment from things, and a freedom from the preoccupation of keeping up with the Joneses.
Doing the laundry is no longer overwhelming because I deal with only one pile of clothes at a time instead of a mountain heap. I’ve actually enjoyed hanging them on the line to dry. The clothes we own are good quality and ones we love to wear. We’ve learned not to be careless with our clothing. For example, the kids have learned to be careful with not getting their clothes dirty so that they could wear it for another day. Back home, typically they would wear a shirt once and then throw it in the laundry, even though it was still clean. They’ve since learned that they could still wear clothes at least a couple of times (especially jeans) before throwing it in the wash.
Living with less has taken away our preoccupation to acquire things, clearing our minds to focus on what is really important – our personal growth, relationships, future, hopes and dreams.
Our travelling minimalist life is a choice, and we are incredibly surprised at how deeply rewarding it is. We love our travel lifestyle!

If you were to travel long term with your children, what would you bring and how would you carry it? How has your Minimalist lifestyle affected your children?

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  • Someone just commented on Facebook on this post, can you adopt me?

    Um, can you? I know I have a toddler, and a husband, but your family is doing amazing stuff.

    Thanks so much for sharing a bit about your travel and lifestyle here, Jenn. I really appreciate and I am so inspired. Could really see us doing something similar once we have kids out of diapers.

    And these are great tips about packing light.

    • Rachel, You’re awesome! Thank you so much for inviting me to share with you and your readers. I think you guys are past the age of adoption…Henry on the other hand….-LOL! But what about friendship? I hope we cross paths one day in Europe…or maybe Van City. :) ~Jenn

  • While I know this is meant to be inspiring and all, I can’t help but feel that this is a journey reserved for the wealthy. It’s great to think about downsizing and getting rid of possessions etc. but that implies that you HAVE these things to begin with. What about those that cannot and will not ever own a home? And that are minimalists not out of choice but out of necessity? We can’t all take yearly sabbaticals, in fact, I would guess that most of us must work, often without any paid vacation in sight. This post makes me depressed.

    • Hi Katie,
      I think you bring up a very good point. It is easier to do so when it is a choice instead of a necessity. But it is not impossible, because I deeply believe that if there’s a will, there’s a way. I came from a poor immigrant family who always struggled financially. 10 years ago, my husband and I graduated from University with student loans and had jobs. We had kids 15 months apart, and didn’t feel in control of our finances. We wanted to travel but didn’t have the money. It was then that we decided to take the risk and my husband and I took a real estate course to learn how to buy/flip houses. It was scary and we could have easily fallen flat on our arses, but we worked hard and persevered, always asking ourselves what do we have to do to accomplish our goals. Where we are now is because we’ve made it so – we’re comfortable financially, but still have a business to run for our bread and butter. We figured out how to maintain our business from afar. My point is that if you really want something, it takes clearly defined goals, boldness and risk. I know of MANY families who are doing what we do on a very small budget. They are our inspiration! Check out the Miller family who biked through Europe for a yr on $1000/month on and also single parents like Lainie Liberti from who unschool & volunteer in South America. is an older couple travelling in an RV throughout Europe with their child. There are more families who have jobs and have figured out to travel long term listed on If anything, I think that Minimalist families have a better chance of breaking free to do long term travel because in some way, they are already thinking against the current of the consumerist mentality. If you have any more questions, please just contact me on our blog. I wish you all the best.

    • Hi Katie,

      I think Jenn gave a very fair answer above and I’m sorry that this post was depressing, rather than inspiring, for you.

      You’ve actually brought up a topic I really struggle with: minimalism as a privilege. I am privileged to have the choice to live with less, not the necessity. Even running ourselves into a whole pile of consumer debt was a choice (a bad one).

      I write here from my personal perspective and I hope that people give me some grace on that. I can’t write from the perspective of living on minimum wage and pay check to pay check. That’s not my life. And I hope someone in that situation is not looking here for answers. I write from the perspective of middle income earners that have bought in, literally and figuratively, to chasing the dream of big homes and lots of stuff. And have decided to live smaller. For finances, time and physical and mental health.

      Thanks for commenting here and I hope that some of my other posts are more inspiring or useful to you.



      • Hi Rachel,
        Thank-you for your comments! I thoroughly enjoy your blog, and I feel like you really “get it” when it comes to my concerns. I appreciate how you own the fact that you are walking a path of “minimalism as privilege.” And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that! You are being open and authentic, and I think that’s great.

        After reading Jenn’s comments I just don’t feel like she “gets it.” To me, it is just more of the same North American mentality where if only we are smart enough, set clear enough goals, take control of our lives, etc. etc. we can make ANYTHING happen. So if someone doesn’t make their dream come true, then it implies that they didn’t work hard enough, or weren’t smart enough, or lacked the discipline, etc.

        Personally, I have come to believe that sometimes we can have all the dreams in the world, and try our best to achieve them, but that life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. And that’s okay. I really believe that travelling the world with 4 children for years on end is something that for the most part, only a privileged person can do. But that’s just my opinion. I just resent being told that if only I worked hard enough and set clear enough goals I could do it too, because in reality, it would take a lot more than that.

        Sorry if I sound too depressing!!!!

        All the best to you and your new adventures. And no hard feelings to Jenn, I just disagree with her worldview :)

        • Thanks, Katie. I like a good discussion and you’ve brought up some very valid points. It’s not depressing – it’s real. I’ve got more to say on the subject but will save you from a novel here (might write a post about it).

      • First of all, thanks Jenn for all your posts on your blog during your trip. It has been a great pleasure to read them. And it was great to include what you’ve packed, goodness knows how much I have harassed you on how you did it everytime we spoke :)

        And to Katie, I think in the end it comes down to making a decision to do it and to plan how to get there as Jenn has mentioned. I don’t have a family, but I made a decision for myself to achieve my dream of living and working abroad which also meant saying goodbye to my stable 10 year job I had (I did not want to take a sabbatical and have a safety net), selling my car that was still paying, renting my place as selling was not an option at the time (thanks to Brian – Jenn’s hubby – for helping me there) and more. But it took some time planning things out. But once you make that decision to simplifying your life, you will be amazed how freeing it is. Now I live and work in Germany and almost living from paycheck to paycheck but I enjoy my life more and have discovered so much about the people, country and myself. The learning and experience is a great reward for the planning :)

        And as Jenn mentioned, if you put your mind to it, you or anyone can do it. It really comes down to … if you want to do it to. Just my 2 cents :)

        All the best to everyone!


    • Katie, I don’t know about people’s circumstances…I suppose there are some responsibilities that could really tie you to poverty or geography (perhaps a health condition or an ailling parent or child) but I also believe it is true that even those in the furthest reaches of American society have been victim to a myth that we need all this “stuff”. Buying this stuff often keeps the poor, poor. Even the minimum wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck could probably figure out how to live and travel in a minimalist way if they prioritized to do so. And many Americans do not own homes out of choice…myself included. Homes are a huge drain on financial resources and energy. Travelling, if you don’t already have a pool of savings might require greater up front sacrifice, and it certainly requires a certain creativity and mental toughness, but I fully believe it can be done. The idea that longterm travel is for single young upperclass kids or wealthy retirees is largely a myth. The book “Vagabonding” goes into greater detail on this, and there are some pretty interesting ways to make money abroad and travel. We have to quit equating the idea of “travel” with a pre-packaged tour/ luxury hotel photos..the kind of travel we’re talking about here is just living life in different places. Doing what you do…only doing it somewhere else.

  • Hi Jennifer!

    Thank you for your writing and all of your insights.

    I think you are lucky to have kids who are so easy going!

    Last year we spent a month on the beach down south and half way through one of my children would just cry & cry. She was so homesick and missed the rest of our family. We also work at a camp during summer months. This is a huge blessing to be able to be out of the city for a good portion of the year and all of the activities, wide open spaces, and freedoms this offers us. However, my children get homesick and do miss their stuff despite going home regularly and keeping busy with all of the lake activity. And we have been doing this since they were born! I hope they get used to it soon!

    Your packing list is interesting. Of course we only travel 1-3 months at a time and we don’t backpack, but I always take 2 bathing suits, 2 UV shirts, and 2 hats per child: they swim every day (if not twice a day) and often they aren’t dry by the next time they need them. I also only take one pair of footwear per person: Crocs. Good for warm weather, cold weather, wet weather, lots of walking, and you can wear socks in them! And Amen on dark coloured clothing!

    Anyways, I hope you continue to have safe & enjoyable travels. And count your blessings on your flexible children!

  • This is such an inspiring story Jennifer! I loved the first guest post you had run here last week (or so) also.

    Being able to enjoy extended travel over the summers with my family is one of my long-term goals as well. Reading your story makes me feel like this is completely possible with young children.

    Rachel thank you so much for sharing Jennifer’s story here.

  • Lovely post Jennifer and lovely blog Rachel!

    I came to this discussion because people came to my blog because Jennifer linked to me in the comments.

    I just wanted to reply to Katie’s comments. It is an understandable point of view, but I find it sad that she finds this post depressing instead of inspiring.

    One person working hard, overcoming much to live their dream does not mean that should depress others, but instead excite the possibilities for ALL. ( Not just for travel or minimalism).

    “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” Baldwin

    “The only rules and limits are those we set for ourselves” – Tim Ferriss

    Travel and minimalism may indeed be a privilege for much of the world, but the opportunities have NEVER been greater. Not everyone wants to do either, but for those that DO and value experiences, relations, time over “stuff”…MANY today are showing the way.

    Tech has made a HUGE change so that one can live, work, school ANY where today.

    One no longer has to buy the myth that travel is expensive and one has to be rich to live a rich life. When we sold everything and started our open ended ,non-stop world travel in 2005/6, few resources were out there, now there are a ton…including many families.

    We have been traveling the world as a family ( and very green, minimalist style) to 43 countries on 5 continents on just $23/day…going on 6 years now! (Yes, even expensive places like Bora Bora, Bhutan and Europe). I wrote this popular post on how to do extended travel full of valuable links and info:

    We travel the world for MUCH cheaper than we lived at home. We are monolinguals raising a fluent as a native trilingual/triliterate ( Mandarin, Spanish, English) kid who speaks bits of many languages.

    We even tour the world with a piano and violin and are proponents of slow travel, slow living, sustainable living.

    In the last 12 months alone, we stopped in 26 airports, completely circumvented the globe with only one small carryon luggage each. Yet we happily experience most of the world at ground level by foot, bike or mass transit.

    It’s true we are middle class folks, but we sacrificed and risked much to live this dream life. We lived well under our means for most of our lives.

    If you WANT to travel, almost any one can do this and truly if there is a will there is a way.

    My own brother traveled the world for many years without ANY money ( and he is not the only one to do that). True in less comfort and more risk than I would do ( like jumping on trains, sleeping outside) but that was his choice for freedom and extreme minimalism. He lived a happy and blessed life.

    A family with 8 kids on a low income managed to save for years for a 15 month tour of the world.Yes, they ate a lot of beans and rice, but well worth it to them.

    A young Canadian woman who was inspired by our travels ( and who has adopted 5 mixed raced kids) saved and prepared for years and is now loving her travel lifestyle around Europe…kids,working online and all.

    The examples are endless…I have lists on my blog. Look at FOTR ( families on the road) the Location Independent or Nunomad websites to begin.

    We’re featured case studies in the mega hits 4Hour Workweek and Art of Non-Conformity and I suggest those and Ralph Potts Vagabonding or Maya Frost’s New Global Student to open your mind to a new way of thinking.

    If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.
    Henry Ford

    “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
    Isaac Asimov

    “It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people who do” – Tim Ferriss

    “Time=Wealth. By far the most important lesson travel teaches you is that your time is all you really own in life.”- Rolf Potts

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