Pack Hacker Founder Tom Wahlin Shares His Best Travel Backpack Tips

Nomad Tom Wahlin

My name is Tom Wahlin—over the past 10 years, I’ve been working as a digital designer at companies like Apple, some digital agencies, and a few different startups. I’m originally from Minnesota (where the tater tot hotdish flows like water), and I lived in NYC for a couple years. From there, I decided to pack my life into a backpack and spend a year traveling around Europe and Southeast Asia, living the digital nomad lifestyle. This is partly why I have become obsessed with travel gear and optimization to the point where some people think I’m crazy. But hey, I just like this stuff. At least, I’m being interviewed on the right website!

I now have my own site called, Pack Hacker where my team and I review backpacks, clothing, and any essential items for travel.

Nomad Tom Wahlin

How and why did you become a digital nomad?

I think a defining moment for me—when I knew I wanted to become a digital nomad—was 1.5 years into my “dream job.” I had reached a decent level in the corporate world as a design manager at Apple, and I definitely enjoyed it. The pay was great, I had some awesome benefits and I was working with some of the smartest people around—but there was something missing. Becoming a digital nomad meant more autonomy in scheduling, no more of the “same” commute to work everyday, and the ability to step outside of the hotel or Airbnb and be able to soak in a new culture with every country switch.

My family thought I was a bit crazy and my grandparents were really nervous but I walked them through a general plan and it made them feel better … kind of 🙂 Now when I visit them over the holidays, they’re excited to see what I’ve been up to!

Nomad Tom Wahlin

How do you finance your nomadic life?

When I’m not working on Pack Hacker—which I’m currently bootstrapping—I do interaction design and creative direction consulting (designing websites, improving the user experience of software & apps, branding companies, etc). Landing a remote gig like this can be tough and competitive, but luckily I’ve had some good experience in the past and made some really great connections from when I used to live in NYC and travel to San Francisco frequently. I’ve always tried to “do what I said I was going to do and what was agreed upon” which helps build trust with employers & coworkers—even if I’m not physically present in an office.

While I try to keep my budget low when I’m traveling, I’m a sucker for decent accommodations. I’m not one to scrap it in a hostel anymore and I enjoy having a place to myself vs. sharing an Airbnb. Plus – it really helps to get into a distraction-free, creative space for long working sessions!

Nomad Tom Wahlin

How do you build a social life as a nomad?

Being a nomad is hard for this very reason! If you’re travelling alone, it’s easy to meet a lot of other “travelers”, but nomads are a bit harder to come by depending on where you are. Sure, places like Chiang Mai are a good hub, but what about more remote areas? I usually find people to meet up & work with at coworking spaces, coffee shops, and I often use NomadList to see what’s going on in any particular city.

Besides that, I do try to meet and spend time with locals. That’s usually the best way to immerse yourself into the actual lives of someone living there, and at the end of the day that’s one of the best privileges of being a digital nomad! You’re not locked into a singular city and you have the ability to learn about a ton of different cultures first-hand.

Nomad Tom Wahlin

Where do you live and work as a nomad?

I find that one of the hardest things as a nomad is working with a team remotely. It can be amazing and fluid, or it can be a disaster depending on how your work is setup. I’ve found that some of the most remote-friendly work tends to be focused around design—something that I can work on asynchronously, where I’m sort of detached from the rest of the team for a while but popping in and out for feedback and meetings. When in Southeast Asia or Japan, that’s usually completely opposite time zones, which can be challenging. Sure, I’ve taken a couple calls at 3AM but if each party is willing to get organized and work asynchronously it can work super well!

This becomes a little harder in trying to manage or run projects—especially working with a smaller team that’s all together while you’re the only remote one. They have the ability to brainstorm together in person while you’re off doing your own thing. Ideas change, mature, and bloom—if you’re not around, it can be hard to keep up with all the moving parts.

I’ve met some nomads that work flat hours with their city which I find pretty wild! For instance, in Bali, I met someone working flat hours with New York. I’m not sure how she did it—working through each night everyday!

Nomad Tom Wahlin

How do you bring your things with you?

One singular 40L backpack! Before leaving on my trip, I sold everything in my NYC apartment and compressed all my remaining belongings down to one 40L bag. I found it really fun to optimize all the gear I was going to take with me and try find or create mini “travel-sized” versions of everything. I ended up using the GORUCK GR2 to carry everything. It’s basically indestructible! It’s certainly heavy (4.75 lb (2.2 kg) empty), but I figured I’d sacrifice weight for durability—especially since we’re talking about the backpack itself, here… It’s held up super well and is good as new after 1.5 years of travel, although the black color has faded a bit. I’ve never had to repair it on the road, and I like it that way. Now I test and use a bunch of different packs for at least two weeks before posting a full review.

Nomad Tom Wahlin

How do you organize things in your bags?

I’m a big pack planner and optimizer—big surprise, right? I’m usually a fan of having bigger, bucketed compartments in packs and using packing cubes or pouches to organize gear. Maybe I’m a little biased because I test so many packs (it’s a lot easier to take pouches in and out of bags as I swap my gear out) but I think that’s the best way to compress everything and keep it organized. There really is no “perfect pack” out there but I’m convinced there’s a “perfect pack for you” (which is why we made this guide to picking a travel backpack). It’s so subjective and everyone likes something different.

Nomad Tom Wahlin

Any gear you wish you had brought with you from the beginning?

There really wasn’t anything that I wish I had brought with me in the first place—but I did find things in my pack that I could ditch while on the road. Some items weren’t used often and probably weren’t worth bringing in the first place (giant, unwieldy water bottle, too many toiletries, too many clothes). I think every traveler finds a couple items they don’t need the more trips they go on. It’s good to be conscious of this and try take less with you next time. It really saves some weight!

Nomad Tom Wahlin

What has been your best gear purchase below $100?

The Roost Stand! It saves my posture on the road and is a nice, compact way to set up a personal workspace on any flat surface. I’m 6’2” and I was definitely slouching over my laptop in coffee shops all day, every day. Ergonomics are hard on the road and this thing works wonders.

Nomad Tom Wahlin

What is your best advice for new nomads?

I think it’s really important to consider whether or not the lifestyle is for you. Before becoming a “full time nomad” where you’ve sold all your stuff, quit your job, and said goodbye to your family—I think it’s a good idea to do a little test run first. While I was still employed, I took a two-week trip to the Dominican Republic and worked from the road—it was my “digital nomad simulation” period and I ended up really liking the lifestyle.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great way to live! But it’s also good to test the waters first.

Oh, and pack less than you think you need! Nobody wants to lug around a bunch of extra weight, and it’s been rare that I’ve met a nomad that feels like they didn’t pack enough stuff. Almost everyone ends up ditching items along the way.

Nomad Tom Wahlin

What will the future bring?

My goal with Pack Hacker is to keep reviewing gear and to help people optimize their overall travel experience. We try to cut through brands’ marketing & advertising budget noise with objective observations and pros & cons on travel gear for the Pack Hacker community. Durable, high quality, and lightweight gear can really make traveling much more seamless & enjoyable!

Be sure to look for our review snippets right here on the MightyGoods website!

Visit Tom Wahlin on his website and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

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