One thing that can be daunting for therapists who are considering travel therapy is the idea of having to pack and move for three or more months at a time.
- How much do you take?
- What do you take?
- And the most nerve-wracking question of all: Will it all fit?
This post, written by an experienced travel therapist, is designed to help offer solutions to some of these questions for you.
My Experience Packing for Travel Therapy Assignments
To give a background on me: my name is Morgan, and I started travel occupational therapy right out of school as a new grad. I decided to rip the ‘Get Out of Your Comfort Zone’ bandaid off from the get-go, by taking my first contract all the way across the country! This meant I had to pack up and drive from Pennsylvania to Oregon in my little Hyundai Elantra.
Like most first-time healthcare travelers, I WAY overpacked. Did I need to take every pair of shoes I owned? Most definitely not. But in my head at the time? I could think up a potential ‘what-if’ scenario in my head for each pair, and therefore they all needed to come. I did this with a lot of things, from clothes, to kitchen supplies, to OT-related items.
I think everyone starting out needs to go through this learning phase to an extent. But, hopefully in this article, I can help lessen that learning load for you and better prepare you for what you’ll actually need.
Since taking that first travel therapy contract, I took several more Travel OT jobs across the country, from California to Texas to North Carolina. I got a puppy named Zoey in between TX and NC, which meant I had to learn how to fit another living being and all of her essential items into my already-full car.
You know how every Olympic sport should include one average person for reference? Well, I’m the average person of packing. So you know you can count on me and my advice, because if I can manage to fit everything and my dog into my tiny car to drive cross country, then you most certainly can too.
Types of Moving for Travel Therapy Jobs
In most circumstances, travel therapists will be driving to their new travel therapy job locations, which means packing up everything in their vehicle.
There are certain circumstances where travelers may be flying to their travel therapy assignment location, particularly if it is in Hawaii or Alaska. For tips on packing for these situations, check out Travel Therapy Mentor‘s articles about working as a healthcare traveler in Hawaii and Alaska.
Some therapists may consider flying to other travel assignment locations within the continental US, particularly if it is very far across the country. If you are considering having your car shipped and flying to your new location, you may be able to pack some items in your car, but there are lots of considerations before doing this. If you are considering flying to your location and renting a car locally, you’ll be faced with packing everything in what you can bring on the plane and/or shipping some items to your new location.
These are all special scenarios to take into consideration, but for the most part, travel therapists generally pack their vehicles up and drive to the new location. So we’ll mainly focus on that type of packing here.
Keys for Success When Packing for a Travel Therapy Assignment
The three keys for successful packing are: Planning, Storage, and Minimalism.
One of the best things you can do to determine what to bring is to know as much as possible about where you’re going.
In terms of the facility where you’ll be working: what’s the dress code? Scrubs (any specific colors)? Business casual? Polo and khakis? Bring what you’ll need and ditch the rest for now, or at the very most bring one pair of the alternatives just in case. You can also check with the facility to see if they provide essential tools such as pulse-oximeters, gait belts, goniometers, etc., or if these are things you should bring yourself.
In terms of the location you’re headed to: what’s the weather like? During what season will you be there? Will it be cold/hot/rainy/snowy? What types of activities/hobbies do you plan on doing? Do you have any trips planned during your contract that require different-weathered clothes than your location?
In terms of where you’ll be living: is it furnished or unfurnished? Do they provide you with bed linens/towels/kitchen supplies, or do you need to bring your own? Take an inventory of what you have at home and what you regularly use, then send a list to the landlord to ask if they have these items or not. Also consider that for some items, you may be able to buy or thrift for cheap on arrival rather than bringing your own from home.
If you choose to go with an unfurnished apartment, most travelers do not bring actual furniture across country with them. They may bring an inflatable mattress (sometimes even an inflatable couch!), or use storage tubs as end tables or dressers. But for the most part, when travelers rent unfurnished places, they just pick up some furniture on arrival at thrift stores, by asking coworkers, or by renting through a store like Aaron’s.
You’ll also need to consider if you are moving for just one travel therapy assignment then will be able to return home before the next one to swap out any items, or if you’re packing for multiple back to back assignments before returning home. Likewise, do you have anyone at home who could mail you something later on if you leave it behind? Could you consider having an alternative season of clothes ready at home to swap out later on?
The more you can predict, the more necessary items you’ll have on hand when the time comes, and most importantly, you’ll be able to leave behind the non-essentials.
When being tasked to fit a large (sometimes seemingly impossible) amount of items into a condensed space, efficiency is key. You know those little Russian dolls that fit inside of each other? That’s what you want to do as much as possible with the items you plan to bring. You want to have as little empty space as possible.
As far as packing clothing is concerned, the two methods I find most effective are ‘flat packing,’ in which you lay the clothing items as flat as possible on top of each other to maximize space, or the ‘army roll’ method, which can be found with a quick Google search and is one taught and used in the military.
The storage containers you choose to use are also important, but will depend on personal preference and the dimensions of your vehicle. Packing cubes, plastic tubs, soft storage bags, and vacuum bags are all good options to choose from. Personally, I prefer the multi-size soft storage bags because with my small car space these are more moldable to squeeze into spaces, and they collapse and fold down when not in use. But I also have been known to take with me a few plastic tubs, some reusable grocery bags, and even trash bags when my packing energy is reaching zero.
Note that you may need a suitcase or two with you for any trips you plan to take while on assignment. But as far as space efficiency goes with packing up your car, suitcases are not usually the best choice for all of your items. Consider just one or two suitcases, then put the rest of the items in more space efficient containers. Think: car Jenga (or is it more like Tetris?)
Sometimes though, if you’re traveling with a partner or pet(s), there’s just not enough room for it all. If you cannot fit everything in your car even with the use of these methods, then you might consider getting a roof carrier or a hitch-style cargo carrier. Depending on the type of car you have and preference, there are hard or soft rooftop carriers to provide you with additional space.
Just be considerate of where you are parking your car along the way for a multi-day move. Unfortunately if you have stop overs, having a car top carrier, hitch cargo carrier, or a visibly packed car can put you at risk for theft. Consider bringing your items inside with you if parking in a questionable public area.
I also know of travelers who ship items to their location if they don’t have the room in their car, but keep in mind this option can be costly. If you’re traveling with a partner or friend, having more than one car is also a good option to maximize storage space.
If you have time, especially if it is your first move, I recommend doing a ‘practice pack’ a few days before hitting the road to make sure everything fits. I also recommend having certain items that you know you’ll need on the road in a reachable spot to easily get to when needed, instead of having to rifle through bins wondering where you put it.
This last part comes down to the question: What is your definition of minimalism?
In truth, it depends from person to person. It doesn’t mean you have to bring the bare minimum. What you really want to think about is what things you absolutely need to help you thrive while on assignment, and what can you leave behind for now?
For me, things that I consider ‘essential’ include my spices for cooking (those things can get expensive), a spatula, knives, a cutting board, a blender, an InstaPot, my hiking/camping gear (boots, tent, sleeping bag, pack(s), etc.), knitting needles & yarn, a hammock, an inflatable paddle board, and a tub of books (yes a whole plastic tub). Unfortunately I have a lot of hobbies, so my ‘minimalism’ may be way more to some than others. But I know that I will use them, and I make them fit.
Things I recommend leaving behind are things that you can purchase once you’re at your location: things like cleaning supplies, hangers, laundry detergent, dish soap, other toiletries, etc. Don’t waste your precious space on these. If you’re looking for cheap options, Dollar Tree/Dollar General or Walmart typically have all these things on hand at low prices.
Clothes and shoes are definitely something that travelers tend to overpack on. A lot of us tend to own way more clothes than we actually wear. Consider that most days of the week, you’ll be wearing work clothes, lounge clothes, and maybe gym clothes. On the weekends, you usually need just a couple casual or dressy outfits. While you may be concerned with re-wearing clothes often, keep in mind that almost no one will ever notice this except you. So when it comes to packing clothes, keep it simple with a few varieties of each clothing piece (tops, bottoms, outerwear, shoes, etc.), and try to pick items that are interchangeable to make different outfit varieties.
If you’re on the fence about what to bring, a good resource to use is social media and getting connected with other travelers. If you search ‘packing tips’ in travel therapist Facebook groups, you’ll find countless responses from seasoned travelers with tips and tricks to help.
As I mentioned before, every traveler ultimately has to go through a learning phase when it comes to packing. But, if you can remember to plan as much as possible, use efficient storage methods, and keep your items to a ‘minimum,’ it should help make this daunting task that much easier to allow you to head across the country to your travel therapy contract.
About the Author: Morgan Lauchnor, OTR/L
I started travel occupational therapy back in 2019, beginning as a new grad and moving from Pennsylvania to the west coast so I could live out my dream of seeing the country and all that it has to offer, while working my dream job. I’ve taken fiver different assignments in SNFs, from OR to CA, to TX, and NC. Two years ago, I planted some temporary roots in Asheville to get some inpatient/acute/LTAC/home health experience working PRN for a hospital network, before planning to return back to travel therapy. I travel with my mini-Aussie pup Zoey who has been the best adventure buddy. We love exploring new cities, getting outside any chance we can, and meeting the best people along the way! If you’d like to connect, the best way to contact me is through social media: Instagram: @zoandmo_onthego or through email at email@example.com.
If you’re looking for additional resources for your travel therapy career, check out Travel Therapy Mentor’s Traveler Resource Hub. If you’re ready to get started with travel therapy and want to connect with vetted travel therapy recruiters, fill out our Recruiter Recommendations Form. Feel free to message us with any questions!