It’s late at night, your flight leaves at 6AM, and you are still scurrying around your house, trying to tie up loose ends, checking things off your handwritten list, wondering “What should I pack?”, trying not to forget anything. But inevitably, you always do. Yes, I have been there too, lots of times. And every time I am there, I think to myself “I really need to make a formal list, preferably in a Word Doc, so I don’t go through this again.” You know what Einstein’s definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. Now let’s not be insane, OK?
What I pack varies based on what type of trip I am taking. Am I going to the tropics or somewhere temperate or the occasional arctic trip? Am I staying in hotels, or Airbnb’s, or camping out? These things will shape my packing list. Let’s get started, shall we?
Living in the digital age, this one becomes an essential. Like American Express, don’t leave home without it! Your smart phone can function as a phone, camera and GPS as well as have apps that are tailored for your travel style. A language translation app, trip advisor, Airbnb, Yelp, etc. When I traveled abroad in the early 2000’s, smartphones did not exist, so obviously I and everyone else managed to get by using local landlines, internet cafes, and maps. Then I got used to having the world at my fingertips anywhere in the world and I wondered how I ever got by without it. Then I went to Cuba and went back in time to the pre-smart phone era. It required some map skills and some degree of faith to get by.
I aim to bring 3-4 outfits, whether the trip is for 2 weeks or 4 weeks. Having pieces that can be mixed and matched is nice, as the permutations play out to your having 16 outfits, instead of 4. When in a temperate climate, a couple scarves can create different looks with neutral shirts and pants. In the tropics, I love bringing sarongs. They can be fashioned into a skirt, a top, a dress, a sheet, a blanket – in other words, completely adaptable.
If you can squeak by with toiletries that can go in carry on, do it! It’s nice to not have to check a bag, if you don’t have to. And it is definitely nice not to have your toiletries in a lost bag, which happened to me once when I was in Belize and my bag was in Houston. For longer trips, I know I need more conditioner for my ratty hair, than can pass through security. So checking is out. I like to bring my own toiletries to reduce the use of little plastic bottles which are thrown away left and right all over the world. And in some less developed parts of the world, they are not provided anyway. If you are always at hotels, I understand the desire to use what is there and save space in your bag.
First aid kit
I bring a little first aid kit that I picked up at REI, I haven’t needed to use it, but it’s good to have. It may be useful to stuff some extra Advil or Band-Aids in there. Cuticle clippers are helpful. I am an herbalist, so I also bring some herbal remedies that are tried and true. Read about them here.
I know this sounds strange, since there will be food growing wherever I go (unless I go to Antarctica or the moon). But I bring a few things I cannot personally live without. High quality salt – almost non-existent in restaurants and salt brings out the flavor of a dish. High quality olive oil – I put some in a plastic squeeze bottle and apply when nobody is looking at restaurants.
Most restaurants cook with vegetable oil, and don’t get me started on that. Vinegar – also kept in a plastic squirt bottle. It helps balance the flavor of a dish and makes the food more digestible. If you travel to France or San Francisco, these things are not needed. It could be fun to make tracking these items down at local markets part of the adventure of the trip, but I like to have my own reserve. One last food item. If I am traveling to a developing nation and camping, I will bring some canned fish. Having some quick protein when out on day trips, without worrying about refrigeration is very nice.
If I am camping or doing day trips to rural places where lunch is on my own, I bring a small cutting board, a knife, a can opener, and a plastic storage container designed for camping, which actually contains a few different sizes of dishes that nest to become compact. If you decide to bring a knife, you will be checking a bag. Make sure you wrap it in a sheaf of some kind so that there is not any unintentional slicing.
I bring one large one and plan to buy another large plastic bottle of water on my trip. Then I refill it as I go along. I am committed to not leaving a trail of plastic water bottles everywhere I go. The Hydroflask rocks!
If I am camping, having some rope, a headlamp, and a flashlight is helpful. Even if you are not camping, but staying in rural areas and plan on venturing out at night, a flashlight is still helpful. Plug adapters — don’t forget those! Be sure to check what type you will need for the countries that you are visiting. An UV water filter can prevent a lot of problems. And finally, almost everyone will want to bring a camera. Since I upgraded my phone, my camera got an automatic upgrade as well! But some of you may have an actual camera that should come along for the ride.
I have uploaded a copy of my passport to my computer. And also emailed it to myself and I also have a printed copy buried in my bag. I recently started taking a picture of the stamp when I arrive at a country and email it to myself. You can upload it and other important paperwork items to dropbox. I also print out my itinerary. Some people have no itinerary and that’s cool. I tend to like to plan lodging before I go, so I don’t have to waste precious travel time doing it there. Or sometimes some of the lodging is planned with other gaps, but I have researched options before I go.
Regardless, if you move around a lot while traveling like I do (I am generally in places for 3-4 days, more or less), it is great to have it all in one place. Then I have handy what day I am going where and what is their phone and email. I will include car rentals or dinner reservations on it as well. Depending on the trip, I may have a rough outline of things I want to do or see while I am there, with notes if there are limitations around timing like this market is open Wednesdays from 9-2. I don’t get to everything I “planned” on, but I like having a condensed version at my fingertips. A paper copy is nice. Phones sometimes lose service when you may least expect it.
Odds and Ends
A notebook and pen is nice. Sometimes it feels inappropriate to be taking out my phone and thumb typing. There are moments when a local tells you a place to go, or a word in a new language, etc., and writing it down is helpful. Guidebooks – don’t forget those! My favorite is the Lonely Planet Guides. Sleeping pad – when I travel to developing nations. Now this is not always needed, but after a month in SE Asia and everywhere I stayed had terrible mattresses (futons) and I was in a lot of pain, I vowed to bring my sleeping pad when I went to other poorer countries. This being said, the beds have been totally tolerable in Mexico and Cuba and Belize, so you may prefer to have the extra space in your bag.
This is my current list. It is a work in progress and may continue to evolve, although I feel like I have found what things are worth the space and weight they take up for me. But you may have different priorities, so take what I have created, morph it, and adopt it as your own. And feel free to leave a comment below and tell me what you learned, and what works for you. We are learning together. . . .