A Helpful Guide to Packing
If you don't use it at home, why would you bring it on the road?
Packing for an extended trip can be a daunting task. You want to make sure that you bring everything you could conceivably need until you realize that this is an expensive and unnecessary task. The golden rule of packing for any sort of trip but especially for one which you’ll be traveling for an extended period of time, is simple: less is more.
It’s an absolute certainty that you will forget things at home. There will be more than a few times that you’ll curse yourself for not packing something, since you need to spend time or money to acquire it on the road, but as long as you have your passport and access to your finances, you'll live. If you carry your bag around for any length of time, you’ll be quite happy to know you’ve left the kitchen sink at home and brought only what’s reasonable to carry. Here’s a list to help you sort out what you think you need from what you actually need.
A good backpack. I’m not talking about your main suitcase here; I’m talking about a daypack. While it’s a nice idea to have a small, compact bag that travels well but isn’t of high quality, you will be using your backpack far more often than you would imagine. Having luggage to get you from destination to destination is paramount, but it’s very important that you have the right equipment for when you are in one place for a long time. This means a bag that you’re comfortable taking out for the day and can fit all of your essentials: water bottle, pen & paper, books, camera, headphones, passport, or any extra clothing you might need. You should be comfortable taking it to the beach, on a daylong city tour, or on an overnight camping trip. Skip the kitschy little bags that roll up into a small ball—if you wouldn’t use it in your daily life at home, what makes you think you’d use it in your daily life on the road?
PRO TIP: Keep your knife in your checked baggage so it's not confiscated.
A toiletry bag. You want to have a small, well-appointed toiletry bag. I found it helpful to have two: one with all of my toiletry needs, (first aid kit, etc.) and a smaller case from REI that would hold the stuff I needed for my day-to-day needs. The smaller bag comes in handy when you’re staying in hostels and want to take all of your stuff to the shower at once. In your larger toiletry bag, it’s helpful to have the following:
Mylanta—any heartburn tabs will do
Betadine sticks—these come in handy as a powerful disinfectant when you’re looking to clean a wound. Trust me, just bring a pack of these.
Sunscreen—This obviously depends on your destination, but at the very least keep a small container just in case. Sunscreen can be hard to find if you’re off the beaten path, or mind-bogglingly expensive if you’re on it.
A small sewing kit—when traveling, you’ll have your go-to pieces of clothing and equipment that you will be loathe to replace due to a small rip or tear (which is bound to happen eventually). It’s far easier to be able to repair it by yourself than find someone else who can.
Earplugs. No matter how little you plan to move around, you will find yourself in a situation where your quality of sleep is greatly improved with the use of earplugs. Bite the bullet now and buy a pair. You’ll be happy you’ve done so.
A Small “Survival Kit”. I’m not talking powdered protein bars and spare water, but if you’ll be doing any substantive overnight outdoor activities, there are a few things you’ll want to bring.
A headlamp. It takes up virtually no space, and is way better than the flashlight on your iPhone. I can’t express how many times this came in handy—power outages, camping trips, hostel rooms where everyone is sleeping, and night-time escapades. It pays to have your hands free.
Binoculars. This depends on what you’re traveling for. Personally, I loved having a small pair of binoculars for trips through nature: spotting animals and scenery off in the distance was made much easier and more exciting by having a pair of binos. But if this isn’t your thing, leave them at home. If you’re on the fence, however—bring them. It’s worth it.
Bring a small, versatile, keyless lock. It should be able to lock your bag (for airplanes, buses, storage), a hostel locker, be able to lock a bag to a desk or other stationary object, and even a bike lock. Versatility and not needing a key are paramount.
Batteries: about 2 replacements worth for whatever electronic device you’ll need them for…be sure to have spare ones for your headlamp.
Pocketknife—a small, Swiss-army type knife is good. Corkscrew, bottle opener and scissors are all definite pluses if you can find them. Remember to pack in your checked luggage when flying, or else it’ll be taken away!
Pack a watch. Make sure it’s reliable, and not flashy. Too often we rely on our cell phones for the time, but there will be instances where you might not feel comfortable taking an expensive piece of electronic equipment out of your pocket every few minutes. Go old school; a watch will do just fine.
PRO TIP: Bring a case for your sunglasses.
Clothes. There is no right and wrong way to pack clothes for your trip. Odds are, the same outfits that are in your bag when you leave will be markedly different from the ones you come home with as your wardrobe adjusts to changes in climate, wear & tear, and the occasional impulse buy. One thing all wardrobes should have in common is functionality. You should not bring two of anything that you don’t need two of: jackets, sweatshirts, pants and t-shirts—everything you pack should be versatile and you should know you are going to wear it. If you’re on the fence about any piece of clothing, the answer is staring you in the face: don’t bring it. Here are a few tips to help as you sot through what you will and won’t need.
Deep pockets are an asset. You’re bound to be carrying a lot when you’re exploring somewhere new, and you want to make sure you have room to fit everything. That being said, you also want to make sure nothing can be easily pick-pocketed or fall out. Having pants with deep pockets reduces the likelihood you’ll lose anything on the way.
If you are packing sunglasses (which you should), make sure you bring a case for them. When carrying your entire luggage through a period of cloudy weather, you’ll want to know that they aren’t going to be crushed when you lay them delicately on the top of everything else you have crammed in your bag.
Hats—just…leave the hat at home. You won’t wear it as often as you think, and it will be a pain to carry around without crushing. Opportunities will arise when you can obtain a sweet new hat. Make sure you take advantage of them by leaving yours at home.
Nice shoes—try to have at least on pair of shoes that you can throw on when you’re trying to make yourself look presentable. Ideally, they’re a pair that you can walk in, and double as a nice alternative to walking shoes. I used a pair of Brooks Brothers loafers, and they worked like a charm.
Passport photos: go to CVS and get a dozen of them taken and printed before you leave. Just put them in your passport case and forget about them until you need them…because you will. Many visas require passport photos, and you’ll be happy you don’t have to faff about a foreign country getting them since you’re prepared; they’re already in your case.
Inflatable pillow: if you’ll be gone for any length of time, there will be at least one night where you want an inflatable pillow. You won’t use it often, but you will be very happy that you have it when you did. Alternatively, you can live by the less is more ethos, and ensure that one of your jackets or coats balls up nicely into something you can lay your head on.
Tea bags: it seems like a silly thing to carry, but sometimes the occasion calls for a cup of tea. Most places you stay will have a kettle, but nothing to drink. I wouldn’t go out and buy a fifty pack for your trip, but if you have tea around your house it’s worth throwing a few bags to have for a rainy day.
Water bottle: bring a sturdy, reusable water bottle like a CamelBak or Nalgene. Fill it up whenever there’s free water—you’ll be happy to have it on hand, and it’ll save you a considerable amount of money.
Electronics—see my article on what sort of electronics to bring.
You shouldn’t have a difficult time packing for your trip. If you’re not sure whether to pack it, don’t pack it. If you don’t use it at home, don’t bring it. If you’ll only need it “maybe once”, in a non-emergency setting, leave it at home. Less is more; remember that when packing and you will be good to go.