Leaving on a long-term trip for the first time? Or brought too much things last time? Read on to see some tips I’ve learned from personal experience.
I am not claiming to be an experienced backpacker or even a good one, but I feel I can give some useful tips and advice on how to pack better to prepare you for that long trip abroad you’re about to embark on. Last year, I traveled a portion of South America for 6 months, which you can read about here. 6 months may not constitute a long-term trip for the people I’ve met that have been traveling for years (I think 4 years and counting was the longest I’ve come across), but it’s a big leap from the 1 month mark stretch I’ve hit before this. I have only just begun to break away from the trappings of societal norms when it comes to career and stable location-based livelihoods and am only now taking it upon myself to think out of the box and dip my feet in the world of online employment. My current record of 6 months is bound to stretch over the next few years.
In last year’s trip, I mistakenly (and quite foolishly) prepared with a mindset to bring everything I thought I might have needed so I wouldn’t have to buy much things when I got there, to be consistent with my thrifty nature. Later on, I realized a much better strategy to have for long-term travel is the “buy-it-there” approach. Things like excessive toiletries, large and bulky gadgets, unused medicine, extra pairs of wires, earphones and back ups for the back ups all weighed me down unnecessarily.
The fact that you are here now reading my blog about packing for your first trip puts you already at a huge advantage and means you’re smarter than I was when I started (not a difficult feat). I assumed, as usual, that my first instinct was on point and I didn’t need any outside help, although a quick search on practical packing tips would have helped me tremendously. Well, I was wrong, and I’ve chalked it up as another humbling reminder to ask others for advice and help, at the very least – online.
Last year, I had about 17kg on my back, another 8kg on my front in a smaller pack where I kept my electronics, and a 10kg surfboard bag with a 3mm wetsuit, leash and 5 foot 8 inch surfboard – facepalm! I didn’t even bother researching or testing out what I can comfortably carry for a few kilometers without much trouble. The thought of 35 kilograms, is not as heavy when you’re sitting comfortably at home reading this. But the thought and experience change when coupled with many stressors like sweltering heat from the noontime sun, dehydration and lack of sleep from the previous night, 20 or so locals yelling at you in Spanish trying to pull you in different directions to choose their transport company, or having to walk up steep steps with my gear. 100 meters was all it took to break a sweat and start straining to carry it all. Mind you, I’m probably of slightly above average physical fitness.
I stoically carried my self-inflicted burdens but took taxis and other short-distance transport options more often than I would have wanted because of my things. Hence, I ended up paying a heap more because of my lack of foresight. Coupled with the incessant nagging and blaming my ego played on itself, the days when I had to move hostel, city or country were the most difficult and stressful. And because of that, there were many times when I decided to stay in one place for a week or more, if only to relax and take a break from all the moving around. Whenever I could, I left most of my things in hostel baggage rooms when I wanted to do several side trips around the general area. In one case, this allowed me to be the unwitting new host to some bedbugs (I suspect).
I brought much too many clothes. I assumed I would change clothes as often as I did back home. After the first few weeks, I noticed I had lots of socks, underwear and t-shirts I hadn’t even used yet and shouldn’t have brought. Coming from a tropical sweat-lodge of a country like the Philippines, arid places like some cities in Peru and Bolivia didn’t make me work up a sweat as often so my clothes wouldn’t smell as bad as fast (to me, at least… Sorry roomies!), hence, I reused them more often before washing. I could have made it comfortably with half (or less) of the clothes I had brought.
I was guilty of carrying around a thick copy of the Lonely Planet’s “South America on a Shoestring” budget travel guide, which I saw in different states of (dis)use in many different hostels, cafes and bus stops like a recurring nightmare – a constant reminder of the dead weight I was carrying. Indeed, it was quite hefty. I hardly used mine because I preferred to check out the more up-to-date information online, which will always have a huge edge over any travel book, mostly because of traveler reviews in sites like TripAdvisor, or hostel reviews in Booking.com or Hostelworld. and travel blogs. It cost a bit of money so I was reluctant to leave it behind, which I eventually did after half of the trip was already over. If you prefer the Lonely Planet guides (or similar) over using more functional and real-time internet sources, you can always download a soft copy (PDF) file of the book and carry it on a device, it will save you so much space and weight!
And without further ado, here are some practical things to pack (in no particular order) for every long-term trip. To reduce redundancy, I have omitted the usual and the obvious. I will include only things I think people might leave out or readily forget:
1. Waterproof bag
Essential to keep your electronics safe in case of rain, a day on a lake, beach, sailboat, or you trip on yourself and fall into a puddle. The 3 traits you should pay attention to when buying one is weight, durability, and ease of carrying. Choose one that has a good balance of portability and durability.
The most convenient ones to carry are the ones with straps to wear like a backpack. I have been caught in the rain many times while walking, hiking or driving a moped and the backpack waterproof bag I had – one that opened on top that you roll up a few times and clip – allowed me to continue doing what I was doing without having to stop and seek shelter from the rain. If suitable, this could also serve as your day pack, which will potentially be your most used piece of equipment, so do look for one of quality.
2. Combination Padlocks
Even just seeing locks on your bags will deter most would-be thiefs. They would rather target bags without any locks to make their lives easier. I usually bring 2 of these padlocks to give me much needed peace of mind. If you are on a budget and eyeing to stay in hostel dorm rooms, they sometimes provide lockers for their guests to lock their valuables in. But even without the lockers, I always lock my bags when I leave the room – even if I doubt that any of my roommates will steal anything from me. I forced the habit upon myself just to proactively reduce the risk of shit happening, i.e., stolen money, phone, iPod, passport, credit/ATM cards.
I have heard stories of non-guests walking into hostel dorm rooms pretending to be guests and then stealing things at night when everyone is asleep. Because of this, many hostels I have been to have placed tighter security measures like handing out room keys, getting an extra employee for the nightshift and even installing CCTV cameras. From my observation, less than half of the travelers I share dorm rooms with carry locks and lock their bags as vigilantly; most leave their devices lying on the floors charging or on their beds while they are in other rooms. While it’s perfectly safe to do this in some places, I’d rather not risk it.
3. Kindle / Tablet
If you stereotype yourself as being a bookworm as do I, a kindle would be an invaluable addition to your arsenal of gadgets. What I love about the kindle is its capacity of holding dozens of books at once, all of which you could (and should) acquire before you even leave home. It is super lightweight and supposedly, the backlight does not strain our eyes like most other devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops) so it allows you to read for long periods without getting tired.
You can read with one hand which means you can read in many interesting situations and positions. It is super convenient as well because the battery life is fantastically long! Even with reading a few hours daily, the Paperwhite model lasts me several weeks for a full charge. The only thing you have to watch out for is getting the screen scratched if you pack it with sharp objects like keys, so buy a case for it or use your grandmother’s old sock as a Kindle-dom (Kindle condom).
4. Reusable Water bottle
Without a doubt, this is another essential if you’d like to be as eco-friendly and efficient a traveler as possible. Get a plastic or steel leak-proof bottle, with somewhere between a 500mL to 1L capacity, and slim enough to fit in the side pouch of your backpack. Fill it up every chance you get in hostels, restaurants, refilling stations, etc. Wash with soap every now and then.
An even better option is to bring a Life Straw, or something similar. These filter water to make them potable and safe to drink. I prefer the bottle with the straw over only the straw because it allows you to bring some water around wherever you go.
5. Hangable Toiletry Kit
The practicality of a hanging toiletry kit is applaudable. There have been many shared bathrooms I’ve showered in with nowhere to put your things down but with a few nails or hooks to hang your towel and clothes. There’s always the toilet in most cases, but I try to avoid putting things on it to avoid picking up whatever microbes might be living on the shitter. I always try and go for the cheapest places to stay, and bathroom sanitation is not on my priority list – while a clean bed is.
For those whose skins tend to crawl at the slightest bathroom mould or mildew, do not fret, there are always cleaner and more private options for you “flashpackers.” I’ve attached a small carabiner to my kit as well, and it’s allowed me to hang it in odd places it otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
From pre-dawn hikes to scrounging around your tent at night, to navigating through a messy dorm room after lights-out, a headlamp is at least 10 times more useful than a regular handheld flashlight. An essential in survival situations as well, do not forget to bring one. Go for a small and light rechargeable headlamp, if you can only find one that uses the standard triple-A batteries, then bring 1 extra set of batteries for emergencies. A word of advice for those planning on doing some day hikes: even if you think you’ll be back before dark, always bring your headlamp in case the unpredictable (a sprain, broken ankle, a flood or bridge collapse, etc.) happens and you get caught out on a trail after dark.
7. Tiger Balm
The most useful multi-functional balm I’ve come across. I use it mainly for muscle pain (I get lower back strains sometimes) and mosquito bites. It also works as a mosquito repellant, but I prefer to use other things to repel and the Tiger Balm to stave off the post-bite itchiness. I was recently attacked once again (3rd time already this year) by “sea lice,” which are actually microscopic jellyfish eggs that sting you in dozens of places in a short span. The itch sometimes stays for days or weeks, but applying Tiger Balm shortens the duration of the itching in most cases.
I’ve met many travelers who’ve gotten nasty infections from mosquito bites on their ankles that they’ve scratched crazy in their sleep. Using Tiger Balm on the bites will save you a lot of time, money and energy. As I write this, there’s a Spaniard sleeping on the bunk on top of me who has nasty infections on his legs from precisely that. He had just been prescribed to buy a week’s worth of antibiotics to kill off the infection. The infection happened because of the open wounds. The open wounds happened because of the scratching. Nullify the itch, prevent the infection. Yes, dear, antibiotics means no alcohol for you. And quite frankly, it kills the good bacteria in our systems as well, leaving us more susceptible to catching sicknesses and diseases. You do the math.
8. Inflatable Neck Pillow
Another multi-purpose asset to your equipment. For sleeping in tents, for your face, neck or arms in long bus or plane rides, or just as an additional comfort in dorm beds. It collapses to the size of a wallet and weighs close to nothing.
9. Bags in bags
Something that has helped me immensely in keeping organized while traveling is to bring small, soft, see-through zipper bags of different shapes and sizes. I put my valuables, wires, and small items in them so they don’t get lost and disappear into the bottom of the bag as they have the habit of doing. As usual, the lighter, the better.
If you don’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night with boisterous laughter, doors opening and closing or bags zipping up and down, wear earplugs to sleep. I usually listen to some ambient tunes to sleep and use earplugs when I want silence for a change.
11. Clear Protective Glasses
If you enjoy renting a scooter / motorbike every now and then to explore the surrounding area and go find a secluded spot with a great view, as I do, I suggest you bring a cheap pair of clear glasses you can get in any hardware store. This is to protect your eyes, and ultimately, to prevent accidents as small rocks, dust or insects usually come flying into your eyes as you drive along any road, especially dirt roads. Clear is better than tinted so you can use it as it’s getting dark – even if I always try to avoid driving at night, sometimes it’s just unavoidable. Nighttime drives means more pesky little mosquitoes flying into your eyes which can sting and are very distracting.
These along with your own choice of essentials will greatly help you have a more comfortable and pleasant trip, with less stress and less worries. Complementing this list, I’ll leave you with another list – this being one of things NOT to bother bringing:
1. Generic Medicine
You can get generic medicine in almost every town in the world now, so unless you’re going to an absolutely remote area, I suggest you leave these behind as they will be dead weight to you as they were to me. My modus operandi now is not to carry any medicine and to only buy as required. I am not a sickly type of person, so if you are, you might want to adopt a different system.
Pharmaceuticals generally are overused and overprescribed and they treat the symptoms and not the sickness, which can be detrimental to our health in most cases and in the long run. Medicine can be effective and necessary at times, but not for every ache, pain and fever. Our bodies heal themselves, we only need to give it enough rest, water, and healthy food. Of course, if you are allergic to some or many things, bring antihistamines. In places where the food and water sanitation are dubious, bring some oral rehydration salts for if and when you get diarrhea or other gastrointestinal illnesses.
2. Back-up Wires and Chargers
In previous trips, I’ve carried a bit of dead weight in the form of extra microUSB wires and chargers. I had assumed I would lose or break one or a few but I never have. So only bring what you need. If you do need a replacement, it’s easy to find as it is another common necessity for the modern-day traveler. Usually, where there is a common demand, there is a supply, even in far off places and developing countries.
3. Large Bottles of Toiletries
This goes for shampoo, sunscreen, toothpaste, and whatever goes in your kit. Go for smaller bottles and just buy when you run out. I’ve brought large quantities of toiletries I didn’t finish in several months, meaning it was unnecessary extra weight up until the end of its lifespan.
4. Sleeping bag and tent
If you don’t plan on using it all or most of the time, leave it behind. If you’re only doing 1 or a few hikes / camping excursions during your travels, it’s better to just rent your gear at the site so you won’t have to carry all that weight when you’re not camping. Best to do research beforehand and check if you can rent some equipment in the places where you want to camp.
5. Piles of Books
I have no qualms with reading electronically. I know some purists prefer flipping actual paper and smelling that oh-so-nice old (or new) book smell. If you decide to bring, take only 1 book with you. Some hostels have a small collection of books that travelers can use to exchange books, free of charge. There is a danger you will end up with only old copies of erotic fantasy (to feed your already repressed sexual desires) or boring, terribly written romantic fantasy, but that is the risk and fun in leaving things up to chance.
If you are going to a country with a different language, refrain from bringing even a Spanish-English dictionary, for example, or a Spanish phrase book. The reason being it weighs nothing to get audio tapes (I highly recommend the Pimsleur program) and use smartphone applications like Google Translate which are more than enough to get you going and learning the language. The latter even allows you to download any language packet for offline use.
If you don’t need to work on your laptop while traveling (unlike myself), don’t bring it. Smartphones and tablets can do all your researching, booking, emailing, social media and file sharing for you. The biggest reasons I bring mine around are so I can type articles comfortably and satisfy all my photography needs. There are also computer shops with decent internet connection in most places I’ve been to, and I’ve met some travelers that go a few hours a week to transfer their camera photos to the external hard drive they brought and post an album or 2 online.
Laptops weigh a significant amount, are an extra hassle when going through airport security and are an extra cause of concern when it starts pouring out like crazy. I am considering leaving behind my pricey Macbook Air on my next trip and getting a cheaper, smaller and less-functional laptop just for typing convenience, really.
7. Shoes for days
You really only need slippers / flip-flops / thongs / jandals (depending on where you’re from) and another pair of footwear for all-around walking and hiking. I now prefer to use sturdy sandals as this negates my need for socks and is good for hiking as well. If you are the type that likes to go out and party every now and then, by all means, bring a 3rd pair of portable shoes to hit the dance floor.
8. BBS (Bulky Bluetooth Speaker)
Being an audiophile, I would be content for lifetimes just listening to new and old music all day. I brought a bulky waterproof speaker to my South America trip and regretted it, in retrospect. If you want to bring one, get one that’s small and cheap like those “hamburger speakers” that are smaller than your fist. Avoid bringing an expensive one that you will end up crying over when it gets squashed by the 60L pack on top of yours under the crowded bus. Honestly, you won’t always get to use it anyway. I now prefer to just bring earphones for personal use.
9. Surfboard + Wetsuit
If you are a surfer and wanted to make sure you had your favorite board with you on your epic trip to catch legendary waves, I would try and dissuade you from bringing your own. The first reason being most airlines will charge you exhorbitant amounts in order to check your board in with them. Yes, there are airlines that charge less and some that even carry your boards for free (see the list in this blog), but depending on where you’re flying, they may not cater to your needs. Board damage during transit is related to this.
The next reason is usually, where there is surf, there are surfers. Where there are surfers, there are surfboards for sale. It is not difficult to find cheap and decent 2nd-hand boards and wetsuits for sale. The obvious drawback with traveling with a surfboard if you’re not doing an exclusive “surf only” trip is having to carry your baby around with you all the damn time. Yes, my family wisely advised me not to bring mine, but I tend to be hard-headed and once again did not listen. Despite there being massive perks of having my board with me, like surfing in far-off spots where no one rented boards out, the cons outweighed the pros in my case.
All this selective packing will pay off from the start of your trip when you know you’ve shaved off some kilograms of unnecessary weight that will allow you to happily walk up a few kilometers to canvas and find that cheap and beautiful hostel that was off the beaten path, without even breaking a sweat.
There were several times I lamely checked into the nearest hostel or inn from the bus stop at a slightly higher price because with the amount I was carrying, I was in no condition to walk any further, and I avoided taxis whenever I could.
As I’m very much a novice traveler as of yet, I’m no authority on this topic. If you have any questions, suggestions or violent remarks, feel free to explode – I won’t take it personally. 🙂