Back in August, I described our packing list for our trip through Europe and Asia. I am happy to say that it was a success! In the 7 months of our journey, not once did we think, “if only we had brought that tool/gadget/extra shirt.” Nor did we really feel that we had brought anything unnecessary, an important sentiment when you have to carry everything on your back week after week. As we traveled, we did pick up a few things here and there – a shirt, earrings, little souvenirs – but most importantly we gained expertise on what is truly essential to pack. This post is intended to share our expertise with you.
TRIP TIP #2: Pack what you need and need everything you pack.
The internet has A LOT of advice on packing. Everything from how to coordinate wardrobe colors to elaborate folding techniques. This is rather simpler than that. I’ll cover the basics in three categories – clothing, simple travel tools, and electronics – and how they worked for us. But there is one piece of advice that is often found online and in print that I would like to reiterate – PACK LIGHT! I know, you’ve heard it before. You already understand that it’s easier on your body to maneuver a smaller piece of luggage than a bigger one. But consider this – I truely believe that one reason we did not experience any thievery on our entire world trip was because our small backpacks ensured we were able to move easily and quickly. I’ve seen too many backpackers with enormous packs on their backs, another on their front, and then carrying one or two hand bags on top of it all. Or people with gigantic suitcases that struggle to move about. These travelers are slow and easily targeted. So pack light. I promise you won’t miss a thing.
- The right amount of clothing – My last packing post got into more detail but here is the basic formula that we traveled with for 7 months – and we could have gone even longer! It works for hot to moderately cold climates. When we got to China in the dead of winter, we had to purchase jackets, hats, gloves and scarves but any cold weather area will have these. Also, be sure to bring different types of layers, for example, a light long sleeve and a heavy long sleeve. This will help keep you prepared for any weather condition.
- Nathan = 3 short sleeves + 3 long sleeves + 2 pair pants (both convertible to shorts) + 1 set running tank top and shorts (doubled as pajamas) + 1 light rain jacket + 3 shoes (sneakers, sandals (Tevas), flip flops)
- Carmen = 2 tank tops + 2 short sleeves + 3 long sleeves + 2 light sweaters + 1 pair shorts + 2 pair pants (one pair converted to shorts) + 1 skirt (doubled as a top) + 1 cotton dress + 1 set running shirt and shorts (doubled as pajamas) + 1 light rain jacket + 1 light scarf (doubled as a beach or picnic blanket) + 3 shoes (sneakers, sandals, flip flops)
- Extremely comfortable shoes – You absolutely must invest in high quality shoes! Outside North America and Europe, it can be impossible to find comfortable, durable shoes with good cuishion and support. And there’s nothing worse than feeling tired and achey just because you have improper footwear. Personally, I loved my Naot sandals from day one and they have lasted hundreds upon hundreds of miles without giving me an ounce of discomfort. Ditto with my lighweight Puma running shoes. Nathan has said similar praise for his Teva sandals.
- Long underwear or leggings – Similar to shoes, it is hard to find good quality versions of these on the road (or in the case of men, impossible). But they’re important as they widen the range of temperatures you can handle without a jacket by at least 10 degrees. They’re also great pajamas in cold weather places.
SIMPLE YET ESSENTIAL TRAVEL TOOLS
- A good day bag – I said above that I think our small backpacks protected us from being targeted by thieves. Similarly, I think our well-constructed day bag helped deter pickpockets. I purchased our day bag from REI in 2006 and it has been going strong ever since. The key features that I like are a durable rain-resistant exterior, a sturdy cut proof strap, side water bottle pocket, zippered pockets for security, and lots of organization features to quickly find everything. An important factor for me is that it is a small messenger bag NOT a backpack. Backpacks are inconvenient for getting out frequently used items like maps and are also vulnerable to bag slashers. We did use an REI backpack we love for some things, like carrying our towels to a beach day, but not everyday. Unfortunately, REI no longer makes my beloved day bag but another from REI and one from Eagle Creek look like pretty good alternatives.
- Organization tools – packing cubes and ziplocks – I’ve already sung the praises of packing cubes in my last packing post. But I’ll say it again – they’re an amazing organization tool! We didn’t leave behind or lose anything in our travels in part because of our cubes. A friend recently asked if one couldn’t just use a large ziplock instead. I had to do this myself in South America when I forgot a cube. But the packing cube is superior in four key ways: 1) You can compress you’re clothes much more, which means you’re carrying less air and a smaller bag. 2) Sometimes you won’t have a good place in the room to put your clothes. A cube has just enough structure to set it on the floor and move things in and out of as needed. 3) Cubes are ventilated with mesh panels which is better for your clothes hot and humid weather travel. 4) The cube has a handle to more easily pull it in and out of your bag. In case this a useful gauge, I used one full size and one half for clothes, Nathan used two full. Also, do bring a variety of ziplocks with you as well. They don’t weigh anything and are great for one-offs, like wet swimsuits or open packages of food.
- Sleeping gear – eye patch, ear plugs and inflatable neck pillow – These may seem like luxury items as opposed to essentials, but I disagree. Chances are you are going to take an overnight bus or two (or in our case 16!). You don’t want to arrive in the mess of a bus station with touts and taxis shouting for your business without having had any shut eye. No, the balled up sweatshirt does not adequately substitute for neck pillow. And of course, the eye patch and ear plugs help no matter where you are sleeping – bus, noisy hotel, airport chair. All these are truely essential for guaranteeing some quality zzzzz’s which means more time for exploring when you get there.
- Repair tools – travel sized duck tape and mini sewing kit – Nathan and I wrapped duck tape around an old plastic gift card and voilà you have a travel sized version. Great for patching up various holes and tears. The mini sewing kits was also very handy for more permanent repairs to tears in our backpacks, cubes, socks, clothes, etc.
- Medical tools – ciprofloxacin, cold medicine, blister band aids and elastic bandage wrap – Cipro is usually prescribed by doctors for visitors to developing countries to treat travelers diahorrea. It really works and, even if you don’t use it, it gives peace of mind that you have some defense against pesty stomach bugs. We didn’t really have many stomach problems on our travels but we did catch a few colds. While it’s easy to grab some lozenges on the road getting simple cold medicine is more challenging. Bringing it with you can alleviate some of the more annoying symptoms like a runny nose or congestion. We carry a tiny pocket medkit with a handful of bandages, but most important are blister band aids (also called compeed), they are somewhat rubbery and saved our feet during many hikes. Finally, I am so happy I decided to bring the elastic bandage wrap. When Nathan banged his arm into a light pole, it helped keep the swelling in check. When I twisted my ankle, it helped keep it strong. I’m always going to carry one now.
- Laundry tools – universal sink stopper and stain removing pen – When you’re traveling light, you are going to do laundry often. So that you don’t have to constantly send it out to the laundry service it’s easy to do a few pieces here and there by hand. I bought a universal sink stopper for this trip and it was awesome at plugging any sink, anywhere. Made doing laundry a breeze even when I had to soak and treat stains. With so few clothes, stains are a traveler’s enemy. Therefore, treat them as soon as possible with a stain removing pen. We carried it in our day bag and used it often. Generally, 1 stick lasts about 6 months.
- Favorite sunscreen, chapstick and anti-perspirant/deodorant – We brought travel size shampoo, conditioner, soap and toothpaste with the intention of replacing them along the way. But not sunscreen, chapstick or anti-perspirant. Stores abroad do not offer many options or variety for these items, if they offer them at all. As a side note, I am intrigued by a recent blog post on travel-friendly homemade deodorant.
- 1L water bottle and steri-pen – Nathan and I chose to drink the local water if the streets were generally clean and the infrastructure seemed to be in good order. We would judge the latter by seeing how roads and sidewalks were maintained and finding out whether it was ok to flush toilet paper (many places you are asked not to). If we could, we felt it was a good sign that the water infrastructure was modern. This is by no means a foolproof method. You really just have to follow your gut feeling. But we never got sick from bad water. You can buy bottled water anywhere and everywhere, however, it results in a lot of plastic waste. We were happy to have our 1L Nalgene bottle and our steri-pen in order to reduce waste. Even if you don’t care about the environmental effects, it’s useful for those times you really don’t want to have to leave the hotel just to get a drink. The basic concept is that you fill the bottle with water, swirl the UV-light emitting steri-pen in the water for a minute, and then you have cleansed water. Simple and useful. But be sure to bring extra batteries.
- Camp towels and silk sleeping bags – Not all budget hotels and hostels have towels. It’s much easier to bring your own. We like the REI large towel for traveling and camping. The same goes for sheets. Let’s just say cleanliness standards vary for sheets. Silk sleeping bags are very useful for having an extra layer of protection or warmth as the case may be. In hot weather, they’re great for having a light layer to protect from mosquitos.
- Head lamp – There are many reasons to bring a lightweight head lamp. The reading lights on buses only worked some of the time. On Chinese trains it’s lights out at 11pm sharp. Roads in small towns and villages are very dark at night. Electricity goes out.
- Notebook and pen – Ahh, yes. Back to basics with this one. We had two notebooks on our journey and both proved invaluable. One was very small and fit in our day bag for us to jot notes on the day’s activities. The second was a simple composition notebook in which we drafted blog posts, wrote ideas, drew pictures, wrote down contact info for people we met, jotted down to do lists, mapped out our calendar, noted budget calculations, etc. It’s better than scrounging for scrap paper and it can be easier than trying to do everything electronically. Which brings me to the next topic…
- iPod touch (or smartphone on airplane mode with wifi turned on) – We loaded all of our Lonely Planet country guidebooks as PDFs on my iPhone and it was glorious. All the information we could need right at our fingertips. For individual cities you can even download guidebook apps that are even easier to use than PDFs. I loved that it was so much lighter than carrying the physical book, as we sometimes did in South America. And of course, it can do so much more – use the compass, take pictures and video, show people photos, download maps, find free wifi to look things up on the go. My most used travel apps were Hostelworld, AirBnB, Couchsurfing, Kayak and of course Skype. I also downloaded some useful and free(!) language apps from World Nomads.
- iPad for blogging – We brought an iPad purely to keep the blog going while abroad. In South America we did this from hostel computers but this strategy was highly inconvenient. Blogging from an iPad is definitely doable but can be frustratingly slow and cumbersome compared to a computer. It’s really a matter of personal choice. If you are doing a simpler blog with less text and editing, I would recommend an iPad mini. If you’re not blogging, stick to only the iPod.
- E-reader – I’m an avid reader and love to read cultural books about a place before I visit. This can lead to a lot of weight in my bag. Instead, I loaded a bunch of books on my e-reader and brought it with; a choice I was very happy with. You can find English books in most places but they’re heavy and pricey. An e-reader saves so much weight and my Nook even used the same charger as the Apple products (only bring the cord).
- Audiobooks – But even more genious than the e-reader are audiobooks. I borrowed CDs from the library, uploaded them to my iPhone and then took them with me. I listened while walking the Camino de Santiago, on trains, planes and buses, in the Laotian jungle, in my bed before going to sleep. It was especially great when I started feeling carsick from reading or if I forgot my headlamp and the bus was dark.
You may notice one key piece of technology missing, our camera. That’s because Nathan will be covering the equipment and applications that we used to bring you photos from around the world!