Packing is one of the most important and time consuming aspects of planning an extended trip. The tried and true guideline is less, less, less, meaning take as little as possible. Most round the world travelers limit themselves to one backpack and a daypack since narrow ancient city streets and dusty gravel border crossings don’t easily accommodate roller bags. Anything you want to bring you must be able to carry in your backpack, hence the rule of thumb then becomes “it if doesn’t fit, you must omit.”
Having spent many months packing, traveling, and repacking, we’ve come up with the following six steps to guide you in the process:
1. Choose Your Backpack Wisely
Tom did a lot of online research before we spent an entire day at REI in Atlanta buying our packs. We dropped about $600 for the lot of them, with Tom’s topping the list at $200 on sale and the rest of ours descending in price relative to our age. This may seem like a big amount, but when you realize that a single bag will be thrown into the underbellies of planes and busses, on the roofs of trucks and tuktuks, and heaved, shoved, dropped, kicked, and hauled across the globe, you want it to be a good one. Add to that the need for user comfort, which all that high tech engineering is supposed to ensure, and you have an argument for investing a good chunk of change in your pack. You might be tempted to buy the biggest pack possible, but if you let the REI folks fill it with sandbags, you’ll quickly realize that you might be limited by your level of fitness more than the size of your pack.
2. Buy Practical, Dark, Quick Drying Clothes and Compress Them Into Your Pack
Once you have your pack, you’ve got to decide how to fill it. Clothes are the most obvious start. We did a fairly good job of buying only quick drying, durable stuff from REI, though I learned in Australia that the nylon-like fabric has a tendency to melt when ironed. (In China I learned of a similar effect from halogen lightbulbs. The older boys absolutely loathe their quick dry stuff and somehow have gradually converted their wardrobes to a few pairs of cotton shorts and T-shirts. This works for them because they were willing to give up quantity for what in their eyes is quality. They also don’t get cold and don’t care if they have anything with long sleeves or full pant legs.
The rest of us have about 3-4 shirts and pairs of pants each, 1-2 pairs of shoes (which Kieran is constantly losing), 1 pair of long johns, 1 lightweight coat, 3 pairs of our respective undergarments, and 1 swimsuit.
The most important lesson I learned once we began traveling was that even though mosquitos are attracted to dark colors, they are far more practical than light ones. All the khaki and white clothes we brought stained quickly and required far more frequent washing. This may sound gross, but a black or gray pair of pants can go a good 3-4 days before looking dirty whereas a khaki pair looks dirty by noon. When you’re doing laundry for 6 in a sink twice a week, this becomes a dealbreaker. Bye, bye khaki!
Once you’ve got your small supply of well-made, lightweight, quick-drying clothes, you need to compress them so they leave plenty of space in your pack for other necessities and a few luxury items. The key is to buy heavy duty compression sacks. At about $30 each, these bad boys have proven one of our best purchases, since they effectively reduce the space our wardrobes occupy by half.
3. Break Down and Buy the Necessary Electronics
Let’s face it, electronics are easy to lose, attractive to steal, and sometimes heavy to carry, but they are an absolute necessity if you want to document your travels visually, keep in touch with home, and keep yourself entertained on the road. Tom has been reluctant to give an inventory of our most valuable and critical goods until we get home and they are safely locked up, but here’s a list of gadgets we’ve found handy, some of which we’ve already lost:
Laptop computers — The best resource for storing and managing your photos, data, and email. Handy for watching DVDs, and when you have internet access, paying bills securely, conducting research for your next stop, and calling home via Skype. Though they require constant vigilance and must be locked up or on your back at all times, they are well worth the effort. To be safe, be sure to bring an extra power cord. We left one in a hotel in Australia and the other melted in Vietnam, where they insisted it wasn’t covered under warranty and we had to pay double the US price to replace it. When a second one melted in India, the warranty was valid, though it took three days to replace. (I’m still mad at that guy in Vietnam. He cost me $167!)
Cameras — Tom has done an amazing job of documenting our trip thus far with a Canon digital SLR camera. While it is big, it produces beautiful, high resolution pictures that we can share on the internet and treasure for decades to come. (He’s already had three or four people ask for permission to use them in their advertising.) We’ve been surprised to find many other travelers, even young and intrepid ones, carry similar cameras because they place such a high value on capturing their adventures. One young South African couple bought two Nikon SLRs–one for each of them–so they wouldn’t fight over who got to take the pictures. Those who opt for smaller cameras (I’m not mentioning names, but you know who you are) often regret their decision when they see the difference in image quality.
We also bought an inexpensive waterproof camera that takes both stills and video for days when we’d be doing watersports, standing on the side of a boat, splitting up and thus requiring two cameras, or when we just didn’t want to deal with the bigger camera. So far, those days have been very few.
Lastly, we of course brought a videocamera. We ended up with a small, cheap one but for a few months considered bringing a bigger, more expensive semipro one. In the end we decided the chances of us actually having time to edit decent videos with iMovie was small enough that a normal camera would suffice. We were right.
iPods — iPods are handy for backing up photos from your laptop, drowning out background noise on trains and busses, and the perfect means for downloading and listening to audiobooks, language lessons, and podcasts relating to your travel destinations. They are also a must for your teenagers if you want them to stay sane.
Most of our iPods are used for listening. We planned on using my brand new 60GB iPod to store all our photos, but when it drove off in a cab in China only two months into the trip, we invested in a small portable hard drive instead. Now we burn DVDs to send home, back up using the hard drive, and keep our fingers crossed that the computer hard drive holds out. But I still need a new iPod.
GPS — Oh so fun and handy to have when driving yourself through the Outback or safari lands, floating through Indian backwaters, or scaling remote mountain peaks. Too bad we lost ours on those same Indian backwaters.
Cell phone — Invaluable once you get to a country where SIM cards and access are cheap (most countries outside the US). This is a tricky one though since most US companies lock their phones so you cannot change SIM cards or use different providers. We scored an unlocked phone through private sources (no, we didn’t steal it) and have thus far bought SIM cards and pay as you go access in Australia, China, Thailand, South Africa, and Namibia.
Aside from the phone, we carry our electronics in two bags, one amazing LowePro camera bag and an ordinary backpack.
4. Compile a Medical Kit
My awesome friend Paula compiled a holistic, natural medical kit for us which is a supplement to our more traditional supply of antimalarials, antibiotics, Neosporin, and Tylelnol. A basic traveler’s first aid kit is handy but be sure to tweak it or supplement it to suit your own needs.
5. Remember Your Documents
Unfortunately, you’ll need to bring some paperwork along on your travels. I bought a few plastic tie folders and used them to hold the following: laminated color copies of our passports, sheets of extra passport photos for visas, paper printouts of our itineraries and etickets, relevant insurance information, and user manuals for our more complicated gadgets.
You should be sure to leave copies of your important documents at home and carry digital versions on your laptop.( If you don’t take a laptop with you, email the copies to yourself so they sit in your webmail inbox for the duration of your trip.) Digital versions are often as compelling as paper ones. When KLM indavertently purged our e-tickets from their system, we whipped out a laptop and showed them our email receipt/confirmation. Without it, we might never have gotten new tickets out of South Africa!
6. Gather Everything Else
There’s a small list of things you’ll need to address various situations that might arise. Our sundries include the following: umbrellas, ponchos, laundry detergent, wipies, reading material, schoolbooks if you’ve got kids, toilet paper, scissors, sewing kit, toiletries (shampoo, soap, razor, deodorant, hair cutting scissors), padlocks, and perhaps the most important–sleep sacks for those nights when you really don’t want to touch the pillow in your guesthouse.
What’s in my daypack (which by the way rocks):
Small pill bottle with 3-day supply of antimalarials
Silk wallet they gave me at the hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam where I keep a small supply of local currency and a few business cards
Small packs of tissues and a small roll of toilet paper (you’ll need it everywhere in Asia!)
At least one package of wet wipes (indispensable)
Small makeup case (essential for feeling human every now and then)
LDS Quad Scriptures
Bottle of Tylenol
Lightweight jacket (I get cold everywhere)
Pair of socks (My feet get cold on airplanes)
Lice comb (since India)
Postcards from the last three countries we’ve visited that we finally got the kids to write but still need stamps
My notebook (currently one that came with a package of chocolate milk in Vietnam and has a cartoon cow on the front)
In the mesh side pocket:
Pens, pens, and more pens (including a Sharpie)