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The Packing Truths

Packing Tips for the Long-term Traveler

Aaarrrgghh–I can’t decide what to pack! This sentiment almost always comes up the first time anyone prepares for a long journey abroad. After all, if you’re used to one-week vacations, you’re used to packing an outfit or two per day and all the toiletries that can be crammed in your suitcase. If you’re a woman, you might be packing a hair dryer and a small shoe store as well. You might even have some dressy outfits that will need to be pressed or ironed.

Throw all those notions out the window and start from scratch. You won’t have your own car, there will seldom be bellhops, and you can’t expect lots of flat open surfaces for a wheeled suitcase. Unless you can afford to take taxis everywhere, you’re going to need to walk and deal with local transportation, which means using a backpack. If you’re carrying a backpack, anything extra is literally a burden.

Most of the books that cover traveling around the world deal with this issue exhaustively (sometimes too exhaustively since some items are a matter of taste), so check out the list from last week’s blog for book recommendations. Here are some general truths to realize, however, based on my three trips around the globe–with my girlfriend then wife’s experience also taken into account. Almost every traveler has made big packing mistakes the first time, so benefit from the advice of others and set off more prepared yourself.

The Packing Truths

It all has to fit.
This is the obvious overriding principle. If it all doesn’t fit, something’s gotta go. Most people also carry a small day pack as well for books, a camera, etc. That way they can board a bus or take a city walk with something small. For the main pack, you’re actually better off having a smaller pack than a large one as you won’t be tempted to stuff it full of everything you can. Which leads to the next point…

You have to carry it all.
A backpack can get heavy fast. When the occasion comes and you have to walk along a hot dusty road with it strapped to your back, you don’t want to be carrying 25 kilograms/60 pounds. Consider everything you pack in terms of weight. Some things are worth it: for us it was a short wave radio, for others it’s an extra pair of shoes, but make sure you really value the heavy items. Volume creates weight as well. Cut five pairs of jeans down to one and you’ll lighten your load considerably.

You can and will do laundry.
You don’t need two weeks worth of clothes. You need enough to last you a few days to a week. Carry some detergent so you can hand wash in the sink. In cheap countries, you can hire someone to do your laundry for next to nothing. Take plenty of (lightweight) underwear and socks, but keeps pants and shorts to a minimum.

You can buy new clothes.
For our last trip around the world, we left home with almost empty backpacks. Then we went shopping when we got to Bangkok and had complete new wardrobes for cheap. When those clothes wore out, we bought some more somewhere else. Buy things you won’t fall in love with and you won’t mind tossing them later.

You can buy most other things too.
Some people go crazy stocking up on toiletries and gadgets at home, then find the same things for half the price overseas. Some things you can’t find where you’re going (100% DEET spray, certain prescription drugs, that favorite brand of shampoo), but most cities these days have the rest, even in protective markets like India. You can also find books in English, often for a song. Don’t overstock on books, batteries, and cosmetics. You’ll weigh yourself down and spend more than you need to.

You can send e-mail from a cafe.
The only people who should be lugging around a heavy laptop are people who are travel writers or are otherwise gainfully employed on the road. If you really think you’ll be completing that novel you’ve been working on for five years now, take something super light. You can contact your friends and family from a terminal almost anywhere and won’t have to worry about connections.

One nice outfit can pay dividends.
Some people go to extremes in packing light and end up looking like homeless bums every day as a result. It’s a subject of much debate, but I found the wheels of officialdom turn much faster for someone who looks like they’re not broke. (I’ve NEVER had problems at a border crossing, despite almost never having an onward ticket.) Having one wrinkle-free, lightweight outfit that looks a bit dressy can do wonders. It’s also your ticket to walking around first-class hotels without being questioned, which is nice if you want to take advantage of their offerings incognito or get some free munchies at the hotel bar happy hour. It also comes in handy if a job interview suddenly appears, which isn’t as uncommon as you’d think.

Some items are worth their weight in gold.
Many first-time travelers go overboard in buying every cool travel gadget in sight–we did it too. But some are really worthwhile to lug around the world. Everyone will have different items and gadgets to add to this. (See this list, for example.) but here are the gadgets we found to really “pull their weight.”
Swiss Army knife
Cup-sized water purifier or wand
Stretchy rubber clothesline
Flat sink stopper/plug
Belt with zippered money pouch on back side.
Water bottle carrier you can sling over your shoulder
nylon laundry bag
small plastic tripod
tiny flashlight

Happy packing!

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