Long-Term Travel: How To Pack

Backpacks lined up at a rest stop during my trip to Nepal

Backpacks lined up at a rest stop during my trip to Nepal

In this installment of my travel series, I’ll share my best packing tips and product recommendations…and, equally important, what not to bother packing. They’re geared for a long-term backpacker-style trip in warm climates, but they’re totally adaptable to other situations!

Packing Principles

The first thing to remember, especially for longer trips or ones where you’ll be carrying your luggage around a lot: packing is all about resource management. In this case, the resources are space and weight vs. the stuff you need to bring. You don’t want to run out of, say, shampoo or underwear at an inconvenient time, but you don’t want to pack a giant bottle of shampoo or 20 pairs of underwear either. Same goes for toilet paper, snacks, and so on. (More tips for packing light here.)

The trick is finding the best balance for you. How often are you willing to do laundry? (That may depend on whether you’ll be handing it over to a hotel front desk, looking for a laundromat, or plugging up your bathroom sink.) How much weight do you want to lug around or your back?

There will be tradeoffs. Want to bring a netbook and a good camera? Then you might have to do with less clothing. Planning a trip with a wide variety of activities or climates? Go for multipurpose clothes and layers. Want more shoes? Pack fewer jackets. You get the idea.

Choose your bags with care. Make sure they’ll work with your travel style. I usually travel with a big backpacking-style pack and a medium-sized daypack, both from my favourite outdoor supply store, Mountain Equipment Co-op. My travelling companion prefers a duffel bag. In places where you know you’ll be dealing with paved roads and a minimum of walking, rolling suitcases are also good.

Be Sure to Pack…

Here are some items I found indispensable on my trip through the warmer parts of Asia.

That's me under the giant hat communing with the elephant in Kerala, India. Also note the daypack.

That’s me under the giant hat communing with the elephant in Kerala, India. Also note the daypack.

1. Crushable hat. If you’re heading for sunnier weather than you’re used to, get the biggest brim you can find. I got mine from Lee Valley.

2. Good guidebook. My current favourite brand is Rough Guides, but I’ve also used Rick Steves and Lonely Planet. It all depends on your travel style — browse several before you pick one. (More about my experiences with Rough Guides here.)

3. Mesh bags. Picking up mesh bags in various sizes will do wonders for your organization. Put all your underwear in one bag, your socks in another, your shirts in a bigger one (or two), and so on. Much less rummaging around wondering how your bag can possibly be hiding an entire pair of pants!

4. (For women only…) A urinating aid such as a Shewee. If you’re going to a place with squat/pit toilets (or none at all), and especially if you have bad knees, one of these is a must! Be sure to practice first at home in the bathtub/shower until you get the hang of it. (Pro tip: if you’re peeing outdoors, don’t plant your feet on a hill!)

5. Travel tech. I usually travel with an ereader (for guidebooks as well as leisure reading), a cell phone (doubles as an alarm clock and, if you have a smartphone, a music player), the best camera I can afford, and a netbook. If you can get away with less, do so — technology is heavy! Don’t forget you’ll also need a plug converter, extra batteries, a battery charger, and maybe even a small power strip (if you’re going someplace where power outages are common).

My trusty hiking boots in the Malaysian jungle

My trusty hiking boots in the Malaysian jungle

6. Comfy shoes. If you’re planning on doing any amount of walking, go for comfort over style — you’ll be so glad you did. For my Asia trip, I took a pair of lightweight Gore-Tex Merrell hiking shoes. (Pro tip: Don’t go shopping for trail/walking sandals in winter right before you leave for a warm climate. There won’t be any.) I also bought a pair of cheapie flip-flops once I got there, for showers and iffy hotel rooms.

7. Quick-dry clothing. Whether you are washing clothes in your hotel room or just get caught in the rain, quick-dry clothing is a must. I bought some high-tech clothes ahead of time — zip-off pants, sweat-wicking shirt, water-resistant fleece jacket — and also picked up some lightweight cotton items once I got to India (bonus: the loose salwar kameez pieces I bought were also culturally appropriate).

8. Door stopper. If you’re going lower-budget, you may find yourself in a perfectly acceptable room…that has no functioning lock, or else a crappy one. Solution? Metal wedges that go under your door. I don’t have a link, but ask at a travel/outdoor supply store.

9. Small flashlight. If you’re in an area of the world where the power supply may be iffy, or even a cheap hotel room that has no bedside lamps, you’ll be glad you brought a flashlight.

Wearing salwar kameez in Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur, India

Wearing salwar kameez in Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur, India

Think About Ditching…

We also packed some stuff that we didn’t really end up using much, and probably could have gotten away with leaving behind completely. (And in fact, at one point we did — we stored a duffel bag full of stuff in Kathmandu, Nepal while we went trekking in the Annapurna Region. Granted, by that point in our trip a lot of the contents were souvenirs.)

1. Cable lock. I bought this complicated lock that completely encases your backpack in metal mesh. We used it on trains, but really, since we never took an overnight train, we could have gotten away without it. And it was heavy, too — remember what I said about resource management? That said, you might want it if you’re hostelling or taking public buses or overnight trains.

2. Travel towel. As it turns out, everywhere we went in Asia supplied us with clean towels. We were staying in guesthouses of sufficient cleanliness that we were fine with using their towels. But again, if you’re hostelling, you’ll want a quick-dry travel towel — those things are very light and compact yet hold a lot of water.

3. Pharmacy. We packed a whole pharmacy worth of “just in case” stuff, from anti-fungal cream to anti-diarrhea meds (which may have actually landed me in hospital, but that’s a story for another day). Absolutely do bring some emergency supplies, but as always, do your best to minimize. Exceptions: tampons and sunscreen may be hard to find.

Your turn! What are your must-haves when travelling? What would you leave behind next time?

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10 responses to “Long-Term Travel: How To Pack

  1. Wow – that shewee is intriguing! I’ve certainly been to places where that would have been rather useful. And I’m with you on the travel towels…

  2. Simon Chambers

    For me, camera gear is king (along with a laptop and assorted cables/converters). But that’s because of my job. Packing some energy bars is always a good idea, because you never know if you will reach somewhere you can’t eat… I also always pack a shirt and tie, just in case I get asked to go somewhere dressy. I bring a portable hard drive full of TV/movies for those nights in a hotel room where you don’t speak the language that the local TV is in.

    I’d echo the sunscreen, Tilly hat (or other large-brimmed hat), flashlight (very useful when leaving a place after dinner when it’s dark) and comfy shoes (a must for long walking days and long flights!)

  3. are you wearing the 4″ hat? I remember seeing that in a different post and you had scarf-like thing that went with it? like, for a windy day…
    This is an excellent list. bookmarking this one. thx!

  4. Great tips, Siri! I agree on packing as light as possible and buying what you need wherever you’re going on those things that aren’t absolute necessities. As a chronic overpacker, I can attest to the annoyance and inconvenience of packing too much and then being burdened with having to haul it everywhere. Not. Fun.

  5. Ellen – It took a while for me to get the hang of it, but I was so glad I had it!

    Suzanne – Thank you! Yes, it’s the 4″ hat. In the photo you’re remembering, I’m wearing a coordinating scarf underneath (for even more sun protection in the desert), but it’s not attached. The Lee Valley hats don’t come with elastic for under the chin, but that would be a good idea…you could sew some on yourself if you’re handy (unlike me).

    Tami – It’s taken me a long time to learn how to pack lighter, but it can be learned!

  6. Sorry, Simon — your comment got caught in my over-enthusiastic spam filter. I’m sure you have travel down to an art by now, so thanks for your recommendations! Good point about the energy bars. There were definitely times when I wished I’d had some, and although we did look, trail mix was hard to find overseas!

  7. I’m still trying to lighten my tech load. As for the travel books you mentioned earlier, you can lighten the load by photocopying the relevant pages and leave the book at home.

  8. Julie, good tip! I bought my guidebooks in ebook form, which meant I could carry four country guidebooks and some leisure reading with me…but it did mean one more tech item (the ereader). There’s always a tradeoff!

  9. Clearly, I have a lot to learn from your tips. My trips are… unique, to say the least in reference to my packing habits.

  10. Dianna, don’t worry, it took a lot of practice. This Asia trip was my third long-term trip, and I had vivid memories of lugging around way too much stuff on previous trips!

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