Packing for a Long Journey: Tips From Round the World Travelers
By Kelly Westhoff
Soon after we got married, my husband and I quit our jobs and hit the road. We traveled through eight countries in six months – Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.
We dubbed our trip, “Kelly & Quang’s Global Roam.” Since returning home, we’ve discovered that family, friends, and curious acquaintances ask the same questions again and again. One of those questions is …
What Did You Pack?
We packed too much.
We started our Global Roam with four backpacks – two big ones and two small ones. We figured we’d carry the large packs on our backs and wear the smaller ones in front. It didn’t take us long, however, to figure out that our multiple packs were too heavy and too cumbersome to carry for any distance with any amount of comfort.
Just five days into our trip, we dumped everything onto the bed of our Mexico City hotel room and sorted it into two piles – a pile to keep and a pile to ditch. We filled the largest of our backpacks with all the stuff we didn’t think we’d need.
Our hotel offered luggage storage, so we wrote our names on a piece of duct tape, slapped it across the pack and shoved the bundle to the back of the closet. We left it there for three weeks and rescued it the night before we left the country.
We traveled through Uruguay, Argentina and Chile the same way. It wasn’t until the day before we finally left Latin America behind that we realized we hadn’t opened that big and bulging pack for three months.
Southeast Asia was our next destination. Luckily, our itinerary included a stop in Los Angeles. We had family living in the area who generously agreed to store our excess stuff until our trip was done.
Our new motto was “pack light.” We reorganized everything and boarded a plane bound for Bangkok with our three smallest bags. It was still too much.
Backpack and Shoes
After six months on the road, we learned some packing tips the hard way. First, spend your pre-trip dollars on two things: a sturdy backpack and good shoes.
Those big backpacks are expensive, but the last thing you want is for yours to break on the road. In the long run, it’s not worth the 50 bucks you save to go with a cheaper pack. Plus, make sure the backpack you do choose fits your body.
Sporting goods stores like REI and Dick’s have contraptions that measure the length of your spine. Use that number to pick an appropriately-sized pack.
Good shoes are a must. We brought hiking shoes and hiking sandals. It was a pain to haul around two pairs of bulky, heavy shoes, but they were worth every penny. The hiking boots earned their stripes in Mexico and Patagonia.
Even though the hiking boots came with us to Asia, they were quickly packed away at the bottom of our packs as soon as we encountered Bangkok's 90-degree heat. Instead, in Southeast Asia, we wore our sandals for 63 days in a row. They got soaked several times.
Every so often we gave them a sniff and gagged. We sprayed them with athletes' foot spray (which we bought along the way) and gave them baths. We would have dug out the hiking boots again if we'd made it to Europe and China as we’d originally planned. The cooler temperatures would have sent us digging for socks.
We spent money on travel clothes before we left home. Some of those purchases were smart, others weren't.
We bought shammy towels at a sporting goods store and used them regularly.
Do spend money on light-weight, quick-dry travel pants. They squish down to nearly nothing and offer pocket options galore. Plus, the legs zip off so you don't need to pack additional shorts. Many have inside button flaps that let you roll them up into capri pants.
We packed three pairs of pants each and that was plenty. They are spendy. Some cost close to $50, but they were worth it.
We did not bring jeans and were glad. Jeans are too heavy and bulky. We didn't miss them at all.
We did bring one pair of long underwear each. In Patagonia especially we appreciated the extra warmth. And we often wore them alone while just hanging out in our hotel room. We also each brought one pair of fleece pants to Patagonia. Again, that proved a smart move.
We spent money on quick-dry shirts. I wouldn't do that again. We would have done just as well with t-shirts that we already had in our closets at home.
We were conscious about bringing shirts that didn’t sport words or symbols. We didn’t want to advertise or support any particular language, country or company. When it was chilly, we kept warm by dressing in layers – a tank top under a t-shirt under a long sleeve, fleece pullover.
While tank tops were helpful for dressing in layers, I was hesitant to wear them alone – even in really hot places. The few times I did, I felt overly exposed, especially in Asia.
Just as some churches in Europe request women wear skirts inside their doors, Bangkok’s Grand Palace requires visitors to wear sleeves that cover the shoulders.
Many countries value modest dress. Spaghetti strap tanks and Daisy Dukes are not ideal garb for traveling women. Sure they help you pack light, but the trade-off is that you stick out, which is less than ideal in a foreign land where you are dependent on keeping your cash and credit cards secure and don’t understand the legal system.
Do bring a hat. Do bring sunglasses. Do bring sun screen. We used them all. In Patagonia, even though there was a definite nip in the air, we were conscious of the fact that we were close to the hole in the ozone layer and at a high elevation, both of which brought us closer to the sun. In Southeast Asia, the sun was relentless. We simply just needed the shade.
Odds and Ends
We packed more than clothing choices.
We hauled oodles of wet wipes with us from the get go. We also carried bottles of hand sanitizer. Both were invaluable. We ran through the hand sanitizer quickly in Latin America, which turned out just as well. The wet wipes were necessary in Southeast Asia where our hands often felt dirty and dusty. The sanitizer gel would have just rubbed in the grit. The moist wipes at least washed off some of the grime.
A digital camera requires accessories. We hauled around two memory cards, two rechargeable batteries, a battery recharger, plug in adapters, a memory card reader, a jump drive, a laptop and an electrical converter.
The electrical converter was the single heaviest item we packed. The laptop was worrisome. It was hardly new. We’d had it for years and if it were stolen it wouldn’t have been the end of the world.
I brought it and the converter to deal with photos. I was keeping a blog along the way and needed to resize images. If I hadn’t been doing that, I wouldn’t have bothered with the computer.
In every country we visited, photo shops and Internet cafes burned memory cards to CD for reasonable prices. If you’re concerned about losing a CD, make two and pack them in separate bags.
Buy What You Need
You can buy most of what you need along the way be it shampoo, travel tissue, aspirin, cold medicine or clothes. On the road, we bought stocking hats, gloves, winter coats, a swim suit and umbrellas. Often, shopping for necessities in a new city was fun. It was surprisingly interesting to scout out Q-tips in foreign tongue.
There were some items we didn’t want to shop for on the road: tampons, condoms, allergy medicine, and contact solution. We brought enough of each to last the journey.
Other items we found very useful were Zip-loc baggies, a headlamp, and a deck of cards. Quang’s watch had an alarm clock function. Without it, we would have missed flights and early tour bus departures.
A rubber door stop slipped under a flimsy hostel room door would never stop a hardened criminal truly intent on obbing us in the night, but it did help us feel that we would hear a would-be intruder. Combination luggage locks were useful when it came to stowing our packs in hostel lockers.
On the other hand, we hauled mosquito nets everywhere we went and never used them. We also brought too much insect repellent. I wouldn’t want to be without either, however, if we had needed it.
At the onset of our trip, we brought Nalgene bottles to carry potable water, which we quickly realized we didn’t need. Bottled water was cheap and plentiful and we just drank from the bottles we bought.
The following list is what we carried to Asia. It still felt like too much.
4 short sleeve t-shirts
3 tank tops
2 long sleeve shirts
1 long sleeve, fleece zip-up
1 pair pants (zip-off)
2 pair capri pants
6 pairs underwear
4 pairs socks
1 swim suit
1 beach hat
1 large shammy towel
1 pair hiking boots
1 pair hiking sandals
1 pair flip flops
1 mosquito net
1 pair sunglasses
1 extra pair glasses1 large toiletries bag:
shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, lotion, baby powder, brush, facial soap, facial lotion, foundation, mascara, large barrette, ponytail binders, razor, malaria pills
4 short sleeve t-shirts
1 fleece pull-over
3 pairs of pants (2 zip-off)
1 pair of shorts
5 pairs underwear
3 pairs of socks
1 large shammy towel
1 baseball hat
1 large-brim hat
1 pair hiking books
1 pair hiking sandals
1 travel chess board
1 pair sunglasses
1 mosquito net1 large toiletries bag:
shampoo, soap, toothbrush, floss, toothpaste, razor, electric razor and re-charger, fingernail clippers, tweezers, Chapstick, contact case, extra pair of contacts, contact solution, eye drops, deodorant, hair gel, allergy pills, allergy lotion, deodorant, malaria pills
1 digital camera
1 re-charger for camera battery
1 set of international plug-ins for camera battery re-charger
2 camera batteries
2 digital memory cards
1 memory card reader to use with laptop
1 laptop computer
1 electrical cord for laptop
1 USB jump drive
1 hardbacked CD carrying case
1 travel PlayStation
3 games and headset for PlayStation
1 electrical cord for PlayStation
1 set international plug-ins
1 voltage converter to use with all of the above
First Aid Kit
Neosporin, assortment of Band-aids, gauze pads, first aid tape, alcohol wipes, latex gloves, hydrocortisone cream, itch-stick, aloe vera gel, Visine, thermometer, Tylenol, Advil, Theraflu thin strips, Chloraseptic thin strips, chewable Pepto Bismol, Rolaids, Alka-Seltzer, Advil Cold & Sinus, Imodium, laxatives, motion-sickness pills, cough drops
2 small flashlights
1 rubber door stop
insect repellent wipes (25% Deet)
1 small bottle insect repellent lotion (20% Deet)
1 small bottle 100% Deet
anti-bacterial hand wipes
SPF 30 sunscreen (2 bottles, 1 face stick)
travel packs of tissue
1 deck of cards
1 travel cribbage board
Photocopies of passports, marriage certificate, Quang's naturalization papers, Kelly's birth certificate, travel health insurance plan and ID cards, vaccinations, prescriptions for glasses.
Kelly Westhoff was a regular contributor to GoNOMAD and a member of our bloggers team. Before the importance of the bed time routine invaded her life, Kelly was a traveler — the kind who would throw all her stuff in a backpack, hit the road, and write about her adventures.
When she wasn’t traveling, she worked as a freelance writer. She wrote about sustainable and organic lifestyles, home and garden, food and drinks, and more. She interviewed chefs, politicians, authors, artists, philanthropists, and business owners.