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What to pack when you are travelling?

March 7, 2010

I’ve never learned to pack properly. I always take too much stuff, and end up wishing I had halved what I took. Having said that, there are a few things that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone traveling almost anywhere.

A word about luggage

I like to have three bags with me on longer trips, packed ‘onion fashion’.

  1. a small day pack or grab bag with essentials like a change of clothes, toiletries, medications, a small first aid kit, some snacks etc.
  2. a rucksack with some more clothes.
  3. a suitcase with less used stuff, including smarter clothes.

The principle here is that you hang onto the small bag at all times, keep it with you in case you need to abandon your other luggage (or an airline looses it), the rucksack is easier to carry if you need to walk a mile with it, while the suitcase is easier to keep less used stuff relatively wrinkle free in.



I picked up the only Leatherman I ever bought in Austria on my way to Albania in 1999, and it immediately proved its worth when one of the first things I did for the aid agency I worked for was take delivery of a crate of computers with US power plugs. I used the Leatherman to chop these off, strip the wires, and put the correct plugs on them. I kept the same tool for the next 10 years, using and abusing it in some truly unreasonable situations. I eventually snapped the screwdriver, ironically, in an office building in the United States in 2010, trying to raise my desk a few inches. Fortunately Leatherman has a ridiculous 25 year warranty, and just sent me a new one. Buy one of these things, I promise you will use it for everything except opening wine bottles. For that, you need either a Swiss Army knife, or a French colleague. Buy it from Amazon.


I bought the only Maglite I have ever owned in Zagreb in 1997, and have used it all over the world since. I’ve abused it constantly, and it has outlasted numerous other flashlights I have had along the way. I recommend the AA version for travel, it’s small enough to fit in your pocket, but large enough to light up a large room. A question you will have to answer for yourself is whether you want the regular or the LED version. I have the regular one. I bought the LED upgrade bulb for it for the (much) better battery life, but ended up putting the regular bulb back because I hated the light quality. You be the judge, but choose wisely, you will own this flashlight for many years (unless someone steals it!). The LED version, or the regular version. Both from Amazon. I used this so much I took to wearing it on a lanyard around my neck in Kosovo, where the lights and power would go out every couple of hours or so.

First Aid Kit

Always take a decent first aid kit to deal with cuts and scrapes, I like this one from Adventure Medical Kits, but most reputable brands are good. In any event you will want to supplement the kit with travel related stuff that is never included in these things. It’s a good idea to repack the contents in waterproof zip-lock bags just in case. Also, if you’re going to be in areas where health care is dubious, seriously consider a sterile sharps kit too.

Shortwave radio

Most international NGOs have ways to stay in touch with the outside world, but a lot of smaller local NGOS, and most Peace Corps volunteers, are off the information super highway. A shortwave may not seem to make any sense if you live in the US or Europe and have never been without FM radio, cell-phone coverage or internet, but if you spend any serious amount of time in more remote areas you will come to think of it as your best friend. You can pick up BBC, VOA and thousands more channels virtually anywhere with one of these. I have the impenetrably named Sony ICF-SW7600GR. It’s not the cheapest, but it is small, lightweight, gets great reception, runs on readily available AA batteries and is a great alarm clock too. Don’t skimp on this – the really cheap shortwaves get terrible reception. While you’re at it, pick up some decent AA batteries – the cheap ones readily available in many places are next to worthless. The Maglite also runs on these – another tip is to try as much as you can to have electronics that run on one type of batteries…


You know, you’re in for some long plane journeys, drives, and evenings with not a lot else to do. I’ve owned other MP3 players, and loved them, but I’m ultimately seduced by the iPod for its simplicity and ease of use. I was won over recently by the Touch for use in more highly internet connected parts of the world, but for the road I recommend the Classic – on a long-haul flight you want much more music and video, and won’t miss the wi-fi. Both links are to Amazon.

Water purification

I don’t usually take a water filter with me unless I know that water systems have been disrupted, but I always pack water purification tablets – they are tiny, so why not? 90% of the time you will be able to get trustworthy bottled or filtered water, and these are for the 10% of the time you are caught short. Don’t plan on using them for the long term, but keep them in your grab bag for emergencies. I use Potable Aqua Iodine Tablets, but I don’t think there is a huge difference in brands.

Silk sleeping bag liner

I know, I know, but actually I take sleep extremely seriously. You’re going to be busy, and you want to be well rested. The thing about these silk liners is that you never have to worry about the kind of sheets you are sleeping in (and believe me, you’re going to be sleeping in some dubious ones). In the tropics it is all you will need, and in colder climates it will be a welcome addition to blankets. I’ve used this one, but just make sure the one you buy is 100% silk.

Cliff bars

Local food, all the way. The problem is when you’re on the road, and you get to your hotel at 11pm, and there’s nowhere to eat, or you just are too busy to go out to get something, a stash of these thingsis great to have. Substitute whatever your comfort food of choice is, just make sure it comes in ant-proof packaging and doesn’t melt.

Flash disk

Get one that’s big enough to back up all your files onto. These thingsare great – they are small, discrete, and you can carry fantastic amounts of data on them. Use them to back up your files, or simply leave your computer at home and just take the drive. The chances are you can find a computer to borrow in a pinch.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan McGrath permalink
    February 7, 2011 5:22 am

    When I go a traveling, I also remember to cart along a few laminated copies of a map for the area I’m going to be in. I work as an English teacher so I have easy access to a laminator at school. I just print up the map I want and then print as much local information on the opposite side before laminating it.

    I never have problems of my maps getting ruined by the rain or whatnot.

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