How to Pack for an Around-the-World Trip

(Originally published March 25th, 2010)

A 7000-cubic-inch suitcase stuffed, fully loaded, with over sixty pounds of supplies; tent, sleeping bag, stove, frying pan, eight changes of clothes, coffee pot, and God only knows what else. That was how I took my first solo trip abroad. By the time my trip was over six weeks later I had sold, lost, thrown away or cursed carrying three quarters of the stuff I’d packed.

So please, learn from my mistake. IF YOU DON’T NEED IT, LEAVE IT. That’s the only rule for packing for a trip abroad, which believe it or not can be the most important part of the trip.

If you don’t need it, leave it. I can’t say it enough.

You can almost always tell the seasoned traveler from the new kid on the block simply by the size of their pack. The pack I use now is a small, 2100-cubic-inch backpack. It works perfect as a carry on everywhere I go. Sometimes, it is a real treat to see the professional traveler, someone who has been on the trail for years. These travelers usully have a bag smaller then a lot of purses, with some extra underwear, a toothbrush and a good book. When you think about it, what more do you really need?

My basic philosophy about what to bring on an around-the-world trip stems for the type of trip I like to take, with a comfort level allowing me to buy almost anything I need on the road. When I’m on the road the last thing I want to do is worry about my stuff. I have been on countless buses where bags are coming off at an interim stop and have watched as travelers dutifully study each bag that comes off to make sure it isn’t theirs. I’ve also been walking with people who won’t walk down a very interesting but darkened road because they’re carrying an $800.00 camera. I’ve watched this type of person as they are approached by local towts. They inevitably grab their camera tight, or unconsciously check their money belt.

I make sure I don’t have any stuff on me that’s worth worrying too much about, and walk with the philosophy that if someone robs me, I simply say OK, here you go, and hand it over. People are people all over the world. A thug in the Third World can read body language just as well, if not better, than a thug in the U.S.  I have never been robbed while traveling and I’m truly convinced it’s because of my diligence, but even more so due to my maintaining an attitude that if necessary I really don’t care if my stuff disappears.

If you can adopt this approach you will walk differently. Your body language will say, “Hey, I’m not worth the hassle, try someone else.” Since adopting this approach I find I have a greater opportunity to enjoy the local flavor and spend more time observing and participating and less time worrying about my stuff.

I have often though back to that first trip and wondered what I was thinking. So much gear and so many clothes! I can only guess that I must have been nervous about what lay outside the country, thinking, “They might not have what I NEED.” In hindsight I feel pretty silly for thinking that way. Food, clothing and shelter are all you really need. It isn’t difficult to understand that these are the same things all people need. You don’t need to bring the super economy-size toothpaste. People all over the world brush their teeth. There are also people all over the world who rent places to stay. If it a hot camping spot, you will be able to rent all the gear you need.

People all over the world also eat. These people shop in markets, buy bottled water and dine in restaurants. Most places in the world, people take photos and e-mail friends. There are very few places remaining in the world where people still run around naked. Everywhere else in the world people wear clothes, so you will easily be able to buy a new shirt, or pants, socks or underwear. In addition, people all over the world who wear clothes have facilities, services or soap to clean their clothes.

Finally, (this is best part), with very few exceptions the stuff you may need–clothes, food, supplies and services–are readily available and generally much cheaper than in the U.S.

If I have been obnoxious in the section above it was only to prove a point.

There is an extremely good chance you could start an around-the-world journey with nothing more than a credit card and passport and have a ball. People all around the world have the same basic needs as you. Here is a list of things I took on my around-the-world adventure. What others choose is up to them. But I really stress; less really amounts to better traveling.

  1.  The best shoes money can buy–Don’t cheat yourself when it comes to footwear. I made this mistake and hobbled around South America for two months. Make sure to wear your new shoes a lot before your trip. Walk on hard surfaces, to get an idea how your boots will feel after a long hike on concrete. On the road I average 5-15 miles a day, wandering and touring around. A pair of quality sandals also makes a great second pair of shoes. I only bring these two pair.
  2.  Clothes–When it comes to clothing, durable and comfortable are the two high points. Most travelers aren’t too concerned with fashion, and if the occasion comes up that they need to dress for some sort of occasion they figure out a way to make due. A fine example is when I had to buy a tie in Buenos Aries to attend the opera.  Start your packing of clothes considering the way you dress from the inside out. Undergarments, let’s face it, are small so take up little room, although they are also your first line of cleanliness. My first trip I packed five pair of underwear and ended up taking three from then on. Three pair of socks are sufficient. Make sure they are socks that keep moisture away from you skin.

Micro fleece tights and a thermal top, these work great for layering, pajamas, or as an extra top and pants. I pack two pair of pants. I prefer the zip-off style because they also work as shorts or as a bathing suit. Two button-up shirts, long or short-sleeve, whatever is appropriate for where you are starting out. Either way, they will get worn out soon and you will need to buy new ones. A fleece jacket works great for sleeping in if it is chilly as well as doubling as a standard jacket. A good waterproof jacket can be worth its weight in gold if you hit the rainy season in some foreign land.

You’ll want two hats–one winter hat that you can roll down and cover your eyes with when you want to sleep and another for sun or rain. Finally a light pair of gloves. I like the ones you can but in the Peruvian markets. I always pack two bandanas. They work great to keep your neck out of the sun and as wash cloths.

That’s it for clothes. I was able to travel for nine months across all seven continents with just this packing list. Remember you will be wearing close to half of it at any given time. If you pack right, the remaing stuff will take up very little room.

A small side note on packing clothes…(Folding your clothes and then rolling them up like a tortilla will take up less room and actually wrinkle less. I like to put items in disposable bags for clean or dirty clothes.  By rolling up your fleece items and stuffing them in a sack, they stay smaller and more manageable. All these clothes combined should take up less than half your pack when pack well.)

  1.  A high quality, panel-loading backpack–In my experience, whatever size pack you get you will always rationalize filling it, so keep it small. If you go to a quality outdoor retailer they should be able set you up with a great carry-on size bag, (don’t let them upsale you into something bigger.) Just make sure the construction is good, taped inner seams and heavy duty zipper, and that the shoulder harness is relatively comfortable. I like panel loading packs because they can be locked, simply meaning the pack closes by a heavy zipper and that the two zipper ends can be locked together. It isn’t Fort Knox, but it will help honest people stay honest, particularly in shared hostel rooms. Another aspect of the pack that I personally like are pack straps that somehow disappear into some type of compartment.

A reasonable hip belt to distribute the load is a must if you plan on doing any trecking. I also like to add a couple of clips to the outside of my pack. It really works well if you are trying to dry off your clothes or boots while you are on the move.

If you choose a bigger pack or one that has straps hanging all over, remember to get a light weight stuff sack, like the ones used for sleeping bag storage. This stuff sack works great to put your pack in. Again, it will help honest people stay honest as well as prevent your bag from getting chewed up by some automated bagage system, or being ruined if it sits on top of a dusty, then rainy, then dusty, bus trip. If it has been protected you really won’t mind having to wear it when you have that 2 mile walk from the bus station to the pension.

You may want a small day pack . This really comes down to personal preference. Some larger travel packs do come with zip-off day packs but I have seen many of these break or become impossible to put back on due to an overly stuffed main pack. The important thing is to find something comfortable, durable and easily packable. I like to carry a large bum bag. (The word ‘fanny’ is an extremely vulgar word everywhere but in the U.S.  In other countries it is used in a derogatory way when referring to a woman’s vagina.)

I usually wear my “bum” bag in the front rather than in the back for easy access and in avoidance of pickpockets. However, please note, I have a shoulder strap that is always on as well. Bum bags really are not very safe. All it takes is one kid to get your attention, one kid to open the buckle and a third kid to catch you bag and run. Then it is a game of keep away and you are screwed. If you can get away without one that is probably your best bet.

  1.  First-aid kit–Any good travel Doc should be able to set you up with a list of what you need. Perscription drugs are your best staring point and then get whatever else you need from the pharmacy. It is alway a lot cheaper to put together your first-aid kit yourself, but good kits already containing what you need are available for sale.
  2.  A good guide book–You want a guide book of the area you are starting in. I personally like the Lonely Planet series. However, the most recently updated book is probably best. Don’t worry about getting a book for the other places you are going. After you start there will always be new or used books available for sale for your next destination.
  3.  Cameras–In the modern age of digital cameras, this may be the best way to go. However, I choose to go with two small, instamatic, point-and-shoot cameras, one with a zoom lens and the other with a simple fixed focus. I take two so that I can always have one loaded with black and white film. After my trip I was more happy with the black and white photos than I was with the color. The cameras I took were nice but not extremely expensive, so when I forgot one in a rick-shaw in India I really didn’t worry about it.
  4. Security stuff–There is a ton of stuff on the market to hide your money and lock your stuff up. Most of it is pretty good but I think a lot is made for selling. A few rules to remember are these: If a thief wants your stuff bad enough he or she will get it. However, most thieves are like vultures and will go for the prey that will take the least amount of work so make it a pain in the ass for somebody to rip you off.  Spread everything out in different places, meaning don’t keep all your valuables in one place, spread them around in several different hiding places. I personally keep stuff hidden in up to six different places. And finally the most important thing to remember is the closer you keep it to your skin the safer it usually is. Cameras dangeling around your neck, backpacks slung over one shoulder, bum bags and watches are all easy targets for some kid to just run by and see who is stronger. With the added aspect of surprise the kid is almost always stronger.

I usually carry three wallets when I am out and about. A security wallet with money, photocopies, credit cards and passport all tucked into my pants. A money belt–one that actually looks like a belt–for money and passport photocopy. Finally a small money purse in my front pocket that has a twenty-inch string attached to my belt. This small purse is my everyday wallet. I keep one credit card, I.D. and just enough money for the day. The reasons for this are simple, I don’t want to tempt anyone by reaching into my main stash and letting them see more money then they may make in year. Also, if I were ever to be robbed I would just hand over that small purse. The thief looks inside and see money, I.D. and credit card, he smiles, says  ”thank you, welcome to my country” and leaves. You will then say “thank God I read this book!” and get the hell out of there.

I make several photocopies of all my credit cards (front and back), plane tickets and passport. I then spread out the copies to my pack, travel wallet and leave one at home with someone reliable who is only a phone call or e-mail away. It just makes it easier if something did happen to have all the numbers at hand. I have heard that having a copy of passport makes getting a replacement much easier.

Chicken wire or some kind of knife proof mesh can actually save a lot of aggravation. Simply line the inside of your day bag with this mesh. That way, if someone does slice your bag, all your stuff doesn’t come spilling out. Bag slicing is a favorite of thieves. A common technique used by thieves is for a woman to come up to you asking for money. She will be carrying a baby and have a couple of kids with her. She will stare you down, asking for help while trying to put the baby in your arms. Meanwhile, the two other kids, (actually adult midgets disguised as children)–just kidding!–use a razor blade to slice your bag and take all your valuables. You finally push away from the lady and baby, but by now it is too late, they already have what they wanted. You won’t even realize it until you go to pull something out of your bag.

Another scheme is for a group of people to suddenly surround you in a public place. It could be on a street, in a train station or maybe on a bus. Everybody seems to get shoved around and before you know it, you’re standing there in just your underwear. O.K. maybe it’s not that extreme, but there are many people in the world who make their living just by ripping off tourists. Please note that none of this actually happened to me. A couple of times people tried, but these stories are more traveler lore than anything.

A pack that has zippers which come together and can be locked can be of some comfort. I also cary a small Bike cabel lock. I use it both on the move and in hostels. In the hostels it works great. It allows me to run the cable through the area where the two zippers meet, then through the bed frame, or radiator, or something else in the room that is stable. On buses or trains it really gives me peace of mind to lock the pack up somewhere where I can see it and know that it will be difficult for someone to walk off with it while I am sleeping.

Anyway you use it, a cable lock at least creates one more obstacle for a would-be thief. Also carry a medium-sized padlock. Many hostels have lockers of some sort, but usually they don’t supply a lock. The lockers are great and really easy to use if you have your own lock.

  1. Toiletries–This is a very individual area. I think it is important to start simple and buy as you need. A short list of what to pack: toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, razor, small towel, deodorant, and any other basic personal needs. I keep these in a plastic bag. Changes in altitude and pressure seem to always put bottled soap all over the place.
  2. Extras–You might want to carry some photos from home, a hiking staff, a micro-recorder, journal, extra eyeglasses, garbage bags, playing cards,  maybe even a harmonica. A small stuff sack filled with the little extras works great. I carried extra eyeglasses in case I broke mine, garbage bags to throw the pack in if I was on a small boat, safety pins for all things, sewing kit, harmonica, (traded for a necklace from a Massi Warrior around the Campfire in Kenya), playing cards, corkscrew and cheese knife.

This is strictly an area of personal preference. I believe in minimalism, but if there is something special think about it and if it you want to bring it, great. On my trips I have chosen to bring along a few extras and was always happy that I did. On a long trip anyone is bound to get a bit homesick or feel the need to connect with someone and want to talk about their life at home. I brought along about twenty photos of family, friends and my dog. I was amazed that where ever I went, the young ladies of the world were always most interested in my sister’s wedding photo.

I have had my knee rebuilt three times, and for this reason I would always carry a support bandage and collapsible hiking staff. This really helped save my knee and reduced my vitamin and Ibuprofen intake. I also wrapped about three feet of duct tape on one section of my hiking staff, just to have it in case I needed it. It ended up being very useful when I used the duct tape to repair an embarrassing tear in my pants.

For me, memories are sparked in many different ways, through sight, sound and smell. I brought a small micro-cassette recorder that has created some cherished memories, from elephants trumpeting in Africa to little girls singing in Bolivia. It amazes me just how much of hams kids can be all over the world.

As you can see I enjoy writing, and a journal was a great way to do it. Paper or electronic, whatever works for you is best. However, I did find that sending mass-mailing e-mail stories to friends and family at home was well received and is also a great way to get someone at home to print off a journal as you go.

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