Packing and the Pack List

Pack light & pack tight

If your body allows for it, I suggest carrying-on ONE backpack and not have any checked baggage. And make sure the pack is something less than the maximum allowable carryon-size (usually that’s less than 45 inches, l + w + h). There are many, many different types of backpacks nowadays, from utilitarian to hipster, and just as many YouTube channels dedicated to them. A backpack exists for every type of person. Some reasons I stay away from suitcases and rollerbags include: unwieldiness in airports/non-paved roads/cobblestone streets/in stores, difficulty lugging up stairs if no elevator, usually hard-sided (not flexible in overhead bins or luggage racks), and they leave you with only one hand free. Convertible rollerbags are worse, since they just add more weight, and the backpack feature is hardly ever used.


The main trait to look for when selecting a pack is comfort for you. A bag can look nice but end up not fitting correctly when full of your stuff, rubbing you raw in places you never knew. Or worse, it can’t handle what you pack and breaks/rips in the middle of your excursion. Not fun. I recommend trying on the pack and walking around for a good half hour with it fully loaded before purchasing it. Otherwise, what looks great could turn out to be too wimpy or worse yet, very uncomfortable – important things to know before you’re on the road.


Whenever traveling, especially internationally and for leisure, if you do NOT check any bags, there’s less stress when there are delays (and there WILL be delays), because you don’t have to worry if your stuff will make it on the same flight. Similarly, having everything with you on you – makes hopping an earlier flight easier, getting you to your destination quicker, allowing you to spend more time there.


In the packing department, I’ve downgraded since beginning international travel in the late 1980s. I used to take two bags when I traveled: a backpack and a smaller butt bag-type. Nowadays, I only take one. For shorter stints (weekenders), that’s usually Mountainsmith’s Day lumbar pack (with “strapettes”). It’s a compact 13 liters but holds what I need, including my (small) laptop. Depending on time of year, length of excursion, and function (e.g., professional conference, fieldwork, rail travel, etc.), I will take my Osprey Porter 46. In any case, one under-carryon-size pack is plenty, even for a larger-framed guy like me.


Though I’ve used different brands of packs (Northface, Victorinox, Oakley, Quest, REI, Osprey), since 2011, Osprey’s Porter 46 has been my go-to (of which I use only 30-liters or so, but have the larger size because their Porter 30 doesn’t fit my large frame well...I never fill my pack to the brim. Ever.) But, several years ago in the Miami airport, I picked up Victorinox’s “Deluxe Travel Laptop Backpack” from their Altmont 3.0 series. I liked its no-nonsense, sleek, compact size, and dedicated laptop compartment, and that it did not have any unnecessary, extra buckles or other dangling things. It even fit my larger frame well. I used it exclusively for a year or so, putting my Osprey on the shelf. But then my wife needed a new pack for a quick, unplanned trip, and we didn’t have time to shop for one. So, I suggested she try the Victorinox. She was hooked. So now, it’s her go-to travel bag, even if we’re gone for a month or more. On shorter excursions where we do not need out laptops, we’ll often share the Victorinox.


Still, for anything longer than a few days, I use my Osprey Porter 46. Like the smaller Victorinox, it is sleek and doesn’t have any extra dangly parts. Plus, it has strong compression straps which I like, because I can compress it to fit in the overhead storage on a commuter plane. It also fits my larger frame very well.


The best travel advice I have for people unaccustomed to traveling light is: Layout what you think you are going to need. Then, leave half of it home and take more money. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Next time, I’m going to pack more!”? A smaller bag is essential and can fit all you need. Still having a tough time giving up your larger (roller)bag? Peep these tips:


Tip 1: Pack the same amount of clothes whether a week-long trip or a several month excursion. The only difference between the two is that you’ll wash clothes more often on an extended excursion. Though your hotel can launder anything, it can get expensive quickly. So, you might decide to launder certain items in the sink or at a local laundromat – and both represent very great cultural experiences. You could also stay at a hotel with washing facilities.


Tip 2: If you forget something, don’t worry. You can always buy sundries or clothes in the country you’re visiting (or ask your hotel for a complimentary sundry set). And clothes bought during travel can be great and unique souvenirs. Imagine your friends asking, “That’s a great shirt! Where did you get it?” You reply, “Oh, last time I was in Paris...” Plus, shopping in department stores abroad is a super fun experience in itself!


Tip 3: If you have extra space in your bag, that’s OK. You do NOT need to fill your pack.


Tip 4: Make sure your clothes are lightweight, packable, mostly wrinkle-proof, & color-coordinated. This will save you time and headaches, because you’ll never have to worry if your clothes are going to match or if they need to be ironed. As long as you don’t stink, no one will care if you’re wearing the same jeans or top for a week.


Tip 5: Just because your pack is not full does not mean you need to take more. See Tip 3.

Packing List

 

If traveling for a fortnight or less, I usually wear one outfit from this list. If I go for more than a fortnight, I will wear an outfit in addition to this list. And believe me: even for a larger guy like myself, everything fits in a less-than-carry-on-size pack with room to spare. Just keep it simple.


Clothes (I usually roll mine): 

  • 2-3 Pair Trousers, one casual/nice-ish type, one casual/jean-ish.

  • 1-2 Wrinkle-free/wrinkle-hiding nice skirts/travel dresses (ladies).

  • 2 Nice/dressier shirts/blouses, long or short sleeve, your choice, depending on climate.

  • 2-3 Lightweight, nice (not old), not white T-shirts and/or polo’s.

  • 1 Layerable, lightweight, long-sleeve shirt such as a Henley, turtleneck, or a lightweight sweater (I usually wear it on the plane ride).

  • 1 Jacket/coat, waterproof, packable, & lightweight (always plan on rain...). I usually wear mine on the plane or loop it through the pack’s carrying handle, because it tends to get a little cold on most flights, plus, it can make a nice pillow…layers, layers, layers...

  • 1-2 Lightweight shorts (doubles as swimsuit and pajamas, though maybe not in the same day).

  • 1-2 Swim suit (if shorts can’t double).

  • At least 7 pairs of socks (small to pack and clean socks make a world of difference!)

  • At least 7 pairs of underwear (small to pack and clean underwear make a world of difference!)

  • 1-2 Shoes. A pair of comfy, low-profile tennis-type shoes and/or a pair of waterproof-breathable shoes that can be used for moderate hiking and playing soccer with kids in the street. Unless you are planning on hard core trekking in some far-flung region or you’re attending a formal event, you don’t need anything special. I take what I normally wear when I go wandering around my own locale.

  • 1 Walkable sandals/flip-flops for shower floors, beaches, etc. (optional).

  • 1 Belt (reversible is nice).

  • A few scrungees or hair clips/ties (long hair).

  • 2-3 Brassieres (ladies).


Other Items:

  • Smartphone. These are nearly a necessity today, and a nice one can replace your need for a camera. Plus, if you have global coverage (like T-Mobile offers for free), you can stay in contact basically wherever there is cell service or WiFi. And having a map in your hand is super nice nowadays!

  • 2 Pair of earplugs. These are INVALUABLE!

  • 1-2 Really, really good Guidebooks. I use Green Guides for driving and a good overview and Blue Guides for History/Art/Architecture/Archeology. Rick Steves, Rough Guides, or Lonely Planet usually have the most up-to-date travel info. Footprint guides are also great, especially for South America. Whichever you choose, ALWAYS buy the most recent edition of it. A $30 investment can mean the difference between finding a good place to sleep and eat or spending the night in a train station eating crisps for dinner.

  • 1 Map of the region. A GOOD MAP IS ESSENTIAL, but can also be picked up en route, in country, or downloaded to your smartphone (but check your data allowances).

  • Downloaded books, podcasts, audio tours, and other media, either to your phone or laptop. These can enhance a trip (audio tours/podcasts) or be used for relax days (and you should take at least one relax day for each week you spend abroad). But do not sacrifice a day exploring to finish a book (or movie). The book will always be there. The chance to explore might not!

  • 1 Pit Jit (deodorant).

  • 1 Each: Comb/Brush, Razor, & small Travel Tooth-stuff. If you run out, just pop into a neighborhood department store/pharmacy – usually a great cultural experience in itself!

  • 1 Camera, with charger and extra battery & memory card, if not using smartphone.

  • 1 Small, reliable, tough flashlight w/new batteries, if not using your smartphone.

  • 1 Each, Travel Journal & small notepad, even if you’re using your smartphone.

  • All necessary adapters for electronics, and maybe a back-up battery for my smartphone.

  • 2 Pens...make sure they write in hot, humid, & cold weather, and that they don’t “run” or “bleed” when wet.

  • 1 Prescription glasses or contacts and solution, as necessary.

  • 1 Sunglasses (in carrying case and with microfiber cleaning cloth).

  • Any prescription medicine you need, clearly labeled and in the original bottle (most every country has basic OTC meds).

  • 1 Waterproof, reliable watch with alarm (or smartphone – your clock & alarm will work in airplane mode so you don’t rack up international data charges).

  • 1 small package of wipes (optional, but better than hand sanitizer and can leave you feeling fresh after a long, hot day).

  • Several small packages of Kleenex (optional).

  • 1 Small towel &/OR large washcloth (I take a discrete bandana, although we found these really neat full-size microfiber towels that pack down to nothing and are super absorbent).

  • 1 Pair of small binoculars (optional, but great to get a close-up look at ceilings and art in cathedrals, galleries, and museums, plus birds, animals, landscapes...)

Make sure you do NOT forget these items (should be kept on your body):

  • Passport (scan a copy/take a picture with your smartphone and email it to yourself in case yours gets lost or stolen).

  • Wallet w/credit cards (Debit card for cash at ATM and at least two credit cards – one for daily use, another as a backup, and Cash (US$200-$500 emergency fund).

  • Plane/Rental Car tickets/rail pass/reservations (or receipts if you have e-tickets – can always scan and/or take screenshot of these).

  • Usually, I pack what I normally use every day – why buy everything brand new for a trip? The clothes I pack come from my closet. Who’s going to know (or care) that you’re wearing the same trousers for five days (or more)? As long as you’re not smelly and cordial, you’ll make a fine travel companion!

 

Also, I used to take my Swiss Army knife for cutting bread, cheese, fruits, etc., but due to regulations, I no longer do. I just buy a small, discreet, inexpensive knife upon arrival in the country (and leave it at my last lodging point). Sometimes even a plastic one will do, and those can be picked up at a local café or convenience store.


As one of my mentors said a few decades ago, “If you have your passport, money, and tickets, you can go anywhere.” I would amend that today to, “If you have your passport, smart phone, and credit cards, you can go anywhere” – presuming you have enough credit on your cards!

If you have questions, please drop me a line. My other pages have even more information about traveling frugally, plus other fun stuff. Indeed!