Packing – It’s a Girl Thing!

October 19, 2011

So, you’re leaving for 3 months, 6 months, or maybe even one year of foot-loose, fancy-free travel around the world.  Your plan is to visit as many countries as possible – you have a RTW ticket, jet setting from hemisphere to hemisphere; or perhaps a one-way ticket and want to travel across land. You have a backpack, a front pack, and a top-secret-even-though-every-tourist-everywhere-has-one money belt. But it’s the night before you leave, and you’ve just started freaking out about the most important decision you’ve had to make since choosing your destination:  how do I pack for this???

Don’t worry, ladies, we’ll get that bag under control. Having traveled extensively and always managed to visit as many climates as countries each time, I’m here to provide some advice about what you think you need, what you really need, and how to make it all fit on your back. We’ll start with some general advice, and go on to specific items that I don’t leave home without.

First, the luggage you choose is going to greatly influence the experience you have carrying it around all the time. Don’t skimp on the backpack – go internal frame, as many pockets as possible, and no more than 50L capacity. Have a smaller backpack you can use on daytrips, and can use to keep your most valuable items on your person at all times when you’re on the move. Good backpacking bags these days often come with a detachable portion for just this purpose.

Packing – It’s a Girl Thing!

Next, put everything you think you need in a pile on the floor in front of you – “stuff” (including clothing, electronics, toiletries, games etc.) in one pile, and money, copies of your passport, credit cards, membership cards, etc. (loosely categorized as “paper”) in a different pile. I met a guy traveling around the world carrying only a small day pack (he’d been on the road for 4 years), and his advice to me was this: “Now half the pile of stuff, and double the pile of paper.”  Clothing, chargers, batteries, shoes, toiletries – these are all things that you can (and will) pick up as you go – but you have exactly one chance to get that paper pile in order, and this is it. Have more money that you think you’ll spend, including a spare emergency stack of cash, and bring multiple copies of everything of any possible importance (including passport photos). Remember, if your bag is bigger than you, you’re not going to like walking from hostel to hostel trying to fit through doorways, and if it’s packed to the brim, you have no room to add anything else along the way.

When I’m staying in a shared dorm room at a hostel, there are a few things I see that give me the packing hebejebes. The first is a giant toiletry bag, complete with a hairdryer and makeup. Girls, I know we want to look good sometimes, but I promise you – the longer you travel, the more you’re going to find that your bag just bleeds things that weigh too much, and toiletries are going to be some of the first to go. You need (at most) a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s multi-purpose ultra-concentrated soap (or similar), shampoo (just because you can use Dr. Bronner’s on your hair doesn’t mean your hair will like it), deodorant, and toothpaste. Anything else you bring is extra, with the exception of sunscreen and bug spray (depending on your destination).

The next thing that makes me sad is when I see a bag that has, for lack of a better term, exploded. Lonely socks are sticking out of pant legs, a shoe sits amongst a pile of shirts, that once-unwrinkled dress is crumpled up in a wet towel, and it is clear that the search for the bathing suit was unfruitful. The key to overcoming this problem and always being able to find exactly what you’re looking for is compartmentalization. Outdoor stores sell fancy stuff-sacks to keep your stuff separate from your other stuff, but I personally prefer gallon-sized Ziploc bags. The perfect size to keep shirts with other shirts, underwear with other underwear, and provide an extra layer of protection in case it rains, Ziploc bags are where it’s at.

Packing – It’s a Girl Thing!

So, on to that list of things I never leave home without. Remember, I’m often planning to be somewhere hot and dry for half the year and somewhere cool and wet for the other half (though rarely expecting snow, as I try to avoid it), so my list makes use of a rule that I hold near and dear to my heart: multi-purpose everything. If it has more than one use, it makes it in the bag, no matter what.

–        I never bring a towel (and never, ever bring a travel towel, they smell really funny after about a month). Instead, I bring a sarong, or some other sort of lightweight wrap – it can be a towel, a skirt, a sheet, a picnic blanket, a headscarf, an extra bag… you get the idea.

–        A poncho, preferably one that covers both you and your backpack. There goes the need for an expensive bag cover!

–        (At least some) Cotton clothing. Cotton is rotten, you say, but cotton is also oh, so comfortable (and washable, durable, tradable, sleepable…). At the end of my most recent trip around the world, I had traded all but one piece of clothing from my collection of super-traveler tech-fabric stuff for $1 cotton tee shirts, skirts picked up from other travelers, and my prize possession – a pair of jeans. The thing I kept? My fast-drying techy trousers, but NOT the zip-off ones (those got donated to a charity organization in Malawi).

–        Lose the shorts. Most every country you will visit outside of the western world, women will wear skirts or pants. Skirts are versatile, keep you nice and cool, and you’ll even think you look nice too!

–         A maximum of 3 pairs of shoes – a hiking/walking shoe, a hiking/walking (the other one) sandal, and shower flip flops. Make sure the shoe is waterproof, and the sandal is ultra-comfy, as you’ll wear it as often as possible in hot countries. Don’t skimp.

–        A fleece. Going to Africa? A fleece. Don’t forget about altitude, it gets cold on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater even in the middle of the Tanzanian summer.

–        A sleeping bag or blanket roll (consider the weather, if it needs to be waterproof go with a sleeping bag); a headlamp (not flashlight); one book, to trade at every possible opportunity; one game, like a deck of cards or a rubix cube; a watch (purely for the alarm clock, I never wear it while traveling); a notebook or journal; medicine (though do some research – you can get a lot of stuff for cheap abroad); and a small Tupperware (good for making salad or noodles on a Chinese train, keeping anything dry and safe, purifying water in, etc.).

That’s what starts off in my bag, with anything else a calculated addition. Don’t bring things you will hate yourself if you lose, rip, get dirty, etc. – because you will lose, rip, get dirty, etc. everything you own. The less valuable stuff you have in your bag, the less unhappy you’ll be if it gets lost/stolen – so on my first trip, I didn’t bring a laptop (internet cafes are in every country) or a very good camera (a point-and-shoot that fits in my pocket was fine).

As for the question of weight – walk around for an hour with 15kg on your back (my aimed-for max weight for a year-long trip), and go from there.  And trust yourself – maybe you think you’re silly for packing your favorite flannel because it’s completely and utterly useless in Thailand in the summer – but if it makes you THAT happy, it’s probably worth it.

Jess Scott is a foreign correspondent for Pink Pangea. Continue to read more of her stories here and at  Packing – It’s a Girl Thing!



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