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How to Pack Light for Independent Travel Abroad: Tips and Checklists

Pack light, travel light abroad
Pack as light as possible for your travel abroad. You won't regret it.

She stumbled into the hostel dorm room, a small and pretty blonde woman. The huge backpack towered over her head. Hiking boots and plastic bags dangled behind. A big camera bag hung around her neck, bouncing against a smaller backpack strapped across her chest, stuffed-full, and nearly bursting.

We smiled, introduced ourselves, and chatted as she struggled with her gear. She unpacked. Bunches of wrinkled clothes came out first, all pinks and purples. Then a bulky sleeping bag.

“Do you not trust the hostel sheets?” I asked.

“No, I’ll be camping when I get to Vietnam.”

Then she pulled out a big winter coat, blaze orange and puffy. Next was a grey winter hat with gloves stuffed inside.

“And all that?”

“Oh, that’s for when I get to Switzerland. It’ll be winter and I want to go skiing.”

I shrugged and wiped the sweat from my forehead. We were in hot Rio Dulce, Guatemala, at the edge of the even-hotter Peten jungle.

Hiking in the mountains travel light
You want to especially travel light when hiking in hot dry climates.

Packing: What Not to Bring Abroad

I made the same mistake on my trip to Europe, but even worse. I brought a big external frame backpack I used for backcountry camping, with my tent and sleeping bag inside. It was huge and awkward. I felt like a doofus carrying it around cities and train stations.

Packing light is important for many reasons, but most of all to remain mobile and to stay safe. You can carry a mid-sized backpack over long distances without getting sore, and you can stuff it under your legs on a bus trip, preventing worries about theft or a good soaking from rain.

The best way to ensure light packing is to limit your travels to one region, rather than opting for a round-world trip. I prefer going to one place at a time anyway. The more time you spend at any destination, the more you will really get to know it. You have a whole lifetime ahead of you to venture to other parts of the world.

If you insist on traveling the whole world on one trip—and around the world travel is seductive or fitting for some—then buy stuff on the way. The 1-time expense of a winter jacket will be offset by the convenience of not dragging it around with you for six months in hot climates. And when you don’t need it anymore, ship it to yourself back home or give it away. Most people who travel eventually rely on some form of karma.

For example, if it never rains in your part of the world, then the raincoat you buy before your trip will probably be more expensive than if you wait until arriving in, say, Vancouver, where it rains half the year and hundreds of stores sell raincoats and umbrellas.

If you want to ski, rent your gear, even winter clothes. If you want to scuba dive, rent your wetsuit. Do a little research beforehand: Can you rent a tent and sleeping bag for that week at a national park in New Zealand?

A Packing Checklist: Clothing and Essentials

  • Everyday clothes: Yes, quick-dry adventure clothing is quite handy when you are hiking, but don’t you feel embarrassed for the tourist dressed as if he’s on safari while strolling down the Champs-Elysees in Paris? Be sure to pack everyday clothes. Although they are heavy and dry slowly, you’ll be grateful for that pair of jeans when you want to blend in with the locals.
I usually bring a pair of shorts, two pairs of pants, one nice button-down shirt, and lots of socks, underwear, and t-shirts — enough for a week or two to rotate between trips to the laundry.
  • T-shirts: They are cheap everywhere. If you really need to save money, get a 4-pack at your favorite discount store at home or at a street market abroad.
  • Sweater, hooded sweatshirt, or fleece: It doesn’t matter how hot the climate is, it might get cold at night. And on the bus or at naptime, your sweater makes a great pillow. I like lightweight, quick-dry fleeces, but something simple and dark that I can wear on a night out in the city.
  • Shoes: There was a time I brought tennis shoes or hiking boots on every trip, but now I look for a multi-purpose shoe: comfortable for lots of walking, a stiff sole for hiking, and dark colors for going out. If it’s rain resistant, even better, but if not, I pack a pair of wool socks.
  • Toiletries: Well, you obviously need to carry soap. Buy a small plastic container for it. But do you need shaving cream and shampoo? You might find that soap works fine.
  • Copies of passport and other documents: Carry them in a hidden part of your backpack. Take digital photos and keep copies in your email account or on a flashcard.
  • A variety of debit cards: One day in La Paz, Bolivia, I withdrew money, walked two blocks from the ATM, and realized I had left the card in the machine. I ran back and it was gone. My backup had expired. So I spend two weeks longer in La Paz than I had planned while I waited for the replacement card, running up tabs in my hotel and favorite bar.
Travel light in Belize
Packing light for a border crossing into Belize.

Less Obvious Useful Items to Pack

Along with extra sunglasses, sunscreen, and a money belt, I always bring a few small things on every trip.

  • A scarf and earplugs: The scarf makes for a great blindfold on public transportation, a hostel dorm room, or a hotel room with weak curtains. The earplugs are invaluable in the same places. Bring extras, because they are easy to lose and get nasty quick, and they can be hard to find in some countries. Look for them in drugstores.
  • Headlamp: You will love your headlamp on an overnight bus with no lights when you are wide-awake and want to read. You will love it when you have to wake up early and pack your things in a dark hostel dorm room and you don’t want to wake everyone up. Carry spare batteries. Batteries always run out when you need them most.
  • Pen with duct tape: We all know how useful duct tape is: for repairing torn clothing, shoes or backpacks; for fixing the spine of a book; and even as a band-aid substitute on blisters and injuries. But who wants to schlep around a whole roll? Roll some onto a pen or pencil.
  • Tiger balm: This stuff cures mosquito bites. Trust me. But the trick is that you can’t scratch. Apply the balm and endure the itching for a minute, and the bite will go away.
  • Gold Bond Medicated Powder: Without getting too graphic, let me tell you that walking around in hot, humid places can be, well...chafing. Gold bond is your friend. Also, use it when your shoes or feet get funky.
  • A first-aid kit: You can find small ones for camping, about half the size of a paperback. Make sure it has band-aids and disinfectant for wounds. Buy a small bottle of liquid band-aid, a gel that forms in a cut and works great. However, don’t worry too much about medicine because in many parts of the world the medicine you find (like for diarrhea) can be much stronger and cheaper.
  • A tiny, quick-dry towel: One the size of a sheet of paper will do. As your dry yourself, continually wring it out.
  • Flip-flops: Even if you are skiing in Switzerland, bring plastic flip-flops for the hotel shower or for when your shoes get wet. I like Havainaias from Brazil.
  • Swimsuit: You never know when you will need it. Even the cheapest hotel might have a pool.
Essentials to pack abroad
A few essentials you may want to pack.

Fun Stuff and Indulgences  

Then there’s the other packing extreme: the person who drills holes in their toothbrush to save weight. He invariably wants to borrow your shampoo, or your laptop. Make sure you bring what you need, but also think about what will make you enjoy your trip more.

  • Books: If you love to read, bring a book, but bring something you don’t mind trading once you finish it. Your friend’s beautiful note on the inside cover will make a complete stranger smile someday. Or, leave the book at home. But didn’t your friend give it to you to read on the trip?
It’s easy to find a book exchange in a hostel, restaurant, café or even a bookstore. I bring two books so I can start the second right away while I look for a good replacement for the other.
  • Language books: If you want to learn the language of the place where you are traveling, bring a textbook. I’m not a fan of traveler’s phrasebooks, which don’t really teach you anything. Find a book that actually teaches the language. Read the first ten pages. Do the exercises. Do you understand? Do you think you can learn from it?
Another tip: Don’t write in the book. Do the exercises on scrap paper. Then when you finish the book, you can pass it on or sell it.
  • Travel journal: It doesn’t have to be leather-bound or made using special paper. A one-dollar notebook will do. I like smaller ones that I can fold in half and stick in my pocket.
The notebook is not only your journal, but also a place to write down information, ideas, impressions, memories, and suggestions. Other travelers are your best source for travel tips, but you’ll never remember their advice if you don’t write it down.
  • Camera: An expensive camera isn’t only a monetary investment, but an investment of space. If you carry a nice camera with a big lens, try to fit the whole case in your backpack so you don’t always have to carry it around loose. The same goes for point and click cameras: The easiest place for them to be stolen is from your belt.
  • Smartphone: To bring or not to bring, that is the question. Are you a Smartphone addict? A few days ago, I rode my bicycle up a dirt road to the crater of an extinct volcano, 15,000 feet high with sweeping views of the central Mexican altiplano (high central region). Half of the people passing in cars were looking at their phones instead of the scenery.
Yes, a phone can be useful for a variety of reasons: getting information, staying in contact, passing the time on a boring bus ride. But if you don’t need it for work, and you are the kind of person who gets anxious if you don’t look at it every 10 minutes, consider leaving it at home. Take a vacation from your addiction.
  • Laptops, iPads: Like the phone, do you really need that laptop? Do you want to be sitting in your hotel every night checking Facebook while ignoring your surroundings? Do you really need to be in contact with friends and family 24-7?
Maybe you do – perhaps you work online, perhaps you keep a travel blog that must be kept fresh and serves as a handy form of diary as well, perhaps you use social media to share your experiences and keep your followers informed. Then bring the laptop, and don’t forget a waterproof bag. Heavy plastic bags from the duty-free shop work great.

However, if you are worried about packing light, being robbed, or wasting too much time, leave the laptop at home. Internet cafés are everywhere. They’re cheap and useful for sending out quick emails or making backups of your photos on a USB drive or even a CD. Just remember to change your passwords often, and be extra careful if you really need to check your bank account.

  • Musical Instruments: My big indulgence is my guitar. It can be inconvenient on a long distance bus – I have to set it between my feet – but it is a great way to meet people. It has no value other than sentimental, so I don’t worry about it in the rain or in questionable hands. I bought it for around five dollars at a guitar market in Bolivia seven years ago. Now it’s full of stickers, scratches, and sand.
However, I don't recommend bringing a guitar if you are a beginner. People will request a song, and when they realize that you can’t actually play, someone else will pull the guitar out of your hands—not necessarily a bad thing, but you’re the one who has to lug it around.

Travel with a guitar
Traveling with an inexpensive guitar is a fun indulgence for the author.

Yes, the road is a good time to learn an instrument, but consider a harmonica, a small shaker, or perhaps a ukulele.

I don’t recommend traveling with a hand drum (djembe, bongo, etc.) if you can’t play it. Not only will you annoy everyone around you, but the drunks who take it from you and can’t play either will drive you crazy as well.

Final Thoughts on Packing for your Travel Abroad

Don’t bring anything irreplaceable. Leave your first edition Hemingway at home. Leave your grandfather’s watch at home. Carry a cheap guitar.

Make backups of your photos and send them back home on a USB stick, CD, or if you have a laptop via backup to a cloud. When your camera is stolen (as mine was once), you’ll find that you miss the photos much more than the camera.

When packing, less is more. If in doubt, leave it at home. You don’t ever want to meet someone like me on the road with my small backpack and say, “I envy you.”

Related Topics
Independent Travel
Budget Travel
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