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This is a slightly nerdy and self-indulgent post about the gear I packed to travel around the world with a look into my decision process for anyone who enjoys that sort of stuff.
To quickly catch you up on my story:
Before going any further…a not so small warning: this packing list has not been battle tested. I know I’ve packed too much… I’m just not sure which are the stowaways yet. I wrote this to keep a record so as to see how this list evolves over the course of my travels. For entertainment value (mostly mine) I’ll also share how I approached the dilemma of packing everything I’d need in one backpack for the first time. Just don’t mistake me for an even slightly qualified authority on what anyone should pack. If that’s the type of thing you are looking for I’ve linked to a few packing lists I enjoyed at the bottom of this post from much more experienced travelers than myself.
Trying to Pack Strategically (AKA Not bringing the kitchen sink)
If you’re just beginning to put together your own packing list for long term travel here’s a few heuristics I used to think about what I’d pack. Employ at your own risk.
Deductive vs. Inductive Planning (AKA other people’s packing lists are for other people) – The first thing I did when trying to figure out what to pack was read a million posts on what what others had packed. By the end of it I had a stupid long list of everything one might possibly need 1. I tried to whittle down the list before finally throwing it out in frustration. Instead I pulled out a blank notepad and started writing down the basic stuff I use every day and what I usually need when I travel. This turned out to be much shorter and much more useful list which I then added to (sparingly).
The 80/20 Rule – The Pareto Principle is a general rule that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. I’m not an extreme minimalist quite yet, but I enjoy attempting to be. My aim was to pack the 20% of things that would cover 80% of the situations I came across. When not sure whether to pack something I’d ask myself “is this part of the 20%”?
Incremental Progress – Taking small steps everyday helped me to (mostly) not FREAK out. Some days I’d do a lot, some days not so much but I tried to spend at least 15 minutes thinking about it every day. This gave me a feeling of continued progress and kept my mind productively engaged in the planning process and gave it a chance to work things out in the background throughout the rest of the day.
Quality vs. Value – My electronics, backpack and footwear were all important to me and I spent more in those areas accordingly. I was careful not to spend too much on other things I might not hold onto. Kind of a duh.
There Is No Perfect Packing List – It’s not going to happen so just forget about it.
Via Negativa Packing – I was introduced to this incredibly powerful idea by Nassim Taleb in his book, Antifragile. The basic idea is that the act of omission doesn’t have the (often invisible) side effects and branching chains of unintended consequences that addition does; hence omission is a less risky and more robust strategy. Instead of focusing on what we do, it can be more effective to focus on what we don’t do. I borrowed a version of this concept to help me pack more efficiently: I don’t need a strong reason not to pack something, but I do need a strong reason to pack something. Not packing things is my default mode. This strategy made sense not only because I have limited space and will be carrying everything I bring but because travel companies (and god forbid the occasional financially motivated blogger) don’t make money on the things I don’t bring —they only benefit from adding things. 2 As many other travelers have so observantly pointed out: there are stores in other countries. Crazy.
“I might need this...what if…it’s possible…” – No, no and no. I…will…not…bring…it.
Limit Thyself – The inner explorer in me is already screaming: What do you mean limits?? This trip is about all the possibilities! At first I tried planning for all those beautiful possibilities…and it sucked. My imagination became my own worst enemy and imposing some (temporary!) limits really helped. Here’s a few questions that helped me in the planning process:
- When am I leaving? Like the space in our backpacks, we’re naturally inclined to fill up the time we have available. If I didn’t book a plane ticket early on I’d probably still be planning my packing list. 3 Nothing motivates quite like a non-refundable one way plane ticket.
- Where was I planning to go? Having an (admittedly vague) idea of where I wanted to go allowed me to think about the activities and climate I’d need to pack for.
- What size bag do I want to lug around?
- How much money do I want to spend on gear? OK, I didn’t do this one. But it would have been a good idea.
My Two Best Friends – I picked up the bulk of the stuff I didn’t already have from Amazon and REI. Early trips to REI gave me a lot of clarity on what I’d eventually bring and saved a lot of time. 4
Shit got real for me when I could no longer pick the free 7-10 day shipping option on Amazon. Then I realized I could sign up for a month trial of Amazon Prime and get 2 day shipping. Phew. If I had to do it all over again I’d set the following 4 reminders in my calendar:
Reminder #1: At a month out to sign up for Amazon Prime.
Reminder #2: At about a week out as the cutoff for ordering anything I may want to return.
Reminder #3: At 3-4 days out as the last day to order anything on Amazon at all.
Reminder #4: The day before I leave to cancel Amazon Prime.
What I Packed (Last updated on 5/30/16)
Alright. Now to what made it with me. I’ve added comments where I thought they might have a chance at being helpful or mildly entertaining when it turns out I got it completely wrong.
Some context: I was packing for the UK, Eastern Europe, India & SE Asia. That’s an unhelpfully wide range of climates. I needed to be at least slightly prepared for both cold and hot weather, including snow and monsoons. I gave myself 3 months to figure this out, half of which I used to procrastinate. I didn’t have a return date so everything I needed had to be in my backpack or easily purchased.
Tortuga Backpack – I wanted something that was carry-on size, front loading and would accommodate a lap top. This pack fit the bill perfectly. The hip belt (for extra support) and well thought out pockets were a welcome bonus. I included a rain cover and packing cubes. A month in and I already love this bag. HINT: Look around the web for coupon codes…I was able to find one for a 10% discount.
Outlander Daypack – For day trips. My major requirement was that it’d fit my 13″ Macbook Pro…which it does with plenty of room to spare.
As I’d be spending some time in colder regions early on some warm gear was necessary but I couldn’t afford to carry around a lot of extra weight.
Patagonia Houdini Rain Jacket – The lightest rain jacket I could find…there’s really no situation I can think of where it wouldn’t make sense to bring it along. Fits snug which I like. Honestly, I wish I had found this jacket years ago.
Black Diamond Access Hybrid Hoody – Extremely packable and lightweight while being surprisingly warm.
Marmot Fleece Jacket – I have a version similar to this one. Mainly to be worn as a middle layer underneath my jacket. I love the thumb holes in the sleeves which give it a really cozy feel…it’s the little things.
2 x Under Armour T-shirts – Dry fit for easy washing. I really, really like the Carbon Heather color as it can just about pass for a normal cotton t-shirt.
3 x Shirts – 1 x cotton t-shirt, 1 x cotton polo (for the occasional desire to look slightly classy), 1 x long sleeve cotton shirt. I don’t expect any of these to make it back home. The long sleeve will probably be the first to go as it takes up the most room.
1 x Dark blue jeans – There seems to be quite a debate on this one within the travel community. I practically live in my jeans so it was a no brainer for me to bring my favorite pair of slims.
1 x Prana Travel Pants – Stretchy, super comfortable, water resistant, breathable, lightweight and they look good. I LOVE these. If I had to only bring one pair of pants these would be the ones. They are super versatile.
1 x Columbia Convertible Pants – Socially debatable but incredibly practical and they really can’t be beat for long hikes. I got these a couple years back for a trip to Peru. This brand seems to fit better than most others…you can still spot them as zip offs, but they aren’t as outrageously offensive as other pairs I’ve seen. When not hiking I plan to use them mainly as shorts.
1 x Basic belt – This came with the Columbia pants but deserves mention as a belt is pretty critical. It’s just nylon with a plastic buckle.
3, 2 x Ex Officio Boxer Briefs – These were recommended by just about everyone in the travel community. Made of quick drying material that makes them odor resistant and easy to wash. They say you can get away with 2 pairs…I went with 3.
5/30 /16 – I lost a pair while hanging them out to dry in windy weather in Wroclaw Poland. Given I only started with 3, this was slightly distressing. Luckily it was the sports version which gave me wedgies (a small victory). I am now testing their claim that you can get by with only two pairs…
3 x Orvis Invincible Socks – These. Are. Awesome. I’ve been wearing the same three pairs for YEARS. Still as good as new. Warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot and they absorb odor.
2 x Dry Max Crew Socks – For running and when it’s too hot to wear wool socks.
1 x Board shorts – These double as workout/running shorts.
1 x Beanie – I’ll drop this when I reach warmer climates.
1 x mesh baseball cap – Covers up bed head and good for long hikes in the sun. Mesh material makes it lightweight and quick drying.
I only had space for one pair of shoes and a pair of sandals. No matter how practical they seem, I don’t have the strength of character to wear the popular Chacos and Tevas as my only pair of shoes and they were too heavy/big for me to carry as a second pair. I was concerned that cross trainers wouldn’t hold up for very long (I plan to hike a fair amount). I ended up going with a lightweight hiking shoe but I could see using a cross trainer later on if I was sticking to tropical climates.
Merril Moab Rover – Lightweight (15 oz), low cut, water resistant, rugged and comfortable. I got them in espresso and they are decent looking enough to go out without broadcasting to the world my intention to climb the nearest mountain. They required almost no breaking in. I’ve ran in them a handful of times and they get the job done although the Vibram soles don’t give much cushion.
Honorable Mention – I didn’t get these but I tried them on and really liked them. They are a well made and stylish hybrid boot for those with less demanding physical ambitions.
5/30/16 – It’s now apparent that these would have been a bad choice for me considering how much hiking I have already done (I also run in my Moabs), which is from what I can tell, quite a bit more than most travelers I’ve met.
Olukai Ohana Sandals – Super comfortable and solidly made. This might be a mistake…I’ve donated my fair share of sandals to the locals.
Sony DSC-RX100M2 Camera – I’m a novice photographer but wanted something noticeably higher quality than an iphone and less intense than a DSLR. It needed to fit in my pocket and not have a steep learning curve. I picked up an extra battery for it, as well as a 64 GB memory card and this case mainly to protect it while packed in my bag.
2010 Macbook Pro w/ charger – Still going strong! I love macs. I use this neoprene sleeve from Belkin for a little extra protection.
iphone 5s w/ usb charger – Mainly to listen to music and podcasts.
Kindle Paperwhite w/ USB charger – I avoid reading on a device as much as possible. I enjoy the experience of physical books and I also feel I retain less from digital content. However it’s hard to argue with the convenience of traveling with a library at my finger tips.
Multi outlet w/ surge protector – I don’t think I’m carrying anything that needs a surge protector but I fear overcrowded hostel outlets that don’t allow me to keep all my devices juiced.
5/30/16 – This has never been a problem yet while in Europe. It was heavy and took up a considerable amount of space so I ditched it early on.
LED headlamp + 3 extra AAA batteries – Doing things in the dark with a flashlight in my mouth isn’t the best.
Universal travel adapter – I have a fairly cheap one currently. When I get the chance I’ll try one of these.
Timex watch – Water resistant, alarm, Indiglo & two time zones.
5/30/16 – It died after only two months! What the hell Timex. I tried replacing the battery in Poland (not an easy feat considering I needed a special battery AND a tiny screw driver) with no luck. Since not having it I have realized how much I realized on it and will get another when the opportunity presents itself.
Portable power bank – To give my devices some extra juice when I have no access to power. The one I have currently isn’t very strong. If it proves useful I’ll probably upgrade to something stronger like this one.
Headphones – The behind the ear design takes a little getting used to but I like the ability to pause the audio from the remote and it also has a built in mic which is useful for Skype. I keep a bunch of extra rubber ear pieces with me because there’s almost nothing worse in this world than losing one of those damn things.
5/30/16 – These broke. I have decided I am not a huge fan of the over the ear design, they are a hassle for casual listening. I picked up a pair of Sony’s on my way out of Scotland.
Ibuprofren, prescription strength painkillers, antibiotics (ciprofloxacin).
Electric beard trimmer – Easier than shaving all the time.
Chapstick, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, floss picks, q-tips, comb, nail clipper, file & tweezers.
RFID Blocking Travel Belt – Yet to be seen how much use this will get…I’m a bit skeptical.
Sawyer mini water filter – Might be unnecessary but I plan on spending time in places with poor water quality and doing a fair amount of hiking.
Sleep mask & ear plugs
2 x cheap sunglasses – I’ll lose both.
5/30/16 – You can read all about my water bottle struggle here.
2, 1 x Dry bags – For protecting my electronics.
5/30/16 – I only needed one for all my electronics. I’ve also discovered that it can be used as a pillow on park benches by doing this.
Personal first aid kit w/ safety whistle
5/30/16 – I carry around my small journal everywhere but found the normal size too big to be useful and usually available in the same places as my laptop, so I use my laptop for most of my writing.
Thank you cards & pens
5/30/16 – I was able to send a few of these before I lost the rest. If I see more I will pick them up, they are useful.
Credit cards – Chase Sapphire has no foreign transaction fees, the best reward program I’ve seen for travelers and at the time of writing this a 50,000 sign up bonus (+ 5,000 more after you add on an authorized user). I have a handful of other travel cards (sign up bonuses baby!) as well as my standard credit card for emergencies which has the largest credit allowance.
Debit Cards – Charles Schwab offers a great debit card with no atm withdrawal fees worldwide which you can get when you open a brokerage account with them (note: you aren’t required to use it). I also carry around my standard debit card in a separate place for emergencies.
American & UK passport, driver’s license, immunization card, travel insurance card, printed copies and digital copies of all of the above.
Extra passport photos
$200 emergency cash
Glow in the dark mini frisbee – Absolutely necessary.
A couple books – I started off with
Fooled By Randomness, Ishmael and The Power Of Engagement but have switched those out for a copy of the Baghavad-Gita, Meditations and Lonely Planet’s guide to Eastern Europe.
5/30/16 – I am now carrying Meditations and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
MACGUYVER KIT (Because…who knows?)
Duct tape (rolled around half a pencil)
Basic sewing kit
Extra pair of shoe laces
Twist ties & safety pins
10′ of parachute cord – To use as a drying line but some rope is never a bad thing to have…
And that’s it!
ADDED SINCE LEAVING
5/30/16 – Thatcher’s Brewery Bottle Opener. This was a gift from friends in England who enjoyed drinking cider as much as I did. It has already proven its worth 🙂
Half The Clothes, A Little Adrift & Legal Nomads all share their packing lists from the solo female perspective including tons of other people’s packing lists from around the web. All long time travelers, Jema, Shannon and Jodi have turned their experience and passion for travel incredible treasure troves of practical information for travelers which I found myself returning to over and over.