As I write this I’m travelling to Central America for a two week work trip. Although I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately, I wouldn’t describe myself as an expert traveler yet. I’m writing this in no small part to myself, so I can think about what my packing choices were and what I can learn from this retrospectively.
The travel I do is for work rather than tourism, and tends to be rather specific in its nature. I mostly stay in midrange hotels, and 80-90% of my time is spent in the capitals, or other larger cities, so although my packing choices will have limited relevance for backpackers, campers, and other types of adventurous tourists, there may be some useful ideas here.
When I pack I prefer to do a two-tiered approach: a light easy-to-carry backpack and a large suitcase. I sometimes also carry a separate laptop bag, but I’ve found that to be an annoyance, and I’m now working to integrate that into my backpack (which may need to be replaced with a slightly larger one to accommodate this easily). My operative philosophy is to be prepared for the chance that my checked bag may not get to the right place. It’s not a problem that I’ve run into, but I’d rather not take the chance.
My current backpack setup is pictured here:
Items pictured, starting top left, in vertical rows:
Backpack, books, flip-flops, cheap poncho, zip-lock bag of essential toiletries (toothpaste, travel toothbrush, deodorant, broad-spectrum antibiotics, advil, Emergen-C, etc.), flashlight, misc. pens, two folded garbage bags, hand sanitizer, bandanna, glasses/case, cliff bars, zip-lock bag of batteries (AA & AAA), digital camera, fitbit charger, phone quick-charger, notepads and essential documents, sunglasses, phone charger, cheap phone (for use with local SIM card upon arrival), zip-lock bag of nitrile gloves, shemagh, basic clothes (two pairs of socks, t-shirt, undershirt, synthetic/wrinkle-free dress shirt, running shorts light slacks,).
Books include a pocket Spanish/English dictionary, a travel safety book, “The Fourth Way,” “Digital Humanitarians,” and “Tactical Reality Dictionary.”
Most of these things are self-evident in their utility, but a few deserve extra mention:
Zip-lock bag (various contents): I use zip-lock bags for all sorts of things. They help with organization, but they also help prevent water damage and insect infiltration. I also keep a couple of garbage bags handy as well. They are essential for packing wet/dirty clothes in amongst the dry/clean ones when you’re on the move, or for wrapping shoes when you have to tuck them in a bag.
Antibiotics: In much of the developing world it is possible to buy antibiotics without a prescription. It’s always a good idea to pick some up when you arrive, just in case. That said, the quality and strength of those antibiotics cannot always be known, so it’s good to keep a backup stash of something potent and fast, especially if you don’t have a lot of extra time to spend regretting your dietary habits.
Phone quick-charger: It’s a horrible waste of batteries, but sometimes your phone is your lifeline, and a dead phone is a crappy lifeline. It's possible to buy much better ones (e.g. something like this), but AA batteries can be found almost anywhere.
Cheap phone: mobile phones are dirt cheap in most places around the world, and once you have one, switching out SIM cards is easy. I’m putting together a pill container with SIM cards from different countries that I can travel to regularly.
Nitrile gloves: sometimes you have no choice but to touch something disgusting. The gloves help.
Shemagh: Also known as a kefyya this is an incredibly useful thing to have. Aside from doubling as a head covering and scarf, it can also be used to wrap fragile items, serve as a makeshift carrying sack, swaddle a newborn baby that you just delivered in the back of a taxi, flag down a passing freighter from a deserted isle, you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta, and...well, you get the idea.
Clothes: Though I’ve never needed to use them, it’s reassuring to know that they’re there.Once packed, this bag weighs about 15 lbs. Adding a laptop and charger can very easily push that up to 20, and a water bottle adds another 2-3 as well. That’s really a bit more than I’d prefer, and some of this weight could be saved by switching from books to a kindle or other e-reader, but I’m not quite ready to make that jump yet.
Part two - suitcase contents - coming next.