In preparation for our one-year trip, there was a serious discrepancy between what I wanted to pack—jeans, cotton t-shirts, and leather sandals—and what I thought I should pack—nylon pants, performance-fabric shirts, and sport sandals. This packing conundrum stressed me out. I probably worried more about what to pack than where we would be staying. Everything I owned for one year had to fit into a small backpack, keep me outfitted for 12 months in various environs and climates, and be comfortable all at the same time.
Seems impossible, right?
It kind of is. Ultimately, it’s impossible to carry everything you need for every situation you’ll encounter on a long trip. For one, it’s impossible to predict every situation you’ll encounter, and if you only travel with carryon luggage, you won’t have room.
Given that, there will be pounds of clothes, equipment, and sundries you may never end up using. Even if every item is carefully thought out, there will still be stuff you’ll cart halfway around the world, until you chuck it into some hostel free box.
So what’s the point, really? Why stress out about packing if you don’t really know what you’ll need while traveling?
After one year of packing and repacking my bag countless times, wearing the same clothes day in and day out, and dumping numerous items I was sure I would need, I’ve perfected my packing philosophy.
This how to pack for world travel guide is from a woman’s perspective, obviously, but the basic suggestions can be applied to male travelers too.
How to pack for world travel: What to start with
Purging our stuff was one of the most invigorating results of adopting a travel lifestyle. How silly, then, to weigh ourselves down with necessary possessions as we set out on our journey.
Sadly, that’s what we did.
I ended up with clothes I didn’t really need to be carrying, a large medical kit (half of which we didn’t use), and random items like bungee cords that had little use.
Start with your very basic needs and add from there, or not. Just don’t overthink it. You will be able to buy things you don’t have. You will be able to do laundry. You don’t have to have a super fancy outfit to go to (most) nice dinners. Start simple.
What to wear
The type of clothes you take and how much will depend on the climate you’re starting out in. I suggest bringing enough to go 4-5 days without doing laundry. Start with underwear, which you will (hopefully) want clean every day.
I took five pairs of Patagonia quick-dry underwear which I could easily wash and hang dry. Depending on climate, three bottoms and three tops should get you through 5 days without having to wash anything. You can always buy more when you get there.
You may need to add a jacket, or long underwear, or a hat, as climate indicates.
You won’t have to do laundry as often as you think. We are used to washing out clothes a lot, typically after one wear, even when the clothes aren’t really dirty. I quickly learned how to spot clean and took advantage of fresh air to get rid of the mustiness. It’s really not that bad, people.
How to pack for world travel: What to brush your teeth with
Toiletries should be travel-sized so you don’t have to check your luggage (check out this guide to travel gear and backpacks to get an idea). Take bar soap in a plastic bag. I prefer chemical-free cosmetics and I worried about not finding natural soaps and creams in certain places.
It’s true, in some areas, you’ll be hard-pressed to find sulfate-free shampoo. Instead of carrying a case with you, research natural options you could make yourself or use in raw form. Now is a great time to start testing what you can live without. I’ll bet its more than you think.
What to put on your feet
Shoes. Shoes. Oh my God, shoes. There are so many possibilities: hiking shoes, running shoes, going-around-town shoes, sandals, and something to wear to a nice dinner (maybe male readers have less difficulty with this). Many of these can be one in the same, and I would suggest starting with two pairs (perhaps an easily packable third such as flats or flip flops) and adding if you need.
What are your activity plans for the first leg of your journey? If planning to be at the beach, throw in the flip flops or some multi-purpose sandals. If you’ll be trekking in the Andes, bring your sturdiest hiking shoes. You can find shoes that serve multiple purposes, such as a hiking shoe that double as town walking shoes, or a comfortable sandal you can wear to dinner. If you need more specialty shoes, you can buy them as you need them and either ship them home or leave them at a hostel.
But hold off on hauling around a pair for every occasion.
How to pack for world travel: What to write your blog and call home with
When it comes to gadgets the first impulse is to gear up, but there are some real downsides to this.
First, carrying around a bunch of expensive equipment makes you a target for theft.
Secondly, the more gear you have, the more attention you’re paying to that gear and the less you’re experiencing. I ended up bringing an iPhone but I probably won’t next time. Think what you can do with the least amount of stuff. Everything the iPhone can do, I can do with my camera and laptop (including making calls).
Your gear will depend on how you want to document your trip—a digital SLR is not necessary to take good photos, but if you’re building your travel photography business, you’ll know the difference. However, you may want your iPhone if you don’t plan on bringing a point-and-shoot.
I would definitely avoid bringing lots of extra devices thinking you’ll be safer or happier with them on you.
How to pack for world travel: What to read
My first trip to Europe, I hauled around a brick of a guidebook called Europe on a Shoestring. It probably weighed 5 pounds. I love to read, and reading is a great way to pass the time during long boring bus rides. But books are heavy.
Buying books in English in many countries was more difficult than I thought. It was fun to pick up random books left at hostel free libraries, so taking along an e-reader will depend on whether you like having a personal library at your fingertips, or like the adventure of hunting for your next read. I might bring an e-reader on the next trip, only because I’d like to easily access and read books about the countries I’m visiting while I’m actually visiting them.
How to pack for world travel: What not to forget
My packing philosophy is very minimalist: start with the bare essentials and add if needed along the way. Other than the obvious things, there are a few items I will make sure I pack next time:
- Universal sink stopper—so much easier, and more hygienic, than stuffing a sock in the drain while hand-washing clothes
- Twine or clothing line—there are times you need to tie something, or hang your clothes to dry
- Leggings, yoga pants, or other comfortable pants—there many are times when you just want to be as comfortable as possible
- Daypack—much more functional than a purse
- Sarong or large scarf—serves many purposes, such as a towel, picnic blanket, wrap, or even a skirt
When it boils down to it, what you decide to pack is a completely personal decision. Just don’t overthink it. Save that energy for planning your itinerary, researching the best treks, and applying for house-sitting positions.