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?

How to pack for world travel

Don’t pack so much you need his help getting out of Colca Canyon, Peru.

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.

How to pack for world travel

Packing light means more freedom to move. Leaving Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

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 the guide to travel gear and backpacks at Vagabond Journey or backpack reviews at The Broke Backpacker 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

To bring hiking boots or to not bring hiking boots. It really is the question in High Tatras, Slovakia.

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.

How to pack for world travel

Would they mind if I took just one? Library at Istanbul Modern, Turkey.

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.

3 Responses

  1. Emily

    When we left Canada we thought we were so smart with what we packed, only to dump a good chunk of stuff at our first hostel because we realized how we had ridiculously overpacked. Sometimes you forget that you can get the stuff you need while on the road!

  2. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    I am a diehard “real paper” book reader, but I made the sacrifice on our trip of switching to an ereader (we had an iPad we brought with us), and I can’t say I regret it as it was so nice to have dozens and dozens of book at my fingertips but none of the weight. The only time I regretted the choice was when we went hiking in the Himalayas where electricity is so limited so I packed a few real books instead—if we had had a dedicated e-reader that tend to have even better battery life, it wouldn’t have been an issue and definitely would have been preferable to lugging Shantaram around at altitude…

    I disagree about packing travel-size toiletries, however. We tried that at first, but it meant I was having to buy shampoo once a week, which was just a huge pain. We wound up having to check our bags on most budget carriers anyway, so I found it much more practical to just carry around regular sized toiletries.


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