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How To Pack Like A Pro For A Long-Term Trip

BY JERRY ALONZO LEON

Flickr jessicahtam packing

Planning for a long-term trip is never easy, especially when it comes to packing. I’ve done a couple of long-term trips (three months in Europe and six-and-a-half months in South America) and I can tell you from experience that packing for a trip, whether it’s for a year, several months or a week, is actually quite simple. Here’s my practical advice on how to pack for that trip of a lifetime!

The basics:

The first thing you need to do is to decide where you want to go and what activities you plan on doing. A packing list for three months in Patagonia will obviously differ than one for South East Asia, so it’s important to know where you’ll be going and what you’ll be doing there. Then figure out what time of year you’ll be traveling so you can research how the weather will be. Knowing what kind of weather and climate to expect is crucial to packing appropriately. Once you have that information, then you can decide what to pack.

Here’s a general list of what you should have in your backpack. What to bring (essentials for both men and women):

  • Travel backpack (I traveled with the Eagle Creek Rincon 65L bag in South America and it served me well, so I highly recommend it.)
  • Daypack (the Rincon 65L bag includes a daypack: main bag 45L + 20L daypack)
  • Nylon/mesh stuff bags (One bag for storing dirty laundry and the other bag for miscellaneous clothing like socks and underwear.)
  • Toiletry bag
  • Zip-lock bags (Perfect for airport security to separate items and keep items organized in your backpack.)
  • Travel/money belt (I have to admit that I don’t wear my travel belt anymore but it’s always a good idea to have one to store your valuables. I usually keep it in my bag and locked up when I’m not in my room.)
  • Notebook (Besides my memories, my Moleskine notebook is my most valuable possession.)
  • Pen
  • Passport (Make sure your passport does not expire within six months of your intended return date.)
  • Money (Cash is king. US dollar tends to fare well with exchange rates around the world so bring plenty of currency in small denominations, such as in $20 bills.)
  • Vaccinations (Some countries require vaccinations, such as Yellow Fever for Bolivia, so be sure to read up on what you need before you go. For more information check out Passport Health, which is a great resource with plenty of locations and is also where I received my Yellow Fever vaccination.)
  • Debit/credit cards (Bring a few cards and if you travel frequently, a card that earns miles are a worthy investment. Be sure to place a travel notification on your cards so your bank knows you’re traveling in order to avoid any cancelations of overseas transactions you make.)
  • Driver’s license (In case you’d like to rent a car or motorcycle. It’s also a good idea to have another form of ID besides your passport.)
  • Water bottle (Platypus has some great collapsible water bottles that are quite useful that take up little space in your luggage).
  • Travel locks (My very first night in Europe someone almost stole by bag if it weren’t for the fact that I placed a lock on my locker, and so I can’t imagine traveling without at least a few locks. Buy TSA approved locks, such as Master Lock, so security can access your bag without breaking the lock.)
  • Cable lock (Along with travel locks, a cable lock is incredibly useful, especially if there are no lockers in your hostel, that way you can lock your bag to your bedframe, for instance.)
  • Toilet paper (You never know when you might need some toilet paper, so bring a small roll like Coghlan’s.)
  • Wet wipes (Trust me, you’ll thank me later.)
  • Garbage bag (A great rain poncho for your bag when it rains, especially if you’re camping. You can use the garbage bag as a liner for your backpack and then place your items inside, which will ensure nothing gets ruined by the rain.)
  • Laptop (I can’t travel without my MacBook Air, especially since I work from the road.)
  • Laptop case/sleeve
  • Electronic cords (For all your devices.)
  • Digital camera (It’s worthwhile to invest in a good camera, whether it’s a point-and-shoot (such as Nikon Coolpix or Sony Cyber-shot) or a DSLR camera.
  • Electronic charger cables (Amazon has long micro USB cables which are really useful.)
  • iPod (Great when you need workout music or to pass the time on long flights and bus rides.)
  • Earbuds (I have a pair of EarPods from Apple and they work very well. Make sure to buy a pair with a mic too, so you can Skype or FaceTime with them.)
  • Google Voice (You can call any American number for free!)
  • Plug adapter (Here’s a great list by World Standards for plugs and voltage per country.)
  • External hard drive (I carry a Passport hard drive with me, which is a must to backup photos and documents on the road.)
  • Flip flops/sandals (A must for walking around or simply lounging at your hostel or hotel.)
  • Underwear (I’m a merino wool believer now. I can’t travel anywhere without my Icebreaker boxers and though they may be pricey they are absolutely worth the hefty cost. They’re naturally anti-microbial and odor resistant, so I only need to pack 3-4 pairs for a long trip.)
  • Base layers (Whether you’re in the frigid cold, unbearable humidity or in a temperate climate, base layers are essential for any condition. Once again, I prefer Icebreaker base layers but you can never go wrong with any other brand that has merino wool a base material.)
  • Shirts (Around 3-5 tees and 2-3 collared shirts should be enough.)
  • Pants (Two pairs are all you need. Regular denim jeans will work fine, so there’s no need to buy travel-specific apparel unless you know for sure you’ll spend a lot of time in a particular climate.)
  • Socks (REI has great merino wool hiking socks that are odor resistant. With 3-4 pairs of low cut socks and 1-2 pairs of hiking socks that should be plenty.)
  • Swimsuit
  • Eyeglasses/contacts (Be sure to write down your prescription, in case you need to buy a new pair if they happen to break.)
  • Tampons (In some countries, such as in Venezuela, women should be aware of a potential shortage of hygiene products so it’s important to buy them before entering.)
  • Shampoo (A small 3oz bottle will do. You can always buy a bigger bottle once you arrive.)
  • Soap (Same as above.)
  • Deodorant
  • Travel towel (I’m not a big fan of microfiber shower towels because they can be very slick when wet and in my experience it’s not very efficient at getting you dry. A regular towel, such as this one from REI, is good enough.)
  • Sunscreen (Small bottle only, remember all liquids must be 3oz or less and fit within one quart-sized baggie.)
  • Lotion (See above.)
  • Fingernail clippers
  • Toothbrush (Buy a toothbrush cover as well.)
  • Toothpaste (Must be 3oz or less in order to take with you on the plane.)
  • Floss
  • Shaving razor (I prefer a safety razor since the single blades are cheaper and easier to replace. For a great quality razor check out Merkur.)
  • Chapstick
  • Medication (Only if you have a medical condition, because you can always purchase simple pharmaceutical drugs, like aspirin or antihistamines, once you arrive.)
  • Books (I like to have at least one book when I travel.)
  • Gum
  • Cell phone (I used to be on the fence about this but now I feel it’s a good idea to have one. Make sure your phone is unlocked, too.)
  • Shoes (For every long-term trip I always had a pair of Salomon I highly recommend their XA Pro 3D GTX pair of running shoes for everything from everyday use to hiking and trekking in harsh conditions. In general be sure to pack at least two pairs of shoes, one for everyday use and the other for going out.)
  • Packing cubes (I find packing cubes to be incredibly useful although there are many travelers who prefer to roll their clothes instead. However, I find packing cubes do a better job at keeping clothes wrinkle free compared to the rolling method.)
  • Snacks (Pack some snacks in your bag for those long travel days.)
  • Travel insurance (Although I have traveled quite a bit without it, I have to admit that it’s more of a necessity than most people realize. Remember, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. There are a plethora of travel insurance sites available, such as World Nomads, so be sure to shop around for a plan that works for you.)
  • Documents (It’s a good idea to have photocopies of your passport, travel itinerary, flight itinerary, important contact information of family and friends, medical information including prescriptions, etc. Also, email the documents to yourself to have an extra copy in case you lose the printouts.)
  • Knife (Incredibly versatile tool to have in your bag.
  • Birth control (For some countries, like Brazil, birth control isn’t always readily available, so it’s advised to purchase what you need before you go.)
  • Jacket (A light fleece or jacket should suffice if you dress in layers.)
  • Rain jacket (If you know you’ll be traveling through various climates, like in South America, then a rain jacket will certainly come in handy.)
  • Sarong
  • Belt

Optional items (not necessary but can be helpful):

  • Travel vest (If I’m not bringing a daypack and if I can’t fit what I need in my jean pockets then I won’t bring it. But if you feel that it’s an absolute travel necessity then by all means bring one.)
  • Messenger bag
  • Playing cards (It’s a good icebreaker and a great way to pass the time on long flights and bus rides.)
  • Small LED flashlight (Especially useful in hostels if you need to rummage around your bag late at night.)
  • Keychain carabiner (Great for hanging toiletry bags in the restroom or for clipping items to your bag.)
  • Clothesline cord (Hang drying your clothes, whether in your room or in your hostel, is a good way to save money if you’re on a tight budget.)
  • Rubber doorstop (For safety reasons many travelers like to carry one when staying in sketchy areas. For solo female travelers who want peace of mind, this can be a very useful item to pack.)
  • Rubber bands (I like to carry 5-10 to roll socks and underwear together and keep my bag organized.)
  • Plastic cutlery (I don’t think it’s necessary but many travelers will pack a few utensils in their bag.)
  • Sleep sack (I personally don’t think they are necessary but many travelers swear by them.)
  • Sunglasses
  • Earplugs (Great when sleeping in dorms and loud places.)
  • Bug repellant (I like the liquid form better than the spray.)
  • Sleeping mask
  • Travel pillow (Incredibly useful on long flights or bus rides but I don’t carry one since they take up way too much space in my backpack. I do, however, recommend Kuhi Comfort, which are compact travel pillows that are quite comfortable.)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Credentials (Such as a diving certificate or motorcycle license.)
  • Personal/business cards (A great way to introduce yourself to others and share your contact information.)
  • Expired credit cards (Many travelers will carry one or two to give to thieves.)
  • Water purifier tablets (If you plan on doing plenty of camping and hiking then these will come in handy.)
  • Scarf
  • Balaclava
  • Spandex running shorts
  • E-reader/Kindle (I’m not the biggest fan of e-readers but they work for many travelers.)
  • Watch (Always great to have, especially if your phone dies.)
  • Guide book (I find carrying a travel guidebook to be quite cumbersome. I like to research a trip with guidebooks but I leave them at home because once I arrive at my location I tend to rely more on locals and my fellow travelers for advice.)
  • Extra passport photos (In case you need it for certain border crossings.)
  • Student ID (Great for discounts at certain museums, events, etc.)
  • Fake wedding ring (Many women traveling on their own will carry a fake ring in order to avoid harassment or unwanted attention.)
  • Malaria medication (It’s a good idea to have malaria medication if you know you’re entering a high risk area.)
  • Dress clothes/shoes (One set of nice clothes and shoes for going out.)
  • Comb/brush
  • Beanie

What not to bring (buy them once you arrive):

  • Reusable shopping bags (great for grouping items together or keeping valuables dry when it rains, but you can always get a shopping bag whenever you buy groceries at your location.)
  • Sewing kit
  • Q-tips
  • BAND-AID
  • Laundry detergent
  • Headlamp (Great for camping and trekking outdoors at night.)
  • Mosquito net (Unless you plan on staying in a mosquito-infested area for a long period of time, then you won’t really need one.)
  • Sleeping bags (Unless you’re backpacking through Patagonia for a couple of months, you can always rent a sleeping bag.)
  • First aid kit

Other tips:

  • Pack less than you need. I cannot emphasize this enough! All travelers (myself included) will at some point have to make tough decisions on what to bring and not to bring. Whether you plan on traveling for a month or a year, you should only pack a week’s worth of clothes. You may have heard it said to the point of ad nauseam but I can tell you that it’s the only way to travel. Remember, whatever you pack you’ll have to carry with you throughout the duration of your trip (unless you leave some items behind, which I tend to do). If you have trouble with packing light, here’s a general rule of thumb: place all the items you want to bring in front of you, take out half and carry twice as much cash than you originally had in mind. The idea is that you can always buy what you need while traveling and give yourself some peace of mind by carrying less gear than you would probably need or use.
  • REI is a great place to purchase travel gear given their ‘no questions asked’ return policy. You have one year to return any purchases made in store or thirty days for online purchases.
  • To save space in your backpack, store small items in your shoes like socks, underwear, etc. Also, if you have fragile items like perfume, souvenirs and the like then you can use socks or clothing to wrap them.
  • When you buy a backpack make sure it has zippers that reach the end of the bag so the bag opens almost completely. I have an Eagle Creek Rincon backpack (which I love) but the main zipper doesn’t extend to the very bottom edges of the bag, which makes reaching for items at the bottom somewhat annoying.
  • Speaking of backpacks never pack your bag to the absolute max, where the zippers look like they will burst at a moment’s notice. It’s best to leave some room, especially if you plan to buy souvenirs or if you want to store bottled water, food, etc.
  • The great thing about visiting multiple cities and countries on a long trip is that you can wear a set of clothes in one city and it will appear as a whole new set of clothes in the next city since no one in that city has seen you wear them yet. It’s for this reason that I suggest you don’t need to bring more than a week’s worth of clothes, no matter where you go or for how you plan on traveling.
  • To keep your backpack smelling fresh keep a few pieces of dryer sheets tucked in-between your clothes.

Do you have any packing tips of your own? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo: Flickr/jessicahtam

 

Jerry Leon contributor profile

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One Comment on “How To Pack Like A Pro For A Long-Term Trip”

  1. juanita
    October 17, 2015 at 7:41 pm #

    Hello Jerry I loved this article. It was very informative and I will definitely use it when I decide to travel.

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