So you’re planning your first long term travel adventure and no doubt wondering what to pack. Do I need this? Can I get by without that? Packing for long term travel is somewhat different than packing for a 7-10 day holiday, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be harder. Here are my top 10 tips to help you avoid the mistakes I made.
Note: this is not to be confused with a packing list. I’m working on a “what to pack for 6 months of backpacking through different climates” list, but these are more like cardinal packing rules.
1. Pack light & pack right.
Almost everyone brings too much stuff when they set out for their first trip. I took everyone’s advice to pack less. I brought one carry-on size (40L) backpack for 5 months, and it’s been completely fine. Packing light is definitely the way to go, but don’t skimp on clothes. If you’re traveling slow and staying in one location for 3-4 weeks, it really sucks to be the girl with only two t-shirts. After a while you do get used to it, and, after all, it’s sort of a traveler right-of-passage to wear the same clothes all the time.
If I could go back, though, I would have thrown in a few more shirts and left things like my umbrella, water bottle & certain toiletries. Your water bottle will be boiling hot after you’ve been walking around for a few hours in the sun so you’ll end up just buying a cold one anyway. Bring a first aid pack, but don’t waste space on shampoo/soap/conditioner unless you have a specific brand that you just have to have. You can buy shampoo or soap anywhere in the world.
2. Pack clothes you can wash together.
Whites & darks still need to be separated on the road. Putting a cream tank top in with a bright blue shirt will result in you having to wear a blue-ish top for the rest of your trip. I learned this lesson the hard way when I decided to be nice and throw another traveler’s clothes in with my own half-full load. I guess if you look on the bright side, it’s kind of like getting a new shirt…
3. Don’t bring new clothes.
It’s really tempting to bring new clothes with you when you set out to travel. It seems symbolic of this new journey that you’re setting out on. However, I’d definitely recommend bringing only clothes that you know you like and wear frequently. I brought two cute sleeveless tops with me that I had bought right before leaving. I had tried them on but hadn’t worn them for an entire day. The first time I put one of them on it slipped down low in the front and showed my bra. Yikes. I had to constantly keep tugging it up, and I haven’t worn it since, leaving me with only sleeveless top.
4. Bring only clothes you’ll really wear.
There are tons of fantastic packing guides for just about any destination out there, but you should use them as guidelines, not replicate them exactly. For example, just about every one says to bring a black cardigan because you can layer it over anything. Which I did, forgetting the fact that cardigans make me feel like Mr. Rogers and I never wear them. In 6 weeks I have worn that stupid sweater once, and that was only because my sweatshirt was hung up to dry. Pack for your style.
5. Choose good walking shoes.
Your walking shoes are the single most important item you will bring. Even if you have no plans to hike or rock climb, you will be walking a LOT. Ballet flats and flip flops are NOT comfortable to walk around for hours in. Also, “hiking sandals” are a joke. If you’re worried about looking too much like a tourist, be aware that you will stick out walking around a city in your running shoes, but not in comfy canvas sneakers. I packed a fairly heavy pair of running shoes, just because I needed them to serve as hiking boots, running shoes and walking shoes. If I was just planning to walk, I would have brought my Chucks.
6. Pack clothes you feel good in.
Your traveling clothes should be practical, but they should also make you feel good. If you’re someone who likes to be somewhat stylish and usually looks nice back at home, don’t bring the infamous loose-fitting “travel pants” with 87 pockets. You’ll hate them, and every time you see someone walking by in a cute little midriff-baring top and high-waisted shorts you’ll feel self-conscious and frumpy. It’s a challenge, but definitely possible to find clothes and shoes that are both practical and stylish. Check out Her Packing List for my favorite lists to get you started.
7. Don’t pack your favorite outfit.
But you said I should pack clothes I wear frequently?! Yes, you should, but just not your very favorite outfit in the whole world and here’s why: you’re going to hate your traveling clothes. After 4 weeks of wearing the same things over and over again, you’re going to have to resist the urge to burn them all and spend half a month’s budget on new ones. Hang in there, in will pass. Buy yourself a new scarf or a purse from a street vendor if you’re really going crazy. (Or, you know, just accidentally dye your clothes a different color…)
8. Double up on the important stuff.
I brought two chargers. Technically one was for my phone and one for my laptop, but they both happened to be the same. Thank God. A few weeks into my trip the longer one (that I had JUST bought!) randomly stopped working. If you’re only traveling through major cities this probably wouldn’t be as big of an issue, but depending on how far off the beaten path you like to go, it could turn into a huge hassle. Also, bring a portable charger. It can be challenging enough to find a Wi-Fi signal depending on where you are in the world, but trying to find an outlet can be downright hell. Extra Ziploc bags are also a must. Within 2 days both my first aid bag and my carry-on liquids bag had split.
9. Share your packing space.
It occurred to me that much of this list was fairly female-centric, so I asked a male traveler what his best packing tip was and he said “put your stuff in your girlfriend’s bag.” Even though he was just being a smartass, I realized he did have an unintentional good point. If you’re traveling with a friend or significant other and one of you is a heavier packer than the other, bring two medium-sized bags and spread your clothes between them. That way neither of you (hopefully) have to check luggage.
10. Know your destinations & pack accordingly.
Remember that the people you’re going to be walking around in the midst of aren’t there on vacation. That means you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb if you’re wearing hiking clothes while walking around Paris, the fashion capital of the world. Research what the locals wear before you go, and be respectful of any dress code customs. Many churches won’t let visitors in who are wearing shorts or sleeveless tops. If you’re traveling to a destination where people dress very conservatively, don’t bring leggings or Daisy Duke shorts. A scarf is the handiest accessory you can have because you can drape it around your shoulders or tie it around your waist, if necessary.
Note: when I asked for suggestions from the men while writing this, I got some legitimately helpful tips and a whole bunch of awesomely terrible ideas that I will be incorporating into a future post, “the worst packing tips ever.”
Best terrible packing tip: “Bring a bottle of olive oil. That way if you get into anything dodgy you can rub it all over yourself and the people trying to catch you won’t be able to grab you. Also you can do other stuff with it…like burn things.”
What are your favorite packing tips & tricks?
This post is part of the #SundayTraveler series. See the rest of the lineup and link your travel post at A Southern Gypsy or any of the awesome hosts listed below.