Packing is possibly the most stressful part of any trip. Destination, weather, culture and activities all play a part in the decision-making process. Which is generally straight forward to work out for short trips, but when you are planning a longer trip with multiple countries, it becomes a challenge worthy of its own Olympics!
We’ve all overpacked and under packed, had items go missing and luggage damaged, and it is truly a learning process. There is no right or wrong answer however, and you have to consider your needs as well.
On my very first trip overseas I completed over-filled a large check-in suitcase, my matching carry-on suitcase and my cross-body bag. I had to drag all 3 bags around with me – smart? Absolutely not! But in my excitement, I packed absolutely everything I could think of, and didn’t even consider that I could buy what I needed in London (if I even needed it!) Needless to say, over half of what I packed was not worn, and the books I dragged along with me ended up in hostel library shelves.
So here are my recommendations for packing for long term travel, that I learned from experience or picked up from fellow travellers.
How to dress like a local when you live out of a suitcase
One of the best tips anyone has ever given me was to check the local style of my destination first and adjust my luggage accordingly. It doesn’t mean get a whole new wardrobe for each destination, but rather consider the culture and aim to blend in.
Europeans for example, tend to dress well no matter the weather or the activity. Even their ‘comfortable’ clothes are dressy compared to most Australians and Americans! Whereas in middle eastern or primarily Muslim countries, modesty is the norm. Long, light-weight scarves become your best friend, and long and loose clothing is the way to dress. Visit somewhere like Dubai, and you can wear a bikini at the tourist beaches, but as soon as you step off the sand you must cover up.
To limit the risk of overpacking, it is important to research the destination, climate, culture and the activities you plan to do. You won’t need hiking clothes for exploring a city, just like you won’t need heels when going on a safari.
The main thing to remember, is that you can generally always buy what you need when you get to your destination – with the added bonus that anything you buy there will most likely be better suited to the climate and environment, then anything you may have brought from home.
However, the real challenge is packing for long-term travel where we may or may not have a plan. We could be going to a different country a month on totally different continents, so what do we do then? This is where the benefits of a capsule wardrobe come into play.
One thing that is absolutely guaranteed, is that if you make an effort to blend in or respect the culture of the place you are visiting, you will be treated much better and will be hassled significantly less on the street.
What is a capsule wardrobe?
A capsule wardrobe is a way of dressing that is more focused on creating an outfit of interchangeable pieces. This results in a more versatile wardrobe with fewer clothes, but more outfits to choose from. Similar to a minimalist approach, though arguably less extreme.
I’ve read both and found that Marie Kondo definitely helped me clear my wardrobe of things I had been holding onto ‘just in case’ or because they were given to me (read: guilt); and The Capsule Wardrobe helped me look at what was left more critically and narrow down my personal style which has truly been a game changer for home and travel.
I am going to generalise and say that from experience (and what I have witnessed), women tend to pack significantly more, even when following a minimalist mentality. This is partly because we love options, we want to be prepared for any occasion that might come up; and the one I am most guilty of – I need at least one pair of each type of shoe (ankle boots, flats, wedges, going out heels, sneakers, converse, sandals, and flip flops). Shoes alone take up half my luggage space!
A capsule wardrobe will also help you stay true to your personal style, while also respecting the culture of your destination. Accessories will become your best souvenirs, as they will help you blend in without adding bulk to your luggage.
Suitcases or Backpacks
Choosing the right luggage is a tricky, and should be based entirely on a) personal preference; b) your destination; and c) the type of trip you are on.
Personally, I hate backpacks, but they do serve a purpose and are the best choice for certain types of trips and destinations. Places like South America, South-East Asia and third-world countries make backpacks an ideal choice. Easy to move around and carry, no issue on dirt roads or remote villages, and you can buy protective covers for the bags to reduce opportunities for theft.
However, for those of us that prefer suitcases, there are many options for us as well. There are several brands that produce eco-friendly suitcases made from recycled materials that are lightweight and durable. Suitcases are generally more secure as well and are often waterproof, and you don’t need to worry about putting it on the ground as the wheels normally keep it safe.
A daypack or small backpack is an essential, especially for when you want to go on day trips, and as the carry-on bag for airlines, train trips and overnight buses.
Using packing cubes for long-term travel
Packing cubes are a useful and affordable way to organize and pack your clothes for travelling. They take up less space and make it easier to find items when you’re unpacking.
They are usually made of mesh so you can easily see what is inside of them, are lightweight, made of durable materials, have good zipper closures, and are breathable.
The best packing cubes will be durable enough to last several trips and should definitely not tear after a few uses. I’ve found using a mix of sizes and colours helps separate clothing, and for bulkier clothing, a few compression cubes make a world of difference! Of course, there are also waterproof ones for swimwear and dirty laundry, bags for shoes, speciality cubes for lingerie and accessories.
Personally, I use cubes for everything in my luggage… the only thing that doesn’t go into a cube is my hat and coat. I like seeing everything neat and easy to find. It also stops me from overpacking, because everything has its place and the only room left is for souvenirs!
Make sure to at least bring waterproof laundry bags – these are essential for limiting dirty clothes getting mixed in with the clean ones. And remember to fold or roll the dirty clothes to minimise space.
There are vacuum bags as well, but the concern with vacuum bags is that they are not eco-friendly (made of plastic) and are only really good for storing clothes you won’t need regularly. If you are going to a tropical destination first, then vacuum sealing the large bulky jumpers and jacket is fine. Though I still recommend using compression packing cubes, which achieve a similar effect without being made from cheap and easy to damage plastic.
How to pack toiletries for one month or more of Travel
Toiletries are the bane of any traveller’s existence – it is next to impossible to pack the correct amount, and if you use the wrong type of container, expect a mess at some point.
Between hair care, skin care, sunscreen, first-aid, make-up and period products, there is a lot to pack and consider. If you are someone with specific needs, then finding similar products overseas can be a serious challenge.
From an eco-point of view, buying the cheap hard-plastic travel sized bottles are wasteful, instead have a look at silicone travel bottles. These portable soft silicone travel bottles come in different sizes, are food safe, BPA free and you will be able to get every last bit of the shampoo that is stuck in there. Just make sure that you use the clear ones for your carry-on luggage, and the coloured ones stay in checked luggage.
Silicone stand-up sandwich bags are also fantastic for separating and storing toiletries, are see-through, and leakproof (I use these for everything – for electronics, make up, swimwear, accessories and of course snacks on day trips). These are more expensive then buying a box of sandwich bags, but they will last you much longer and are generally more environmentally friendly.
Having met several people who travel with their hair dryer and hair straightener I can only say one thing – you don’t need the hair dryer. Most hotels, hostels and even Airbnb’s have hairdryers you can use. Straighteners pack small and don’t take up much space, just be mindful of the wattage as it may be too powerful for electrical outlets.
Something to consider instead is a hair straightening brush, these have been around for a few years but are definitely becoming more popular. I can absolutely recommend the GDH Glide hair straightening brush as an alternative to hairdryers and straighteners. It is an absolute time saver, causes significantly less hair damage then straighteners, and helps you feel a bit more ‘put together’. Living on the road can be tough, so sometimes having little luxuries like this can make a work of difference.
Lastly there is medication, some countries have strict rules regarding the type and amount of medication you can bring in. Check maximum limits, bring that along with your prescription or a letter from your doctor. If you wear contacts or glasses, also bring a copy of your latest eye test just in case.
Keep your tech organised
With gadgets and technology such an integral part of our lives, we now pack more gadgets then ever before. From your laptop, camera, phone, tablet, international travel adaptors, eReaders, power banks and headphones, each with its own cords, it is a lot to keep track of!
Ideally you want one universal plug, ideally with a USB or C-port included (such as this one from OceanWave), and it pays to carry a couple of spare cables. There are some great cases that hold everything (such as this one) or for a budget option, use a silicone sandwich bag to prevent moisture from getting inside.
Powerbanks are a necessity, so it pays to have at least two with you, especially when out exploring. If you have a professional camera, then also make sure to invest in three or four batteries. This is the one area to play it safe and carry extra, especially if you are staying in a hostel with one power outlet in a dorm room (I speak from experience on this one).
Keep your valuables safe
As temping as it is to bring sentimental or your favourite expensive jewellery, it is strongly recommended that you don’t. Anything can happen on the road, and luggage goes missing more then you would think. Stick to imitation jewellery, things you won’t get upset about losing or having stolen.
Use your email or dropbox to save electronic copies of all your important documents and identification. However, it is a good idea to keep one photocopy of your passport and ID hidden in your bag (technology is not always the best in some areas of the world), along with some cash and a back-up credit card.
Before leaving home, back up everything on your phone to a hard drive or the cloud, and crucially – clear your entire photo history on your phone. Get in the habit of backing up all the photos on your phone every day while travelling and avoid using public wi-fi for banking and backing up to the cloud.
Keep valuables with you in your day bag, and for the things you can’t carry, consider investing in a travel safe. Yes, it is heavy and bulky, but you can keep your valuables safely locked and chained in your room, whether it is in a hostel dorm or a hotel. Just don’t lose the key!
A few final thoughts
Technology, luggage, and travel has come a long way in the last 20 years. Instead of heavy and bulky laptops we have slim, lightweight tablets; instead of heavy books and paper travel guides, there are eReaders the size of our hands; instead of landing in a destination with no internet or phones, we are connected the entire way through.
There are dozens of other ‘just in case’ items we can pack, from umbrellas, portable water bottles, luggage tags to portable cutlery, but it all depends on your type of trip and destinations.
Have I missed anything? Do you have any recommendations for packing for long term travel? Let me know in the comments!