how i pack

I am often asked about how I pack for my travel — about what to bring, my favorite odds and ends, and, my favorite, how it all fits into a carry-on. For some of you this is normal, for others, shocking. But, here is the simple, practical reality: When I travel, I rarely stay near the airport for even 24 hours, so when luggage gets lost, it either causes a major kink in the schedule or I go without my luggage. The simple solution is to not check luggage. Besides, why carry more than needed through airports, stuff it into taxis, or up airport stairs? It’s not fancy, but it normally works. So, here are my thoughts and tips.

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Basic principles: 

  • Figure out what you are doing and pack minimum that you need. That is mostly what this is about, plus a few extra gadgets to keep life fun.
  • Remember that you can always do laundry – even if it’s in a sink. You just need enough time for it to air dry.
  • For clothes, pack things that are flexible and can be worn with each other. Layers are your friend.
  • In most places people wear their nice clothes. So, think about leaving your safari-worthy clothes behind. Unless of course you are actually going on a safari.
  • Remove any extra packaging you can. For example, I often put medicines in smaller plastic bags and leave the bottles behind.
  • Never forget your headlamp. More often than not, it will be a good friend: when the bedside table is missing a lamp or when the power goes out.

Some of my favorite travel gadgets and where you can find them: 

  • GoToob Travel Bottles. these are super easy to fill with your own shampoo. Made a painful task easy. I use 1.5 oz bottles, which I do not see online. This lasts me for a two week trip without problems, so think before you pack 3 oz of shampoo.
  • Sea to Summit Dry Bag. I have the 4L one – it fits my journal, Kindle and camera with room to spare. It takes up almost no space, but has saved them from the middle of a surprise rain storm.
  • Kindle. I love the feel and the smell of books. I love used books. What I love more is being able to have a bunch of books in my bag all the time without devoting a lot of my bag to books. I still love paper books when I’m home.
  • Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack Pillow. With my fleece inside it is far from a perfect pillow but has made up for more than one horrible pillow.
  • 2XU Compression Socks: Apparently I’m getting old because I love these on my long flights. I feel so much better after a trans-Atlantic flight when using these.
  • Sleeping bag liner. I only carry this when I am going back-country. But, when needed, this is great and I love that it is mosquito repellent.
  • Reusable Gear Ties. These keep the wires orderly and keep me sane. Definitely worth a couple of bucks.
  • Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes: I use the Quarter Cubes for my first aid kit and for my electronics. I use the Half Cubes when I am traveling to two different climates or regions to keep clothes separated. They keep my packing easy and use space well.
  • GSI Collapsable Coffee Drip. In much of rural Africa the only coffee available is instant coffee. But, I can normally get hot water. This silicon collapsable coffee drip has made many a happy morning for me and my travel companions.

Specific packing list (designed for a trip to Uganda & Ethiopia – vary based on your trip specific location and activities: 

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Clothes: 

  • Women: 2 skirts, 2 pairs trousers
  • Men: 3 pairs trousers
  • 1 pair jeans
  • 3 button down shirts or blouses
  • 3 t-shirts
  • 1-2 long sleeved shirts / 1 light cardigan
  • 1 pair pajamas
  • 5-7 pairs underwear (women: bras and slips)
  • 2-3 pairs socks
  • 1 pair compression socks
  • 1 fleece / outer layer
  • 1 rainy coat (if rainy season)
  • 1 bandana
  • 1 pair of chaos / walking shoes
  • 1 pair close-toed shoes
  • 1 pair flip flops
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat (for sun)

 Gear: 

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  • rolling, carry-on sized bag
  • day pack / shoulder bag (airlines call this a ‘personal bag’)
  • purse (that is packed inside backpack or luggage)
  • headlamp or small flashlight
  • alarm clock (or watch in addition to phone for when phone looses battery)
  • camera, charger
  • universal electricity plugs
  • passport & driver’s license (and a photocopy in different location of both)
  • journal or notebook
  • roll of electrical tape (best if you have a half roll lying around the house) – this has gotten me out of several binds
  • small sewing kit (needle, thread, safety pins)
  • thin, small tea towel – when traveling to the remote areas this has served as a bath towel, a bandage, and a wash cloth (all separate times)
  • ATM card
  • Airplane blow-up pillow: helps the long flights be manageable
  • for coffee lovers going to bad coffee locations: coffee drip, paper filters, coffee

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Toiletries: 

Remember that all liquids must be in 3 oz (100 mL) or less containers all packed in a 1 quart (1 liter) zip lock bag.

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  • 1 pack travel size hand wipes
  • 1 small hand sanitizer
  • 1 hair brush or cob
  • 1 soap / body wash
  • 1 deodorant
  • 1 lotion
  • 1 shampoo & conditioner
  • 1 toothpaste & toothbrush
  • nail clippers and file
  • 1 sunblock
  • 1 insect repellant

Medicine: 

These are the basics. Bring what you need and what your travel doctor recommends. 

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  • Malarone (anti-malarial pills)
  • Chewable Pepto Bismol
  • Imodium
  • Neosporen and bandaids
  • Ibuprofen or preferred pain killers
  • Allergy medicine as needed

How to pack: 

Some people like to roll their clothes, and I often resort to this on my way home. But, when on the road, I like to be able to see my clothes and easily work out of my suitcase. I fold my shirts and trousers so that I can see them all without unpacking. I like packing cubes (quarters) for first aid kits and wires. Also, I have a bad habit of forgetting things when I am tired and jet legged, which ends up being more often than I care to admit. So, whenever I can, I get bags and cases (iPhone cases, kindle covers, camera cases, etc.) that are bright colors, colors that do not blend in with bed spreads or disappear in airplane pockets. You can laugh, but this has saved me more than once. I hope these pictures help — all of that really can fit together. And yes, because of the specific itinerary on this trip, I packed more than normal – normally there is room to spare.

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Notes for other regions: 

As I said above, this was a packing job for Uganda / Ethiopia. It was the end of rainy season, so I needed a rain coat. I was moving frequently so had less time to wash clothes, and I needed some layers for Addis Ababa, where the weather is cooler. When I am in major cities, I pack clothes appropriate for cafes and evenings out. When I am in Asia, I pack fewer layers and more thin cottons. When I have space, I always toss in a pair of yoga pants or shorts to lounge in. When I go to a cold climate, I work with undershirts and a versatile sweater or two. Sometimes, these plans do not work and I have to check luggage, but, thankfully, it is rare. (Extra camera gear and cold climates present the biggest challenges and the most frequent checked luggage.) Most of the time, this is how I travel.

Do you have any special travel gadgets or packing tricks? I would love to hear them!

2 Replies to “how i pack”

  1. Great post, Pam. My favorite two items fom your list are the coffee thing and medicine. You neglected to mention that you are kind enough to carry sufficient supplies if both for your ailing colleagues.

  2. Maybe I should add a line about it being wise to be a girl scout and keep the whole team happy and healthy?! Glad to be helpful.

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