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How to Pack for Long Term Travel Tip

What you need to travel the world.

The first rule of travel packing is not “What do I need?” but rather “What can’t I get abroad?”

After this is considered, travel packing becomes much less of an exercise in pensive decision making. Travel packing, in fact, becomes very simple: you are no longer jumping off of a bridge, you are no longer going into the great beyond where you will not have access to modern amenities, but, rather, you are going out into a world where you can get 90% of what you can get at home. Through this lens, you don’t need much of anything. You can get almost anything you need in almost any country in the world.

I fear that my capacity for packing has shrunk to the size of a pea. I no longer care for packing — it is something I do for ten minutes before I get on an airplane. This is not because I am organized, this is not because I am efficient, it is because I am lazy — I would rather spend my last moments with family and friends hanging out rather than debating whether I need to bring a large or small bottle of shampoo or whether I am going to need a coat three months into my journey.  I suppose I know that packing is an unnecessary expenditure of mental and physical energy: 90% of what I do need to travel can be had abroad at a fraction of the price in the USA or Europe.

The trick to travel packing is figuring out what will be difficult to obtain on the Road, and making sure I get it before leaving.

Travel Tip Disclaimer

This tip is for preparing for long term travel, if you are going on a brief vacation then the last thing I would imagine you would want to do is shop for toothpaste. Discard this tip in this circumstance

Things you can get abroad

1. Clothes — Unless you are going on a short trip, or you are an exceptionally large or oddly shaped individual don’t think about buying new clothes for traveling. Stuff one set of old clothes in a bag and fill out your wardrobe with additional clothing as your needs demand as you travel. If you wash your clothes as you shower, you will not need more than two sets of clothing– one set on your body, one set in your bag.

[A noted exception to this clothing rule is if you are a western woman traveling to East Asia. The women tend to be proportioned differently there, and searching for a pair of pants that fit over the ass parts of a western woman in China is like Gulliver searching for a pair of shoes in elf land: they don’t fit. I have observed the woes of a Western woman attempting to stuff herself into a pair of Asian “square back jeans” too many times to spare you this warning.  I remember walking into a Chinese clothing store once with a regular sized western woman. We were stopped at the door and the sales clerks explained politely that none of the clothes in the store would fit my companion — they too did not want to spare us the warning. Much to my dismay, I was the interpreter: “You’re too damn big.”]

2. Soap, shampoo, all of that cosmetic stuff — All of that crap you use to keep yourself clean is available everywhere. People clean themselves the same way with the same supplies almost everywhere in the world. The chance of your shampoo bottle exploding all over everything in your check in bag is far greater than you not being able to buy a cheap bottle as soon as you land.

Loose the shampoo

3. Medicine — I do not subscribe to the fears proliferated by the US press and medical system about how foreign pharmaceuticals are ineffective or dangerous. They do work. I have taken them more times than I care to remember. They are cheap and they work. If I am struck with an odd fancy to take malaria medication, I buy it in the affected region; if I want a supply of antibiotics, I buy them from a pharmacy in whatever country I am in. If I had insurance that covered travel meds, then I would probably use it to the fullest extent on principle — but who has such medical coverage?

Things that are difficult or expensive to get abroad

1. Electronics — Unless you plan a stop in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or eastern China, if you want to travel with electronics, get them before you go. Many countries have high import tariffs on electronics and even otherwise cheap countries sell electronics for more than the USA or Canada (prices on electronics seem comparable in much of Europe, though I do not have the knowledge to make such a statement). If you want a computer, buy it before you go. If you want a camera, I recommend the same.

2. Particulars — If you are an Australian with an taste for Vegemite, be warned that Australia is the only place in the world you can get it. If you have particular tastes, then you may want to prepare for them in advance.

We wanted to use a type of baby food grinder that was hand cranked. We bought one before leaving the USA as we felt that this was a particular sort of purchase — I do not have a recollection of seeing many hand crank baby food grinders in my travels.

3. Good Boots —
I have found well made boots difficult to come by in most countries. Quality boot making is a trade that is fast falling off the face of the world. The USA still has Redwing, my saving grace. I have been wearing a pair of Redwing made Carhartt boots for around four years now without any problems. A good pair of boots is a two time per decade purchase, and one that I found better making outside of a developing country.

There are places where you can get good, hand made, old style boots, but they are far and few between, and difficult to find. The shoe store brand of boots in most countries are of very low quality. Good boots are something to pack.

What I just packed

This is a list of what I carry with me, including the clothes on my back. Apart from the Blackberry and computer, none of it was purchased any time recently. This does not include baby supplies.

Clothing

  • Two t-shirts
  • One long sleeve shirt
  • Two pairs of jeans
  • One pair of  boots
  • One rain jacket
  • A handful of socks and underwear
  • A hat
  • A pair of sunglasses
  • A pair of shower slippers

Electronics

  • An Asus Eee PC laptop computer
  • A Blackberry
  • An Olympus Stylus digital camera
  • A digital voice recorder
  • A small mp3 player
  • A flash drive
  • An external hard drive
  • Assorted cords and cables

Carrying arrangement

A Kelty Redwing 2650 backpack on my back and a North Face water resistent messenger bag on my front. The Kelty bag is small but it is no larger than what I need. I carry my clothes in it. I actually have a lot of spare room inside of it to carry the random “thing” I pick up while traveling (or in my particular instance, baby supplies — more on this later). The messenger bag is for the electronic equipment. I keep it under 3/4 capacity, as it becomes unweildy if it is too full — it needs to be able to bend around my body to be carried properly.

I once read a treatise on travel packing that went a little like this:

Put everything you think you will need to go traveling in a pile. Cut the pile down in half — discarding one half and putting the remaining half in your backpack. Walk around with the pack on for two hours. If it feels good and comfortable, empty it all out and discard half of its contents. Now you are ready to go traveling.

This is true. You don’t need anything on the road besides what you NEED.

I have found that what I need is usually far slimmer than what I think I need.

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This is a Vagabond Journey travel tip on pre-travel packing. If you can use any of this information, then I have filled my responsibility as a traveler and passed the word along. If you think this is rubbish, then tell why in the comments below.

Filed under: Travel Gear, Travel Preparation, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3425 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

12 comments… add one

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  • Francoise February 5, 2010, 5:11 pm

    Great article Wade; totally agree: shampoo is highly over rated.

    I started using bar soap on my hair last Summer and on top of being more convenient, is much more gentle on my scalp than any of the shampoos I’ve ever used which include expensive, natural ones from the health food store. I have long, very thick curly hair which washed fine with the bar soap.

    Can’t wait to read more articles on travels with Chaya & baby Petra.

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  • craig | travelvice.com February 5, 2010, 5:39 pm

    How’d the packing go for the little addition? All settled in there in the DR? Pick up a longterm place alongside Andy?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 5, 2010, 7:31 pm

      Hello Craig,

      The packing for Petra needs its own entry haha.

      We are all settled in Sosua, and we just finished up talking with Andy for the night. Petra can only take so much talk about websites before she says “enough!” (or, in her tongue “arrrrrr! take me the f’ck home!”

      We picked up an apartment and now are trying to come up with a food strategy that is not “eat nothing all day.”

      This place is expensive.

      Maybe we will meet in Peru????

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  • craig | travelvice.com February 5, 2010, 11:01 pm

    We’ll very likely be there from May until sometime in 2011

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  • Emery February 6, 2010, 11:41 am

    I assume that “assorted cords and cables” includes some sort of adapters for electrical outlets. What does one need in that respect?

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  • Chaya February 6, 2010, 8:01 pm

    I’d add sunscreen to your list of what is too expensive to get abroad.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 9, 2010, 11:18 pm

      Also a bottle of multivitamins would be good to buy before traveling.

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  • david February 8, 2010, 1:16 am

    Toothbrush/paste?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 8, 2010, 1:59 pm

      Who has teeth anyway?

      Yeah, I forgot to add that I carry a toothbrush.

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  • Becca January 11, 2011, 7:28 pm

    FYI from a dental hygienist that loves to travel…Tooth paste does not clean your teeth, the action of your toothbrush and floss are what clean your teeth. Toothpaste is only mint flavoring, a foaming agent and a bit of fluoride. It does not remove plaque from your teeth. Your toothbrush should have ‘soft’ bristles that are straight and not curved and worn out. Floss…well, just do it. Any kind will do, but hug it against the tooth and slide it up and down between the tooth and gum to get the plaque off the sides of the tooth that your tooth brush cant reach. Happy Trails!

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