20 kilos and the kitchen sink
Greetings! This is the first post in response to the many questions about the details of our trip--questions such as what we packed, how we budgeted, how we plan, and other travel tips. Every trip is different, as is every traveler, so our advice and experiences might not help in every situation. And were going to try to stick to bits that might be less commonly known.
On the whole, we wound up packing quite accurately for our trip. There was very little we brought that we didn't use, or that we wished we had packed. That being said, there are a few small changes I would make if I were to do it over again.
Gina's pack was 70 liters and mine was 85. Mine was perhaps a bit large in that it always came dangerously close to the airline weight limits, but it managed to get through okay. Gina's was an REI Osprey with a removable day back that detaches from the back, which was very handy in Peru. When we did the four day trek to Machu Picchu, we just used day packs and stored our bigger packs at the hostel. First I was using a North Face borrowed from a friend, but bought a new one in Australia. The North Face was quite heavy empty, and a bit unwieldy, but it held up like a champ. The new pack had wheels, and the backpack straps zippered out of the back whenever you needed to actually carry it on your back. I had debated about getting this style before we left and I should have just bought one from the get-go. My new one also had a removable day pack that zipped off the front, and while Gina's pack was more attractive, you just can't beat having wheels. But overall Gina loved her REI pack and recommends them. It held up really well through 27 flights worth of airline abuse, and anyways it has a lifetime guarantee.
One of my tried and true bits of travel advice is to not bring a carry-on when you start out. I always use a sturdy shoulder bag as a purse when I travel (cross-body is always a good idea both for hands-free convenience and to help deter theft) and so I just use this as my "personal item" on the flight out. Almost all airlines allow one carry-on and one personal item such as a purse or laptop. Then I have a foldable bag in my luggage, so that when I inevitably acquire something, any luggage overflow can be accommodated by this later carry-on. The same advice goes for expandable luggage. Don't expand before you leave, then you will have some wiggle room for your return. The foldable bag I had on this trip held up fantastically well, as was well worth the slightly high price. It was a backpack that folded up into a ball smaller than my first, and, to but it bluntly, that bag saw some shit. It got dragged through the Andes, stuffed into many overhead bins and under bus seats; it saw rain and snow and never tore and barely stained. It's a Sea to Summit and I definitely recommend them.
I've been through so many shoulder bags when traveling, so selecting one is a big deal. It's my one purse for the whole trip so it has to be multifunctional. This time I went with a Thirty One bag (the Retro Metro) and I was more than satisfied. I wish they had more colors and less goofy patterns, as I am just not a pattern person and thus selected a rather boring medium gray, but the gray also helped mask how much shit that bag went through. And interior zip pocket is a must, to help deter pickpockets (we are not moneybelt people, I find they make people into an obvious target as they reach up into their clothes for their cash), and the strap must be reinforced. What looks like a strong enough bag at JCPenny never turns out to be strong enough. And the opening must either zip or Velcro or, in this case, fold over to also help deter theft. If your bag looks like someone could just dip a hand inside, chances are, they will.
Packing cubes are totally worth it, especially if you're going to be on the move. We both had a set and it was so much faster to pack and unpack and get to the items you need when things are compartmentalized into little sections. Gina had almost all of her clothes in various packing cubes (hint: they're usually not actually cube shaped), while I had one for socks and underwear, one for miscellaneous stuff that would have otherwise floated around my pack too freely, and one small one for all of my cords and camera/electronic related stuff. So worth it.
Two locks, minimum. During travel I locked my big bag and one of the pockets on the detachable day pack (and put unimportant stuff in the other pocket). With two locks we could lock our big packs at the hostel during the day and still have a second lock to use on important items like electronics that we stored in the lockers. If there were no lockers then we did our best to lock everything to itself and make things difficult.
Everyone knows to layer when packing light. It is one of the most often used pieces of travel advice I see. But here's a nuance that I hadn't considered before packing: I should have brought more over layers and less under layers.
When I think of layers I think of long sleeved shirts under short sleeved shirts, or Under Armor long underwear. There were two things slightly annoying about having gone that route. Firstly, you always look like you're going hiking. This is fine if you are in fact going hiking, (or tending garlic fields or climbing into a helicopter). But for general sightseeing or visiting with family and new friends I longed for something less, well, outdoorsy. And secondly, when you're out and about it's harder to remove a long-sleeved tshirt from under a tshirt than it is to simply remove a cardigan. And when dressing in layers if I was peeling off a layer I almost always wanted to ditch the long sleeved one and go down to a tshirt. So. If you are packing in layers, consider at least some light cardigans or zip up sweaters in your travel wardrobe.
Our Under Armour was indispensable. I had the black yoga pants (hello, 14 hour flights) and long underwear (top and bottoms) and Gina had long sleeved tees and running tights. The prices are reasonable when you realize the quality. And anything quick-dry is never amiss. We didn't often have access to dryers and when we did we were usually too cheap to use them.
Smartwool socks. Holy hell did we need wool socks most of the time. And the Smart Wool ones are easy to care for, don't smell like wool sometimes does and are thin enough to fit into any shoes. I wish I had brought exclusively Smart Wool.
Hiking pants. Useful not just for hiking but also for our various volunteer projects. I don't like the zip-off kind that turn into shorts but I did buy the ones that roll up and button into capris and this came in handy in Thailand. Eddie Bauer pants didn't hold a candle to Columbia in terms of wear and care. The Columbia ones went through more shit and look like I just bought them, the Eddie Bauer ones started to pill on the first day and took days to dry.
Quality rain jacket, preferably one that folds down as small as possible yet is stylish enough that you won't feel self conscious in a modern city or eclectic crowd. Read reviews! Waterproof labels don't always mean it actually holds up to real rain, and water resistant never does. If your trip necessitates a rain jacket, then water resistant just won't cut it. And what's the point in packing it if it's not going to do its job? I find the best rain jackets at hunting/camping stores. Big pockets are a plus, for your wallet or camera or whatever. A hood is necessary.
If you're staying anywhere on the cheap end, flip flops are worth it. You will need them for the showers, trust us. And they can double as beach wear if need be.
Gina brought hiking shoes, I brought hiking boots with a rather low ankle. Both were Merrells, and we were hugely satisfied. Mine looked brand new until elephant bath time in the river, and if I wash them in Oxyclean I'm sure they'll look new again. We made our choices so that they were good for hiking but could also be worn around town without looking too out of place. A professional fitting is super worth it (thanks Bivouac in Ann Arbor!).
Sturdy but cute was what we aimed for pretty much all around. The brands that really came through were Banana Republic tshirts, Victoria's Secret Pink brand underwear, North Face fleece, Under Armour everything, Marmot rain jacket, Toms shoes, Merrell footwear, and Columbia pants. We had some clothing items that performed in a so-so manner, but the let downs were Calvin Klein tshirts, REI coat (not water proof), Guide Series rain jacket (says it was waterproof, it wasn't), and Eddie Bauer shirts and pants (wore down really quickly).
We both brought simpler stuff that could all be mixed and matched, with no big logos or anything that would single us out as American. You can never been too careful, and we were traveling to observe other cultures, not to try and show off. Jewelry was next to nothing (we always wound up buying cute stuff along the way anyways) and shoes have to be sensible or you're screwed. I only had three pairs: hiking boots, Toms, and flip flops. The only time this was an issue was when trying to dress for the Sydney Opera House. Consider bringing a scarf to be a bit better dressed when you want to be and yet still utilize your simpler layers underneath. Plus if you bring a scarf that is stylish yet warm, it's multipurpose.
Know what kinds of activities you will be doing and pack accordingly. I know you probably want to be cute but when space is limited things really need to earn a spot in your luggage. Gina brought a dress that she wound up ditching because she just didn't have enough occasions to wear it to justify carrying it around.
K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid. Especially in you're going on a long, multi-destination trip like ours, you're not going to need much makeup or fancy stuff. Embrace your natural face, and get used to being greasy haired now and then. It's not the end of the world. I had a wide headband scarf thing that helped with this in our dirtier situations. I didn't even really use the travel bottle of dry shampoo I had. Gina swears by Bare Essentials makeup for all situations. And prepare for breakouts because your body, no matter how old, will be going through some hard times and it might show up on your face when you're least prepared. It's just not worth trying to bring hair styling tools. Hair dryers shouldn't run through a converter and most heat tools shouldn't. If I stay in one place a long time I just buy tools there so I don't have to worry about outlets and currencies.
We shared most of our toiletries and many of our miscellaneous items to save space (why two toothpastes or two shampoos?). The only thing I hoarded was shark week supplies before we left for Asia, because I didn't know what to expect at the stores and that's just not an area I felt like experimenting with at this juncture. So I bought enough tampons in New Zealand to get me through Asia and onto Europe. It was worth it.
Bring bandaids. It sounds so summer camp but I always need them and I also wind up giving some away to other travelers who weren't prepared. Also bring whatever medications you might need according to where you are traveling. We weren't sure if we were going to India, but we brought anti-malarials just in case. We brought anti-diarrhea meds that were over the counter as well as prescription, as well as Advil and antibiotic cream. Adam gave us Paw Paw ointment which was lovely for cuts, burns, bites, and pretty much everything you can think of. If you see some for sale, get it. It's in a red tube. Bottom line with regards to medications: be prepared. You don't want to waste time and possible agony trying to get some in a foreign country when you probably won't even feel like getting out of bed. I hope you won't need them but if you do, you're better off having some on hand.
I was able to use one Thai salt crystal deodorant the whole trip and it isn't even all gone yet. Salt crystal is a natural deodorant and it was very small in my toiletry bag. Plus when I packed it in my carry-on for flights it didn't count as a liquid or gel.
Speaking of which, a toiletry bag deserves careful consideration. I always get one that hangs, won't leak if there is spillage, and has clear pockets so I can see my shit. Mine doesn't have a brand written on it but I've had it for like ten years now and it's doing just fine. I've had some in the last where they tear or zippers break, so many bags out there are crap. And one of the money-saving rules is not having to buy things twice, even if you pay a bit more for quality (hello, clothing section above).
We brought a small thing of powdered laundry detergent but didn't wind up using it much. The hostels that had laundry facilities always had some available.
Towels! This won't apply to you hotel folks, but for anyone roughing it or staying in hostels, your own towel is a must. Since those are bulky and unexciting, we wholly recommend a quick-dry travel towel. That being said, don't get a travel size! Most come in several sizes, and you're probably going to want one that can at least wrap around you, or be good for laying out on at the beach. Multi-functional, remember? Check ratings if you can. Gina bought a towel at the last minute and it wound up being a bigger thorn in her side than one would think, since it was small and wasn't truly quick-dry, yet I was a happy camper with my larger, faster drying towel that she had given me for Christmas.
Again, know your trip ahead of time. Most situations will call for sunscreen, but many won't need bug spray. Maybe your trip is beach heavy and you might need two towels, or you might need more meds than usual.
One of the best pieces of packing advice we received was from Gina's friend and former landlady Taylor. She recommended that we being a compact portable harddrive with some of our favorite movies on it. Strange, right? But sometimes you get homesick, or are in such foreign surroundings all day that you just need a bit of solitude and familiarity at the end of the day, and your favorite movies are a great way to that. Plus, in our case, we had many insanely long bus rides and layovers to burn through. So thanks, Taylor, that was unusual packing advice that was quite lovely. Incidentally, if you're using one with an Apple device make sure they are compatible. We had to get a wireless harddrive and install the app for it on my iPad.
Gina bought a nice camera for the trip, but she mostly had her iPhone for pictures. I tend to take more pictures and I just had my pocket camera. In retrospect, my iPhone takes better pictures so I wish I had just cleared it and brought it, even though I wouldn't have been able to use it as a phone internationally. It would have been simpler to take pictures with and share them to my iPad, and it would have been useful to have in wifi situations. As it was I was glad I at least had a spare battery for my camera so I didn't have to worry too much about he one running out during the day. But if I only had my iPhone then I wouldn't have needed the multi-region travel adaptor, which is the size of a large potato and didn't even work in Australia and New Zealand for some reason. I would have then only needed my Apple travel cord which has removeable heads on it that change the prongs according to your region. It converts too so you don't need to worry about hooking it up to a converter (for any travel rookies out there, adapters and converters are not the same and you will need to make sure both of these bases are covered or the fires of hell will quite literally reign down on you).
I bought my iPad before a previous extensive trip through Eastern Europe, and it was so worth it, then and now. I realize a lot of these recommendations are electronic, but these days it just seems necessary. We used Gina's phone a lot for maps (as well as photos), and the portable harddrive had my bank of photos during the trip as well as music Jane and Adam gave us and the movies we started with. And Gina had an iPad mini and I had a regular iPad and they are indispensable for a long trip. We used them as e-readers, for maps, blogging, games, Skype, photo storage, messaging and emailing home, etc. I wish I had ponied up the dough for the 64G though, because transferring my back log of photos to the harddrive all the time was a bitch.
We also had a portable battery (Anker brand, it worked quite nicely) which was also nice for those long bus rides, layovers, etc. completely worth it.
Scissors. This is one regular piece of Chloe travel advice. I always pack scissors (just small cosmetic scissors but they are bigger than nail scissors) and I always, always use them. And people always need to borrow them. Because you just never know.
A plastic grocery bag. I know! But we always use them for something random. Wet clothes, dirty shoes, smelly stuff, stuff that might leak... At one point we were hoarding them. But this is probably only for those of you roughing it or going through hostels.
A tide pen. Because you don't know when your next wash opportunity is going to be.
A reusable water bottle. These were more handy in countries with safe drinking water but still worth the space in our packs. We carry them empty through airport security and fill them up before we board, and usually carried them during sightseeing days as well as hiking or other outspdoorsy days. Budgeting means not spending money on drinks unless you have to.
A blank book. I always grab a blank journal before a big trip, and it's always indispensable. I write down directions and phone numbers as I need them, addresses of new friends, blogging ideas, new artists and music names, recipes, basically anything I don't want to forget. I don't carry my iPad around during the day so I copy all necessary information into the book. By the time the trip is over its all ratty and stuffed full of ticket stubs and dried flowers and it's wonderful. A cover pocket is a nice detail.
So those were our thoughts and opinions on packing, there will be another post on travel planning and general tips. If any of you have any ideas you think we'd like, please share them! We're always refining our game.
So after all of that, here is what I packed in one 85L bag for 6.5 months, four continents, and all climates and activity types:
- three tshirts, one tank top, one sweater (ditched), two long sleeved tops, three 3/4 sleeve tops and a set of long underwear
- two pairs of hiking pants, one pair of yoga pants, one pair of plain cotton sleep pants, one cotton skirt and two pairs of jeans (one pair of hiking pants would have been fine)
- ten pairs of socks and ten pairs of underwear, one sports bra and two regular bras (should have been two sports and one regular)
- one waterproof light jacket, one rain jacket with hood, one thick fleece (I layered my outerwear rather than packing a coat)
- one scarf, one swimsuit, one belt, one pair of gloves, a handkerchief and a wrap headband
- one pair each of flip flops, hiking boots, and Toms shoes
- electronics as listed above, plus requisite chargers and a wireless keyboard
- foldable backpack, reusable water bottle, Lifestraw (didn't need) multi-vitamins, laundry detergent
- meds as described above and toiletry bag. Unpersonal toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, contact solution, etc I split with Gina
- blank book, copies of both of our passports and requisite visas
If it's a trip where I will be hauling my stuff around a lot, I pack in advance so I can test the weight. It all adds up fast in terms of weight and space. I advise that you don't pack anything you're very attached to in case something happens to it or you need to ditch it. Plus you'll most likely find cool stuff on your travels and you'll want room for that!