by Sabrina Andrea Sachs
So, you are finally ready to set off, embark on that train/plane/bus/boat/bicycle or feet that will take you away for a year or more and you are facing the tricky question of
“What the heck shall I pack?”
Packing for a weekend away or a short holiday can be difficult; packing for a year of wanderlust can be daunting and scary, especially if it’s your first time. For some stupid reasons, I personally left it until the very last minute despite being well aware of the importance and urgency of it all. Unfortunately, I lost myself in the online jungle of recommendations of other travel bloggers and let’s be honest, there is lots of crap out there. So four months ago I got on my plane to Istanbul unsure I had all the things I needed for the following 12 months and quite sure I had missed something.
The truth is that I hadn’t forgotten anything, in fact I had (many) more things than I needed and that I soon left behind. Like many beginners, I fell in the most common trap of reading detailed packing lists of other travel bloggers and ended up “over-packing” with stuff that had no use for me.
So, if you are about to hit the road for the first time and you have no idea of what to take with you, here is my personal, heartfelt advice after 4 months on the road.
Rule number one: underpack. Easy-peasy
Remember that while travelling, you’ll be constantly packing, unpacking, packing again, checking that you’ve got everything, screaming if your stuff doesn’t fit or having huge fights with your backpack zip which will refuse to collaborate with you on a daily basis. What to do then?
Yeah, you got it right, I told you: Underpack. What I want you to do (and wished I had done so in September too!) is leave your home with almost a third of your bag empty in order to keep that spare space that you’ll need (and deeply love) while on the go. In order to do so, there are a few things I want you to keep in mind ahead of the actual packing process:
You can buy most of the things on the road, yes, even in some of the most remote area you will find shampoo, chocolate and underwear; depending on where you are going some of the things you will need will cost a fraction of what you would pay them at home;
When you are on the road, you will need less things than in your normal life and I will explain why below;
There isn’t really any difference between packing for 6 weeks or 6 months, because you’ll just do laundry about every week or more, so just think you are going away for a short time and don’t stress too much!
Your home away from home
Now that you are about to leave the comfort of your house, your backpack will become your home. Exactly like a snail, your chosen backpack will be your shell and exactly like that you will have to carry it on your back on buses, trains, planes and on foot many, many times during your travels, so my advice is to keep it minimal. The optimal weight should be around 8-10kg, less if you can, or maximum 12kg if you must.
Leave your suitcase at home. Yes, even if you are planning to stay in 5 star hotels and resorts leave your trolley home. I could tell you about one of my stays in a 5 star secluded resort where in fact I had to reach the harbor by walking on semi-submerged boulders, cross a river on a very tiny long-tiled boat and ultimately climb a very narrow and steep staircase where my car was waiting for me. Now, I easily managed to do all of it, but people who where carrying large or medium suitcases really struggled and had to ask for help as well as pay extra for their large bags. Even if you are over the age of the usual backpackers (what is that, anyway?), think again and buy one for yourself. Even if you aren’t planning to “backpack” in the conventional sense of the word, ditch the suitcase and trade them in for a good, sturdy, waterproof backpack.
So, this is my packing list and the items that I have with me right now. Bear in mind that after the first month on the road I sent a package home with things I no longer needed or wanted to keep and I also donated some other items that were no longer necessary to me. This is my current backpack and possibly the one I will keep for the next 6-12 months.
These are like the MOST important items, without them you can stay home and forget about your trip. Don’t only pack them, but throughout your trip always hold on to them like they were the most precious items you ever own (which in fact they are when you are travelling).
This is as essential as the section above, especially if you have some permanent conditions. It’s a great idea to also have a mini medical-kit with you at all times especially in some third-world countries or where some diseases are more frequent and common. Your medical kit should include some of the below, but obviously only you know what are you weak areas and what you should bring with you. I currently have with me:Medical Kit
Right, ladies (and gentlemen!), this is the moment where I’m telling you to forget your fashionable habits at home and think smart. I’m not telling you to look like a lost soul or a homeless, but to smarten up your wardrobe and matching skills. You must leave home most of your clothes and start thinking in multiple outfits, if you are not doing that already. On the road, life will be easier (less choice=less drama), but the crucial moment is when you pick the things that are going to come with you for the next year or so. Below is my current selection and the things I have with me right now. Sometimes I struggle, most of the time I’m extremely happy that I don’t have to waste time choosing what to wear, only one time (at the Opera) I felt I was underdressed, but I was excused as I had very little notice.Clothes
Fashion tip #1:
Try to pack only clothes that match together or that have a similar tonality. Ideally, select dark or neutral colors (especially for your bottoms).
Learn to dress in layers, depending on the temperature, you will need to learn how to dress adding or removing layers. Of course, if you are traveling to Iceland or to the Himalayas you might want to bring that bulky, fat, super warm jacket, but unless you are going there, then the layers’ strategy will work for most places around the world.
Fashion Tip #2
Roll your clothing – yes, folding won’t work for a backpack, it’s much better if you roll your items very tightly so to minimize the air and to avoid wrinkles
Obviously, it all depends on your destination(s). I can tell you to bring your flip flops/thongs, but I believe you will make little use of them if you are going to climb Mount Everest or cycle through Africa, right?
So, considering I’ve been doing some adventures as well as some beach time and city exploration, this is my current mix and I love it.
Nothing. Yes, leave at home everything. EVERYWHERE in the world you can buy these things and you do not need to carry them all the way from your home country even more because you will end up taking too much. Well, take with you a travel toothbrush and small-sized toothpaste, that’s all you need for the flight or in case your bag get lost. So, once you are at your first destination, head to a supermarket and buy the followings:
Electronics, Photo Gear and Gadgets
If you, like me are working while travelling, you will need some of the below. If you instead have decided to take a total break from the digital world, you can skip this section completely and jump to the next one.
Remember to back up and get insurance all the items you particularly care about:
Of course, there are some other things we can´t just forget.
Digital packing list & Apps
I’m not going to tell you that you are not a real explorer if you bring your smartphone with you, like so many travel-gurus on the net. I’m telling you bring your phone but use it only when truly necessary or when there is nothing better to do (which won’t happen often while travelling). There is no point in avoiding technology when it can be so helpful to us, so bring your phone, get a local SIM card and make your life easier. Yeah, you will still be considered a cool traveler!
Notify your bank of your travels, mine has a section on my online banking where I can compile a detailed itinerary, some others might require you to call up or to send an email. Check some time before your departure. There is nothing worse than being locked out your card at thousands of miles away from your home with no cash at all (yup, I’m talking from personal experience here!)Things to do before you go (VERY IMPORTANT STUFF!)
- Make sure to do some research for your back-up card(s) and make the right choice. Most cards will charge you for withdrawal and payment in foreign currency, see which one offers the best deal in your home country
- Set your google drive as your go-to back-up: Create a folder of digital copies of documents, credit cards, tickets, travel insurance, contact details and everything else you might need. If you lose everything, you will have a safe copy in the cloud.
Some people suggest to keep physical copies of your credit cards, I say don’t! Have them online or emailed to yourself or to someone you trust, but don’t carry physical copies with you. It’s very easy to make payment with the copies and you might be lose all your money in no time.
- Unlock your phone: some new generation phones are locked by the carrier, so make sure to unlock it before you go. The process can be dreadful and long (especially if you bought a Vodafone device at Carphonewarehouse in the UK, my gosh! Never again!), so start calling the customer service far in advance. If you have an unlocked phone you can pick a local SIM card wherever you are and use data as you were at home. Do not use data-roaming, unless is a life-threatening emergency!
Ready, steady, Go?!?
No, not yet. Before you leave, pack and unpack your bag in the comfort of your home. Do it in different moment of the week and maybe make a sketch of how you placed your items. Put the bags on and walk around your house for 20 minutes or more. If you are ok, you are ready to go. If you are suffering, sweating or crying then go back and re-pack again.
You will soon realise that items will fit better in one or the other position and it’s better you save yourself time at home in the preparatory phase rather than getting frustrated with these experiments while you are away (yup, another personal testimony here!!!). If you have a weekend away before your big trip, take the opportunity to test the bag and your packing skills too.
About the Author: Italian by birth, Londoner by choice, Sabrina Andrea Sachs, left her successful corporate career to pursue her passions. She is now a freelance travel, food and lifestyle photographer and writer and her work has been published by international magazines.