Packing Advice from "The Girl with the Ginormous Backpack"

On my first long-term trip abroad, I was heading to South America for an indefinite period of time. Before the end of my first day at the hostel in Lima, I had already garnered the nickname “The Girl with the Ginormous Backpack”. It towered over me, and weighed in at 65 pounds. It was cumbersome, to say the least. I ended up giving away items of clothing along the way, sending some things home, and vowed never again to create such suffering for myself.

Fast forward seven years later, and one of the things I get asked is, “What do you pack when you travel?” For my last trip before this move, I spent a few weeks in the Philippines with only 18 pounds of gear. That is one of my proudest moments! I successfully packed for this move abroad with less than 50 pounds of total baggage, 40 of which is carried in my backpack and consists mainly of clothing, shoes and toiletries. However, this is much more than I typically take abroad for two reasons: 1) I’m moving permanently, and 2) there is a wider range of temperatures here, so I needed a variety of clothing items. Except, I’m already kicking myself. My pack is way too heavy to travel comfortably between taxis, buses, and more taxis to each of my destinations. I could have been just fine with ten pounds less clothing and toiletries, because they sell EVERYTHING YOU COULD EVER NEED here, in Guatemala City. Granted, in smaller cities and towns, options will be limited or not available. Here in the city though, its hard to go a few blocks without hitting a pharmacy, super market, clothing store, shoe store, shopping mall, and of course you’ll find quite a few Walmarts here. My point being, if you pack light and suddenly need something you left at home, you can get it here. I’ve found this to be true with the majority of places I’ve visited.

My rules of packing have changed dramatically over the years. Now, I lay everything I’m thinking of packing out on my bed, then remove almost half of the items and return them to my closet. If I’m choosing between two pairs of jeans, I pick the one that will be more comfortable, stretch out less, or fold up smaller. I choose lightweight, versatile and casual dresses instead of heavy denim shorts and t-shirts. I pick things that can pack up tightly and won’t be wrinkled when I take it out to wear. I will choose items that can be mixed and matched with each other instead of packing specific, planned “outfits”. Quick drying fabrics also take priority. Lastly, I realize that 90% of the things I may want to bring can be purchased where I’m going. Pack as light as possible.

"The Girl with the Ginormous Backpack" in Ecuador 2010

One pair of jeans and one heavier sweatshirt will be fine to get you through those brisk evenings. Ladies - you don’t need those fancy heels. Fashion can wait, because breaking an ankle on cobblestoned streets is much easier than you think. You don’t need to bring an entire first aid kit with you. Travel sized toiletries can go a long way if you’re more aware of the amount of shampoo you’re pouring into your hand.

My packing list will vary slightly depending on the circumstances of my trip, and the type of travel I’m doing, but the essentials I ALWAYS pack are:

A reusable water bottle - In most countries where drinking tap water is not advisable, the majority of hotels and guesthouses will provide filtered water to their guests. You’ll save a lot of money and minimize your impact on the environment by refilling your water bottle as opposed to buying bottled water.

Comfortable shoes to walk in - I find myself walking much more while traveling than I ever do at home. Its a great way to see the sights, and sometimes its the only option. Many tours include walking, but some voluntary excursions may even include hiking or volcano climbing. The right footwear can go a long way in terms of avoiding pain, injury, and a sprained ankle! Sidewalks in lesser developed countries tend to be uneven, and stubbed toes can be avoided with the right shoes.

Prescription medications that I may be taking - Each country has its own rules and regulations about getting prescription medications. For instance, here in Guatemala you can get a lot of medications just by speaking to a pharmacist, as opposed to making a doctor appointment at home. However, it can be a long and confusing process in some places, especially if there is a language barrier, as drug names change when you cross borders. Its best to take a few days’ extra medication with you, in case of travel delays getting home, and never pack it in checked luggage.

My smartphone - The compact camera is out, and the smartphone has replaced it for most photographing that I’ve seen. Granted, its not a substitute for a high-end, professional camera, but for short trips abroad, its a great alternative to lugging around an extra, heavy and expensive piece of equipment. Also, free wifi is widely available outside of the United States, and is a great way to keep in touch through third-party apps, if you don’t have international data included in your cell phone plan. WhatsApp is the most widely used app I’ve found, and provides free messaging and calling through wifi. Skype is still a great substitute for calling landlines, or contacting people who do not use WhatsApp. iMessage through iPhones can be used for free over wifi, as can FaceTime. Both T-Mobile and Sprint offer free international texting and data in over 100 countries if you would like to use your phone regularly while abroad, but check with your provider for rates. My best piece of advice would be to turn your phone on airplane mode, and only use wifi when its available to avoid exorbitant roaming fees.

More than one method to access cash - Its happened to me while at home and abroad. I use an ATM to withdraw cash, or use a credit card in a small shop or restaurant, and a few hours later, I’m getting a call from my bank stating that there is some fraudulent activity happening on the other side of the world. This results in my card being cancelled while they reissue me a new one. Card skimming is the most popular method of stealing your bank or credit card information, but there are a myriad of ways that crooks can get your card number, so its always important to have a back up plan.

I have two debit accounts, and when I get in country, I will use only one to withdraw money. If for some reason that card becomes compromised, I have a back-up plan. I also opened a checking account through a bank that reimburses me for ATM fees, which can add up fast when using out-of-network ATMs. Charles Schwab will pay me back all ATM fees that I’m charged each month, with no maximum, which allows me to withdraw only as much cash as I need for the short term. I leave my other debit card locked in my hotel room, so as to avoid the chances of both getting lost or stolen at the same time. I generally avoid using credit cards unless I’m booking something online or paying at a reputable tourist agency.

Many companies abroad are permitted to charge up to 10% extra when taking a credit card for payment, which covers the charge that the credit card company imposes on them for the service of accepting payment. Most credit cards, in competition with each other, have dropped their foreign currency transaction fee, but its also best to check with your credit card company before traveling to avoid unwanted charges that can tack on as much as 6% to your purchases made in a foreign currency.

A photocopy of my passport - Always make a photocopy of your passport. Leave one at home with a trusted friend or family member, keep one with you, and keep your actual passport locked up in your hotel room while traveling. Another state-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license, will be acceptable in most circumstances while out and about. If your passport is lost or stolen, having a photocopy will help to expedite your local embassy into reissuing you a new one.

Sunblock - A native New Yorker, most places I visit are closer to the equator than my hometown. Sunblock can be a bit more expensive in other countries, and its not something you want to skip, even on an overcast day, if you’re closer to the equator than you’re used to. A severe sunburn can happen in a very short period of time, and can ruin days of your trip. Better to be safe than sorry, folks!

The easiest way to remember to pack lightly is to always consider that you may be the one who has to carry that baggage!