Packing for a long-term trip is different than a other trips. On a vacation, it’s usually short enough that you can think through what you will need. Go skiing? heavy clothes. Going to the beach or a cruise? Beachwear. But, on a long-term trip, you could be shifting seasons over time. In Ecuador, you could be in the Galapagos one week (beachwear) then head to the Amazon jungle (cover up) and then go hiking on snow-capped volcanoes (layers).
Then, there’s all that constant moving around: town to town, bus to bus, the occasional plane-ride. So it all has to move easily and safely in a durable bag. You want to travel with electronics? Yeah, gotta figure out how to get that stuff around safely and securely without it getting pinched. And, the list goes on and on.
My biggest theme is to keep it all simple. Here’s why.
- You can buy clothing on the road. No need to plan for every possible scenario. Pack for what you need 80-90% of the time.
- Except for maybe a dream expedition, you don’t need extraneous gear. And, you might even be able to rent some of what you need when you need it.
- You will develop a rhythm while traveling and you’ll learn quickly what you want to keep carrying and what gets left behind.
Top Tips for Packing for a Career Break
- Get a side-loading backpack. It seems like most backpacks made now are side-loading. So, if your buddy wants to give you his backpack from a few years ago, kindly say no. Yes, taking that backpack will save you at least $200. But, the hassle on the road will have you wishing you had just sucked it up and bought your own.
- If it doesn’t go in the backpack, it doesn’t go with you. When I started traveling, I left home with too much stuff. It all fit, but it was heavy. And, then somehow, I started picking up stuff that I truly needed that I didn’t have. I went right into winter in Argentina and Chile. And, I didn’t have the right jacket or socks, for starters. All of a sudden, I was faced with a choice of what to leave behind. It was at that moment, I knew my packing had to become utilitarian or I’d never survive on the road. That started a long tradition of leaving things behind along the way as my needs changed.
- My list of must-have items. Everyone has their list, here are my top favorites.
- iPod. Gotta have music for those long bus and plane rides.
- Microfiber towel. A lot of small budget hotels offer towel services. But, most hostels do not. These microfiber towels dry quickly so you can shower before you go and not have to pack anything wet when you leave for your next stop.
- Small medicine kit. Shockingly, there are pharmacies around the world. <I’ll wait until you get over your shock.> So, all you really need are just the basics
- Hygiene products. All that traveling around can mean long stretches without the ability to clean up. In some cases, that’s part of the fun like a long hike or bike ride. So, I always try to keep these things on me: hand sanitizer, moist facial tissue and maybe even a roll of toilet paper.
- Ziploc bags. There is nothing worse than arriving somewhere to find a bottle with liquid or cream has opened up and soiled everything. One time in Holland, I opened my bag late in the evening. I had the first flight out in the morning, and a little messy surprise awaited my cleaning. Not a fun night! So, keep some ziplocs with you to keep the wet stuff wet, the dry stuff dry and keep your little tchotchkes that can be lost easily well organized.
- Use the bag wrapping services at the airport. I love bag wrapping services. And, if you travel with a backpack you should use them too. Backpacks are so easy to get into, rifle through and close up without anyone noticing. By having a wrap around your bag, you make it more difficult for them to get into it and impossible to notice that they did. Remember, thieves are lazy! Also, airport baggage handling systems are rough on luggage. So the plastic is just thick enough to keep the skid marks off your bags. Finally, if your bag has to pass through rain outside, your your backpack will stay dry inside.
- Check with your tour operator like Gap Adventures for their packing list. Depending on the kind of tour you take, you made need some special gear. For example, if you go to Antarctica, that slightly heavier jacket you have isn’t going to cut it. So, check and see if you need anything for that trip. There might also be some good second-hand stores or the possibility of renting the extra gear for your trip.
Now, my B-Side Packing Tips for Career Break Travel
- Carry on anything you can’t possibly live without or has value. I used to think this one was obvious. Then I traveled with a good friend of mine for a couple of weeks during my career break. I was shocked at what she put in her checked luggage: important papers and even cash. I almost exploded when I saw her packing up one day. That probably wasn’t the best way to communicate an important message. But, don’t trust that your bags won’t be opened or that that the security people won’t steal from you.
- Pack the same things in the same place inside your backpack. If you want to be efficient with your packing and unpacking, have a system of where things go so you know where to find them. For me it’s shoes on the bottom, pants and shorts on top of them, then shirts and jackets and underwear on top. Oh, socks go inside the shoes. My shaving kit goes in a fold-over compartment in the backpack. Things like my towels, extra books I might be carrying and other stuff I don’t access much go in the other compartments.
- Unpack everything once in a while. You’ll be surprised what you forgot you were carrying around…and maybe don’t need.
- Things inside my shaving kit. These are the things I keep 99% of the time.
- Shaving cream and razor
- Toothbrush, toothpaste and floss
- Sunscreen and a small container of skin lotion (some places are really dry)
- Hair brush
- Nail file and clippers
- Small container of hair product (comes in handy if you get an invitation to someone’s house)
- Cologne (grab a couple of samples at the department store)
- Jeans. Some travelers hate jeans. But, I like them because they are comfortable, I hate walking around a city or town in my hiking pants that zip at the knee, and if you want to go somewhere nice or to someone’s house, jeans are universally accepted worldwide
- One nice shirt. Again, if you get an invitation out, or want to go somewhere nice, it will come in handy
- Shoes: tennis shoes, flip flops and one nice pair of black shoes. If I’m going to be doing a lot of hiking, I might take hiking boots
- Shirts for layering. Your travel fashion style will be defined by layers.
- Headlamp. If you take an iPod with you, the free Flashlight application can be an acceptable substitution.
- Locks for your bags and hostel lockers.
- Buff. Good for wind and sun protection, or simply adding an extra layer.
- Duct tape. Perfect for first aid for your gear.
- Travel-size Febreze spray bottle. Hey, things get smelly on the road!
Check out the other topics covered in the Gap Adventures Career Break Video Series
- Packing Tips for a Career Break
- Money Tips for Your Career Break
- Security 101 While Traveling
- Discovering A Country Through Its Food
- How to Get Around Like a Local While Traveling
- Why Consider a Small Group Tour Operator on Your Career Break
- Cooking Class in India: Learn Something New on Your Career Break
- Solo Travel: How to Travel Alone Without Feeling Lonely
- Getting to Know Our Tour Leader in India
Disclosure: I am serving as the Gap Adventures media spokesman for career break travel. While this series is part of a broader campaign to raise awareness about career break travel, all opinions, tips and advice are mine.