Our Around-the-World Packing List

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A note about the ordering — this is the order I always pack in — tech items and incidentals, kit bag, clothes. (Also smallest bags to largest). I know many fine folks who go in the opposite direction, so feel free to start from the bottom.

We technically packed the absolute largest carry-on size allowed by international carriers, but because of liquids restrictions and my desire to have a pocket knife for food preparation, we generally checked our main bags, which allowed us the luxury of two carry-ons. So I would often pack a smaller, front-carry sling bag, to put under the seat, and stow my larger backpack in the overhead bin.

Final note — this is obviously all from a chick perspective. Men should adjust accordingly. Dan carried slightly more of the adapters and tech gear, used a packable backpack instead of a shoulder bag, carried a water purification system, and carried the extra sunscreen.

Sling Bag

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small front bag/under the seat bag

First, the bag. I LOVED my old sling, but after 10 years of consistent use and one epic trip, it absolutely disintegrated. My old one went  cross-body over my left shoulder, easily slung around to my front (when walking on a crowded street, boarding public transit, or using a squat toilet), and had an optional waist strap which helped relieve the burden of particularly heavy, liquid-filled loads when hiking. I haven’t found anything quite like it. I tried this Waterfly bag. It has some advantages over my old bag including a water-bottle holder, its price point, and that it collapses for packing. But, I found the lack of structure or a real waist strap to be deal breakers. I ran into a fellow traveler here who raved about her Patagonia Atom Sling, and I might give it a try. It lacks the drawstring for additional storage that my old bag had, and it’s waist strap is somewhat less usable. Does anyone out there have any other recommendations?

What’s in the front sling bag?

  • Hand sanitizer.
  • USB drive (for the sharing of pictures with fellow travelers).
  • A good international travel phone — I love my European-banded Nexus 5 — it has a great camera and does almost everything well. The downsides are that it is now a generation old and the European bands limit your reception in the States.
  • Sea/car-sickness bands — I am not sure if these really work or if it is just the placebo effect, but I still use them.
  • A “tree book” in case your Kindle breaks.
  • A paper-white Kindle — an absolute travel necessity — holds a book, plus a back-up book, plus 13 travel guides and you don’t need much light to read by.
  • The best inflatable neck pillow in the world.
  • Tampons and pantiliners. So, I suppose this is as good a time as any to go into this. Tampons are not widely available in all countries, so bring enough to get by, especially if you are particular about the brand. (Some travelers swear by the Diva Cup, I didn’t love it, but I encourage giving it a try. ) The pantiliner trick is something I assumed all long-term travelers knew, but I explained it to more than one person on our trip who hadn’t heard about it, so here goes — change your pantiliner every day (or even twice a day), and your underwear can last for a couple of days.
  • Band-aids — always be prepared. Be really prepared, if you, like me, have a sensitivity to latex — it can be really hard to find latex-free bandages on the road.
  • A good travel wallet. Dan LOVES his Pacsafe wallet.
  • Your passport in a very secure pocket.
  • An international SIM — in the 120+ countries where your T-mobile plan works, use it — it mostly doesn’t work in Africa, so buy local — just ask what folks are using.
  • Toilet paper — restrooms around the world do not always have toilet paper.
  • A small adapter.
  • Headphones.
  • A headphone splitter to mooch entertainment off of other travelers.
  • Chapstick.
  • A fully-charged back-up battery — we have enjoyed this one, but a smaller one would also do.
  • Water bottle.

Backpack

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backpack

The bag — just find one that works for you and fits you well. Mine is all right, but I didn’t LOVE the fit.

What’s in it?

  • A travel hat — never be caught without it.
  • A good, lightweight, effective, travel rain jacket.
  • More toilet paper.
  • Some extra plastic bags.
  • A money belt. I almost never use it as a money belt, but find it an incredibly convenient place to keep the following super important items:
    • Some of your cash, including at least a couple of hundreds of US currency in case of an emergency. Never keep all of your money in one place.
    • Some back-up credit cards — keep at least one credit and one debit card separate from the items in your travel wallet.
    • Photocopies of all of your important documents including: your passport, your birth certificate, your yellow card, the fronts and backs of your credit and debit cards, and any other photo ID you have in addition to your drivers license and your passport. A few more words about how important these back-up copies are: You will need a copy of your birth certificate to get a passport if yours is lost or stolen. We have heard of folks getting through boarders with just a photocopy of their yellow card. When Dan lost his debit card in Kenya we didn’t have power or internet, so we used the paper copy of the back of his card to report is missing and get a new one Fedexed to our hotel in Nairobi.Yes, I did use my dive card as an additional form of ID on a military base in South Korea. COPY YOUR DOCUMENTS. Scan them into Google drive (or somewhere), but keep paper copies handy too.
  • Anti-malarial pills.
  • Pepto-Bismol tablets — always be prepared.
  • Immodium — for when the pink tablets can’t cut it.
  • A pain reliever — nothing creates headaches like hours of long plane flights and bus rides.
  • Anti-diarrhea antibiotics and any other potentially really important medications.
  • Nyquil. During our international travels we have been consistently impressed with how rarely we have had serious GI issues (knock on wood). But we have also been impressed with how often we have had viral, upper-respiratory colds. As we traveled around, we constantly encountered viruses to which we possessed no immunity and they would take us out. Nyquil (or Night Nurse to the Brits) is an absolute blessing for sleeping through a runny nose and unending cough.
  • Keep a toothbrush and toothpaste handy.
  • Sunglasses.
  • Extra hair ties.
  • Good batteries (buy them in the U.S. — they are hard to find and very expensive in the rest of the world).
  • Luggage locks (if you are so inclined).
  • Ear plugs (if you are so inclined).
  • A headlamp (MANDATORY). We picked up these for our most recent trip and have been impressed so far — very bright with only one double A battery — also, a local Colorado company. If you are going on safari it is a big bonus to have the red light setting — lake flies aren’t attracted to the red light, so you will be able to do your dishes while all your friends run for cover.
  • A travel journal and glue stick. My preferred way of documenting a trip on the go is by cutting up any little pieces of paper I get along the way with the scissors on my pocket knife and then gluing them into my journal with a few notes.
  • Another travel pillow. I sleep with three pillows, like this, and did that every night on our trip — and many basic hotels will provide only one.
  • Bathing suit — never be caught without one, there is almost nothing as disheartening as wanting a bathing suit and not having one.
  • A good travel camera. I am not that into photography — I mean, I like looking at it, but can rarely be bothered. To be honest, we used our phones for the vast majority of our shots. (So make sure your travel phone has a good camera.) But, if you are going on safari, bring a really really good camera — the folks with the 400x optical zoom cameras had the most fun. The lens can double as binoculars.
  • Compression socks — may I never take another international flight without them. These ones are great.
  • One easy-to-wash and fast-to-dry back-up outfit — a pair of socks, underwear, lightweight pants, a t-shirt, and an over shirt (in case you are separated from your main bag).
  • A laptop or tablet if you are so inclined. We really enjoyed having our Chrome books on our big trip. They are super lightweight, have a huge battery life, have a keyboard, and really encourage saving to the cloud, so if it is stolen, all your data is still in the cloud, and replacing it is pretty cheap. There are all sorts of options now, just pick one with an 11″ screen or smaller.
  • Your chargers and adapters. I really recommend having one of these universal adapters with two extra USB charging ports. The universal adapter worked every but South Africa. Freaking South Africa.
  • A guide book.
  • The best insect repellent in the world — easy to apply without getting it on your hands and it doesn’t leak in your luggage.
  • An extra water bottle — these are super handy when you want to start out with a bunch of water but be able to compact it down as the day goes on.

Main Bag

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main bag

Alight, on to the main bag. First, again, the bag. We went with these: The CH 22 Tourist Expandable Carry-On, based on an argument made on a great travel blog whose domain has since expired. It meets most carry-on requirements, barely. Part of the reason I went with it was that the square-ish corners offer more internal space than similar bags with round corners. Also, I didn’t really want a bag that came with a day pack, since I wanted to find a backpack that really fit me. We never once used the backpack function of the bags, which might really say a lot — we dragged our bags through Asian metro stations, over the beach in Ghana, and stored them for two weeks in the bottom of our safari vehicle (we only used small expandable duffel bags as our day-to-day bags on the safari). And they held up pretty well. Still though, I like the comfort that a convertible brings, knowing I could use it as a backpack if I ever really needed to. All of this said, and Dan and I spent our whole trip RTW coveting these bags, just like our friends said we would. If I were to do it again, I don’t think there is anyway you could talk me out of the Meridian Travel wheeled deluxe luggage, 60 Litres.

What’s in it?

Clothes
  • 9 pairs of socks — bring more socks than you think you need — for reasons I don’t understand, they go fast in Africa, and when you wash them, they take forever to dry, no matter how expensive they are. At least two of these pairs should be tall enough to tuck your pants into them if you are going to Africa — it’s the only way to prevent safari ants from climbing up your legs.
  • 1 sports bra.
  • 4 regular bras.
  • 13 pairs of underwear — including a bunch of these exoficio ones — they are super easy to wash and dry.
  • 2 sporty, quick-drying short sleeve shirts or tank tops — quick drying, should fit under your over shirts.
  • 1 somewhat-dressy tank top or t shirt.
  • 2 more t-shirts.
  • 4 casual tank tops.
  • 1 safari/travel long-sleeve shirt.
  • 1 sporty, fast dry long-sleeve shirt.
  • 2 nice over shirts/sweaters.
  • 1 fleece or light jacket
  • 1 packable puffy coat — it gets chilly in Arusha and the highlands of Africa during good parts of the year, so check the weather.
  • 1 pair of elephant pants — if you don’t know what these are, don’t worry, you can buy them on the road — I loved having them with me.
  • 2 quick-dry dresses.
  • 2 skirts — at least one should go passed your knees.
  • 1 pair of athletic shorts.
  • 1 pair of casual travel shorts.
  • 1 zip-off travel pant.
  • 1 pair of skinny jeans — they actually dry pretty quickly.
  • 1 sarong.
  • 1 scarf — it can help make things look dressy and might be nice to have in some countries to cover your shoulders and/or hair when entering a mosque.
  • 1 pair of long underwear bottoms — I love sleeping in a tent in them — others might not.
  • 1 more bathing suit — your two bathing suits should serve vastly different purposes — one should be sporty for scuba diving, and one should be more of a stringy, lounging one.
  • I found having a bag like this to separate dirty clothes was helpful.

What you should plan to be wearing during your travel day? Good, comfortable travel pants (probably not zip off since you are about to be on a bus or a plane for a long time and those zippers can be annoying),  a travel short sleeve shirt — a good time to bust out one of your icebreakers — I LOVE my cool-lite crew, (a t-shirt works better with your backpack on than a tank top), and one long-sleeved travel over shirt.

Shoes — I swear that I was completely happy and always had what I needed with just three pairs of shoes:
  • Flip flops — helps if they are black/semi-dressy and can go to a nice dinner.
  • Chacos — would not have traded them for anything.
  • Light-weight waterproof trail runners or hiking shoes –I hate being cold and wet — and these were pretty necessary on our gorilla trek.
Other gear
  • A travel towel.
  • A packable shoulder bag that will go to the beach.
  • A laundry kit, including: a universal sink plug, some good travel clothes wash, and this awesome packable clothesline — we used it ALL the time.
  • A first-aid kit, including: gloves, bandaids, a thermometer (a good way to know if you are just a little sick, or a lot sick and better start learning a new country’s health system in a hurry), bandages and tape, Neosporin (wounds get infected easily while traveling), Benadryl cream in the event of a contact allergy or bug bite, water purification tablets, (REI has a great article on water purification techniques. But if you get stuck and thirsty you can always throw these tablets in water, wait four hours, and drink), Gatorade powder (to prevent dehydration and cover up any iodine flavor), safety pins, in the event that you need to do some wardrobe repair, and scissors as part of your pocket tool (see below).
  • Your pocket tool: I think that spring-action scissors are key, as is a knife for cutting into an avocado or a mango, and a bottle opener and a screwdriver, or something you can use to get into wine in a pinch. I’ve had less of a need for pliers on the road. If you aren’t carrying on, the Micra or the CS will work. If you are carrying on, try the PS, but be prepared to show all of the tools to the TSA.
  • An anti-theft travel purse, for nights when you want to have your room key, your phone, and some money on you, but don’t have pockets in your dress.
  • Yet more bug repellent — this Sawyer stuff is terrific and even works against sand flies, you might want some in a spray bottle too to save from getting it all over your hands on the go.
  • This awesome sleep-sack — super comfortable, breathable, adds warmth, repels bugs, makes me feel at home ANYWHERE.
  • This awesome lantern — hangs in a tent like a champ — hangs other places too. If there are two of you traveling, one person should have a hanging lantern and one should have a lantern that stands up on a table. It was great to have light camping, and in places where the power was unreliable, but also sometimes we would just be in hotel rooms that didn’t have enough lights, and it was nice to have them then too.
  • Emergency coffee — do not leave home without some back-up instant coffee. Via is a nice travel size.

And, your kit bag, including:

  • this awesome self-cleaning, quick-drying wash cloth.
  • liquid body soap to lather with your wash cloth.
  • shampoo and conditioner.
  • hair gel and spray — I use a lot of hair products.
  • hair ties.
  • vasaline.
  • more toothpaste.
  • face and body lotion.
  • sunscreen.
  • more motion sickness pills, and a transderm patch if they help you.
  • any other meds for anything that ails you — occasionally get migraines or yeast infections? Bring medicine with you.
  • a comb.
  • some cleansing towellets — it’s impressive how much cleaner they can make you feel when you can’t shower.
  • make-up? It was occasionally, though rarely, nice to have eye shadow, mascara, foundation, and lip stick.
  • condoms — bring extras. And if you are sensitive to latex, bring TONS, it can be almost impossible to find latex-free condoms on the road, since they are slightly less-effective at preventing STD transmission — and its awkward to have to go to up to pharmacists to ask for them, though we spent an afternoon in Ghana so engaged.
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So, was completely disrupting your life to travel around the world a good decision?

TL; DR: This is the post that I wish I’d been able to read before we decided to go on our trip around the world.When we were still deciding whether to pull the trigger, we would look at the travel blogs of our friends and of complete strangers and we would be awed at their pictures and amused at their adventures, but I’d always wonder, now that you’ve been back home for a year, are you glad you did it? Was completely disrupting your life to travel around the world worth it? For me at least, the answer is a resounding yes.

The time you spend traveling will pass so fast — what’s six months, or even a year, in a lifetime? And so, I think that what you gain from that time traveling is much more than what you lose by skipping out on six months of meetings, and house shopping, and bad television, and even friendships back home. And what is it, exactly, that you might gain? Perspective, I think, and confidence. And things you learn about yourself and your travel partner and your relationship. As in most things, though, I think there is likely a diminishing marginal utility to extended travel. You are likely to gain the most from the experience if you haven’t traveled or lived outside your home country much in the past. And the first six months of the trip are likely more valuable as a learning experience than the next six months, and much more important than the next six months, etc. Of course, I have a biased perspective on this because we only traveled for about 6 months, but I would say that we were learning less about ourselves and the world at the end of that time than at the beginning. (Though we were still having a blast.) And I would guess that if you spend 18 months traveling, it would be hard to resist the temptation to just set up shop on a nice beach and take an extended vacation for a time — which sounds lovely, don’t get me wrong, but probably won’t teach you as much about yourself and the world as does taking the trains through Japan, riding a motorbike in Vietnam, or taking a taxi through rush hour in downtown Nairobi. Also, I would say that Dan gained slightly more from this trip than I did, largely because, I think, he hadn’t spent as much time outside the US before. The traveling is incredibly doable, and very worthwhile.

The thing that demands real respect is the disruption to your life. If you’ve traveled or lived outside your home country for an extended period of time before, then you are likely fairly prepared for this, but it is still worth mentioning. Re-entry is tough. And it’s tougher as a married 30-something young professional than it is as an undergraduate study-abroad student or a kid going on an adventure between undergrad and grad school. We lived in my parents’ basement when we got home. They were gracious and wonderful, and it was tough. Looking for a new job is stressful, and looking for a place to live at the same time is almost overwhelming — not that people don’t do both of these things all the time for much more “real” reasons than returning from a trip around the world. Some advice: if possible, I think it makes sense to time your trip with a planned move anyway. I still miss my friends and colleagues and the community that we built in DC — moving to a new city  and building a new home is hard no matter what, so you might as well take six months and travel the world. It meant that I spent a few months unemployed in my parents’ basement, whereas if we’d left straight from DC to Denver, I would have lined up a job before the move — but in hindsight, those few months of uncertainty, which were hard, were worth it for the trip. Also, it was helpful that Dan was keeping his job — so we had some income coming in almost immediately after we returned to the States.

From a professional perspective, I don’t think the trip set me back much, given that we were moving across the country anyway. Most people are impressed with the trip and it provides a nice topic of conversation. In going over my resume, not once did I hear the question, “why did you do that?” The usual response is, “that’s incredible, where did you go?” Again, just my sense here — but I think people are more likely to understand a trip that is 6 months to a year than one that is much longer than that. I’ve met three people who I work closely with professionally who took similar trips. It’s amazing to be able to reminisce about the hikes in Cape Town, the ramen in the basement of the Tokyo metro station, or the night bus to Phnom Penh over a first get-to-know-you coffee. And I have a reputation as a capable traveler among my colleagues, and so I get to spend some time offering advice about vacation itineraries and gear — both favorite topics.

So, here we are a year later. (Well, a year and couple of months — it’s hard to find time and energy to sit down and blog now that we are gainfully employed.) Our dog has forgiven us. We have a great house in a neighborhood we like. We both have jobs that are challenging and that we enjoy. And we are working on building our Denver community. We feel like we are in about the right spot for us. And we have the bonus of the perspective and confidence and relationship built over six months of fairly challenging and completely incredible travel. It was totally worth it.

Edit #1; 2-23-16 — Have now met three people in a professional capacity who took similar trips.