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The Making And Life Of A World Traveler: Well Almost–Chapter Seven–What to Pack and Not to Pack

Now it is time to pack, you are almost ready to leave. Now the question is, what do you bring? Of course, you have to pack what you need to not only protect yourself in a comfortable manner from the elements. You also need to be able to do your planned activities in a safe, decent and socially acceptable manner for the region that you are visiting. Certain regions require a woman to cover her hair when out in public, while you might get away without wearing the appropriate scarf, do you really want that headache. Remember, the goal is to blend in so that you do not make yourself a target.

I used to subscribe to the practice of packing everything but the kitchen sink. This is OK if you are going on a road trip or own the means of transportation, i.e. boat or plane. But for most forms of travel, it means that you have to be circumspect in your decision making. No where is this more evident than in backpack travel, where you carry everything you need for survival on your back. On my first backpack trip, my backpack weighed over 80 pounds, and I nearly died of heat exhaustion on the trail. I have since learned how to reduce my backpack weight, though I am still too heavy at around 50 pounds. My goal weight is around 40 pounds. Don’t forget this has to include food, water, shelter, clothes and cooking implements.

There are several things that come into play when you are packing:

  1. What is the climate and weather of where you are traveling to? (Winter travel is the most difficult to pack for, also will you be doing outdoor activities, i.e. snowshoeing?)
  2. How long will you be going for, will you have a way to clean your clothes?
  3. What events will you be going to if any, i.e. formal events?
  4. What is your itinerary?
  5. What type of extra activities will you be participating in, i.e. swimming, running and scuba diving?
  6. Do you want to record your trip, i.e. video or still photography, and what quality will the end product be?
  7. Will you have to carry all of your travel items for any distance? This is by far the most important determinant.
  8. Will you be allowed check-in or only carry-on luggage? What is the weight restrictions for your luggage?

If you are going to be involved in equipment intensive activities you have two options…bring your own gear or rent it when you arrive at the destination. This may be problematic if the quality of the available equipment is questionable. You really should not compromise your safety or life with poor quality scuba equipment. Poor quality winter gear like snowshoes might cause some discomfort, but you will hardly be in danger if your snowshoe breaks and you are just out stomping around somewhere close to a civilized area. However, if your going out on a survival like expedition, you will need to bring your own equipment. You will simply have to bear the extra expense for the transportation of your special activity items.

Photography can mean a lot of different things. Will your photography require a tripod, or supplementary lighting, or are you using it for underwater photographical purposes? Will a point-and-shoot suffice or do you need a DSLR for your underwater shooting?

To go on a dive trip to the islands I have taken as much as four suitcases which weighed in excess of 160 pounds for me and a matching outfit for my wife. This obviously goes way past what you can carry by yourself. It also is going to cost extra money for luggage costs, plus you will need a larger taxi to transport you and your gear. This is one reason that I have stopped diving on my international travels. I have tried snorkeling instead, if the diving was shallow enough. I have also scaled back on my photography gear to mirrorless equipment and a very lightweight travel tripod or even a gorilla pod, if acceptable. A good tripod can reduce the need for a lot of heavy and fast glass. I also use a small tablet instead of a laptop computer. If I decide to bring my laptop, I have a 15-inch one that is several pounds lighter than my old 17-inch laptop. I even have a small portable thermal printer for printing tickets and such for travel engagements and a booster antenna for getting more wi-fi reach.

When you are traveling to inclement travel locations your most important items are your clothes. These clothes have to be adequate enough to protects you from the elements. All else is secondary. You can always sleep in your underwear or in the nude if need be and if you have a private location to sleep in. If you are in a hostel where you are sleeping in communal rooms, sleep in your clothes. So what you bring is the bear necessity which is two outfits and several pairs of underwear and socks. You wash your underwear and hang it to dry while you are sleeping from either your bunk or in your bathroom, if you have your own room. If there is a washer and dryer available, use it whenever you can. This becomes more important in warm climates than cold climates.

I will discuss what we packed for our trip to France. We spent nine days and nights in France and all we had were two small carry on suit cases each. We each had our camera with my wife having two lenses and me having three lenses. We had one travel tripod between us and a charger for the camera batteries. We also had a European power strip and a tablet to look at our travel photos each night. We had travel books and maps and books for me to read. We each brought three outfits, one of which we were wearing. One outfit was a comfortable outfit fit for walking and touring sites. A second outfit that was a little nicer that would do in more formal settings and our third outfit was another comfortable outfit. Our jackets were water repellent and doubled as a windbreakers. They also came with hoods, so our heads were protected when it rained. Since it was winter, we also brought each a pair of long john underwear. I brought five pairs of underwear and socks. Our Airbnb in Paris had a small washer and dryer so we were able to keep our clothes fresh. I bought waterproof and insulated shoes in case there was a lot of rainfall in France which kept my feet warm and dry. Our luggage was water repellent against even the heaviest of deluges, so we pretty much had all the bases covered. We were also able to carry all of our luggage with us, if need be. This was by far the lightest I had ever traveled on an international trip.

14 Genius Packing Tips to Help You Travel Like a Pro

Roll clothes and pack them first.

The best way to prevent creases and make the most of your space is to use the roll method. Lay tops facedown, fold in the sleeves and roll from the bottom up. For pants, put the legs together and roll from the waist down. Once you’ve rolled everything, place pants and tops in your suitcase before shoes and accessories; then, fit in other oddly shaped items like hair tools.

Choose travel-friendly fabrics.

Our Textiles Lab pros always recommend opting for knits and stretchy fabrics. Even when these fabrics wrinkle, the creases will fall out when you hang them up. Woven fabrics are more prone to wrinkling.

Pack the first outfit you’ll want to wear on top.

If you know you’re getting off the plane and going straight to dinner or a meeting, plan your outfit and put it into your suitcase last. That way, when you arrive, you won’t have to dig through everything else to find it (plus, it will be less likely to wrinkle). This strategy is a great excuse to think about what you’ll wear in advance so you don’t make one of the biggest packing mistakes: waiting until the last minute to pack. Have trouble making a packing list and sticking to it? Check out this useful planner from Erin Condren.

Place heavy items at the base.

Keep weightier things like shoes and books by the wheeled end of your suitcase. This placement helps your bag stay stable when upright, and stops other items from getting smushed.

Layer plastic dry cleaning bags between clothes.

The next time you pick up your dry cleaning, save the plastic bags. You can use them to protect delicate items from accidental pulls by layering them between your clothes. They help your clothing slide (not snag) when your bag gets jostled (and they help reduce wrinkling!).

Use packing cubes.

Our pros like Eagle Creek’s set. These blocks keep your suitcase organized and stack together easily — no more trying to fit in oddly shaped items like a puzzle. Plus, the durable cubes are lightweight and thin so you won’t lose any precious suitcase space.

Avoid over or under-packing.

While you might be tempted to leave space for souvenirs, extra room means items can shift and crumple or break. Fill empty spaces with dry cleaner bags (and fill them later with mementos from your trip). It’s important not to over-pack either (especially if you’re only bringing a carry-on), since that’s a surefire way to create crease marks and can make it extra tricky to repack when you’re going home — or heading off to another spot.

Get an extra tote for souvenirs.

You’re going to want to shop so bring a foldable bag like this cute backpack from Baggu. It won’t take up much space on the way to your destination (it folds into a small pouch!) and you can fill it with (almost) anything you buy on your travels.

Take a mini iron.

Despite your best packing efforts, some wrinkles and creases are inevitable. That’s where Reliable’s pint-size steam iron comes in. At only 1.6 pounds, it takes up very little space and is perfect for quick touch-ups anywhere (it works as an iron and steamer). It performed well in our Cleaning Lab tests (just don’t expect it to de-wrinkle a full garment in record time).

Bring two small laundry bags.

Use one for lights and one for darks. If you forget, grab plastic bags from your hotel room’s closet. When you get home, throw the presorted loads in the wash. Other Cleaning Lab must-haves: two-gallon resealable bags for wet bathing suits and an instant stain remover like.

Organize your liquids bags.

You know the drill: Stash any liquids you want to keep in your carry-on bag in a separate, clear bag so you can easily pass through security. Our beauty director’s must-haves: a do-it-all hydrating balmcleansing wipes for your face or hands (or the seat), and a lightly scented hand sanitizer. Not sure which liquids you can bring on the plane? Remember TSA’s 3-1-1 liquids rule: Products must be 3.4 ounces or less and they all must fit in a one quart-size bag.

Keep important medication in your purse.

Even if you plan to carry on your bag, there’s still a risk you could have to check it at the gate. If your meds are in your purse, you’ll have what you need even if the overhead bin space fills up and you end up having to check your bag.

Bring a scarf for the plane in your carry-on.

No matter what season it is, planes are often on the chilly side. Bring a pretty, warm wrap that you can bundle up in if the temp doesn’t feel comfortable. Bonus: You can also fold it and use it as a pillow.

Carry a reusable water bottle.

As long as it’s empty, it’s okay to bring a water bottle through airport security. Once you’re inside the terminal, fill it up at an airport cafe or water station. You’ll stay hydrated, and it’s greener than having to buy plastic water bottles while site-seeing. Our Kitchen Appliances Lab experts like S’well’s newly-designed bottles. They’ll still keep your hot drinks hot and your cold drinks cold without spilling, but now have a wider mouth so you can even add ice cubes.

The Ultimate Packing Checklist

The Essential Guide to Packing Like a Pro

Every experienced traveler knows that traveling by its very nature demands simplicity.

Can you pack your entire apartment into your backpack or suitcase? Of course not!

You have to keep it simple and stick to your essentials. Save yourself the stress of dragging a suitcase full of unnecessary stuff around places you are trying to freely explore.

Everyone has different needs and this list is my attempt to provide you with a general guideline on what to pack and stick to the essentials. Ultimately, you can tailor this list to suit your travels.

Here’s my suggested packing list for a one-week trip…

What to Pack for an International Trip

The first step to packing effectively (and the most important) is to buy a small backpack so you aren’t tempted to fill empty space and overpack.

Backpacks are also more comfortable and give you greater mobility when traveling.

After you get your backpack, it’s time to start putting your stuff in it.

1. Clothing

As a general rule for clothing, always go for quick dry, wicking, and cool fabrics.

This allows you to do laundry by hand in the sink as needed to reduce the amount of clothes you need to carry.

Clothing for Tropical Climates

These are great suggestions for our trips to Costa RicaBelize and Bali. Keep in mind that areas in tropical climates are hot, humid, rainy (depending on season), and you will be sweating a lot!

Clothing for Cold Climates

Layering is key to keep warm in cold weather.

Layering basically means just what it sounds like: wearing multiple layers of garments, one on top of the other. For a more in-depth explanation on layering, check out this article by REI on layering basics.


2. Small Medical Kit

3. Travel Tech

4. Miscellaneous Items

Rick’s Packing List

By Rick Steves


 Shirts/blouses. Bring up to five short-sleeved or long-sleeved shirts or blouses (how many of each depends on the season) in a cotton/polyester blend. Shirts with long sleeves that roll up easily can double as short-sleeved. Look for a wrinkle-camouflaging pattern or blended fabrics that show a minimum of wrinkles. Synthetic-blend fabrics (such as Coolmax or microfiber) often dry overnight.

 Pants/shorts. Bring two pairs: one lightweight cotton and another super-lightweight pair for hot and muggy big cities. Jeans can be too hot for summer travel (and are slow to dry). Many travelers like lightweight convertible pants/shorts with zip-off legs. While not especially stylish, they’re functional in Italy, where you can use them to cover up inside churches while still beating the heat outside. Button-down wallet pockets are safest (though still not nearly as thief-proof as a money belt). If you bring shorts, one pair is probably enough. Shorts can double as a swimsuit for men when swimming in lakes or the sea.

 Underwear and socks. Bring five sets (lighter dries quicker). Bamboo or cotton/nylon-blend socks dry faster than 100 percent cotton, which lose their softness when air-dried.

Shoes. Bring one pair of comfortable walking shoes with good traction. MephistoEcco, and Rieker look dressier and more European than sneakers, but are still comfortable. Sturdy, low-profile tennis shoes with a good tread are fine, too. For a second pair, consider sandals in summer. Flip-flops are handy if you’ll be using bathrooms down the hall. Whichever shoes you bring, make sure they are well broken in before you leave home.

 Sweater or lightweight fleece. Warm and dark is best — for layering and dressing up.

Jacket. Bring a light and water-resistant windbreaker with a hood. Neutral colors used to look more European than bright ones, but now everything from azure blue to pumpkin orange has made its way into European wardrobes. A hooded jacket of Gore-Tex or other waterproof material is good if you expect rain. (For summer travel, I wing it without rain gear — but always pack for rain in Britain and Ireland.)

 Tie or scarf. For instant respectability, bring anything lightweight that can break the monotony and make you look snazzy.

 Swimsuit. To use public pools, you’ll need a swimsuit (men can’t just wear shorts; and in France, men need to wear Speedo-type swimsuits — not swim trunks).

 Sleepwear/loungewear. Comfy streetwear — such as shorts, leggings, T-shirts, tank tops, yoga pants, and other lightweight athletic gear — can be used as pajamas, post-dinner loungewear, and a modest cover-up to get you to the bathroom down the hall.

Documents, Money, and Travel Info

Money belt (or neck wallet). This flat, hidden, zippered pouch — worn around your waist (or like a necklace) and tucked under your clothes — is essential for the peace of mind it brings. You could lose everything except your money belt, and the trip could still go on. Get a lightweight one with a low-profile color (I like beige). For more, see my article on money belts.

Money. Bring your preferred mix of a debit card, a credit card, and an emergency stash of hard US cash (in $20 bills).

Documents. Bring your passport; plane, train, and rental car documents or vouchers; driver’s license; and any other useful cards (student ID, hostel membership card, and so on). Photocopies and a couple of passport-type photos can help you get replacements more quickly if the originals are lost or stolen. In your luggage, pack a record of all reservations (print out your hotel confirmation emails). Bring any necessary contact info if you have health or travel insurance.

Guidebooks and maps. Pack the travel info you’ll need on the ground (or download it into your ereader). I like to rip out appropriate chapters from guidebooks and staple them together, or use special slide-on laminated book covers.

Small notepad and pen. A tiny notepad in your back pocket or day pack is a great organizer, reminder, and communication aid.

Journal. An empty book to be filled with the experiences of your trip will be your most treasured souvenir. Attach a photocopied calendar page of your itinerary. Use a hardbound type designed to last a lifetime, rather than a floppy spiral notebook. My custom-designed Rick Steves Travel Journals are rugged, simple blank books that come in two sizes. Another great brand, with a cult following among travel writers, is Moleskine.

Small day pack. A lightweight pack is great for carrying your sweater, camera, guidebook, and picnic goodies while you leave your large bag at the hotel or train station. Don’t use a fanny pack — they’re magnets for pickpockets.

Toiletries and Personal Items

Toiletries kit. Because sinks in many hotels come with meager countertop space, I prefer a kit that can hang on a hook or a towel bar. Before cramming it with every cosmetic item you think you might use, ask yourself what toiletries you can live without for a short time. (But women may want to estimate how many tampons and pads they might need and pack them along — even though most familiar brands are sold throughout Europe, packing them is easier than having to buy a too-small or too-large box in Europe.) For your overseas flight, put all squeeze bottles in sealable plastic baggies, since pressure changes can cause even good bottles to leak. Pack your own bar of soap or small bottle of shampoo if you want to avoid using hotel bathroom “itsy-bitsies” and minimize waste and garbage.

Medicine and vitamins. Even if you check your suitcase on the flight, always carry on essential toiletries, including any prescription medications (don’t let the time difference trick you into forgetting a dose). Keep medicine in original containers, if possible, with legible prescriptions.

First-aid kit. For more, see my tips on assembling a kit.

Glasses/contacts/sunglasses. Contact-lens solutions are widely available in Europe. Carry your lens prescription, as well as extra glasses, in a solid protective case. If it’s a sunny season, pack along sunglasses, especially if they’re prescription.

Sealable plastic baggies. Bring a variety of sizes. In addition to holding your carry-on liquids, they’re ideal for packing leftover picnic food, containing wetness, and bagging potential leaks before they happen. The two-gallon jumbo size can be used to pack (and compress) clothing or do laundry. Bring extras for the flight home.

Laundry soap. A tiny box of detergent or a plastic squeeze bottle of concentrated, multipurpose, biodegradable liquid soap is handy for laundry. I find hotel shampoo works fine as laundry soap when I’m doing my wash in the sink. For a spot remover, bring a few Shout wipes or a dab of Goop grease remover in a small plastic container.

Clothesline. Hang it up in your hotel room to dry your clothes. The twisted-rubber type needs no clothespins.

Small towel/washcloth. You’ll find bath towels at all fancy and moderately priced hotels, and most cheap ones. Some people bring a thin hand towel for the occasional need. Washcloths are rare in Europe, so you might want to pack a quick-drying microfiber one. Disposable washcloths that pack dry but lather up when wet (such as Olay’s 4-in-1 Daily Facial Cloths) are another option; cut them in half to make them last longer.

Sewing kit. Clothes age rapidly while traveling. Add a few safety pins and extra buttons.

Small packet of tissues. Stick one of these in your day pack, in case you wind up at a bathroom with no toilet paper.

Travel alarm/wristwatch. Make sure you have an alarm to wake yourself up (your smartphone, a little clock, etc.). At budget hotels, wake-up calls are particularly unreliable.

Earplugs. If night noises bother you, you’ll love a good set of expandable foam plugs. They’re handy for snoozing on trains and flights, too.

Hairdryer. These are generally provided in $100-plus hotel rooms. If you can’t risk a bad-hair day, buy a cheap, compact hairdryer in Europe or bring a travel-friendly one from home.


Note that many of these things are high-ticket items; guard them carefully or consider insuring them.

Smartphone/mobile phone. Bring your smartphone to keep in touch with folks back home and for accessing resources on the road such as email, travel apps, and GPS. If you just want to make calls or send texts, a simple US mobile phone might work perfectly in Europe — or you can buy a cheap mobile phone to use while you’re there.

Digital camera. Take along an extra memory card and battery, and don’t forget the charger and a cable for downloading images.

Tablet, ereader, or portable media player. Download apps, ebooks, and music before you leave home.

Laptop. If you’ve got a lot of work to do, or want to keep your photoblog updated, a laptop can be worth the weight.

USB flash drive. If you’re traveling with a laptop, a flash drive can be handy for backing up files and photos. As an alternative, consider free cloud storage sites — such as Amazon Cloud DriveApple iCloud, or Dropbox — that you can access anywhere.

GPS device. If you’ll be doing a lot of driving and have a portable GPS device at home, you could buy European map data to use on vacation.

Headphones/earbuds. These are a must for listening to music, tuning in to audio tours, or simply drowning out whiny kids on the plane. (I never travel without my noise-canceling Bose headphones.) Bring a Y-jack so you and a partner can plug in headphones at the same time.

Chargers and batteries. Bring each device’s charger, or look into getting a charger capable of charging multiple devices at once.

Plug adapter(s). For more, see my tips on adapters and converters.

Optional Bring-Alongs

I don’t advocate bringing everything listed here. Choose the items that fit with your travel style and needs.

Picnic supplies. Bring a plastic plate (handy for dinner in your hotel room), cup, spoon, fork, and maybe salt and pepper. The Fozzils picnic set folds completely flat. Buy a Swiss Army–type knife with a corkscrew and can opener in Europe (or bring one from home if you’re checking your luggage on the plane).

Water bottle. The plastic half-liter mineral water bottles sold throughout Europe are reusable and work great. If you bring one from home, make sure it’s empty before you go through airport security (fill it at a drinking fountain once you’re through).

Fold-up tote bag. Look for a large-capacity tote bag that rolls up into a pocket-size pouch. Use it for laundry, picnics, and those extra souvenirs you want to take back home.

Small flashlight. Handy for reading under the sheets after “lights out” in the hostel, late-night trips down the hall, exploring castle dungeons, and hypnotizing street thieves. Tiny-but-powerful LED flashlights — about the size of your little finger — are extremely bright, compact, and lightweight. Camping-type headlamps also do the trick.

Small binoculars. For scenery or church interiors.

Inflatable pillow (or neck rest). These are great for snoozing in planes, trains, and automobiles. Some travelers also swear by an eye mask for blocking out early-rising or late-setting sun.

Duct tape. A small roll of duct tape can work miracles as a temporary fix — mending a punctured bag, solving an emergency shoe problem, and so on. Conserve space by spooling only as much as you might need (less than a foot) around a short pencil or dowel.

Insect repellent. Bring some along if you’re prone to bites and are going somewhere especially bug-ridden.

Tiny lock. Use it to lock your backpack zippers shut. Note that if you check your bag on a flight, the lock may be broken to allow the bag to be inspected. Improve the odds of your lock’s survival by buying one approved by the Transportation Security Administration — security agents can open the lock with a special master key. Or buy plastic locks or zip-ties to secure zippers — be sure to pack fingernail clippers or TSA-approved scissors so you can open them when you arrive.

Universal drain-stopper. Some hotel sinks and tubs have no stoppers. This flat, flexible plastic disc — which works with any size drain — allows you to wash your clothes or take a bath.

Office supplies. Bring paper, pens, envelopes (for letter writers), and some sticky notes (such as Post-Its) to keep your place in your guidebook.

Address list. If you’ll want to mail postcards, you could print your mailing list onto a sheet of adhesive address labels before you leave. You’ll know exactly who you’ve written to, and the labels will be perfectly legible.

Postcards/photos from home. A collection of show-and-tell pictures (either digital or paper) is always a great conversation piece with Europeans you meet.

good book. There’s plenty of empty time on a trip to either be bored or enjoy some good reading. Popular English-language paperbacks are often available in European airports and major train stations (usually costing more than their North American price). An ereader carries lots of books without the additional weight (and you can easily buy more as you go).

Gifts. If you’ll be the guest of local hosts, show your appreciation with small, unique souvenirs from your hometown.

Hostel sheet. These days, sheets are usually included in the price of a hostel, and if they aren’t, you can rent one for about $5 per stay. Still, you might want to bring along a sheet (silk is lighter and smaller, cotton is cheaper), which can double as a beach/picnic blanket and cover you up on overnight train rides.

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