Introduction: Packing for Tropical Travel
First Prize in the
Lonely Planet Travel Tips Contest
What and how to pack for a trip to a warm climate of indefinite length. You may be surprised at how little you can get away with packing, and at how long you can travel with a light pack.
There are a few underlying principles:
- Pack in a travel backpack, with a separate small daypack and an optional camera bag
- Don't pack too much, keep everything well within carry-on limits
- Make packing and unpacking easy by compartmentalizing
- Wash clothes every day
This is my actual load-out for an upcoming short trip to Central America. It's the distilled result of three medium length (>1 month) trips (to Central and South America, and Southeast Asia), and a variety of shorter trips ( Hawai'i, various places in California and the Eastern US).
The main pack in this load-out weighs 22lbs, including the daypack packed inside. My camera bag weighs 5.5lbs, but that's optional.
I'm male. If you are not, you might want to swap some pants for skirts, or shaving cream for mysterious things that I know nothing about. But you can probably use this as a basic guide anyway.
I consider myself fairly conservative about packing. There's a bunch of stuff here that other travelers may scoff at as unnecessary. This load out can certainly be lightened further, and it wouldn't be hard to get rid of the day pack/main pack distinction and just carry everything all of the time.
I use a travel backpack with hip straps and an internal frame. I've found this to be very comfortable when loaded, and it's fine over terrain that would make a wheelie bag annoying. I like a backpack that zips open all the way, rather than a top-loading pack because it makes my daily packing/unpacking easier. I prefer a separate daypack to one that zips on and off of the travel pack. I've found that the latter are poorly constructed and don't have straps wide enough for my shoulders.
I think my pack is supposedly 2400 cubic inches in the main compartment + 800 cubic inches in the expansion pouch. This is a little too large, and encourages me to pack things I don't need. The expansion zipper is always closed when I leave, but sometimes I buy enough souvenirs that I need to open it on the way back.
Step 1: Clothes
One of the important things about traveling for a long time is washing clothes often. This lets you carry very little bulky clothing. Pack the supplies you need to wash in sinks, and pack clothing that hand-washes well, and dries quickly.
When you arrive at your destination each day, wash the clothing you intend to wear the next day and let them dry overnight. In the morning, put on your newly-dry clothes on (if they're a little damp, your body warmth will help dry them quickly) and pack your dirty clothes from yesterday. You may be tempted to pack damp clothes instead of wearing them the next day. Don't do this. It gets smelly fast. If you have to pack damp clothes, do yourself a favor and don't pack them with your clean clothes. At least put them in a plastic bag.
This load-out has an extra set of most things, which lets you miss a wash day if you're exhausted. You can lighten this load by removing one of the long sleeve shirts, and one of the t-shirts, with only a little loss of flexibility.
I use a packing folder for clothing. I feel that it helps organize the interior of my pack a lot, and it means that I can grab one thing and take it with me to the shower and have all of the clothes I need right there.
The clothes I pack:
- 1 light long sleeve button-up shirt (for sun and mosquito protection)
- 1 long pants
- 1 long sleeve t-shirt (for sun and mosquito protection)
- 1 short sleeve t-shirt
- 2 pairs of underwear
- 2 swimsuits (double as shorts)
The clothes I wear when I leave:
- 1 heavier long sleeve button-up shirt (for cold airplanes and cool nights)
- 1 short sleeve t-shirt
- 1 long pants
- 1 pair underwear
- 1 plastic watch with alarm
- 1 belt
- 1 pair socks
- 1 pair sock liners
- 1 pair walking boots
All of these are made from modern, quick-drying synthetic cloth.
If you're visiting mosquito-infested areas, I recommend choosing light colored clothing. Dark colors seem to attract the bugs more. Consider soaking your clothes in Permethrin insect repellent before you leave.
Step 2: Pack Socks
One of the most important things to pack is socks. They make a huge difference in how comfortable you are. I like to wear fairly thick socks with sock liners (basically thin socks) inside them. It might sound like overkill to wear double-socks, but I don't like thin socks when I'm doing lots of walking, and the sock liners breathe well. In very hot weather, you can wear just the sock liners. The sock liners dry quickly, so they get washed every day, but the thick socks don't. Like underwear, you want to keep your sock liners really clean.
- 2 pairs socks
- 3 pairs sock liners
Because socks make good cushions, I pack electronic items in with them. I use a zippered cube for these items.
- Camera battery charger
- Portable music player charger
It happens that my music player's charger provides a standard USB jack, which I can use to charge other electronics (namely my GPS unit) that can charge off of USB.
Step 3: Pack Rain Gear
Rain gear is another one of those things that can make a huge difference in your comfort.
- 1 rain jacket
- 1 rain pants
The pants are less necessary.
Step 4: Pack Flip Flops
After a day of walking around, a change of footwear feels great. These also make it much nicer to use less-than-immaculate showers.
Step 5: Pack TSA Liquids Bag
This is for the TSA's benefit. It's a 1 quart zip-lock bag containing "liquids". You'll move some of these things around when you're done with your plane trip.
I pack these from my daypack:
- Insect repellent
- Sun screen
- Antiseptic wipes
- Antibiotic ointment
And these from my bathroom bag:
- Tooth paste
- Shaving cream
Notice that the sunscreen and insect repellent tubes are in zip-lock bags of their own? Zip-lock bags don't turn out to seal very well, so I double-bag items that are likely to make a mess if they ooze.
Step 6: Pack Bathroom Bag
This bag contains three separate sets of things: toiletries, laundry equipment, and medication.
I pack these toiletries:
- Toothpaste (from TSA bag)
- 2 Hotel soaps
- Shaving cream (from TSA bag)
I pack this laundry equipment:
- Powder detergent
- Universal sink drain cover
- Elastic braid clothesline
Experiment with hand-washing at home before you leave, in order to get an idea for how much detergent to use for a sinkful of clothes. It's not much.
I pack this medication:
- Aspirin or Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen (for pain)
- Immodium (for diarrhea)
- Pepto-bismol (for upset stomach)
- Sudafed (for colds)
- Benadryl (for allergic reactions)
- Travel antibiotics
- Antimalarials (if you're traveling in a malaria-prone area)
- Other medications I take regularly
- Moleskin (for blisters)
I've gotten sick in foreign countries. It was something that a quick course of antibiotics would have dealt with handily. Finding a doctor when you're really sick sucks. So does trying to explain what's wrong in a language you don't speak. So does getting boxes of medication from a pharmacy and finding that they're half-empty. So now I get a prescription for travel antibiotics filled before I leave.
The CDC website will tell you if you need to pack antimalarials or other medications for the area you're traveling to. It'll also tell you which vaccines are recommended before you go.
Probiotics are capsules filled with living microorganisms of the kinds that live in your gut. The premise is that having lots of "friendly" microorganisms will help you avoid getting "unfriendly" ones that cause traveler's diarrhea. I haven't seen any research that says that they're effective or not, but I haven't gotten sick on the trips where I've taken them. Please feel free to comment with Pubmed citations or the like.
Step 7: Pack Books
Books are great for those long plane/train/bus/boat rides, or for when you're sitting on the beach. I like to take at least one travel guide, some pleasure reading books, and a dictionary if I'm traveling in an area where I sort of know the language. If it doesn't drive you crazy to know that you knew the word for that thing in high school, but can't remember it now, you can skip the dictionary and rely on a phrasebook instead.
I find that 1 pleasure reading book per week is about right for me, assuming that I have access to book swaps. That's the kind of thing that varies a lot by person, though.
Step 8: Pack Daypack
The daypack is the bag that you'll carry with you on day trips. You can leave your clothing and bathroom bags where you're staying. The daypack will have things that you'll want ready access to.
I pack some simple first aid supplies:
- Antiseptic wipes (from TSA bag)
- Antibiotic ointment (from TSA bag)
- Gloves for cleaning small wounds
- Moleskin for foot blisters
- Aspirin or Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen for pain
- Immodium for diarrhea
These suffice for simple cut, scrapes, and bruises. If something more serious happens, I'll need to get help.
Other handy things:
- Sunscreen (from TSA bag)
- Insect repellent (from TSA bag)
- Fasteners (safety pins, zip ties, duct tape)
- Writing implements
- Tissues and Toilet paper
- Trash bags (good for laundry and in rainstorms)
- Zip lock bags
- LED Flashlight
One handy trick is to wrap some duct tape around a pen. Duct tape can patch up lots of tears and hold things together.
Notice that the interior of this bag is empty! I'm packing all of this stuff into the front pouch. That leaves room for things like this in the main pouch:
- Bottled water
- Pleasure reading book
- Snack food
- Rain gear
Step 9: Camera Bag
I recommend traveling with a camera that fits in your pocket. If, like me, you are addicted to a larger camera, you may want a dedicated camera bag. This is my "personal item" when flying on airplanes, so I keep a little extra stuff in it.
- Spare memory cards
- Spare battery
- UV Filter on camera
- Portable music player
- GPS recorder
- Sleep eye mask/Blindfold
It is convenient if this will pack inside of your daypack. They could easily be the same bag.
I strongly recommend having a UV filter in front of your lens. I've opened my camera bag to discover that something had hit the front of my camera and shattered the filter. I shudder to think what would have happened to my lens if it hadn't had that layer of protection.
Step 10: Stuff It All in the Backpack
Now that you have all of the sub-units packed, it's time to put them in the travel pack. Since everything is compartmentalized, it should be quick to pack and unpack.
I pack in this order:
- Rain gear
- Clothes folder
- Flip flops at the bottom of the bag
- Sock Cube
- Books around the edges
- Camera bag (optional)
Normally, I don't pack the camera bag into the travel pack, because I want to have the camera handy for taking pictures, but it packs comfortably into this pack, if I decide to do that. If you're going to carry something heavy like a camera all day, pack it at the bottom of the pack, not the top. The weight will be much more comfortable if it's near the hip belt of the pack.
This pack has quite a bit of extra capacity with this stuff in it. There's plenty of room for souvenirs or things picked up along the way. It easily meets the carry-on limit for airlines. If I find I need to carry a lot of extra stuff, I can even wear the daypack separately on my chest and the travel pack on my back.
Step 11: Stash Stuff!
It's a good idea to stash a copy of important papers and some money somewhere in your travel pack. That way if you get mugged or your daypack gets lost or stolen, you have something to fall back on. I keep this stuff in a zip-lock bag hidden in my luggage.
- Copy of the identification page of my passport
- Traveler's checks
- Spare credit card
- Some cash
- Some extra passport-sized photos of myself
Make sure you note the customer service numbers of any credit cards that you're carrying, so that you can call them if the card gets lost or stolen. I like to leave a list of the important details with a trusted friend at home. That way I can call them and ask them to report my card lost or fax a copy of my passport somewhere.
I leave this stuff with a friend:
- Emergency contact info for my family
- Information about my health insurance
- A copy of my immunization record
- Information about my credit cards
- Information about my traveler's checks
- Serial numbers for my electronics
- Scan of my Passport
- Scan of my Driver's license
- Scan of my Scuba diving certification card
It's also a good idea to keep your important documents in a plastic bag, when you're carrying them around, to protect them from rain, sweat, and mud.
Step 12: Don't Pack: Packaging
If you purchase local crafts or tchotchkes, you'll often find that the sellers are... overzealous about packaging. They'll wrap an object the size of your thumb in foam and sealing tape the size of your fist, if you let them. Often you'll discover that you can pack some of your tchotchkes in other ones, for example, a shot glass for your sister who collects them inside of a larger cup, or a plate inside of a hammock. If you're worried about damaging fragile items, socks and clothes are good cushioning material.
Step 13: Don't Pack: Hats
Hats are awesome. They provide protection against both sun and rain. However, the hats where you're going are much, much cooler than the hats where you come from. You can take an uncool hat from your home area and swap it for a cooler hat where you visit.
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