In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.
A Packing List
Items on this page are definitely optional.
Their necessity is a function of personal interests and the nature of the trip. I have constrained what could be an arbitrarily long list to a few topics of extremely broad interest.
Strive not to get carried away with "devices" (MP3 players, DVD viewers, e-book readers, iThings, etc.), especially on leisure trips. It hardly qualifies as "travel" if you are attempting to haul your familiar environment along with you. While you should, of course, make your own decisions about what is "essential" to your journeys, realize that Paris, Santiago, and Beijing can all appear disappointingly similar when experienced through the window of a Starbucks, to a soundtrack of the Backstreet Boys.
camera (lenses? flash? tripod? extra cards & batteries? charger? download adapter?)
I'd recommend a state-of-the-art "point and shoot" camera, unless you really want to lug that SLR around. Philip Greenspun offers an extended and helpful discussion of this topic.
Consider also the use of higher-capacity memory cards (as shown at right); a 4GB (or greater) card can capture thousands of high-resolution photos, reducing (even eliminating) the need for downloading during your trip. It's easy to lose track of how full your memory cards are, so make it a point to empty them before embarking on trips, especially lengthy ones. If you're carrying a laptop, of course, you can download photos to it — or transfer them to a flash drive (see below) — as you go.
Digital cameras tend to come with special software that purportedly simplifies the transfer of images between the camera and a computer. I have owned many different such cameras, and have never installed the accompanying software; it is unnecessary, and clogs up the computer. Simply plugging one of your camera's memory cards into an inexpensive USB adapter makes it look to your computer like a disk drive, allowing you to transfer, edit, and delete pictures as desired; you can even reformat the card. For the traveller, this has the added advantage that you can do it with any computer without the need to install software.
Serious photographers know that the two most important elements necessary to good photographs are lighting and a rock-steady camera. You're pretty much on your own with the former, but a decent tripod will help tremendously with the latter. Tripods tend to be big and heavy, though, and ill-suited to travelling lightly. Not that there aren't plenty of "travel tripods" out there; it's just that most of them aren't very good. The best I've found is the Gorillapod, made by Joby, which (in its original size, for small digital cameras, and pictured at left) weighs a scant 1.6 oz. (45g), and is remarkably adjustable to accommodate various shooting situations; you can even wrap it around a pole, tree branch, chair, etc. There are a lot of inferior knock-off copies of these on the market: I strongly suggest that you stick with the (Joby) original, which also comes in several colours, and larger sizes for bigger cameras. It makes a clever stand for watching movies on your iDevice, too!
Cameras as "Visual Notebooks": Don't overlook the fact that modern digital cameras — including those built into mobile phones — can also function as a quick and convenient means of recording things that you might find helpful to recall. As most cameras allow you to zoom in on images to read the details, even fairly complex documents can be usefully preserved. Possibilities include:
- the location of your parked car
- your hotel room number
- the sign on that interesting tourist attraction you visited
- information about places you'd like to visit (or otherwise recall), from brochures, signage, and even the yellow pages
- "before" and "after" views of rental vehicles, to prove that they were already damaged, or that you returned them intact
- the details of any accident you're involved in, to expedite insurance claims
- copies of important documents (though it's best if these are not your only copies, as cameras/phones are a target for theft)
- the state of that Scrabble/chess/etc. game that you found necessary to interrupt
- recipes and interesting restaurant menus
- the label on that great bottle of wine you had for dinner
- the contents of your luggage, for insurance and other identification purposes should it be delayed, lost, or stolen
- maps and other instructional information you might come across (a trail map, say, a list of train stops, or something on a computer that lacks a printer) that could be useful later
- when exploring areas where directions can be confusing (central New Delhi, say), photos of intersections where you change direction can help you find your way home (and are much more reliable than dropping bread crumbs)
- a photo of your own smiling face, to check for spinach bits (or how you look in that new hat) when you don't have a mirror handy
Digital cameras encode date and time information within the picture files, and digital photo albums typically use that information to help organize things. Those whose travels take them across time zones can either remember to update their camera clocks accordingly, or make use of custom picture management software — I've long been a fan of PIE, from Picmeta (which also enables/supports geotagging) — to bulk correct the data when you get home.
If you're still using a film camera, be aware that film can be quite expensive outside North America; if you travel from there, it's often best to carry what you think you'll need. This decision, however, must be weighed against the damage that will be done to that film by passing it through airport X-ray machines. I know, they tell you it won't damage your film, but it will. That damage is unlikely to be visible if you're using slower speed film (anything under ASA 400), and the film only suffers a single exposure. With higher speed films, though, and/or multiple X-ray exposures (radiation damage is cumulative), you're taking a chance. Ask for hand inspection of film, though this request wil not necessarily be granted (especially outside North America, where the X-ray dosage tends to be higher as well). Lead-lined bags are available to shield film, but they're heavy and space-consuming; there's no easy solution.
cellular telephone (charger/adapter(s)/battery?)
Much travel is best enjoyed in the absence of "instant telephony", living in the moment rather than through your cellular connection. For many, though, cell phones are a business trip necessity; they are also a useful convenience when reserving accommodations "on the fly" as you travel, and can provide a welcome measure of security, especially for those travelling in a rental car. But for safety's sake, please don't use one — "hands-off" or otherwise! — while you're actually operating a vehicle!
Before you depart, ensure that your phone's technology, calling plan, and battery charger are all compatible with the area(s) you intend to visit; even then, the per-minute charges can add up quickly (understand that you can also be charged for incoming calls, even if your phone is turned off).
One option, especially if you anticipate an extended stay in one specific area, is to simply buy a basic phone abroad; this also has the advantage of giving people you meet a local number at which to reach you. As you cross borders, though, you will likely need to change SIM cards (a tiny chip that costs USD$10–20, and adjusts the phone for local use), which negates the advantage of a local phone number. SIM cards can be conveniently purchased at airports and train stations.
Alternatively, consider getting one of the highly popular Mobal World Phones (sample model pictured at left), an inexpensive "pay as you use it" option. This well-reviewed service is also free of "maintenance" fees, less expensive than renting, and usually cheaper than buying SIM cards for an existing phone. So it's often the best solution.
Appreciate that any specific mobile carrier will likely not provide service to the entirety of a given country. So it is wise — especially if you plan an extended stay in one area — to ensure that your particular choice of mobile phone service actually covers that area.
Remember that many mobile phones include tools (alarm clock†, calculator, address book, notebook, maps, direction finder (or GPS), light††, etc.) that you might otherwise have to carry separately. Most cell phones these days incorporate a camera as well, and while their resolution may be insufficient for quality prints, they still make handy "visual notebooks", with a variety of uses as suggested above. SMS messages to oneself can be used for similar purposes (making note of flight schedules, pick-up times, etc.).
If you normally carry a "smart" phone, you can be next in a long line of unhappy recipients of truly staggering bills for international data roaming charges (as, for example, your device "phones home" when checking e-mail). Fortunately, this default behaviour can be turned off (use Wi-Fi instead of the data network when far from home), but only if you're paying attention. If you intend to use one of these as a telephone, make sure that your provider activates international service, and that you are aware of the associated roaming and data transfer costs. Appreciate also that many apps (in addition to e-mail) continue updating and otherwise consuming data round-the-clock, and can lead to unpleasant surprises.
The least expensive way to make voice (and video, if you have a camera) calls worldwide is with a computer or other Internet-connected device, using a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service such as Skype. If both you and the person you're calling have network connections, this is completely free; even when the called party is using a regular telephone, though, the cost is quite low. If you expect to call telephones regularly, you may prefer a service like WePhone; it doesn't offer a free computer-to-computer calls, but does a better job of calling regular telephones.
If you make extensive use of a cell phone (or other portable electronics), consider taking a rechargable external battery.
Did you know that your cell phone will recharge more quickly if you switch it to "airplane" mode?
Finally, should you find yourself having joined the ranks of those who left their cellphone chargers behind (they're the most commonly-forgotten item), just ask any larger hotel (or rental car place) if they have one that you can use. Most have a huge box of mislaid chargers, and will happily give you one that fits, even if you didn't lose yours there.
† Cell phones must remain on to be used as an alarm. Consequently, calls can awaken you earlier than you intended, so remember to use the phone's "airplane" or "do not disturb" modes if available. Or choose another solution.
†† So-called "flashlight apps" can be a handy short-term crutch for providing illumination, but I would not want to use one to replace a good light. Many of the situations in which one needs light (especially extended power outages, navigating dark streets, and such) are not ones in which I would want to be draining the battery of my communications device (which flashlight apps do at an alarming rate). In fact, keeping the screen brightness of your phone/tablet/laptop as low as possible will minimize the consequences of this single biggest consumer of battery power.
travel computer (flash drive? power cord/adapter(s)? network cable(s)?)
Even the smallest and lightest laptops, netbooks, and tablets occupy significant amounts of space, and contribute a good deal of weight. For business travel they may be a requirement, but on leisure trips can often be replaced by a judicious use of Internet cafés. That said, I normally travel with a computer. For many years, I packed a small Dell Inspiron Mini 9 that uses a (quiet, rugged) solid state disk in lieu of a hard drive, weighs a tolerable 2.3 pounds (1.0kg), and measures about 9.1×6.8×1.2 inches (23×17×3cm). Currently, I am more likely to bring an even smaller package: an iPad mini Retina, coupled with a protective Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio, that (collectively) weighs a modest 1.3 pounds (0.6kg), and measures 8.5×5.9×0.75 inches (22×15×1.9cm).
The Multifunctional Flash Drive: You can greatly augment the use of borrowed/rented computers by carrying one or more inexpensive "flash drives", tiny storage devices that connect to USB ports, and look to the computer like disk drives (these also go by a variety of colloquial names, such as "thumb drive", "key drive", and "memory stick"). Such devices — Kingston's DataTraveler SE9 in 16GB size (pictured at right) is a particularly rugged/convenient design, well-suited to the traveller — make it easy to bring along personal files, and even favourite applications (make sure the latter will run directly from the drive, and not require installation on the host computer; PortableApps.com is a good source of appropriate Windows® software).
Rather avoid Windows altogether? The more technically adventurous might consider taking along their own private operating systems. Linux is particularly well-suited to arbitrary hardware platforms, and offers other advantages to the roving computerphile; liveusb-creator is but one application for building executable Linux installations on flash drives. But be forewarned; not all computers have BIOS components that lend themselves to booting from a USB device!
Flash drives are also excellent for transferring files between computers, and backing up files (including copies of important documents, though I don't recommend this as the primary means of such backup — storage devices can be lost/stolen/damaged just as easily as the original documents). If you do store personal information on your flash drive, it would be prudent to do so in an encrypted format: that way, should the drive disappear, you needn't worry about the loss of your data. For experienced computer users, the best solution for this is an open source program called TrueCrypt; for the more timid, the equally free Rohos Mini-Drive is a good (albeit Windows®-only) alternative.
Be careful: some flash drives have built-in "features" that automatically load software onto the host computer. If you do need specific features (such as encryption), it's much better to use software that will function directly from the flash drive.
If you're already carrying digital camera memory cards, these can be used in place of flash drive devices. If your computer doesn't accept them directly, an inexpensive USB adapter will let them connect.
If you must bring a laptop/tablet/whatever, of course, don't forget its attendant extras: power supply (with cord and any necessary plug adapters), network cable(s), and any needed accessories (such as a video adapter for presentations). You can use sites such as WiFiFreeSpot.com to locate nearby wireless connections if your hotel doesn't offer them (or charges too much).
If you eat healthily, travel frequently (instead of being perennially parked in front of a TV), favour stairs over elevators, use public transportation, and walk (without trailering your belongings), you are already well ahead of most when it comes to personal fitness. But you also need cardiovascular activity, and this can appear challenging to travellers who don't frequent high-end hotels with elaborate exercise facilities.
Fortunately, there's a simple exercise regimen that can be done almost anywhere, in any weather, indoors or out, in minimal space. Professional sports trainers consider rope jumping an integral part of any fitness plan, and the best way to develop overall conditioning. This "ultimate exercise" works the arms, legs, heart, and lungs — developing coordination, balance, agility, and stamina — and burns calories fast: 10–12 calories/minute at moderate speed for a person weighing 150 pounds (68kg). It's much easier on the joints than running, as you land on the balls of your feet, not the heels, and from a mere inch or two of drop. Finally, unlike many exercise programs, it requires minimal investment: a compact, lightweight, high-quality jump rope (as pictured at left) can be had for around USD$15.
Make sure your rope is the appropriate length: when you stand on its centre, the handles should reach to your armpits. You can shorten an overlong rope by tying knots near the handles, or by cutting (don't be in a hurry to cut, though: as your skills improve, you may want to lengthen the rope a bit to enable more varied skipping styles).
The necessary skill is easily within the reach of most, but it will take some practice before you develop the proper technique, and achieve maximum benefit, especially if you haven't tried it since kindergarten. So don't let yourself get discouraged in the early stages. The trick is to skip from foot to foot (not jump up and land on both feet at the same time), remaining as close to the ground as possible; eventually you'll develop the necessary side-to-side rhythm to do it properly. Remember that rope exercise is about timing, not high jumping. Good technique means that: your shoulders are down and relaxed; you are turning the rope with your wrists, not your arms; your wrists are slightly below your elbows when you jump; you are jumping only once per rope revolution; and you are landing softly (visualize a glass floor). Go easy at first: abundant jumping can lead to foot problems if you don't ease into it. Once you're accomplished, you can vary the motions to avoid boredom: you'll find considerable depth to the sport should you become sufficiently interested.
A good workout (and a lot harder than it sounds) is:
- 90-second warm-up
- 2-minute rest
- 3 minutes jumping rope
- 2-minute rest
- 3 minutes jumping rope
- 2-minute rest
- 3 minutes jumping rope
It's not a bad idea to occasionally check your continuous jumping limit: if you can manage six minutes non-stop — approximately the equivalent of a one-mile run — you are doing very well (professional athletes can go 24 minutes straight without missing a beat). Add in some push-ups and sit-ups and you'll be one of the fittest travellers on the road, with almost no impact on your ability to travel lightly.
Think even a jump rope is excess baggage? If you're looking for a "no device, minimal space" exercise regimen, consider the four-minute workout based on the Tabata Protocol (a scientifically sound form of high-intensity interval training); a free app will even talk (and time) you through it. Alternatively, Fitness Magazine has developed an equipment-free total body workout that will keep you lively and limber.
Want something less strenuous? Consider this set of easy, equipment-free exercises from Swissôtel.
Looking to simplify still more? Try a superb aerobic manœuvre called the "burpee" (aka the "prison exercise", commonly taught to convicts as an effective exercise with limited space and no equipment). Several descriptions can be found on the Web, though many are incorrect (Wikipedia has it right, and also suggests possible sources of the name). The most accurate video that I've uncovered is seen below.
Burpees can be extremely exhausting, especially if you're not in decent shape, so try the tamer versions shown later in the video — keeping knees on the ground for the push-up (0:28), "walking" back to the plank position (0:45) — before getting yourself into trouble. And there's no need to try for any "burpees per minute" competition records!
Depending on how arithmetic-challenged you are, one of these might help you with currency conversion, and — if you're from Liberia, Myanmar, or the United States — with the international measurement (metric) system as well. Some are available with quite impressive foreign language dictionaries built in. A solar-powered design will reduce the need for batteries.
For many journeys, it can be wise to bring along some sustenance. Lengthy plane/train/bus trips, for example, generally offer little in the way of healthy (and/or inexpensive) food availability. Also, such trips can often be unavoidably delayed, sometimes for many hours. Nuts are an ideal travel food, being compact and nutritionally dense; crackers, cheese sticks, fresh/dried fruit, and granola-style bars are also worth considering. And remember that a well-chosen, first-class sandwich can easily make you the envy of fellow travellers who have not been so sensibly anticipatory.
Another concern is the availability of any particularly favourite items at your destination. Coffee, for example, is not widely available in many of the less touristy parts of Asia, so if your daily functioning requires a supply of same, it may be wise to bring your own: individual packets of instant coffee are available in a variety of quality levels.
With all things food-related, remember that agricultural inspectors at border crossings can restrict the import of meats, fresh fruits, and/or nuts, so check the rules beforehand.
A final suggestion is to think about taking along some small items that you can present to people you encounter along the way, especially the children (there is no faster way to endear yourself to the families you meet). The colourful (economical, flat) press-on stickers you can generally buy near gift wrapping supplies are appropriate for many ages. Another good idea is to carry a supply of the balloons used to make animals, hats, and the like. You've almost certainly seen this done, and perhaps never realized how easy a skill it is to learn (at least for simple items). T. Myers Magic will provide the instruction — including how to blow up the balloons without popping your eyeballs — and the supplies.
For adults in less industrialized areas, inexpensive (but not cheap, throwaway) ballpoint pens are a good choice; they also make good bargaining chips at markets. High quality fish hooks will be very scarce in poor fishing communities, making them excellent gifts and trade goods (especially for fish!); make sure you get the flat variety. Bandannas, not widely available outside North America, are another good choice. Other adults may appreciate a souvenir (perhaps a small flag pin) of your home country; as a Canadian, I often carry some of our USD$1 gold-coloured "loonie" coins (so named for the loon pictured on its reverse side).