What to Pack

If you asked 10 people what question causes them the most anxiety, you could get 10 very different responses, possible including:

  • “What’s for dinner?”
  • “Why aren’t you married?”
  • “How would you like to pay for this?”

For me, “Are you packed?” used to be the one question I never wanted to hear. Something in those words left me feeling anxious, to the extent that it literally raised my blood pressure. To make matters worse, I have always been a packing procrastinator so my answer was always an emphatic no, followed by panic and frustration. My solution: a spreadsheet, of course.

I will admit that I tend to be overzealous with spreadsheets, but I do genuinely feel as though they are the little black dress of technology. And let’s face it…everything looks better in a spreadsheet. My goal was to create a simple but effective grid to make packing less painful and more efficient. A list works just as well as a spreadsheet, but I like the columns in a grid because I use the cells for checkmarks as I go. As long as I use the grid system, I rarely forget what to pack.

I realize that a packing spreadsheet may sound silly, but keep in mind that my trips are often extended international stays with SCUBA gear, so there is a lot to remember. And while forgetting an item isn’t a show-stopper when traveling within the US, it can be a hassle and unplanned expense when traveling internationally. For example, sunscreen is significantly more expensive overseas (perhaps because so many people forget it!).

Even if you’re not a list-maker, the minimum items I’d recommend you try to remember when packing are as follows:

  • Passport and any other important documents (e.g., immunization record, additional photocopy of passport, driver’s license if needed, dive certification cards, insurance card)
  • Money (credit card and cash, especially small bills)
  • Pens (you will have to fill out immigration and customs forms on the airplane and the airlines never have pens when you need them)
  • Medication (headache, allergies, motion sensitivity, hydrocortisone cream, etc.)
  • Laptop/tablet/phone including power cables and headphones (be sure these are in your carry-on)
  • Camera including memory cards, battery and cables
  • Small Snacks (only bring enough to eat on the plane though because most countries will not allow you to bring in food)
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen (body, face and lip)
  • Insect repellant if you’re going to do any hiking (I love these wipes!)
  • Swimsuit (for a beach vacation, this may be the only item you really need if your luggage is delayed so be sure it is in your carry-on too)
  • Toothbrush and mini toothpaste (for long flights or multi-stop journeys, it is nice to have these to freshen up in airports)
  • Razor
  • Hat
  • Hair products including comb/brush, shampoo/conditioner (especially a good conditioner if you’ll be in salt water or chlorine), hair ties, styling iron (you guys can laugh, but if you’re going to tote around a camera, you might as well look good in your photos)
  • Dry bag (the last thing you want is to have your camera, money or documents get wet on an outdoor excursion)
  • Specialty items for extended flights (compression socks and any personal comfort items)

For anyone interested in experimenting with a spreadsheet approach, you can download my free customizable checklist (link in the right sidebar) and modify to meet your needs. Please note that I do not necessarily pack all of these items! This is just an attempt at an exhaustive list of packing options. You can certainly determine what subset of items makes the most sense for your trip’s duration and purpose, your preferred style of travel and your choice of luggage (keeping in mind any weight restrictions).

So what do you do if you are in a hurry or running out of room to pack? Well, you probably have some decisions to make about priorities. Different travelers will have different recommendations, I’m sure. The key is to focus on the objectives of your trip and the size/weight of your bags. My general perspectives are below:

Bring It
  • Technology – Don’t assume you can find batteries, memory cards, cables, chargers, etc. at your destination.
  • Medicine – Sure, there are pharmacies in most places, but if you use specific medications or have any critical needs, be sure these are included in your carry on. For example, you do not want to have to try to find a place to buy migraine meds when you are miserable.
  • Preventive Care – Don’t wait until you have an issue with your feet swelling to think about purchasing compression socks, for example. By the time you know you need them, it is too late and you may end up spending the following day (or two) with your feet elevated. If you think you have sensitivity to motion, don’t wait until you are riding on a bus in a rural area or sitting on a bumpy boat in the middle of an ocean to regret researching options for preventing motion sickness.
  • Swimsuits – Seriously. Have you ever tried to purchase a figure flattering swimsuit in a hurry? Most women would agree that this is not something you want to handle as an impromptu task…especially if you’re not a size 2 US.
  • Shoes – It is not that shoes are hard to find when traveling (you would be amazed at how many shoe stores you will see, actually), but chances are, you will be doing a lot of walking and it can be painful to break in a new pair of sneakers, flats or hiking boots in one day. The only caveat to this is that a pair of plastic beach flip-flops will likely be fine to pick up at your destination. The may be a little more expensive because they are considered a tourist item, but you will be able to find them easily.
  • Sunscreen – You will likely be able to find sunscreen in most destinations but you most places will charge you an exorbitant price.
  • Cash – Always travel with some amount of cash, especially small bills. You do not want to have to find an ATM before you can buy something to eat or drink, take a bus or arrange a taxi. Furthermore, ATMs often dispense bills that are too large for a bus or taxi to accept.
Find It
  • Clothes – If you are going to forget to pack something, let it be a clothing item (with the exception of a swimsuit) because it is simple to pick up a tank top, sundress, wrap, purse, hat, etc. at a local market or even an airport. Sure, you may end up looking like a tourist in your “I love Cancun!” tank top, but you will survive. Just remember that anything you buy probably needs to fit in your luggage in order to make it home with you. Try to leave extra space in your bags to accommodate purchases.
  • Accessories – As much as I consider a scarf a necessity for air travel (I freeze on most airplanes), it is an easy item to purchase at most destinations. A scarf is a useful souvenir and it is also nice to support the local community you are visiting. Plus, if you wear it home, it will not require any additional space to pack. You can also easily find inexpensive jewelry (watch, bracelet, necklace, etc.) at a local market that is functional for your trip but also a nice souvenir. Consider leaving any expensive/showy jewelry at home anyway for safety and respect to your visiting country.
  • Snacks – You have to be careful bringing food with you when you travel because most countries will not allow you to bring food in with you. This is especially true of fruit and nuts. If you are traveling by air, just bring enough to consume on the flight. The rest you can purchase when you land and make it through immigration and customs checks.
  • Toiletries – Fear not. Toothpaste does exist around the world. There will be a corner store, market or pharmacy where you can find any toiletries you forgot or ran out of time to pack. You just need to set your expectations that they may be slightly different than when you are used to. You will survive…and you may even remember to pack the items next trip!
  • Beach Bag – Almost every street market you find in your travels will have an inexpensive souvenir bag for purchase. They can be really nice and a great souvenir anyway. The added bonus of getting this on your trip is that it gives you a way to carry home any of your other purchases.

A final tip: check in with your tour operators in advance of your trip. If you are traveling with a group or have any tours you know you already are going to do, take a look at the company website or contact them in advance to see if there are recommended (or mandatory) items to bring. For example, a flashlight could be critical or you may want to bring special footwear with you. My mini flashlight has been indispensable (countless dark paths exist even in the safest of areas and electricity can be finicky in rural areas) and a pair of water sandals (my favorites are by Keen) can save your favorite shoes from getting wet and at the same time, save your feet from cuts and blisters if you are hiking through damp areas. You can also check out my list of packing essentials for suggestions.

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