What Not to Pack for Long Term Travel: 10 Things We Wish We Did & Didn’t Pack

Packing for long term travel is an art. Or maybe a science. Either way, we made some mistakes. Here's 10 things we wish we did and didn't pack for our trip.
Packing for long term travel is an art - or maybe it's a science. Either way, it's hard to know what to pack for long term travel. Here's 10 mistakes we made when packing for our year long backpacking trip!

Packing for long term travel: some people leave it until the last minute, but I – of course, you probably guessed – spent months planning, researching, test-packing, and even in some cases, weighing every item for our trip. You’re probably not shocked to hear that there were spreadsheets and diagrams (or maybe you are, in which case, let me assure you: there are always spreadsheets where I’m concerned. If this was Harry Potter, my patronus would be a spreadsheet). But even though I researched, re-researched, read countless blog posts about packing for long term travel and background checked the authors of the Amazon reviews I trusted (ok, that last part is a mild exaggeration), there were bound to be mistakes. It turns out that with all my research about what to pack for long term travel, I really wish I’d known what NOT to pack! Learn from our mistakes – here are 10 of our packing regrets from our year-long trip.

Looking out over Machu Picchu after our failure to hike the Inca Trail.
I sure wish I’d known to pack warmer clothing for South America. We ended up buying these warm, cozy alpaca sweaters as soon as we hit the high-altitude Andes mountains of Ecuador & Peru!

What We Wish We Didn’t Pack

The worst part about packing for long term travel is that whatever you bring, you’re stuck with until you either toss it or shell out the money to mail it home. We spent $100 mailing a box of unwanted stuff home 3 months into our trip. Here’s what we wish we didn’t pack for our year long backpacking trip!


Old Smartphones

One of my genius travel safety ideas was to bring our old smartphones instead of our shiny new latest-edition ones. So each of us has an ancient old smartphone. Jeremy is carting around an ancient iPhone 4 and I have a dusty old Samsung Galaxy S3. In terms of the tech world, we’ve become my mom. And although the phones have served the purposes of being easily unlocked and outfitted with foreign SIM cards from each country just fine, and we spend plenty of time browsing Instagram and Facebook like the carefree San Franciscans we once were, there are some major downsides to having such old phones. For starters, mine has the battery power of an old sock. I’ll charge it for hours only for it to stay on for 10 minutes, and then die again with a puttery, exhausted sigh. Jeremy didn’t want to shell out for a protective cover for such an old crappy phone, so of course on our first week of travelling, he dropped the thing on concrete and shattered the screen. We had to get him a protective screen just so he’d stop getting glass shards in his fingers. And, both of our cameras are so bad that if we don’t feel comfortable getting out or fancy camera for a photo, too bad – all we can capture is a blurry Monet-esque impression of whatever we’re seeing. But you know what the kicker is? Everyone here has their own  fancy smartphones already. We’re the gringo lame asses who have old tech! Sure, nobody wants to steal our jank old phones, and we have some peace of mind knowing that if they DID steal them, it would kind of just be a relief at this point, but I think we would have been fine bringing our newer, spiffier phones (with protective casing, of course). We were as, if not more, likely to get them stolen back at home than we are here. Update: We did end up switching out our phones for nicer phones. Now we’re only 2 years behind everyone else instead of 5! 

  • Travel Tip: Don’t stress too much about bringing your fancy smartphone abroad. You’re as likely to get it stolen at home as you are while you travel. Just use basic safety precautions: Never use your phone while walking, on a busy street, or on a crowded bus or train. Duck behind a corner or  into a shop to check your phone.
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Universal Travel Adapters

We brought these big, chunky “Universal” travel adapters – 1 for each of us. And they’ve been completely useless. All the plugs in Colombia and Ecuador were standard US plugs, and the ones in Peru were all been special outlets that fit both European and US plugs. Chile & Argentina required Australian plugs which our “Universal” adapters mysteriously didn’t have.  And in Europe? The darn things were too big to use – they kept falling out of the outlets. Turns out all we need is a tiny little $1 adapter that can be found literally everywhere. There was no reason to buy a big, clunky one-size-doesn’t-fit-anything travel adapter in advance when it’s so easy to find smaller, cheaper, and easier to use versions at hostels and convenience stores!

  • Travel Tip: Research online to make sure that travel plug adapters are actually necessary where you’re going. And remember that you can ALWAYS buy one at your destination, guaranteed to be the correct type!

Fitbits

At home, we both wear one of those old-school style Fitbits every single day. We regularly participate in overly competitive walking challenges with our friends and colleagues, and do idiotic things like take unnecessary trips to refill our coffee cups just to get extra steps. So when we left for South America, I had big plans. I was going to walk so much. I had dreams of beating everyone on my Fitbit friends list, especially that one douche who you KNOW has a desk job but somehow gets 20,000 steps every day (what’s your secret, bro? Treadmill desk?! Do you wake up at 5am to walk to work every day? HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS?!?!) But alas, my Fitbit has been completely useless. Transportation in South America is much bumpier than at home, so the stupid thing thinks that every bus, taxi, mototaxi, and horse I’m on is a huge hike. I was beating all of my friends, but it was thanks to 12-hour overnight buses, not exercise. With so much bad data, the thing was useless, and it’s been relegated to our electronics case until we get home.

  • Travel Tip: If you want to count your steps abroad, make sure that your Fitbit is properly configured to ignore bumpy bus rides and the like. The newer FitBits that count your heart rate are better (like this one), since obviously if I’m snoozing on a bus, I’m not running at 60 MPH.

Cable Lock & Security Wire

I spent a lot of sleepless nights before our trip worrying about theft, kidnapping, and various other anxiety-inducing worse case scenarios. I’d find myself in Google holes filled with stories about people getting their bags stolen off buses, right from under their noses. And so I stocked up on precautions: I bought us a bunch of these little locks to deter theft, including a super-heavy steel cable and lock. The idea was to tie our bags together and then to some sort of secure object, like a pole, to keep them from getting stolen. This is great in theory, except that our bags are never sitting around near a pole, nor are they ever sitting out somewhere far away from us to be at risk for theft. They’re either on our backs, sitting at our feet, or locked away in a luggage compartment underneath a bus. So the cable lock was just unnecessary weight. We sent it home and have just been following basic security precautions instead. So far, we’ve had 1 attempted and 0 successful thefts (though, to be fair, if we’d locked our bag to a chair, the thief wouldn’t have gotten very far and we wouldn’t have had to chase them through the streets of Ica, Peru to get our bag back. Hmmm).

  • Travel Tip: Never let your bags out of your sight or out of your reach, even for a second. A cable lock and security wire is overkill as long as you’ve got a hand or an eye on your bag.
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Eyeshadow and Bronzer

Yes, I brought makeup on a backpacking trip. Don’t judge me – a year is a LONG time to go without looking your best, and I happen to love wearing and applying makeup. Most of my makeup has actually been great. Except the eyeshadow and the bronzer. RIP. They both broke all over my makeup bag  into a million pieces of powdery irritation within a week of leaving.  I shouldn’t really be surprised. When my bag isn’t being tossed into the trunk of a car, shoved underneath a bus, dragging on the ground behind a rickshaw, or being crushed beneath the weight of 1000 other backpacks in a hostel storage room, it’s being roughed up by yours truly. Backpacks are made to withstand this kind of pressure. My delicate Clinique eyeshadow and Korres bronzer? Not so much. Now when I want some eyeshadow to complete my ~look~, I have to sneak into a department store and use their makeup counters, pretending that I don’t speak Spanish to the irritated salespeople.  Don’t be me.

  • Travel Tip: Anything you bring can and will break. Leave your fancy but delicate makeup at home, and bring hardy, cream-based makeup for your trip. Revlon makes a cream eyeshadow that is affordable and very travel-friendly. For more recommendations, read my travel makeup  beauty guide.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador.
Our backpacks are, at this point, just an extension of our own bodies. A giant, 30-pound hump-backed extension, but still. Photo of Jeremy taken while horribly lost on the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador.

What We Wish We Packed

Half of knowing what not to pack for long term travel is actually packing the right stuff. Well, we didn’t just pack things that we didn’t end up needing. We also missed some things that we wish we would have packed! Here’s what we wish we packed for our long term trip.


A full sized travel towel

I bought us this ultralight, dinky, 12×18 inch piece of shit travel “towel” (more of a washcloth, really). It doesn’t even cover one of my thighs at a time, much less the middle section of my body. It’s about as warm and cozy as wearing one sleeve (not a shirt or sweater with one sleeve. Just one sleeve). I can’t sit on it at the beach, unless I only want one half of my butt to be protected from the sand. The thing is freaking worthless. Know why I bought it? 8 ounces. 8 measly ounces that I wanted to save. Apparently it was worth it to me to save 8oz in exchange for never being able to dry myself off and spending an outrageous amount of money on renting towels from hostels. All I want in the world right now is a giant, full sized travel towel, and to go back in time and smack myself in the face with my stupid tiny towel. UpdateWe actually went out and bought a real, full sized towel and mailed our stupid travel towel home. Then we bought this regular sized travel towel, too. At this point, we’re carrying 2 full-sized towels, a pair of slippers, and a small bathrobe. That’s how angry I was at this stupid tiny travel towel. 

    • Travel Tip: A full sized towel is worth the splurge. There are plenty of compact, quick-drying travel towels in actual human sizes on the market, like this one.

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More conditioner. Really good conditioner.

Travel is awful on my long, split-end prone, wavy/curly white girl hair. From being dunked in salt water to air-drying while crazily flying through the sea on a boat to my daily “screw it, messy bun” routine to being constantly washed with chemical-laden water, it’s being tested to the max and it’s failing those tests. I was not blessed in the hair genetics department (unlike, apparently, every other girl I’ve met while we’ve been traveling, as well as everyone in South America in general).  I brought small travel sized bottles of conditioner thinking I could buy some down here. Well, the conditioner down here sucks, and it’s expensive. My guess is that, due to a freak genetic jackpot, none of the women in South America actually need conditioner. Well, not me. My hair is high maintenance and demands nothing but the best, or it gives up and breaks off. RIP, good hair days. Update: We’re currently carrying around full-sized bottles of my favorite conditioner and my hair is thanking me.

  • Travel Tip: Know your hair. It will be at its worst while you travel and will need some extra pampering. Don’t skimp on high quality conditioner, because – especially in South America – because you can’t always find the good stuff abroad.

A Shampoo Bar

I’m dying for a shampoo bar to replace all of the little bottles of travel sized shampoo we’ve got in our travel bags. We have about 18 times more shampoo bottles than conditioner bottles. I’d like to replace them all with one, good, moisturizing, travel-friendly shampoo bar. And then ceremoniously destroy all these tiny, half-full bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Update: We ran to the first Lush we found and loaded up on shampoo bars, and have since donated all of our tiny bottles to hostel bathrooms across the globe. 

  • Travel Tip: A shampoo bar in a tin will last for months, and will never bust open and spill all over your backpack or suitcase. Lush makes a fantastic shampoo bar in scents like Honey and Rose, or find your favorite scent on Etsy (Coffee? Rosemary Mint? Lemongrass Verbena? Bourbon Vanilla?) Omg, I want one of each!

Cute Clothes

I may be practical to a freakish extreme, but I’m also stylish: I worked in the fashion industry before we left to go traveling, after all. But sadly for my fashion sense, all of the clothes I bought are functional – few can be called cute.  I see so many travelers in cute flowy tops, sundresses, patterned shorts, linen rompers, and floppy hats – all so impractical, but so cute. Meanwhile, I’m constantly wearing quick-dry performance hiking clothes and borrowing my husband’s shirts (you know, for that over-sized “boyfriend look.” Except not cute). I underestimated how much I would miss being able to dress up a little bit. I’d like to exchange a few of my functional but ugly tops for something impractical but fashionable. Update: We totally bought ourselves some cute new clothes. Now we only wear our performance travel clothes for hikes and outdoor activities, like normal people.

  • Travel Tip: Functional travel clothes are great, but make sure to pack with a balance of cute and functional clothes so you don’t spend your whole trip hiding from cameras and feeling like a schlub. The longer your trip, the more important it will be to have the option to change things up sometimes.
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Another Computer

We brought one teeny, tiny, super lightweight travel-friendly Chromebook, thinking we’d switch off working on the blog or writing while the other one read or journalled or meditated or practiced calligraphy or did yoga or whatever things we assumed we would suddenly develop an interest in while travelling (spoilers: none of that happened). In reality, one of us hogs the laptop while the other sadly looks at their to-do list and feels unproductive. If we had two computers, we could both be productive at the same time, which would also have the effect of doubling the amount of work we could do on the blog. We’ve been kicking ourselves for not realizing this before we left. UpdateWe actually gave in and bought an inexpensive computer in Lima. It’s WOO brand, whatever that is. Most of the keys are mislabeled.  Everything is in Spanish. We were desperate. 

  • Travel Tip: If you’re travelling in a couple or group, make sure there is equal access to the internet. This is even more important if you have a blog or an online job. You will need more than one computer! That said, it doesn’t have to be fancy. We love our tiny, lightweight little Chromebook but if we could go back in time we’d probably bring a Macbook Air, too.

So those are the 10 mistakes we made while packing for long term travel. Have you ever arrived somewhere only to realize you’ve made some packing mistakes? Tell us in the comments!


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34 Comment

  1. KirstieLush says: Reply

    The hair thing- I SO understand. I swear I have the worst natural hair in the world. It naturally looks like Monica from Friends’s hair when they go to Barbados, but not only in humidity it’s just like that all the time! (Though humidity obviously does NOT help) I backpacked Europe and I bought a straightener- you gotta do what you gotta do when everyone else apparently has gorgeous perfect beach waves 24/7 with zero effort!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      OMG a fellow sufferer! haha. I totally bought a tiny travel straightener to take on the next leg of our trip, in Europe 😡 don’t judge me!

  2. Jennifer Harvey says: Reply

    THANK YOU! I’m heading to South America (Colombia/Peru/Bolivia) from the UK in a few weeks time and am not known for my light packing, or packing anything remotely useful, but I know I must do on this trip. Your tips are invaluable, especially about hair products, as this is what stresses me out the most travelling anywhere…as I too suffer with frizzy/wavy/unruly hair! Have a fantastic time in Europe (where you can actually find decent conditioner, at cheap prices!).

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’m so glad this is helpful! We’re working on getting a full post out about the best things we DID end up packing, hopefully that will be helpful too 🙂

  3. Great tips here! I’m a pretty low maintainence traveller and definitely plan a packing list months in advance!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      A fellow planner! It’s funny how packing so little (in theory) takes so much planning and research (in practice). Like, if I’m only packing 2 pairs of pants, they have to be THE best pants in the universe, which requires so much thought and effort. It’s almost easier to just pack more and call it a day 😛

  4. Birthe says: Reply

    Oh, I wish I had taken a Fitbit or some kind of thing that counts steps on our trip around the world! God, my stats would have been through the roof! Opposed to now, when sitting at my desk the entire day, barely making it to 3,000.
    I totally feel you on the cute clothes part. I have whined about my ugly quick dry travel clothes at least once a day for the entire 1 year trip! (Exaggerated just a little.) EVERYONE looked cute all the time, me never. Golden tip to pack a combination of cute and functional clothes!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Right?! Plus when running a travel blog it doesn’t help that without cute clothes, all of the pictures of me staring wistfully off into the distance are ruined by my lime green workout pants or whatever. Sigh.

  5. Thanks for this. Definitely some things to keep in mind as we prepare for long term travel next year. Your blog also does a great job of luring people in to read more!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thank you! Your trip sounds super exciting! And I’m so glad to hear you say that, because we’ve been working really hard at it 😛 it’s so difficult to keep readers from leaving after just one article!

  6. It’s always so hard to know what to bring until you actually go! I’m moving to Australia and will then be traveling, and the idea of having to pack for a year has me freaking out!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      The good news is, for the most part you can buy most of what you need abroad (although I don’t like to)! We ended up buying some clothes, a new laptop, and about 85 different types of conditioner abroad 😛 Still, it’s so much easier if you just magically pack everything perfectly, isn’t it?

  7. Lena says: Reply

    I am totally with you on ‘bringing some nice clothes’. We always pack as if we’re going to be in the forest all the time, but the thing is, most of the time you are in the city where people can see you and more so, the pictures! When I look at the pictures after, I always wish I was bringing nicer clothes and spent some time looking in the mirror, especially since they will be all over your blog 😀

  8. Oh I totally relate to this list! I just spent 3 weeks in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica and while my big clunky travel adaptor did come in handy (TWO USB points thank you!) I too wish I had brought a REAL TOWEL, ALL the conditioner and actually for me, cute cycling shorts to minimise the “chub rub” between my thick highs!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Oh girl I feel you so hard, I brought like 4 pairs of spandex shorts AND some bodyglide. Chub rub is no joke, especially with all the walking we do while travelling!

  9. Meg says: Reply

    This is awesome! I think I lol-ed a bit when you suffered ‘powdery irritation’ from your eyeshadow breaking all over your toiletries bag. I’ve SO been there with face powder! It’s one of those things where you can never get your pre-trip packing right because you have no idea what you’ll face on the road. Thankfully you can usually pick up the bits you need!

  10. Emily says: Reply

    The part about the fitbit made me laugh! Must have been off the charts after a 12 hour bus ride.

    I straight up *forgot* to bring a towel when I first went traveling, and I had no idea where to buy one. I wound up finding an outdoor/camping store and purchasing this super compact micro fiber nonsense that was like $40 (NZD). It was tiny, like yours, and would dry one arm before being totally soaked. Needless to say, I was pretty happy to trade it in for a nice big fluffy bath towel once I found it!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’m glad we’re not the only ones who neglected their towel! If this was the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, we’d be breaking the main rule 😛

  11. Great article! I always take a eyeshadow stick with me and it works great!
    Clothes-wise…I always take comfortable, simple clothes and usually miss a cute top or something. Lesson for next time.
    x

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Ooh an eyeshadow stick sounds like a good idea! I’m currently using some Revlon Cream eyeshadow and it works okay, but I’m looking for a better solution.

  12. Cynthia says: Reply

    I’m so glad I read your blog before I leave for my long vacation. I’ve already packed the things that I shouldn’t pack and my luggage feels much lighter. Thanks for the great blog

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’m so happy to help! Have a blast on your trip!

  13. Vic says: Reply

    Everyone tells you not to take Jeans, I live in my jeans at home don’t understand whilst travelling I suddenly wouldn’t. That meant on my year travels got envious glances in pretty much every hostel when I got them out to wear.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I absolutely agree! Bring your favorite pair of jeans from home – but at the same time, you should be prepared for them to be absolutely ruined by the end of your travels. Nothing puts holes in your clothes and ruins a new pair of shoes like long term travel!

  14. joanne reynolds says: Reply

    I have just returned from our holiday having forgotten to pack my make up bag!!!! So unlike me – like you I am a planner and had a list!!!! I managed to get hold of an eyeliner and it turns out that was all I needed! I will remember this in future. I always take a multi socket extension lead – that way we can charge / use multiple items off one socket. I completely understand the need for feminine clothes – I usually pick up some cheap dresses from local markets and leave them when I’m due to come home! For me, comfortable shoes are a must – have spent so much time with achy feet because I had inappropriate footwear – has anyone else tried walking through a Costa Rican rain forest in a pair of flip flop????? What was I thinking!!!!!!!!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      OMG I can totally relate to ALL of this! We’ve made so many, many mistakes along the way. Every small success we’ve had in travel has been paved with about a zillion complete screwups and failures 😛

  15. I really like your fashion tips, particularly the ones about bringing a mix of functional but also pretty clothing, and also avoiding bringing powder products that may crumble. Great blog!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thank you! I’m so glad our tips were useful!

  16. Lisa Dean says: Reply

    I love that you are so down to earth and give honest opinions. I am taking my husband to Graspop in Belgium this year. After he read your blog (s), he now agrees with most of my suggestions ( I am a seasoned traveler). Also, I have learned a couple of great tips too! Thank you!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Hahah I’m glad that we were able to help you convince him (although hopefully from now on he’ll start listening to you)!

  17. Deedle says: Reply

    Love this post! I am crying because I’m laughing so hard! This is me to a tee!

  18. Carmel says: Reply

    Totally agree with the conditioner! As a curly haired woman, it’s so hard to find a conditioner my hair likes and I use so much of it so I always take a huge bottle of conditioner with me. Other travellers who have these little travel bottles look at my massive bottle askew, which is always a giggle.

  19. Deja says: Reply

    Sorry this is almost year late but the reason most of those ladies have lushious locks and no conditioner is because they use natural conditioners. In my family, we use 100% extra virgin coconut oil. A penny size amount for midback length hair is more than enough. In America, they usually have some in the beauty departments of drug stores and are designed for head to toe use as a moisturizer and for hair. Of course, depending on what you prefer, you can also hit up a grocery store for some coconut oil. I don’t think I would fully skip the conditioner like my aunties do but it would definitely be a good investment especially since it can last a year if you use it right!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      That’s so good to know! I use EVOO and Coconut Oil on my hair usually after I shower, but I’ve found it’s too heavy for my hair if I use it as conditioner. It weighs it down and ends up looking oily. I think some hair types respond much better to it!

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