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.
Table of Contents
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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. Update: We 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.
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!
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. I have exactly 1 pair of cute & multi-functional travel jeans (which, by the way, I’m obsessed with – take a look at these pocket-blessed stretchy heaven pants), which I live in, but not enough cute tops! 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.
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. Update: We 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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