Your Life in a Backpack: What to Pack For 6 Months Traveling Abroad
Think back to your last vacation. I bet your suitcases were so stuffed you had to sit on them just to get the zipper closed, and that was just for one week! Now imagine if you had to pack absolutely everything you needed for six months on the road, or even a year, and it all had to fit into one big backpack! That's the challenge I face every time I head overseas for a live-in excursion to places like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, or even on a walkabout around the world for a year. Hell no, I'm not complaining -- I get live in the tropics like a beach bum and write my heart out, but packing every single possession I'll need in a bag no bigger than a laundry sack becomes a Divinci-esque feat of science.
In a few weeks I'll be at the airport once again, this time with a one-way ticket to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand for an undetermined amount of time, where I'll write, volunteer, and attempt to surf as I go. So after painstaking consideration, this is what I packed:
The North Face Base Camp duffel bag/backpack.
It's hard to find a backpack big enough to accommodate everything you need for a prolonged stay. Most mountaineering and hiking bags are only in the 3,500-4,500 cubic inch range, but the North Face makes an oversized duffel bag/backpack that holds about 8,000 cubic inches. It's super durable and very roomy, with padded shoulder straps so I can throw it on like a backpack when needed. I haul it around bus stations and airports a lot more than actual wilderness excursions, so that works great.
I bring a regular-sized backpack to carry my laptop around, head to the beach, or take plenty of day trips. I use this smaller pack all day, every day so for this trip I chose a O'Neill Suburbia backpack because it has a laptop compartment, water bottle holder, and comfortable shoulder straps.
1 Pair lightweight jeans.
I bring one good pair and one pair that can get wet for the beach. Reef makes some cool new flip flops that have a compartment in the sole so you can hide money or your room key. Genius!
1 Pair slip-on shoes:
Something light, breathable, and easy to slip on is fantastic in hot, beachy climates. I like my classic Vans, and Crocs makes some cool new waterproof shoes in funky designs that are much cleaner and safer because of their plastic soles.
A pair of running sneaks for working out, hiking, or if I have a big day sight seeing.
7 Tank tops.
When I first started traveling I brought too many t-shirts, but soon realized I wanted something as light and airy as possible in tropical climates, so now I load up on tank tops.
I try to find the ones that aren't pure cotton, which is heavier and doesn't breathe when you sweat. One by one I cut the sleeves off my t-shirts, anyway!
3 Collared shirts.
I fit in a few short sleeve button-up shirt for those nights on the town or nicer dinners.
3 O'Neill Hybrid shorts/swim suits.
I used to pack several swim shorts and also bring a few pairs of normal cotton shorts, but Hybrid shorts changed that. They're made of comfortable, breathable quick-drying material that can get wet, but look like nice dress shorts. They're the best invention for travelers because you only have to pack half as much but can throw them on no matter if you're going to work out, sweat, jump in the ocean, or just walk around town. I love the ones by O'Neill, which fit great and come in plenty of cool patterns.
4 Athletic shorts.
1 Baseball hat.
(Philadelphia Phillies, of course!)
1 Fisherman hat.
I look goofy as Gilligan in it, but a big hat is your best friend on the beach at midday or in direct sun, where it's easy to get heat stroke.
Socks and underwear.
(Not that I'm going to wear either of them.)
I wear sunglasses most of the day when I'm outdoors, but I always seem to break or lose them, so I get a decent pair only in the $25 range. The good news is you can buy cheap sunglasses anywhere you go on the beach. I also bring a little cord to keep them on my head in case I'm kayaking or zip lining or doing something where they might fly off.
1 Comfy hooded sweatshirt.
A warm hoodie is essential for cold airplane rides, early morning trips on the water, or some nights as your only pillow and blanket!
Lycra long sleeve shirt.
I live on my MacBook as I travel, using it to write, work, stay in touch with family and friends, and even watch TV and movies. I wish I had a MacBook Air, which is super lightweight, but mine works fine for now. I put a cheap plastic cover on it to protect it from moisture and scratches, and throw up cool stickers of places I've been and brands I love, badges of identity to other travelers.
I love the feel of a real book, but while on the road it's almost impossible to buy books and I definitely don't want to carry them around, so any eBook reader is convenient.
I bought one for $20 that lets me plug in my electronics in almost any country, and also acts as a surge protector for those frequent power outages.
GoPro Hero 3 Black camera.
I recently converted from my jenky digital camera to a super fun Go Pro. It's smaller than a deck of cards, has huge storage capacity and battery life, and fits into a shockproof case so I can take it over rough terrain or underwater. I can strap it to a surfboard, bicycle handlebars, or on a headgear clip while I'm getting my ass kicked in the boxing gym. I have a wifi remote so I can document the wonderment of traveling abroad in movie quality without holding a camera up to my eyes all the time, and I plan to expand my travel bog to a more-entertaining video blog.
Whenever I hit the road I suspend my US cell service for $10 a month, forwarding my number to Skype or GoogleVoice, but I still use my iPhone as a mini computer via local wifi, accessing apps that allow me to make calls, use GPS, a compass, translate languages on the fly, and serve as a killer flashlight.
I'm paranoid about getting my laptop ruined or stolen and losing all of my data, so I back up daily on high-memory flash drives and hide them someplace safe.
GoalZero portable solar charger.
GoalZero, one of my new favorite companies, makes the Nomad 7, a portable solar charger that's no bigger than a notebook. It unfolds into two panels that catch the sun and recharge my phone, GPS, camera, or MP3 player with a simple USB hookup. A separate recharger battery the size of a tube of toothpaste, the Switch 8, can be thrown into my backpack and gives my devices plenty of juice in case of an emergency or if I'm stuck out in the jungle. When that happens, and it will happen, a quick solar charge can literally be a life saver.
GoalZero portable speaker.
I listen to music 24/7 and the speakers on my laptop don't cut it. But most mini speakers sounded like trash until I finally found a good one that is affordable and durable, with 20 hours of battery life, the RockOut 2 speaker by GoalZero. They come with a built in durable case and you can power them via your laptop, charge their internal battery, or even go solar.
One pair of earbuds and one over-the-head pair for jogging.
I bring a Tupperwear container to store my electronic accessories and twist ties to organize their cords and cables.
I get back to basics on the road: pushups, burpees, etc., but I do bring a jump rope and a stretchy fitness band, which take up almost no room but are versatile for any-time workouts. Gymnastic rings also are easy to hook up anywhere for strength and balance conditioning.
I have an incredible trainer, Trevor Gibbs at Health Behaviors, who sets my workout plan virtually based on my natural elements, no matter where I am in the world!
Brita filtered water bottle.
I hate plastic water bottles, and you should too!
Small gym towels.
I carry a little towel around with me everywhere I go to wipe the sweat away, dash through a rain storm, or even dry off after a dip in the ocean. These are great because it's always super hot in the tropics and I sweat like... well, like a gringo in the tropics. I used to "borrow them permanently" from hotels, but I've since reformed and now I buy a pack.
Once I settle down and get an apartment overseas I bolt a solid combo lock onto a railing or post near my front door and put my house key in it. That way I never have to carry around my key (a pain if you're living near the beach) but I can get in any time.
I should use a laptop cable lock, but I prefer just to hide it in a ceiling panel or the bottom of the garbage can when I leave my hotel or apartment.
Likewise, instead of fancy false-bottom containers and security devices, I just hide my important stuff -- passport, credit cards, flash drive, etc. in the bottom of a cereal box or hollowed-out can of peanuts.
Instead of wearing those dorky tourist money belts I just put money in the sole of my shoe.
Copies of travel papers.
I make copies of my passport, drivers license, and medical immunization card and keep them in a safe place. I also email photos of those to myself, along with credit card and bank information.
Toiletries and Medical:
Sanitizing toothbrush case.
Sanitation is always a question mark in third-world hotel bathrooms and hot, humid climates, a breeding ground for bacteria, so I bring the million germ eliminating travel toothbrush sanitizer by Violight. The case sanitizes 99 percent of germs and the battery lasts 2,000 hours! I found it in Hammacher & Schlemmer's catalog on the airplane.
I carry around a Z Pack of antibiotics in case of severe stomach sickness, and a course of anti-malarial meds if I'm going deep into the jungle.
A few packs of Emergen-C's come with me to so I don't get sick with all that nasty fake air on the plane or when I'm fighting off exotic germs in my new locale.
I bring travel size toiletries on the plane to last a few days, but deodorant, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, etc. I buy when I get there.
5 Copies of my own books.
Even though they are heavy, I schlep a few copies of the books I've written. Not only is it cool to lend them to fellow travelers, but I've traded copies for meals or even a night's stay in a hostel in a pinch!
I found a cheap set that I stuffed my clothes into then rolled the air out of vents on the other side and sealed shut. These bags reduce the volume of my clothes by 30 percent and keep everything dry.
Stuffed into my bag keep everything smelling fresh.
It's easy to set up a drying line anywhere I go.
Deck of cards.
That I can fit in my back pocket and write whenever inspiration hits. Some times you have to go old school!
Canadian flag patch.
I sew that onto my backpack so foreigners don't assume I'm from the U.S. and target me for political admonishment, theft... or worse.
For long flights (it's 18 hours to Vietnam from California) a neck pillow is essential, though I usually give it away once I get there so I don't have to carry it around.
A haircut might only cost $2, but finding a barber shop in every little beach town and rural hamlet is problematic. I keep my hair shaved short so I just bring my own cheap clippers.