Saturday, February 26, 2011

Packing for Overseas Travel & Living

Me at the Batumi Sheraton with a car that had a MINNESOTA license plate, and my Mountain Smith backpack.

Travel, regardless of the distance, requires packing. Whether you pack a simple lunch and some water to hike the Observation Point Trail in Zion or fill a 50-liter backpack for a yearlong worldwide trek, we bring essentials (and often a few luxuries) to meet our needs. Increasingly, airline regulations and fees make packing an even more challenging endeavor, forcing decisions and prioritization regarding what can and cannot come. No wonder packing is something that most travelers seem to wait until the last minute to do… And in that haste, packing becomes even more difficult.

Articles and tips abound about how to become a savvy packer. Tips range from painfully obvious to extremely creative; regardless, few tips are one-size-fits-all. Often, intriguing packing tips never actually get implemented into one’s packing, especially during the frantic rush to close the suitcase. Or one might read the suggestions with skepticism, seriously questioning whether x or y recommendation will work for their specific needs.

My quest to become a savvy packer started when I realized I simply packed too much, and I only used a fraction of what I actually brought. Things I never used or wore at home came along with me on distant journeys, with the pretense that I just might need them there. (This was a common line of thought for numerous years of summer camp and college.) Truth be told, if I didn’t use it at home, I would never use it while traveling, either. Consequently, in seeking to improve my packing technique, I turned to outside sources for assistance. Though I regarded much advice with a healthy dose of skepticism, I slowly began trying new things, some of which worked well and have become a permanent part of my packing repertoire. All the advice below comes from my personal experience, having spent 5 of the last 10 months or so living and working abroad, gradually refining my packing technique.

As I am living out of a backpack, a suitcase, and a duffle bag until June, here are some things I have learned:

  • Research item availability and prices before you go. Last year when I spent two months in Israel, I decided I would buy shampoo, soap, and toothpaste there, instead of going overweight and having to pay fees for my heavy bag. Unfortunately, I quickly learned Israel was much more expensive than I anticipated, making the cost of purchasing those items more than what I would have spent on the overweight baggage fee. Also, many commonplace items may not exist or have equivalents in certain places. The one-stop-shopping stores that dominate American shopping, such as Wal-Mart or Target, often do not exist, making finding needed items a time-consuming task.

  • Multi-tasking products are essential. My favorite multi-tasking product is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. Highly concentrated, great scents (I like the citrus), and multiple uses (shampoo, toothpaste, body wash, and laundry soap) make it a great space and weight saving item. Plus you can easily meet 3-1-1 rules with it.

  • Bring a Nalgene. In many countries, tap water is potable and can be consumed without hesitation. Consequently, fill up before you head out for the day. Also, Nalgenes or any other hard plastic water bottle makes a great place to store small, breakable items in a suitcase for the return trip. If only I had thought of that before I returned from Mexico!

  • Bring a journal. Have something with you to keep a written record of your travels - the people you meet, the foods you eat, the chaos at the border, the sights you see, etc. While you might cringe at the initial weight of a journal in your pack, it pales in comparison to what it will contain by the end. I recently started my 5th journal chronicalling my time in Georgia.

  • Choose fabrics wisely. The fabric qualities of packed clothing can make or break a trip. Unfortunately, fabrics that excel in some environments perform poorly in others. For example, my quick-dry shirts are amazing in the desert. In the sub-tropical, humid climate that is the Black Sea coast of Georgia, not so much.

  • Pack some postcards from home. During my travels abroad, people routinely ask me about where I am from. I pack a stack of Zion National Park postcards to show people what my adopted home is like. They are amazed a place like Zion exists. In Israel, many people were shocked to learn that there is “another” Zion in the world. While in Georgia (the country, not the state), the postcards helped to ease the tension during a visit to my home by the local police. (It’s a long story, and no I was not in trouble, they were just checking up on the American in their village).

  • American measuring cups and spoons. While in Israel I did a lot of baking, and trying to bake American recipes made without being measured exactly made for some interesting outcomes. Though mostly good, it was a good lesson to bring them for future extended overseas trips. For $2.00 I got an 8 piece set that weighs next to nothing. It came in very handy for the brownies I made for Halloween.

Ultimately, packing is an art form, and is unique to each person. Take suggestions and advice and make the necessary changes to make them your own. Most importantly, however, learn from your packing mistakes. It sounds simple, but it’s true. What worked for one trip, may not work for another destination.


  1. Hi Charlotte: I've been reading your blog for quite some time, enjoying it and laughing a lot.
    This is a very useful article on packing, I had forgotten about how useful Dr. Bonner's soap can be, I'll take some on my upcoming adventure-

    I'm now gearing up for my next (this will be my 3rd) trip to GE, I'll be there from May 23rd to Mid July. Would love to connect with you, my email is constancefinch (at) yahoo (dot) com.
    Keep up the interesting and entertaining blogs, you have many more fans than you might think!

  2. I should have read this one as a reminder. I'm getting ready to go to San Francisco and for some reason thought that "its not really cold there". 60% chance of rain and I just have a sweatshirt, now I'll be one of "those" people, ha ha. And wait, how much rain stuff do I have at home that I didn't Well, you are a better traveler for sure. Man, I have got to hand it to you, you are so brave to travel all over alone! I am nervous about just going to San Francisco alone, jeez! You're my travelling hero Charlotte!

    Hopefully will have some fun news next week about what happens in San to you soon.

  3. It's nice to read these kinds of accounts and find where the big leaps started. These are also good lessons for others, especially when they are wracked by the logistics of packing for travel. It can always seem like a daunting task on even a very cursory level. But you can always keep it sleek, and bring in shipping services that will not only streamline the load of the task, but make sure it travels well to one's destination.

    Dave @ Orbit