How to: Pack for a Year Away

Adventure Travel, Backpacking & Trekking, Packing & Wardrobe, Shopping & Style, Travel Products & Services — By on October 19, 2008 at 2:34 pm

by Jodi Ettenberg
Special to the Lost Girls

hiking wildernessAfter being on the road for a few months, I’ve found that everyone becomes a walking encyclopedia of travel tips. “Oh, you DEFINITELY need to check X place out, but whatever you do, don’t go to Y.” I am not exempt from this pathological need to impart advice, and have amassed a laundry list of tips, tricks and places to eat over my months of travel. When the Lost Girls asked me to put together an advice post, I kept going back to what kicked off my year: the terror of packing.

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It is easy to get overwhelmed when packing for a RTW trip. Everyone has a different, often conflicting, piece of advice for you and you can research for hours on end, only to find yourself paralyzed, rucksack in front of you, trying desperately to choose between a black zip up or a pullover. In the end, packing for a trip so varied tends to be extremely subjective and based on itinerary and personal preference; my friends who have opted for the “round the world without winter” trip didn’t need to contemplate a compressible cold weather jacket or a heavier sleeping bag as I did. And then there is The Great Jeans Debate (not to be confused with the Great Laptop Debate, about which many a BnA post is devoted): when I set out, I left my jeans at home. But somewhere between Chile and Peru I started to actually…crave a pair. I stopped feeling like me without them. And while zip offs and quick dry pants are extraordinarily practical, it was great to have a pair of jeans to slip on when I wasn’t trekking.

After many months of research and several slack-jawed hours of staring at my piles of items to pack, the following comprises my “thank god I brought them” items. The essentials – deodorant, underwear (though not the wicking kind – you will be glad to have some cotton panties, ladies!), soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc – have been left out.

Pack for a Year1. The “Bag in a Bag“. There is a slew of posts on BootsnAll and other message boards about whether one should go with a backpack / rucksack or a more travel-adapted Eagle Creek pack, where you can zip up the whole thing and lock it. Unfortunately, due to a bad back and the fact that I am practically a midget, the Eagle Creek travel packs didn’t work for me. The hipbelt fell at my mid-thighs, even in the women’s model. I thus opted for a Gregory Deva 60 pack, which is by far the best pack I have ever owned. Since the pack has a myriad of zippers and pockets, it is impossible to lock with some piece of mind….unless you go with the Bag in a Bag option. I picked mine up in Canada (at Mountain Equipment Coop) but you can also get an REI or EMS duffel bag or Osprey’s AirPorter. The “Bag in a Bag” meant that my rucksack looked fairly innocuous when on planes or buses (actually, I referred to it as containing “dead people” since it was lumpy and curved, just like my Gregory Pack. It got some odd looks when coming off a plane’s luggage belt), it had extra room to stuff in jackets or boots that couldn’t fit IN my rucksack and – the best – when other people were missing stuff from random pockets in their packs, mine was completely locked. Most of the travelers on my bus from Uyuni to La Paz in Bolivia had their packs rifled through quite enthusiastically – mine was still locked and protected. These duffels each have shoulder straps too – so you can carry it for a bit if you need to.

2. Zinetic Pocket Slippers: I discovered these as I was about to leave and they have been great. They’re absurdly small and they conveniently roll up into a ball for storage. I kept them in my daypack at all times, and was able to relax almost immediately upon boarding a train, bus or plane: off came the hikers, and on went the Zinetics. Also, for those of you traveling Argentina, the deliciously comfortable overnight buses have a “no shoes? no bus ride!” rule, and my Zinetics meant that I was able to keep my shoes off and still not get screamed at by the attendant. Extra bonus? If you don’t have flip flops, the Zinetics have a rubber sole so they can be used in hostel showers, and they dry quick.

3. Headlamp: Almost everyone I met had a headlamp, but I can’t stress how useful they truly are. I used mine in hostels, trains and buses when I wanted to read without a spotlight in my face, and on the many camping trips, hikes or overnight treks along the way. I have a Petzl Tikka Plus, which I picked because of its light weight. However, were I to buy another, I’d opt for the Petz Tactikka Plus, since the red light means that you can read unobtrusively (I might have blinded a few fellow travelers by looking up at them as they entered a room).

4. Pack towel: Dries quick, durable and absolutely indispensable. MSR seems to hold up the longest and remains the least smelly.

waterfall hiking5. Sleep sack/Sleeping bag: Used one of the 2 almost every night. My sleeping bag is a Mountain Hardwear Lamina 35F bag and is amazingly soft. It’s synthetic, not down (so it can be washed and tumble tried without fear) and it compresses really well for a synthetic bag. It was a great addition since I was in colder climates for the first few months. For warmer weather, a sleep sack (I opted for one of my favorite brands, Sea to Summit) was used just about every night that my sleeping bag stayed stowed.

6. Ziploc Big Bags: These are gargantuan ziplocs and for those of you doing any hiking/camping or overnight safaris, they are great. They fold up small, can be used for wet stuff when you swim or get stuck in a monsoon, and are perfect for putting your hiking boots in at night when you sleep. I was the only one without any creepy-crawlies (read: large spiders) in my hiking boots in the morning because they were stowed in one of these bags. I threw this Big Bag in at the last minute pre-departure and it ended up being a great item to have!

7. Fleece Pillowcase: I used a stuff sack with fleece on the inside for the first leg of my trip, but ended up switching to (and preferring) the pillowcase instead. It takes up almost no room, can be dumped into the wash and makes a very comfortable pillow. I used to do the “put-all-my-clothes-in-a-scarf-and-hope-this-stays-put-while-I-sleep” thing, and this small item works way, way better. For those of you with sewing skills (i.e. not me), just buy a bolt of fleece from a fabric store and sew your own.

8. Ipod: I barely used mine at home, but it has been indispensable on the road for long bus rides, showing new friends what music you enjoy, blocking out the sounds of (a) The Passion of the Christ being shown at full volume at 1am on a night bus to Banos, Ecuador, (b) the loudest snorer of all time sharing a train carriage with me and (c) dogs howling furiously in Mongolia, as well as for passing the time on flights. If you have an Ipod touch you can also dump Wikipedia on the device (accessible without the internet) and a currency exchange application or dictionary, each serving to make your life easier when you need information on the go.

9. U-Pillow: I’ve never traveled with so many sleeping implements, but this pillow was a savior on long transport runs. You can squish down in your seat and lean your head over and …..zzzzz. It’s instant comfort.

10. Compression Sacks: Everyone is an expert on how to pack clothes down tightly for a rucksack, and many don’t opt for compression sacks at all. I know I wouldn’t be able to fit my clothes in my bag without them. Instead of the pure waterproof, thicker material, I use the nylon impregnated with silicon model from….you guessed it: Sea to Summit. Since the bags themselves are so light and thin, they were an easy item to pack. I also have a spare stuff sack in the same siliconized nylon for dirty laundry.

Runner Ups (also indispensable but less gush-worthy):
– Gore-tex windbreaker,
– Teeny stretch glove liners
– Leggings (doubled as sleepwear fairly often)
– Sock liners for hiking (and moleskin…lots of moleskin)
– Lightweight travel umbrella
– Bandanna (drenched with DEET when mosquitoes were present, washcloth, sun protection, etc).
– The “just add water” towels – in a bind, these were great to have.
– sunscreen
– Pack covers. Again, Sea to Summit is my favorite brand. Very sturdy.
– Lots of extra quart size Ziploc bags
– Antibiotics (Z pack and Cipro), and probiotic capsules for when I need to take the antibiotics.
– Leatherman multi-tool (with scissors)
– Jersey dress. Doubles as a nightgown in warmer weather.

rock climbingThings I regretted bringing and subsequently ditched in random places:
– Far too much Techwick/synthetic long sleeved tops: those posts about the fact that they start to smell no matter how many times you wash them? All true. I kept the tanks, but got rid of the long sleeved shirts and replaced them with Icebreaker clothes (expensive, but a worthy investment) or Old Navy long sleeved t-shirts (not remotely expensive, and deliciously throw-outable without guilt).
– Macabi skirt: great concept, but I found it stuck to my legs (damn static!) and I ended up sending it home and using a cheap jersey skirt I bought at H&M before I left instead.
– Travel shirts/Buzz Off shirts: Lightweight and compressible, they are great in concept but I never used mine and sent them home fairly quickly. I opted for a long sleeved zip up and tank top instead of a travel shirt and used DEET.

The Great Laptop Debate: My family jokes that I am “powered by Google”, so a year around the world without interwebs wasn’t an option. However, at 5 feet tall and with limited space, I needed to figure out what to bring with. I opted for Nokia’s N810 Internet Tablet instead of the many Ultra Portable PCs, mainly because it is extremely light, has Skype built in and camps onto any WiFi signal. I’ve definitely had laptop envy at times, but it has been easy to update the blog and dump pictures onto Picasa via internet cafe. In hostels, the N810 has been great for calling home using Skype.

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About Jodi:

My family jokes that I inherited my mother’s love of travel in the womb, and 29 years later it shows no signs of abating. Growing up in Montreal, I dreamed of doing a RTW trip one day and after 5 years saving up as corporate lawyer in NYC, I quit my job and left for my trip on April 1, 2008. People often ask what made me quit my job and decide to travel, but it was actually the other way around: I took the job in order to save faster so that I could travel. In the end, my priority was seeing the world, and I’m thrilled to be on my journey now. You can follow my travels, and those of my friend Jessica, another former lawyer from NYC, at www.legalnomads.blogspot.com.

  • My favorite place thus far: 5 days in the Gobi desert with a nomadic family
  • Worse moment: food poisoning and diarrhea during a 4 day Salar de Uyuni trip – in a 4×4 on bumpy roads. Ugh.
  • Mascot: “Potato”, a conch shell from Key West engraved with the word Potato (background post here), who has his own tag on my blog.

Please feel free to send any questions about packing or other RTW-related items to jettenberg@gmail.com.

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    14 Comments

  • Julie says:

    Great post, Jodi! Now I’m wishing I had some Zinetics while I was on the road. I always felt like such a dweeb wearing my headlamp, but they are so much better than flashlights.

  • Jared says:

    Awesome post! Hopefully I can add my two cents from a guys point of view.

    After using the Eagle Creek Ultimate Explore pack (90L) for a year now, I’m in favor of the open zips and detachable day bag. I’ve hauled it up mountains on multi day treks and it’s held up. Plus, top loading packs are a pain when trying to get a items without taking everything out. As for women’s models that fit the smaller frame, REI makes a good pack in the 60L size.

    For quick dry towels, I came across the Australian/NZ brand Kathmandu, and this has been the fastest drying towel i’ve seen.

    Petzel makes good headlamps, but Princeton Tech is the ultimate. They’re waterproof.

  • Espen says:

    You can pack all that or you can try the “no baggage” approach http://www.rtwblog.com/.

    Well ok maybe its a bit crazy to bring so little with you on a RTW trip. But my point is dont panic when you pack for your RTW trip.

  • 1) Moleskein (or equivalent) for notes and diary are very helpful for many writing opportunities.

    2) Sarong — as towel, blanket or skirt (even guys can use them).

    3) drybag for camera, pport, etc. My BACKPACK is a drybag. Love it SO MUCH.

    4) Lock of some sort, for lockers, doors, etc. Save you $ and be more secure.

    Oh, and carry a bag that’s small enough for carry-on. Less crap to haul, less time waiting at airplanes, less risk of theft…

    (I did 5 years, but I find that this advice works for 1 week or 2 month trips…)

  • Wow! I think that could be a very exiting trip. Well, good luck on your trip hope you succeed all the excitement and adventure on your trip…

  • So why all of a sudden do we seem to have some sort of outbreak issue regarding bed bugs in the usa I worked at a nearby University for 30 years and didn’t have a problem until two years back?

  • Gabi says:

    How did you bring a leatherman onto an airplane with you?

  • Once again, thank you for the excellent post!

  • This was a great read – thanks! – I’m at the beginning of following a similar traveler’s life after giving up on my place in corporate life. Do you have your own blog in addition to Lost Girls?

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