A Practical Guide to Vagabonding and Long Term Travel (Part 4): Gear Up for Your Journey

So far in this series, we have examined what it takes to make that giant leap into the vagabondish life, put some science to the “magic number” that needs to be in your bank account before going, and addressed the logistical preparations for your trip.

Now it’s time to have some fun: let’s get together your gear for the journey!

First, a few more logistics:

Passport Pictures

It is always handy to have a few of these on hand for visas at border crossings, International Driver’s Licenses, and such. The good news is you don’t have to spend a fortune on passport pictures; you can do them yourself for pennies on the dollar.

Close up B&W of Canadian passport
© striatic

Organizing Your Papers

In the previous article, we touched upon some of the many logistical requirements for travel, including travel insurance policies, letters of auto insurability, copies of identification, plane tickets, accommodation reservations, and other miscellaneous pieces of paper that you absolutely need, but not all the time. But where the heck do you keep all this stuff, and keep it organized?!

A simple way to make your administrative life easy on the road is to use a slim plastic expanding folder. Label and use the many sections to house your paperwork, and leave space to keep papers you accumulate on the road — be they mementos or visa applications.

You may also want to invest in some plastic sheet protectors — that way you have an extra line of defense if a little moisture gets into your expandable folder without adding any real weight or bulk.

I also periodically send accumulated and unnecessary paperwork home to my family contact, so my folder doesn’t get too full. Because I work on the road (to be touched upon in a future article), I may manage more papers than some, but this is a technique that most vagabonds will find useful at one time or another.

And now, on to the fun stuff!

What to Pack

The classic mistake every new vagabond makes (and yes, I’m guilty as charged) is that they try to pack too much stuff! They somehow convince themselves there will be none of the comforts they are used to once they leave home. No clothes. No shoes. No rain gear. No rock climbing gear. No computers, printers, paper, or cameras. No toothbrushes. No feminine products. No toiletries, razors, sunscreen, soap, books, blankets, or camping gear. Nothing.

In packing for your trip you must be aware of one — and only one — golden rule: Weight Equals Misery.

By this rationale, everywhere else in the world except where you are, everybody runs around naked, dirty, and uncivilized.

Okay, so depending on where you are visiting, this may be closer to the truth than not! But in most instances, you can get just about anything you think you may need (and more) on the road, and often for a fraction of the price. Sure, you may not have your favorite brand of toothpaste, and the sunscreen may leave a little to be desired, but in packing for your trip you must be aware of one — and only one — golden rule: Weight equals misery.

Hauling around a large over-packed heavy bag is a recipe for disaster. If you are backpacking, the constant packing and unpacking will wear you down very quickly. Even if you plan on staying in each place for a while before moving to the next location, you can become paralyzed and end up staying longer somewhere for the sheer dread of having to pack everything up.

There is a common school of thought as to how to pack your bags for vagabonding: lay out everything you think you want to take on the bed or floor.

Then, take away half of what’s there. Pack the remaining items up, and see how it feels in your luggage.

Then, unpack, and lay out your belongings again. Take away half again.

That’s what you need for traveling.

As a vagabond, the concept of carrying your house on your back is daunting to say the least. Choose each piece of gear carefully, and if possible choose pieces that will serve dual purposes. Here are a few notes (but by no means comprehensive) to guide you in your gear selection process:

Clothing

Stay away from cotton and denim, especially if traveling to warm climates. Because you won’t have much clothing you’ll end up washing things in the sink, and these items simply take too long to dry.

Choose clothes that are light synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon. It’s not glamorous, but it will dry quickly, last longer, won’t wrinkle as easily, and in some cases will repel water or stains (depending on the clothing you choose).

Do not bring your favorite anything! That is, unless you are prepared to see it worn through, and effectively torn to shreds with use.

Expect to replace clothing along the way. For example, I am on my way to Southeast Asia shortly; I am paring down all my clothing drastically with plans to replenish what’s needed there.

Seriously consider whether or not you need to bring that dressy outfit. If a formal occasion presents itself in a foreign country, can you purchase something there for the occasion instead? You may prefer to attend dressed in their cultural formal attire instead of yours anyway. It also saves you from carrying around dress shoes … read on.

Shoes

These take up a lot of space, so choose what shoes to bring carefully.

Flip flops seem to be a universal requirement for travel — they pack easily, are good for questionable shower rooms, and just strolling around town in warm climates. They are also dead easy to replace, and most travelers live by them. Don’t spend a fortune on a pair of flip flops, or you may find (especially in Asian locales where piles of shoes are left outside the door) that your shoes go for a walk without you in them.

Hiking boots seem to be another must, especially in backpacking circles. If you are active at all and plan on doing any treks, then owning a broken-in pair of hiking boots will save you.

Packing tip: You can stuff your hiking boots with all sorts of things (like socks & underwear) to save space; never leave them empty in your luggage!

As for other types of footwear, it’s entirely dependant on your mode of travel as to what you’ll need. Remember that you can buy things along the way — don’t try to bring one of everything to meet any anticipated needs.

A heavily packed traveler stands near a window
Loaded for Bear © striatic

Luggage

There are a number of different preferences among vagabonds around what type of luggage to bring. Christopher prefers a backpack; but not all backpacks are created equal. Some only have small openings at the top and bottom, while others unzip all the way around for easy access to the contents. Some have wheels incorporated, and yet others have daypacks that attach to the larger pack.

Until recently I have been using an expedition backpack; this is the kind that opens up at the top and bottom, is lightweight, can fit a lot of stuff, and is well-suited to lugging large heavy loads on your back without breaking said back (think three days of trekking and backcountry camping with full gear).

Unfortunately for my vagabondish travels, access to the bag’s contents was infuriating, and with no side handles or any other way to carry it, I always had to hoist it onto my back, if even for a short jaunt. Compression straps were all over it — which are quite useful when trekking — but also which tend to get caught in airport conveyor belts, potentially tearing your bag to shreds by the time it gets off the plane. (To avoid this I had to put my backpack in a thick plastic bag at the airport every time I flew which was no treat either).

So now I have a travel backpack – with wheels. It has handles on the top and side, wheels and a telescoping handle for maneuvering in open spaces, and zip-away backpack straps — waist belt and all.

Toiletries

There are a few essentials you could stand to carry along, knowing full well that most of it can be replaced as it becomes depleted:

  • Shampoo, soap, laundry soap. Iif you can, combine these by using an all-in-one product like Dr Bronners, or go solid to beat airport security.
  • Deodorant. Using a deodorant crystal is great because it lasts a long time (usually six months to a year), thus being cost-effective, and is much healthier for your body.
  • Anti-itch cream. Good for bites, strange rashes, and burns.
  • Hand sanitizer. Handy (pardon the pun) for occasions when there’s no soap around to wash your hands before sitting down to eat.
  • Motion sickness medication. Useful for motion sickness, as well as just plain nausea, which plagues travelers from time to time.
  • Pain killers. You never know when or why you’ll need one.
  • Toothpaste, toothbrush. And don’t skimp on the toothbrush by getting the fold-up travel sized ones; they don’t last, and you don’t save so much space that it’s worth sacrificing a decent toothbrush.
  • Sunscreen, bug repellent. Slather it on every day, to keep the cancer away and the malaria at bay. (There’s a commercial jingle in there somewhere, I know it).
  • First aid kit. You don’t need a lot of provisions, but a basic kit with bandages, antiseptic, and topical creams is helpful.
  • If you have prescription medication, be sure to carry a refill prescription from your doctor, and also be prepared to show the slip to customs if they ask about the suspicious little white pills in your case.
  • Dryer Sheets. Although not toiletries, these are handy to keep clothes smelling fresh when stuffed in plastic bags for too long.
  • Ziplock Bags. Incredibly useful for all sorts of things, like keeping liquids separate, snacks fresh, big ones to keep clean and dirty clothes separate and compressed, you name it. They’re handy.

Closeup of Powerbook laptop with cables
© juanpol

Electronics

What you bring depends a lot on where you are going and why you are traveling (which we touched upon in the first article of this series). Here are some notes on commonly traveled-with electronics:

  • Laptop. Although I couldn’t imagine life on the road without a small wireless laptop, I also make money from the internet (which we will touch upon in the next article). The reality is unless you need your laptop for making a living, it will be more of a hindrance than a help. Internet cafes are everywhere. Besides, do you really want to spend your vagabonding years attached to a computer?
  • Camera. This is a must in my eyes. However, I tend to shy away from large unwieldy cameras (which add weight to your pack and make you a target for theft). This comes at the cost of overall quality of pictures however, but since I am not a professional photographer I figured I had to compromise somewhere.
  • Video Camera. Ask yourself what the chances are that you are really going to sit and review hours upon hours of mediocre footage. If you hesitate for even a second, then leave the video camera at home (or better yet, sell it. Most digital still cameras have a video feature, which will suffice if you want to capture the flavor of that market or the sounds of the jungle.
  • Cell phone. Personally I carry a cell phone, but it fits very specific parameters, and serves a purpose on the road in order to help me keep in touch frugally and be accessible to family members who aren’t connected to the internet. Read this article for step-by-step information on how to set up and use your cell phone on the road. Other people choose not to carry one, and instead rely on the internet to keep in touch with people at home. You are much less accessible this way, but then again — maybe that’s how you like it.
  • Plug Adaptor. Usually the appliances listed above fit most voltage parameters around the world, so you will not need a bulky and expensive power converter. However you will likely need an adaptor.
  • Hair Dryer, Curling Iron, etc. You’ve got to be kidding, right? If you need a hair dryer to survive life on the road, then you need to seriously examine exactly why you are choosing the life of a vagabond. No hair is that hard to manage.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what to pack for your vagabonding journey; rather a collection of notes and lessons learned by myself and those before me. The process is different for everybody, and the inevitable learning curve is part of the fun and challenge of becoming a vagabond. You will learn to adapt and cope with what you have, what you acquire on the road, and you might even be able to laugh at silly mistakes and oversights that are bound to happen along the way.

Enjoy it! For better or worse, this is part of the vagabondish life.

11 Responses

  1. Amanda Kendle

    Great tips Nora. You had me worried at the mention of a hair dryer until I read on!

    Your golden rule of “weight equals misery” is also 100% true and something I very quickly learned. Amazing how little you need when you know it’s all going on your back.

    Reply
  2. Reb Stevenson

    In defense of the poor, bullied hair dryer:
    I bring a small hairdryer with me now, especially when I travel in the winter. As someone with long hair, having a sopping head for hours while you attempt to air dry can be seriously uncomfortable – hypothermia inducing, even (or at least it seems that way when you’re in an unheated building in England come January).
    I don’t see anything wrong with ensuring that your body temperature stays regulated.
    So, I say “yes” to the hairdryer if you can spare some room! It’s not all about vanity.
    :) Reb

    Reply
  3. Mike Richard
    Mike Richard

    You go, Reb! =)

    Your comment underscores one important aspect of advice pieces such as Nora’s: there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all. Nora’s advice is a great jumping off point for green travelers. For most people, they’ll learn what works for them through trial and error.

    Though a hair dryer (or any other gadget for that matter) clearly adds bulk to any pack, the advantages may vastly outweigh the disadvantages for some. To each their own, for sure.

    Reply
  4. Nora Dunn

    Fair enough with the hair dryer! I chopped my hair off before traveling, and generally contend with a damp mop. Although admittedly I’m also on a permanent mission to avoid cold winters….maybe it’s my subconscious protecting me from lugging around a hair dryer!
    I kid….thank for the comments!

    Reply
  5. Michael

    Hola. Great advice. I agree with most everything, but would add one thing — packing cubes! Some love them some hate them. But for me, they let me pack so much more stuff in the same amount of space. Plus they keep everything seperate and organized. Just a thought.

    Reply
  6. Jade

    The thing about the hair stuff…it can help if you are trying to do part time work…

    Reply

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