A Guide on How to Pack for a Volunteer Trip Abroad

Have you ever had to jump on your suitcase to get it to zip?

This blog post is for all my fellow chronic overpackers. Let’s avoid those oversized baggage fees and potential nightmare travel scenarios together with these packing tips.

Before I launch into a packing list, let’s talk about the type of luggage you want to bring on a trip if you’re doing anything rugged (perhaps voyaging into Peru’s Amazon or helping elephants in Thailand or Cambodia?).

Step One: Break Up with the Rolling Suitcase

Now, I used to be an avid lover of the rolling suitcase. I believed it was the easiest way to roll my belongings along. It’s great for the back, and nothing is more convenient than having your bag glide next to you through the airport like a well-behaved pet.

But have you ever tried to lug a rolling suitcase up a flight of stairs in a NYC subway as rats scurry past? Have you ever had a wheel snap off in a back alley along the cobblestone streets of Florence, Italy? Have you ever had to drag a rolling suitcase through wet sand on a beach in Costa Rica, mid-rainy season (so mid-torrential downpour), to catch a boat bobbing up and down in the ocean? Trust me—it’s not pura vida to heft your 60-pound suitcase above your head as you try to withstand incoming waves in hip-deep water and clamber onto a boat while the captain shouts levantarse.

Sometimes, a backpack is handier. 

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Step Two: Picking a Backpack

I agonized over this decision, visiting countless outdoor sports centers and trying on several types of backcountry backpacks: Osprey, Gregory, Deuter, and Mystery Ranch. I messaged everyone I had ever known to find out what backpack type might fit me well. Honestly, I’ve had an easier time picking out a car! I’ve learned that picking the right backpack comes down to how each bag fits your body, so it’s best to try on a pack in person and walk around the store a few times with weight in the bag to see how it feels. Of course, the color and price can help you decide, too. It’s good to go to warehouse outdoor centers or keep an eye out for online sales to cut down on costs.

Eventually, I settled on buying a black 65-litre Osprey because if it breaks, the company replaces it for free with the All Mighty Guarantee. I’m clumsy, so the thought of a lifetime warranty appeals to me. I could have gone with 75 liters or even 80, but as a chronic over-packer, I thought limiting my chances of overpacking would be beneficial. The amount of liters depends on where you’re going and how many things you need to bring to get there. 

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Step Three: Start Throwing Stuff Inside Your Bag

So, you’ve selected your volunteer trip, bought the plane ticket, and chosen your luggage. Now you’re standing next to a mountain of clothes, wondering what to bring. Packing is arguably the most challenging part of leaving the country. Let me share what I take for a long-term trip.

The Golden Packing List:

Toiletries:

  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush
  • Travel-size shampoo and conditioner
  • Dental floss (cavities are well-traveled)
  • Hairbrush
  • Soap

Clothes:

  • Five everyday outfits that can be easily mixed or matched
  • Hiking clothes
  • One nice outfit for going out
  • Hiking shoes, everyday walking shoes, and sandals
  • Rain jacket
  • Swimsuit
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Miscellaneous: 

  • First-aid kit (band-aids, gauze, disinfectant, tweezers) 
  • Sewing kit
  • Water filter
  • Cough Drops
  • Copy of Passport and travel insurance
  • Bug spray
  • Sunblock
  • Back up debit/credit card
  • Cash in the proper currency
  • SIM card
  • Drugs (the prescription ones, of course—anti-bacterial, anti-diarrheal, etc.)
  • Umbrella
  • Electronics and proper chargers. Don't forget to pack an adapter, if needed!
  • Hat
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Step Four: Prepping the Carry-On Bag

Most days, I’m not a pessimistic person, but the glass is half-empty and overpriced at the airport. 

I highly recommend bringing a carry-on bag that has everything in it you don’t want to be lost by the airline: your camera, laptop, chargers, headphones, three changes of clothes (complete with maybe five pairs of underwear), the most essential toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush), and any crucial medications. Bring your reusable water bottle, save the planet, and avoid airport prices altogether.

Now you're ready for the most exciting part...the adventure that awaits!

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