One of the questions that I hear the most is, “What do you bring on a long trip?” Indeed, one of the most daunting aspects of making an extended trip is deciding what to bring. Traveling for months at a time through regions with different cultures, climates and customs requires that I plan very carefully when making decisions about what to carry. Each item that I select must fit inside a pack that will become an extension of my body, carried on planes, buses, taxis, and trains, through adverse weather conditions and cities full of thieves. I have to account for everything that I will need on a daily basis for several months at a time, both personally and professionally, and I have to carry it all on my back through parts of the world that do not enjoy the same level of comfort and convenience to which most of us are accustomed. Each trip presents its own challenges and rewards, but over time I have managed to develop a system that allows me to travel with everything I need to survive and accomplish the goals of my trip.
Tourists and mid-range travelers can pack large roller suitcases with weeks worth of clothes, but packing light is the key to low cost, independent international travel (often referred to as backpacking). On my first trip abroad, I carried the same full-sized backpack that I used for camping trips, as well as much of the same equipment. I had enough camping gear to survive for days in the wood and more than a week’s worth of clothes. It did not take long to realize my mistake as I lugged a pack the size of a young boy across several destinations in the South Pacific. With each successive trip, my pack has grown smaller and my list has become shorter while my trips have only become more comfortable and easy. In fact, I have never been happier than when traveling across Asia with a school-sized Jansport backpack and two days worth of clothes.
Now, my professional requirements are forcing me to carry more gear and it is becoming increasingly difficult to travel as light as I would like. Sacrifices inevitably have to be made on both ends. If I were simply backpacking across Africa, I could manage with a few changes of clothes, toiletries, a book and a journal. But as a photographer in Africa, there is so much more that I wish I could bring- telephoto lens, external flash, battery grip, etc. In either case, it becomes a matter of necessity- what do I really need?
- Backpack – A small portable backpack makes all the difference. In most places I visit, I cannot hide the fact that I am a foreigner, but I do not want to advertise myself as a tourist. Nothing screams tourist more than having a towering backpack and a guidebook in hand. With a small backpack, I can be more conspicuous and blend in more effectively. But most importantly, a large backpack is an incredible inconvenience when traveling on local transportation. Large backpacks will not fit in crowded local buses, trains, and rickshaws and only make traveling more difficult. There is simply no substitute for a pack that can fit beneath the seat of a bus or be carried on a plane.
* Update: The old backpack was getting a little beat up so I’ve since upgraded and begun using an Osprey Porter 46 which can contain all of my clothes and meet the requirements for carry-on bags, thus fitting in the overhead bins and saving me considerable time and hassle in airports.
People are generally surprised how little clothing I bring on extended trips. When packing for a weekend in San Francisco, I typically bring far more clothes than I would for a 3-month trip through Asia. Sure, it is tempting to have lots of options, but clothes are bulky and the less I bring, the smaller I can keep my pack. Rather than having lots to choose from, I try to choose each item wisely. I know it sounds terrible wearing the same clothes day in and day out, but with the right choices, it is far easier than carrying a heavy bag I have to unpack everyday. I simply develop a routine of washing (usually in the hotel sink) and drying my clothes which is convenient and easy if I bring the right items.
- Pants (2) – Lightweight, quick-drying travel pants are an essential item for me. I prefer one pair of comfortable, non-convertible pants, usually made from an outdoor company with synthetic materials which can be washed and dried overnight. These usually come with secure pockets which are useful for holding cash and other items. Granted, it is often hot and shorts might be more comfortable, but you will rarely see locals wearing shorts in most parts of the world. Also, pants are often required in religious and government buildings, especially in Asia where pants must be worn in almost all temples. I also bring one pair of convertible pants which double as swimming shorts and can be used on mountain hikes and jungle walks.
- Shorts (1) – Though I am wearing them less these days, it is undeniable that sometimes shorts are just more comfortable. I usually bring one pair of comfortable and casual shorts that extend a little below the knees. These are great when I am just hanging out at the hotel, kicking it beachside, or spending time in an area with more tourists where shorts are a more acceptable form of dress. Women should be especially mindful of local customs and keep in mind that it’s a big no-no showing even a hint of leg, shoulder, or chest in many parts of the world. Though shorts and tank tops may seem the best choice in 100 degree weather, it is probably best to avoid shorts and short skirts and bring a couple of skirts that extend below the knees.
- Shirts (3) – Smart, casual short-sleeve (or polo) shirts made of synthetic materials are another essential item for me. I usually bring 3-4 pairs of comfortable button-up shirts which are breathable and have collars to protect from sun and wind. At least one should be a long-sleeve shirt which are, in fact, preferred over t-shirts by locals in most of the developing world. Women should consider local customs and be sure to pack a couple of shirts which extend beyond their elbows, especially in Asia where women are often required to adequately cover their shoulders.
- T-shirts (2) – I used to bring a bag of t-shirts, but those days are long gone. Now, I bring 2 comfortable shirts which, similar to the shorts, are worn primarily at the beachside or popular tourist spots. T-shirts are comfortable, but they are less professional and usually worn only by tourists. I usually bring a couple for outdoor activities and prefer synthetic materials which can be easily washed and dried, unlike cotton. Also, the truth about most of this clothing is that it can probably be purchased cheaper at my destination, especially in the case of t-shirts which are widely available in most countries for just a couple of dollars. Women will probably want to bring several tanks tops which are lightweight and easy to pack, but be sure to consider local customs when wearing them in public.
- Light jacket/Fleece – Whether on planes, trains, or buses, I am bound to encounter some cold temperatures along any trip. Even in the hottest desert, it gets cool at night and a lightweight, synthetic jacket can make all the difference. There a lot of great options from outdoor companies which can keep you warm and comfortable without being too heavy or bulky.
- Rain jacket – It is great to have a lightweight rain jacket which can provide some protection from the wind and rain, as well as heat on an especially cold night. This can provide a little comfort on rainy days, as well as protection for my equipment from the elements. Since it is difficult to pack minimally with cold weather gear, I often find myself layering my clothing to achieve the greatest amount of heat- and my cheap rain jacket with its minimal breathability can be just the shell I need to overcome a chilly evening.
- Shoes – A lightweight pair of water-resistant, breathable sneakers can usually be found taking up far too much space in my pack for the few days they are actually worn. I usually prefer my sandals, but there are occasions on which I simply have to have better support and protection.
- Sandals – Sandals are not always the most professional choice, but they are usually the most comfortable. My Chaco sandals take up little space and receive almost constant use. Also, the Vibram soles allow me to wear sandals when hiking and trekking instead of hot, cumbersome sneakers.
- Socks (2) – I usually bring a couple of pairs of socks to wear with my shoes and perhaps a pair of wool socks if I anticipate cold and adverse weather conditions.
- Underwear (4) – A few pairs of underwear usually suffice, as you tend to be washing and drying underwear on a daily basis, especially in hot climates. Women will probably want to bring more, usually a week’s worth, and consider materials that will be hygienic, comfortable, and easy to wash and dry.
- Hat – A comfortable hat is great protection from the sun. I almost never wear sunglasses when traveling abroad so a hat can be crucial on those bright, sunny days.
- Sleeping bag – This is one item that I debate every time, but I have never regretted bringing. I carry a REI Travel Sack +55 warm weather sleeping bag which is lightweight, compact and unzips completely to form a flat rectangle. This is especially useful for laying on top of dirty hotel beds or bus station floors when I need a blanket on which to sit or sleep. It also provides added heat on those occasionally cool nights or chilly train rides. It packs down to about the size of a football and continues to prove itself useful.
- Towel – A lightweight, packable and fast-drying towel makes life much more enjoyable. I usually just bring a thin cotton towel which takes up less space, but does not dry as quickly. I spent $20 on a fancy REI towel this time around so I will see which I prefer in the end.
- Flashlight/Headlamp – A flashlight is an essential item, especially in developing nations without dependable electricity. I usually bring a hand-held flashlight for when I am photographing and a headlamp for using during transportation and in hotels.
- Calculator – A calculator is useful for calculating foreign exchange rates and confirming numbers and prices when there is a language barrier.
- Plug Adapter – An absolutely necessary item that is easy to forget. All these fancy electric gadgets are rendered useless if I do not have an adapter for international electricity outlets.
- MP3 Player – Great for long rides in trains and buses and a little taste of home every once in a while.
- Batteries – Be sure to bring extra high quality batteries.
- Laptop – This is another luxury item that adds weight and takes up space while providing valuable tools for my work and travel. A laptop allows me to back up my photos and manage multiple external drives which is crucial when the risk is so great for loss or theft. I have basic photo editing software installed which allows me to process images and update my website. Also, with wireless internet becoming readily available around the world, I can now avoid paying by the minute and use the internet at my own convenience.
- Book – Quality reading material is a must. I usually carry one book at a time and exchange it at local book stores when I need a new one. No eReaders for me yet- they seem convenient, but my MP3 player already draws too much attention in the developing world.
- Journal – This used to be my most important item, but I have begun using my laptop for much of my writing now. Nevertheless, a journal and a small notebook are still essential items for recording daily activities, moments, emotions, etc.
- Guidebook – Though I still loathe the Lonely Planet Generation, I continue to be a subscribing member of it. I usually prefer Lonely Planet’s layout and concise information, but I am happy to use any guidebook that provides some basic information, maps, and information about my destination.
- Money Belt – Whether a wallet or money belt, there are some things that never leave me when I am traveling. I never go anywhere without my passport and generally I refuse to leave it with anybody. That passport will remain on my person at all times in a money belt along with my credit cash and credit cards. Copies of my passport and credit cards and kept in a separate location in case of loss or theft.
- Playing Cards/Games – There is a remarkable amount of ‘down time’ when you are traveling so be sure to bring enjoyable ways to kill time.
- Toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant, razor, shaving cream, lotion, lip balm, sunscreen,
- Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Benadryl, Imodium, Neosporin, cold/flu, bandages, adhesive tape, scissors, tweezers, nail clippers
- (Female Hygiene) Feminine products, tampons, wet wipes, birth control
- Photo Backpack – For years I traveled with only a Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot camera which produced fantastic results that found their ways into magazines and advertisements. The camera was lightweight and compact, attracting little attention while being so little it could fit inside my pocket. With that camera, I could carry a single backpack half the size of the one pictured below. Now, I have to carry a second backpack, the Think Tank Streetwalker Pro, which contains only photographic equipment weighing around ten pounds. It is a greater burden to manage, especially on days spent in transit, but it is still relatively small for a professional photographer. Over the course of several months this pack will become almost permanently attached to me. It contains my primary camera body, assortment of lenses, and an external hard drive with another hard drive located at my hotel in case of loss or theft.
- Camera Body – When traveling in remote locations, it is preferable to bring two camera bodies. I am currently using the Nikon D800 as my primary camera body with a Nikon D700 as my backup camera body. It is not my preferred choice because the cameras use different batteries and other accessories forcing me to carried extra weight. But until I get my hands on another D800, it is just important to have a second camera in case of damage or theft of my primary camera body.
* Update: I’ve also begun carrying a Panasonic Lumix LX7 compact digital camera which produces excellent quality images and HDR video without the weight of a DSLR.
- Camera Lenses – I bring 2-3 lenses when I am on extended trips- usually a wide angle, normal, and telephoto. The combination varies depending on the trip, but the primary lenses I use are as follows: Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, Nikon 16-35mm f/4, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. I also use a Nikon 28-300mm f/4 and Nikon 50mm f/1.8 when I want to carry less weight.
- Tripod – It can be a huge pain to carry a tripod, but not nearly as painful as needing one and having left it behind. I have a Really Right Stuff set-up for my landscape work, but when I am traveling, I just bring a cheaper and smaller Manfrotto tripod. It is not as tall as I would like, but it can usually get the job done while still being small enough to fit on either pack.
- Memory Cards – I carry an assortment of memory cards, usually 8 cards ranging from 16-32GB.
- Battery Charger/Batteries (3) – I bring 3 batteries for my camera and make sure to charge them whenever I have access to electrical outlets.
- Flash Remote Cord – For landscape and night photography.
- Giottos Rocket Blower – For general care and maintenance on the road.