The 12 most important items to pack

My habits of travel have evolved -- not always for the better. I started out as a big believer in packing light, carrying only a small pack on my first trip to Europe. Over the years I came up with excuses to carry more things. A moderately small pack gradually became a bigger and bigger one. I blame this trend toward carrying more stuff on my decision a few years back to carry a lightweight laptop.

I noticed that as the quantity of things I carried grew, my style of traveling changed. When I arrived at new destination, finding a reasonably secure place to leave my stuff become more of an issue. In essence, I was no longer a carefree traveler -- but like so many tourists -- I had come to resemble a small moving company.

I'm planning another trip, and I'm going light this time. Following are some items that might be considered essential for a trip to various locations in the developing world.
  1. Vitamins, medication, preferred hygiene products. If you swear by a certain brand of multivitamin or require some kinds of medication, take it with you. Deodorant is at the top of my list as I have skin allergies to most antiperspirants -- which is all you can buy in many countries.
  2. Cash. Carry about 20% of your total travel budget in US dollars, perhaps some of this in Euro. About 20% of the total in fives and singles, the rest in $50 or $20. Don't bring along old or ragged-looking bills.
  3. Credit card. Useful for buying connecting flights online.
  4. Bank card. For the ATMs. Carry separate from credit card.
  5. Passport.
  6. Sacrificial "decoy" wallet (should you get mugged, the idea is that only this item goes bye-bye). You could buy this at your destination, but I advise you go prepared because in my experience the first few days of travel are the days when you are most likely to fall victim to crime.
  7. Clothing: jeans or cargo pants, thermal underwear (for cold nights), a light and a heavy-weight thermal shirt, wool hat, hat for sun, underware (3-5) socks (3-5), t-shirts (3-5), 1 nice long-sleeved shirt, cargo shorts, swim suit/running shorts, lightweight running shoes (if you are a runner) and/or dependable walking shoes. And a concentrated laundry soap powder.
  8. Photography stuff. A) the least expensive and lightest-weight camera with a picture quality you can tolerate. B) Reputable-name memory card(s); C) a USB memory stick; D) a portable hard-drive to store -- if you take a lot of pictures; E) Charger for camera and a universal power-adapter; (F) small microphone headset for a computer.
  9. Guide book, map of region.
  10. The first book you plan to read.
  11. Sunglasses
  12. Travel bag: Ideally, I would divide things between a shoulder bag and a day-sized backpack. Most small bags today are designed poorly. They are bulked-up with thick foamy compartments intended to protect the kind of giant laptop everyone stopped buying five years ago, and have far too much insulation on the backside. And if you think you need a thing with wheels, then you are planning to carry too much stuff.
Laptop, netbook, phone?

Jot around the world readers know that Jotman is no fan of "netbooks" -- the keyboards are too small for his hands. Also the screens are tiny and processors invariably slow. I have often carried a small -- 1 kilo (2 lb) -- but not inexpensive Dell laptop that came with a full-service international warranty. Unfortunately, the thing breaks frequently. The charger, though small adds another pound. If you carry a good laptop you will likely spend more time than you anticipated protecting the laptop, seeking out reliable power sources, and contemplating battery life.

The i-phone might seem to be the perfect gadget for travel, especially if it means you don't need to bring another camera -- though I'm not speaking from experience on this one. The main advantage to me would be that it could be loaded it up with any number of Lonely Planet guidebooks (available in Pdf format). The downside is that if you are in North America, your i-phone will be locked into a plan already, either rendering it useless overseas or ridiculously expensive to operate abroad. So a hand-held device that replaces your camera, phone, need to schlep guidebooks and reading material, could be ideal. (I had thought the Amazon kindle might be an important travel gadget, but it's not that small and light, and it doesn't replace something that is actually very replaceable on your travels -- books.) The new palm pre might also be worth considering as an alternative to an i-phone or i-touch.

At least in the developing world, Internet cafes are everywhere these days. Even if Skype isn't installed -- so long as you have brought along your own microphone -- within a few clicks you can be set to go.

Essential items not included
Some other items I didn't bother to list because you can almost always find these on your trip. These might include:
1. Antiseptic for cuts and wounds. It's good to get in the habit of using antiseptic at the first sight of a scratch. And counter-intuitively developed countries can be the worst for infections. I prefer the iodine that comes in small yellow bottles to the clear but greasy alternatives, but you can't find it in the US because these days the authorities assume everyone shopping for iodine intends to set up a meth lab (and I suppose drugstores and big drug companies are only too happy to restrict the sale of this handy medical antiseptic as it keeps Americans buying expensive antibiotics).
2. Antibiotics are cheaper and less hassle to buy abroad, but increasingly -- wherever you go -- you have to watch out for potentially dangerous counterfeits. I recommend carrying doxycycline which may also offer some protection against malaria -- and unlike many alternatives it is quite safe unless you are allergic to penicillin. Cipro is something to consider carrying as a last-resort heavy-duty alternative for the most serious infections, but be aware that this class of antibiotics -- flouroquinolone drugs -- carry risks (I've used cipro on a number of occasions, and have experienced the onset of the symptom they are now warning people about. Beware that this class of antibiotics sometimes has neurological effects, making even reading difficult for a time).
3. Tissue paper.
4. Paper, pens (unless you have a favorite, in which case bring some).
5. Sandals.
6. Notebook.
7. Jacket.
8. Toothpaste, shampoo, soap, etc.
9. Can opener. I don't bother carrying a pocket knife because I don't want to check any baggage.
10. Small airtight food container for bar of soap. Those designated "travel soap containers" they sell in pharmacies are useless because they leak.


  1. Don't forget to carry a sleeping sack/sleeping bag liner. Silk are best as they are warmer in the cold and cooler in the heat than cotton. And if you know it will be extra cold a travel blanket will also come in useful.

    For sandals, I would specifically get sports sandals, they are hardier than most regular sandals and really comfortable with great support.

  2. I like to take T-shirts. They pack tightly and fold out easily when you decide to use them. A "T" and Jeans will get you into any restaurant,business establishment, cocktail party and religious service. Besides that, you don't have to worry with buttons popping.