When my departure date for a one-way flight to Peru approached, I simply couldn’t think what to pack, even though I’d travelled much before. This time it was different – this wasn’t just a holiday or a trip, this was my whole life. How was I to condense that into a backpack?
Here are my tips if you’re planning something similar…
This is so dependent on what sort of climates and environments you’re heading to. I also planned to work as a teacher, so this further complicated my packing decisions. Heading to South America, I thought I would mostly take warm-weather clothes, and took only one sweatshirt. Big mistake. Peru can be very cold – in mountainous Cusco it’s particularly icy at night, so I ended up buying thermals, jumpers and trousers there. After that, I travelled in hot and humid weather, so resented lugging woolly jumpers around, but loathed to part with them in case I headed mountainwards again (which I did)!
It’s often a good idea to head out with a half-empty backpack and buy your clothes locally – they’re often much cheaper than at home, and that way you’ll be able to have the chance to see how the locals dress, and fit in accordingly.
If there’s one thing I can advise though, is to stick to natural fibres. It’s something we just don’t get to notice that much in the temperate UK, but I’ve had too many a skirt or trouser leg cling to me like plastic as soon as the temperature rises to ever go back to synthetics.
Women – light, loose cotton shirts are 10 times more useful and comfortable for travelling activities than vest tops and t-shirts that are normally thick and tight-fitting. Remember – just because more flesh is exposed, doesn’t mean you’ll be cooler – much better to let the sun’s rays to hit as little skin as possible (just see how people who live in hot climates dress for the evidence). Aside to this, in many countries it’s simply not acceptable to walk around in shorts and vests – you’ll look to the locals like you’re in your underwear, so expect a lot of abuse if you choose to stick to Western fashions in most of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and even some conservative areas of Europe and South America.
In India I found dressing as close as I could to the locals useful not only in looking less like I had loads of disposable tourist money, but also in detracting male attention, and for a third reason I’d never thought of before – when wearing a long skirt or dress it’s easier to go to the toilet ‘in the wild’ (as you often need to do while travelling on the road) while still preserving your modesty (think about it!).
I would advise taking a minimum of about five pairs of underwear and socks so you can always have plenty washed in time. Remember to take at least one or two pairs of trekking socks, if that’s an activity you plan to do. Socks can be the make-or-break of a pair of walking shoes, I have found, so make sure they’re good quality and you’ve tried and tested them long before your trip.
I’ve regretted lugging a big pair of hiking boots around in the bottom of my backpack, only to be used for one or two big treks. My trainers served the most use – both in town and country. So my advice would be combine the two and take one pair of trekking shoes – light and trainer-like enough to wear in cities as well as serving their purpose for mountain hikes.
Flip flops – essential for beach time, pool time, hot springs time, dirty shower floor time, and slip in your bag virtually unnoticed.
A smarter pair of shoes or sandals – for going to fancier bars and restaurants, and jobs, if you’re going to work while there. I chose to take two pairs of sandals which I’m glad of because I’ve worn both loads for different occasions, and good to give my feet a rest from the trainers.
Sleeping bag + liner
Although rarely needed, I would still say these are essential as both have been invaluable when there’s been no bedding, or not enough.
Surprisingly useful items
I was very surprised to learn what meals and drinks you can prepare and eat with just a tin dish, tin mug, knife, fork, spoon and a plastic jug. For example, in a hotel or hostel with no kitchen you can at least ask for a jug-full of hot water, with which you can make tea, soup (packet), even mashed potatoes (from a packet) and frankfurters (from a tin).
I was considering not taking my laptop/netbook for fear of it getting lost, broken or stolen. Apart from my passport and my money, it’s been the most invaluable item I’ve brought: for working; for researching and booking places to go next; and in times of woe or boredom, entertainment via downloaded films and music; and most of all, a medium that allows me to feel like friends and family are never too far away. It depends on your individual needs, but I have found my Acer Aspire One Happy netbook has perfectly sufficed.
I have never travelled without my faithful sarong – a purchase from Chiang Mai night market some 12 years ago – I use it instead of a towel as it’s lighter and quicker-drying, in addition to its usefulness on the beach to sit on or cover up with.
A cotton scarf is useful as a quick cover up for shoulders if you’re going into churches/temples, as well as extra protection from the sun or the cold (other alternative uses I found for mine over the course of travels were: a towel, a picnic blanket, a curtain and a tablecloth).
I bought my hanging toiletry bag in Boots for my first trip to Thailand when I was 18 and am still finding it incredibly useful as a kind of portable bathroom cabinet. Arrive in a new place, unravel and hang it up in the bathroom from its handy hook and I’m instantly at home.
Clear plastic/freezer/ziplock bags are so useful for organising your bits and bobs; the transparency helps you find stuff quicker. Any plastic bag is useful – especially for wrapping round potentially leakable bottles or for protecting books and paperwork.
What you don’t need to worry about
Guidebooks often say tampons are difficult to find. I’ve not found this in any of the places I’ve been in South America. Tampons and sanitary towels are readily available in all pharmacies and supermarkets, just like home. o.b and Kotex are the commonest brands to look for. Razors, face creams, shampoos, shower gels, you can find all the usual brands – Nivea, L’Oreal, Herbal Essences. Saying that, soap tends to be more prevalent in South America than shower gel – and is much, much cheaper.
Condoms, however, are a bit of a different story in Chile. In the tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama, we were taken aback when shopkeepers would barely look at us when we asked for condoms. We eventually tracked down a pharmacy where they were hidden behind the counter and we had to quietly request ‘preservativos’ for the pharmacist to select a pack without asking what sort we wanted, and he wouldn’t tell us how much they were, merely pointed at the cash register once he’d rung in the extortionate price and then passed us the goods in a paper bag! Elsewhere on the continent, however, they’re widely available – the brands to spot are Piel in Peru; and Prime and Tulipan in Argentina and Uruguay. Often only sold in packs of 3, but we hunted down a 12-pack (works out much cheaper of course) in a bigger branch of Farmacity in Buenos Aires.
Medicines – again, you’ll find all the usual painkillers and remedies in pharmacies (in Asia you can get anything you want over the counter, often for a matter of pence), so don’t panic if you’ve forgotten or run out of something. Of course you should bring plenty of any specific medication you need to carry, plus the prescription/Dr’s note.
At the end of the day – as a good friend advised me before I left – it doesn’t really matter what you pack as long as you have your passport and a bank card, so don’t sweat it too much!