How to pack for a trip with no set return date (with post-trip comments)


Note: this has undergone revisions beyond the comments in italics below. See this link for my most updated packing list: Revisited: How to pack for an independent traveler with no set return date


[Post trip comments are in italics]

On the eve of a trip that I'm hoping will get me from Peru to the US by land by summer, I thought I might go over what's going into my bag. A lot of people have asked what I pack for a trip that long...well in short, I try to pack lightly and I don't pack everything I need for that long. I will always be in places where people live and have stores, and I can resupply with what I need. My style is not exactly the superlight style, but I try to pare everything down to the essentials. (Excuse me if I seem a bit out of it in the video, it was the night before leaving around midnight and I was a bit scatterbrained.)

All in all, my bag weighed 25 lbs (about 12 kilos) at check in, with a small carry-on bag about 1 lb.

What you pack also depends on where you'll be. I'm going to be in a variety of areas from dense urban places to pretty isolated rural areas, so I took that into consideration. If I were to just be in urban areas I would pack a whole lot lighter just by virtue of having easier access to stores and modern conveniences.

So, the list (prices are ballpark at the time of posting, post trip comments are in italics):

  • Backpack: High Peak Kathmandu 70+10 ($90)- I picked this based on the positive reviews, good price, and decent size. So far it has worked well for me. Held up without incident during the entire trip through some rough treatment, only some slight stretching on the back support rods.
  • Tent: Sierra Designs Lightyear 1 ($140)- This is a really popular tent for a pretty sweet price, it has held up really well for me in the wind and rain. Not to mention it's damn light. This tent was a dream in terms of ease to set up, but space was at a premium even considering my short height. Although I never hit extreme weather, it was unfailingly dry minus the occasional condensation. I eventually figured out that really only the front and back stakes are required, which sped things up considerably.
  • Sleeping bag: Sierra Designs Tocho 45 degree rated ($40)- Light, cheap, and good enough for colder nights with some good socks and long underwear. It has a pillow pocket that I can just stuff some shirts in for some head support, and the zipper goes from both ends, meaning if my legs get warm I can dangle them out with having to get out of the bag. Overall, I´d say it´s a pretty good synthetic bag. I became a bit less enchanted with this cheap-o bag as time went on, but it never held smells and served its purpose. I may also have been wont to complain considering some of the surfaces I slept on, but I would still recommend it.
  • Camera: Canon PowerShot SD1000 (newest model is $150)- I swapped with my dad for this camera with its glowing reviews and the fact that I love how the pictures come out with it. Instead of cords I brought a USB-SD card adapter. I just take the SD card from the camera, plug it into the flash drive-sized adapter, and then pop it into the USB port. This is really fast, doesn´t use camera battery, and allows me to keep the camera in my pocket instead of siting out in an internet cafe. Well, the pictures speak for themselves. There were times that I was envious of some of the fancier cameras my fellow travelers had, however considering the portability and forgiveness of this camera I couldn't complain. Next time, I may upgrade to a model higher, but probably stay with Canon.
  • Knife: Gerber Mini paraframe knife ($12)- Sleek and durable, I've had this for a long while and it has kept its edge well. Super useful, not just for basic tasks but also nice to have in my pocket in sketchier areas. Unfortunately I lost this in El Salvador, but until that it was ultra-useful.
  • Victorinox Swisscard ($20)- Multiuse tool, basically a swiss army knife in a credit card size. This guy had limited use, but saved the day in a few situations when I randomly needed scissors, a quick light, small knife, and a screwdriver (flathead). Granted I'm sure I could of found those things otherwise, or substituted something, it was nice to have this around.
  • Headlamp: Petzl Tikkina ($20)- Long battery life and adjustable beam angle and strength makes it really nice. Just do yourself a favor and get this. Or any headlamp.
  • Money pouch dangling thing: Eagle Creek Nylon Hidden Pocket ($10)- I use this in place of a money belt. This clips inside by waistband and hangs about 8 in down my thigh. It's more comfortable and flexible than belts and just as easy to access. Love it. This has been with me since I started traveling independently, and I wouldn´t go on a trip without it. And my love affair continues...
  • Flash Drive: SanDisk Cruzer 16 GB ($40)- Instead of bringing a computer/iPod Touch (the latter I seriously debated) I'm just bringing along this drive with portable apps and passwords saved that I will just use in internet cafes (read this article about keyloggers). I decided not to being a computer/iPod because of the psychological baggage associated with having a valuable piece of electronics with me, plus they would be very tempting to spend time with instead of exploring. In future trips, this might change. The apps that I have on it are Portable Firefox, the U3 launchpad with the built-in password manager with one-click sign in, FileZilla (FTP client for my site), Notepad ++ for editing code, GIMPPortable Image Editor, VLC media player, and AbiWord for word processing. I ran into issues with this where an executable virus infected the drive and wiped some pictures and documents and froze up the drive. Despite what I said in this description, I think on my next trip I am going to just bite the bullet and get a netbook and keep everything on the cloud so if the computer is stolen there will be nothing on it. The cost of internet cafes accumulated, and I'm sure it was around $100 for the whole trip. Considering a good netbook would be around $250, I think it's worth the premium and the tiny weight. Also, the password manager that came with the drive was a pain since it locked me out from changes after the one month trial period. This means that if you want to change your password and use the auto-fill, you are screwed. A better, free option is KeePass, if slightly more of a learning curve. Also, I realized I would be in huge trouble if I lost the small drive, which I did in Trujillo, Peru but went back to the internet cafe that I used and was thrilled to find out they still had it. Pros of the drive: lightweight. Cons: lots of wasted time with troubleshooting, easy to lose, susceptible to viruses, and you are at the mercy of the computer speeds of shady internet cafes. Sometimes weight is more of a consideration than anything, so it's really just what you think you'll need. If you want to blog/have a website, just bring a comp.
  • Spanish-English Translator: Franklin ($30)- The one I have from Franklin has lasted me for about 6 years, and I have dropped it, banged it around, got water all over it, and it´s still alive. O yea, and it translated pretty well, along with idioms. It's still working!
  • Daypack: Under Armour Sackpack ($20)- I started traveling with a school-sized backpack as a day pack, but eventually switched to a sack pack because I rarely filled up the whole backpack when I used it and sack packs are a lot lighter and easier to stuff into my larger backpack. This thing absorbs a lot of dirt without appearing like it, so stuff inside got pretty grimy unknowingly. It took like 10 washes to get it clean. However, in terms of performance, there were no problems.
  • Coats: Fleece, Raincoat. The fleece was a good pillow and warm, and the raincoat did its job. I was never wanting for more.
  • Footwear: Vasque boots (models vary in price) that were pretty cheap at the time, and Crocs ($30). This trip I transitioned from sandals + tennis shoes to Crocs. I checked out Crocs and they are light, durable, and breathable, if not particularly aestheitically appealing. The Crocs ended up being pretty handy from just casual wear, light hiking, and swimming in rocky areas, but showed significant wear for how "durable" they claim to be. And, I don't find them particularly comfortable, but they are damn light. Maybe some hiking-style sandals would have been better, but these were okay. I'll be traveling with them again.
  • Moleskine ($15) - ´nuff said. What a perfect notebook and journal.
  • Water purification - After weighing a few options, I decided I would treat my water with iodine tablets ($7) and straw-style Frontier Pro Ultralight Water Filter ($20) when I am in the hinterland. This was a less bulky and expensive option than a filter pump, and should suffice for my purposes. Note: the filter will not filter all bacteria and no viruses, so I treat the water for about half an hour with iodine and then suck it up through the filter. I barely used these, since I wasn't isolated long enough to not have freshwater around. Plus, when I was in rural areas, the water was pretty pristine from wells. That said, I can't accurately judge whether these were well-functioning or not, but I would not have hurt if I left them behind. Probably won't take them on my next trip.
  • Mess kit - not really a full one, just a stainless knife, fork, and spoon. I haven´t used these frequently, but when I used them I was really glad I had them. I used these pretty frequently on the trip, and they held up great for canned meals when camping and just random meals while hiking around.
  • Pack towel: car chamois. I got this in the automotive section of a KMart (I think) and it has served well on several trips. Dries quickly and picks up a ton of water, and then I ring it out and set to dry. In a few hours it´s cardboard dry and rolls up nicely. A more legitimate and popular one is the MSR Original pack towel ($10-15 depending on size). No complaints, and it seemed to hold up without problems. Definitely will be taking on future trips.
  • Clothes: A few lightweight synthetic shirts, Levi's jeans ($50), nylon pants ($50), merino wool socks (Smartwool ($12) and Teko), long underwear. I´ll probably end up buying a nicer collared shirt when (and if) I need one. Unless you´re an uber fasionista, you really don´t need many clothes when traveling. I did end up buying a few tank tops and a collared shirt, and I was never wanting for clothes. I will stick to this amount of clothes in the future.
  • Underwear: Exofficio Give-n-Go boxer briefs ($25). Their slogan is something like ´6 weeks and two pairs of underwear´. I´m usually not a softie for marketing gimmicks, but this one got me. I bought 3 pairs. These were great. I forgot to mention that I originally got them for half-off, so be on the lookout for sales. These were incredibly easy to wash in a sink quickly, and there were several nights where I just quickly rubbed them with soap and wrung to have clean, dry underwear in the morning. So convenient and light, I have gulped down the Exofficio Kool Aid. 3 pairs was just enough, though I could have got by with only two.
  • Rain Coat: Marmot PreCip Rain Coat ($75) - A friend of mine actually didn´t want this anymore since it was a bit worn out, so I gladly scooped it up since I didn´t have a good rain coat. This thing was in bad shape when I got it, and was leaky, but for being free it kept me as dry as I could expect.
  • Laundry: Instead of paying for laundry services, I tried to get as many synthetics in my travel wardrobe that are quick drying and easily washable and just do it by hand. I have a universal sink stopper, travel detergent ($10), and a latex clothesline ($10) that is braided (no need for clothes pins). If things are still a bit moist when I have to put them on, it´s not a big deal since it can air dry. The sink stop was the most useful, the clothesline slightly less so, and never used the detergent since I could buy small quantities for dirt cheap while on the road in markets. Also, most of the places that I did my clothes by hand had clothesline, rendering the one I had superfluous. I'd say the only worthwhile part of this get-up was the sink stopped. In any case, I did this write-up on washing your clothes by hand while traveling, check it out if you want a quick tutorial.
  • Other useful things: Compass, nylon string (~5 meters) mini first aid kit (+ a roll of medical tape), basic toiletries (body wash, shampoo, toothpaste), a few carabiners, sewing kit, multivitamins A note on toiletries: the liquids are basically the heaviest things in my pack density-wise, but also the easiest to resupply with while traveling. That said, I minimize how much of the shampoo/body wash/contact fluid I carry. All of these things I got use out of, and they were worth what little weight they added. I'm sticking with all of them.
  • Passport with copies, makes it easier to get a replacement, ATM card with emergency numbers stored online. These aren't really optional.

And here´s a picture of everything, minus the clothes/boots I was wearing at the time, the tent (left it at my host´s house for a short trip), and a few dirty socks:


If you are going to be in more urban areas, two excellent sites to check out are One Bag and Tim Ferriss´s post on how he packs.

I´d be interested to know what items other people always pack! Leave a comment!

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0 #1 Caitlin R 2010-02-17 22:26
So how are all of your items holding up? Anything you wish you'd brought, or hadn't bought? Anything you're even happier having than you thought you would be?
0 #2 Tyler Cole 2010-08-04 05:39
Hey Caitlin - I updated the article with all of my post-trip comments in italics. In short I was happy with most everything, but I think I'm going to bring a netbook with me for now on (the flash drive was a pain). I was particularly thrilled by the tent. Let me know if you have any specific questions!
0 #3 Andrew Tonkovich 2010-09-17 15:47
Just a comment, I didnt notice rope or cord of any sort. When I go backpacking in national parks, I like to bring tent cord. Its $3, uber light, 1000lbs tension force allwd. It can me used to fix anything with tape and stitching with a needle, also good for hanging food, making a clothes line, and unlimited other possibilities.
0 #4 Tyler Cole 2010-09-17 17:35
Thanks for reminding me Andy, I did have some nylon cord with me. It is more just cheap clothesline-style stuff, but your idea sounds better with that tent cord. I'll definitely pick some of that up before my next trip.
0 #5 Jose Davila 2010-09-17 17:47
Great post. You definitely hit the key travel items. I have a few alternative recommendations based off my last trip through South America. The first is the AquaDry Towel ( It costs about $12 and is a little bigger than the MSR, but it's comfortable and requires no dry time. It packs moist in its plastic container, resists fungal growth, and is easy to wash. I got mine at target. The second is a belt with a hidden inner zipper for storing cash ( It's lightweight and has a plastic buckle to avoid delays in airports. I used mine in addition to my travel pouch (necessary for larger items such as a passport and credit cards) as a place to store cash just in case the pouch, known among travelers and locals alike, were stolen. I found mine for about $10 on the road in Ecuador and have since used it in place of my heavy and hard-to-pack leather belt.

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