Friday, May 1, 2015

Traveling light - what to pack for a long trip

Setting out on trip is always an exciting endeavor - booking flights,  planning itineraries, getting the necessary paperwork and sorting out currencies. But for me, the biggest undertaking is always figuring out what to pack. After decades of traveling, to world capitals as well as remote hamlets, I've realized that it's wiser to leave the hairdryer at home and no, I don't need all those dresses.Trying to squeeze all of life's essentials into one bag is not without its sacrifice, but I've almost got it down to a science. Here's a peek at what I normally pack for trips of up to a month in duration.

The duffel is collapsible for easy storage
First of all, the bag. Having had soft and hard shell suitcases over the years, I've now settled for a soft duffel with wheels. I'm really too old and my back is too weak to carry around a hiking backpack. The bag is too big to carry on, but I really can't get by with just carry-on luggage. What I have is a Samsonite that has companionably rolled around many places with me, its sturdy wheels clickety-clacking over cobblestones, stairs and even dirt tracks.

I use a sturdy TSA lock, to secure the bag in hotel rooms and while in transit. It won't put off a determined thief but hopefully it's enough to deter any opportunists. The last time I travelled, the bag came off the luggage belt minus the lock. I don't know if it broke off itself or was pried off but thankfully nothing was missing.

I also use a smaller backpack which I carry onboard with me. Into this go my essentials and important stuff that I would never leave in check-in luggage that can go missing, including all my documents, money, iPhone, camera and Kindle. I also include a good old-fashioned notepad and pen which is essential for filling in immigration forms.

The neck pillow is zipped for easy cleaning
I bring along a hoodie or sweater because transit lounges can get pretty cold. After years of traveling with inflatable neck pillows which always spring a leak, I've settled for a microbead-filled one which makes up for its bulkiness with comfort and reliability. The one I have has a zipped cover for easy washing. Also into my backpack goes a bag of essential toiletries and medication in case my main bag goes missing and I need the stuff (yes, I'm somewhat OCD). This small bag can also fit my wallet, passport and camera. 

When burglaries happen even in the air, it's better to be on your guard and not trust anyone. For this reason, I never place my bag in the overhead compartment where anyone can rifle through it when the lights are dimmed. My backpack is always at my feet (thank goodness I am short enough). When I'm traveling alone and have to go to the toilet, my small bag of important stuff goes along with me.

In these days where accessories are getting lighter and lighter, I sometimes also pack my phone charger, adaptor, power bank and the necessary cables into my backpack. There have been times when I've been stuck at airport terminals for hours due to delays and watched my phone battery die, so I have learned it's better to be prepared for any eventuality.

I take pictures of my passport, credit cards and other important documents, and store these in my email account, so that in the event they get stolen, I have easy access to copies. When I 'm walking around in a foreign town, I use a cross-body bag instead of a backpack, because I can get to my stuff easily and also because anyone can just open my backpack, especially in crowded places. A friend of mine had her wallet and passport stolen that way.

Next and most importantly, clothing. Depending on where I'm going and what the climate is, I try to pack as lightly as possible. Of course, warm weather is easier, because it's just t-shirts and shorts, swimsuits and flip-flops, and a sundress or two. Cold weather is trickier, because my journeys can take me from autumnal weather to below freezing temperatures. I've gotten a bunch of Heat-tech tops and bottoms from Uniqlo which are really lightweight and affordable. I go for dark, neutral tones, mostly solid blacks, greys and browns which I can easily mix and match. I usually pack a pair of dark jeans, stretch gym pants and waterproof hiking pants. All my colors are dark and solid because they travel better. They're all lightweight and pack well when I roll them up. They also lend well to layering when I need added warmth.

I know others who can make do with lighter synthetic jackets, but a waterproof down jacket with a hood is invaluable for someone like me who hates the cold. I find the hood particularly useful in rain, snow and sleet when an umbrella just won't cut it. Together with this I pack waterproof gloves (shoved into the pockets of my jacket when packing so I won't misplace them), a woolen scarf and cap, because I find it important to keep my head and neck warm at all times.

I've learned over the years to pack a maximum of five bras and five pairs of socks. In cold weather I can wear each one for two days and I normally manage to do laundry within ten days of traveling. A great boon is disposable underwear which I've used for years. The best kind are all-cotton which are very comfortable and available at most pharmacies.

Footwear. I wear a pair of my most comfortable sneakers on the plane and pack my waterproof hiking boots into my luggage. It's better not to skimp on quality here. My Salomon boots weren't cheap but they're still holding up after many trips through snow, mud, clay and streams over the years. I made sure to wear them in when I first bought them, because the last thing you want to happen when traveling is dealing with blisters caused by new shoes. I pack a pair of cheap flip-flops as well, to walk around in hotel rooms.

Accessories. Apart from my cheap watch, I don't bring any jewelry. I've heard enough stories of women who had their jewelry stolen to wonder why anyone would want to wear expensive stuff on their travels. I do pack an extra pair of eyeglasses because nothing is worse than breaking my spectacles. Eyeshades are also essential.

Toiletries and pharmaceuticals. Travel-sized toiletries go into a leak-proof bag, and these include cleanser, toner, moisturizer and most importantly, sunblock. I pack extra body lotion when I'm traveling in cold, dry climates, as well as lip balm for chapped lips. I always like to buy shampoo in the country I'm visiting. It gives me a chance to try something new and also, a hairdresser once told me that shampoos in different countries will be manufactured to suit the water there. Makes sense. I pack all my supplements into a pillbox divided by days. I also bring along a batch of medicines for ailments like the flu, tummy upsets and sunburn, just in case I can't get to a chemist, and other first aid stuff like bandaids.

Gadgets. The iPad is a lifesaver, because it's my source of communication, mobile office, journal, news source and best friend on the road. My iPhone is still my go-to tool as source of entertainment and connection, alarm clock, calculator, calendar, notepad and camera. My little Leica is lightweight and super at taking photos. My Kindle has eliminated heavy, bulky books. Into my gizmo bag go cables, adaptors and batteries, so I don't have to rummage through the entire bag for them.

Most importantly, a checklist. In my advancing years, I tend to forget stuff, and it's irritating having to track down batteries or sunburn lotion in a strange place. Even worse is forgetting some documents, tickets or credit cards. So I make a list at least a week or two before my trip and tick each item off when I've packed it.

For me, travel is all about going places and experiencing new adventures.The last thing I want is having to lug around stuff that I won't use or don't need. I don't think I can handle one of those luxury cruises where you have to dress for dinner and coordinate your look from head to toe. Nobody's going to look at what I'm wearing when I'm trudging through sleet and mud in freezing weather.

From experience, I've learned not to over-pack. Every item in my bag has to be schlepped around from airport to train and hotel (and back again). I don't want to be burdened by my belongings nor throw my back out with an unnecessarily heavy bag. I'm traveling to carry back lots of memories, not a bunch of stuff.

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