Hit the Road: the Unbrave Girl’s Checklist for Packing up, Picking up & Leaving

March 4, 2010

I did it. Just last week, I left my life in Japan to start my one-year, around-Asia adventure. Last Wednesday, I flew to Taiwan where I spent the rest of the week with college friends: eating, hiking (not really so much on purpose, but as a result of getting lost), eating some more (to make up for calories lost due to accidental hiking), hanging out, and, well, eating. While all that eating may sound purely gluttonous, this was not gluttony but “training” for the year ahead. After all, I need to do as much as I can to bulk up in case I end up visiting a country where they don’t sell food. (Hey, it’s possible!)

It’s also possible that this country will not yet have discovered the wonder of facial tissues either. That’s why my luggage is currently housing a colony of tissue mini-packs so extensive that I’m pretty sure if you put the contents of the mini-packs end-to-end you’d be able to make a trail of tissues to the moon (which may also come in handy when I end up in a country that doesn’t have maps and I’ll have to use a Hansel and Gretel-like trail of tissues to find my way back home).

After my quick Taiwan trip, I arrived in rural Northern Thailand on Monday where I am house-sitting/cat-watching/plant-watering/chicken-feeding/pad thai-eating for the next two months. After this, I plan on hitting Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. In each country, I hope to volunteer teach or volunteer farm or, say, volunteer eat. Should anyone know of good volunteer programs in those countries, please let me know. Should anyone know of good things to eat in those countries, that information would also be appreciated.

Finally, a year or so from now, I plan to return to Japan to spend quality time with my friends (and by “quality time” I mean “sleep on their couches and raid their refrigerators”) before deciding my next step (and by “deciding my next step” I mean “move in with my parents, sleep on their couch and raid their refrigerator).

Of course, leaving my life behind in a country I have called home for the past three years was not a quick and easy process. It was also not such a quick and easy process to embark on a year-long journey that may or may not result in my starving to death (not likely) or my getting lost to death (highly likely). Should you be about to embark on the same journey, I have assembled this handy dandy checklist of things you’ll need to do before you up and go. You can thank me now (I accept donations of foreign or domestic currency, food or airline tickets).

Perfecting the Pack List

Before you even think about putting so much as a tissue mini-pack into your bag, you first have to write up a preliminary pack list. I suggest researching what other people doing similar journeys are packing into their bags. Lucky for you the Internet is rife with travel bloggers who are more than happy to open their luggage and show you their drawers (the moisture-wicking, non-chafe, fast-drying kinds of drawers, of course) along with their cargo pants, t-shirts and poly-propylene liner socks (whatever the heck those are).

Once you’ve sifted through all the lists of things that other people are bringing on their trips, you can decide what you should bring on your trip. Of course, it’s tempting to bring things you’ve never even heard of (and, thus, can’t even pronounce) just because all the other cool travel bloggers are doing it. Well, as your mom used to say, if all the other cool travel bloggers were jumping off a cliff, would you do that, too? (Oddly enough, a little web research reveals that all the other cool travel bloggers are jumping off cliffs! Who knew?)

So put down the poly-propylene liner socks (whatever the heck those are), and put together a pack list that’s right for you. If it’s something you use everyday and can’t imagine living your life without, like body lotion, lip gloss or fluffy bunny slippers, then bring it. If it’s designed by NASA engineers and you’re really not sure what part of your body it should go on (or even if it’s supposed to go on your body), then don’t bring it.

My pack list was pretty basic: just a few t-shirts, a couple tank tops, some pants, one skirt, some underwear and bras, a few socks, a swimsuit, a towel, a hat, a light rain jacket, a cardigan and hoodie, pajamas, flip-flops, shoes, basic toiletries and medication, vitamins, my laptop, iPod, digital camera… and enough tissue mini-packs to cover the globe. See, easy, right?!

Shop Until You Drop (a couple hundred dollars or so)

Once you’ve decided what you need to bring, then you have to decide what you already have and what you’ll need to buy. Of course, it’s tempting to buy all new stuff; preferably all new stuff made from space age material that promises to wick away moisture in 2.5 milliseconds flat. But, remember, about two months after you start your trip, you’re going to hate every single piece of clothing in your pack; even the piece of clothing so high-tech it can call your mother, make popcorn and detect satellite feeds all at the same time. So there’s really no reason to buy a whole new set of fancy t-shirts you’re just going to hate in two months when you could go with those not-so-fancy t-shirts you already have (and probably already hate).

After reviewing my pack list and my pre-existing not-so-fancy-stuff-that-I-already-kind-of-hate wardrobe, I decided the only things that I really needed to buy was a new bag (since my current backpack was too small and my rolling suitcase was too large and bulky), a pair of pants (since it’s no small feat finding a pair of pants to fit my no small butt while in Asia) and a pair of slip-on walking shoes (also not such a small feat to find shoes to fit my rather large feet… well, at least not cute, girly shoes… I’m sure if I wanted to wear rubber fishing boots for the next twelve months, I wouldn’t have a problem picking those up in my size). I also bought a more flexible, durable pair of eyeglasses better able to put up with the rigors of travel (aka: being crushed at the bottom of my day bag periodically). Oh, yeah, and it was very imperative that I buy new cozies for my laptop and iPod made from stain-resistant, protective neoprene (whatever the heck that is).

Practice Makes Perfect (or in my case… pregnant)

As tempting as it is to wait until the last possible minute to throw all your stuff in your bag and go, it’s important to practice pack beforehand. Besides, you’ll need that last possible minute to do more important things: like eat everything you think you’ll miss over the next twelve months (more on that very important step later!). By practice packing, you’ll know what fits (underwear, socks, t-shirts, fluffy bunny slippers) and what doesn’t (your great grandmother’s pearls, your New Kids on the Block shot glass set, your spare pair of fluffy bunny slippers).

While practice packing, I’d also suggest trying out your new bag: that means adjusting straps, testing zippers, finding all those secret pockets and figuring out how many tissue mini-packs will fit into those secret pockets. I bought an Osprey Meridian convertible travel pack with both wheels and backpack straps and a detachable day bag… and lots and lots of secret pockets… and apparently some feature which prevents the much dreaded “clothing migration.” (Don’t you just hate it when your clothes migrate to Mexico while your body is still somewhere in Boise?)

While test packing my bags, I made a point of figuring out how to detach and re-attach the day bag. I also had to figure out how to take out the backpack straps from their secret compartment on the back of the larger bag. While this was easy enough to do (unzip secret compartment, pull out backpack straps and waist belt), putting the straps back into the secret compartment proved a lot more difficult task. After a twenty minutes of attempting to stuff the straps and belt back into the compartment, I referred to the user’s manual for my bag, which provided me with this insight: “Insert the male buckles found at the base of the hipbelt lumbar area into the female buckles located at the base of the High Road Chassis.” Male buckles? Female buckles? Why are these things gendered? And, why for the love of buckles, is the male buckle getting so fresh with the female buckle with me sitting around watching? I don’t even know these buckles!

Eventually I was able to fit the backpack straps and waist belt back into the secret compartment, but the back of my bag wasn’t nearly as nice and flat as it had been before. Instead the back was bulging and lumpy… and, honestly, looked about five months pregnant… which makes sense considering all that male/female buckle action going on.

Check Please!

Should you be leaving a job that provides health insurance with decent coverage (you know, regular dental and medical check-ups, emergency care, and treatment should you end up in a war, nuclear holocaust or epidemic), you’ll want to fit in as many last minute health checks and dental visits as possible before you go. You really should get some kind of travel insurance for your trip, but, be aware, that most travel insurance (such as World Nomads, the insurance that I have) only includes emergency medical and dental care, and, according to the guidelines, war (whether declared or otherwise), nuclear holocaust and epidemics do not qualify as “emergencies.” (Hmmm, funny that. I would think as far as emergencies go these three things would be on the top of the list. Oh well! Good thing, I’m only visiting Thailand and Cambodia and such and not visiting any countries with any kind of civil unrest… umm, wait a second.)

In addition to fitting in all those last minute check ups, you’ll also want to make sure you’re properly vaccinated for your trip. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website suggests you schedule a visit with your doctor to get your vaccinations at least four to six weeks prior to your trip. Usually, being the scaredy cat that I am, I schedule vaccinations months in advance. Prior to going to Nepal a year and a half ago, I had full blood work done to test my immunity levels and got everything from a typhoid vaccination to a rabies booster. (Yes, there is such thing as a rabies booster for humans… I should know, I’ve had four of them!).

But this year, I was so busy packing and scheduling last minute dentist appointments and eating everything I’d miss (more on that step later!), that I kind of forgot about the fact that I’d be traveling in countries where quaint, old-fashioned diseases like cholera still exist. (This disease exists outside of Laura Ingalls Wilder novels?! Who knew?) It wasn’t until two weeks before my travel date that I remembered I hadn’t yet scheduled an appointment at the international clinic in Kobe to go over the vaccinations I would need. When I called the clinic, the woman laughed at me when I told her how soon I’d be leaving. After she recovered from her giggle fit, she managed to fit me in for an appointment three days before I was scheduled to leave.

When I arrived at the clinic for my consultation and informed the doctor of my travel date, he also burst into an uncontrollable bout of the giggles. Judging from his appearance, he didn’t seem the type to laugh much so I was kind of happy I could provide him with a moment of mirth. But, it would have been nice if his laughter hadn’t been caused by my woeful lack of cholera prevention preparation. Luckily, being a scaredy cat in the past paid off. Glancing at the long list of shots and boosters on my chock-full vaccination record, he decided the only thing I needed was another tetanus shot (which came with an extra bonus of a whopping cough vaccination for free! Wow, beat that, Laura Ingalls Wilder!)

Money Matters

Before leaving, you’ll want to make sure you’ve called your ATM and credit card companies to tell them you’ll be away. The last thing you need is for your ATM or credit card companies to block your purchases or withdrawals while overseas… especially if it’s a really important purchase like a night at a hotel when you’re stranded unexpectedly somewhere or, say, that collection of Eastern Mongolian ear wax sculptures that would be just perfect for your living room. Even though I’ve told my credit card companies that I live abroad and travel overseas regularly, I’ve had a number of credit card purchases blocked over the past couple years. I always think it’s precious how my credit card company is always trying to save me from myself — precious and really annoying (especially when a blocked purchase means no new ear wax sculptures for me).

In addition to a few ATM and credit cards, you’ll also want to have some cash handy. If you feel uneasy about carrying around wads of cash, you could always get traveler’s checks… that is, if you can actually find a bank willing to give them to you… and, even then, good luck finding a bank that will actually cash them. Last year when I was in Bali, I attempted to cash a traveler’s check at the foreign exchange and the woman looked at me like I was attempting to trade her a herd of goats for some Indonesian rupiah. Before heading off on my trip this year, I attempted to get some traveler’s checks at my local bank in Japan, the same bank that sold me the traveler’s checks last year but they told me they were no longer selling them. Apparently, I’m the only one who feels uneasy carrying wads of cash around. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t exactly save for this big trip and don’t exactly have lots of wads of cash to carry around anyway!

Eat, Eat, Eat (and eat some more)

And, finally, the section you’ve all been waiting for: the part where I tell you to eat everything you’re going to miss over the next twelve months… and then when you’re finished doing that, order dessert! While, again, this may sound gluttonous, this is, in fact a very important part of your travel preparation. First of all, it will allow you a chance to savor the tastes of home one last chance before you up and leave. Secondly, as mentioned before, there’s always a chance you could end up in a country without food… or a startling lack of food. In Nepal, I volunteered at an orphanage and ate lentils and rice for both breakfast and dinner for almost a month (forget lunch… lunch doesn’t exist in Nepal… at least not in Nepalese orphanages). The kids in the orphanage were just happy to be eating, and I really should have just been happy to be eating, too. But I wasn’t. I didn’t want any more lentils and rice. I wanted pizza. And nachos. And ice cream sundaes. And lunch. So eat all the pizza, nachos and ice cream you can get your hungry little fingers on… and maybe have a second lunch or two. Who knows you might end up in a country without lunch!

Finally, this very important eating step will actually make it easier for you to pack. I spent two solid months eating every piece of Japanese food I could get my hands on, and not any of that healthy Japanese food. (Heck no! Instead it was all mayonnaise smothered okonomiyaki and deep-fried kushi-katsu for me!)

After those two months, I could only fit into three pairs of pants and those were the pants I packed for my trip. Thus, all that eating definitely streamlined my packing decision-making… if not my waistline. And allowed me room for more tissue mini-packs!


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On April 25, 2013 at 8:29 pm Priya said:

    I love reading your earlier posts and seeing how you’ve evolved as a traveler and writer and eater. All these tips are really great, especially the practice packing tip!

    PS: I have a needle phobia and I hate getting shots and I can’t remember the last time I had one.

    PPS: Bunny slippers are for amateurs.

  2. On July 27, 2013 at 8:32 am Barry said:

    Thanks for the post! We’re currently reviewing our packing list in preparation for our next adventure, and wondered if you had any thoughts?


    Any advice appreciated! Barry
    Barry recently posted..Best Philly Cheesesteak in Philly?

    • On August 3, 2013 at 11:02 am Sally said:

      I think it’s so dependent on each person — I’ve seen packing lists full of stuff I would never, ever need, and I’m sure people would scoff at what I pack. Good luck with your trip!


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