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Big Trips

Packing for a round-the-world trip

Leif Pettersen

Portrait of men carrying luggage overhead, India, Uttar Pradesh, Agra© All rights reservedPortrait of men carrying luggage overhead, India, Uttar Pradesh, AgraJuliet Coombe | Lonely Planet

It’s time to go! You’re just days away from your one/two/four year round-the-world trip. Hell, why even set dates? You may never come back. Screw reality, accountability and personal hygiene! You’re free!

Equally, if you haven’t planned suitably, you may be back in two weeks due to illness, mishap, theft, or your companion ditching you for being an unforgivable travel liability. A big component of this planning involves sensible packing.

I’ve observed two distinct styles for round-the-world packing:

  • The Boy Scout – be prepared for anything
  • The Lifeboat Survivor – bring only enough to forestall death, or at least social ostracism

Like many seasoned travellers, I started as the former and, after much back pain and embarrassment, transformed into something closer to the latter. More recently, I’ve been re-inspired by Rolf Potts’ No Baggage Challenge to pack even lighter.

Many astute tips like clothes rolling, multipurpose items and lightweight accessories have already been discussed in our earlier post about hand luggage-only travel. But for the long-haul trips, there’s a few additional details to consider.

Bags: backpack or wheelie bag?

Answer: hybrid. Round-the-world bags reached a state of perfection with soft-sided, wheeled backpacks, with zip-off day-bags, like the Victorinox Swiss Army. The purists preaching that backpacking should be done with real backpacks have largely gone silent (probably too busy downing painkillers for their chronic back spasms). I’ve had my light-weight, wheeled backpack for six years and have only needed to use it in backpack mode twice. Save your energy for the adventure activities and let your bag roll.

Tech: how small can you get?

This continues to get easier as newer, smaller, more powerful gadgets that combine three older gadgets are released each year. A netbook, still/video camera, dynamic smartphone and Kindle, (gear that would have filled an entire backpack only five years ago), barely fills half a day-bag now. Don’t forget data back-up accessories. Data loss, including critical information, journals and pictures, is the most common, and often most painful, mishap I’ve seen on the road.

Security: are you an impenetrable fortress?

Again, the pendulum of opinion swings wide. Aim for paranoid, complicated fortification (which can potentiallydraw more attention to your valuables) or lean toward inconspicuousness and common sense? Personally, I bring steel luggage locks, a mid-sized padlock for hostel lockers and mobile alarms for my tech. I like the small, light Defcon 1 Ultra mobile alarm, with motion sensor. None of these items are going to defeat a truly determined thief, but mild deterrents go a surprisingly long way.

Clothes: the laundry is your best friend

The logistics of clothes can be dizzying, what with changing seasons, hemispheres and altitudes that can occasionally carry you from winter to summer and back again in a matter of days. But you’ll be surprised how little clothing you can get by on. Resist the urge to bring 21 pieces of underwear, 12 shirts, six pants and four pairs of shoes. You can easily get by on a third of that when combined with a reasonable laundry routine. And, unless your trip specifically calls for it, there’s no need to pack for every possible weather contingency. If necessary, you can buy any important clothing, say for an impulse Everest summit, while on the road.

Furthermore, unless you’re camping in the Sudanese desert for six months, prescription meds notwithstanding, you can acquire almost anything you need while on the road. So no need to pack six months of contact lens solution, batteries, pain relievers, laundry soap, etc.

Finally, a Swiss Army knife or a similar multipurpose tool is indispensable. Especially the corkscrew.

Leif Pettersen has authored multiple guidebooks for Lonely Planet. He describes his packing style as that of ‘a militant, light-packing wingnut.’