When it comes to travel, particularly long-term travel, packing lightly is a priority. Over time most travelers try to pack less because dragging heavy bags everywhere isn’t convenient, and lots of things can be bought or rented at destination. That said, there are few very useful multipurpose items that are worth bringing along on most international and multi-stop trips. Here are eight that I don’t like to do without on my travels.
The classic multi-tool like a Swiss-army knife or Leatherman has morphed into what looks like a million and one new versions, with flashlights, fish scalers, can openers, screw drivers, and even pretty patterns on the outside. They’re a classic backpacker accessory, and they’re really handy for all sorts of situations.
In addition to cutting food, and opening corked bottles of wine (as boxes usually come with a handy screw-top), the side of the (metal) knife can be used as a hammer.
The one caveat? You can’t carry them on your flights: knives have to go in checked bags at the airport.
A small pair of scissors (maybe not as small as the ones on your Swiss-Army knife, something with a blade about two inches long) can provide hours of entertainment making decorations for your tent or dorm room, and also serve some more practical purposes.
Scissors are also handy for those rectangular aseptic (tetra pak) milk containers, and assorted packets of things like mustard and sour cream. They’re also a possible stand-in for getting a local haircut, though this depends heavily on the skill of your travel mates as well as the amount of trust you put in them and/or yourself.
Scissors will also help you transform your wardrobe, and are great for t-shirt or other (clothing-related) surgery you may need to perform. Just remember scissors with pointed tips and blades greater than four inches in length have to go in your checked bag.
Reusable water bottle
Although bottled water is usually the most practical way of drinking water in countries with questionable tap quality, a reusable plastic or metal bottle is handy to cart your purified h20 with you.
Metal reusable bottles also make a good cup for brewing a cup of instant coffee or tea or mixing up Vitamin C mix.
You can also use your bottle as a controlled temperature delivery service. Filled with cold water, it can make an emergency cold compress, and filled with hot water, you can tuck it into your sleeping bag like a hot-water bottle. The next morning you can use the still warm water to brew a cup of tea in bed.
Water bottles also make a good counterweight or storage solution, depending on your needs.
At home, plastic bags accumulate under the kitchen sink. On the road, they’re actually pretty useful. Reusing them is easy; balled up, they make a perfect drain stop, twisted, they can be used to replace broken bag straps on a backpack as a stopgap technique. You can even use them as an “alarm system” to keep your travel companions from stealing your chocolate–surely that darn crinkling will wake you up if anyone even thinks about digging into your stash of sweets without asking first.
Plastic Ziplocs are perhaps a traveler’s best friend, as they can be used for a wide variety of purposes. If you’re doing water-activities (boating, rafting, canoeing, etc), you can put your valuables in them to keep them dry. If you have some leftover food, you can keep it fresh and separate in a Ziploc. Separating your clean and dirty laundry is always important on the road, and plastic baggies can keep the dirt and stench away from your clean clothes.
You can even use them as organizational tools while you’re traveling. Put your socks in one. Underwear in another. Shirts in another. Use them to separate gadgets and keep chargers safe. Put your toiletries in them. Use them to keep anything that might spill or otherwise create a mess in your pack safe and separate. Some travelers even use different sizes of Ziplocs in place of packing cubes as they essentially do the same things for a fraction of the price.
If you’re really in a bind and your shoes (and socks) are wet or dirty, you can even use a combination of Ziplocs and newspaper in place of socks to keep your feet warm and dry while you get everything sorted.
A few meters of small-bore nylon-core rope, available cheaply as military surplus “paracord”, can serve travelers as a laundry line, delighting the locals with our amazing aplomb at hanging our unmentionables out to dry just any old place. It also works to hang up your newly-purchased hammock (trees purchased separately).
Rope can also be used for emergency bag repair, to stake a tent or even as a makeshift belt or bootlaces. Use the inner nylon strands for fishing wire, thread, or any need for strong, thin string.
But if you need to cut the rope, be sure to melt the ends with a flame to prevent them from unravelling.
Tape. Masking, scotch, adhesive, gaffer, surgical, electrical, teflon, and probably the most popular traveler’s tape – duct. There are so many varieties of tape, and any one of them can be used to tape your falling-apart guidebook back together. Tape can be a lifesaver on the hiking trail, wrapped around your feet where blisters are likely to form (for this, surgical tape is your best bet, though improvisations have been successfully made).
You use tape to fix your glasses, hold your watch on your wrist, support a weak ankle, keep a torn fingernail in place, hold gauze to a wound, patch leaky plastic bottles, close holes in a screen window, hold a bus or room curtain shut, seal an envelope, or label your food in the hostel fridge. You can get really creative with tape and even make a phone case out of it when yours breaks.
For the absolute best traveler’s tape, look for gaffer tape, a strong duct-tape-like roll of adhesive that film crews use on clamps and electronics: it doesn’t leave a sticky residue and is incredibly strong, but it’s also very expensive.
This broad piece of fabric is extra useful at the beach. You can sit on it, use it to change behind, make it into a skirt or dress, and even use it to dry off.
But the scarf doesn’t stop on the beach. It’s a particle mask on a dusty road with wide-open windows, a curtain in a room with bare windows, emergency clothing for when everything else is dirty, a place to rest your weary head when pillowcases are absent or of dubious cleanliness. A sarong can replace a bedsheet, or establish your personal space at an outdoor concert.
Should injuries occur, you can use a sarong as a brace, wrap or sling. Need a baby harness that doesn’t take up a lot of space in your luggage? People the world over have been strapping babies to their backs with nothing more than a length of cloth for centuries.
If you buy more at the market than you know what to do with, gather the ends and make yourself an impromptu bag (stick optional). And when you get home, your (well-washed) sarong can make a great gift, if you find yourself able to part with it.
So readers: What’s a useful item you always pack and how do you use it?
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