So many different things go into planning a RTW trip. You have to worry about things like travel insurance, immunizations, and whether or not to purchase a RTW plane ticket. But one of the biggest questions I hear revolves around packing. For those who have never taken more than a week or two trip before, it can be overwhelming thinking about what to bring on a trip around the world. Panic quickly sets in as travelers ponder the ins and outs of packing for a trip like this.
A few things to consider
Before we get into the details of what to pack for a RTW trip, let’s get a few basics out of the way. Packing for a RTW trip doesn’t have to be as difficult as people make it out to be. I honestly pack virtually the same for a one week trip as I do for a year-long one – you don’t need nearly as much as you think. Here are a few basic tips and ideas to keep in mind when first contemplating your packing list.
- Weather is the most important thing to consider when packing for a RTW trip. When thinking of where to go on a RTW trip, many people like to follow summer around the world. Sunshine, long days, and nice weather are always appealing, but only dealing with warm weather helps immensely with packing. No one wants to bring a heavy, winter coat with them around the world, as it takes up tons of space and can be heavy and cumbersome.
- Even if you do decide to go to locations with colder climates, layering is a better option than bringing your 8 pound winter coat. Thermals and moisture-wicking shirts are key, along with good, wool socks and sturdy shoes. With layers you can get by with a light, waterproof rain jacket, a hat, scarf, and some gloves.
- One of the biggest mistake travelers make when getting clothes together for a trip is packing way too much. Not everyone has to be a minimalist packer, but preparing for every what-if scenario will have you with a 90 liter pack packed to the gills.
Going on a long-term, RTW trip is obviously much different than a one or two week vacation. When going on a short vacation, most people don’t want to waste time on tasks like doing laundry, so packing clothes for every day you are gone is feasible and makes sense (though even that is not totally necessary). When you are traveling for months or even years, packing like this is just not possible.
- One thing to realize when getting clothes together is that you will be doing laundry often. When on a RTW trip, you move much slower and have a lot of downtime, so taking an afternoon to go to a laundromat or doing laundry in your hostel is no big deal. If you are traveling in developing areas like Latin America or Southeast Asia, then sending your laundry out is the way to go. It’s extremely cheap to do, and all you have to do is drop it off then pick up your clean and folded clothes a day later. It’s really quite nice, and it doesn’t take much out of your budget.
- Another thing to consider is that buying clothes on the road is typically cheap and easy, so it’s not necessary to plan for every contingency. Unless you have an unusual body type, then you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding clothes that fit you. I’m short and chubby, yet I had no issues finding clothes in places like SE Asia, where most locals had a totally different body type than I. In any major metropolitan area, there are countless markets and shopping centers that sell cheap clothes that are perfect for travelers. So if you only bring a few shirts with you and one wears out, then you just buy a new one on the road. Clothes make for great souvenirs upon returning, too.
- Remember that you can ditch clothes when re-upping along the way as well. If something gets too worn out, then throw it away. If something isn’t working for you but it’s nice and you want to keep it, send it home. When we were in South America and New Zealand, it was fairly cold at times, but the second part of our trip saw us in SE Asia and India, so we didn’t need any of our heavy clothes anymore. We simply sent a package home when we arrived in Bangkok.
Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what to pack as far as clothes for a RTW trip. Every person has different opinions, so there is no set rule for what to bring and what not to bring. Some people swear by travel-related clothes and only buy and bring those. Some find them too expensive and silly looking (hello zip-off pants!), so they bring the items they would normally wear at home. Many travelers refuse to bring something like blue jeans, which are big, heavy, and take a long time to dry, while others don’t care about those negative aspects and are perfectly comfortable wearing them on the road.
The key is to do what makes sense for you. In my opinion, travel specific clothing is really nice and worth the extra expense on the front end. During our one year RTW trip, I left with 6 shirts and a microfleece, and I came home with all of them. I did spend hundreds of dollars on clothes before leaving, but nearly all lasted me the entire trip (I still wore some of the same shirts for a few years after coming home).
Travel specific clothing is usually made of different material than clothes you wear in day-to-day life at home. Cotton is very uncommon as it’s not lightweight or very breathable. Having lightweight clothing that wicks moisture away from your skin is nice in so many situations. It also makes it easier to pack since the clothes are smaller and lighter. They are great for both warm and cooler climates since they breathe easier and don’t get sopping wet with sweat in a place like Southeast Asia (or when you’re layering in colder weather). And if you plan on doing any hiking or trekking, these types of clothes are perfect. The main downside of travel specific clothing is their appearance. They aren’t nearly as nice looking, and if you’re looking for nightlife or an occasional nice dinner here and there, you may feel a bit out of place (or maybe even be denied entry into certain bars and clubs).
Men’s travel clothing: Here’s an example of some travel specific clothing that a man might bring on a RTW trip. Links are provided, and these are examples of what I brought for a year-long RTW trip in South America, New Zealand, SE Asia, and India. Temperatures varied from about 30F (-1C) to over 100F (38C). I ditched the microfleece and thermal shirt after New Zealand since we were only going to be in hot climates the rest of the way.
- Zip-off convertible pants may not be the most stylish, but they’re extremely practical as they’re lightweight and small for packing and they double as shorts and pants. Great for hiking and trekking.
- Moisture wicking t-shirts are a nice alternative to cotton, especially for hot, humid climates, layering, and hiking.
- A lightweight, moisture wicking button-ups are nice for many occasions – going out, walking around a city, museums, churches, temples, even hiking. Very breezy and cool even in super hot climates.
- I brought this exact lightweight long sleeve button-up with me, and it was great. The sleeves rolled up to make it short sleeve, and when rolled down, it could pass for a nice shirt. Super lightweight and nice even when warm.
- This midweight thermal shirt was great for layering in colder climates. It worked fine on its own walking around cities as well. Pretty warm, yet breathable and light-weight.
- This microfleece is warm yet still lightweight and small, perfect for layering in cold weather.
- This jacket was perfect as it was water-resistant, lightweight, yet warm with all the layers. Add a warm hat and gloves with the thermal shirt and microfleece, and you’re good even when temperatures are around freezing.
- Yes, they are expensive for underwear at $25 for one, but they are well worth it. I brought four of these on our trip, and not only did they last the entire trip, but I wore them for a year and a half after I got home. The most comfortable, durable underwear around. No joke.
- When it comes to socks, any socks made of merino wool are going to be top-notch. There are many different brands out there. This goes for both men and women.
Women’s travel clothing: Women have it a little more difficult in my opinion, but it can be done. My wife was diligent in shopping for clothes many months in advance of our trip. She ended up bringing a 42 liter pack that we didn’t even have to check. Here’s some examples of the travel specific clothing she brought.
- These pants were perfect for walking around cities and long bus rides. These were her comfy pants that could also pass for something a bit nicer.
- These quick dry pants were her go-to pants for all types of activities. She wore them walking around cities, hiking, and out to more casual restaurants.
- This skort actually just looked like a wrap skirt, so she she could wear it out and still wear it on a light hike or city bike ride.
- She brought this skirt as a nicer alternative to the skort. It is also lightweight and quick drying, making it nice and convenient for laundry.
- This long sleeve shirt worked for walking around cities and going out to dinners.
- This was her go-to casual long sleeve shirt. It was light-weight and breathable, so it was perfect even when the weather was a bit warm. I called this her uniform shirt she wore it so often (her’s had a hood as well).
- This was a good tank top for hiking in warmer climates and wearing around cities when it was hot.
- She also brought a few basic, light-weight moisture-wicking t-shirts.
Many travelers will bring mostly travel-specific clothing and one nice outfit for those times when you feel like getting dressed up. For women, there tends to be travel clothing that is a bit nicer in appearance than men. There are light-weight skirts and shorts that can be cute and nice looking, but it still takes creativity. One tip I can offer, for both men and women, is to bring tops and bottoms that all match. Make sure you can wear every shirt with every pair of pants, shorts, or skirt. Really light colored clothing is another no-no as you will get dirty, and if you’re anything like me, probably spill some type of food or drink on yourself. Darker shirts and pants hide dirt and stains much easier, and patterns work wonders for those of you who are a bit sloppy like I am.
Shoes can also be problematic for those looking to go out and look nice. How many pairs and which kind to bring is a challenging part of packing. They are big, bulky, and can be heavy, so you need to think long and hard about it if you are trying to pack light. Your best bet is to try to find shoes that can be worn in many different situations. If you are planning on hiking, then think about a pair of hiking shoes instead of boots. They take up much less space, are not as heavy, and they can double as walking shoes anytime you’re just wandering around a city. You may even find a pair that looks okay with a nice pair of pants. Sure, they’re not dress shoes, but they can work if you’re not overly concerned with your appearance (or if you’re married like I am and not looking to pick anyone up).
- For many men, one pair of shoes is enough. These basic hiking shoes worked for hiking the Inca Trail, all around Patagonia, and in the Indian Himalayas. These are what I wore with pants when I went out to a nice dinner (which was few and far between, but I made do).
- The wife only brought 2 pair, a pair of hiking shoes and a pair of slip on shoes good for walking around cities.
A pair of flip flops or sandals are always nice to have. If you plan on being in hot climates and on the beach, then they are a must. Even if you’re not a beach person, having a pair of sandals to easily slip off is nice in countries that are hot and have religious sites where shoes cannot be worn. Flip-flops are also good for those shared hostel showers. You just never know what’s gone on in there. If you’re not a flip flop or sandals person, you can always wait until you get to a beach destination and buy a really cheap pair there then just ditch them later.
- Choco flip flops worked wonders for both of us. I will finally had to replace mine two YEARS after returning from our trip. Great all purpose flip flops for the beach, hostel showers, and walking around cities.
Once you get your clothes all sorted out, it’s time to turn your mind to toiletries and first aid. This is another area where people bring waaaaay too much. Just like clothes, planning for every situation is simply unnecessary. You can purchase things like shampoo, soap, band-aids, and advil anywhere in the world, so bringing big containers of all these is overkill. Bring small containers of things you use on a daily basis – soap, shampoo, etc. – then simply buy more when you are out.
When it comes to a first aid kit, the same rules apply. Have a very small collection of band-aids and maybe some type of antiseptic cream, but having things like gauze, ace wraps, and ice packs is simply too much. You will most likely not need these, and if you do get injured, you can simply go buy them. Some like to be a little more cautious than others, but if you’re toiletries and first aid kit take up half your pack, you probably have too much (note: we had a huge toiletries and first aid kit, over half of which were never touched in the year we were gone-never again will I do that).
This is always going to be a hot topic that everyone has his or her own opinion on. With technology constantly changing and people being more and more connected on a daily basis, the thought of not having a smart phone or instant internet access can have some people breaking out in hives. For others, they are taking a trip like this to get away from always having to be connected, and the thought of not having a phone in your pocket dinging every few minutes sounds like Heaven.
It’s all personal preference, and it also depends on what type of traveler you are. Many travelers these days, particularly if they are taking RTW trips, like to start a blog to keep up with family and friends back home. Some people work while they are the road, making a little extra cash as location independent professionals, so having a laptop and reliable internet connection is a must. And some just like to be connected and have the opportunity to stay in touch. Despite what others say, that’s okay, and that’s your preference, so don’t let anyone else tell you it’s wrong.
I have several tech tips for those contemplating what to bring on a RTW trip.
- If you bring a phone, make sure you know what it’s going to cost. Using your home plan is going to cost a fortune, so make sure you know how to unlock it. Once it’s unlocked, you should be able to buy a sim card and call/text/data plan in the next country you’re visiting. Not all phones work abroad, even if they’re unlocked, so make sure you do your homework
- If you decide against bringing a laptop, be aware of the costs and time you’ll spend in internet cafes along the way. Most don’t cost much, but over the course of several months or a year, it all adds up. After a while, spending so much time in an internet cafe gets tiring, and whenever you Skype home, be aware that there will usually be a lack of privacy.
- If you plan on taking a lot of pictures and don’t have your own computer, you will have to spend quite a bit of time in internet cafes downloading, uploading, saving, and backing up. It can get tiresome, and it’s easy to get lazy. If your camera or bag gets stolen before you had a chance to back up your pictures, you will be angry.
- Regarding cameras - you can find nice, small, quality point and shoot cameras for a pretty affordable price these days. If you like photography and want to bring your DSLR, then do it, but realize you’re going to need to consider things like extra lenses very carefully. They can add a lot weight and added expense to what you’re carrying with you.
- If you want a computer but don’t want to deal with the extra space and weight, consider a tablet like an iPad. They do most things a laptop or netbook do (as long as you aren’t doing some serious blogging or working), and they are considerably smaller, lighter, and have an amazing battery life. The downside is that they are pricey.
- If you’re like me and can’t go without music, then bring an iPod or music player. Even if you aren’t a big music fan, they are nice to have on long bus, train, and plane rides. You can find all types of cool, free podcasts as well that really kill time during those down times. Bringing speakers is also personal preference, and if you are traveling with a laptop, they are probably unnecessary as you can just plug it into your computer and use those speakers.
- Video cameras are pretty unnecessary in this day and age unless you are looking to do some professional work. Most decent point and shoots have video capabilities that work just fine for travelers’ basic needs.
- E-Readers rock. If you read a lot now, you’re going to read even more while on the road. Having one tiny device to store all your books on is fantastic and cuts down on book weight.
Where to find travel specific clothing and gear
Most cities these days have at least one outdoor store, so that should be your first plan of attack. There’s a multitude of websites out there that sell travel gear and clothing (more on that in a few), but seeing, trying on, and testing clothes, backpacks, and gear beforehand is always advisable, especially if this is your first time.
Once you get a handle on how different clothing fits and gear works, then you should definitely shop around for the best price. Outdoor stores like REI have all the top notch gear and clothing you need, and they tend to have big sales a few times a year, usually around major holidays and in between seasons.
If you’re looking to buy online, you have a lot of options, so I’ll just give a few of my favorites. BootsnAll has a site that sells all types of travel gear, so be sure to check it out. Steep and Cheap is a great site that offers outdoor and travel clothing and gear at extremely discounted prices. There is a catch though. Only one item is available at a time, they have a specific number of them (or a time limit, whichever comes first), and when they’re gone, they move onto the next item. You have to keep an eye on it, but it can be lots of fun and rather addicting. Another great site is Backcountry.com, which has a sister, discount site with lots of great deals. And it’s always worth it to check out Amazon, as they sell just about everything and almost always have some good deals.
Backpacks vs. suitcases
I am admittedly biased when it comes to this debate. Backpacks are just easier for long term travel, unless you are traveling with a high budget and don’t plan on taking many buses, trains, or public transport. When traveling in developing countries and walking around old cities with questionable pavement, rolling a suitcase behind you is troublesome. That’s why not only using a backpack, but packing lightly, comes in handy.
Many RTW travelers also enjoy the freedom of not having to book their accommodations in advance, so if you are one these people, a backpack, and a smaller one at that, is recommended. Traipsing around a city like Cusco or La Paz, which are both extremely old and sit at a high altitude, with a rolling suitcase, will have you huffing and puffing in no time at all. Some travelers have back problems that don’t allow them to carry a backpack, and if that’s the case, then a suitcase it is. They do make plenty of hybrids these days that can be worn as a backpack or also rolled along as a suitcase. These are great for those who like a bit of both. If you plan on any multi-day trekking, though, a proper backpack is a necessity.
Read Choosing Luggage for Your RTW Trip to learn more about suitcases, hybrids, and backpacks.
Packing for a trip like this is a bit of an art. It takes a lot of careful consideration. Packing too much is usually the biggest problem people have. Realizing that you can get pretty much whatever you need on the road is a realization that all travelers need to come to at one point or another. It’s not necessary to only bring a carry-on with you, but most people are much happier the lighter they pack.
What packing tips do you have for RTW travelers? If you’re planning a RTW trip, what is your biggest concern when it comes to packing? Comment below to share your thoughts.
Adam Seper and his wife, Megan, decided that 50+ hour workweeks with 2 weeks of vacation a year simply wasn’t going to cut it. So they decided to take a leap of faith and put The American Dream on hold. In October 2008, they took off on an epic, year-long adventure, traversing the globe and traveling to 89 cities and 11 countries across 4 continents, never to be the same again.
Now Adam is going to tell you how you can plan your own epic adventure. Every week, on “Round the World Wednesday” he’ll share tips for planning, budgeting and selecting a route, plus advice on where to go and what to see and do all around the world.