Packing for International Travel

Packing for a big trip is possibly one of the most important parts. It can take a bad trip to good, and a good trip to great. Having the right things when you need them can make all the difference.

To start packing you’ll need a list. Using a dedicated app on your phone, or just the built-in reminders, is probably your best bet. That way when an idea strikes you in the middle of the day, you can add it to the list. Reminders even has a template option so you can save the list for the next time you travel. More sophisticated options allow you to assign items to various trip types and only include them when you need them.

Packing for an international flight requires two groups of items: things you bring with you on the flight (Cabin Items) and your checked bag.

1. Cabin Items

Dress with intention for your flight. Loose and comfortable clothing will help a lot. Sometimes it can be a good place to bring bulky items like a sweater, and planes are often cooler than you expect. Boots “pack” better if you wear them on the flight, but be prepared to take them off at least a few times. Make sure to check, or replace, your laces and insoles before you go. A broken lace or uncomfortable hiking shoes can mess up a day.

Personal Item

By far one of the biggest quality of life improvements I’ve found, when flying with checked luggage, is bringing only a small bag of essentials with me, airlines call this a personal item, in the cabin. Every flight, I’ve found, allows one of these and they are typically the size of a small purse or handbag. This way I can just focus on getting to my seat without the hassle of carry-on bags and finding space in the overhead bins.

For my personal item I typically bring:

  • A book
  • A pencil and paper
  • Noise cancelling earphones (and backup earphones)
  • Eye Mask – essential if you’re a light sleeper
  • Pillow – good after the flight too
  • A battery pack (up to 99Wh) and charger cables
  • An iPad
  • My phone – a good rugged case with a ring and/or lanyard keeps my phone secure for those bumpy road shots and cliffs
  • Travel documents – passport, vaccinations etc. The nice officer will want to see these

2. Clothing

You might be surprised, but the longer the trip the less clothing you need (to a point). For short trips you need to pack clothes for every day, and shorter trips you’re dressing up more and need a good variety of clean clothes. Anything longer than a week though and you’ve started living there. This opens up options like wearing the same thing twice (no one will notice) and planning to do laundry.

For a trip longer than a week I will pack (beyond what I’m wearing) about 2–3 days of clothing, and 5–7 days of socks (you can’t pack too many) and underwear. This is:

  • 3–4 shirts with a mix of long and short sleeves – I pack at least one cool wicking, UV blocking, quick drying, long sleeve shirt.
  • 1–2 pants/shorts – My favourite pants are a combination pant/short that zips off at the knee. This means I can adapt to the weather, and the material is often quick drying and very comfortable.
  • I always pack a bathing suit – You never know who has a hot tub, or when you’ll have the opportunity to swim in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • A rain jacket – Even in California this came in handy.
  • A laundry bag – nice to help separate the clothes you’ll wear again, from the rest, and great for, well doing laundry.
  • Hat(s) – one for the sun, and a toque if it gets cold and/or sleeping.
  • Sandals – my preferred version have a toe cap.
  • Scarf – Can double as a pillow, sarong, shall, blanket, or even a scarf.
  • Gloves – they come in handy.

3. Tech kit

Being able to charge your devices at night can be a nice to have, or a mission critical necessity. For me, the core of my charging setup is a multi-port charging brick with a C7/C8 or figure-of-8 connector. This allows me to swap the cable for whichever country I’m visiting and just plug in. The cable, rather than a wall plug makes it easier to connect to hard to reach plugs. Make sure to have at least one of each of the cables you’ll need (USB-A, -C, micro, lightning), and a second for any mission critical items like your phone charger. Note that although USB-C is becoming a world-wide standard most airlines, trains and hotels are only just getting equipped with USB-A ports.

USB charger brick with USB A and C plugs, with inset showing figure 8 (C7) connector with cable

You might need adapters or additional memory cards to download pictures. Having at least a second way to backup your pictures, in lieu of a cloud upload, is always wise. “Leave only footprints, take only pictures” only works if you don’t loose your camera. I pack my GoPro session for great time-lapse videos while hiking, driving and exploring. Binoculars can also be great to have if you enjoy wildlife. A headlamp comes in handy all the time. Make sure to have one with a red light setting to allow you to explore at night and keep good night vision. I always pack some rope, infinitely useful.

4. Toiletries

A towel, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value.

Hichhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

A good microfibre towel is an essential. They dry almost instantly, pack small and can still completely dry you off. Some even have built in anti microbial treatments. Face masks are also now an essential for travelling. I also bring a few handkerchiefs.

Make sure to also pack any and all personal grooming products you may need:

  • Deodorant
  • Nail clippers
  • Toothbrush/paste
  • Razor/shaving cream
  • Q-tips
  • Shampoo and soap
  • Sunscreen and bug spray
  • Moisturizer/lib balm and after bite
  • Any required medications
  • Pain killers and Pepto-Bismol

5. Your pack

If you’re moving around at all a comfortable pack that holds everything is essential. A day pack can be extremely useful as well, but make sure it, and everything in it fits in your main pack. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to travel with two backpacks. Some backpacks even come with a convertible or detachable day bag. A dry bag can be a good idea too if you’re travelling to a wet climate. For most travel you’ll want a sleeping bag. Storing it in a dry sack as well, can really make a difference at the end of a long, rainy day.

A water bottle is an essential. As well a small thermos and/or a water pack can help a lot with staying hydrated. Some power bars and other snacks can also help a lot for long days, and ensuring you stay well fed on your trip. It’s also wise to pack a knife/fork/spoon combo if you have one and a reusable straw unless you love the paper ones.

Lastly bring a/some AirTags. A few years ago Apple released an item tracker that will work as long as it’s near any iPhone (i.e. even the South Pole). This can be extremely useful for tracking your items and marking sure you don’t forget anything while you travel, but more importantly you’ll know when your baggage arrives at the baggage carousel.

Now you have to make sure everything goes in your pack. You’ll want to at least try this well before your trip. This gives you time to find a new bag if you can, or decide if you really need that second wool sweater. And make sure your bag has plenty of room before you leave. Your contents will take up much more space the first time you try to re-pack, and you will probably want to bring home souvenirs.