Saturday, April 28, 2012



Disclaimer: These are the things I've discovered after a year of travel through a score of countries. Your results may vary.


Before I go into your luggage, I want to address clothing. Dress overly conservatively - especially if you are a woman or are going into Muslim areas. If you are a woman going into Muslim areas, dressing like the local women will get you a lot less harassment. On the topic of women's dress, I've heard a lot of women complaining that they are ogled by the men overly much. Yes, but the local prostitutes dress more conservatively than many of the tourist women I've seen. Safety may depend upon what you are wearing. If you choose to ignore that, you are knowingly playing a higher risk game with little payout on your end and little to gain.

For men, long pants and log sleeve shirts of conservative cut and subdued colors fit in everywhere. The pants which have zip off legs to become shorts are the best choice. Sleeved t-shirts are usually mostly acceptable. I don't suggest any logos, words or designs. If you are a patriotic American and want to wear an 'American flag' t-shirt - it's an invitation for trouble you don't need. Unless you are in the Republic of Georgia. That is the only country it may get you invited to dinner I've been in.

Jewelry, multiple piercings, 'bling' and such can be worn at your own discretion but I've found that the effects on the natives are generally negative. They range from stares of the 'what a freak' variety up to robbery. Again, playing a game with nothing to win and more to lose.

Not everyone will be pleased at this sort of thing. I've heard a lot of people say "I should be able to dress the way I want!" Those people don't seem to understand that they are in a different country and are playing by different rules. They may never understand and pay the consequences. Not my problem. There are a lot of people who have traveled for years with fairly outrageous appearances and have never had any problem. I am happy about that. I put this information here as 'this is the safe route'.


Your gear will be sorted into four different containers. First, your security pouches. These are always going to be hidden underneath your clothing. If you want to store your passport and credit cards in a fanny pack and 'just keep an eye on it', you'll get pick-pocketed like many others who had the same idiotic thought. Security pouches should be a pain in the ass to get to involving pulling up or out clothing. If these don't appeal, they do have certain very clever pants which have hidden internal zippered pockets - for about $100 per pair.

The second type of bag is your 'always on' bag. This is the bag you will literally carry everywhere with you. Because it is going to be your constant companion, light and manageable are imperative. If it's over a kilo, you've got too many or too heavy things in it.

Third is the 'travel bindle'. I've pulled this name from the old 1920's word for the kerchief tied around a few possessions that traveling hobos would carry on the end of a stick. This bindle is just used for travel. It shouldn't be too heavy nor should it contain anything valuable. If you lose it, it should be a mild bummer.

Fourth is the pack. I've spoken to some people who like a smaller pack because it forces them to not buy more stuff. I recommend exercising some discipline instead. There are some things like clothing that take a lot of room but don't weigh much. Buy the largest pack your frame will allow you to comfortably carry. The best kind of backpack is one that you can open up like a book rather than just opening the top and burrowing through your crap.


Within how ever many security pouches you decide to wear should be any imperative papers such as your passport and any official documents. Credit cards, checks and so forth as well as your cash reserves. The maximum amount should be whatever can be withdrawn from an ATM plus a couple hundred dollars in new US money.

Near your passport, have a dozen or more (for long trips) passport pictures of yourself. Due to some countries restriction, I recommend a white background. Within the passport photo, if you are dressed in a conservative suit/dress this is best. Do not smile in the picture. [Background and not smiling in the photos are actual restrictions I have seen in some countries. The conservative suit/dress help in so many other ways - including better treatment by the locals.]

A student ID card with your picture on it. Make one yourself if need be. In many countries this will get you a substantial discount into exhibits and such. Plus, it is another form of ID, if needed.

These pouches should be time consuming to get into and of such a nature you will immediately note if someone else is attempting access.


First, a note about your 'always on' bag. It never ceases to amaze me how many people will put something into a backpack like an ipod or camera and not even fully zip up the bag - much less put some sort of cheap luggage lock on it. If you can't quickly clamp an arm over the bag, someone else will have little problem getting into it without your noticing. I suggest a bag which hangs cross slung. Way too many people try to have their bag hanging off of a shoulder and 'hold on to it'. Sorry, but your upper body strength is no competition for a guy going by on a motorcycle and snatching the bag. Wearing a backpack on your front is safer but it does make you look like a paranoid tool.

Small, lightweight, sturdy, cheap compass. You'll need it for the crazy layout of some of the streets.

Maps. The ideal map has both your language and the native language labels. Pictures of famous landmarks on the map can also be very handy. Many residents seem never to have seen a map before. Their body language will quickly reveal this. Try asking where a nearby famous landmark is instead and get them to just point to it. Laminated maps will hold up better but being able to write on a map is handy.

Thumb drives with large storage capacity. Don't get the 'switch blade' or 'retractable' ones - they don't. Use the ones with caps. Carry one or more on you at all times. They come in unexpectedly handy whether for storing or exchanging copies of your pictures, movies, etc. These should be on you.

Fake wallet with daily allowance of money. Use those fake credit cards mailed to you in an effort to convince you to get a real credit card. Best Buy cards with no remaining balance on them and other useless plastic should all be stocked into this wallet to make it look convincing. Nothing in this wallet should have your name or address. This is what you give to the nice man with the pistol or knife who is demanding all of your money or you die. Toss it one direction, you run the other. You only lose one days worth of money in that transaction. Also, when you are spending money, this is where you get it from. Pick pockets who are targeting you will see this and steal this wallet. Again, it minimizes your risk. As an added benefit, it will help you keep track of how much you are spending in the local currency with a confusing exchange rate. For example, lets say you are in Nepal and have a $50 per day allowance. That is approximately 4200 Nepali Rupees. Every day, you put 4000 NRS into your fake wallet. No need to try to remember - when your fake wallet money is gone you know you've gone over budget for the day. Go somewhere very private and restock your wallet from the cash security pouch.

Keys for whatever you have locked.

Business cards. Keep business cards given to you rather than throwing them over your shoulder with a shrug when you receive them. Also, have business cards made with information you would give to new friends you make along the way to save a lot of time writing out the information every time. Note for the paranoid - you can set up a brand new anonymous e-mail address just for this purpose and have it put on cards to give your new potential friends a way to contact you. I just give them my name for Facebook and blog address.

Receipts. They just accumulate. Keep them till you leave the city or country.

Maps. Preferably, relevant ones.

Notebook, pens.

Foldaway hat. Since the 1930's, a lot of people are unused to wearing hats. In the overly sunny/rainy/snowy countries, a hat is very important. Having one you can stuff into a bag gives you the option to get rid of it when you are sick of wearing it.

Diarrhea medicine. Shit happens.

Knife. Don't forget to switch this to your backpack before flying. Always carry a knife.

Camera. If you can comfortably fit it into your bag.

Lighter. Even if you don't smoke you should always carry a lighter.

If you are a smoker, carry extra cigarettes. They are cheap in many countries and 'cigarette beggars abound'. A 'rich foreigner' who can't give a hard working local a single cheap cigarette won't make any friends.

Flashlight. Smaller is better. I suggest LED because you get a lot of light for not much power. Sturdy is better than cheap. If you don't have a flashlight on you at all times, you are screwing up bad.


I like to keep a separate bag of crap for when I am on the road. Some people like to keep these things in their backpack. I use a crappy burlap bag I found somewhere. This helps show that the things within it are of little to no value to discourage theft. I recommend bringing this bag for any voyage of two hours or longer.

Toilet paper. Always. Again, shit happens. If you don't bring it and say "But I thought they would have toilet paper on the train/bus!" you are stupid and deserve that shit. If you have access to toilet paper has no inner roll this is the best.

A liter or so of water per four hours of transport you are expecting.

Playing cards. Whether you strike up a card game with others or just play solitaire it can help eat up the hours. Note that in some countries, gambling - or even playing cards - may be illegal. Research or ask locals if you are uncertain.

Optional - blanket. Some of the bus and train seats are extremely hard and you will want to sit on the blanket. Sometimes, the windows won't close or will worm their way open as the bus bounces over what they call a 'road' and you will want to wrap yourself in the blanket. Stuffing a cheap blanket into the bindle can give you a lot of comfort on the road.


Use a lightweight bike lock to chain your pack to something. This discourages thieves casually picking it up and carting it away. I recommend Pacsafe. It is like a super bike lock with a lovely wire mesh. Use as required. Note that some people say "I just have clothing in here." First, will thieves know that? Assuming they haven't developed X-ray vision and do wander off with your pack, how much will it cost you to purchase a new backpack, toiletries, clothing and so on? Half a grand? A grand? More? Can you afford that kind of loss when you are on vacation amazed at how fast you are already spending money?

As to what goes into the backpack itself the simple answer is 'as little as possible'. When you make the realization that people in foreign countries generally use all of the same crap you do, life becomes easier. Many people pack as though they are going to an alien planet that won't stock any products they need.

For a trip of two weeks or longer in 'backpacker mode'. This is assuming you have to carry all of your stuff. If you are traveling heavy and have numerous trunks of stuff, ignore this and have the porters store everything in your room while the butler draws you a bath.

For the normal backpacker, I'd suggest something along the lines of the following:

5+ under garmet sets (Generally, underwear is small. In cooler countries you don't have to do laundry until you run out of these.)

4 tops (see 'clothing' section above)
4 bottoms

Possibly one extra pair of shoes, depending on what you are doing.

Cord (you can make clothes lines, fasten things and tie up people with it)
Toiletry kit (smaller is better. If your kit is half as large as your head, you are woefully overloaded already.)

Critical medicines.

All of that electronic crap you will need to survive. Don't forget to get plug adapters. The power converters are no longer usually necessary for today's modern electronics. Check on individual devices to see if it will work. If you are unsure, clench your buttocks and give it a try. If it explodes, it is unable to function with the foreign power.

Nappy-time bag. This is a very small bag that contains anything you need in order to sleep. By having it within a separate bag, it is easily accessible. It can contain things like ear plugs, eye drops and so on. This needs to be easily accessible as you might need to access it in the dark - possibly with a flashlight in your mouth - to avoid waking others.

These are the bare minimums. Things like laptops, net-books, kindles and so on may be brought as well. Some people like to keep their electronic gear within the 'bindle' for added security.

I would recommend wrapping infrequently used things in clear, water tight bags. I've spoken to people that compress down their clothing to take less space but that eats up way too much time. I have two cloth bags - one for dirty clothing, one for clean and just stuff the clothing into that then into the bag. Again, the advantage of a larger pack.

There are two main restrictions to 'what to keep in your backpack'. The first is weight. If you can't walk for two hours with your backpack on, you have too heavy of pack. You probably won't be walking that long with it but you will be humping it up and down hills and stairs. Several borders have a half kilometer walk with the bag. Watching people trying to drag rolling bags they can barely manage through the mud is an ongoing source of amusement.

The second restriction of what to keep in your backpack is value. What can you afford to lose?

In a future blog I may post up each and every thing that I have in my backpack with pictures.


Rubber bands. Hot countries make them melt and they are a joy to clean up. Use cord instead.

Illegal items (like recreational drugs). Chances are if you are the kind of person who is thinking about it anyway, my discouragement won't really help you decide not to. I don't like some of the guest houses I've stayed at - I imagine the jails might be worse. There are plenty of tourists in foreign jails.


Inexperienced travelers want to over pack every time. When I see someone wearing a full backpack on the front as well as a huge pack on the back, I know they have probably woefully over packed. It is perfectly acceptable to just buy stuff you need in the country you are going to. It's probably cheaper as well...

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