Practical packing tips for long-term travel

Posted by Francis Brady on 25 January 2011

“He who would travel happily must travel light” — Antoine de St. Exupery

Who doesn’t struggle when it comes to packing for a trip? For most people, packing everything, for that “just in case” moment means we end up with loads of paraphernalia to lug around that inevitably we don’t need or use.

We have recently returned from a 9 month trip through South America; having travelled more than 15,000km by bus, including a trip to Antarctica with only a 35 litre daypack that weighed 7.5kg. And who said women insist on packing everything including their designer shoe collection and Prada sunglasses?

Here’s how we managed to solve our colossal packing conundrum and weigh in below 10kg each.


We didn’t want to wait in queues at the baggage carousel after flights so we settled on a 35 litre day pack each that met with the airline’s regulations for carry-on luggage.

Some features included:

  • Splash cover
  • Padded shoulder strap and hip belt
  • Mesh pockets on the hip belt for easy access to snacks, money, notebook and pen
  • Tip: I would also recommend a backpack that doesn’t have too many compartments. Less compartments limits one to being specific about what you pack making it easier to find things.


Because our backpacks were so small we had to be very selective as to the amount of clothing we took; fabric played an important role. We tried to avoid cotton, denim and wool where possible because they are:

  • too thick
  • take too long to dry
  • bulky and heavy
  • and take up too much packing space

Hence no t-shirts or tracksuit pants. There were a couple of warm items of clothing in fleece and wool / synthetic blends.

We invested in durable, adventure clothing of good quality dry-wicking that was:

  • lightweight
  • quick drying
  • space saving


  • I took 2 reversible skirts giving me two extra outfits
  • Don’t fold your clothes; instead roll them into long tubes and then pack them like pencils. This saves space and you have fewer creases.
  • Try to find pants/ shorts/ skirts with draw-string or elastic waists. A belt adds to the weight and extra baggage.


Two pairs of shoes:

  • We knew we were going to be doing a lot of walking and possibly some trekking/ hiking so we decided on a pair of sturdy adventure shoes with a solid, wide sole and heel support that wasn’t too high around the ankle. Instead of conventional laces, my pair of shoes had something more like elastic / bungy cord laces so that once I’d selected the fit there was no need to untie or adjust them.
  • A pair of open, slip-on sandals with a robust sole

Handy travel accessories


  • Use combination locks. After locking my keys in my backpack we soon discovered that a combination lock was more practical than always trying to find a hiding place for your keys.
  • Towels take up so much space and start smelling if they haven’t had time to dry properly. We bought a microfibre one that folded to the size of a tennis ball.
  • It’s worthwhile spending money to get a good quality raincoat that is:
    • Seamless
    • All in one so that you don’t have water dripping down your neck
    • Big enough to cover your back pack
    • Velcro cuffs to prevent water trickling down your arms
    • Good ventilation under the arms so that you don’t sweat
    • We ordered ours from Spain. It’s called an Altus Atmospheric Poncho



  • I used the space in the daypack designated for the hydration pack to store my laptop, cables, camera and charger
  • Use small camera memory cards and download your photographs regularly. That way should your memory card jam or you lose it you haven’t lost all your images.
  • Elastic bands work well for keeping cords and cables together


Dischem has a great travel section specialising in sample sizes of shampoos, hand creams, toothpastes, soaps and other toiletries.

  • Carry on luggage only allows 100ml per bottle/ tube and even then there is a limit as to how many you can take on. Most of your toiletries can be bought when you land.
  • A small bottle of hand sanitizer is better than wet wipes. I also found it worked well as deodorant. The bottle seals and is easy to store whereas the wet wipes often dry out.
  • I always kept a packet of pocket tissues handy. Most public facilities don’t have toilet paper or alternatively one had to pay for toilet paper.


If you take prescription medication it’s advisable to get your doctor to write you a letter and supply you with scripts in the event that you run out of medication.


  • We used Melatonin for jet lag and it worked really well for us. It regulates the body clock and enhances sleep. Available in the vitamins and supplements section of pharmacies.

Essential travel documents

Below is a list of documents and paperwork that you may require:

  • Airline tickets (or e-ticket)
  • Health Insurance Certificate
  • International Certificate of Vaccination
  • Driver’s licence
  • International Drivers Licence (obtained from the AA)
  • Passports
  • Marriage certificate
  • Passport photos
  • SARS Customs and Excise (Registration of goods for re-importation)
  • Tips:
    • It’s advisable to make a photocopy of each of your important documents and keep them separate from your originals
    • Some countries need proof of your vaccinations. An International Certificate of Vaccination records the date, manufacturer and batch number of your vaccination. The card also requires the signature and the professional status of the vaccinator as well as an official stamp of the vaccinating centre.
    • A Marriage Certificate is sometimes required by certain establishments when booking a double room (more often in the Middle East)
    • It may be useful to obtain a letter from your bank stating that you have sufficient funds for your travel, particularly if you plan to be away for a couple of months.
    • You will require a SARS Customs and Excise Form (DA65) for registration of goods for re-importation. So don’t forget to declare your electronic goods and other items of value at the SARS office at the airport before you leave South Africa so that you don’t have to pay duties on them when you return. E.g of items to declare:
      • Cameras
      • Binoculars
      • Projectors
      • Ipods
      • Laptops
      • Cellphones
      • Camera Lenses
      • Hard drives

Small Bag

I carried a sling pouch that hung over one shoulder.

  • Some travellers connected a lanyard from their handbag to their purse / wallet and point & shoot camera. That way when you went to pay for something you wouldn’t forget your purse on the counter should you be in a hurry.

Last Minute Miscellaneous Tips

  • Having laptops was an invaluable asset. It allowed us not only to research our destinations but also to safely access our internet banking so that we could manage our cash flow and debit orders.
  • Before leaving on a trip it’s advisable to make a personal contact at your bank. Meet with them, advise them of your travel plans and obtain his / her email address and telephone number. We needed to contact the bank a couple of times and I’m so glad we had this information. Can you imagine holding on for a call centre agent? “Please be patient, you are number 23 in the queue”
  • We didn’t take a cell phone. With Skype it was very easy to make calls to land lines. There are also international calling cards with good rates available.
  • If you booked through a travel agent keep their details handy too. Plans change when you are travelling and you may need to alter your flights dates.
  • Just because you might be travelling for months doesn’t mean one has to go without reading. Many hostels and hotels have books swops in their reception areas and one second hand bookshop we came across offered us a buy-back option.
  • Travel guides are heavy and clumsy. Most hotels, B&B’s and backpackers have computers you can use to do your travel research. Your best recourses though are fellow travellers who are always very willing to share information and offer advice on where to stay and what to visit. Some of the sights we used were:
    • Virtual Tourist
    • Lonely Planets Travel Forum – Thorn Tree
    • Trip Advisor
    • Visit the local tourist information offices. They will have up to date maps which fold easily and are light to carry. Pass them on to other travellers when you’re done.
    • Carry a spare plastic packet for rubbish. It’s also useful to sit on if the ground is grubby or wet.
    • It can be very irritating when you are fast asleep and you hear fellow travellers scratching in their plastic packets late at night. Zip lock sachets and material draw string bags are quieter than plastic packets.
    • You might want to consider taking small gifts as thank you tokens for people you meet along the way. Some ideas:
    • Pens
    • Postcards from your home country
    • We had a local street artist make us bead and wire flags
    • We had maps of Africa made, to be used as key rings and engraved them with our names and a small star representing the city we came from in South Africa.

I can still remember one traveller being surprised at the size of our daypacks, while he laboured under the burden of his and remarking, “I don’t know how such a small bag can carry so much and weigh so little; you must have a Mary Poppins bag”.

So contrary to popular belief a girl doesn’t need her handbag, high heels, hairdryer, makeup or cell phone to have the time of her life.

“Own only what you can carry with you; know language, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag” — Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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