Of all the full things to look forward to on an international adventure travel vacation, nothing screams less exciting than the actually process of packing for your trip. But without a good sense of what you definitely need—and what’s an unnecessary luxury—deciding what you can fit into your rucksack or suitcase can become a mammoth task.
As someone who’s spent the vast majority of the past two and a half years on the road and pinging between different adventures, I’ve made some huge mistakes when it comes to packing sensibly—avoid these big clangers when it comes to packing for adventure travel and start your trip looking like a seasoned adventurer. Here’s what i’ll do differently the next time i pack for international adventure travel.
1. Don’t even consider a hard case suitcase.
There’s a reason that you never see adventurers in the films wheeling a hard case suitcase around behind them. Do you know why? Although they might seem more practical in the long run, the moment you start having to pull your bag along uneven surfaces such as a dirt track on a safari adventure camping in the Makalali Game Reserve in South Africa or through the mud in the Peruvian Amazon, you very quickly start regretting the decision.
Instead, a decent bakcpack is your new best adventuring buddy. Not only is it extremely versatile, meaning you can use it for hiking adventures at the drop of a hat, but having luggage that requires you to carry it at all times means you’re more like to stick to the next point on this list…
2. Keep to the golden rule: less is always more.
When packing for adventure travel, you’ll no doubt come across the “hand-luggage only” brigade; that group of travelers who can condense their lives into a 44l backpack and smugly saunter past the baggage conveyor belt without having to play everyone’s favorite airport game: Did My Suitcase Actually Make It Onto The Right Plane?
Unfortunately, I’ve never managed to become a part of this exclusive club, but what I’ve learned the hard way is that anything larger than 60l or heavier than 12kg is just asking for trouble when you travel. Nothing makes you look less Ranulph Fiennes and more wannabe adventurer than an oversized backpack.
Instead, packing for an adventure abroad is all speed and adaptability. You may need to run to catch a bus or traipse the streets of a new city searching for your hostel, so everything you have in that bag needs to be there for a reason.
No, a hair dryer is not a key tenant of your adventure travel packing list—mine exploded after a month of dodgy power sockets in Bolivia anyway. Ditto a makeup bag. For more tips for what really should go in that bag, check out this article on packing for a backpacking adventure in Europe.
3. Pack “chameleon” items on your international travel packing list.
It’s always tempting to pack enough clothes to keep you avoiding the effort of having to visit the laundry when you’re traveling. But if you really want to keep your luggage down to the bare minimum, consolidating your clothing is the easiest way.
I’ve found “chameleon” items to be my favorite way of traveling light—these are items of clothing that can morph into more than one use. For example, a sarong is both perfectly suited for an adventure scuba diving in the Caribbean as you learn ocean ecosystems from professional marine biologists on board a 50-ft. catamaran and can double up as a skirt when you head back into the city.
Leggings—genuinely the only item of clothing I couldn’t live without—are the coziest bottoms for the plane and take a starring role in everything from hiking trips to sleeping when they’re an excellent alternative to packing PJ bottoms.
4. Think practical, not stylish.
It took me a long time to accept this but it’s an important lesson to learn before you pack for your adventure: pretty clothes have no place on active holidays.
Think it: do you really need a floaty dress for sea kayaking in the waters of New Zealand or trekking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal? No you don’t. As a rule, not only do you want clothing that’s both practical and comfortable, but things that don’t matter if they get a little grubby. Remember: adventurers never look like they’re walked out the pages of Vogue magazine.
Bear in mind that exactly what needs to go in your pack depends a lot on whether you’re planning an independent or solo adventure trip, with the former likely providing a lot more equipment. Not sure which style of adventuring is best? We’ve weighed up the pros and cons of each approach and also recommend that, if traveling with an adventure program, you check out their packing lists or chat with previous adventurers (there are plenty of reviews for programs on Go Abroad) to get a sense of what you do—and don’t—need to take.
5. Invest in good-quality equipment for your adventure gear list.
One of the things that I did get right when I first packed for adventure travel was in my hiking boots. Fast forward several years later and countless hours of wear and despite being a little bit stinky, they have stood up to the challenges of travel. Sure, they finally broke after nine days of hiking in Patagonia but what it taught me is that packing good quality equipment is an absolute essential.
Depending on the type of adventure travel you’re planning, different gear should find its way onto your packing list. Taking a trip to follow in the footsteps of indigenous Berber guides on a camping excursion in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco? Include a lightweight tent and three-season sleeping bag to stave away the cold—and allow you to avoid those sore shoulders from packing overly heavy gear. Include some trekking poles too: these have saved my bacon on more than one occasion, both helping me to descend a particularly steep trail and allowing me to take the weight off an injured ankle.
Heading to the dense, steamy jungles and high-altitude mountainside temples of South East Asia? A good quality gore-tex waterproof jacket and trousers are your friends in these situation, mainly because they avoid you having to wear the world’s most unpleasant waterproof item when you’re out hiking in the rain: the poncho. Seriously, nothing is sweatier and less comfortable than wearing what is, to all extents and purposes, a plastic bag.
A portable water purifier is also a useful item, allowing you to both save money by not paying for expensive bottled water and avoid the traveler’s least favorite ailment, Montezuma’s revenge. And don’t forget a decent pair of trekking boots. But make sure they’re broken in, i.e. you’ve already worn them for hiking at least a few times and so won’t end up making some new friends, aka an army of blisters, when you try and wear them on the first hike of your trip.
6. But don’t forget to pack the ultimate adventure travel necessity...an open mind.
While a sensible choice of items in your rucksack ensures that you’re fully prepared for whatever your trip throws at you, the absolute essential thing to take is an open-mind and a sense of adventure.
Part of the fun of a trip off-the-beaten path or out into the countryside in a new country is that things might not go as planned. But that’s all part of the journey: an international adventure travel program should take you well outside of your comfort zone and then leave you craving your next adventure.
You shouldn’t chuck your hiking boots off a mountain...
You should pack smart for your international adventure so that chucking your boots off the side of a mountain never actually has to become a reality. Investing in higher quality gear (with that slightly higher price point) is almost always worth it in the long run, and opting for a more versatile capsule wardrobe will take a huge weight off your shoulders—literally, there will be so much less to carry around!
Pack your sense of adventure near your toiletries (easy to get to in the airport), and don’t forget a good wet/dry bag! Now, you’re off!