Heading out on an international adventure? Awesome. I’m thrilled that you’re exploring this wild world of ours. Before you go, though, we have chores to consider. Planning. Packing. You know, the pre-fun bits.
Before you get too far into the process, go ahead and grab a pen and paper. I’m going to suggest you make a couple of lists...one for packing and another for the items you need to purchase or rent once you arrive. This is key.
Back to packing...first, you’ll need to decide if you’d rather stick with a carry-on or commit to checking a bag. One word of caution: absolutely do not overpack. Examine your list several times to make sure you’re bringing the essentials and being smart about any extras. Before tucking it all away in your bag, lay it out in front of you and take a good look. I like to lay everything out several days prior to packing it up so I can glance at the pile several times over before committing to all of the items. A little extra effort during your planning phase can save you a lot of hassles on the journey. Vacation time is valuable!
First, you’ll want to take stock of your items to see if any of your “must-haves” fall onto the TSA’s no-go list. If you typically opt to travel without checking luggage, you’ll want to be even more selective. Find the most recent official list of what is and isn’t allowed on the TSA website.
As of August 2019, here’s what we found:
Leave At Home
The following items are NOT allowed in carry-ons but may be allowed in checked baggage
- NO Hiking Poles, even the collapsible ones, in your carry-on luggage. You CAN bring them in your checked luggage but be sure to wrap them well and ensure they’re stabilized. Have you seen how roughly checked baggage is handled? Hiking poles run a high risk of being bent in transit. Also ensure you have rubber tips on the ends...you don’t want them ripping through your clothes, gear, or bag!
- NO Tent poles & stakes. If planning on packing these in a checked bag, the TSA notes that you should check with your airline. Warning: be sure to pack tent poles with the same caution you use for hiking poles. They run a high risk of being bent!
- NO aerosol bug spray in a carry-on
- NO bear spray is allowed on the plane
- NO pocket knife/multi-tool in a carry-on
- NO strike anywhere matches. Note that these are not allowed on the plane at all...not in
- checked bags, not in carry ons.
- NO safety matches in checked bags. However, one book of safety matches is allowed in
- your carry-on.
- SOMETIMES crampons (but I wouldn’t risk it: "crampons are generally permitted in carry-on bags. However, TSA officers have the discretion to prohibit an item if they feel it may pose a security threat". "Snow cleats" and "shoe/snow spikes" are listed as not allowed)
- NO cast iron cookware. I threw this one in because I thought it was pretty hilarious. If you consider cast iron cookware a “must” on a backpacking trip, I assume this means “world’s best backcountry meals” and definitely want to travel with you!
When deciding whether or not to check luggage, consider the risk of leaving some emergency items like fire starters and a pocket knife/multi-tool.
Items to Bring or Consider
Your packing list is going to vary dramatically depending on your destination and travel circumstances. What’s the weather like? Are you backpacking? Will you be traveling with other folks who can spread out the weight? Here are some considerations to keep in mind:
- Clothing: climate will dictate your final list but keep the following in mind:
- Layers will be your key to comfort! Leave the bulky coat at home and opt for several layers that you can put on or take off as you travel.
- Pack only synthetic, quick dry clothing (especially if you’re packing light, it’d be great to have some quick dry items that you can quickly wash in the sink and have dry by morning)
- Extra socks are always nice to have around. Absolutely, 100% do not pack cotton socks.
- Rain gear (remember that your rain coat can double as a windbreaker)
- Sun protection (hat, sunglasses, long sleeve shirts, etc. If opting for carry-on only, decide if you want to use precious space in your quart-size liquids bag for sunscreen or buy it on location)
- Water treatment (a travel size bottle of bleach or a small filter are my go-tos)
- Food: do you have special dietary concerns? Are you traveling to a location where finding packable foods that satisfy your dietary requirements might be difficult? Plan ahead! Nutrition on the trail is crucial.
- Camp Stove: this is one of the items you CAN bring in a carry on as long as it is thoroughly cleaned and does not have even the slightest whiff of fuel odor lingering. Obviously, you can’t bring a full fuel canister but you can bring a clean, new one and fill it once you arrive. I often travel with my WhisperLite International because of its multi-fuel feature which allows me to fill up on regular ole gasoline if needed.
Compass: did you know there’s such a thing as a global compass? Yep. In fact, compass manufacturers balance compasses for five different zones globally so don’t just assume the compass you have at home will work in your desired destination...especially if you’re traveling from the US to locations like Patagonia or New Zealand. It all has to do with the way the needle is set up to balance and how much clearance it has. Want to know more? This site had a nice summary. Options: if you travel frequently or plan to, go ahead and consider buying a global compass before you go. If this is the only big international trip you have planned for awhile, maybe wait to purchase a compass until you’ve reached your destination where the compasses should be balanced for the appropriate zone. Remember: even if you have all the fancy GPS devices and apps in the world, a compass is a “must have” for your emergency kit.
Reusable Water Bottles: not only will these help you stay hydrated on your adventure, they’ll also save you $$ on overpriced bottled water at the airport and definitely help you travel greener. If you’re worried about space, you can stuff small items like socks, head lamp, undergarments, etc inside to fill the cavity. I prefer bottles to bladders/collapsible bottles on international trips thanks to their durability. Bonus: wrap duct tape around the bottle for on-the-fly repairs while you’re away.
Pro-Tip: If you know you want to purchase certain items upon arrival, be sure to make a list! You don’t want to forget a crucial piece of equipment and will have extra distractions like being in a new place, possible jet lag, excitement, etc to contend with. Seriously...make a list!
Gear Rental: Do you know you’ll need items that are listed on the “leave at home” list above or want to leave bulkier items like a sleeping bag or tent behind? Check into gear rental companies at your destination as part of your pre-trip research. Create a list of companies and the supplies you need before you arrive so you know right where to go and contact them via email ahead of time with your rental needs and questions so you know they’ll be ready for you. You definitely don’t want to spend valuable vacation time running around a foreign land searching for a headlamp when you could be sitting in a cafe sippin’ a cup of joe, exploring the sites, or taking a solid, afternoon, pre-hiking-extravaganza nap. If your final destination is a small town, remember that you might also need to pop by a gear rental shop in a larger city along the way. Having a tough time locating a rental shop? Reach out to local tour operators. They may rent gear themselves or can point you in the right direction.
Pro-Tips on Scheduling: when working out your itinerary, make sure you allow some flex time on either end of your journey. Having a buffer day (or two) before hitting the trail will create space for acclimatization, jet lag, travel snags, last minute supplies, etc. If you can swing it, schedule a day of rest post hike before flying home and consider checking yourself into a local spa so you don’t return home exhausted and needing a vacation after your vacation. Treat yo-self.
Feeling overwhelmed? Some folks have a blast taking a deep dive into planning and logistics and the process can be a wonderful part of the adventure. However, if all of the planning is suddenly no longer fun or you’re running out of time, consider a guided trip with a reputable tour operator! The operator will offer streamlined packing lists, usually takes care of logistics like meal planning and transportation, and often will have gear ready and waiting for you when you get there so you don’t have to worry about bringing your own. Traveling with a guide can also offer insights into the local history and culture and connect you even more deeply to your destination. Either way you go, I hope the list above helps you along the way. Happy adventuring!