The Classic “What to Pack” Post

Yesterday, we embarked on a possibly 5 month, possibly longer, unplanned, unorganized, totally flexible trip to Southeast Asia. How in the hell do you pack for something like that?


Step 1: Think about what you want to do and where you’re going. Southeast Asia is a new environment for us with a lot of new dangers, and our safety is obviously important. Make sure to visit a travel specialist before going on an extended international trip for vaccines and information on what you can bring with you for a healthier visit. We picked up medication for traveler’s diarrhea and an anti-malarial, as well as a healthy supply of insect repellent for both our bodies and clothing, and a basic first aid kit. Since we’ll be staying in hostels, we each got a set of travel sheets to fight bed bugs.

(*Pro-tip: Most insurance companies don’t cover “optional” travel vaccines. Shop around for the best prices and make sure to check local community centers and drug stores. It’s easy to find out what shots you need based on your destination through, so an expensive travel consultation isn’t always necessary, although I would recommend it for new travelers. Make sure to start planning your immunizations a few months before you travel!

If you think you’ll need to make purchases before you leave (we certainly did), start shopping long before your trip to test things out and exchange them if you’re unhappy with your choices. We certainly didn’t do this, but instead procrastinated and waited until the last minute to buy and do everything. Although it seems to be working out so far, it adds a lot of unnecessary stress!

Step 2: pick a pack. I won’t claim to be an expert here. We’ve only done one big backpacking trip before this, and as you can see in this photo, our packs were way too huge, ill-fitting, and cheap. This go around, we decided to challenge ourselves to be as minimal as possible. We chose comfortable, carry-on size, inexpensive Kelty bags that can get dirty, and have a bit of sturdier construction for air travel.


(*Pro-tip: if your backpack is too big for carry on, you need to protect those straps- but don’t waste your money on a name brand pack case/cover. Instead, opt for a large canvas or polyester laundry sack with a drawstring like this one: 20170112_0524141

Slip it over your pack right before they weigh and tie it closed and you’ll be good to go.)

Keenen went with the Kelty Redwing 50 L and I got the Kelty Redwing Women’s 40L. We like these packs because they open a bit more like a suitcase, and have lots of organization. This is something that ultralight hiking packs usually lack, but I’ve found to be necessary for sanity during extended travel. Try to choose a pack that fits your needs. The specialists at any REI can be incredibly helpful with this, but check Amazon for better prices.

Step three: sacrifice. It’s time to fill that pack up. The most important thing to remember is that every time you change location, you have to carry, by yourself, everything that you brought with you. And if you’re like me, you’d prefer to carry it on your back than brave the treachery of cobblestone with a roller bag. That means travelling LIGHT. I don’t mean ultralight; this isn’t a feat only those with a huge dispensable income and a long standing REI membership can achieve. Choosing a small pack (50L or less) is a good way to make sure you can’t over pack, but if you chose a large one, follow the classic mantra: pack what you think you need, then take out half.

Think about what you want to do and where you’re going. Consider the climate, the types of activities you plan on, and the availability of laundry services. We want to spend a lot of time in the water, so we’ve planned on things that are water resistant. We love to dive, so we’re bringing our own mask and snorkel for comfort. We want to record our adventure, so we’ve dedicated a lot of space to our GoPro Hero 5 and all of its accessories. We’re planning on hiking, so we’ve brought shoes that can handle it. And we’re bringing only a small amount of clothing because laundry services are cheap and readily available.

So let’s get down to brass tax. What did we actually bring with us? Here’s the list:


In Chelsey’s bag:

  • In 3 packing cubes:
    • 4 pairs athletic Capri shorts
    • 2 pair harem pants
    • 4 tank tops
    • 2 T shirts
    • 1 zip up hoodie
    • 1 sun dress
    • 1 bathing suit
    • as many underwear as would fit in smallest cube (the one thing I never want to run out of clean pairs)
    • 2 sport, 2 reg bra
      • Remember that at least one outfit is always going to be on your body, so you don’t need the space for all of it. Also, girls, remember that much of the world is more conservative than the US. At many religious sites around the world, you’ll need to have your shoulders and knees covered. I like to carry a tiny shrug/half jacket with me for these situations… but I forgot it this trip. Can’t win them all!
  • rain jacket and rain cover for pack
  • set of travel sheets (Dimples Excel)
  • microfiber towel
  • Grand Trunk hammock (ultimate beach relaxation 😊)
  • dive log, mask and snorkel
  • 1 bottle permethrin spray
  • 3 DEET lotion
  • 4 sticks after bite
  • USB personal heating pad (it helps for the sore days!)
  • personal toiletries
  • Nook reader
  • 2 in 1 tablet computer
  • portable 2 TB hard drive full of media (at home, we like to unwind by watching a TV show before bed- continuing this small routine abroad helps us feel more comfortable, and we have a place to store our photos)
  • Nintendo 3DS
  • GoGirl
  • Teva sandals
  • Bob’s slip ons (like Tom’s, but with memory foam soles!)
  • travel medications
  • old, unlocked iPhone (so we can buy local sim cards)
  • extra glasses
  • headphones and a splitter (so we can listen and watch together)
  • packable Harry Potter tote (THANKS MOM!)
  • small fanny pack


In Keenen’s bag:

  • In three packing cubes:
    • 3 pair shorts
    • 2 pair joggers
    • 2 T shirts
    • 3 tank tops
    • 1 light sweatshirt (doubles as a pillow)
    • As many boxers that would fit in the smallest cube
  • 1 swim suit
  • GoPro 5 and accessories
  • multitool
  • 1 bottle permetherin spray
  • 3 DEET lotion
  • extra glasses
  • Merrell slip on walking shoes
  • Sanuk sandals
  • water socks (I have no idea why he brought these)
  • dive log, mask and snorkel
  • Grand Trunk hammock
  • Nintendo 3DS
  • portable, waterproof Bluetooth speaker (we highly recommend the UE Roll!)
  • personal toiletries
  • microfiber towel, travel sheets
  • rain jacket and rain cover for pack
  • Arrete 18 CamelBak day pack

One thing I regretted during our European backpacking trip was not bringing “cute” clothes or makeup- You end up in a LOT of pictures when you travel, and you’re more likely to share and cherish those photos if you feel like you look good in them. Additionally, if you decide to spend a night out or visit a nice restaurant, you don’t want to feel out of place or underdressed (a common problem for Keenen). So go ahead, pack cute!

It may seem silly that we’ve given so much space over to entertainment, but one must remember that much time is spent in transit when backpacking. Those hours on planes, trains, and buses can be hell without a good book or a game to keep you entertained.

So that’s it! Did I forget anything? Disagree with something I said? Let us know in the comments!


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