Vacation Packing Lists – An Introduction
I don’t do a lot of destination-specific vacation packing lists, but I go on a lot of adventurous trips and I’ve found myself wishing that I had a single resource to start with regardless of the destination. So I’m creating that resource! This is based on recent trips to Switzerland and Uganda, an upcoming return trip to Antarctica that I’ve already started planning for, and previous trips to, well, pretty much everywhere – Patagonia, Greenland, Tanzania, Faroe Islands, the Galapagos and Nicaragua to name a few.
Of course no packing list is going to be all-inclusive. But here’s where you should start regardless of where you’re going. Hopefully there are at least a few things here that you wouldn’t have thought of packing, and that will come in handy.
Note: I’m including links to make it easier to purchase things. The vast majority of the links aren’t affiliate links. I’m not including anything here that I don’t always pack. REI is my favorite place to purchase outdoor gear and clothes, but I frequently buy things directly from brands’ websites as well.
A Backpack and a Daypack
I have a ridiculous number of backpacks. I have a large 80L pack from when I used to backpack around Europe (I don’t do that anymore). I have a 40L serious hiking backpack (from Gregory based on online reviews). I have a few Minaal travel packs. And I have several small daypacks. In Switzerland we had a two-day stretch where we were hiking and didn’t have access to our luggage, which was sent ahead. The 40L pack was perfect for toiletries and a lot of clothing layers, and the waist straps made the pack comfortable. But it was terrible as a carry-on compared to my Minaal – nothing was organized well, since there was only really one small pocket for charging cables, power banks, Kleenex, pens, car keys and everything else that I normally carry with me for travel days, and my laptop wasn’t very protected. It was nice only having one main pack with me, but it was a definite trade-off. Next time I’m in a similar situation I may try the Minaal (it has waist straps as well) as see if it works better overall.
And I virtually always travel with a small day pack – good for running around cities and theme parks, cycling and day hikes. I always keep in there pain killers, Kleenex and bandages. My favorite was gifted to me at a travel conference years ago – a Kohla pack from Austrian Tourism. There are dozens of good day pack brands at REI. I’ve found an 18-23L pack is ideal.
I’ve really grown to appreciate good hiking boots and regularly travel with them. I bought a pair from Oboz for long hikes in Uganda and Switzerland and I loved them – lightweight with great support.
As much as I love my hiking boots, I don’t want to be stuck in those back at lodges or walking around cities, so as long as I have the space in my duffel I’ll always take normal walking shoes as well. I usually alternate between OluKai (comfortable and good-looking) and Hoka (super comfy for walking but generally unattractive) depending on the trip. And in Switzerland I wouldn’t have wanted to e-bike in hiking boots. My OluKais worked perfectly.
I’ve had a lot of miserable experiences around the world when I didn’t have antibiotics and needed them, and my wife has been hospitalized several times with infections. I’ve started carrying a pack of antibiotics with us everywhere. It’s one of those things that I’m willing to spend money on and hope that we don’t need them. But they’re also potentially life-saving, especially when we’re in areas without excellent, easy medical care – which is a lot of the world. I have a kit from Duration Health (not an affiliate link). It’s a cool system – you have a Zoom consultation with a doctor who talks through everything you may need based on your health and where you’re traveling (e.g. maybe you need to be covered for malaria and parasites), and then a few days later you receive a kit via FedEx – antibiotics plus meds for nausea and vomiting, allergic reactions, motion sickness, altitude issues and more. They also send a field guide with information on what you should use in specific situations.
We learned early on that a lot of kid medications weren’t as easy to obtain overseas, so we put together a kit that we automatically took with us anywhere we traveled, with things like a thermometer, Band-Aids, ace bandages and vet wrap, Pepto, ibuprofen and acetaminophen for kids and adults, allergy meds and electrolytes, and bug bite remedies.
This is a broad category! Think through what you’re going to be doing and look at the weather forecast and take an appropriate hat or two. In Switzerland I wore a warm merino wool beanie for half my hikes and a baseball cap for the other half. Glad I took both.
This isn’t an obvious item for a vacation packing list, but all three of my adventure-oriented 2022 trips require(d) gloves. In Uganda we were doing serious bushwhacking to reach the mountain gorillas, and there were a lot of thorns, and thick gardening gloves were indispensable for getting through the brush without getting poked and scratched. In Switzerland I had light gloves which kept me warm for cycling and hiking – the cycling especially would have been miserable without them. And for Antarctica I’ll need warm winter gloves. A lot of trips may not require gloves, but at least have it in your head when packing, since when you need them, you need them.
As with backpacks, I have a lot of jackets – light, medium and super-insulated, all in waterproof and non-waterproof versions, and I have specific jackets for skiing and winter sports too. I’ll only take one or maybe two on any given trip, but I’m glad I have them all since the weather and activities vary greatly from destination to destination. The majority of my jackets are from Patagonia, since I live near their headquarters and have friends who work there, and it seems like they have options for every scenario, but there are other good brands as well.
Merino Wool Shirts
Merino wool shirts have revolutionized my vacation packing list. I used to overpack, and I rarely got by with just a carry-on. Now I only take a couple shirts (long-sleeve and short-sleeve) no matter where I’m traveling, since they’re good in almost situation. In Switzerland I wore the same shirts every day – on my flights, as a base layer while hiking and cycling, while relaxing after hiking and cycling, and then also to networking events and functions, and they never looked dirty or smelled. In Uganda I lived in them, and in Antarctica they’ll be my shirts on the ship and my base layer while on land. Unbound Merino‘s shirts are the best that I’ve found.
A Fleece or Sweatshirt
For any kind of an adventurous trip, I live in khaki hiking pants. Some of mine are zip-off, but most aren’t. I never wear them at home (I generally hike in shorts), but they’re mandatory for destinations where I’ll be hiking or just outside a lot. They even worked great for a day of cycling in Switzerland. I took a pair of workout pants from Lululemon and put them on before heading out, but they just didn’t feel right. I switched to hiking pants and they were perfect. I’ve liked my Patagonia hiking pants better than those from other manufacturers.
Socks and Underwear
Pretty standard. I prefer merino wool socks and underwear while traveling – comfortable and they dry faster when I wash them in the sink.
Rain Pants and a Rain Jacket
Rain pants and a rain jacket saved me in Switzerland! We hiked and cycled a lot in the rain, and I stayed dry. They’re super light so they’re easy to pack just in case I need them for anywhere that I may get wet. My rain pants are from Patagonia. My light rain jacket is from Prana.
I’m a huge fan of hiking poles, going back to my four-day hike to Machu Picchu when my girlfriend loaned me one of her poles and it absolutely saved my knees on the downhills. I have poles from Black Diamond and have hiked with them around the world. They’re also very helpful for giving you additional footing while crossing rivers on rocks or logs.
Always pack sunscreen! If you’re traveling only with a carry-on, just take one or two smaller bottles.
If you’re somewhere with really bad insects that bite, hopefully your hotel or tour operator will have insect repellent available, but that’s definitely not always the case. I always take a small spray bottle if it’s just me, or a large one if I’m with my family.
I keep an extra pair of sunglasses in my normal carry-on pack so I’ll have them if I ever have to pack quickly. I can’t imagine hiking or traveling without them! I love Maui Jim but everyone has their own favorites.
A Head Lamp
I find myself using a head lamp a lot on adventurous, remote trips. Maybe it’s a dark path from the lodge to my cabin at night, or maybe I’m hiking before sunrise or after sunset. We have several battery-operated head lamps, but I always grab my newest rechargeable one (from Nite Ize) since I don’t want to have to pack spare batteries.
A Water Bottle with a Filter
I love my normal Nalgene bottles for short hikes, but if I’m somewhere where I could end up having to drink from a stream, or where possibly unclean tap water will be my only option, I bring a bottle with a built-in filter. There are a lot of good brands, including Grayl, Brita and LifeStraw. I have bottles from Grayl and Brita.
A Dry Bag
Sometimes I include a dry bag on my vacation packing list, and sometimes I’ll just take large ziplock bags. Either way, make sure you have a way to keep your wallet, passport and electronics dry while doing water sports or when it’s raining.
If you’re somewhere remote, you may not have cell coverage, but there’s a good chance you will. That’s your lifeline if anything happens. Make sure you always have charged power banks so you can use your phone in case of an emergency. And even if there’s not an emergency situation, I’ve stayed a lot of places where there was no electricity in my room/tent/cabin. Power banks let me still use my phone and laptop. Then I’d charge the power banks at the main lodge, or at my next hotel.
Travel Health Insurance
I’ve added most of the above items to my vacation packing list over the years because I learned the hard way, somewhere along my travel journey. It’s the same with travel health insurance. We never used to purchase travel insurance, but that came back to bite us last year. Now we simply have an annual policy (through G1G) that covers us for pretty much everything, and we never have to think about it. Just like with antibiotics, I’m willing to spend the money on it and hope I don’t have to use it.
Vacation Packing Lists for Adventurous Trips – Your Turn
I have packing lists from almost every trip I’ve taken going back 30 years – what I took with me as well as my post-trip reconciliations and notes – and I looked at those while putting together this list. This represents the items that are remarkably consistent for all adventurous destinations. If there’s anything I didn’t include that you always pack, please comment below!
This list is by no means all-encompassing. There are a lot of things I may also pack based on the destination – slippers and/or flip flops, pajamas, a swimsuit and sun shirt, shorts, jeans, an extra duffel and an umbrella frequently appear in my luggage.