Having just returned from a backpacking trip where I pushed myself quite hard, I have been pondering the issue of proper packing quite a bit in recent days… When backpacking, one has to make a cost/benefit decision regarding weight versus comfort for every single item. Everything one brings is something that adds to the overall weight of the pack and will be something that needs to be hauled around for days.
That matters when you’re scrambling up a steep incline and struggling to catch your breath in the thin air of high altitudes. Some guys I know even saw the handles off of their toothbrushes to save that extra little bit of weight when backpacking.
However, take this pursuit of lightweight nirvana too far and it could cost you your life… You need to bring something that will keep you warm and dry. You need food and water.
The same type of thinking is involved when packing for a trip to somewhere sporty. The calculations are different, but the same discipline is required.
I’ve received a number of questions about how to pack for a trip to a dangerous place and since I’ve been thinking about packing recently, now is as good a time as any to tackle this subject. And so these are my thoughts, observations and what I have learned through a lot of trial and error…
First off – and this should be your guiding philosophy – everything you bring can be easily stolen, lost or destroyed along the way. This is not camping in your backyard or going to Southern California to visit grandma and grandpa. You will often be encountering extreme weather conditions and a host of human predators during a trip to a dangerous place.
With that in mind, I don’t bring things that have a sentimental value to me and I do not bring expensive electronics like my laptop or a pricey camera.
Secondly, most people bring way too much. Capitalism works everywhere (even where it is banned) and capitalism will deliver to you what you need. In other words, pack light and buy what you need when you arrive. Do you really need to bring that survival kit? Survival is becoming an increasely urban and international scenario rather than a “lost in the woods while hiking” drama. Leave the gear at home. Also, survival gear is heavy and will make it seem as if you have things that people would want to take from you. It can also get you accused of being a spy.
So, let me get more specific… There is no ‘one kit’ for every situation, but the below is my basic packing checklist:
2) One Widely Accepted Credit Card
3) My Passport(s)
4) A Relatively Cheap Digital Camera
5) Cipro (Ciprofloxacin)
7) At Least Two Plastic Bags
8) Changes Of Clothing
10) A Few Pens
11) Toiletries Kit
You probably won’t have an ATM where you are going and it isn’t exactly common practice to pay a bribe or hire gunmen with a credit card.
Despite the battering of the American dollar and America’s reputation, dollars remain the default currency of choice. Dollars are accepted everywhere and are usually preferred to the local currency. The one exception to this that I have discovered is in the Balkans or Eastern Europe where there was a slight preference for euros. They still happily accepted dollars, but euros had a slight edge. Everywhere else – bring dollars.
I put the cash in a Ziploc bag so it is waterproof and then I stuff it down my underwear so it rests comfortably next to my dick. Most robbers know about money belts and will know where to look for them. However, not many robbers will grope a man’s genitals. Keep enough money for the day in your pocket. You can give this to the robbers and they will probably fuck off. And by robbers, I am also including corrupt officials that will match their bribe demands to how much money they think you have.
Keep more money in your pocket for border crossings though. The officials will know you have more money than just the small sum in your pocket and you don’t want them to think you might have even more cash by having to fish into the Ziploc bag to pay for a “visa fee” or “environmental tax” or whatever the demand for a bribe is called that day.
By the way, this Ziploc bag is also home to my credit card, passport(s) and memory cards for my camera.
One Widely Accepted Credit Card
Need to suddenly book a flight online or suddenly need some cash? You’ll be glad you had the credit card with you. Also, when chartering a flight, renting a vehicle or even just getting a hotel room – always use your credit card if you can. If you pay in cash, you have given away all of your power as soon as you hand the money over. With a credit card, you still have some leverage because you can threaten to cancel the transaction if someone tries to screw you over (even if that is not necessarily true, it raises doubt in the mind of your opposition).
Just bring one credit card because it is easier to only need to call one company if your card is stolen. Also, be sure to call the company before you leave and tell them where you are going so that they do not freeze your card. Trying to use the Armenian phone system to connect with a representative at your credit card company when it is 2:00 AM in the States is not fun.
Oh, and make sure it is a card that has an extensive network and will be accepted wherever credit cards can be used. I bring a Mastercard. Leave your American Express or Discover card at home.
I try to just bring one, but some countries have more favorable relations with one country over another. So, if you are entering more than one country, you may have to play with different passports to make the most of local conditions. I’ve talked before about the best passport to have.
A Relatively Cheap Digital Camera
As a general rule, you do not want to bring expensive electronics to dangerous places (unless your profession involves doing so). You will be accused of being a spy. Or they will be stolen. Or they will be destroyed in bad weather. In other words, you will regret it.
Sure, you will get better pictures with your Leica or expensive Canon, but you will certainly be upset when you lose it along with all of your pictures on it. Perhaps you might even keep your camera, but you’ll be so paranoid about losing it or damaging it that you won’t enjoy yourself and you won’t take chances with potentially great shots.
I just bring a simple and small Sony Cybershot that fits snugly in the palm of my hand. I turn the sound and flash off and the camera becomes a very low profile device. I’ve snapped off some extraordinary shots while simply holding the camera in my hand and keeping my hands down by my sides. You just can’t do that with a big camera and lens, even if you hold it by your side, because someone will notice the direction the camera is pointing in and get suspicious.
The small camera also works well in “no go” areas for cameras. Again, I can shoot pictures while holding the camera at my side and most people won’t even realize it is there.
Further, my camera does not look expensive and so I am less likely to get robbed.
And with a camera like the Sony Cybershot, it makes it a stretch for someone to accuse me of being a spy or a journalist.
As a side point, bring more than one memory card for your camera… Got some great pictures of guys with guns? Cool. Do NOT leave that memory card in your camera as when a border official or random soldier reviews those pictures on your camera (and they will), they will accuse you of being a spy or, at best, make you delete them. So, if you get some good pictures that could be potentially problematic for you, swap out the memory card as soon as possible and have pictures of flowers and puppies or something else benign on your memory card. I have had some excellent pictures deleted by soldiers before and it sucks.
Oh, and the exception to the rule above about bringing expensive electronics is if one is going to be abroad for months at a time and will have internet access. If that is the case, bring an inexpensive laptop for the purpose of communicating, research, etc.
Bacteria will occasionally make you so sick on your travels that you honestly want to die – nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain and more… Cipro will make you feel better within half an hour.
This is a powerful tool. For the sake of yourself and everyone else, do not abuse it. Only take it for bacterial issues and if you start taking it, be sure to take the full dose for the full duration that is outlined. We do not need more drug-resistant bacteria in the world.
If you’re going to the jungle, antibiotic cream is good too. In a tropical environment even a minor injury can turn nasty within a few days.
Westerners do not like to be hungry. Other cultures are more used to eating when food is actually available. As a Westerner, you may want something to tide you over until the next meal because sometimes it can be a while.
Snacks consist of nuts, candy or granola bars, turkey jerky, etc. If one is so inclined, it wouldn’t hurt to bring fast food condiments such as salt, pepper, ketchup, etc. to spice up available food such as gamey wild-caught meat. This is optional though.
A couple of plastic trash bags are great for storing dirty laundry or serving as an instant waterproofer for your gear. I have even used them as an improvised poncho (cut a hole in the bottom of the bag for your head and pull it on). I have additionally seen them used quite effectively to cover a sucking chest wound. And we had a driver once in Pakistan that used them as cheap condoms. So, really, your imagination is the limit when it comes to plastic bags.
Changes Of Clothing
You really want to give the impression that you are on a shoestring budget and don’t have much money. Leave the designer jeans and expensive outdoor gear at home. You don’t want someone to think you are worth robbing.
Be very careful about using military surplus gear or ALICE packs or 5.11 clothing or anything like that. This is a good way to get mistaken for a spy or a contractor.
I often pack a poncho, unless I know I will not get rained upon, as it is extremely lightweight and versatile.
And although I hate the association with backpackers that take themselves too seriously, there is a reason you see the keffiyeh (shemagh) all over the Middle East and Northern Africa. They are great for sun protection and keeping the dust out of your nose and mouth. I have also used mine as a bandage, a mosquito net, a water filter, a pillow covering and a blanket (of sorts).
By the way, the middle of your dirty laundry is a good place to store anything of value that you can’t fit in the Ziploc bag that you stuff down your pants. Border guards and police WILL search your luggage and they WILL take things that appeal to them (or you will have to pay a large bribe for them not to take them). They are less likely to dig through your dirty laundry.
Obviously, you will adapt the clothing you pack for where you are going. For example: simple Chuck Taylor’s make excellent jungle boots, but you wouldn’t necessarily bring these up in the mountains.
Since I brought up footwear… The natives may be prancing around in bare feet or flip flops. That does not mean that you can. I made the mistake of copying the footwear of the locals in the Indian jungle and deeply regretted it.
This one is obvious. Aside from helping you plan an itinerary, your guidebook should have some local phrases and useful phone numbers.
These are for you to take notes with. But they are also for handing out to kids. Especially in places like Afghanistan, the kids are nuts for pens.
Obviously, this comes down to one’s needs and personal preferences…
When I travel, mine contains toilet paper, sunscreen, packaged anti-bacterial hand wipes, a tooth brush, toothpaste, Q-tips, deodorant, shampoo and moisturizer.
By the way, I put toilet paper first on that list for a reason. You will thank me for that when you encounter a pit in the ground with no toilet paper. Or when you try to use the local shit paper and find it to be equivalent to sand paper.
The hand wipes are a very versatile item. They can be used to sterilize your hands after you do your business, they can be used to sterilize a wound and they can even help you start a fire.
The contents of your toiletries bag will produce varied and unpredictable reactions from government officials. Sometimes these items won’t even elicit a glance, while at other times every item will be subjected to a rigorous scrutiny. And do not be so naive as to think your toiletries will not be coveted by others.
Once when crossing the border from Somalia into Ethiopia, the border guards were ecstatic at discovering I had Q-tips. After taking most of mine, the border crossing shut down as they all went to work rooting around in their ears with them. This was soon followed by a tremendous row over how to divide up the remaining Q-tips. What was funny as hell was that they all still had the Q-tips hanging out of their ears during this screaming match. It is a struggle to take a man seriously, even if he is waving around an AK, when he has these silly Q-tips hanging out of his ears, you know?
Some Additional Considerations:
I’ve tried bringing water filters because you almost never want to touch the local water supply. However, I found them to be cumbersome and prone to being stolen or at least leading a border guard to think they should be stolen. I’ve learned to just buy bottled water upon my arrival. It is available anywhere. Watch out for the used water bottle trick though! Often, local merchants will retrieve discarded water bottles, fill them with local water and try to sell them again as brand new. So, make sure the seal on the cap has not been broken.
Some people like to bring handheld GPS units. I’ve never needed one or felt like I needed one. You risk having it stolen or being accused of being a spy. The people you hire should know where they are going.
I’ve never found that I use pocketknives much, but if you like to have one, don’t bring a nice one with you. Instead, buy a cheap one when you arrive at your destination and then give it away when you leave.
Really, do not bring any weapons in or out of the country as this will cause major headaches for you. You should be hiring guys with guns, not carrying your own.
If you think you are going to have to deal with a particularly difficult border crossing, buy several packs of smokes (Marlboro Reds will gain you the most points) and/or a bottle or two of booze for the soldiers and guards before you arrive. But don’t bring these into the country with you from home as you will likely lose them before you even leave the airport.
I’ll talk more about how to conduct yourself in such places in the future by focusing on things like situational awareness and how to handle being shot at (not always something to be too concerned about as I have discovered), but for now, at least you know how to pack sensibly.