The Things We Carry

With a nod to Paul Theroux for the page title. 

Everybody has a different style. Some people like to travel with their supplies on hand, not wanting the distraction of fighting off insects while they search for shampoo. Others are happiest when they can throw John Muir’s pound of tea and loaf of bread into a backpack and hop over the garden fence. Personally, my rule of thumb is if it can’t fit in a battered, green Jansport I leave it behind.

Whatever your approach, you can neither bring everything nor leave it all behind. Sooner or later the fanciest vacationer runs out of room, and even the most hard-core backpacker won’t have much of a cultural experience wandering around without any pants. Here’s what I bring and why:

Work Kit

  • Laptop – Depending on the trip, I bring one of two laptops.
    • Lenovo Yoga – If it weren’t for Windows, this little laptop would make a perfect travel computer. While Windows 8 and 10 are little more than sophisticated malware, as a piece of hardware the Yoga is a terrific combination of tablet and ultralight laptop that even fits easily on an airplane tray table. Better still, it’s cheap. At just $600, I can afford to have this machine crushed, flooded, stolen or sanded down without disaster.
    • LaptopMacBook Air – At $1,500, I’m more careful where I take the MacBook. But for someone who wants horsepower, the Mac Air is awesome. Lightweight and able to handle 20 tabs of research and Spotify without stuttering, the greatest selling point here is the OS. It just works. In a job where everything else, from wifi to electricity, is often up in the air, that’s invaluable.
  • Google Voice – The easiest, most inexpensive way I’ve found to conduct interviews while on the road. An absolute must for journalists.
  •  GIMP – Free image editing software that is, for all my uses, every bit as versatile as Photoshop. There’s a learning curve, but nothing that can’t be solved with a bit of patience and Google.
  • Business Cards – Personally, I like Vistaprint for ordering business cards online. They do an amazing job with colors, which is very helpful for designing a card that stands out.
  • Smart phone – I’m pretty bipolar when it comes to smartphones. I love them, when I don’t hate them. I do take mine and keep it set on airplane mode, neither wanting nor needing it to act as a phone. One of the best parts of travel is getting to unplug  from our always-on world and I don’t want a cell phone with me at Angkor Wat. Having a PDA that can download maps, translators and play Scrabble, however, is terrific.
  • Reporters Pads – These have their specific design for a reason. The long, thin cut of these pads makes them perfect for taking notes on the go, whether walking around town or sitting on the train.
  • FatCow – Web hosting has become largely interchangeable these days as prices for space and domain names have raced to the bottom. I use FatCow for its highly responsive chat support. They’ve saved me several times.
  • Avada Theme – Avada is, last time I checked, the most popular premium theme on WordPress, and for good reason. While the documentation leaves a lot to be desired, you simply can’t beat the versatility of this theme. On top of which I cannot say enough about the customer service of Avada’s team. Every question answered within 24 hours, no exceptions, and what they can’t do over e-mail they log into your install and set up for you. I’ve test run a lot of themes over the past few years and this one is the best.
  • Panasonic Z58 – My point and shoot is starting to get up there in years, but I still love this little camera. Easy to carry and with a great range of options, the only downside is the inability to attach or swap lenses. Almost every photo I take is with this camera.
  • Portable Hard Drive – Don’t leave home without it. Personally, I use the XX, but any reliable brand will get this done. Keep everything valuable backed up, and when possible in a seperate bag from your laptop.

The Rest

While my work kit has grown over time, my personal gear has slimmed down. I still carry more than I need to, but it’s a far cry from the first time I went backpacking and took everything from a change of shoes to a tarp and waterproof matches.

These days I break my pack up into two main categories: “stuff” and medical supplies.

General Supplies

  • Only one of any consumable – Yes, toothpaste and soap matter, but you’ll have to buy more sooner or later. So cut to the chase and don’t carry the extra weight. But do still shower… traveling is a dusty enough business without making the rest of the plane suffer for your sins.
  • Flashlight with extra batteries – One of the most useful things in any pack. A few extra batteries don’t take much room and they can cost an arm and a leg on the road. On that overnight bus through the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a paperback and bottle of wine for company, you’ll be glad you have it.
  • Leatherman – Useful in a hundred situations, catastrophic at airport security. Carry it in a checked bag and be grateful later on.
  • Duct tape – I drop a roll in my bag heading out the door and usually come home with none. Uses include: fixing my bag, setting a broken toe, putting up road signs, arranging a romantic picnic and decorating for Christmas.
  • Cord – A coil of strong, thin cord comes in handy all over the place, from fixing the straps on your backpack to securing a guesthouse door with no locks. Do not use it to set booby traps in your own room. That leads to disaster during late night bathroom runs.
  • E-Reader – Full disclosure, I’m a luddite. It breaks my heart that a silicon slab could drive out bookstores like Gecko in Chiang Mai, Ann Arbor’s Dawn Treader and Atlantis Books on Santorini. Still, even I’m willing to admit to their use when I need a new book and the only English language option is a $30 shrink wrapped copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. It lets you churn through books on a long trip and replace them at a reasonable price. Just don’t forget to hit the local bookstore.
  • Plastic bags – The cheap, disposable kind you pack your groceries in. I stick them in my backpack by the fistful. They’re great for carrying odds and ends, separating out dirty laundry and extra waterproofing for electronics.
  • Photocopies / Electronic Copies of ALL important documents. Passport, insurance information, driver’s license (where applicable), anything that would spell trouble if you lost. I also store PDF copies on Google Docs.
  • Multiple ATM Cards – Bring more than one if possible. I’ve had an ATM card flagged or canceled almost every single time I’ve gone overseas whether or not I gave notice. Many countries operate almost entirely on a cash basis, so your credit cards won’t do much good in Myanmar. Don’t get stuck. Have a backup.
  • Deck of Cards – There are a few things that make me feel like a true adventurer. Muddling my way through a new train station, taking a prop-driven anything, and playing a hand of cards with a stranger. Small, convenient and one of the best ways to make friends across language barriers, don’t forget them.

Medical Kit

Don’t take a long trip without a well stocked medical kit. Over the years I’ve had to treat infections, set a surprising number of broken toes and deal with more cases of food poisoning than I can count. Don’t cut corners when it comes to your health, over prepared is a good thing. Mine includes:

  • Bandages and disinfectant – These are essential for pretty much any first aid kit, but still worth mentioning here.
  • Imodium – To deal with traveler’s diarrhea, because that will happen. Often.
  • Mucinex – A whole range of lung issues can set in when temperature and humidity changes, like flying from a dry country into the rainy season. Mucinex is a great way to avoid spending the next two weeks feeling it.
  • Benadryl – Or any good anti-histamine. Also good as a sleep aid and in a pinch for motion sickness. (Little known fact: most motion sickness tablets are pretty much straight anti-histamine.)
  • Antiobiotics – Not always easy to come by but if you can keep one or two courses of general antibiotics in your pack, do so.
  • Charcoal tablets – Not easy to find in western pharmacies but they’re well worth the effort. A fantastic way to deal with food poisoning, these pills will have you bouncing back from a bowl of bad curry faster than you can say “khao soi!”
  • Painkillers – I choose Advil, but any common brand will work. NO TYLENOL, it interacts badly with alcohol.
  • Dramamine – I used to be virtually impervious to motion sickness. It was like a super power. Hell, for a little while it was on my resume. One Malaysian bus ride changed all that. Now I go nowhere without this stuff. The world is filled with bad roads, choppy seas and crazy drivers. Don’t let them ruin your trip.