Every few months, it seems that we travelers get hit with increasing airline fees and baggage costs. And as seat space and overhead bins get smaller and smaller, it’s a wonder we can still travel comfortably with any luggage at all. Packing space is extremely limited.
There are 10 things, however, that I think every traveler needs to have on hand. While that number sounds like a lot, I can assure you that all of these items are pocket-size, inexpensive and easily found.
Below are the 10 small things I always pack when preparing for any trip—all guaranteed not to weigh you down:
1. A spare pair of bootlaces. You know that hiking boots are absolutely essential for explorations in natural places. But what many people forget to bring along when they are packing their bags is an extra set of bootlaces in the length that works best for their particular pairs of boots.
Once, on a beautiful morning in a remote part of Alaska, I hurriedly started to get dressed in order to catch some of that beautiful, northern early light. As I was tying my favorite pair of well-worn and comfortable boots, a lace broke off in my hand. For several days, I was relegated to wearing sandals. Now, I always travel with an extra set of laces tucked in my backpack.
2. Duct tape. Duct tape may be one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. There are probably hundreds of ways it can come in handy when you travel. It works amazingly well for repairs on the run: it can temporarily mend your rain gear or tent; hold a pair of broken sunglasses or a leaky water bottle together just long enough; and wrapped around the tops of liquid-filled bottles packed in your suitcase (such as shampoos or first-aid supplies), it acts as a sealant so that your clothing stays dry. It can also serve as a lint roller or an improvised curtain “corrector” to keep crooked drapes closed in order to darken a hotel room.
The first time I traveled to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, in 2002 on a polar bear tour, the zipper on the suitcase I planned to check broke the night before I was to fly home. Luckily, I had duct tape with me, and I could seal the suitcase up strongly enough so that I could at least get it back to Wisconsin, where I live. I’m not sure how I would have gotten through the airport without that roll of duct tape to save me.
3. A headlamp. There always comes a point on a trip when your schedule doesn’t match up with that of the people traveling with you. For example, I am an early riser and a late-night writer. I’m often up in the evenings jotting down notes long after my roommates have turned off the lights.
Rather than keeping on the overheads while everyone else is trying to sleep, I find I can be a little less annoying by using a headlamp in a corner of the room.
4. Packets of moist towelettes. More shared spaces and tighter quarters—where sick people and well people are in close proximity—are a fact of travel. That means that you have a higher chance of getting sick while traveling than you do in your daily life. But that doesn’t have to ruin your next trip. Just take along some disinfecting, moist towelettes.
They’ll come in handy from the minute you step inside the airplane. Once you pull down your tray table, you’ll want to give it a quick once-over with a moist towelette. Why? With quick flight turnovers, tray tables certainly aren’t being sanitized between every trip. And people use them for everything from dirty-tissue depositories and diaper-changing tables to barf-bag holders.
The next area you may want to swipe (or forgo using) is the seat pocket in front of you. People tend to shove garbage, such as banana peels, sticky beverage cups and used tissues, into those convenient pockets on a plane. That receptacle definitely isn’t deep cleaned between flights. It’s best not to touch that pocket, but if you need the space, at least swipe it first.
Seat-back screen controllers and armrests are other places where germs lurk. On one flight a few years ago, as I prepared to sit down in my seat, I discovered that there was dried vomit on my armrest. I immediately rang for a flight attendant, who admitted she was just as grossed out as I was. She quickly tried to wipe away the grim with a wet washcloth as the other passengers maneuvered around her to get to their seats, but needless to say, in that circumstance she wasn’t capable of doing a thorough job. I had never been so thankful I had a few moist, disinfecting towelettes with me.
5. A quick-drying towel. Many lodging establishments are trying to save money these days, and one of the ways they cut costs is by cutting back on laundry. Bringing your own lightweight, compactible, quick-drying towel—especially on boat trips where you might only be supplied with one towel for a whole week—will provide you with a backup and an extra measure of good hygiene and cleanliness.
6. A sheet of bubble wrap or tissue paper. One of my favorite trip souvenirs is a large, frosted beer mug I bought in Yellowstone National Park. Now, at home when I relax with a good brew, I remember the sights and sounds of that amazing trip.
When I stepped up to the cash register to pay for the mug, however, I was told that the store had no tissue paper or bubble wrap to protect the glass. It was no problem, since I carry a wedge of bubble wrap and a single sheet of tissue paper with me on every trip.
By putting the bubble wrap and tissue in the front pocket of your duffle or suitcase, they also act as cushions for your things when the airlines place other suitcases on top of yours.
7. A few Ziploc bags. Before packing my sandals or shoes in the pocket of my duffle bag, I place each one in a large Ziploc bag. During my trip, I don’t have to worry about the dirt that collects on the soles getting the duffle dusty or muddy because I can quickly place them back in their Ziplocs before repacking them. If the soles of your shoes stay relatively clean, you can always use the Ziplocs to bring home wet or damp clothing or dirty laundry.
The Ziplocs can also serve as “files”; they corral stray maps, brochures, tickets, memory cards or pens. They can protect books or journals—even cameras—from possible water damage.
8. Note cards. Although handwritten note cards might sound like a relic of the past, you’ll encounter people during your travels that you’ll want to thank, whether it’s a guide who went the extra mile for you, a fellow traveler who became a new friend or a local who invited you into his or her home while you were away from yours. Note cards provide the medium for you to immediately express your heartfelt appreciation.
By writing a card on the spot and handing it to the recipient, you don’t have to hassle with an exchange of addresses or e-mail addresses or worry about remembering to send a message when you get home. I have often had fellow travelers ask me if I have a spare card or two, since in remote locations, it’s often hard to find a piece of paper to write on.
9. A small notebook or journal, with pen. Despite the occasional beer mug or two (see no. 6, above), I find a book filled with notes about the experiences of my trip and how I felt about them in the moment to always be my most treasured souvenir. Travel days are packed with new experiences and activities, and if you wait until you get home to write them all down, you risk forgetting the smaller but perhaps more meaningful moments.
A tiny journal or notebook in your backpack or daypack can also work as a great organizing tool or reminder system.
10. A yellow highlighter. I’m a big fan of collecting paper maps from the places I travel to. I either bring a map of the area along with me or make sure I purchase one locally before setting out on my trip. By taking along a yellow highlighter, I can mark the specific course I take as I go along.
My paper, foldout maps are not only permanent records of where I’ve been, but they act as references when captioning photographs or filling out journal entries.
Luckily, most of what I consider travel essentials are small, inexpensive items that are easy to find and purchase. Help me add to this list. What small—but indispensable—thing do you always pack for your adventures?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,