Good things come in small packings

The secret to successful packing for short term international missions is “small”.  Keep it light and compact.  Pack what you think you’ll need, then take out half.

Why? Rotator cuffs and regrets are two of the reasons.  I used to pack for any imagined eventuality – and regularly injured shoulder joints while jogging through airports to make improbable connections, heavy bags bouncing at the ends of my arms.  Losing things that are precious hurts in another way.  Now I pack lightly and am content if it all goes missing.

We do need stuff – but what?  Herewith, the collected advice of seasoned short term travellers:

What to carry it in?

Are you are traveling on a bus in rural areas (in which case a backpack might be best) or hoteling it in just one or two cities?  My kit for city sojourns is one roll-along suitcase small enough to be permitted as carry-on luggage, and soft-sided attaché case with hidden shoulder straps that converts to a small back pack.  I put all but one change of clothes in the suitcase, and that one change plus essential business papers, toothbrush, comb and laptop in the attaché case.  (Occasionally an airline will insist that the small suitcase be checked in – in which case it undoubtedly will go missing for a few days – hence the change of clothes in the other bag.)

I leave the business bag largely empty because I want room to pack souvenirs or duty-free purchases on the way home.


(A note about duty-free on the way home:  If you are flying directly to your home town you can carry the bottle of mustard, balsamic vinegar or scotch that you bought in the airport duty-free shop with you.  However  if you land in Toronto, for instance, and then get a second flight to Ottawa, your bottle will be confiscated as you pass through domestic security.  This is the one time I do check in a bag in on the way home.  It must be picked up in Toronto for customs clearance and then checked in again for the domestic flight.  Between customs and check-in I transfer the bottle into the checked bag.  This plan is quite legal – and the only way to work with security procedures.)

How does one travel so lightly?

I wear one full set of business-like clothes on the airplane (my favorite trousers and jacket are Tilley – nicely tailored, durable, easy to clean, and easy to coordinate with a range of shirts.)  I take a back-up pair of trousers and two more nice shirts, two extra pairs of underwear and socks, a small towel, and some of the ‘kit’ I’ll describe below – and that’s about it.  If going to a tropical country I’ll throw in a pair of Tiva sandals (good for hiking as well as loafing) and a swimming suit. With that wardrobe – all in carry-on – I did a month-long business trip to Ethiopia recently.   I rely on getting laundry done a couple of times a week while I’m on the road. On the few occasions when I need more, I buy it locally.

I asked my female colleagues what they do, and the advice was similar – pack just a few blouses, skirts and pants, and plan to mix and match.    Choosing consistent (mixable) colours is important.  A great website to visit for more advice, from women instead of a man, is .


In an earlier message we talked about the essentials for a small health kit.  Other things in my toiletry kit include a razor and a replacement blade if I’ll be away long enough, and SMALL tubes of toothpaste and shampoo.  Ideally the tubes will be empty just as you arrive home.  Large containers are heavy and mean that your bag must be checked in, as big sizes aren’t allowed in carry-on.  You just need to buy one or two small toothpaste tubes – I use about half-a-tube a week – and they can be refilled from larger tubes before each trip.  I add a small baggie of laundry soap to wash out my socks and underwear, a pair of earplugs in case the last room in the hotel is over the disco, and that’s about it.  (When you wash your socks and underwear, wring them inside a towel to pre-dry them before stringing in the shower.)

Ends and a few odds

  • Take a universal sink plug or half a squash ball.  Some hotel sinks don’t have stoppers.
  • A plastic mug and spoon take little room and allow you to grab a box of cereal or tea and indulge in your hotel room in the mornings.
  • Buy an inexpensive wristwatch with a built-in alarm.  You can leave your alarm clock at home, and if the watch is stolen it won’t matter.  (Practice setting the alarm before you leave home.  If I don’t and my kids aren’t around to help, I’m in trouble.)
  • We already mentioned a flattened roll of toilet paper.  A small one of duct tape is also handy.
  • A small LED flashlight.  I put one beside my bed when I turn in at night in a new place.  If the power goes out and there is an emergency (or just the need to find the bathroom), you’ll be glad it is there.
  • A deck of cards.  Make new friends during long flight delays.
  • The right plug adapter for your computer.  Check the internet to find out what shape is required for your destination.   (See, for instance, ).
  • A travel journal or notebook.  Capturing your experiences and thoughts on the road will provide many benefits down the road.  I also carry a thin, flexible three ringed binder with several plastic “page sleeves”.  One holds my key travel documents (flight schedules, insurance papers, hotel reservations, etc.,) One gets stuffed with receipts and records as they accumulate. One holds key business or meeting documents.
  • If you want to travel with a computer, consider a small “netbook”.  They cost just a few hundred dollars, are light, can do most everything your desktop machine can do, and if lost or stolen, won’t break the bank.  **Be sure you install a good virus checker, and back up your documents on a “cloud” service like Dropbox.  If your computer is stolen, access Dropbox or other service and ‘delist’ that machine immediately.   You can also load all your favorite tunes on the machine, and with a set of headphones, play comfort music in lonely airports or hotel rooms.
  • If you want to take pictures and aren’t a professional, leave the fancy camera at home.  It is heavy, expensive to lose, and labels you a tourist to be targeted.  Instead, get a small digital camera (great ones are available for around $100).  I chose one that uses AA batteries so that I don’t have to carry the battery charger.  Batteries are available everywhere.

A final tip

When you’ve crafted your ideal kit make a packing list and keep it handy for your next trip.  It will save time and help avoid errors.  (One hot summer I packed quickly, chose to fly wearing sandals and arrived at a conference without either shoes or socks.)  If you travel often enough, you may want to have parts of your kit (the health and toiletry set, for instance) left pre-packed in the closet.

And if you have other tips of your own, send them to us and we’ll include them in future updates.


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