If Indiana Jones & MacGyver Made Packing Lists

Jun 3, 2009 | Advice for Adventurers, Travel Issues

Wherever I travel, I make a packing list, and make it early — not only because it’s smart, but because it makes me feel like the heroic leader of a National Geographic expedition. I start spreading my stuff out in the basement about a week before a trip. As I survey my soldierly lineup of trekking gear, I feel empowered. Indiana Jones had his hat and whip; I have my headlamp and clothesline. With any luck, I’ll find that I don’t have everything… yet.

Usually, I hate to shop — guess I’m missing a gene on one of my X chromosomes. But as a gear geek, I love to buy travel toys. Roaming a recreational equipment store to try out trekking poles, binoculars and Swiss army knives feels like an adventure in itself. I squeal like a goofy kid as I rummage through goodie bins full of fire-starting flint, roll-on mosquito repellant and tiny, travel-size toilet paper rolls.

A headlamp lights the way up Mt. Meru, to watch sunrise over Kilimanjaro.

Even if you’re not jonesing for your very own mosquito net, even if you’re only hitting the beach, do yourself a favor: don’t wait until the day before your trip to pack. You don’t want to find out the night before your flight that the bathing suit you could have sworn was in the bottom drawer is missing, and you definitely don’t want to forget the Imodium — unless you envision diarrhea as an opportunity to reach your goal weight.

Over-packing can be just as bad. The middle of the night before a big travel day is not the best time to decide what to leave behind, just so you can close your suitcase, or lift your backpack.

If you’re backpacking, make sure you keep your pack’s weight down to a third or less of your total body weight. More than that and you’ll risk injuring your back and joints, not to mention having a miserable time. That’s another good reason to pack ahead of time, and set priorities.

Before I went on my eight-month trip around the world, I stepped on a scale, first without, and then with, my full backpack. I stepped on and off several times, removing items until I got the pack down to my weight limit. I decided to live without the rain pants, figuring a rain-repellant jacket was enough to keep my core warm. I dumped the triangle bandage, deciding my bandana would make a great sling if necessary. My Campsuds did triple-duty as shampoo, soap and detergent. If you’ve never backpacked before, you’ll be amazed at what you can live without. I began to understand freedom when I discovered that almost all my needs in life could fit in a small, 35-pound load on my back.

During 20 years of independent travel, I’ve come up with a few favorite items and tips that I now consider essential. I prefer a backpack that opens from both the top and the back, so I don’t have to dig through everything to reach something at the bottom. I hide money in more than one place, so if someone robs me or picks my pockets they probably won’t get away with everything. In Asia, I take my own chopsticks, because some restaurants sanitize the reusable ones in a common water bowl — looks dodgy if you ask me. I always carry duct tape, and almost always use it: my duct tape has plugged holes in mosquito nets, mended torn gear and helped a fellow-hiker repair a blown-out boot. Who needs MacGyver, when a girl trekker is on the job?

My favorite girl-gear may sound a little gross, but it can save a lot of hassle: OB tampons, or any tampons without applicators. They pack lighter and tighter, saving weight and space in a backpack or suitcase. The Irish blessing says, “May the road rise up to meet you…” But I say: “May the road return you to the city before you run out of feminine hygiene products.”

Sample Packing Lists

I used to check other travelers’ packing lists online. But now I’ve got it down. So it’s my turn to pack it forward: you’ll find two of my typical packing lists below. The first is from a tame trip to Scotland, featuring ancient stone ruins in the windy Orkney Islands and a three-day mountain bike trip on the rainy Great Glen Way — where someone drove our luggage to each stop. The second is from a wild adventure in Peru, featuring two multi-day treks through the Andes and one through the Amazon — where mosquitos carry malaria. Take your pick: tame or wild. Please let me know if you find these lists helpful, and if you have any suggestions to add.

Layers are important in cold windy places, like Scotland’s Orkney Islands.


1) Daypack
2) Duffle Bag
3) Fanny Pack
4) Small Travel Pillow
5) Windbreaker
6) Rain-repellant Jacket & Pants
7) Fleece jacket
8. Fleece shirts - 2 
9) Trekking pants wi/ zip-off legs - 2
10) Regular pants - 2
11) Jeans
12) Bicycle shorts
13) Belts - 2
14) Microfiber trekking shirt
15) Short sleeve tops - 2
16) Long sleeve tops - 2
17) Cold weather pullovers - 2
18) Long sleeve T-shirt
19) Short sleeve T-shirt
20) Tank tops - 2
21) Pullover sweater 
22) Dressy outfit
23) Sweat shirt & running pants
24) Long Underwear - pants & top
25) Bathing suit
26) Hat with visor
27) Wool cap
28) Warm gloves
29) Bicycle gloves 
30) Bandanas - 2
31) Microfiber underpants - 7
32) Bras - 3
33) Socks - 7 pairs
34) Hiking Boots
35) Sandals
36) Running shoes
37) Nice boots
38) Pack towel
39) Camelback water bladder
40) Water bottle wi/ belt
41) Money Belt
42) Small shoulder purse
43) Headlamp
44) Mag-light
45) Extra flashlight batteries - AA & AAA
46) Swiss army knife
47) Pens
48) Matches
49) Fork, knife, spoon
50) Sturdy travel mug wi/ lid
51) Binoculars
52) Camera
53) Camera pack
54) Tripod
55) Camera batteries
56) Lonely Planet Guide
57) Small address book 
58) Journal
59) Reading books - 2
60) DEET mosquito repellant
61) Multi-vitamins
62) Lip balm
63) Duct tape
64) Ear plugs
65) Sun block
66) Eyeglasses
67) Sunglasses wi/ leash
68) Plastic bags
69) Toilet Paper
70) Tissues
71) Money - cash & travelers checks
72) Credit Card & Debit Card
73) Passport
74) Driver's License
75) Packet of Documents & Info, including:
    Phone numbers in case cards lost or stole
    Copy of passport
    Copy of Driver's License
    Contact lens prescription
    Travelers checks receipts
    Plane Tickets
    Birth certificate
    Itinerary & copies
    Confirmations of all reservations 
    Bike Tour Description & Directions
76) First Aid Kit, including:
    Imodium (loperamide, for diarrhea)
    adhesive bandages of various sizes
    non-adherent pads
    gauze pads of various sizes
    stretch gauze roll
    antibacterial wipes
    Neosporin (antibiotic ointment) 
    sting wipes
    cold & allergy medicine
    Ibuprofin (non-aspirin pain reliever)
    elastic bandage wi/ clips
    non-latex medical gloves
    antimicrobial hand wipes
    waste bag
    bandage scissors
    splinter forceps/tweezers
    safety pins
    first aid booklet
    triangle bandage
    oral rehydration salts (for dehydration)
    dramamine - less drowsy formula
    cough drops
    blister treatment
    anti-gas medicine
    instant cold-pack (for sprains)
    emergency space-age blanket (for hypothermia)
79) Toiletry kit, including:
    soap in travel bottle
    shampoo in travel bottle
    hair conditioner in travel bottle
    hair goop
    facial moisturizer
    body lotion
    small tooth paste
    tooth brush
    Q-tip cotton swabs - travel pack
    20 pairs contact lenses
    contact lens solution
    contact lens case
    eye rewetting drops
    nail clippers
    emery board
    OB tampons (or other non-applicator tampons)  
    sewing kit
    blow dryer
    hair brush
    mascara, lipstick (doubles as blush)

Trekking poles come in handy on the Lares Valley Trek in Peru.


1) Day Pack
2) Duffle Bag
3) Fanny Pack
4) Sleeping Bag & Small Travel Pillow
5) Sleeping Pad
6) Rain-repellant Jacket & Pants
7) Fleece Jacket
8. Trekking shirts wi/ roll up arms - 2
9) Short sleeve top
10) Tank top
11) Trekking pants wi/ zip-off legs - 2
12) Mosquito Net
13) Long Underwear - pants & top
14) Bathing suit
15) Hat wi/ visor
16) Wool cap
17) Warm gloves
18) Bike gloves (for hikes that require scrambling)
19) Bandana
20) Underwear - 4 thong, 4 regular
21) Bras - 2
22) Socks - 4 pair (1 light, 2 med, 1 heavy)
23) Hiking Boots
24) Hiking Sandals
25) Pack Towel (lightweight, fast-drying)
26) Water Bladder
27) Trekking Poles (lightweight)
28) Headlamp (for hands-free needs)
29) Extra Headlamp Bulb
30) Mag Light (small backup to headlamp)
31) Extra Flashlight Batteries
32) Swiss Army Knife
33) Pens - several
34) Matches & Lighter & Flint
35) Fork, Knife, Spoon (sturdy travel plastic)
36) Travel mug wi/ lid
37) Binoculars
38) Camera
39) 3 Camera Batteries (charged)
40) Camera Pack
41) Camera Tripod (lightest weight)
42) Electric Outlet Converter
43) Lonely Planet Guide (Rip Out Needed Sections Only)
44) Journals - 2
45) Reading Book  
46) Deet bug repellent (30-35%)
47) Permethrin spray bug repellent (for clothes)
48) Lip balm
49) Duct Tape
50) Ear Plugs 
51) Sunblock
52) Eyeglasses
53) Sunglasses
54) Sunglass leash 
55) Ziplock Bags - 7
56) Toilet Paper (travel roll)
57) Tissues (travel pack)
58) Antibacterial Wipes
59) Knee supports (elastic)
60) Candles
61) Money Belt
62) Passport (in money belt)
63) Driver's License (in money belt)
64) Debit Card & Credit Card (in money belt)
65) Money - Cash & Travelers Checks 
66) Itinerary
67) Reservation Confirmations 
68) Ziplock Packet of Documents & Info, including:
    Phone numbers in case credit cards lost or stolen
    Copy of passport & driver's license
    Travelers check receipts
    Birth certificate
    Copy of Itinerary
    Copies of Reservation Confirmations
    Immunization Card
69) Toiletry Kit, including:
    Campsuds (soap, shampoo & detergent)
    Toothpaste (travel size)
    Q-tips (travel size)
    12 pairs contact lenses
    Contact solution (travel size)
    Contact case
    Eye Rewetting drops
    Nail clippers (wi/ file)
    Sewing Kit (travel size)
    Hair Brush or comb (travel size)
    OB tampons (or other non-applicator brand)   
70) First Aid Kit, including:
    Cipro (antibiotic, prescription)
    Mefloquine (anti-malarial, prescription)
    Pepto Bismal Tablets
    Rehydration salts 
    Water purification tablets
    Cough drops
    Anti-gas medicine
    Cold & Allergy medicine
    Mole skin
    Adhesive bandages (various sizes)
    Non-adherent pads
    Gauze pads
    Stretch gauze roll
    Gauze tape
    Elastic bandage wi/ clips
    Triangle bandage
    Antibiotic Ointment
    Blister Treatment
    Sting Wipes
    Non-latex medical gloves
    Antimicrobial hand wipe
    Bandage Scissors
    Splinter tweezers
    Safety pins
    First aid booklet
    Cold pack (instant)
    Emergency blanket (thin "space-age")
    Snake-bite kit (optional)

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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