In my last article I broke down my trip to Costa Rica, highlighting some of the travel and excitement but also providing a detailed list of all expenses associated with the trip. As I was re-reading it, however, I realized that there were some things I had not mentioned that helped me to save money and maximize my enjoyment. A lot of these things are subtle little additions to my bag – or the bag itself – that my moderate amount of travel experience over the years has allowed me to pickup, and I’ve been building a list to help me prepare for future trips without forgetting (too) much.
Of course, the best way to learn is to fail. Whenever I find myself abroad with something I wish I had brought, I simply add it to the list. And, perhaps more difficultly, if I make a trip and realize I didn’t use something I lugged around the whole time at all, I must carefully consider whether or not that item should be crossed from the list for future trips. Typically, it would be, but in the case of something like a First Aid kit, for example, I will of course consider myself lucky if I don’t have to deploy it, and will definitely still bring it on future missions.
All that said, below is my list of slightly-less-obvious travel items, in its current state:
- Batteries – As more and more of our devices and accessories start to run on rechargeable batteries, these are probably not as necessary as they once were. However, if you have any gadget (like a head lamp) that require batteries, I would suggest bringing a small stash with you. Although you will usually find batteries for sale in even the most remote locations, they may be marked up for just that reason. When trying to travel on a budget, blowing a few meals’ worth of skrilla on a couple of batteries of which you have a big stash from Costco sitting at home can be a real difference maker.
- Fold-out Knife – I like to travel with a Leatherman fold-out knife that I have that has an alan-key-shaped tool on it, useful for removing fins from surfboards. Typically, one has to pack a small little tool called a ‘fin key’ with them that invariably ends up as another piece of plastic in the ocean when you lose it near the beach do its miniscule size. The knife, of course, can be useful for many things like pitting mangoes at the beach or standing in for the overused and undersharpened knives you may come across in hostels or Air BnBs.
- Solar lamp – Whether for weekend trips camping, living completely off-grid or traveling abroad, the advent of solar panels is a real game-changer, on all scales. I picked up a LuminAID solar lamp a few years ago at a fundraiser party I went to, and have been really glad I did. It is an inflatable ‘bag’ that has a solar panel on it that will stay lit for 24 hours on low and folds around the solar panel to pack away smaller than a deck of cards. It hasn’t seen a ton of regular use but so far has held up quite well when called upon, and is one of the reasons that batteries are less-and-less necessary these days. It looks like they have changed their product to more of a cube-shaped ‘bag’ now, but the idea is the same. This, of course, is much more environmentally friendly than gas-powered or disposable battery-powered lamps, especially if one can be good to it and use it for many years before disposing of/recycling (i.e. keeping it out of the oceans).
- Doggie Bags – or Ziploc bags, to store food or as a cheap way to keep things like your phone dry on boat trips or rainforest hikes (if you want a really waterproof budget phone protector, check this out!). Just bring a few, and make sure to keep track of them and reuse them. Single-use plastics are the devil.
- Detergent – in most developing countries that I have visited, it is quite affordable to get great laundry service. However, sometimes you don’t have time to wait all day or more for it, and just need to wash your necessities in the sink or in a bucket to make it through the next day of travels or trekking. Therefore, it’s useful to carry some detergent with you. Don’t bring too much, as liquids are heavy and don’t lend themselves well to checked baggage, but an emergency stash is very useful in my experience. Alternatively, you could carry a few small ‘travel-sized’ bags of powder detergent. I prefer just to find a suitable container for what I already have at home, reducing waste versus buying a small package.
- Coffee solutions – I don’t always travel like this, but depending on the type of trip I’m doing I may take along a small coffee maker like an AeroPress or one of the simple contraptions that holds filters over a mug. I have a fancy one by GSI I bought years ago that I no longer use much, but it works fairly well too for 1-2 people and folds down to almost nothing. Whether I bring something to make coffee with or not, I will usually bring a half a pound to a pound of coffee with me. It’s nice to have it handy on the first few days and because I have to make space for it heading there, it forces me to pack lighter and create more space in my bag as the trip goes on.
- Speaker – I like to travel minimally and used to think of a speaker as frivolous, especially since the onces small enough to travel with have generally been complete garbage in my experience. However, things have changed and you can find a lot of different small speakers out there, some of which have great sound. Of course music is much more enjoyable like this versus through your phone’s speaker, but I like to listen to some particular podcasts daily and having a speaker improves that experience tenfold as well. Granted, the sound on the one I bought is still not amazing, but it was about $15 USD at the Guadalajara, Mexico airport and is water and shock resistant.
- Bowl/fork/spoon/Tupperware – just like bringing plastic bags to store food on the way, etc., it can be useful to have a couple of small Tupperware containers and maybe even a versatile camping bowl with you on your trip. Hostels tend to have a lack of matching lids for the Tupperware that does exist, and being able to store and transport leftovers can make for a lot less food waste and a highly reduced cost of trip.
- Thermos – this is something I didn’t bring with me but found myself wishing I had. As I have described, I live off of “Fatty Coffee” from about 5am to 12-2pm each day, usually having about two 400 mL cups during that time. In many ways, this makes things like early morning surf sessions much easier. Make a cup, get it in me and go. What I have near home, and would like to expand to my travel routine, is that if I make the whole batch in the morning and add the extra cup or so to my medium-sized Stanley thermos, I don’t have to worry about making another cup later in the morning or heading out and running out of energy when my first cup dries up. For me, this saves time and money and makes things simpler and easier. Also, it prevents me from contributing to environmental degradation by not buying a reusable mug and lid while out and about each time I need to get a few hundred milliliters of coffee in me. And don’t forget, thermos’ can keep things cold too! (think beer or cocktails on the beach).
- Umbrella – this is also something I’ve added to the list since my last trip but haven’t actually purchased yet. However, living in the desert the last few years has taught me a lot about the power of shade. The Tommy Bahama umbrellas I purchased from Costco back then have been muchos utilizados. And recently I read about the idea of hiking/trekking/running with an umbrella in order to conserve energy. I checked online, and there indeed are some umbrellas designed specifically for backpackers that are relatively small and lightweight. I love things that are versatile, and now that I’ve realized that umbrellas are just as useful in the sun as they are in the rain, they make a great candidate for almost any destinations.
There are certainly lots of other things I take traveling with me. For example, just for surfing I need to bring extra fins, wax, sandpaper, leashes, combs, resin, booties, wetsuits, sunscreen and zinc. I travel with a bag full of camera gear as well. I do consider myself a minimalist traveler still, so as you could imagine I don’t end up bringing the most extensive wardrobe with me. In tropical destinations, one can get away with this, especially if surfing sleeping or eating for the vast majority of the trip.
I am always looking for hot new ideas. There’s a million and one out there that I have seen and still have never implemented. So please, don’t hesitate to let me know what you can’t go without when you go on an adventure. New life hacks are always welcome here.