With my upcoming pilgrimage to Iona just over five weeks away I’ve got packing on the brain, so I’m sharing my list of packing essentials for the intentional traveler again, below.
With pilgrimage focused on leaving what is known behind and seeking Sacred Encounter beyond your borders, the pilgrim can’t be weighed down by heavy luggage and excess creature comforts.
However, packing light doesn’t come easy to most, especially when traveling to a new place. In fact, it requires some the intention of a pilgrim. Thankfully, if you’re already here, you’re well on your way.
Here’s a list of packing essentials for the intentional traveler:
SUITCASE OR BACKPACK?
The first decision you’re going to have to make is this: suitcase or backpack? In the past I’ve used both, depending on the situation.
I prefer to use backpacking backpacks when I’m traveling from place to place, riding trains, climbing stairs, and navigating through crowds. Plus, while it’s still obvious you’re a tourist with a backpack (though certainly more of the “traveler” variety) nothing says “I’m not from here” quite like the loud sound of a rolling suitcase along cobblestone streets.
I have, however, started using rolling suitcases again over the past few years in situations where I’m also carrying a smaller backpack and didn’t want to be carrying one on each side (I’m not that kind of backpacker), or when I was mostly staying in one place. I will say, though, when I travel with a suitcase I only ever use one that is carry-on size, and to be honest, if you need anything bigger (even for a multi-week trip), you’re taking too much.
For this trip, however, I’m using a backpack again now that I’ve found one that dots all the “i”s and crosses all the “t”s. I’ve just purchased this travel backpack from E-Bags which has the organization and ease-of-use of a suitcase with the benefit of being able to throw it over your shoulder. I can’t wait to initiate it on its first European adventure!
DAY BAG DECISIONS
After you decide what you’re packing in, you need to decide what type of day bag to bring.
A day bag is essential when traveling since there are some things you will always need to carry with you. I prefer a cross-body bag over a backpack for safety reasons, though please leave your money belt behind—it only makes you seem more like a tourist (this is the only advice in which I do—and always will—vary from Rick Steves).
My rule of thumb to avoid theft? I only carry bags that fully close (either zipper or fold over and fasten, like a messenger bag or satchel—this unisex version is a bit of both!), and I always carry them on my front, which is why I don’t carry a backpack as a day bag, usually. On those rare occasions when I do use a backpack as a day bag, I keep my money and my ID on my person, usually in the interior pocket of a jacket. (I suppose that could be an instance where a money belt could be useful, but I don’t want to talk about it.)
ITEMS TO CARRY WITH YOU
Here are the items I carry with me in my day bag:
in my wallet
Inside my wallet I always carry a photo ID card, my health insurance card, a credit card (I recommend Visa since, you know, it’s everywhere you want to be), a debit card for getting cash (a better rate than exchange counters and travelers’ checks are a thing of the past), and, of course, the cash I got using your debit card. I also usually carry my passport in an interior pocket in my coat or bag unless it can be safely stored where I’m staying.
Before you go, you should also make photocopies of your ID and passport and any insurance cards, plus jot down the contact details for your credit and debit cards; keep this information in a separate place for quick fixes in case your wallet is lost or stolen (and leave a copy at home with a family member or friend, too).
my other essentials
- water bottle and snacks (I like this water bottle from Klean Kanteen that keeps cold beverages cold and hot beverages hot!)
- maps or travel guides
- journal and a pen
- book for down time (Kindles or iPads are perfect for traveling lightly, specifically for books, travel guides, and using the Internet)
- mobile phone (but be sure to get an international plan before you go to avoid roaming, or better yet, take an old unlocked phone and buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card once you get there)
- travel umbrella (you never know!)
- collapsible tote for shopping or picnics (here’s my favorite)
- other necessities of choice: lotion, hand sanitizer, sunglasses, bandages for those inevitable blisters, etc.
THE TRAVEL WARDROBE
Packing light depends on a dynamic travel wardrobe, and it’s easier to put together than some might think. Here are some things to remember:
- Make sure everything goes with everything—that way, the items are few, but the outfits are endless!
- Bring layers to adapt to varying climates and room temperatures
- For a jacket or coat, bring something that works in rain or shine, preferably with interior pockets (My favorite from Land’s End makes me only want to travel when it’s cold from now on—crazy, right?!)
And here’s a basic checklist that works for both men and women (keep in mind you’ll be wearing things multiple times and also doing laundry—see below):
- a few bottoms
- a few tops
- a few short sleeved shirts
- a sweater or two
- something to sleep in
- something dressy enough for a night at the theater, but casual enough to wear during the day
- Good walking shoes that you can take you on a mild hike, yet also to a nice dinner. Unless you’ll need special shoes for a specific activity, you’ll fare fine with just one. But if you have extra room, slip in something that would be good to put on for slower days or around the hostel/hotel, such as flip flops for getting to bathrooms down the hall or moccasins for a quick errand or a break for your feet. (PS: By walking shoes I don’t mean running shoes. If it has a brand’s symbol on it, please leave it at home. Running shoes are one sure-fire way to spot an American tourist.)
- Plus a bonus for women (or men who feel so inclined): a scarf is a great way to stay warm, pull an outfit together, or cover bare shoulders for impromptu cathedral visits.
BONUS ITEMS FOR THE PLANNER-AT-HEART
As an intentional traveler, two final things you should keep in mind are what you wear on the plane (specifically an overnight flight) and what you bring to keep your small travel wardrobe fresh and clean.
on the plane
I have trouble sleeping on overnight flights, but wearing something comfortable makes it easier! Combine that something comfortable with something that can take you through the next day, whether to a museum or a street-side café, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for an airplane outfit. I always make sure I have socks to get cozy, a scarf to cover up with, and an extra shirt to change into toward the end of the flight in case I feel grimy. While we’re on the subject, don’t forget to bring your toothbrush and toothpaste with you on the flight, as well as any other things you might need to freshen up. Your first day after an overnight flight will be a long one!
Since you’re packing lightly, you will definitely be doing some laundry, traveler-style (read: wash in the sink and hang-dry in the shower, or alternatively, live on the edge by trying to translate instructions at the French laundromat). Bring some detergent (I love these sheets) as well as a Tide To-Go Pen our Shout Wipes for any quick fixes. To put off washing further, bring along some Downy Wrinkle Release; spray your smelly shirt before you go to bed, let it air out overnight, and voilá: as good as new (our little secret). Also good for appearing put-together: a travel-size lint roller and a travel sewing kit (just in case).
Of course, there are plenty of other things to keep in mind that are basics (shampoo, soap, etc.—I like to use GoToob bottles for these—leak free!) or vary based on your travel situation (sleeping sacks, picnic items, etc.), but this should give you a good start.
What else would you add to the list?