First-Time Traveler Packing Tips [Free Packing Checklist Included!]

First-Time Traveler Packing Tips [Free Packing Checklist Included!]

Chapter 4: First-Time Traveler Packing Tips

Packing is part of the pre-trip fun, but it also takes some careful planning. Just keep in mind that even the worst-case scenario isn’t so bad if you happen to forget something, because you can always get what you need when you arrive. In this chapter, we’ll share packing advice for first-time travelers from what to pack for a trip abroad to tips for packing light.

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What to Consider When Packing for Your First Trip Abroad

Packing for a trip abroad can be challenging because you want to include items that make you comfortable while also respecting the local culture. Plus, there are many other factors to consider about the host country and the activities planned. To help you get started, consider the following:

  • Culture: You’ll want to consider the culture of the community you’ll be traveling to and how you can dress respectfully to make the most out of your experience. For example, Southeast Asia is very conservative in terms of dress code. Dressing respectfully is important to Southeast Asian culture, and students should plan to wear clothing that covers their chest, shoulders, and most of their legs. You can research your host country and see what other students or locals wear for fashion inspiration.
  • Environment: You may want to pack long pants to keep your legs protected from scratches and insect bites. That way you’ll enjoy the time you spend trekking through breathtaking places, lending a hand in the community or running around with new friends much more.
  • Climate: Account for the time of year you’ll be traveling and what you can expect of the weather.
  • Activities: Consider the types of activities planned for the trip. Do you expect to participate in lots of action-packed adventures, or will it be a more laid-back experience? Will there be any volunteer or service work, and if so, will this require physical exertion? Each of our specific travel programs includes a packing list for that country which takes into account the different types of planned activities.
  • Duration: Consider how long you’ll be gone and if you’ll have access to laundry facilities.

Students riding on camels as a part of a Rustic Pathways travel program

At Rustic Pathways, we want all of our students to feel comfortable, safe, and happy during their travels. Program Leaders are available to help students adjust and find ways to dress comfortably while respecting the local culture. We also provide specific packing information for each of our travel programs to ensure students are prepared for their trip. Students may even get the chance to shop at a local market and buy the perfect clothes for the culture and climate.

Travel Essentials Packing Checklist

All our programs have suggested packing lists to make packing easier. For example, here’s the checked luggage list for the Hawaii Aloha Service program:

1. Clothes

We recommend one 40-50 liter duffel bag or backpack for clothing. Duffel bags with wheels work well.

  • Socks (6-10) – Merino wool socks are recommended.
  • Underwear (15) 
  • Sweatpants or leggings (1 pair) 
  • Hiking pants (1 pair) – preferably water resistant 
  • Shorts (3-4 pairs, 1 pair should be long shorts)
  • Skirt or dress (1-2)
  • Shirts (8-10)
  • Tank tops (1-2)
  • Mid-Layer tops (1)
  • Mid-weight jacket (1) – light fleece jacket is best
  • Waterproof/rain jacket
  • Rash guard (long sleeved)
  • Bathing suit
  • Bandana (optional)

2. Shoes

You won’t need more than two pairs of shoes, not including flip flops.

  • Sneakers – sturdy pair that is good for hiking and service work – will get dirty
  • Sandals that strap to feet – Chacos or Tevas
  • Flip flops for beach (optional)

3. Toiletries

If you pack toiletries in your carry-on, they must be 3.4 ounces or less and placed in a quart-sized Ziploc bag.

  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Body wash (biodegradable)
  • Face wash (biodegradable)
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Razor/shaving
  • Reef-Safe Sunscreen (oxybenzone-free), SPF 30+
  • Lip sun protection, SPF 30+
  • Bug spray
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Contacts and solution (if applicable)
  • Wet Wipes

4. Miscellaneous

Here are a few other things you should bring.

  • Sunglasses
  • Hat with brim/visor
  • Gloves – pair of work gloves good for gardening/outdoor work
  • Quick dry towel or Sarong for beach
  • Lightweight bath towel (packing 2 sarongs or quick dry towels is great)
  • Travel towel
  • Headlamp with fresh batteries

5. Optional

  • Portable games like Uno

What Should You Bring in a Carry-On?

In general, your carry-on should hold essential items like your passport and wallet and any items that could make your flight more comfortable. You’ll also want to include a change of clothes in case your checked luggage gets lost. Here’s an example of a carry-on packing list from the Hawaii Aloha Service program:

  • ID or Passport (if applicable)
  • Photocopy of ID/passport
  • Wallet/money
  • Visa documentation (if applicable)
  • Reusable Water bottle – 1+ Liter Bottle Required
  • Book and/or journal
  • Pen
  • Phone
  • Camera
  • Chargers (power adapters if applicable)
  • Change of clothes
  • Sturdy tennis shoes (wear them on the plane to save space in your suitcase) 
  • Medication
  • Glasses / contacts and contact solution
  • Consent to Travel form
  • Rustic Pathways emergency contacts
  • Arrival instructions
  • Snacks for plane

You can also check out our Rustic Gear and Rustic Gear Kits to make packing even easier and to help support the Rustic Pathways Foundation.

How to Travel Light

Traveling light reduces stress and makes the journey more comfortable. A first-time traveler might overpack in fear they’ll run out of something or forget an essential item, but find that many items weren’t needed after all.

Traveling light reduces stress and makes the journey more comfortable

To help prevent overpacking and weighing yourself down, here are some tips on how to consolidate items and pack lightly for a long trip:

  • Pack solid or powdered toiletries: Bring solid shampoo or dry deodorant instead of loading up on travel size bottles of liquid. You can save space and avoid exploding toiletries by packing solid or powdered versions instead.
  • Roll your clothing: Rolling your clothes instead of folding them into tight squares helps maximize space.
  • Only bring two pairs of shoes: Many travelers pack three or more pairs of shoes, only to find they never use the third or fourth pair. Instead, only bring two pairs of shoes that you know fit comfortably.
  • Use packing cubes: Packing cubes can help you save space and keep things organized. You might use one for tops, one for bottoms, and another cube for underwear and socks.
  • Only take what you need: Think carefully about what you pack, and avoid packing items “just in case.” If you find you need something when you arrive at your destination, you can always buy it when you get there.
  • Use all the space: Use every inch of space in your suitcase and anywhere else within your items you can find space. For example, you can fill your shoes with pairs of socks, which will save you some room for other items.
  • Make a packing list: Making a packing list helps ensure you don’t forget something important, and it also helps prevent bringing items you don’t need.

Things to Leave at Home

Some items you’ll want to leave safely at home. These include:

  • Highly valuable items like expensive jewelry
  • Anything that has a high sentimental value
  • Items that are irreplaceable
  • Wallet items such as your Social Security card, library card, photos, and any cards or documents you won’t need during your trip

What Should You Not Forget While Traveling

You’ll need to make sure you have the essentials like your passport and wallet. By this point in the guide, you probably know to check and double-check your carry-on for these items. So, let’s look at items Rustic Alumni wish they had packed for their first trip abroad:

  • A rain jacket and an umbrella, especially if you’re traveling during rain season
  • Jeans and t-shirts instead of shorts and tank tops
  • A quick-dry towel
  • A sweatshirt for chilly nights
  • Closed-toe shoes
  • Plastic bags
  • Plastic boots or Crocs that can handle wet and muddy conditions
  • Electrolyte powder to help you stay hydrated on hot sunny days
  • Cropped pants or long shorts to keep cool while dressing respectfully
  • A box of granola bars

Finally, one alumna recommends bringing less than you think. You’ll likely have the opportunity to buy clothes in your host country that are culturally appropriate and will help you feel comfortable in the climate.

More Packing Advice for First-Time Travelers

Here are some more packing tips from Rustic Pathways travel experts:

  • Bring a dry bag: A dry bag protects items from water. Keep Ziploc bags handy for your phone so you can take pictures at the beach while keeping your phone safe.
  • Bring a small pouch on your flight: Keep a small pouch filled with essentials you’ll want to use on your flight separate from your carry-on. This keeps items from falling to the bottom of your carry-on bag. You might pack headphones, an eye mask, face wipes, and any other items you’ll need to use while you’re on the plane and want to keep within easy reach.
  • Remove batteries from electronics: Before you pack electronics away, remove their batteries. This ensures they’re off and won’t be drained when you land.
  • Bring extra plastic shopping bags: Extra bags really come in handy to store dirty clothes, bathing suits, wet shoes, or anything you don’t want to pack with clean items in your luggage. Ziploc bags work great for any liquid toiletries.
  • Mix and match: Plan to pack things you can easily pair with other clothes to mix and match outfits.

When Should You Start Packing for a Trip?

To play it safe, it’s best to start packing a few days or even a week before you depart. You especially want to avoid packing the night before or the day of departure. First, make a complete packing list so you can see everything you need. You might discover that you need to buy a few items before takeoff.

It's best to start packing a few days or even a week before you depart.

What Are the Rules for Packing for a Flight?

The rules depend on the airline, so you’ll want to check with the airline you’re flying with. However, there are some general rules travelers must follow according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA):

  • All liquids, gels, and aerosols packed in a carry-on must be 3.4 ounces or less per container.
  • Travelers must fit all liquids inside one quart-size clear, plastic zip-top bag.
  • Passengers can only bring one bag of liquids.

Larger containers of liquid will need to go in your checked luggage. The TSA provides a full list of items you can and cannot bring on the plane. You’ll also want to check the guidelines of your host country and what you can bring, especially in terms of agricultural products like fruit and vegetables or meat and cheese. It’s okay to bring a few snacks to enjoy on the plane ride, but any drinks will need to be purchased in the terminal and will not be permitted through the security checkpoint.

Free Packing Checklist Download!