In this edition of “Pretending I Learned Something” I do a rundown of the gear I packed for my trip. I warn you in advance that this likely won’t be very interesting unless you’re planning to do a similar long-term backpacking trip (and even then, I make no promises). I won’t be including any of this material on the Mike’s blog exam I’ll be administering to everyone when I return.
My goal when putting together my gear for this trip was to get pretty close to the bare essentials. I thought there was a good chance of me losing my entire pack at some point and I wanted to be able to replace everything for about $1000 (excluding my laptop). I also wanted as much as possible to avoid things that were conspicuously expensive that would make me a target for theft/robbery.
Great Decision / Terrible Decision
Great Decision: eBags Packing Cubes
In my first blog post of the trip, I said of these, “usefulness still TBD.” Well, usefulness has BD’ed. They’re great! They are infinitely better than my previous method of just cramming everything in my bag and putting dirty clothes in a garbage bag. When Jeet came to visit me in Buenos Aires, the only thing I asked him to bring from the US was more packing cubes. My only regret is that I’d accidentally bought one that was wider than my backpack, which meant packing was less efficient because I couldn’t stack it flat.
Terrible Decision: COBY MP3 Player
Before I left, I figured I wouldn’t have much need for an MP3 player, as I could just listen to music on my laptop. After leaving, I realized an MP3 player is really useful for things like 28- hour bus rides and going to the gym. Wanting to go as cheap as possible, I bought this MP3 player for $35 in Quito. I believe it was designed by COBY purely to make the company’s less stupid MP3 players appear more valuable.
It runs on a AAA battery, which I have to replace all the time, as opposed to most modern MP3 players which run on Li-ion and recharge when you connect it to your computer. The interface is terrible, so to find a track and play it takes about 60-90 seconds. It doesn’t support sync’ing with podcasts, so I have to manually copy any new podcast episodes I get. It’s so irrelevant as an MP3 player that Audible doesn’t support it, so I can’t play any of the content I’ve bought from Audible on it (sidenote: partially my fault for buying DRM’ed stuff). And a million other things, but you get the idea.
This is a case where I went overboard on the cost-minimization to the point where $20-50 more would have saved me a lot of hassle. There is an outside chance it has secretly served as a theft-deterrent. If there were any would-be thieves were on my long distance buses and they saw me using this MP3 player and understood what it was, they likely changed their minds immediately and felt bad for me.
Mixed Idea: Motorola RAZR 3 / Cheap LG GSM Phone
I started the trip with a Motorola RAZR 3, which I’d bought refurbished for about $40 in the US. I was excited to have the cutting edge phone of 2006. Within a few weeks, the external screen stopped working. Then it began turning off randomly and the only way to get it back on was by connecting it to an AC adaptor, even though the battery was full. Everyone I told this to made fun of me for buying a RAZR, saying that they’re notoriously shoddy phones that always break (I’d never heard this).
I got rid of the RAZR after 3 weeks and bought the cheapest unlocked GSM phone I could find in Quito, which was a $30 LG phone. It’s another “so cheap it’s not worth stealing” item, but it’s actually usable and it’s nice having a cell phone I don’t have to worry about. It’s also tiny and the battery lasts for like a week without a charge. It’s served me well since I don’t have to use a phone as much as I did in the US, but it’s a very basic phone and I’m excited to return to the US and get a phone that doesn’t require 7 different menus just to respond to a text message.
Great Decision: Money Belt
I felt like a huge dork wearing this at first, but I soon realized this is really useful. I use it when I don’t have a locker/apartment to keep my passport, which tends to be when I’m traveling between cities. It’s nice to have money, credit cards, passport, bus/plane tickets all in one place that would be hard for someone to pickpocket or snatch off of you while you’re asleep. In cities where there’s a large danger of pickpockets/robberies, I go out day to day with nothing but ~$50 in cash (no cards, no ID), but use the money belt when I need to make ATM runs. I also keep US $100 in it all the time in case my wallet gets stolen or I arrive in a new country and can’t convert the currency from wherever I was coming from (this hasn’t ever happened, though).
Terrible Decision: Bike Lock
A backpacker suggested this to me before I left as a way to secure my main backpack if I had to leave it unattended for just a few minutes (e.g. to go to the bathroom, grab something to eat) in an unsafe area. It turns out I’m almost never in that situation and when I am, it’s easier to just take my bag with me than to go find the lock and find something to lock it to. It ended up being just dead weight, so I threw this out in month 4 when I first arrived in Argentina.
Great Decision: Small Notepad
This was a good decision, but I just wish I’d bought one in the US. In Ecuador, for some strange reason, you can’t buy lined notebooks, just graph paper notebooks, so I have a tiny graph paper notebook. I carry this with me all the time, along with a small pen.
Starting from the front, I write down any words I hear in Spanish that I don’t understand or words I needed but didn’t know in Spanish. Then I look the word up later and write it down. Whenever I find myself waiting for something (which is a lot), I take out my notebook and study the words. From the back of the book, I write down hostel information and the names, phone numbers, and/or email addresses of people I meet.
I always carry it in my back pocket and at first I thought it would be funny if a pickpocket mistook it for a wallet and stole it, but at this point there’s so much in there I want to keep I’d almost prefer to have my wallet stolen.
Terrible Decision: Gold Bond Foot Powder
A few months before my trip, a backpacker lamented to me how naïve and disgusting most American travelers are for not bringing foot powder with them when they go backpacking. I pretended not to be so stupid as to be someone who didn’t know this and casually bought Gold Bond for my trip gear. A month in, I decided my feet smelled as great in South America as they did at home, so I chucked the foot powder.
Great Decision: Plastic Bags (sandwich sized Ziplocs and kitchen sized medium trash bags)
You don’t need to pack these ahead of time, but they come in handy in lots of situations. You can use the trash bags in hostels for laundry. Ziploc bags are useful for packing snacks on long-distance bus rides (sometimes they serve you food, but it’s never enough).
The Rest (in brief)
Main Backpack (Gregory Triconi 60) – Solid backpack, has held up well. At 63 L has just enough space for all my stuff.
Daypack (Osprey Talon 22) – Good pack as well. Holds a lot, but is pretty compact when empty. I always keep this with me as carry-on for planes/buses.
Waterproof Pack Cover – I’ve never had to use this because I’ve luckily never been caught out in the rain with my main pack, but probably good to have.
Leather document holder – Not needed. Made unnecessary by money belt.
Travel power converter – Useful, but only for the plug adaptors. All of my electronics (laptop, cell phone, camera battery charger) had voltage converters built-in, so I’d have been better off with just a set of plug adaptors to cover South America.
Speed Dial Combination Lock – This was useful because I could open it in hostel dorm rooms in complete darkness, BUT it’s too big for most hostel lockers, so I usually ended up using the travel lock.
Cheap Travel Lock – Used this for lockers that my stronger lock was too large for. It’s a really weak lock that could probably be broken by a firm tug, but generally the hostel lockers are so shoddy, there are many other weaker points to crack if someone really wanted to break into my locker.
Brookstone Travel Alarm Clock – I could have gotten away without this and just used my phone alarm, but I used it as a redundant backup alarm on occasions where it’d be disastrous for me to sleep through my phone alarm. I don’t think Brookstone stuff is intended to be treated so roughly, though, so it’s looking pretty worse for wear having been knocked around my backpack so long.
1.5 L Nalgene Bottle – Always useful to have a good supply of water that’s easily securable to your bag. I left mine on a bus in Cordoba in month 5 and was sad.
Camelback Water Reservoir – Never used this, but would have been useful had I done more hiking.
Chlorine Water Purification Tablets – They make water taste terrible, so it’s not great for drinking water, but in Ecuador and Peru, I’d keep a chlorinated water bottle for rinsing when I brush my teeth. This is kind of a paranoid precaution, though, as most people just use tap water and try not to swallow any.
South America on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet) – Good bird’s eye view of everything. Usually has good general information about cities/countries.
Mini Flashlight (Fenix LD-01) – I carry it around with me all the time. Definitely useful for seeing your way around hostel dorms at night without being a jerk and turning all the lights on. Also fun to have in general because nobody ever expects you to have one and they’re always delighted when you do. Dropped something on the floor in the dark club? Boom! Guess who’s gonna help you out? You could get away with something less powerful, but I like how bright it is. Plus, I’ve never had to change the battery once in 8 months.
Multi Tool (Leatherman Juice CS4) – Came in very handy several times when I was in dorms, but after I started living in apartments, wasn’t needed as much. Corkscrew was key.
Here was my original clothing packing list:
- 8 t-shirts
- 2 gym shirts
- 2 button downs
- 2 pairs of shorts
- 2 pairs of jeans
- 1 pair of slacks
- 1 pair of hiking pants
- 8 pairs of boxers
- 9 pairs of socks
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 1 pair of dress shoes (for da club)
- 1 pair sandals (for da beach)
- 1 thermal longsleeve shirt*
- 1 sweatshirt*
- 1 rain jacket*
- 1 bathing suit*
- 1 pair sunglasses*
*forgot to mention in original post
Dress slacks were a bad idea. They get wrinkly and I rarely have access to an iron, so they end up taking up space and being an expensive thing to potentially lose/ruin.
I never end up wearing the sunglasses, but it’s mostly because it never occurs to me until I’m already outside.
Everything else worked out pretty well. I’d have maybe swapped out one of the button downs for a cool t-shirt I can wear out to bars/clubs without going through the hassle of trying to iron out the wrinkles using shower steam.
Pocket Spanish Dictionary (Webster’s New World) – More useful than I was expecting. I almost didn’t buy one because I figured I could look up words online, but the quality in here is better than anything I can find online and it’s often more convenient to just look words up by hand.
Spanish Grammar Workbook (Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Spanish Grammar) – Didn’t pack it, but my sister gave it to me since she didn’t need it and it was really useful in helping me learn.
Laptop (Toshiba Satellite T-235D) – For me a laptop was essential because all of my pet projects required me to have my own laptop. I wouldn’t have been able to focus enough to write stuff like blog posts from a public computer. I was pretty happy with this one as far as performance, battery life, and disk size, except I felt like it got worse WiFi reception than other laptops.
Laptop Sleeve (Case Logic PLS-14) – Good case, pretty compact.
Laptop Security Lock – Definitely good to have. I always keep my laptop locked up.
Portable Mouse (Microsoft Wireless Notebook Optical Mouse) – Nice and compact. I hate using the touchpad.
Portable Speakers (KLIP xtreme KES-100) – Thought I wouldn’t need speakers, but my laptop’s speakers are terrible and listening to headphones for hours got tiresome after about a week, so I picked these up in Lima. Surprisingly good sound and powered by just USB.
VoIP Headset (Emerge Technologies Retractable Headset) – Nice and compact. Good for VoIP calls home. No complaints about sound quality.
Canon Powershot 800IS, spare battery, charger – 4 years old at this point but sturdy little camera that takes solid photos.
4 GB thumbdrive, 64 MB thumbdrive – The 4 GB thumbdrive was useful once when I had to reinstall Win7, so I booted from the thumbdrive. The 64 MB thumbdrive would have come in handy had there been a time when I needed to copy no more than 10 photos from one computer to another.
All my toiletries are pretty basic and don’t require much explanation:
- Toothpaste, toothbrush, toothbrush cover, dental floss.
- Shampoo/Conditioner (2-in-1 to save space), soap, soap case, face wash.
- Shaving cream, disposable razor, extra blades.
- Nail clippers, tweezers.
Travel Towel – It’s compact, but I was expecting it to dry much faster than it does. I’m not sure I was better off than with a normal towel.
Sunblock – Wished I’d brought more from the US because American brands are more expensive abroad (by 30-100%).
Insect Repellent (40% DEET) – Used this when needed but generally still got bitten up. Probably a good idea to have, though.
First Aid Kit – Never had to use it, but nice to have.
Spare Toilet Paper Roll – A backpacker told me to bring this but I realized two months in that it’s fairly easy to find toilet paper in South America when it’s needed, so I chucked this.