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March 30, 2015 Comments (8) ONE Proj blog, Practical and How-To

6 Unexpected Items I Always Bring Travelling

Climbing in West Cape Howe

The list includes none of these things.

Put your hand up if you like getting lost or kidnapped? Well yeah, I guess it makes for a good story. What about being filthy? I suppose some of my dirtbag friends don’t really mind that.

Let’s try another tack.

Put your hand up if you like wasting time rummaging through your backpack? Cleaning up sunscreen explosions? Carrying excess weight? Rats eating your food? I can see the hands dropping now. Who likes getting infected wounds? You’d need to be pretty messed up to like that.

OK, I don’t see any hands up. What’s my point?

I can now say with confidence that y’all are going to get something from this post, where I’ll explain the handful of very useful but uncommon items that I always bring travelling.

They are, in no particular order:

1) Tiny Compass

In familiar places we all form mental maps with landmarks for orientation. In foreign places, this doesn’t work. I have a pretty good mental compass, 1 and I also know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But this knowledge isn’t very useful at midday, or at night.

This compass-carrying habit began in Central America for verifying that my taxi driver wasn’t kidnapping me. (Or at least, he was kidnapping me in the direction of my hotel). It’s also come in handy in China when a metered taxi tried to joyride in the wrong direction to run up the cost.  And more times than I can count, it’s been useful after my mental map was spun in circles exiting underground metro stations.

As an added bonus, you’ll be prepared for any impromptu orienteering sessions.

2) Stuff sacks

My bag is packed and unpacked daily using a system I call “block method”. Essentially everything is subdivided into about 10 different blocks of various shapes, sizes, purposes, and squishabilities. These can be Tetris’d together to efficiently pack your bag without any gaps. And finding what you need is as easy as reaching in and grabbing only the block you want.

Example blocks I use: toiletry bag, medical kit, chargers, rain jacket (rolled up), and three stuff sacks for clothing (‘frequent’, ‘infrequent’, and ‘dirty laundry’).

Block method allows rapid packing and unpacking of the entire bag, and finding anything easily. Stuff sacks are a key ingredient.

3) Laundry powder

People often assume that I’m a dirtbag, after hearing this:

On more than one occasion I completed month+ trips with only one shirt. When you carry kilograms of camera gear, every shirt counts! And though it may be true that I’m a dirtbag, it’s not for this reason. Because my shirt was synthetic fabric, and every second day I would wash it in my sink or in the shower with a sprinkle of laundry powder and hang it up to dry overnight.

For the record, I had many pairs of underwear. They weigh very little. But I did meet an Irish guy in China who only travelled with two pairs of undies. He’d clean one pair each time he showered. Now that’s dedication.

4) Liquid bandage

I’m a terrible surfer. No matter how careful I am in the reef breaks, or taking care of my cuts, my ratio of surf days to cut-foot infections is about 1:1. Until I heard about liquid bandage: For crap surfers and clumsy travellers alike!

Keeping wounds clean while traveling is a nightmare, with long bus trips, dodgy bathrooms, and lack of clean water. An infection will seriously restrict your fun and mobility: I missed snorkelling with a school of 2-metre wingspan manta rays in Sumbawa because I had nothing to properly cover a foot laceration. Now I can’t wait to go surfing and cut my feet!

Note: The spray-on stuff is completely useless. It’s too runny and won’t provide a durable barrier. I tried it in Australia, and returned it immediately. 2

5) Utility cordelette


Three-millimetre diameter cordelette is strong and light. It’s also incredibly useful to me for:

  • clothes line (enabling an ambitious new weight-saving underwear regime?)
  • food hang (this saved my snacks in the Togean Islands)
  • setting up mosquito net (I used it nearly every day in Indonesia)

You can find it at any outdoor gear shop. Just ask for 3mm static (not dynamic) cordelette; I find 6 metres ample, and not bulky.

I wasn’t in Scouts. What knots do I use?

To make a clothesline,

  1. Take one end a double over ~10cm of rope. Tie the doubled rope around itself in a simple overhand knot to make a fixed loop in one end.
  2. Attach that loop to your starting point
  3. Wrap the loose end around your destination point, and
  4. Fasten the loose end back to the main line with a “poacher’s knot

This knot is brilliant because it’s self-locking and once tied, you can easily tension until it threatens to implode your walls. Use more loops than the animation suggests, to keep the knot from sliding. 3

6) Explosion-proof sunscreen bottle

Sunscreen bottles are more volatile that most actual explosives. 4 These little grenades aren’t designed to be rammed into a backpack daily, travel at high altitude, or be sat on — so most people handle them by carefully bagging and unbagging them, over and over again.

There’s a better way.

Put the sunscreen in a different container. A non-squeezeable one. I use a screw-top bottle with a wide-mouth. You can then scoop sunscreen out with a finger.

Of all the Unexpected Items here, this is the one that gets the most “Why didn’t I think of that?” face-palms.

I wish I could take credit for these tips, but I am merely a collector of good ideas. And now with your help, I can be a passer-oner of good ideas too.


p.s. That was a hint. :) Don’t be shy with those sharing buttons!

p.p.s. Opening photo credit Jerome.  

  1. strangely, nearly all of my memories have an associated orientation
  2. I then imported the liquid stuff, which is bizarrely unavailable Down Under.
  3. Bonus facts: This knot is what most adjustable bracelets/necklaces are tied with. It’s also exceptionally useful for tent guy-rope, or setting up tarpaulins.
  4. Believe me, I’m not joking. I actually have an Explosive Handler’s License.

8 Responses to 6 Unexpected Items I Always Bring Travelling

  1. Mel Tan says:

    I really like my Scrubba bag for laundry. It doubles as a dry sack/stuff sack/dirty laundry bag. Takes about 5-10 mins to do the washing itself. Then comes the wringing and hang drying part.

    I also been carrying a reusable shopping bag. I bought one on a whim in Sweden but was surprised how much I used it. I tend to lug a sack of food around with me on a trip. Sometimes you just need to pack up your bag ASAP. Sometimes you don’t want what they are serving on the train, bus, road side stall. I love street food but sometimes the fare is inadvisable. I also always take the motion sickness bags from the airlines. They are plastic lined so you can either carry food in it, or use it as intended on windy bus ride through treacherous mountain roads.

    I’ll look into liquid bandage. Sounds good for cuts from snorkelling/scuba diving too.

    • mike says:

      Wow that bag is brilliant!! If I wasn’t paying $2 to have my clothes laundered and folded for me in most countries I’d get one in a second.
      I have old stuff sacks or plastic shopping bags with me for the purposes you mentioned, Mel. Though I’ve never been motion sick (unless you count sea-sick, a few years ago in Zanzibar). Good idea with the motion sickness bags for other not-yet-eaten foodstuff!

  2. Marylouise says:

    No matter what grade of hotel that I stay in, I always put a rubber Door Stop under the room exterior door. I travel alone so even during the daytime when in my room, I do not want any surprise visitors. In a zip plastic medium size baggy I have 8 rubber bands, 4 large, 4 medium,. 8 paper clips.. 4 large 4 medium,.. 3 yards fine cotton cord, 3 yards medium cotton cord..6 safety pins..1 roll scotch tape.. 2 ball point pens.. In India, I travel with a metal chain with a padlock on the trains.

    • mike says:

      A door stop is a great safety idea. I also carry some rubber bands, pens, and tape. But mine is duct tape. I also carry ziplock bags – so handy!

      A lock to keep your backpack from being carried off, that’s a good idea. I suppose I figure that my bag is heavy enough that if anyone steals it I’ll be able to catch them :)

      Thanks for your tips Marylouise!

  3. Jackie says:

    Utility cordelette is a good one!

    I use (almost) the same block categories. If I can’t separate them with stuff sacks, I layer them: dirty laundry at the bottom, infrequent in the middle, and frequent near the top, with rain jacket at the very top.

    Also, in my family we refer to the act of packing and unpacking as ‘farkling’. My father coined the term, known for taking as long as 45 minutes to farkle before setting off on the next leg of a trip. Perhaps if he employed your block method and used more stuff sacks, he’d farkle less.

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