Over the years, I have overpacked many times for multi-country multi-month trips. Last year, when I was spending 6 months in Zanzibar, Tanzania and Ethiopia, with a stopover in Amsterdam on the way for a friend’s wedding, I definitely overpacked. Partly, it was the need to haul a bridesmaid dress across the ocean (which I later sent back to Canada with a friend), but it was also varying weather across countries. Knowing we were going on a multi-day hiking trip in the Simien mountains in Ethiopia where temperatures dip quite low during the night, had to be balanced with months spent in Stonetown, Zanzibar where conservative dress and light clothes to beat the heat are required.
Nonetheless, every trip I get a little bit better at packing less, and only packing what I will absolutely use. I am hoping that, eventually, I will get down to just a carry-on (but I am not holding my breath!)
What follows is a list of what I have packed for a year of fieldwork in Kenya and Tanzania. It will take me from conferences to elite interviews to months spent in remote villages near Lake Victoria. Often, when I am travelling for a month or so to remote villages I will try to bring only my carry-on bag and small backpack while leaving my larger backpack with friends or colleagues in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. It is easier to travel by bus or daladala (matatu) that way, and I can leave some clothes and books behind.
I carry on this duffle from Eagle Creek, which is lightweight, packs into itself and also has relatively comfortable backpack straps. All my electronics and important documents go into this bag. I also bring my hiking backpack.
One pair of hiking shoes (sturdy enough to take me up and down a mountain)
One pair of running shoes (which I often leave in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam)
One pair of black leather keds (small, easy to pack and easy to clean)
One pair of black sandals (I like these ones, they have lasted forever. The ones I have are by RIA, not Pons, but are very similar)
One pair of beige flats
Most of my clothes are very neutral in colour. It might be a bit boring, but it makes it easy to mix and match outfits, which is an absolute must. I honestly think I overpack in terms of clothes. I could cut out a handful of the items below without missing them too much. However, it works for me because I can leave things in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam with friends, but if you have to move everything I do recommend packing even less.
Approximately three sets of interview clothes (two pairs of pants, three shirts and two light blazers/jackets)
Approximately three day-to-day conservative outfits that can be worn during interviews in remote villages and also after work in the city (two long skirts made of lightweight cotton, lightweight black cotton pants, three lightweight cotton t-shirts and a button-up shirt)
Black jeans. As long as it isn’t too hot, these are useful anywhere. They can be dressed up for interviews with a button-up and a blazer or dressed down with a cotton t-shirt. I have these ones – they are expensive but worth the investment. They are so comfortable that I wear them on the plane.
Two sweaters. One is a beige pullover, the other is a black merino wool zip-up that can be layered for warmth. Sweaters are a must, especially at night in Nairobi. It can get cold.
Two jackets. One is a down North Face jacket. I regretted not bringing this to Nairobi last trip. I was incredibly cold. It packs down, and easy to transport. I also pack a lightweight rain jacket.
One set of workout clothes.
Any medications you aren’t comfortable buying in country. I do recommend buying antimalarials in-country, however. It’s much cheaper, and you don’t have to haul them everywhere.
Glasses and/or contact lenses.
DivaCup. For women, this is a great alternative to sanitary pads and/or tampons. Just be sure to wash it with purified water – this is an absolute necessity. I have heard horror stories of women who have travelled with the DivaCup, used tap water to clean it and ended up with infections.
First aid kit and needle kit (the latter is necessary for remote locations only). I try to keep the first aid kit simple and pack it with bandaids, polysporin, antibacterial wipes, a tensor bandage, water purifying tablets, antidiarrheals, allergy pills and paracetamol. All of this can be found in-country, but it’s useful to carry with you, especially to more remote areas.
You can find almost everything else in-country if you need. I bring a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, contact solution, etc. However, I buy replacements of everything in-country and always buy shampoo/conditioner once I arrive. The only thing I bring extra of are hair elastics (which were surprisingly difficult to find in Zanzibar).
Voltaic solar charger kit. I am so impressed with voltaic, as a company. They are incredibly responsive, support some great projects, and have good products. I use the Arc 20 watt solar charger kit, which comes with the panel and universal battery. I also ordered the MacBook adapters, which are amazing. Given that Apple has proprietary cords it can be very difficult to find solar panels that will connect to Apple laptops. Voltaic solves this by doctoring used cords to fit their system and sells them for a reasonable $20. Given the nature of my research, Voltaic also gave me the 30 percent discount they provide to PeaceCorps volunteer, which I was very grateful for as a PhD student! The solar charger is a lifesaver when I am working in remote villages, where electricity is either unavailable or unreliable.
Camera. I go back and forth on this. I love taking photos, but it takes up a surprising amount of space and weight. It sometimes makes the cut, and sometimes doesn’t.
Moleskine notebooks. I like the medium-sized volant notebooks as they are a bit sturdier (I can throw them into my bag without much worry). I have tried to move as much as I can to my computer. I have always preferred hardcopies and actual books, however, when you are travelling light, you cannot afford to bring too many books. I will usually bring one novel for the plane that I will trade or give away, and one non-fiction book that will get donated somewhere (such as BIEA’s library). That being said, notebooks are a must for me. They are useful in the archives and for taking notes in the field. You never know what is going to be relevant, or when you are going to want to jot down random thoughts. I always carry a notebook with me, and Moleskin has small versions that can easily put in a pocket. It’s well worth the extra weight, trust me.
Harddrive. I back up my data in two ways: first, using dropbox and, second, using my hard drive. Losing data is an academic’s worst nightmare. Not worth the risk. Also, a couple of USB sticks are necessary, for backing up work and also for printing. I like the University of Toronto USB sticks because they are easy to identify!
Sunglasses. I don’t know if it is just me, but I struggle with brightness and am perhaps too reliant on having sunglasses with me. My Rayban wayfarers have lasted me over 5 years, and I am not easy on them. I have dropped them countless times, but they have never broken. I think they were worth the investment.
Two bags. First, a lightweight backpack from MEC (this one seems to be a classic Canadian one. It’s no longer available, which is a shame. It’s easy to pack down, is durable and serves well as a daypack). Second, a shoulder bag that I can carry to interviews. I have this one.