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Making an Olivia Bag (aka ‘survival kit’) for overseas travel…

Here’s a question from Sarah, a reader with great Christmas ideas:

I’m actually working on my Christmas stuff and had a quick question on your Olivia bag post. I’m making two of these for my sister and brother in law who live in Peru. They have four girls, all under 10. My brother in law routinely travels into the jungle, visiting villages along the way. I thought the Olivia bag would be a great Christmas gift since its practical and easy to take back. But I’m wondering how you would modify this for international travel/outdoors. Maybe there are some things that would be great additions to the bag for them that I can’t think of? And maybe some things can be eliminated or they might have problems in customs? 

What I love about this question is that the timing is SO PERFECT!  I’m travelling to Peru the beginning of November and (in my insane excitement) have already started packing!  It got me to thinking—could one put together an International list of multi-purpose items useful for travelling outside the country?

Here’s the thing:  international travel includes a huge range of activities, climates, cultures, and (ew) diseases.  Coming up with a universal set of items useful in all environs can be tricky…  but I’ve traveled to a few countries over the last 15 years, ranging from the relatively laid back New Zealand, to hot and humid China.  And believe it or not there are things that are useful in all hemispheres.

The key is that these items are related to the travel lifestyle:  moving, limited packing space, and being comfortable outside your comfort zone… they have less to do with the cuisine of the Maori or the species of mosquito in the Amazon, and more to do with you, and the fact that you are the same person, with the same needs, wherever you find yourself.  Also, I like items that serve multiple purposes, that aren’t especially expensive, so that you can give them away or ditch them if you decide you don’t need them after all.

Just like your Olivia Bag, any international bag needs to be modified to fit your needs.  But here’s what I intend to put in mine.

First, I will be bringing my straight up Olivia Bag, just as it is, but with a couple of extra clothespins, and extra toilet paper, which seems to sometimes be missing from public restrooms in some other countries.  I’ll also be bringing the medical portion, but I will be careful to keep all meds in their original containers, so that I have no problems at customs.  There are wonderful little single-serving packets of most meds you might want, or you can get larger numbers of caplets in little canisters.  Also, I’ll be doubling up on the pepto-bismol and/or immodium.

How to pack your international travel items…  These are a varied bunch of items that don’t necessarily all belong in a bag together.  My sarong floats free, whereas I store my electrical converter with my camera battery charger.  If you are looking for a good way to store several odds and ends items, though, I’d recommend a little dry bag (which can be nice for your camera if you decide on a whim to go canoeing, or swimming through a cave), or a bag that packs in on itself when not in use.  Eagle Creek, though pricey, has some nice sturdy options.  I also see no reason why you couldn’t just make your own out of an old grocery store tote bag, resized for your needs.  I’m pretty sure this is what I’ll be doing.  There are little bags like these for lots of items you may not use frequently.  Alternatively, buy a small lightweight camp kettle that you can use for tea, purifying water, washing clothes in a pinch, or scaring away mean monkeys.  Store things in a plastic grocery bag inside it until you need it.

Here’re the other items that I take with me any time I travel (I put links to just one model of various items–there are many good choices for things, but this is so you’ll know what I’m talking about).

  1. Electrical converter, specific to the country I’ll be in.
  2. A little blanket, pillowcase.  I sleep cold, bus rides can be long and uncomfortable, and sometimes beds are dirty.  I put the blanket inside the pillowcase and am set whenever I want a snooze.  If I need the blanket, I stuff my fleece in the pillowcase.  What’s more, if I need a bag for dirty clothes, I use the pillowcase.  Let me emphasize, the blanket is cheap, and not huge by any means.  Just enough to wrap around my torso.  I am just waiting for some company to invent a miniature down one that could compress down (no pun intended) to nothing.  When space gets tight, because I’ve found a souvenir I just can’t pass up, I ditch the blanket (but that’s usually near the end of the trip).
  3. Sarong.  This is a fancy word for a big piece of fabric.  I picked up a light-weight one in Greece that I used to tie around myself at the beach.  It works perfectly as a towel, and dries quickly because it is so light.  It also doubles as a sheet when beds look nasty.  I’ve used it to hide my face from bugs at night, shade myself from the sun, and tied it into a little bag for storing things.  My sis and I once used one to tie our miniature dachshund into a pack on a hike when she got tired!
  4.  Extra crayons, other trinkets, gum, and candy  Used sparingly, there is nothing better than handing a little treat to a child you meet.  You may not share a language, or customs, but you’ll have an instant friend if you give them a token that says, “I see you.”  Be courteous and cautious with your gift giving… in Africa I once watched some tourists toss candy like confetti onto a boat dock.  The kids were so ravenous for more they attempted to crawl onto the boat for another handout and almost capsized us all.  The point isn’t to treat gift giving like a parade; it should be an individual gift, to an individual child, or family.  In addition, the candy is a wonderful comfort food when you’ve eaten nothing familiar for several weeks.  And the gum is good for ear drums on some flights, or high mountain bus rides.
  5. Pictures of my family, my home, and my life (in a little photo album)  The only words I learned (and have forgotten) in Wolof were the words to describe family members.  I learned them from a teenager whose father owned a hostel where we stayed.  I would show him a picture of my mother, and he would tell me how to say it in Wolof, etc.  The boy was enraptured by the photos my small album (and thought I was crazy for having pictures of pets.)
  6. Tiny poncho  Good for sitting on when bus seats are wet, hiding under in a down pour, covering your backpack if necessary, and many other things I’m sure you’ll think of all on your own.
  7. Cheap watch, with an alarm  I never invested in one of those pricey watches, but (only when I travel), I get a little one with an alarm.  That way I don’t miss my plane, bus, train, etc.  I program one setting to my local time, and one to the time back home.  I like imagining what my family is doing while I’m so far away, and it makes telephone calls easier to figure out.
  8. Ear plugs  For loud buses, noisy hostels, raucous street parties near your window, and any other inconveniences keeping you awake.  Be aware that it will ruin the point of having an alarm on your watch, though!
  9. Bath plug  I don’t bring lots of clothes when I travel.  It’s more fun to fill my backpack with souvenirs—and that darned camera takes up a lot of space.  Instead, I bring a universal bath plug and wash my shirts and undies in the bathroom sink.  Then I use the parachute cord and clothespins from my Olivia Bag to dry things overnight.  If I’m going on a shorter trip, I’ll just bring two little packets of laundry detergent with me.  If it’s a longer trip, I just buy some when I get there.
  10. Stain remover wipes  There is nothing worse than spilling curry on your shirt the first day of your trip and having to stare at the stain for the next three weeks.
  11. Fabric softeners  I bring just a few of these and toss a couple into my clothing bag, and one in with my blanket (in the pillowcase).  Since I wear each shirt a couple of times, it keeps things smelling fresh, even if they aren’t really.  Apparently fabric softeners are good mosquito deterrents too, though I have no personal experience.
  12. Playing cards, hacky sack  Fun on long train rides—either solitaire or with a fellow train rider you’ve just met!  The hacky sack can be fun when you meet new people, and you can give it to a kid when you’re done.
  13. Calculator  I’m horrible at bargaining, but I find that a calculator makes it all a little simpler.  When someone blurts out a price to you in a foreign language faster than you can comprehend, I pull out my tiny calculator and type in the price I’m willing to pay.  Quite often they’ll take it from me and type in an alternative price, and we’ll banter silently back and forth using just the numbers on the calculator (and occasional snorts of outrage…).  Also good for converting currencies quickly.  Get one that is solar powered of course.
  14. Plastic bags, and a garbage bag I bring one medium-weight garbage bag in case I end up needing to keep wet items from dry or vice versa.  It takes up no space and I always seem to find a use for it.  Ditto for plastic bags that zip shut (Ziplocs or some other brand).  Foot powder that can’t seem to stay contained, snack items you’ve picked up along the way, and any other items you just want to keep together.  Nothing beats a little plastic bag.
  15. Packtowel, and a wash cloth.  I used to bring a little microfiber pack towel, but in recent trips have just used my sarong.  I do bring a wash cloth—lots of cheaper places to stay don’t provide these amenities.  With a wash cloth, even if I skip a shower, I can at least wipe the grime off easily.
  16. Bleach wipes and hand sanitizer  Sounds like overkill, but most people’s bodies aren’t equipped for the fauna that resides in foreign countries.  It’s not because you’re used to cleaner conditions (though that makes a difference)—it’s just the local bacteria… if a Namibian travelled to the U.S. they’d get just as sick as an American will in Namibia during their first few days.  Cut down on the shock to your poor body by trying to stay clean.  Wash your hands frequently… if you can’t, then use a good hand sanitizer.  Wipe off things that look dirty or wet with a Clorox wipe before putting them in your mouth.  Pregnant and travelling?  This becomes especially important.
  17. Little key rings, or a tiny lock  The only time anyone has ever tried to steal something from me in another country was as I was getting off a ferry.  It was crowded, people were pushing their way through the crowd, and I heard the distinct zzzzip! Sound of my backpack being opened behind me.  Thankfully, the only pocket they could open was a dinky little one with a single zipper (and nothing in the pocket); all the other pockets were locked shut with tiny discrete locks.  Some have suggested that a little key ring is just as effective, cheaper, and has no combination to remember.  I’m tempted to try it on this trip to Peru, especially because key rings seem like something with many purposes, which always appeals to me!  Oh, and remember not to lock your locks on until after you’ve flown–TSA likes to peak into bags from time to time and doesn’t appreciate locked bags–or just get a TSA-approved lock.
  18. Mosquito net, insect spray  Depending on where you’re travelling, getting a light weight mosquito net is not a bad idea at all.  Though insect repellent can be bought upon arrival in nearly every foreign country, you can also bring your own—remember no aerosol cans in carry-on luggage though, and 100% Deet is often confiscated.  So get a lotion instead.  Mostquito nets get pretty complicated and pricey.  I’m a fan of the simplest model I can find, but I recommend one that hangs as a square over your bed.  If you get the ones where all the fabric hangs from one point, you’ll find it hard not to get too close to the fabric when you sleep.
  19. Thumb-drive  Nowadays finding an internet café is not too difficult.  Have copies on your thumb-drive (or two thumb-drives) of your passport, passport photos, train tickets, airline confirmations stuff, vaccinations, medical prescriptions, etc.  Just in case.  Also, you can move pictures straight from your camera to your thumb-drive at an internet café too.  If you’re really fancy and have the money, get a thumb-drive  that is water resistant!
___A few additions to my medical kit______
  1. Mint drops/lifesavers  If you’re feeling queasy, mint lozenges are supposed to help calm the stomach. 
  2. Throat lozenges  I don’t keep these in my normal med kit because I can usually make my way to a store and get some before it is a problem.  In other countries, or in the middle of nowhere rainforest, this may be trickier.  They don’t take up much room, but can provide some comfort if you’re feeling under the weather.
  3. Vaseline  Like some of these other items, you can totally buy this in many other countries upon arrival.  But if you don’t want to take the time to find it, just bring a very small jar.  Good for lips, skin cracks, sore rashes, prevents chaffing, apparently can be used as a stain remover, is a good lubricant in a pinch for things mechanical.  
  4. Z-pack, or other multipurpose antibiotic  I visit a travel clinic to make sure my vaccines are all up to date before I leave the country.  They always offer me an antibiotic prescription, and an antidiarrheal.  For me, pepto is usually enough, but there is no harm in having a good antibiotic and an antidiarrheal with you when you’re going abroad.  Make sure you leave these things in their bottles with your name on them for when you go through customs.
  5. Aloe vera  I have found this surprisingly difficult to find in some other countries.  If you think it won’t explode in your pack, it sure feels good after you’ve overdone it at the beach your first week.
  6. Foot powder  A change in the climate is often noticed most by your feet, which can become cranky, cracky, and itchy after too many days trekking in your new boots.  Foot powder can definitely help.
  7. Lip balm  I always bring my own from home, just because I seem to most need it while on the plane.  Also, I’ve found that if you’re seatmate on a bus has rancid breath, cherry lip balm, and a mint drop in my mouth can help me forget.

Finally, and this is a personal thing unique to you, so I can’t list something particular.  I like to bring something that reminds me of home.  If it’s a long trip (more than a week or two), I, weakling that I am, always get a little homesick.  Having a talisman from your home can be very comforting.  For me it is often a necklace that has sentimental value (but isn’t too fancy).  Similarly, another great comfort from home is something that tastes like home.  In Greece, a trip to Starbucks after months of Nescafe was comforting to more than just my taste buds.  Bringing a small secret stash of cheese nips, in a country where cheddar is unheard of, can bring calm to your hear like nothing else.  My grandma once scent me a washcloth while I was travelling.  It smelled just like her.  I never used it so I could keep that scent.  Think about bringing something small and sentimental if you’re prone to homesickness.

I am also toying with getting a water purifier on this trip.  I’ve never traveled with one before, but they aren’t too pricey, and kill lots of things one might find in water.  When I was in Africa, my friend and I ended up having to drink water on a train that was not bottled (the train ride went 12 hours long, we ran out of ‘good’ water, etc.).  We had it as tea (boiled) hoping that that might prevent our getting sick.  It didn’t.  Needless to say the two of us spent a very memorable Christmas day paying for our mistake in Bamako.  If we’d had a tool like this, we might have avoided the whole catastrophe.

Have you traveled outside the country?  What items did you find you absolutely had to have?

9 Comments so far

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  1. Sarah

    This.is.awesome.

  2. sam

    Great ideas! I’ll be using this to help pack for an upcoming trip. A suggestion for the ‘locks’ on backpacks: Maybe use small carabiners instead of key rings? So many practical uses for those!

    • Hey Samantha! Glad the list will be useful for you–the idea of carabiners is GENIUS. Of course carabiners! Useful for so many things, and handy on zippers as well. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Love this list!

  4. I will mention that I usually travel with photocopies of my travel documentation, too. Photocopy of passport, driver’s license, and (depending on where I’m going and whether it will help with renting a double room with my husband) my marriage certificate.

    • Hey confessionofareluctanthomemaker!
      Yeah, I travel with those documents too–credit card front and back etc. Nowadays I put them on a thumb drive in addition to the hard copy. Never thought of the marriage certificate but that’s not a bad idea! Thanks very much for the suggestion!

  5. Annita

    Hey Olivia! I just found this blog a few weeks ago and was so happy to see one of my favorite college friends as a contributor! Love this list! Now to accommodate it for travel with kids…I always try to carry a few cloth diapers (tons of uses), diaper rash ointment (great for almost any kid injury) and pedialyte powder (perfect for treating diarrhea and upset stomachs). I have not traveled internationally with my kids, but these have been life savers on many road trips and camping adventures.

    • ANNITA!!!
      What a perfect surprise to find a comment from you! Your suggestions are absolutely wonderful, and I will be adding them to the bottom of our list. I’m sure those items would be helpful in any country! Thanks old friend!

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    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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