Travel essentials water bottle flashlight journal pens
A panoply of essentials, clockwise from top left: Vapur water bottle, dry shampoo, journal things, mini hand-crank LED flashlight, baby wipes and hand sanitizer.

Overhauled & updated April 2016

As a packing fetishist, I have honed my list of travel essentials over years of work and leisure trips. With a near-religious enthusiasm for packing lighter and better with each trip, I have found the following items to be absolutely essential for traveling light, happily, and stress-free. I’ve updated this post significantly since 2012 to take into account changing techology, changing travel habits, and, unfortunately, getting older.

Travel essential #1: Mobile phone, charger, plug adapter & battery pack

I’ve upgraded my personal phone to one with a pretty terrific camera, and use it regularly to capture and post pictures across my social media channels, take sound recordings and voice notes, read books, and much more.

My legendary cheapness and Canada’s relatively high wireless rates used to mean I never took my mobile phone outside of the country. Now, with aging parents and better phone plans, I get a plan that gives me basic phone, text, and data coverage. Still, with plenty of free (and improving) wifi means I can meet most of my entertainment and communications needs without tapping into my plan too much. It’s quite a system, I use my phone to access email accounts, multiple Twitter accounts, bank accounts, Instagram, Facebook, and this blog. I also use countless apps for travel, news, photography, transferring images from my camera to phone, backing up anything that needs backing up. In the last few years, I’ve started carrying an accessory battery pack which has enough capacity to charge my phone and camera, should the need arise.

Okay, here’s the travel system on my phone, one that mirrors my non-travel life: complex and digital. Here we go:

  • Dropbox and/or Google Drive: flight information, accommodations, ticket confirmations, and train confirmations (with local device copies)
  • Google Drive: shared folders for group travel with copies of all common documents, plus a group itinerary [View sample group itinerary in Google Drive]
  • Microsoft OneNote: virtual clipping service for online articles about the destination, like weird directions, restaurants, museum exhibitions, or noteworthy things to see that aren’t usually in guidebooks
  • Google Maps: offline maps. Customized maps in My Maps for group travel
  • Local transportation/transit apps: Like National Rail for UK or New York subway maps
  • Jpeg of passport: Several locations
  • Entertainment: podcasts, music, ebooks, Pocket articles, videos, rest of internet

Travel essential #2: Sleep mask and earplugs

I’m a terrible sleeper. Falling asleep, no problemo, staying asleep, big problemo. Some years ago, I started sleeping with a mask and now it helps me fall and stay asleep almost anywhere. I don’t love sleeping with earplugs, but it sure beats the alternative while trying to sleep on an airplane, train, or in a thinly-walled budget hotel.

Travel essential #3: Baby wipes and hand sanitizer

My friend in the Canadian Forces calls baby wipes “field showers.” There’s nothing better than a field shower after 30+ hours of travel, when you’re covered in a thin layer of grunge and a real shower is at some vague point in the future. I carry a small amount of hand sanitizer and always manage to find some gross reason to justify carrying it. In Haiti, I scraped my arm and just started applying hand sani liberally. Totally worked!

Travel essential #4: Mini First Aid kit

First, knock on wood. I’m rarely sick when I travel, just the occasional headache or bit of stomach unpleasantness. I’ve found Imodium Quick Dissolve tablets to be among the handiest things for whatever happens anywhere in my gastrointestinal system. Over time, I’ve expanded my kit to include bandages, blister-specific bandages, anti-nausea meds, pain meds, stomach meds, antibacterial cream, rehydration tablets, and, of course, any prescriptions. If I’m going somewhere where drinking water may be a concern, I include water purification tablets as well. My original entry for this post mentioned chewable Pepto-Bismol, but I’ve since been advised those can further confuse stomach matters. I have since traveled exclusively with the Imodium tabs and will just stick with those from now on! 

Travel essential #5: Mini hand-crank LED flashlight

I bought this on a lark, then threw it in my backpack on a lark. It has since proven its value beyond its $3 price tag. Whether it’s finding shared bathrooms in the middle of the night, door locks in dark hallways, anything in a power outage, or checking under beds for monsters, I always end up using it. The two LEDs provide a decent amount of light and since it requires no batteries, I’m never caught with a dead flashlight.

Travel essential #6: Journal, camera & supplies

As I mentioned in other posts (and evidenced by this blog), I am an obsessive chronicler of my travels. I keep some pens and a smaller notebook in my handbag, where I note where I go, daily spending, what I eat, and random observations. This information gets refined later in the day, where I flesh out the day’s bullet points. When I get home, I use a glue-tape thingy to paste in ticket stubs and assorted travel minutiae. I know, this is excessive.

A critical piece of this travel infrastructure is my camera. I upgrade my camera every two years, aiming for something small with a lot of exposure control. I have a second battery for my current camera because the convenience of changing and charging batteries easily cannot be overstated, especially in countries where electricity isn’t completely dependable.

Travel essential #7: Silk sleeping bag liner

Budget travel often means foregoing luxuries like soft sheets, so I carry a silk sleeping bag liner. It squishes down to nothing size-wise and weighs even less, but makes a moderately comfortable bed completely tolerable.

Travel essential #8: Flat water bottle

Water is essential, but buying single-use plastic bottle after plastic bottle makes me cringe. I picked up this lightweight Vapur 500mL plastic bottle that is ideal for my needs – where the tap water is drinkable. Empty, it’s completely flat, fits in tight corners in a bag, and is totally see-through, perfect for getting through air security.

Travel essential #9: Light spackle/makeup

Truthfully, I’m much less pulled together while traveling than in my day-to-day life. However, I do try to represent Canada well and will contain the schlubiness with some light spackle in the form of solid stick concealer and some other solid cosmetics, like eyeliner and blush. Both versions of concealer I’ve used in recent years have been discontinued, so I just pick up something in the drugstore aisle that isn’t a huge financial investment. Since all of these items are solid, they don’t have to go in the 1-litre liquids bag.

Travel essential #10: Dry shampoo

Hair dryers are rare in budget-friendly accommodations, so dry shampoo makes the time between full shampoos far more tolerable. My favourite is a rather swish powder formula by Oscar Blandi, which retails for $11 at Sephora in Canada. It lasts forever, and since it’s a powder, doesn’t have to get squished into the 1-litre liquids bag.

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