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Packing Advice For First-Time Humanitarians & Aid Workers

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Congrats on your first mission abroad as a humanitarian aid worker! This page provides a list of things I pack when I work abroad in a developing country - or things I deeply regretted NOT bringing.

First, note that you can find most of what you need in any country abroad. And it can be astonishing. Whereas I could not find peanut butter when I lived in Bonn, Germany, I found it in at least two grocery stores in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shampoo, laundry detergent, cookware, utensils, spices, towels, sheets, flip-flops, duct tape, buckets, sanitary napkins - you will find most of what you will ever need in any big or even mid-sized city on Earth, and it's often the same brands you've seen back home.

Also, you can leave so much of what you buy or bring abroad behind when your mission is done - there's often no need to pack it and bring it back. That leaves you more room to buy local items to bring back.

You should get a pre-departure kit from the agency that is deploying you, with information regarding safety, accommodations, local culture, etc. - but this kit rarely tells you all that you need to bring. By all means read it - but I hope this list fills in the blanks.

Things to pack:
  • universal power adapter - helpful not just for country you’re going to, but countries you’re traveling through. I forgot to bring this once, and was shocked at how hard it was to find outside the USA. 
  • flash drive - to back up your photos, essential documents, reservations, etc.
  • earplugs - take more than just two
  • ExOfficio™ underwear - or a similar brand, that says you can wash it and it will dry overnight. Many places where you stay will either require you to wash your own clothes, or want you to pay for the services of a local person to do this - but that person probably won't wash your underwear. Using ExOfficio or a similar kind of underwear allows you to take just a few pairs that you can wash in your sink or a bucket every night. For a six month deployment or less, three pairs is all you need.
  • sink stopper - I joke that I could take several drain plugs and sell them for $10 a piece, as so many of my colleagues forget this. If you have to do any laundry in a sink, or if you want to take a bath, you will need this. The ones built-in to bathtubs and sinks abroad rarely work.
  • Parmesan cheese - if you can’t get it where you’re going, you will be so glad that you brought this. Will make any bland dish taste better.
  • medications - any prescriptions you need (be sure you have all documentation for such), anti-diarrheals, antihistamines, ranitidine (active ingredient in Zantac), prescription treatments for a yeast infection and/or UTIs, any asthma medications/inhalers, and large bottles of aspirin, Ibuprofen, and acetaminophen. You can get all of these medications in any pharmacy abroad, but it can be very hard if you don't speak the language, the medication may be expired, and it's very hard to find large quantities of aspirin and other pain killers abroad.
  • first aid kit (and know what is in it!)
  • portable smoke detector - if you might be staying in a place that's above the second floor in a developing country, you will want this. There's one available from the ILS store (many of the items listed here can be found there as well).
  • portable carbon monoxide detector - when I worked at UN Volunteers, one of our volunteers died in the field because of carbon monoxide poisoning in his guest house. I once read about almost everyone dying in a guest house in Spain from carbon monoxide poisoning. 
  • batteries for your portable smoke and carbon monoxide detectors (you can buy these in-country, probably, but go ahead and have them loaded with fresh batteries before departure - and make sure the airlines you will take allow such batteries to be on the plane)
  • portable water purifier and filter replacements - you can find these at most any outdoor store, including fishing and hunting stores. 
  • multi-use tool - but remember that you cannot carry this on an airplane, because it has a knife - it has to be with your checked bag! Get something not only with a knife and little saw, but also a cork screw, bottle opener and can opener.
  • hidden purse/money belt to wear under clothes - big enough for your passport.
  • cash stash keyring - but don't keep it on your keys; keep it on your bra or in another absolutely secure place on you
  • undercover bra stash bag - keeps money in a very safe space under your clothes
  • keyring flashlights - I cannot believe how handy these are! 
  • head lamp - great for late night trips to the bathroom, essential in an emergency when you need to get somewhere - like OUT - in the dark
  • small padlock - I use these to lock zippers together on my bags that I'm carrying in public.
  • metal door lock - offers additional security when inside your room. There's one available from the ILS store (many of the items listed here can be found there as well).
  • cloth bags or any folding backpack or duffel bag. You will often need to transport things between your guest house and work site. This is a great way to do so. And you can leave these in-country when your mission ends; your local colleagues and their families will very much appreciate such (you will note how valuable these are when you see so many people transporting valuables in plastic bags)
  • mosquito net - even one that just goes around your head (not essential for every location)
  • sleeping bag liner - great for sleeping in between scary sheets and blankets. Packs very small.
  • Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or other brand of travel book for country to which you will be living. And be sure to read it BEFORE departure, especially the sections regarding safety, history and culture. I've had some aid workers mock me when they see such a guide on my desk ("Oh, so you're a tourist here, not an aid worker?!") - and later ask if they can borrow it.
  • pocket dictionary for country where you will be living (and always have it with you). 
  • a wax, also known as a sarong or sarung. A wax is a large piece of colorful but durable cloth that is often worn by women in developing countries as a wrap-around skirt or very large shawl. You can do the same, or use it for a top sheet when your sleeping bag or the European-style comforter is too much on a warm night, as a head dress (often needed to tour a mosque or conservative Christian church), extra covering in conservative countries, a picnic blanket... You can buy them at any hippy/dippy store, any import store, and the like in your home country. They pack very small -- I can easily fit one into a fanny pack WITH other stuff. If you are a size 12 (USA) or a or less, you can use a wax as a skirt as well, even over pants. If you're going to be taking a particularly long trip, take two (so you can use them both at the same time -- skirt and shawl, skirt and headscarf, etc.). Wash them once at home in cold water, to see if they shrink (you don't want to take one that shrinks!).
  • a multifunctional headband, one of those long, seamless tubular things you can wear in different ways (a headband, a bandana, a beanie, a pirate-style cap, a neck scarf, etc.). It's great for bad hair days, when your neck gets cold, or when you are in a very religiously-conservative country where your head covering must cover all of your hair (put on the headband so that it covers your hair, particularly in the front, then put your wax over your head as a head scarf - voila, you're culturally sensitive!). You can find them at most outdoor stores or motorcycle shops.
  • don't take electronics, jewelry or other valuables while traveling that you would be heartbroken to lose, or that are easily broken. If you are traveling by plane, then keep any of these items, along with documents, medicine (with copies of prescriptions) or any essentials, in your carry-on bag.
Note that many of those recommendations on things to pack are things you could leave behind - most of those things are easily-replaceable once you get home. 

If you want to bring gifts from your home country for your host family or work colleagues abroad, they should be small. Forget soaps and potpourri. I like things that have a look or representation of my own region (Oregon or Kentucky), if possible. Unique fabric or woven change purses, scarves, pendants, charms, and commemorative coins are some of my ideas.

Should you bring condoms? If you plan on being sexually-active, or think it's a possibility, yes, but if you are a woman, be careful about taking these on your carry-on or in a purse; police and security in other countries can misinterpret birth control as a sign that you are a sexually-loose and sexually-available woman, even a prostitute, and as there is nothing morally wrong with such, this perception by others can attract the wrong kind of attention from certain people and lead to harassment, attacks, even arrest.

Something to purchase for your laptop and/or smart phone that you take abroad for Internet access: HotSpot Shield, or other VPN service. This allows you to surf anonymously, hide your IP address, protect your computer from getting hacked when using a public wi-fi, bypass internet restrictions (unblocking YouTube, Facebook, various web sites that block some countries from accessing, etc.), encrypt your data, and more. For less than $5 a month, you can get support for up to five devices. I have HotSpot shield for my laptop, my husband's laptop, his smart phone and my smart phone. Works with laptops, tablets, and devices running windows, Apple OS, Android and more.

Especially for women, more things to pack:
  • prescription treatments for a yeast infection and/or UTIs
  • shirts that are durable, easy to hand wash and extend down over your hips, farther than the bottom of your butt,  that do not expose any of your cleavage whatsoever, and are not at all transparent. For most countries, it's acceptable that these be short-sleeved and even somewhat form-fitting - check travel web sites regarding local culture, consult a guidebook for the region (see aforementioned recommendations), and look at photos online from the country, to know for sure regarding what clothing is acceptable. Even if shorter shirts are acceptable in a country, take a couple of these more conservative shirts for more formal occasions.
  • hiking skirts are awesome, because they are especially durable, stain-resistant, easy to wash and dry, and often, can go from full-length to knee-length with just an unzip. And with leggings, a summer skirt can be worn in winter.
  • whether it's a three-week or three-month deployment, I like to take three one-color, dark-colored skirts (black, gray and brown). I prefer floor-length skirts, because they are modest - I travel to a lot of countries where modesty for women is an unwritten rule (and sometimes a written one) - and because skirts look more formal (I work in offices and, if outdoors, at events). I prefer dark because they hid stains better. Just three gets me through a deployment of up to six months. My three favorites weren't bought at a camping store - I bought them at a local grocery store here in the USA that has a large clothing section, believe it or not. If you're going to be working outdoors doing highly-physical work (shoveling, climbing on roof tops, etc.), three skirts probably aren't necessary, of course.
  • if pants are acceptable, hiking pants are awesome, because they are especially durable, stain-resistant, easy to wash and dry, have lots of pockets and often, can go from full-length to shorts with just an unzip. Sure, it may further identify you as a foreigner, but the reality is that you need to be comfortable and not worry about getting laundry done constantly.
  • leggings to wear under skirts, especially in religiously-conservative countries or under skirts or pants for cold weather.
  • silk long-sleeve undershirt (can make any outfit warmer as the weather turns colder) and, perhaps, long underwear as well, if the weather might be cold.
  • try to take just two, maybe three, pairs of shoes, depending on your length of deployment and your work setting. Any shoes should be super comfortable for you to stand for hours or walk for hours. In Afghanistan, I took hiking boots and Teva sandals - I worked mostly in offices, but did go into the field a few times, and the ground I walked on ranged from snow to deep mud to dirt roads to gravel to polished floors. In Ukraine, I worked in an office, so I took three shoes: hiking shoes for weekends and to get to and from work, Teva sandals for the same when it was too hot for those shoes, and black pumps for low heels, which I kept at work and changed into each morning and wore around the office.
  • I like hiking bras when I work abroad: they are durable, they wash well, and they are ready for whatever my work day might hold.

Consider the climate and environment of where you are going - is it generally hot? Cold? Rainy? Dry? Pack for a variety of conditions, of course, but do research about what weather extremes you might experience in the country. Remember: air conditioning is expensive and even if you are going to work in a government office, they may not have air conditioning. Be prepared to layer.

These recommendations will let you look at least a little different every day, so you don't look like you are wearing the exact same clothes day after day. And that's important because, worldwide - and I HATE this - women are judged by how they dress. Women in even the poorest of countries take a great deal of pride in how they look and the image they present, especially with foreigners, and they expect you, the visiting aid worker, to as well - they expect you to respect them by doing so. So, no, it's not weird to take make up when you go abroad, as in some countries, a woman not wearing makeup is a sign that she's a slob and not worth listening to. It's not weird to not want to look like you are wearing the same clothes if you are going to work in an office setting because, again, local women will see pride in your appearance as a sign of respect for them. Have a look at the web sites of NGOs in the country and look how local women dress in official photos - that will give you an idea of what's expected of you, especially if you will work in an office setting. 

On my first overseas deployment, I checked TWO bags and had TWO carry ons - and now, I realize I over packed. On my latest overseas deployment, seven years after the first, I checked ONE bag note: I can get all the aforementioned into that, believe it or not. 

Is it appropriate to buy and wear local clothing? This is a frequent debate among many. In Afghanistan, I asked two co-workers, separately, how it would be perceived if I wore a shalwar kameez I bought in India, and they gave me the green light. In Ukraine, I asked co-workers how it would be perceived if I wore a traditional Ukrainian blouse, and they were so excited I wanted to that they took me shopping. But some locals may not be cool with you showing up in their clothes - they feel it's cultural appropriation. When in doubt, ask. And remember that two different people may have two different opinions.

  • Buy tough, boring-looking luggage. Go for durability, toughness, and ease-to-carry/roll around/carry, not for fashion, because your luggage is going to take a beating, and needs to be able to withstand such. Also, the more expensive it looks, the more likely it, or its contents, will get stolen.

    A large, soft-sided, wheeled backpack, with zip-off day-bag, is, in my opinion, ideal. A soft-sided, wheeled backpack with VERY strong zippers and that allows you to pull the bag most of the time, and to throw it on your back as needed, is also good. Your back will love you for pulling the bag on wheels most of the time rather than wearing it. Make sure those wheels are durable, for the times you will walking on very unforgiving sidewalks. It's up to you to decide if you want to buy a bag you know you can usually carry on (small planes are very limited on the size of bag they can allow to be carried on) or if you also want a bag to check.

    Make sure you take only the number of bags you can carry or drag by yourself for at least five blocks, even a quarter of a mile. I believe that you absolutely should NOT bring more bags than you yourself can carry up and down 15 steps and at least five blocks entirely by yourself. You cannot transfer quickly from one train or bus to another by yourself if you are struggling with bags -- and it also makes you a prime target for thieves. You cannot count on someone helping you in the airport or a train station as you struggle with your bags. And if you get on a train and have more bags than you can handle, other passengers will NOT be nice to you - in Europe especially.

    One piece of your carry on luggage should be the largest allowed for the seat in front of you in economy class on a plane. On full flights, if you are one of the last people on the plane, there will be no room in the overhead compartments by the time you board for your carryons; in such circumstances, if you have just one bag that fits in the seat in front of you, you won't have to check your bag (so long as this is the only bag you are carrying on).  

  • Remember to budget space in your luggage for things you want to buy -- clothes, small ceramics, textiles, art, etc. You can buy another piece of luggage in your host country if you need more room - you will have to pay for that extra bag to be checked, but maybe that will be worth it to bring unique items you've purchased abroad. Also, to make more room, consider leaving things you brought in-country for other aid workers if you really won't need those items back in your home country.

  • I tie some multi-colored yarn around the handles of any luggage I'm going to check, so they are easier to spot on a luggage conveyer belt.

  • Your checked AND carry-on luggage needs to have a name tag on the outside, and identification inside -- it's best if the inside i.d. is in more than one pocket of your luggage. Include your name, email address, phone number and physical address, both where you are coming from and where you are going to. If you will be traveling to more than one location, leave a copy of your trip itinerary inside your luggage so you can be located more easily.

  • Airport security will no longer allow locked bags of any kind, whether its checked bags or carry-ons. If you do lock your bags, your locks WILL be broken. That said, do pack some little locks, and use them to lock your bags AFTER you leave the airport, or after you board the plane (yes, people steal things on planes).

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© 2015 by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved. No part of this material can be reproduced in print or in electronic form without express written permission by Jayne Cravens.


Suggested books:

How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas

Lonely Planet Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around

Alternatives to the Peace Corps: A Guide to Global Volunteer Opportunities, 12th Edition

Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others

The 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life

Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World (Lonely Planet)

Frommer's 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference

The Insider's Guide to the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go

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