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
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:
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- sleeping bag liner
- great for sleeping in between scary sheets and blankets.
Packs very small.
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
- 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
- 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.
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,
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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).
Volunteering To Help After
Volunteering with organizations that
help animals and wildlife.
Ideas for Funding Your
Volunteering Abroad Trip.
Tax credits for volunteering
(for residents of the USA)
How to Make a Difference
Internationally/Globally/in Another Country Without
Using Your Business Skills for
Good - Volunteering Your Business Management Skills, to
help people starting or running small businesses / micro
enterprises, to help people building businesses in
high-poverty areas, and to help people entering or re-entering
the work force.
Helping People Address Their
Problems with Plastic
How to mobilize a community to clean up plastic bottles,
plastic bags and other plastic waste from their environment,
and how to reduce their use of such items in the future
Group Volunteering for Atheist and
Details on how to quickly fill a community
service obligation from a court or school.
Ideas for Leadership
These are more than just do-it-yourself volunteering - these
are ideas to create or lead a sustainable, lasting benefit to
a community, recruiting others to help and to have a
leadership role as a volunteer. These can also be activities
for the Girl Scouts Gold Award, the Duke of Edinburgh's Award
(U.K.), a mitzvah project, or even scholarship consideration.
Ideas for Creating Your Own
Donating Things Instead of Cash
or Time (In-Kind Contributions)
Careers Working With Animals
(for the benefit of animals)
You are NOT too young to volunteer! Ways
you can volunteer, no matter how young you are
Finding Community Service and
Volunteering for Teens
How to Find Volunteering
Opportunities, a resource for adults who want to
Creating or Holding a Successful
Community Event or Fund Raising Event.
Fund Raising For a Cause or
How you can advocate for an issue
important to you
© 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.
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