Mission trip packing 101
Step 1: Dump everything in one huge pile on the floor.
Step 2: Cram everything into various bags the night before.
Step 3: Hope you don't forget anything.
If this has been your strategy in the past, it's time to revamp your packing system. Breaking down your packing into three categories (On-You, Carry-On, and Suitcase) makes remembering items easier, since everything is not just tacked on to the end of one never-ending list. Watch the video below to learn what items we recommend packing in each category. Then, scroll down for more specific details about the items you need. You'll also find links to specific items mentioned in the video.
Links to specific items mentioned in this video can be found under the headings below.
Your on-you bag (usually a travel wallet/pouch) is what holds your most important items as you travel. These items should pretty much never leave your body during your trip. Seriously. Let's face it . . . We're all human and prone to losing items, especially as we travel. (How many times have you accidentally left your cell phone charger in a hotel room?) Losing your phone charger won't ruin your trip. But losing your passport? Well, that's a much larger hiccup. Below you'll find the items you should include in your on-you bag.
The on-you bag in the packing video is the Sea To Summit Travelling Light Neck Wallet.
This is your single most important item while traveling!
Bring your driver's license. You may be asked to present multiple forms of identification during your trip.
. . . Unless you plan on swimming.
A visa is what allows you to stay in a country for a specific amount of time. Depending on the country, sometimes you need to get the visa before you travel and sometimes you get the visa upon arriving at your destination (and some countries have no visa requirements at all).
Some countries ask to see your vaccination certificate (usually a yellow booklet that you receive when you get a vaccination) upon entry. Pack this with you just in case they ask for it!
Some of the most remote corners of the world have ATM machines. If your mission trip hits any financial bumps along the way, accessing cash quickly using your debit card can be helpful. However, you don't want to add unneeded stress to your trip by losing your debit card, so be sure to keep it in your on-you bag.
A $20 bill can buy everything from a taxi ride, to basic medical treatment, to souvenirs.
Tip: Carry about $20 worth of local currency as well, for the same reason. Carrying both US currency and the local currency will keep your bases covered, no matter who you're dealing with.
These are important items that you should keep in your carry-on (usually a backpack). Stuff in your carry-on isn't just limited to the days you travel. This stuff can be just as handy (or even more handy) during your days your serving on the mission field as well.
Photocopy of your Passport and License
In the event that something happens to your on-you bag (usually a secure travel wallet), photocopies of your passport and license can help you get out of a jam by giving customs officials something to work with.
The document pouch in the packing video holding these items is the Sea To Summit Travelling Light Document Pouch.
What time do you need to be at the airport? What is your flight number? When are you going souvenir shopping? Printing out a hard copy of your itinerary will help eliminate unnecessary stress and worries.
Whether they're medications you normally take or trip-specific, it's a good idea to keep these with you throughout your trip. You may be on a plane or out on the mission field when you remember that you need to take your Malaria pill, and that's not when you wanna realize that you left them in your suitcase.
Notebook or Journal
Making notes and journaling throughout your trip will be a great keepsake after you return. You'll never regret writing about your journey.
A pillow is a nice luxury during long plane flights and bus rides.
Tip: Packing your pillow from home is ok, but it's probably big and bulky. Neck pillows are compact and portable, but they're still just neck pillows, and not great to actually lie down on. A compressible pillow is the best of both worlds. Compressible pillows are compact and portable, and also expand into pillows large enough to actually enjoy using.
Packing snacks for your travel days will help you avoid paying high prices for airport food. It's also great to pack a few snacks for the days you're out serving in the community—they'll keep your body energized, especially during physically-demanding projects (you'll get hungrier, quicker when you break a sweat).
Avoid post-mission trip nicknames like “Pass Out Pam” and “Dehydrated Drew” by drinking water throughout the day, especially if you're doing manual labor outdoors. You'll be working hard—stay hydrated!
The water bottle with purifier mentioned in the packing video is the Camelbak All Clear.
Telling someone about your mission trip and how it changed your life is one thing. Showing them is another. If you have a DSLR camera that takes great pictures and video, you may want to bring it.
Tip: Be careful if you bring your DSLR—you don't want to spend your entire mission trip behind a camera trying to get awesome shots. Getting great shots is great, but that's not the point of a mission trip. You're there to get out into the community and serve. It may be helpful to pack your camera one day, and then leave it in your suitcase the next day while you're abroad. That way you're not tempted to overuse your camera when you should be serving.
Cell Phone + Headphones
Having music, podcasts, games (for when you're bored on the plane), and even an offline Bible on your phone can really come in handy during a mission trip.
Tip: You probably won't have international cell service, but it can still be handy to pre-program your trip leader's international cell number, your hotel/hostel's telephone number, and local emergency/law enforcement numbers into your phone. If you ever get separated from your team, these numbers can help you get back to your group safely.
The waterproof phone case in the packing video is the Sea to Summit TPU Guide Waterproof Case.
Electricity is at a premium when you’re traveling. Whether you’re in an airport, on a plane, or spending the night in a tent in rural Africa, it’s nice to have a little backup juice for your devices.
The charging block in the packing video is the Outdoor Tech Kodiak Plus.
1 change of clothes
Stuff one change of clothes at the bottom of your backpack in a gallon zip bag (so that dirt falling to the bottom of your pack doesn't make the clothes nasty). In the event that something gets spilled on you while traveling, your suitcase gets lost for a day by an airline, or your pants get torn in the field, you have a backup. Don't overpack though! One change of clothes is all you need. One top (shirt) and one bottom (pants/skirt).
Tip: If you manage to make it through your trip without using this change of clothes, you can wear them on your travel day home! After a dirty and sweaty week of mission trip work, a clean set of clothes is a welcomed way to travel home.
Rain or shine, you have a mission to accomplish. You are there to serve, and you don't want the rain to stop you during your precious days abroad! A rain jacket will help ensure that, rain or shine, you can keep working. Being dry makes traveling and outdoor projects much easier.
The rain jacket in the packing video is no longer in production, but similar to the Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid.
If you typically wear contacts, it's a good idea to bring a pair of glasses if you have them. There's nothing worse than losing a contact in the middle of the day. If this happens during your trip, having glasses in your backpack will keep your day from being ruined. Also, during long travel days your eyes may get tired of contacts, and switching to glasses can be a welcomed break for your eyes.
Working long hours outside can take a toll on your eyes. Bring a good pair of sunglasses, especially if your mission trip involves a lot of time outdoors.
The sunglasses in the packing video are from Smith Optics.
Small Toiletries Kit
A small toiletries kit is a great convenience while traveling, especially during long travel days and long layovers when you don't have access to your suitcase to freshen up. A toiletries kit can be equally refreshing during a long day out serving in the community.
The chapstick in the packing video is the Joshua Tree Mountain Mint SPF15+ Lip Balm.
At some point during your trip, your toe is going to get run over by a beverage cart, your finger is going to get hit by a hammer, or your pants are going to get ripped. Being prepared with a small first-aid kit will help you brush off the pain (or stress) of the moment, and keep your day moving. You don't need a huge kit. Some bandages, disinfectant, and some safety pins will take care of most issues.
Tip: Pack some ibuprofen in your kit. Muscle aches, pains, and headaches are common on mission trips, since your body is usually experiencing new elements (such as elevation change) and doing out-of-the-ordinary work for several days in a row.
The first-aid kit in the packing video is the Adventure Medical Ultralight & Watertight .5 Kit.
Flashlight or Headlamp
Keep a flashlight or headlamp in your backpack throughout your entire trip, especially if you're traveling to a developing country. Electricity in many parts of the world can be intermittent, and having a light source nearby when the power goes out can be a huge convenience.
The headlamp in the packing video is the Petzl Tikka Headlamp.
The portable lantern in the packing video is the Black Diamond Orbit Lantern.
Disinfectant wipes are great for sanitizing when sinks and soap are not available (like right before lunch while you're out in the community).
Tip: Use wipes instead of bottled hand sanitizer. You can get pretty dirty on a mission trip, especially if you're working outdoors. Hand sanitizer will sanitize you just fine, but it doesn't wipe the dirt away. Wipes will not only sanitize your hands, but also wipe away dirt and grime, keeping your PB&J sandwich free from dirt smudges.
In many parts of the world, mosquitoes and other insects can cause serious issues and carry diseases. Inset repellent will not only help keep the nuisances away, but also reduce the chance that you're exposed to an insect-borne disease. Apply insect repellent early in the day and often.
Tip: Use a spray with 30% DEET, not 100% DEET. Both amounts have the same level of insect repellent power. Here's the difference: Spray with 30% DEET will last about 4 hours, and spray with 100% DEET will last about 12 hours. While 12 hours of protection sounds better than 4, DEET can be unhealthy for the body in high concentrations. The CDC has determined that 30% DEET is a safe concentration level for both children and adults.
The insect repellent in the packing video is the Ben's 30 1.25oz Pump.
Applying sunscreen throughout your trip is a great idea, especially if you're traveling closer to the equator, where the sun's rays are more intense. Even if you're traveling to a region where sunburn doesn't seem like a real risk, if you're working outdoors at all, just go ahead and apply sunscreen. Unless you work outside on a regular basis, your body is not used to the prolonged sun exposure outdoors.
The sunscreen in the packing video is the Joshua Tree SPF30 2oz Bottle.
These are the items that you need to access in the morning and in the evening during your mission trip. The key to this part of the packing system is to avoid overpacking. And the key to avoiding overpacking is to keep the “what if” questions in your head get the best of you. “What if it gets really cold?” “What if my shoes are uncomfortable?” Pack for the big what ifs, and don't sweat the small ones. You'll be able to navigate around the smaller situations during the trip.
Plain ol' cotton t-shirts are great to pack because you probably already have a lot of them. However, if you'll be working outside (and sweating) during your trip, polyester and/or nylon shirts work the best. Your cotton t-shirts won't wick away sweat, which is why t-shirts get saturated and stick to your back. Polyester and nylon shirts will push the moisture away from your body, helping it evaporate quicker, keeping you cool and comfortable.
Most jeans and pants are cotton blends. Again, these are fine to pack because you probably have a lot of them already. However, if you're working outside, nylon pants are the most comfortable to work in. Nylon is breathable and not stuffy like most pants (ever try doing yard work in jeans?). Nylon is also a very strong material—resistant to abrasion and snags (great for working outdoors).
Tip: Ask your trip leader whether or not shorts are permitted. For the sake of modesty and cultural sensitivity, often times shorts should not be worn.
We're going to talk about this? Yes, we're going to talk about this. For the same reasons outlined under “Shirts” and “Pants,” cotton briefs are not ideal. Underwear from brands like Under Armour or Exofficio are not cotton and will be more comfortable when you're doing manual labor.
You've probably been catching onto the theme here. Your cotton socks are fine to pack if that's all you have, but if you want to avoid smelly and sweaty socks, synthetic and wool-blended socks are ideal (and super comfortable).
You'll probably only need to pack to pairs of shoes—one for working in and one for downtime. This means you'll really only be packing one pair of shoes, since you'll constantly be wearing the other pair. Work shoes are the ones you'll wear throughout the day, and they should be based on your trip's itinerary. Will you be walking long distances and doing manual labor? Then you should consider a sturdy pair of shoes or boots to be your working footwear. If you'll be spending most of your time indoors (like in an orphanage), then a comfortable pair of regular shoes is probably what you want to bring. Downtime shoes can be whatever you want—it's just nice to have another pair of shoes (or sandals) to slip on at the end of a busy day on your feet.
You may choose to wear nothing on your head, and that's fine. But if you're usually a bandana-wearer on a mission trip, then look for a polyester (not cotton) bandana. Hats are great too! They protect your head from the sun and bugs.
Tip: Ask locals about the sports teams that they root for, and then use your hat to tell them about your favorite sports team.
The headwear in the packing video is the Buff Original Headwear.
Jacket or Fleece
Bring a hoodie, fleece, or heavy jacket that's appropriate for the low temperatures in the country you're traveling to. Don't overpack on the hoodies, though. They're heavy and bulky!
The fleece in the packing video is the Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody.
Pack what you need in a gallon-sized zip bag or a toiletries case.
TIP: Consider buying small, reusable travel bottles and then fill them with your regular shampoo and toothpaste. Buying travel-sized toiletries for your trip are typically overpriced, and it's nice to use the stuff you're familiar with as you travel.
The travel bottles used in the packing video are from the Nalgene Medium Travel Kit.
In some hotels and hostels around the world, towels are not provided. If you aren't sure whether or not the place you're staying provides towels, ask your trip leader. If you do need to bring your own towel, avoid bringing heavy, bulky bathroom towels (the ones you use at home). Instead, pack a small, lightweight, super-absorbent travel towel.
The travel towel used in the packing video is the Packtowl Personal Towel (size "hand").
Learn all about adapters over here.
An adapter is used to adapt your US-style prongs to fit the prong style of the country you're visiting. You'll need this if you plan on using any electronics with US-style prongs.
TIP: An adapter does not modify voltage level. For that you'll need a . . .
Learn all about converters over here.
A converter modifies the voltage of the outlet it's plugged into so that you don't fry your electronics. Outlets in America are 110 volts (V). However, the most common outlet voltage around the world is 220V. So, if you're traveling to another country and plug your 110V cord from America into a 220V outlet—and it doesn't have a built-in converter—you'll fry your electronic. Bring a voltage converter with you to convert the voltage level from 220V to 110V. That way you can use your hair dryer without it catching on fire! Victory!
If you plan on bringing your phone, then bring a charger if you hope to use your phone beyond the first day of your trip.