Do I need this rain jacket for Vietnam? What power adaptor do I need for Mexico? While packing for a volunteer abroad trip can be a headache, with the right guide it can actually be a lot of fun! After all, you’re getting ready for the trip of a lifetime, you should be jumping for joy! Which can be tricky when you’re weighed down by a backpack twice your size. We’re going to walk you through how to pack for a volunteer trip so all you have to worry about is making the most of your time abroad.
Whether you’re a ‘prepare everything down to the tiniest detail 30 days before you are ready to depart’ kind of traveler, or a ‘I have 2 hours until I need to be at the airport, what exactly do I need’ kind of person - this is the ultimate guide for packing for your volunteer abroad adventure.
If you’re looking for specific packing tips you can jump straight there:
- Step One: Research
- Step Two: Important travel documents
- Step Three: What bag!?
- Step Four: Packing light
- CHECKLIST: Volunteer abroad packing list
- Step Five: Packing tips for carry on luggage
- Step Six: What to pack for your placement?
- Step Seven: Let’s go!
Step One: Research key aspects of the volunteer destination
About that rain jacket in Vietnam, well it depends. Is it rainy season, or are you visiting during the dry season? A simple Google search for the climate during the time of year you’ll be visiting is so important!
It’s easy to get swept away and just start placing your favorite things out on the bed but before you start packing, put the time in and do your research. Remember every destination, the seasons and even regions are different. So make sure you consider the following:
- What season will it be when you are there? Is it summer, winter or even rainy season?
- Does the temperature drop at night and first thing in the morning?
- Is it a conservative culture - what kind of clothing is acceptable? Make sure you research social and religious norms too.
- What clothing is appropriate for your placement? For example; respectable/modest clothing for teaching placements or clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty/paint-covered for construction projects
- Will you be traveling further afield during your weekends? Or participating in activities that require specific gear - like hiking boots?
- Will you want formal/nice clothing for evenings out?
- Also, consider how long you are going for. If you are headed off on your gap year and volunteering for six months across multiple destinations, then your needs are going to be different from someone who is only volunteering for two weeks in one destination. And, if you’re traveling for a longer period of time, don’t get stuck in the mindset that you need to take a vast amount of stuff. After all it’s just that - stuff! You can buy it on the road (and support the local communities along the way).
Let this information guide your packing. Putting the time in to research will mean you will arrive feeling prepared and organized, which will set you up for an awesome experience abroad!
Step Two: Get your personal documents organized
- Find your passport and ensure it has at least 6 months validity after the final day of travel, if not - it’s a good time to renew! If you don’t have a passport, begin the application process ASAP
- Research whether or not you require a visa for your destination of choice - if you do, apply for this as soon as you can - it can be a lengthy process depending on the destination
- Bookmark or screenshot your IVHQ program guide on your personalized MyIVHQ login
- Make sure you have easy access to the necessary contact numbers and information ready for your arrival in your destination, save them to your contacts or have screenshots as back-up. It’s important to make sure you don’t need WiFi to access it
- Let your bank know that you are headed abroad to avoid having your account frozen
- Make a physical copy of your passport, itinerary, travel insurance, medical documents (prescriptions or medical certificates), and any other important documentation you may have or need. Leave a copy with a trusted person at home and have a digital version saved to your phone and the cloud as well
- Get all your travel docs ready in one handy location that can easily fit in your carry-on. Some people swear by a travel wallet, others are happy with a simple folder to keep everything together - figure out what works for you!
Step Three: Choose the best bag for traveling
Suitcase or backpack? That is a question that the team here at IVHQ is asked all of the time, and one that divides the team. There’s nothing worse than getting your travel bag choice wrong!
Dragging a suitcase on wheels down cobbled streets will suck the joy out of the trip and lugging a pack the size of a human around on your back in stifling heat won’t exactly make you smile from ear to ear.
So how do you choose the best bag for traveling? There’s no hard and fast rule as certain destinations and volunteer projects will lend themselves toward taking one over the other, but largely it’s a personal preference. Once you’ve clocked up a few travel miles, you’re likely to have established a preference but until then, give each option a whirl. A few of our IVHQ Program Managers weigh in on the pack vs. suitcase debate here. And remember, you don’t need a bag that will fit the contents of your entire wardrobe. Travel light people!
How to pack your bag is a whole other thing, and again - mostly comes down to personal preference. Plenty of travelers swear by using packing cubes, smaller bags within your larger bag, that keep things accessible, easy to find and separated from the bulk of your clothes. Perfect for keeping dirty laundry away from clean clothes! Another popular way to make the most of your limited space is to adopt the “roll” method, rolling your clothes into tight cylinders before packing, it truly is magic how much you can fit into a small bag using this method, and bonus - no wrinkled clothes!
Step Four: How to pack lightly
Because you’ve done your research, deciding what will go in your bag will be a much easier process! You’re not going to turn up in Romania with a bag full of clothes suited to Fiji. Use the volunteer abroad packing list below as a rough guide. Of course, ignore items and add to it as you see fit and make sure you refer to the packing list in the program guide on your MyIVHQ login as this will have information and recommendations specific to your program.
Volunteer Abroad Packing List:
- Appropriate clothes for you project. This will vary depending on your project but ensure it is culturally appropriate as well
- Pants/trousers x 2
- Dress or skirt that goes below the knees
- Tops x 4 - as a rule of thumb it’s always a good idea for these to be modest and cover your shoulders
- Swimsuit - obviously not if you aren’t likely to be near any water
- Warm jacket - even if you are going somewhere tropical it’s always a good idea to have something snug for the plane or incase the weather surprises you
- Rain jacket
- Shoes x 2 - one pair of open shoes and a pair of closed in sneakers (make sure you are comfortable walking in both, you’ll be clocking up some miles)
- A scarf or sarong
- Medical kit with aspirin (or a similar pain reliever), antihistamine for relief from allergies or insect bites, diarrhea ‘stoppers’ such as Diastop, powdered electrolytes, scissors and tweezers, bandaids, antiseptic cream for cuts and grazes, sunscreen, lip balm, insect repellent and any personal medication (twice as much as needed in case you lose some or stay longer - many medications are not readily available, especially in developing countries)
- Travel size shampoo and conditioner
- Toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss
- Hand sanitizer
- Baby wipes - when we asked past volunteers what was the one thing to pack these came up time and time again. We suggest choosing a biodegradable wipe
- Unlocked phone
- Camera or GoPro
- Adapters and chargers
- A multi-plug for charging all of your devices at once
In terms of volume, try to stick to the list and if you can’t then remember, the general rule of thumb to packing lightly for international travel is to lay out everything you need and then half it! That’s actually what you need to take with you. Harsh, but true!
Step Five: Carry on packing tips
- We strongly recommend packing a change of clothes in your carry-on just in case your checked in baggage ends up going on a holiday without you
- Don’t forget a drink bottle for the plane. Keeping hydrated is vital to arriving and still feeling human. You want to minimize the impact of jet lag at every possible opportunity and taking an empty water bottle which you can fill up when onboard and use when you are in country is a double win!
- Ear plugs
- Herbal tea bags, hydration sachets, or anything you might feel like on the plane that will encourage you to keep hydrated
- Lip balm and baby wipes
- Pain relief and any medication you may require
- A book, headphones (noise canceling if the budget allows), or something to pass the hours
- Neck pillow
- Don’t forget a pen for all those forms you’ll be filling out
- A scarf is a great option if you get cold on planes and it can also double as a eye mask for when you need that nap
- Don’t forget to put your carry on liquids in a clear ziplock bag and make sure all your liquids and creams are under 3.4 ounce (100ml)
- If you are taking electrical goods like a laptop it’s a good idea to pack it in your carry-on
Step Six: What do I bring for my volunteer project?
Have a chat with your IVHQ Program Manager about what you can bring from home to support your project, as they can work directly with the local team to find out what is truly needed on the project. They will also advise on whether you will be able to purchase these items in country, which is the preferred option where possible. Not only does it mean you don’t have to carry the supplies on the plane with you, it means any money you spend will be invested back into the local economy.
Step Seven: Depart for a life changing experience!
Now that you’ve packed your material objects, it’s a good time to think about your mindset. While it may sound corny, the best thing you can bring on a volunteer abroad trip is a positive attitude and an open-mind. Even if you somehow end up in Argentina in winter when you packed for summer in Costa Rica, if you’ve departed with a positive mindset (and a great travel insurance policy), this oversight won’t ruin your trip. You’ll be able to adapt, have a funny tale to tell in the future, and no doubt learn a thing or two along the way. Oh, and enjoy! You are off on an adventure of a lifetime!