Each trip you take helps you refine your skills at selecting and packing what you take. Many factors will influence this process: for example, the climate to which you travel, the illnesses you expect to encounter (e.g. war victims in Bosnia vs. famine victims in Africa), the length of your volunteer assignment and your personal preferences. Obviously, avoid taking items which may be prohibited or which are likely to raise eyebrows at customs. For example, several countries have restrictions on radios and require a license for their legal possession. Alcohol, literature on certain topics, sexually-oriented material, even money above a certain amount may all be forbidden. A good travel guide book can alert you to which items are prohibited. It may help to take along an official-looking letter which explains any supplies or equipment you may be carrying. Take nothing irreplaceable or very fragile. The best-laid plans can change, and that hour long plane hop may turn into a week on the back of an elephant.

Items You May Want to Hand Carry

  • Altitude and motion sickness medication
  • Body safe e.g. money belt or leg safe (which looks like an "Ace" bandage and is worn just above the knee
  • Cash (small US $ bills are very useful), also some local currency
  • Documents (passport, visas, yellow WHO card, tickets)
  • Essential toilet articles and a change of clothes, if possible
  • Extra passport pictures ( at least 6)
  • Flashlight, umbrella or poncho
  • Medication (perhaps with an extra prescription)
  • Portable burglar alarm (can be fitted to a hotel room door or into a suitcase or purse)
  • Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses
  • Strap for eyeglasses (to help prevent theft)
  • Swiss Army knife and spoon
  • Telephone card, phone / address book
  • Traveler's checks, credit cards
  • Travel guide and phrase book

Other Items (for checked baggage)

  • Medical reference books - to help with unfamiliar diseases
  • Medical or surgical supply items you feel may not be available
  • Plastic bags of various sizes
  • Sewing kit
  • Laundry detergent
  • Strong string and a few clothespins - for drying clothes
  • Mosquito net, if likely to be needed
  • Radio - small portable short-wave (if not restricted)
  • Light pot for boiling water
  • Tupperware type containers with tight lids for food storage (because insects and/or humidity, not to mention vermin, may be a problem)
  • Basic tool set
  • Gifts from home
  • Film (Bring all you'll need since it is much more expensive abroad)
  • Sunglasses, sun screen
  • Fitness and leisure items (e.g. snorkel and mask, as many books as you can bring)
  • Water filter, candle and matches


In many cultures, even those in deepest poverty, appearances are more important than in our frequently casual-sloppy North America. Professionals should take their cues from local counterparts. You will need clothing for whatever seasons you will be experiencing, e.g. sturdy, comfortable sandals for hot climates, rubber boots for rainy ones, warm winter boots for snowy spots, and so on. Don't forget that the seasons are reversed south of the Equator. In countries with botflies (much of Africa), all clothing and linens are ironed as a preventive measure.
Unless prohibited by local customs (e.g. women in fundamentalist Islamic countries) your basic wardrobe should include long-sleeved shirts and long pants, to protect against both sun and mosquitoes.

Household Goods

The electricity in many countries is 220V; thus, you will need a transformer if you bring any American (120V) appliances. Some of the most useful appliances are a hair dryer, small blender, iron, clamp-on spotlight and fan, sewing machine, shaver. You might want to purchase these en route, e.g. in Europe so that they will already be for 220V current.