The prepared versus the unprepared traveller

The prepared versus the unprepared traveller

On a near-month's trip through Java in early 2018 I was taken aback by the size of my travel companion Sally’s backpack and daypack. Hers were almost splitting at the seams; my pack and daypack were each less than half full. At a train station weigh in, Sally’s gear totalled 24 kilograms while mine came in at nine. Why? It turned out Sally was a prepared traveller, while I was far from this.

Planning categories

Particularly given we were planning on climbing a number of volcanoes on the trip, I was woefully underprepared, with no protective clothing, no warm clothes and no wet weather gear. As Sally mentioned after I luckily escaped rain and freezing weather on one peak, I was reckless—and stupid.

Both Sally and myself have each over two decades independent travel experience in Southeast Asia, but in Sally’s case that included a dozen years leading groups for Intrepid Travel in Indonesia and Malaysia and that has obviously paid off in the “being prepared” department!

Here's the breakdown of what we each carried. Interestingly, considering we more or less do the same job, we are polar opposites in terms of packing style. The average traveller probably falls somewhere in between.


Sally: Macpac Utopia backpack
An old model Macpac canvas hybrid pack with a front opening like a travel pack and top opening like a regular backpack, lockable from both openings. Around 65 litres in size. The harness folds away for travel and storage. This pack is relatively heavy empty, but it’s tough. It came with a detachable daypack, but I don’t like it and have never used it. I have several backpacks, and the one I use depends on the trip. I also like my Osprey Sojourn combo wheely bag / backpack.

What more do you need than a backpack, a palm tree and a beach? Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
What more do you need than a backpack, a palm tree and a beach? Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stuart: Deuter Aircontact 45+10
I got my Deuter Aircontact 45+10 from a gear shop in Bangkok, and it appears to have been discontinued now. My wife Sam wanted a side loader, I wanted a top loader, and as we couldn’t agree we went with a pack which had both. This was not an especially inspired decision, but the pack works well. It's light when empty and fairly waterproof. Main issues are the wait belt is too rigid and the zippers cannot be locked (not that I would lock them as I don’t carry padlocks). Cost was around $200.


Sally: Osprey Tempest 20 daypack
This daypack fits flat inside my big pack and is lightweight with good support. The chest clip on this pack has a built-in emergency whistle.

What Sally packed for the Java trip. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
What Sally packed for the Java trip. Photo: Sally Arnold

Stuart: Muji Paraglider cloth rucksack
This was a gift from a Japan trip Sam made. It has a laptop sleeve and just enough space to pack everything I need for a shortish trip. I love that it has absolutely zero branding on it. On a longer trip like this one, I use it as a daypack. It's about 15 litres. It has no real security provisions, but the waterproofing is very good—handy as I’m not intelligent enough to use a poncho.

Sally: Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Day Pack and foldable shopping bag
Good for laundry or shopping. Both fold into tiny pouches.

Stuart: Nope
I use a used bag from a Circle K.

Stuart’s somewhat lighter packing effort. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Stuart’s somewhat lighter packing effort. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Sally: Outdoor Research Water Bottle Tote
This pouch attaches to my daypack with a carabiner to hold my water bottle at the front. Perfect, as I don’t like reaching to the back for my water.

Stuart: Nope.
I stick my water bottle in my day pack.

Sally: Over-shoulder bag for day-to-day stuff
Or, a handbag. I prefer to have notebook and camera easily at hand, but of course I stuff this as well with water bottle, umbrella, phone chargers etc… When empty it fits into my daypack or big pack like a Russian doll. Also fits into small folding daypack if necessary for long bike trips.

Stuart: Nope

Sally: Neoprene padding for shoulder strap
This fold-over Velcro attached shoulder pad is essential for my bag when I overstuff it.

Stuart: Nope


Sally: Osprey UltraLight Raincover
These raincovers fold into a small pouch and I have one for each pack. l like these as they clip onto the pack to avoid flying off in high wind (I’ve lost several pack covers before).

With sensible planning you can be comfortable at the top. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
With sensible planning you can be comfortable at the top. Photo: Sally Arnold

Stuart: Nope
I rely on my packs to be sufficiently waterproof to stop gear from getting soaked through. The raincover which came with my Deuter pack is so terrible I prefer not to use it at all.


Sally: Pacsafe RFID blocking tri-fold wallet.
My go-to wallet has a chain which attaches it to my bag to secure it from opportunistic thieves and zippered compartment for my cash with space for two different currencies, plus plenty of room for credit cards. The RFID-blocking material helps protect against identity theft.

Or, well, not quite so comfortable. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Or, well, not quite so comfortable. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stuart: Traditional wallet
I have a leather wallet I bought on the street in Bangkok.

Sally: Coin purse
Convenient for buskers and toilet money.

Stuart: Nope
See wallet above.

Sally: Lewis N. Clark RFID-Blocking Hidden Travel Belt Wallet
This money pouch works similarly to a money belt, but just attaches to a belt or your trousers via a baby safety pin. I find money belts too hot and cumbersome, and this works for me to keep cash hidden.

Stuart: Nope
See wallet above.

Sally: RFID-Blocking passport pouch
I also have a RFID-Blocking pouch for my passport, not that I’m paranoid but it helps keep it dry too.

Stuart: Nope
I keep my passport in the front pocket of my jeans.

Sally: Small Pacsafe Travelsafe
In this I stash emergency US dollars. It fits my camera, hard drives and passport too. The metal mesh is slash proof and it can be locked to a secure item. Probably safer than a locker in a dorm for these items.

Stuart: Nope
I keep my valuables with me or will occasionally use a room safe.


Sally: Cheap folding umbrella
Fits into my shoulder bag. Keeps the rain off the camera and notebook better than a raincoat, but can be a bit awkward to carry all three. Umbrellas always break even if you buy expensive trekking ones, this one from Ikea did break on this trip, but it had lasted a few trips.

Stuart: Nope
I get wet.

Lost in the jungle with a broken motorbike and no water? That would be Stuart. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Lost in the jungle with a broken motorbike and no water? That would be Stuart. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Sally: Marmot Gor-Tex Paclite Essential jacket and Marmot PreCip rain pants
I don’t always take these on a trip and can rely on my lightweight poncho, but as we were going to be climbing volcanoes in the wet season, they kept me warm and dry. The jacket has zip pits which I like and stops you getting too overheated when trekking. This is my stylish city black raincoat, I have a similar one (Marmot Optima) with a shorter cut in high-vis lime green that I cycle in (not packed on this trip).

Stuart: A pair of Levis 504. No jacket.
Especially for volcano climbing, my approach is particularly stupid. Denim soaks through quickly and takes a long time to dry. I tend to climb just with three t-shirts on, and strip them off when too hot. Climbing without any kind of weather gear is stupid and reckless.

Sally: Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano poncho
This is great for riding motorbikes and not getting wet or sweaty. Breathable silicone coated nylon. Very light and packs small although I’ve lost the original tiny pouch it came in and make do with a bag from an inflight pack. The larger version of this turns into a tarp shelter with trekking poles, but I prefer this shorter option.

Stuart: Nope
I get wet. On the street this is no big deal as I’ll just take cover, but when I need to continue walking (or am in the outdoors) I just get soaked. I ruined one of my old Nikons while on a multi-day trek in Burma where I had to walk for half a day in the rain and had no protective gear.


Sally: 2 litre Platypus bladder
This slides into a pocket in my daypack. I don’t use a hose to drink out of this as I prefer a bottle, but use the bladder for water storage to refill my bottle. I have a fear of running out of water.

Stuart: Nope

Sally in West Papua. Prepared. With flowers. Photo by: Sally Arnold.
Sally in West Papua. Prepared. With flowers. Photo: Sally Arnold

Sally: Stainless steel water bottle
You don’t need to buy water in plastic bottles. Most hotels will do refills from bulk gallons. I bought this in Bali. Heavier than plastic or aluminium bottles, but I can fill it with hot water and stuff into a sock for a cosy makeshift hot water bottle on a cold night! One day I’ll get a titanium bottle.

Stuart: Nope
This is totally unforgivable and I’m buying one tomorrow.

Sally: Sawyer Squeeze-System Water Filter
In case I’m stuck so where I can’t get a water refill. And you know, in case of the apocalypse. This is the best and smallest I’ve found. They claim it removes 99.99999% of all bacteria. Weighs 85 grams. Good tasting water. I also use it to filter tap water to make coffee in my hotel room as the coffee tastes better.

Stuart: Nope
I work on the assumption I'll always be able to get drinking water. Yes, this is dumb considering how much outdoor hiking I do.


Sally: AeroPress coffee maker
Makes decent coffee, almost the best without an espresso machine. I use a stainless steel filter (paper filters come with the coffee maker).

Why on earth would I need an umbrella? Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Why on earth would I need an umbrella? Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stuart: Nope.
I whinge non-stop about local coffee.

Sally: Immersion boiler
To make hot water from my coffee.

Stuart: Nope.
See whinging above.

Sally: Snow Peak Titanium double walled cup
I boil my water in this with the immersion boiler and also drink out of it (obviously) the double wall means it’s not hot on my delicate lips. Handles fold flat for packing.

Stuart: Nope

Sally: Coffee
I carry pre-ground espresso blend from Mandailing in Sumatra. Smooth and strong. If I was a real coffee aficionado, I’d carry beans and a grinder (yes I do own a portable one—actually two).

Stuart: Nope
I whinge non-stop about local coffee.

Sally: Swiss Army knife
I used the bottle opener and scissors on this trip.

Stuart: Nope
Almost any metal door key can be used to open a beer bottle.

Sally: Sea to Summit Folding X-bowl
This is something I carried and though I didn’t use this time, I often use it for a quick bowl of cereal or a snack. It has a built in chopping board on the bottom. Folds flat. Unfortunately ants seem to like the taste of the silicone and have eaten tiny holes in it.

Stuart: Nope

Sally: Titanium spoon
For eating cereal and stirring coffee.

Stuart: Nope

Sally: Stainless steel straw
This lives in my handbag, and I try to remember to refuse plastic straws, until I lose it. I lost it on this trip—this is a replacement.

Stuart: Nope


Sally: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket
This is 800 fill down which means it’s really warm, but packs really small. Weighs just 170 grams. Stuffs into its own pocket.

Take my word for it I was bitterly cold when I took this photo. Was I dressed for it? No. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Take my word for it I was bitterly cold when I took this photo. Was I dressed for it? No. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stuart: Nope
I own virtually nothing warm. I have a single long-sleeved dress shirt. Something like what Sally has would be a very intelligent addition to my wardrobe.

Sally: Kathmandu Camisa Merino Cardigan
For cooler evenings and air-con transport. Lightweight and can look dressy if needed.

Stuart: Nope
See above.


Sally: Sea to Summit Premium Silk Travel Liner
This sleep sheet has a pillow slip built in and stretchy sides for extra comfort. The material is ripstop silk, but I still manage to rip it.

Packing what you expect to need is a good starting point. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Packing what you expect to need is a good starting point. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stuart: Nope
I sometimes travel with a sarong (though not on this trip) which I can use as a top sheet if needed.

Sally: Sea to Summit Traveller Tr I Sleeping Bag
I have a few sleeping bags, but this is good for Southeast Asia. it’s very lightweight down rated 10°, and unzips flat like a doona. It has no hood and the toes have a drawstring rather than a zip which is good for warmer nights to give your pinkies a bit of air. I was very grateful for this in Dieng.

Stuart: Nope
We have sleeping bags at home for camping but they are too heavy and bulky to pack on a trip like this where we had no plans for camping.

Sally: Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow
I like to have my own pillow and have tried several. This has an odd feel and seems lumpy, as it’s made from the chips of foam cut out from Therm-a-Rest sleeping mats, but you don’t feel the lumps when you sleep and it’s just the right height for me. They come in four sizes and squish down with a drawstring. Mine is a small.

Stuart: Nope
I’ll just put up with being uncomfortable.

Sally: Earplugs
I bought a 100 pack of 3M E-A-Rsoft with a 33 dB rating. Soft and comfortable bell-shaped and pliable. I hope I never run out. I keep them in a small Humangear GoTubb squeeze-open box.

Stuart: Nope
I have a phobia of being in a guesthouse fire and not being able to hear the drama. I can’t use earplugs.

Sally: Eye mask
I am very sensitive to light and need this for a good night’s sleep. I find the kind you get on planes hot. This Eagle Creek Easy Blink Eye Shade is moulded so it doesn’t touch your eyes, but cuts out most light.

Stuart: Nope
While I sleep very poorly in general, light doesn’t annoy me.

Sally: Therm-a-Rest Lite Seat inflatable cushion
For long bumpy bus journeys on hard seats. Feels like a lounge chair. Really. It almost compensates for the smokers on the bus. It’s all about comfort.

Stuart: Nope
I’ll just put up with being uncomfortable.

Cabeau Air Evolution Inflatable neck pillow
So I can sleep on trains and buses without crinking my neck. This one has an extra ’bump’ on the back for more comfort and neck support and a string with toggles that click together to stop it falling off. I lost my favourite neck pillow and this is a backup.

Stuart: Nope
I’ve spent a significant amount of my life ridiculing people walking around airports wearing these. I’ll just put up with being uncomfortable.


Sally: Headlamp
Petzl Zipka with self-adjusting retractable cord to hold onto my head. Very bright 200 lumen LED light. I have a pouch for it as I like pouches.

Sometimes all you need easily fits on a scooter, but it is a skill to know what you actually need. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Sometimes all you need easily fits on a scooter, but it is a skill to know what you actually need. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stuart: iPhone
The torch in my iPhone 5 is a poor substitute, to a head torch primarily because I have to hold it. When climbing at night, a head torch is really close to essential so you have both hands free.

Sol emergency bivvy bag
In case of emergency. We are travelling in Indonesia, land of volcanoes, earthquakes, floods and tsunamis. Fits inside my cup, weighs 107 grams. I hope I never have to use it.

Stuart: Ummm, no.
I had to Google this to find out what it even was.

Sally: Protector SpraySafe Respirator
Ok this is something I don’t normally carry, but I had visited Ijen before and the masks they supply are designed for local noses. I have a big Western nose and had a mask that fitted me, so packed for this trip. Same for the protective safety goggles. The mask and goggles are both designed for particles and gases. I was very glad to have both, even if it was only for one day.

Stuart: Nope
This is a pretty special case usage item, but I absolutely should have had one for Ijen as the rented equipment is of a very poor standard.


Sally: Lowa Renegade Boots
Comfortable boots that fit well are a good investment. I wear mine with inner soles that give more support. I like a higher boot that provides ankle support when I’m climbing, but they are heavier and hotter.

My Nikon was screwed but my feet were ok. Packing for wet weather is prudent. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
My Nikon was screwed but my feet were ok. Packing for wet weather is prudent. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stuart: Timberland Hiking boots
The range of boots in Bali for feet as big as mine is not great, though these were a reasonable pair. The soles are starting to fall apart though and I've only had them a year or so.

Sally: Ecco Yucatan trekking sandals
Ugly but they are the most comfortable shoes I own. These Ecco’s are my favourite as all the points of contact to your feet are padded with neoprene to prevent blisters and they have the best grip on rocks of any trekking sandals I’ve tried. They smell really bad after a while, so I occasionally buy a small bottle of mouthwash to bathe them in.

Stuart: Nope
If I’m not wearing boots I’m wearing flip flops—nothing in between.

Sally: Flip flops
Yes, three pairs of shoes, there is a little Imelda in every woman. These are Crocs slip-ons as I don’t like the between your toe thing. Good for hostel bathrooms, the beach and mine look kind of dressy I think (well, for flip flops).

Stuart: Flip flops
Green ones.

Sally: Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles
I have been walking with trekking poles for years, saves my knees and back and gives my arms a workout. I prefer fixed height as there is less to break than on adjustable ones. Cork handles are best for sweaty tropical conditions. These collapse to 40 cm and easily fit in my bag.

Stuart: Nope
I've used trekking poles on some climbs, Rinjani for example, and they were very helpful, but that is a big climb and all the peaks we planned to hike were easy climbs so I felt these were not necessary. For a big, multi-day climb, yes I would pack these.


Sally: Injinji Socks
I carried two pairs, but one would have done. They may look silly, but I find toe socks stop me from getting blisters in the heat. These are merino, the best sock material in my opinion. I don’t wear them with my sandals (okay, I did once).

Kramas have many usages. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Kramas have many usages. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stuart: Nope.
No fancy socks—just normal ones (mentioned in the general clothing wrap further down).

Sally: Lightweight merino wool Buff
Basically a tube of cosy warm fine wool that can be used as a neck warmer or hat.

Stuart: Kramas
I pack two kramas. I use them as a scarf, around head, and on occasion to bind a fractured ankle.

Sally: Gloves
To keep my fingers warm! Mine are leather with cashmere lining. They are a bit wrecked as they are not really for trekking in wet conditions, but it’s amazing how you can fix things with duct tape.

Stuart: Nope
I decided it wouldn’t be cold enough to warrant packing gloves. I was wrong.

Sally: Hat
Got to get a hat to get ahead. Mine is made from water hyacinth and squishes flat. Can be reshaped by wetting it. Very lightweight and shady, by Sydney milliner Maya Newman. Pricey but a good investment.

Stuart: An old AFP baseball cap
Nicked from Sam.

Sally: Day-to-day clothing
I hate hand washing, so for a short trip I pack enough that I don’t have to wash, and for a longer trip pack enough to last about a week between laundries. This trip was planned to be 10 days, so I packed 10 changes of clothes (excessive some may think, but I really would rather carry more than wash). I’m not a fan of synthetics no matter how technical the fabric, and for travel wear pack lightweight fine cotton shirts (I find T-shirts hot) and light stretch woven cotton 3/4 length pants. For trekking I packed two Icebreaker merino T-shirts and one long sleeve Kathmandu merino top. I do concede on the technical fabrics for trekking pants and packed three pairs of very light stretchy Kathmandu pants. I don’t think they make the exact same ones anymore, but they are very quick dry, keep me cool in the heat and warm when it’s cold. I threw in a dress on this trip as we were visiting a few cities, in case we went to a nice restaurant or something. I pack enough undies for the trip, mine are not technical and find regular one suffice. Of course they match in case I end up in hospital. Swimwear—this trip I took a rashie, board shorts and a bikini to wear under them which is a decent modest look for this part of the world. I forgot to pack my one-piece for the hotel pool though, but did throw in a sarong and light silk scarf for mosque visits.

Stuart: Day-to-day clothing
Five generic t-shirts, one pair of Levis, one pair of cargo shorts and a pair of board shorts. Underwear & socks suffice for five days. Two kramas.

Sally: Pyjamas
Comfort. I wear a T-shirt designed by Indonesian artist, Eko Nugroho’s DGTMB collective. Support local artists!

Stuart: Nope


Sally: Towel
Hostels don’t always supply one and I am a bit fussy when it comes to icky threadbare hotel towels. I sometimes bring a packtowel, but this trip I bought a thin regular towel from Ikea. The grey colour doesn’t show the dirt.

Packing your own toothbrush is generally a good idea. Photo by: Nicky Sullivan.
Packing your own toothbrush is generally a good idea. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Stuart: Nope
I rely on there being a hotel towel. If not I use the pillowcase, else one of my kramas.

Sally: Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes
All my clothes I pack into these are terrific packing cubes made of Ultra-light water repellent ripstop silnylon with an extra compression zip which reduces the size to about half. I love them. I have a variety of colours so I can easily identify and grab the one I need. I pack tops into one, bottoms into another and swimwear/ sleepwear / towel etc into another and use smaller ones for undies and accessories. I have pouches of the same material for shoes, rainwear and other bits and bobs.

Stuart: Nope
Once my clothes get filthy I use a minimart plastic bag to separate the filthy from the less filthy.

Sea to Summit Travelling Light Hanging Toiletry Bag
Hangs up over the door if there are no hooks and has a small lightweight mirror. I just take basic toiletries in small sizes and put my moisturiser into a Humangear GoTubb.

Stuart: Nope
I use a used bag from a Circle K.

Sally: Small first aid kit
This has basic medications, Betadine and a few bandaids. Also contains small hotel-style sewing kit. If I was travelling somewhere more remote, I would have added a few extra things here.

Stuart: Nope
I pack just deodorant, a toothbrush, toothpaste and my ventolin.

Sally: Mozzie spray
Wet season so the mozzies were bad. I pack a small Utama Spice Begone Bug spray, a local Bali product which seems to work and smells nice. For nighttime I have a small Hit Mat—an electronic chemical zapper you plug into the power. Small and about 10,000 rupiah in the local minimarkets. Again if going to a more remote malarial or dengue area, I’d have packed a light mozzie net.

Stuart: Nope
I tend not to get bitten much, or so I think. I’ve now had dengue fever twice.

Sally: Extras
In my shoulder bag I carry these sundries: Ella Bache 50+ lip balm; Bach Rescue Remedy (for those stressful days); Vicks Inhaler; tissues (good for when there’s no toilet paper); spare hairbands and a glasses cleaning cloth which I use for my specs and camera lens; notebook and pens. I like an A6 paper notebook. I start out with around six pens. On this trip I was left with two. (Ed: Stu probably took them.)

Stuart: Extras
A few notebooks and pens.


Sally: Tech and cables
Laptop packed in a padded pouch and a drybag; laptop cords; mouse (I don’t like trackpads); USB battery charger for mouse batteries; USB thing to make extra USB points; two external hard drives — one for backups and one for photos; iPad (with Netflix and books for a little downtime); iPhone; chargers; battery pack for phone; Sennheiser Bluetooth headphones; snappy camera — Canon SX720 HS. This little camera has an excellent zoom and takes OK photos for what it is. Smaller and more discreet than an SLR, and besides TravelFish is not National Geographic; extra camera battery and camera memory cards. I forgot my camera battery charger on this trip, so had to buy a cheapo generic thing that worked OK. All this stuff packs into zipped pouches for easy identification and protection.

Small extension powerboard with USB points. My laptop has the strangest plug that doesn’t fit any Power sockets in any country I visit. I find this more useful than a regular converter plug (although I still have to carry one if the country doesn’t have a two point round plug). The orange plastic thing is to covert three point square plugs used in Malaysia and Singapore to two point round. It lives on my powerboard for when I need it.

Stuart: Tech and cables
One MacBook Pro with charger. One iPhone 5 with charger & cable. One Anker external battery (for the iPhone). One Nikon D5600 with the kit lens + a 50m fixed lens. No extra power cables. One universal plug.


Sally: Paper book
I mostly travel with ebooks, but was reading this before the trip. I only had time for about four pages as Stuart introduced me to Twitter. Paper map, because Google Maps doesn’t have the same pleasure as tracking your trip on paper.

But sometimes, you need to pack almost nothing... Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
But sometimes, you need to pack almost nothing... Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stuart: One book
I’m a very slow reader, so one book will last me multiple trips.

Sally: Misc
A continuously growing waterproof pouch for business cards, brochures, receipts and tickets. By the end of the trip this weighed 1.2 kg.

Stuart: Misc
Ended up with just under a kilo of paperwork after this trip.

Further reading

Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.

Get an idea

Get a plan

Get some money

Get insurance

Get your documents

Get your gear

Get packing

Get the most out of your trip

Get talking

Get booking

Get around

Get fed

Get out alive

Get working