What does an Aid Worker pack?

After a number of requests I catalogued what I'd travelled with to Yemen, and the essentials that I never leave home without.

Packing 101

A couple of friends have suggested I do a post on what I pack for deployments. I've been meaning to do something like this for ages, but the tricky part is that I generally pack very different things for each deployment. One of the downsides of my job (which is also an upside) is that I never know what's going to happen next. I've been deployed to Yemen ostensibly for 3 months, and that's what I packed for. But if a major disaster strikes somewhere else in the world, I'll be pulled out of here quick smart. So there's always a balancing act between clothes that are appropriate for the context I know I'm going into, and clothes for a range of other contexts that I might be sent on to. But first things first: what to put everything in.


My check in bag is a 95L Vigilante rolling duffle. I upgraded from a backpack before I started this job as I'm not quite grown up enough for a proper suitcase, and found this one for half price. I hadn't realised it weighs 4.4kg, which means I'm normally only packing 19-20kg of stuff and the bag is responsible for the rest! I've been quite happy with it, though it can be a bit cumbersome lugging it up stairs - either backpack straps, or one long strap across the top would make a huge difference. When you zip it open, the top has 3 mesh compartments (2 small on the outside, good for bits and pieces that get shoved in at the last minute, and one larger one in the middle). The bottom compartment has a separate zip, so after rolling all of my clothes and carefully arranging them (or shoving them once I get sick of carefully arranging) I then zip them all in, and am left with a nice space on top for my electronics bag (I just use an old cosmetic bag to keep all my adaptors and cables in), toiletries, shoes etc.

I also keep a Tatonka 45L bag in my luggage, which is good for spending up to a couple of weeks in the field, going on R&R, bringing home presents etc. Last time I rolled it up and secured it with belts in the bottom part of my luggage, which did take up a fair bit of room in the clothing section. This time, I'd been rolling up all my clothes on my bed and wasn't quite ready to start packing, so I just put them all in the Tatonka bag until the next morning. I realised that I could probably just travel with just the 45L, (you may recall I travelled 3 months around the world with only carry on) but then I'd have no room for any Yemeni goodies. So instead of unpacking the Tatonka into my big bag, I just plonked the whole thing in - there was room left in the bottom section for other bulkier things, and while I couldn't zipper it shut into the bottom, it was still very easy to rest my electronics bag etc on top of it. And then all my clothes were together when I pulled it out of the luggage. I'll definitely be doing that again! Both of these bags are bright red, which really helps on the conveyor belt at the airport - perhaps not as individual as orange polka dots or leopard print, it sure beats a black suitcase!

For carry on I have my work issued laptop backpack (which normally has my work and personal laptops in it, but I left my netbook at home this time), and then a rather large handbag that I use for my laptop once I'm in country, to be a little more discreet.


I'm packed for conservativeness, a lot of long baggy tops (some that are actually dresses, or swimsuit caftans) and long skirts. Not knowing what the laundry situation was going to be, I overpacked a little and brought 8 long tops with me, to let me get through a week without having to do laundry. Thankfully, we have someone who does that for us, so it wasn't necessary. I also bought 2 long skirts and 3 trousers to rotate. I also packed an abaya that a friend lent me, that has already come in handy to cover up on the way to a cocktail party!

While these are bulky and took up a lot of room, of course I was able to squish in some smart summery dresses that are more fitted, which are appropriate for the office in say, Nairobi, or a dinner party in the UK, or a beach party in Beirut. And add leggings and a long sleeve top underneath and they're appropriate for almost anywhere (except Muslim countries where clothes need to be baggy everywhere!) I also chucked in a couple of branded polo shirts, which with cargos is my uniform if I'm sent off to a field office somewhere.

To round out the clothing, I threw in some exercise leggings, a pair of shorts and a couple of t-shirts (which have come in very handy at volleyball), and a couple of other fun tops to either wear around the house, or on holiday somewhere afterwards. And I treated myself to 2 new pairs of Peter Alexander pajamas - the man really knows pajamas! Of course for Yemen I also brought 5 scarves to wear on my head. Never leave home without a fleece and of course, this made it into the bag for a photo shoot somewhere.


On the shoe front: 2 pairs of flip flops, walking shoes, a pair of sturdy mary janes (easy to take off in the air), and a pair of fold up ballet flats. I never pack high heels and always regret that, because no matter where I go, there's always a party to go to! Since I've been here, I've only worn the flip flops (and borrowed heels off my housemate!).


I travel with a basic first aid kit (which never seems to be removed from my luggage) and a basic medicine kit, which is basically just full of paracetamol, immodium and rehydration salts. I have a silk sleeping bag liner that folds down to almost nothing, which has come in very handy in places where the sheets aren't clean...or there are no sheets. I'm kicking myself for forgetting my coffee plunger mug, which was another excellent sale buy (basically I don't go into stores like Kathmandu or Colombia unless they're having a sale!), and makes good size cups of coffee for 3 people, or a supersize 'cup' for 1! What else?

I did buy a cheap little headtorch about 18 months ago which hadn't been removed from my bag. I pulled it out the other day and the batteries had calcified and it went straight in the bin. Lucky I picked up a keyring sized wind up LED light which is awesome (and orange). I always pack a lot of zip lock bags, which I use for a whole host of things not limited to leaking toiletries. I've used them to keep receipts together, and at the moment I have one in my handbag with a photocopy of my passport and visa etc, just in case. I keep an Australian power board in my bag, so if I have a lot of things to charge up or use, then I only need one adaptor to plug into the wall. What I should do is pick up a power board that you can put any type of plug in, as this would save the problem of my UK laptop and phone chargers.

I took out my gore-tex rain jacket as it hadn't moved from my bag in a year. While it rolls down to a small ball, it's just weight I don't need. A flat umbrella does the trick. Other things that stay in the bag include 2 packs of cards, a stubby cooler (there used to be 2, but someone in Liberia pilfered one!), a little photo album story that my friend Jules made for me which I keep a few extra photos in, and I think that's about it. Finally, a pegless washing line has been so handy to string up in a bathroom when handwashing clothes.


After listing everything out, I can see that I definitely travel with too much! There are things that I keep in my bag for 'just in case' reasons, but even if I didn't have them and suddenly needed them, I think I'd be able to find what I needed. Knowing now that my luggage weighs 4kg on its own is definitely enlightening. That being said, packing for 3 months (or more) and only checking 24kgs isn't too shabby!

What do you never leave home without? What sort of luggage do you prefer?

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