I travel often on assignment, both domestically and overseas, and the more I travel the more fervently I believe in packing as lightly as possible. On a recent two-week research trip to Southeast Asia, I got away with a daypack and a small shoulder bag, 15 pounds of luggage in all. Carrying little means I save money in baggage fees and taxi fares, move more quickly, and spend less time watching my stuff and more time watching the world. (For some great advice on field reporting skills, see Douglas Fox’s [bio] chapter “Excavating the Evidence” in The Science Writers’ Handbook.)
Here are the key ingredients of my ultralight reporting kit:
The right bags. I’ve spent more time scrutinizing luggage options than I care to admit, but the right bags do help lighten a reporter’s load. I inevitably fill as much space as I give myself, so I choose luggage with just enough room for what I need. I pay attention to pockets: too few and my stuff jumbles together, too many and I’m constantly zipping and unzipping in search of the right power cord. I carry most of my reporting gear in a shoulder bag — I’m currently attached to the Ogio Tablet Purse, which has plenty of room for notebooks, pens, a digital recorder, my smartphone, and a bag of power cords and adapters. I carry my clothes other supplies in a daypack — I like the Timbuk2 Division Laptop Backpack for its padded laptop-or-tablet pocket and simple sturdiness. For trips that require a lot of cold-weather clothes or unusual gear (snorkel flippers come to mind) I carry a shoulder bag and a small Patagonia roller suitcase that I picked up on sale.
An iPad. Apple doesn’t need any advertising help from me, but tablet computers are a boon to traveling reporters. I used to carry a laptop, a guidebook, a couple of copies of the magazine I was working for, a paperback or two for downtime and hard copies of any documents I might refer to in the field. Now I just carry an iPad with an external keyboard.
I use Dropbox and DevonThinkToGo to access and back up notes and research materials; DocsToGo and Kindle for iPad to carry any files I might need to look at offline; and Kindle and iBooks to store guidebooks, magazines, and recreational reading.
Layers. I try to make all my clothes do at least double duty. Two long-sleeved shirts can be worn together in place of a sweater; a skirt and lightweight pants can be worn separately in the heat of the day and combined in the evening.
While a lot of “travel clothes” are versatile in this way, they’re not the most fun to wear – I mean really, does anyone feel truly comfortable and confident in a pair of those zip-off nylon pants? I’m a happier (and thriftier) reporter if I travel in clothes that I like to wear at home, making sure that they’re not only multipurpose but also washable and lightweight. And to make them as small as possible in transit, I use the packing method demonstrated in this slideshow.
Minimalist shoes. Shoes are often the bulkiest and heaviest items in my kit, so I try not to carry more than I need. I’ve owned so many pairs of Onitsuka Tigers that I should get a pro deal (listen up, Asics!). They can handle most outings short of a Himalayan trek, but are small and lightweight. I also carry a pair of flats or Mary Janes with sturdy soles—I’m still looking for the perfect successor to the sadly discontinued Merrell Barefoot Wonder Gloves, which weighed nothing, had Vibram soles, and could pass for dress shoes in a pinch.
Nonsoggy notebooks. I buy these Rite in the Rain memobooks in bulk. The water-resistant paper means you don’t have to bother with Ziplocs or dry bags, and they’re small enough to fit in a pocket. They also don’t look like reporter’s notebooks, an advantage if I’m traveling in a place where journalists are unwelcome or viewed with suspicion.
A budget line for the unexpected. Unless my trip is going to take me far from any kind of civilization, I pack for the expected and budget for the unexpected. In other words, I don’t carry a winter coat to the tropics. I pack for typical weather and, if there’s a cold snap, I buy a cheap coat and give it away before I head home.
I do this primarily to save weight, but I find there’s another benefit: shopping for everyday items in unfamiliar places takes me off the tourist track and into people’s daily lives, and those small but genuine connections help me collect the kind of contextual details so essential to reporting. They’re also part of the joy of travel. I have fond memories of buying an umbrella on the street in Istanbul, getting sized up (all too accurately) for running shorts in a sidewalk stall in Phnom Penh, buying dancing shoes in Sonora, borrowing rain pants in northern Norway, and shopping for picnic supplies in rural Alabama.
Especially when your destination is a new one, it can be tempting to pack as if you’re going to Mars, with gear for every contingency loaded on your back. But as a traveling reporter, your goal is to be immersed and connected, not self-sufficient. So set yourself up for some scavenger hunts, and see where they lead.
The product recommendations in this post were updated in late 2018.
Top photo by Flickr user 612gr. Creative Commons.