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What You Should NOT Pack For Volunteering Abroad

Mandi Schmitt in India

There are numerous challenges and obstacles that you encounter when you make the brave and noble decision to volunteer abroad. Chronologically smack dab in the middle of those concerns is what should you bring on your journey? This can vary immensely depending on the location you pick, how long you’re going to stay there, and what kind of project you work on. However, there is a fairly universal list of things NOT to bring.

No matter how much you want to prepare for every circumstance while volunteering abroad, in most cases, most of these things will just weigh you down. Since most volunteer projects are in remote locations, having a light backpack will be optimal. It’s also inadvisable to bring things that will distract you from your main purpose and from immersing yourself in your surroundings. Lastly, it’s just plain silly to bring things you won’t use throughout your trip.

Without further ado, here is a compilation of items you should NOT pack while volunteering abroad:

1. Too Many Toiletries

It’s smart to have some travel size objects like shampoo and toothpaste with you, but by and large you can stock up on toiletries wherever you go. Even if you are volunteering in a remote village, it’s likely that you’ll fly into a large city in the beginning and have an opportunity to buy items there.

We also suggest against packing perfume/cologne. These items can be heavy, and oftentimes attract unwanted insects -- which won't help you much if you're in a malaria zone or anywhere where other mosquito-transmitted diseases are an issue.

What You Should Pack: a small bag with the most essential toiletries in travel sized bottles.

2. Brand New Shoes

You don’t want anything that will give you blisters, and, depending on your location, shoes could become dirty or ruined fairly quickly. Also on that note, women should avoid packing high heels. Although you may have an occasion or two where you want to look nice, these are impractical on unpaved roads and just generally bulky and heavy.

What You Should Pack: a comfortable pair of shoes you don't mind getting dirty and feel good about wearing every day. While we're all down for Tevas and the like, if your go-to shoe at home is a basic pair of flats or flip flops, you may want those for those "I don't feel like a real human" days.

3. A Suitcase

Packed suitcase

Between planes, trains, buses, taxis, tuk tuks, ferries and what have you, you will be very grateful to not have to roll or cart around a suitcase.

What You Should Pack: Instead, opt for a lightweight backpack. If you still don't have one, we're big fans of Osprey's lifetime warranty, and any outdoor store that has a "humanitarian discount", which, as an international volunteer, you can use! (Bonus tip: the smaller your pack, the less likely you are to overpack!)

4. Too Many Electronics and Books

First of all, you don’t want any of these things to get lost, broken, or stolen. Second of all, having too many gadgets with you takes away from being fully in the moment. Volunteering is an experience you don’t want to let go to waste. Third of all, they can take up a lot of space in your backpack. (For the wires that you do bring, check out #6 on Apple's List of Travel Hacks.)

Oh, and the books? Though having something to read is always beneficial, books are very heavy and oftentimes other volunteers will have their own books that you can swap for.

What You Should Pack: On that note, you will have a good amount of downtime and may not have constant access to internet or electricity for that matter. So, packing a Kindle / Nook is a lightweight way to keep plenty of reading material on you, and the Kindle Fire in particular can take the place of lugging around your laptop.

5. Items With Strong Personal Value

Having a few pictures of family and friends can be comforting, but with all the modes of communication these days they are really unnecessary. Carting around other personal, non-useful items just gets odious. Furthermore, if you own something that is priceless to you, DO NOT take it with you. The risk of it becoming lost, broken, or stolen is simply too great. It will be there when you get back.

What You Should Pack: do bring at least one thing that makes you happy though! Whether it's a fun magazine, a bag of gummy bears, or a cheap t-shirt you feel ultra comfortable in, there are plenty of things you can bring that will remind you of home without making you worried about loosing it!

6. Anything Flashy

In most places you volunteer, you will already stand out enough. Attracting even more attention to yourself with flashy jewelry, nice electronics, and the like will not only be a hassle, but can increase your chances of getting pick pocketed. So, leave your favorite pair of earrings at home, and instead look forward to picking up a great, unique, new pair in your host country!

What You Should Pack: A basic wardrobe you can mix and match easily.

7. Drugs Without Prescriptions

Obviously illegal drugs should not be crossing borders, but even over the counter drugs should have an accompanying prescription with them just in case you get questioned. After all, you wouldn't want to take the time to stock up on your allergy meds or anti-malarials only to have them taken away at customs!

What You Should Pack: A printed prescription for any over the counter drugs, as well as a digital copy (scan or photo) that you can easily access on your phone or e-mail. Just in case!

8. Household Goods

Airplane wing

All bedding and household essentials should be provided by the volunteer organization, so you won’t need to bring anything extra, like blankets, pots, pans, etc. They just take up space and, if your organization doesn't provide anything, can be bought cheaply in your local market.

Some folks also prefer to travel with a sleeping bag -- which can be handy for camping or visiting friends in country -- but there are also quite a few out there who would argue against it being bulky and unneeded. We'll leave this one up to you!

What You Should Pack: A little extra savings to help you with these start-up costs.

9. Anything That Can Be Replaced By An App

A smart phone is an incredibly convenient tool that can single-handedly replace numerous cumbersome gadgets and save you some space (and money!) while packing. This can include language learning apps, distance converters, currency converters, temperature converters, a small flashlight, guidebooks, calculator, and more.

What You Should Pack: Your (unlocked) smartphone! Do note that unlocking an iPhone will make you loose your warranty on it, however.

10. A Pack Full of REI "Essentials"

Especially if you are going somewhere remote, you'll be tempted to pack a suitcase full of REI-style outdoors wear. And, while having a rain jacket and a good pair of trail-runners may be essential for the activities you want to do, you won't necessarily want to wear cargo pants and a quick-dry t-shirt every single day, right?

Furthermore, REI has some (pretty awesome) outdoor gear, but you won't need all of that either. Again, stick to the essentials.

What You Should Pack: we recommend bringing a head lamp for power outages, a rain jacket, a pocket knife, and easy to hand wash clothes, but again, all of these depends on you and where you're volunteering!

11. Candy, Pens, or Small Gifts to Give Children

It’s important to be a responsible volunteer, and this means contributing something more meaningful than free hand outs. If you feel drawn to donate something, it’s better to give to the school or program so that gifts are regulated. Don't encourage begging by bringing things to hand out (especially to children). As easy and helpful as it may seem, there are far more responsible ways to give back.

What You Should Pack: Gifts for your host family and organization, or a donation of books / materials to be given directly to a school / hospital / NGO you have already arranged with before departing.

Just For The Girls

Let’s face it, girls are notorious over packers and have a few extra items they'll want to throw in that aren't on the average guy's packing list. Which is why we have this list of items especially for the girls out there. (Guys, you can skip on over to our conclusion!)

  • Shorts, tank tops, revealing dresses: Pretty much wherever you are in the world, dressing modestly is always the safest bet.
  • Hair dryer: It takes up too much space 2. It will most likely surge when used with an adapter 3. They are pretty cheap to buy in country, and they will then have the right plug.
  • Lots of jewelry: Some accessories are ok, and even encouraged in some cultures, but too much can take up a lot of room and aren’t necessary. And like we said earlier, you won't want to stand out more than you do!
  • Big purses without zippers: Having a big bag can sometimes be convenient for day trips, but make sure it has a sturdy zipper to avoid pick-pocketing.
  • Loads of make-up: Sometimes a girl just needs to feel pretty, but bringing a hundred different eye shadows or make-up brushes really isn’t practical. I’ve found that just some mascara and concealer does wonders.

Bonus: Intangible Items to Leave at Home

Medical volunteers in Nepal

Above all, a volunteer abroad experience is a cultural exchange. You signed up to provide a service to help those in need, and in return you gain understanding and a deeper sympathy for humanity. To ensure this, there are a few things other than your favorite family photo and expensive watch that you should leave behind. Namely, a few ugly mentalities that can keep you from actually doing good.

  • A bad attitude: This will get you absolutely no where. You willingly signed up to participate in a project to help improve conditions in developing areas abroad. Complaining and not wanting to do your share of the work won't improve your circumstances or help you accomplish your goals as a volunteer.
  • Preconceived notions: Having set ideas or beliefs, either positive or negative, about a country before you get there isn't a good idea. Doing so can leave you disappointed once you arrive and close you off from learning and growing from the experience.
  • Close-mindedness: Being unwilling to change your mentality, learn from your surroundings, or grow as a person is a huge detriment to yourself and the community you're assisting. Don't go in to this experience thinking your way is the only way or with an unwillingness to learn from those around you or change the way you think about the world!
  • Inflexibility: You have to learn right away that things will not always go according to plan. You need to be comfortable with rolling with the punches in any circumstance.

Preparing to leave the comforts of your home to venture into a completely new experience can absolutely be overwhelming and stressful, but knowing what and what not to pack doesn’t have to be. Once you are in your new surroundings, the things you struggled over leaving behind won’t matter in the least. After all, volunteering abroad isn’t about looking your best, it’s about immersing yourself in another culture, helping them improve their quality of life, and expanding you and your community's outlook on the world.

Photo Credits: Author, Moving Mountains Trust, epSos.de, and Mat Honan.
Mandi Schmitt

Mandi has studied, volunteered, interned, and lived abroad in all sorts of fascinating places, including Rome, London, India, Costa Rica, and Tanzania. She started writing for Go Overseas as a Columnist before coming on full time as the PR & Special Projects Director. Keep up with her on @Mandi_Overseas and Google+.