Volunteering abroad is an experience we recommend to anyone who can dedicate time, skills, and passion to those in need no matter where they might be. And though more and more people are jumping on board with their positive intentions, there’s one question many soon-to-be international volunteers are asking: What do I pack?
Knowing exactly what to pack for your volunteer abroad project will ensure that you don’t live through the nightmare of overpacking, and then having to lug all that unnecessary stuff around with you while you travel. So, we’ve put together a comprehensive list of what every volunteer needs to be prepared for an international volunteer adventure, no matter which project or destination you’ve enrolled in.
Let’s start with the items that will disqualify your volunteer abroad trip should you forget them at home.
THE ABSOLUTE ESSENTIALS
Important travel documents might seem like a no-brainer, but with all the excitement surrounding your trip, and stressing over whether you’ve packed all the right gear, you’d be surprised at the number of participants who leave home without their most important documents, only to arrive at the airport with no way of boarding the plane.
Passport–uh, how do you think you’re going to leave the country? Keep this little travel bible so close to you you forget it isn’t an extremity.
Backup ID–always have a secondary id. Sometimes two ids are needed to confirm travel arrangements. Your secondary id can be government issued or even a student id but make sure it’s a photo id with your full name and birthday.
Medical Docs–Some countries require proof of vaccinations before entry. Make sure to check with your embassy and have copies of your docs, if needed.
Arrival details–Your program should have sent over some details about what to do and where to go once you’re out of customs. Make sure to jot this info down or print it out so you aren’t as clueless as you could be once you arrive.
Itinerary–very important to know what you’re going to be doing in a foreign country. Some customs agents will ask details about your stay including the company you’ll be volunteering with, exact address of accommodations, and expected departure date.
Debit/Credit cards–Make sure to inform your banks of your travel plans. Some banks place an automatic freeze on accounts attempting to make a purchase in a foreign country. Banks do this for your protection, as long as you communicate your plans, things should go smoothly.
Cash–You never know what to expect in a new country. ATM’s might be scarce, and businesses in more remote areas might not be so keen on accepting card transactions. Make sure to have enough cash on hand to last you at least a few days before you get the full scope on money machines.
Toiletries–Ok, so you’ll still make it overseas without toiletries but we’re still considering it an absolute essential. So, make sure to pack:
- Travel size shampoo & conditioner (2 in 1 keeps things simple)
- Toothbrush, floss, and travel size mouthwash
- All-purpose lotion
- Hand sanitizer
- Cleansing wipes — these always come in handy!
Now, moving on to the more pressing packing issue…
VOLUNTEER FASHION STYLE
Whether you’re the kind of packer who meticulously utilizes every inch of your luggage efficiently, or the type to randomly toss in the nearest clothing items, you run the risk of bringing the wrong gear. But no need to fear! Here’s your go to list.
Shirts–A mix of short and long sleeve. About 5-7 should do it.
Bottoms–A mix of shorts and long pants. About 5 should do. Mix and match with your tops and you’ll have outfits for days.
Outerwear–An all-purpose jacket that’s durable in the rain, sleet, snow, and wind. Keep it lightweight for slightly chilly days and layer up with under armour for colder nights.
Underwear–No going commando on this trip. Pack enough undies to keep you secure. About a week’s worth is perfect (and a few extra pairs never hurt!)
Socks–Also about a week’s worth. Most volunteer projects will either require you to be active outdoors or in some sort of facility (think classroom for Teaching English, or clinic for a Medical program), so you’ll likely be we wearing comfy kicks and you do not want to wear those without socks. However, if you’re engaging in a Sea Turtle Conservation program and will be spending most your time patrolling the sandy beaches, you might spend more time in sandals and therefore will not require as many pairs of socks.
Footwear–Very important. But volunteering abroad is no place to show off your shoe collection. One pair of very comfy sneakers and one pair of durable sandals should do it. They should be worn in for the best feel, as new shoes might leave you with new blisters.
Scarf–A heavy scarf if you’re going someplace cold or visiting Peru in the winter; a light scarf that can protect you from the sun, or double as a beach cover up if you’re volunteering near the beach in Costa Rica.
Swimsuit–Volunteering abroad isn’t all work and no play. Likely there will be a chance for some water action and you do not want to miss out.
This next group of items aren’t necessary but would be helpful.
Water bottle–Stay hydrated. A reusable water bottle ensures your hydration, limits your spending, and is great for the planet.
A notebook & pen–Journaling can be a great way to destress, reconnect, maintain your memories, and stay focused on your goals. Also, what are you doing to use when you need to jot something down and your electronics are dead?
Conversion adapter–This is actually necessary if the outlets in your visiting country are different than those in your home country. Make sure you take into consideration the possible differences in supply voltage. For example, U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, and Guatemala use 110 volts, Europe and Peru use 220 volts.
Cell phone –Call your service provider to determine what kinds of fees, if any, you might incur while using your device overseas. If none, you definitely want to go ahead and bring those along. But if so, consider bringing an unlocked device; you can always purchase a local SIM card that would allow you to stay connected.
We hope the information above has helped you to narrow down some of your options in terms of your packing agenda. However, we also want to give you some more specifics about what you’ll need depending on the project you get involved with. Keep reading for additional tips for specific volunteer abroad projects.
Working with Kids
Working with kids requires lots of energy, and you will engage in plenty of fun activities! But beware the madness! Prepare to have paint spilled on you from arts & crafts projects, dirt smeared on you from outdoor sports, or food hurled at you by messy toddlers. This calls for used, comfy clothing and old banged up sneakers.
Volunteers who choose to teach English put themselves in an authoritative position that many English students respect. Therefore, some countries may require English volunteers to dress a bit more professionally. Pants over jeans, and blouses versus t-shirts might be better options.
There are a number of different types of conservation programs you can join; for a sea turtle or beach conservation program you will be working on the beach. Sandals, shorts, t-shirts, swimsuits, sunglasses, and sunscreen are all recommended–make note of rainy seasons as you will definitely need to bring a rain jacket; a jungle reforestation program might require hiking boots, long sleeve shirts and long pants to protect against bugs and branches, mosquito repellent, and a hat; an eco-agriculture program will see you working hard alongside farmers so comfortable tennis shoes and clothing you don’t mind breaking a sweat in.
A variety of clothing is suggested for a construction or animal care program as you never know if you’ll be working indoors or out. What you do know is that it will get messy! Again, a pair of comfortable sneakers should do, a variety of long and short sleeve shirts, long pants and shorts, a hat, and some sun protectors.
Medical volunteers should definitely pack their gear! Scrubs and stethoscopes are necessary items to pack. Additional donations are always greatly appreciated at the volunteer sites. In the past, volunteers have donated gauze, bandages, hand sanitizer, antiparasitic pills, among others!
Make sure to pack all your basic necessities for this one as they may be scarce for indigenous community. This includes toiletries like travel size toothpaste, mouthwash, floss, soap, shampoo and conditioner, towelettes, and for my ladies–sanitary napkins!
Although the above serves as tips for specific volunteer projects, each site might require more or less items depending on its location and the amount of accessible resources.
We hope this article has helped you feel more confident about the packing mayhem about to ensue before volunteering abroad, but there’s still some work that needs to be done on your own! Consider your destination–it’s geography and climate, the time of year you are traveling, any excursions you’re planning outside of volunteering, the type of bag you want to bring along, and the project you’ve chosen.