Around 15 years ago, at the same time that trips abroad became easier and less expensive and educated Americans began seeking unique and unusual travel experiences, volunteering became a regular part of the national conversation.
Today, around one in three Americans volunteer and most of the growth in volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, has been with short-term commitments defined as a volunteer vacation. For many volunteer travelers, the realization that they get to see the world and experience a closer connection with the local food, music, culture means a lot.
You’re Not in New York for the Weekend
If you’re doing volunteer work, it’s important to focus your packing on what you’ll be doing. Many packing lists you’ll find on the web do not account for the fact that you could be getting very messy and dirty.
A volunteer trip is not a care-free holiday. You must be reasonably self-reliant, able to clean your clothes yourself, able to stay healthy, and have enough variety in your bag to do many different kinds of tasks.
Many short-term volunteers carry an extra bag with supplies or gifts to donate to the people where they are headed. Depending on where you are going and for what reason, this particular step can ensure a lot of good will.
Bring what you need and only what you need
Traveling with as little as possible is great, but it’s essential to have what you need when you get there too. After all, most countries do not have a big-box-sells-everything-cheap store on every corner.
Ask lots of questions before you leave, so you’ll know.
- Are there laundry facilities nearby?
- Do I need towels, bedding, sleeping bag, mosquito netting, etc.?
- If I’m doing outdoor work, do I need work gloves, tools, etc.?
- Will I be able to recharge my camera, phone, laptop, etc.?
These are critical factors that determine what you put into your bag.
The Absolute Essentials
The following are absolute essentials you must pack:
- Small daypack to carry items to and from the site and on excursions
- Any medicines you need, plus the items we recommend all travelers have in their Travel Medical Kit
- A re-usable water bottle (you can refill as you go)
- A English-to-X language dictionary or translation app (excellent for helping with communication)
- Small flashlight and batteries (you may have to move about in the dark and where electricity is not reliable)
- Toiletries like toothpaste, shampoo/conditioner, razors, etc.
- Sunglasses and a hat
- Laundry detergent (put the powder in a zippered plastic bag and double-bag it)
Of course, depending on your trip, you may want to bring items like binoculars, portable music players, sports equipment, and more, but think carefully about it because every pound matters when you’re carrying it up an unfamiliar road in the dark!
The Clothing Essentials
When it comes to your clothing, choose sturdy, hard-working items that can be easily layered – we know you can figure out the basic stuff, but add these to the pile:
- a light rain-proof jacket for unpredictable weather
- flip-flops for strange shower scenarios
- durable work shoes
- one semi-formal outfit in case of special circumstances
- a bathing suit, if appropriate for your location and the culture
Bring Donations, If Appropriate
Many volunteer programs request that volunteers bring items that cannot be easily purchased in the country where you’ll be volunteering. Sometimes this is as simple as fun items for the kids to play with.
If there’s a need, your program will tell you and you can pack accordingly. If no need is specifically made clear, then tailor what you bring based on the type of work you’ll be doing and who you’ll be working with.
- Building a school in a community with lots of kids? Bring art supplies, markers, coloring books, and things kids will enjoy and may not have on hand.
- Helping animals abandoned in a disaster? Think chew toys, old blankets, and training aids.
- Working with other volunteers from around the globe? Consider a board game or cards – it’s a great way to connect and learn about each other.
- Helping to teach young children? Teaching supplies like pens, pencils, notebooks, and backpacks are a great way to help.
Check your travel insurance
When we took a look recently at some of the volunteer travel opportunities available – and there are many – we noticed that not all of them included travel insurance information with their program. In addition, some offered a one-size-fits-all travel plan that would not meet the needs of travelers with pre-existing medical conditions, like asthma or diabetes, or allow the traveler to enjoy adventurous sports on their trip.
Therefore, we strongly recommend those considering a volunteer trip to carefully examine the travel insurance coverage (if available) and purchase travel insurance for their trip if it’s not included. Type a few trip details into our compare quotes form and get quotes from many companies.
Protect your Travel documents, Credit Cards, Passports, and more
Read these articles for ways to protect your travel documents, your credit cards, and your passport when you travel on a volunteer trip or vacation.
- 4 Best Backup Methods for your Travel Documents – including a list of travel docs to backup.
- A 6-Step Checklist for Traveling with Medications – including a list of medications that are likely to cause you problems at the border.
- 3 Steps to Preventing Passport Theft – including 5 steps to replace a lost or stolen passport.
- Don’t Copy your Bank and Credit Cards: We’ve Got a Much Better System – including step-by-step instructions to keep your cards safe.