17 June 2024

10 Things Not To Pack When Volunteering Abroad

Since most volunteering takes place in remote locations it’s hard not to want to pack everything. After you have spread out everything you want to take across your bed or living room floor they all look pretty essential.

When you have packed one third of this collection of essentials you will realise there is absolutely no way you can physically fit the rest in. In addition, after walking across your bedroom at the great distance of 3 metres you will be leaning to one side like the tower of Pisa and will have discovered a new empathy and understanding for people suffering from back pain.

There is a way round this. Whatever your packing style, whether you don’t know what you are doing or your approach is ‘best take one of each’ there is a fairly straightforward number of items which simply aren’t worth packing.

Here is our guide on what to most definitely leave at home!

Don’t pack….


Volunteering Abroad

Basic Toiletries

Leave shampoo, toothpaste and shower gel at home! You will definitely be passing a shop at some point after arrival at your destination. It is not easy to use up more than 1 kilo of your luggage allowance on these bulky extras.

If you are someone who cannot go one day without a shower and know you will not have any time on arrival to get to a shop, then take two small sachets of shampoo (one for hair one for body). And for teeth? Fingers and a toothpick will do for a day.

Loose items

Today in your sterile home (compared to where you are going) everything is clean and newly bought. After two weeks living off the beaten track in near camping conditions everything will be grubby and dusty.

Use quality plastic carrier bags to pack your clothes and bits and pieces in your rucksack. They weigh nothing but will be very desirable items after arrival and you will cherish them and probably not throw even one away.

Carrier bags abroad are often super thin and fragile and cannot hold anything more than a packet of crisps and a couple of socks. It will be a luxury to have a standard home-brought supermarket carrier to keep dirty underwear in or freshly washed items apart.

We have even heard of volunteers who have bartered and traded their bags.

Just one camera

Yes you can always buy a replacement phone abroad but if you are heading somewhere remote or will be on the move a lot it will be a shame to have to wait a few days to be able to start taking photos if you lose your camera.

Even with your phone, you may run out of charge when faced with great photo opportunities.

For this reason it is still a good idea to take a disposable camera; no charging and ready when you are. Just remember you will need to work a bit harder to get a nice picture. Ask anyone over the age of forty and they will tell you how tricky they can be to use if you actually want to look at the photos later as the quality can be poor.

Our tips for disposable cameras:

(i) Use during daylight hours, preferably outside in clear conditions
(ii) Keep the sun, strongest light or window if indoors, behind the person taking the photo
(iii) Don’t waste any shots. Get them posed and prepared carefully as you may only have 24 chances on a film reel!

More than one small bag of clothes

If you have more clothes than will fit into a small supermarket carrier bag then you are taking far too much.

Clothes need to be kept to the absolute minimum. It is surprising how few you need. You will probably end up wearing the same T-shirt all week before changing to another because that one T-shirt was the most practical and comfortable out of all those you took, not least because you can’t be bothered to change and no one will care.

You can always pick up something locally if you are super desperate for an extra T-shirt. We would put money on it that you don’t get desperate at any time to rush out and buy an extra T-shirt!

If you want to take jeans, wear them on the plane as they weigh a lot more for your luggage allowance. It will be air conditioned all the way when flying. You can change into shorts at your destination airport.

Don’t forget a sweater or hoodie though whatever the weather for where you are headed. In developing countries they can be expensive and hard to find and a drop in temperature of more than 15 Celsius in the evening down to 20 can leave you feeling unusually chilly.

Too many undies

You only really need four pairs; one on, one washing, one drying and one just in case.
Take dark coloured ones or patterned as you will be hanging them up to dry in a public place probably in a shared volunteer dormitory.

Walking boots in a rucksack

Wear them instead when you check in at the airport, they weigh a tonne.

A large suitcase

Instead take a combination of rucksack and small trolley case which you can fit in the overhead compartments as hand luggage.

Why? Because if you only take a rucksack you will be carrying all the weight on your back and you will almost always end up carrying an extra bag in each hand and will feel uncomfortable and overburdened. With a small trolley case at your side you will feel far more in control.

It could be argued that it will be hard over rough ground but if it is small enough and not too heavy you should be able to pick it up over the worst pot holes in the path.

It’s not so rough out there that you won’t be able to manage with a small two wheeled trolley, unless you know you need to trek cross country to your accommodation.  There is usually some concrete or hard packed earth to pull your trolley case over.

A great advantage to taking a solid case is you can enjoy it during your stay as your own dust proof, clean, lockable personal chest, especially as many volunteer accommodations will not usually provide sufficient furniture to store your personal items.

Throw-away resources for children’s projects

Leave books, clothes, sweets and toys at home. When volunteering with children you will need resources you can use time and time again throughout your stay.

Many good meaning volunteers using this approach will find they are left with at best nothing to use during they stay, and at worst depending be unwittingly sustaining a hand-out and begging culture.

Think more closely about the type of work you will need to be doing each day and taking some re-usable items. Will you be teaching? Playing with children? Building? Caring for infants?

If you were going to do all the above activities, you might want to take an A4 whiteboard and pens, some ideas for activities which require only the simplest resources you will buy locally, skipping ropes and other outdoor play equipment you can use with the children, gardening gloves or diy gloves for building, pack of wet wipes (keep inside additional plastic bag as they will dry out quickly in hot weather) and revised nursery rhymes with actions.

Only one ATM card

If your card gets lost or very common you leave it in a cash machine (very common, they do not always beep and shout abroad to remove your card). You will appreciate having another card as back up.

High expectations

It is impossible to accurately imagine what it will be like at your destination. Keep your expectations low and you will be rewarded ten-fold.

One volunteer described her way of keeping her expectations low:

“I went out thinking of it like this… if I got met on arrival – Tick. If I was provided with a bed and could get a semi-decent nights sleep – Tick. Access to a toilet and shower – tick. If I could teach the children for a few hours every day – Tick. If I had someone to ask for advice during my stay– Tick. If I was able to get to a café or shop or had a meal each day – Tick. Anything else would be a bonus.

It helps if you arrive without any fixed ideas, because then you really appreciate everything and it feels like you are getting more than what you thought it would be like. I was in contact with a previous volunteer before I went but my experience was so different as she had been building and stayed longer which was completely different to my experience.

I would recommend to everyone to go with an open mind as it will never be what you thought it would be. It can be very emotional, especially the day you leave and everyone including you is crying. It is the emotional side of it all that I don’t think I will forget.“