The Universal Packing List

By Mats Henricson

Background

In January 1988 I left Sweden for warmer climates - Africa. I was there for 5 months. A trip like that is impossible without proper planning. For months I compiled a list of things I might need, as well as things I had to do before I hit the road. When I came back from Africa I realized I could use the list for just about any other trip, even for weekend trips just 100 km away. Over the years I kept adding items to the list, and when I found the rec.travel newsgroup on Internet in April 1993, the idea struck me that it could be fun to make my list available to other travellers.

From 1993 to 2002 the list grew steadily. I added pretty much every tip I got from travellers who had found my list on the net. It took on monstrous proportions, so in 2002 I decided to make it customizable. Since then it has been my hobby programming project. I have spent hundreds of hours programming the new UPL, using all sorts of fun technologies. I currently use Tomcat/Servlets/JSP, Applets, Spring Framework, GeoTools, XSLT, XML, XSD, Castor, log4j, JavaScript, JUnit, HttpUnit, Ant, JavaMail, CVS, JPreferences, Hibernate, MySQL, JFreeChart, HTML 4.01 and CSS. Just in case you're interested. The code is not open source, but available for scrutiny in case you want to hire me (I'm a Java, Scala and Agile contractor at Crisp in Stockholm).

General advice on packing

It is easy to claim that all travellers pack too much, but I'm not so sure it is always true. It all depends on what kind of trip you are doing. Sure, who wants to carry 25 kilograms of backpack at noon through the center or Marseilles in July? But leaving some crucial things behind also has its drawbacks. What if your child got a painful ear infection, and you left your normal medication at home? Who wants to spend time walking streets up and down finding an open pharmacy in a foreign country? So, the best advice I can give you is to make a careful decision about each item the UPL suggests for your trip. Bring it along if it is going to take you time, energy and money to find during your travel. Leave it at home if it is unlikely to be used, and is heavy or bulky. The tricky items are the ones inbetween, such as a tent. It is heavy and bulky, but you just have to bring it along if you plan to do extensive camping or trekking.

Remember that when you pack your backpack at home, it is under perfect conditions; you have plenty of time, and your gear is in perfect condition. Gradually during your travels your backpack will deterioate into a mess, and messy backpacks takes less stuff than perfectly packed backpacks. You may also have to pack in a hurry, which makes it even worse. Finally, you'll end up buying stuff along the road. Books, clothes and souvenirs are pretty likely. So, do yourself a service and leave some space in your backpack for future needs. Or bring along an extra expansion bag where you can put things that overflows from your backpack. Just make sure it can be strapped well onto your backpack so you can carry it longer distances without breaking your back. That will also make it less prone to be stolen.

Normally people pack their bags the night before. This is a mistake! Give it one day more in advance per week of travel, so start packing three days in advance if you're packing for a three week trip. This way you will avoid some of the stress inevitable the last day before you leave, and you get some extra time buying (or in other ways get) the things you realize you need. Or remove what you really don't need.

The last step is to synch your list with your fellow travellers, if you have any, to remove duplicates such as tent and cooking utensils. It is also a good idea to do some "cross packing" - they get a set of your underwear and socks, you get a set of theirs. If one bag gets lost or misdirected, you'll have a fall-back for some things you'd rather not live without.

How the UPL works

The program generating your packing list is doing some of the decisions for you from knowing what kind of trip you are doing. No scuba diving? Leave the snorkel behind! Never warmer than +10 centigrade? Leave your shorts behind! But please do yourself a service and experiment a bit with the "Size of bag" setting! It has these choices:

  • Gigantic
  • Large
  • Normal
  • Small
  • Extremely small
"Gigantic" will give you everything, including Hammock, Ice ax and Underwater scooter. The extreme at the other end, "Extremely small", will give you Passport, Credit Card, and not much else. The choices inbetween gives you something inbetween.

Generally, for longer trips, like a trip around the world, you need to be very careful about what you bring, because some things can be very troublesome if left behind. At the other end, forgetting something for a weekend with your parents isn't that much of a deal. Ironically, you can usually bring an enormous bag to your parents place, since you aren't likely to carry it much, while a too heavy backpack for a long trip will feel like a curse.

Me? I usually bring along too much. I guess it is a side effect of being the maintainer of this list for over 15 years. But I'm learning from every trip, and write lists of things I missed or could have left home. Then I tune the UPL to be better after each time.

Most items in the lists have comments attached to them. It may be an explanation as to why the item is there in the first place, or anecdotes from any of my trips, or from fellow travellers. You can choose to see them, or get rid of them, by selecting among the alternatives in the "I want to see" category. The choices are:

  • Descriptions
  • Comments
  • Anecdotes
  • Credits
  • Disclaimers
Try out what happens if you choose one or more of them (hold the CTRL key while clicking on the alternatives). After using the UPL a few times you are likely to use none of them, and just get the items names, like "Passport".

Disclaimer

There are almost 500 items in the UPL, but there might still be necessary things missing for your particular trip. If this is the case, I can only say "sorry". We all have different needs, and I just can't imagine them all.

The use of the UPL is at your own risk!

However, if you think something is missing, drop me an email and I might add it to the next version of the UPL! If you think there should be a list for windsurfers, suggest it to me and I'll consider it for the next version. If you have a nice anecdote about an item, send it to me and I might add it. Well, as a matter of fact, send any kind of comment to me, and I'll give you credit in the next version.

Thanks to all the people who helped me create the UPL.

Usage

The UPL is for private non-commercial use. For other purposes, please contact me.