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What to Pack for a Warzone (or Other Travel Adventures)

July 31, 2015
7 min read
What to Pack for a Warzone (or Other Travel Adventures)
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Delayed luggage? An insane thunderstorm? Unexpected power outage or lack of hot water when you arrive? It’s all par for the course for new TPG Contributor Muhammad Lila, a foreign correspondent who focuses on reporting stories in hostile conditions. In this post, he reveals the five items that can help get you through any volatile environment. (Note that none of the companies who make these items have paid or otherwise sponsored him to list their products.)

No matter how well you plan, travel involves some degree of uncertainty. The more intrepid the trip, the more you'll have to anticipate — take it from me. In the last few years, I've found myself flying in combat helicopters over the mountains of Afghanistan, on naval search-and-rescue ships in the Java Sea and even driving 12 hours into a cyclone. Even if your travel plans are on the slightly tamer side, what I've experienced and learned can absolutely be applied to your own adventures, both near and far.

As a correspondent, you need to be able to pack quickly on a moment's notice, and be ready to travel anywhere. I roll clothes rather than fold; I bring along a non-mesh drawstring bag for dirty clothes; and in addition to technical gear like cameras, batteries, chargers, a spare cell phone, SIM cards, power adapters, sat phones, and body armor, I always keep the following items in my carry-on, no matter where I’m going:

When deciding on shoes, look for a Gore-Tex label. The technology adds extra warmth — enabling the hiking shoes to trek through the snow.

1. These Shoes Were Made for Walking

In any kind of emergency situation, proper footwear is essential — and you'll need to forget about fashion. If there’s been a landslide on the way to the airport, nobody’s gonna care how you look. You need one pair of shoes that can do it all, and for me, it’s my Merrell Moabs. Imagine hiking shoes on steroids: Super durable, Vibram soles, can handle nearly every weather condition and are very waterproof. I’ve covered countless explosions and floods in these shoes, and my feet have always stayed dry. Thanks to the Gore-Tex construction, you can also use them to trek in the snow. They’ve even got a new all-black model that’s pretty versatile; I’ve worn them to fancy embassy dinners in Kabul, and nobody batted an eye.

Merrell isn’t the only company that makes quality hiking shoes — Columbia, North Face and a bunch of others do the same. Whatever brand you get, make sure they’re physically flexible enough for you to cram them into any luggage or backpack (steel or hard toes are a big no-no). Again, look for the Gore-Tex label; it’s key to keeping your feet both warm and dry.

Convertible cargo pants may not seem sexy, but neither is being uncomfortable.

2. Pack Performance Fabrics

When packing for a disaster zone, you need performance fabrics that are lightweight and wrinkle-free, and offer versatility and breathability (trust me, wearing polyester in tropical climates is not fun). You might also want to consider items with built-in UV and insect protection.

Leave the jeans and corduroys at home; they’re big, bulky, heavy and don’t breathe. Instead, bring a couple pairs of convertible (pants-to-shorts) cargo pants. My favorite style is the sleek Silver Ridge series from Columbia; they don’t look backpacker-ish at all, and have a built-in fabric belt made with no metal, which makes passing through airport scanners a breeze. You should also bring along a few moisture-wicking T-shirts and/or long-sleeve shirts as base layers (ideally in dark colors, in case you'll be sweating). Columbia's Silver Ridge shirts are an especially good choice for hot environments.

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There are several other good travel-oriented clothing lines: Tilley, EMS, MEC (for Canadians), Helly Hansen, North Face and Marmot are just a few.

Microfiber towels are ultra-thin and light. On the left is a US dime. On the right, a microfiber towel.
Microfiber towels are ultra-thin and light. On the left is a US dime — on the right, a microfiber towel.

3. The Towel That Keeps on Giving (and Drying)

Adventure travelers have known about microfiber towels for a long time, and I’m surprised business travelers haven’t caught on. Microfiber towels are super-light and small, and usually come in a scrunch bag to compress and make them even smaller. I had never even thought of them before another veteran correspondent told me she takes hers everywhere, and I only realized how valuable they can be on my first embed.

Sure, the texture feels weird — microfiber doesn’t slide along your skin the way an Egyptian cotton towel will, but it’s hard to argue against a towel that dries in just minutes. If you’ve ever had to shower at Hotel California in Bagram (which isn't a hotel, and is nothing like California), you’ll know what I mean. Mine folds up so small it’ll fit into my pocket, and it’s probably the best $15 I’ve ever spent.

Patagonia markets these as "Men's Down Sweaters" but they're just as good as jackets. This one will run you around $200.

4. Down, Down, Down We Go

Yup, the dreaded puffy jacket — it's hard for just about anyone to look good in one. However, if you choose one made with down, it will both compress and expand, which means less space in your carry-on and more warmth when you put it on. The best models are sleek and thin, with elastic cuffs to prevent heat from escaping.

On a recommendation from the same correspondent who told me about microfiber, I bought a puffy jacket from Patagonia that comes with a scrunch bag that compresses the jacket so small, it takes up just one corner of my carry-on bag (and in a pinch, can double as a pillow). You can also get this jacket as part of a system, with a matching, outer windproof shell for especially cold climates.

The North Face markets these as "Base Camp Travel Canisters." They retail for about $34.
The North Face markets these as "Base Camp Travel Canisters." They retail for about $34.

5. Did You Say Waterproof?

A few years ago, I bought one of North Face's Base Camp Travel Canisters on a whim, and I'm thrilled that I did. No matter how expensive or durable your carry-on or backpack is, few pieces of luggage are going to remain fully waterproof in a torrential downpour. For instance, smaller airports often store baggage outside even when it rains, leaving you with soaking wet belongings before your trip has even started.

That’s where this tiny tote bag comes in. Most people think it's just for toiletries — I’m not sure why North Face even markets it as such — but you can use it for absolutely anything, from passports to photos, socks, paper tickets and more.

You could even dedicate one to the small accessories you might need on an adventure — plastic ties, hand sanitizer, detergent, batteries or whatever else you simply must bring along. The possibilities are endless.

I used to wonder why they don't just make full suitcases and bags out of the same material, until I learned that they do. Bonus? They’re bomb-proof. Seriously.

Safe travels!

Featured image by As a correspondent, Muhammad Lila travels the world. This is how he packs his luggage for warzones.