Cleanliness is next to…
No. You know what? Cleanliness doesn’t need to be next to anything, because cleanliness is pretty darn good as it is. Do you have any idea how magnificent it feels to step into a hot shower after four days of non-stop sightseeing and transit in sweltering summer heat without having had time for a bath along the way? Because I sure do!
Keeping clean on the road is a continual challenge, one fraught with unsanitary peril at every turn. It’s kind of incredible how much corporeal maintenance a human requires, and when you don’t have your own bathroom, these problems can multiply with frightening speed, not unlike the bacteria incubating into a proto-civilization amidst the darkest corners about your person.
And thus, after several years of trial and error, I’ve come up with the following round-the-world travel toiletries list, which should be able to handle just about anything, from boring business trips to wilderness adventures. I’ve traveled with a setup more or less just like this for several trips, and I actually keep this kit packed and ready to go at all times.
Though I hope this is useful for newbies (as well as forgetful backpackers who just want to look over a checklist as a refresher), keep in mind that plenty of minor variations can work just as well, and I’ll try to point out those alternatives where they might be of use, or why I might prefer one method over another.
A comprehensive travel toiletries list for RTW adventures
Two starter tips:
- Always use mini bottles. Always! Buying an extra bottle of shampoo after you land is going to be a lot less of a hassle than spending 2 hours checking your bag through security and then not having it show up on the other end anyway (and if you don’t think carry-on only travel is remotely possible, start here). If you can’t find travel size bottles, you can buy empty ones and fill them up. GoToobs are great, but somewhat expensive. If you’re on a budget, get these instead.
- Break up the list into zones. I’ve found that it’s much easier to remember each and every individual item by remembering major categories, so that’s how this list will be presented.
1) Bodily maintenance
We’ll start with just the basics, which, hopefully, you’ve seen before.
- Soap (all-purpose, concentrated soaps like Dr. Bronner’s are great)
- Toothbrush (folding toothbrushes are fine, but most toiletry kits are big enough for a full-size toothbrush anyway, so don’t worry too much about it)
- Dental floss (kind of optional, but it comes in handy as string)
Notes: Bar soap and bar shampoo work quite nicely, and it’s much easier to replace a bar of soap than a mini travel bottle, though I still think it’s a good idea to pack some liquid soap too. They can be a little more convenient for quick washes.
- Deodorant (which you can shrink down to the size of a chapstick tube if you’re feeling crafty)
- Nail clippers
- Razor (I don’t use shaving cream, as I think most soap works just as well anyway)
2) First aid and medication
- Bandages (make sure to bring several different sizes)
- Liquid bandages (I use New Skin, which is incredibly handy for tiny cuts on your fingertips, knuckles, and so on)
- Antiseptic (I could probably ditch the Neosporin pictured above, since I have hand sanitizer anyway)
Notes: Medical tape is somewhat useful, though I can’t recall ever using it.
- Headache/pain medication
- Anti-diarrheal medication
- Other medication as needed (cold & flu medication is quite useful)
Notes: A lot of travelers will tell you that you don’t need to bring medication with you, since you can buy it all there anyway, which is true. But there are really only a few medications that you would use frequently, and it doesn’t hurt to have a few small bottles ready to go, so you don’t have to wander around looking for a pharmacy at 11pm after eating something that destroyed your digestive system.
More notes: It can be handy to store medication in a tiny pillbox, which can include several different medications more efficiently than dedicated containers, but I get a little paranoid about border control agents looking at a bunch of hand-labeled pills and assuming they’re illegal. Try to avoid this when crossing into more severe countries.
3) Summer accessories
These items are not strictly necessary for every trip, but if you’re heading someplace warm, you’ll probably need them:
- Sunscreen (you’ll probably need a full-size bottle eventually, but it’s good to bring a tiny bottle along with you, so you have some sunscreen immediately upon arrival, which is often quite useful for that very first sightseeing excursion)
- Aloe vera
Notes: Keep in mind this is not just for beach trips. If you’re sightseeing for three hours out on the streets, you’d better be wearing sunscreen.
- Insect repellant (look for picaridin-based insect repellant if you don’t like the harshness of DEET)
- Anti-itch cream (I use After Bite, and it works quite nicely)
4) Odds and ends
These may or may not count as “toiletries,” but I store them into the same bag and I figured I’d mention them here anyway:
- Mirror (better to find a toiletry kit with a built-in mirror, if you can)
- Romantic accessories (mine are stored in a Trader Joe’s Green Tea Mints container, which makes for a delightfully convenient storage box)
- Sewing kit (pictured is a tiny pre-made kit, but you can make your own with an index card, and just use nail clippers instead of scissors)
The following items aren’t exactly “toiletries,” and aren’t included in the photos, but I thought I’d mention them here too, as they’re semi-related, and quite useful:
- Earplugs (hostels get noisy!)
- Tiny LED flashlight
- Cologne (or something similar)
Universal (male) travel toiletries list photo!
Here’s what it all looks like, in all its shimmering mini-bottle glory:
Every time I look at mini bottles I just want to go travel somewhere.
Toiletry kit storage
Everything in the photo above fits in here:
You don’t necessarily have to store them all in one bag, of course. You might prefer having a separate shower kit and first aid kit, for example. Up to you.
But I would definitely recommend a hanging toiletry kit. Sooner or later you’re going to find yourself in a bathroom with a tiny sink and zero counter space. These tend to be pretty large, which is useful if you’re storing lots of things, or if you’re planning on getting larger bottles after running through all the minis.
By the way, try to find one that includes something like this:
It’s an insert that fits into the main toiletry kit, but detaches for use in the shower, so you don’t soak the whole bag. Rick Steves has one by itself if you can’t find a bag with the insert included.
But you might need a second bag anyway…
Transparent liquids bag for airport security checks
I think we all know that the tiny airplane bottle liquids rule is just totally stupid, but until the entire planet collectively decides to put reason before idiocy, we just have to make do with stupid nonsense and pack all our tiny little liquids into a transparent bag when we go through the cartoonishly inefficient security checkpoint.
100 mL bottles, all in a 1 L bag:
You might be thinking “well, if all my liquids have to be in a transparent plastic bag, why don’t I just get a transparent toiletry kit to begin with?”
And you’d be correct for thinking as such.
Sadly, very few people seem to have figured this out, which means there aren’t a lot of options out there for transparent toiletry bags, other than incredibly simple (and hard to organize) options such as the one pictured above. But if you manage to find something you like, go for it.
On the upside, at least you can use these as a mostly-waterproof storage bag for cables or notepads when you’re not flying, and just swap back and forth as needed. They’re cheap, too.
By the way, DEET-based insect repellant will melt right through this type of plastic. Just something to remember.
And one more thing…
Don’t forget a travel towel!
I cannot recommend a travel towel highly enough. This is by far one of the quickest, cheapest, and easiest ways to travel smaller, lighter, and faster.
Travel towels soak up an enormous amount of water, wring out nearly dry, will dry completely within a few hours, are about the size of a t-shirt, and cost maybe $15. There’s not much reason not to get one.
That said, I have mixed feelings on whether or not I prefer the super-thin version that’s most common, or the slightly more textured kind. The standard travel towel that everyone uses (like the one pictured above) is actually so slick and smooth that it doesn’t actually do a good job of pulling water off your skin, whereas lofty fabrics that more closely resemble a typical bath towel are easier to use, though they’ll take up a bit more room, and dry a bit slower.
I’d say if you’re going to get a full-size towel, definitely get a thin one, but if you’re getting a smaller one, the texture is helpful.
Update! I have found the perfect travel towel. It’s made of linen, and you should totally get one. Find out why here.
Well, I sure hope this was useful in some way. I would hope you’ve got a pretty good grasp of how to keep clean to begin with, but I wanted to point out minor details here and there, as well as draw up the entire checklist, which can hopefully be of some value. When you’re packing all sorts of tiny items like toiletries, it’s easy to forget all sorts of things.
Like your dignity. Heh heh.