Firstly, it’s worth considering those all-important essentials you’ll need regardless of where you’re traveling to and for how long, so think about the very start of your journey and make sure you can enter your host country securely and without any holdups. This can mean paying careful attention to what you bring along through airport security and making sure you have all the right paperwork.
Next, spend some time working out which clothes, toiletries and other items you’ll need for your trip, and finally, consider the little extras that can make a world of difference to your comfort and enjoyment during a volunteer vacation.
Universally useful volunteer essentials
Wherever you’re volunteering abroad, there will be some universally useful items you’ll need, including all of your travel and identity documentation. Your passport, visa information and proof of vaccinations will often be necessary to gain entry to your destination country, so these should be top of your packing checklist.
Another essential consideration is any regular medication you take; if you have a pre-existing medical condition, it’s likely you’ll need to take your medication with you on your volunteer vacation, along with a doctor’s note where necessary that allows you to bring certain drugs into your host nation.
Some prescription medication is illegal in other countries – you can check with the embassy in the nation you plan to visit for prohibited medications. You might also need to know what your medication is called in the country you’re traveling to in case you need to get more while you’re away. If you have diabetes and need to carry an insulin supply, it’s worth taking a cool bag to store it in if you’re visiting a hot country.
Other small but useful items you might want to include are a first aid kit and a sewing pack. A simple first aid pack of bandaids, some antiseptic spray or cream, dressings, antihistamines, tweezers and rehydration solution can be useful for a variety of ills, from mosquito bites and splinters to blisters. A sewing kit is also handy if days of hard toil at your project leave your clothes with a hole here or there and you don’t want to invest in anything new to wear.
It goes without saying that you’ll need a number of outfits when you volunteer abroad, but exactly what you wear will depend on where you’re journeying to and how light you want to travel. Consider when you plan to travel and what season it will be at your destination – some countries just have a hot season and a rainy season but others are much more pronounced. Even if you do pick a location with only two distinct seasons, you’ll need to plan for the weather. Don’t forget accessories like a wide-brimmed sunhat, sunglasses and a lightweight rainproof coat.
Another thing to think about is the standard of decency in your host nation. In some countries, it’s customary to cover up, even at the beach, and while this might not be something you’re used to when you want to top up your tan, it’s important to respect the local culture to avoid causing offense or embarrassment, no matter how unintentional.
A scarf is another item worth packing, providing a little extra cover if you’re visiting religious landmarks. It can also be a useful accessory in hot countries, which often become much chillier once the sun goes down.
The sort of placement you’ve chosen to volunteer at will also have some bearing on your choice of apparel. Often, your volunteer abroad company will provide you with details of appropriate dress codes for your project, for example, uVolunteer advises animal conservation volunteers to wear old, lightweight clothes that dry easily, and work gloves, boots or shoes to placement.
Toiletries are a must for many people heading overseas, especially if you’ll be spending long hours on clammy planes or stopping over in hotels in-between flights, but it’s wise to bear in mind the rules and regulations of traveling with toiletries containing liquid. Most countries have restrictions in place about traveling through airports with fluids; the majority allow a quart-sized bag containing toiletries like aerosols, creams and liquids of no more than 100ml per item to be taken onboard in hand luggage. Toiletries of more than 100ml can be placed in checked baggage.
There’s no need to be too concerned about not bringing enough toiletries with you on your volunteer vacation; on arrival, you can stock up at the airport or within the local area near your accommodation if your volunteer coordinator advises you that there are shops nearby.
As much as you may be tempted to bring along your favorite perfume or cologne, it’s often a better choice to leave these at home. Sometimes, the strong smells and ingredients used in these items can attract insects, especially in the hotter countries, which can be irritating or worse - especially in malaria zones.
A staple when you volunteer abroad is wet wipes – they’re not just for babies! Wet wipes have a multitude of uses, such as providing a quick way to freshen up at placement or removing dirt and dust from your skin at the end of a long day when you’re too tired to hit the shower! Wet wipes can also be handy if you need to clean a cut or scrape quickly and haven’t access to clean water, or want to take off your makeup without the need for bottles of cleanser.
Volunteering abroad is a fantastic way to give something back to society but many volunteers who travel overseas witness poverty and want to make a tangible contribution. If this is the case for you, give some careful thought to what you could donate at your placement. If you’re working with children, it might be appealing to give them candy or another sweet treat, but there are so many more useful donations you could make that can have a deeper, longer lasting effect.
If you’re going to help out at a school, perhaps some books would go down a treat, or some fitness equipment like a couple of soccer balls. Likewise, if you’re volunteering at an orphanage, a board game, pack of cards or some coloring books and pens could be economical but effective donations. Flash cards are another small but effective donation – if you take teaching aids to your placement, you can usually donate them when you depart.
Sometimes it’s not always clear what you could donate to your placement, so speak with your volunteer coordinator for ideas. You might prefer to wait until you’ve got settled into your chosen project before choosing a donation and make the purchase in your host country; this will allow you to experience the setting, figure out what’s lacking and speak to others at your project site to find out what would be best to donate.
Emergency contact information
It makes sense to compile a list of emergency contacts, both at home and in your host country. You should have a copy of your next of kin and anyone else you may need to be in touch with during your volunteer vacation, such as your volunteer coordinator. Make at least two copies of the information and keep one in your packed luggage and one with your hand luggage.
Other contact information to include on your list might be whomever you report to at your placement, in case you need to inform them of lateness or sickness, and the details of your embassy or consulate abroad. If possible, register with the embassy online prior to departing or when you arrive in your host country, and include details of your placement and itinerary.
You should keep details about your insurance coverage with you and you might want to jot down your insurer’s number just in case you need to get in touch. If you have any medical needs that could mean you require emergency assistance, this is also information you may want to keep on your person while you’re on your volunteer vacation.
If you’re volunteering abroad with a reputable company, this sort of advice will be provided to you, and the staff will keep your emergency contact details to hand in the unlikely event they need to contact somebody on your list.
There are a few other items you might want to take along with you on your volunteer vacation that may not initially occur to you. If you’re sharing accommodation with others in a dorm, it goes without saying that you’ll have to acclimatize to your new companions, but that can sometimes include their night-time habits, ie – snoring. To make sure you get the sleep you need, pack a pair of earplugs if you’re a light sleeper.
Another item to consider is a torch (flashlight), just in case there’s a power cut. If you’re volunteering in a developing nation, the likelihood of a power cut is higher than in a developed country, so a flashlight can come in handy. It can also be useful if you’re camping out – sea turtle conservation volunteers are often based on beach camps with no lighting and a torch can help you find your way around if you need to visit the bathroom after nightfall.
If you’ve booked your volunteer vacation in a malaria zone, or a country known for mosquitos, it can be useful to have some bug spray packed. You might also consider mosquito repellent and anti-malaria medication if your doctor suggests it – even a mosquito net can come in handy but you should easily be able to buy one in your host nation.
Volunteering abroad is an exciting experience like no other but it doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel homesick. For this reason, you should take some reminders of home with you when you volunteer abroad. Rather than taking your most prized photographs, make copies and pack a couple that you can slide easily into your wallet and pin up at your accommodation. You could also show your pictures around your placement, especially if you’re working with children, who will likely be fascinated! Some volunteers take an item that reminds them of home, such as their own pillowcase, in addition to family photos.
An open mind
Not strictly an item, but an open mind is essential when you volunteer abroad. Be prepared for a culture shock and expect to encounter different experiences from what you’re used to back home. It’s unlikely you’ll change the world on your volunteer vacation but you can make a lasting difference to the lives of people stricken by poverty, or help the environment in a small way that can have a big impact for the future.
Before you travel, try to figure out how you’ll integrate within the local community and gain the trust and respect of the people you’ll work with. This can include making an effort to learn some of local lingo – even just a few words, and dressing appropriately to show you respect the local culture and way of life. If you’re only volunteering for a short time, you might not be entrusted with the responsibilities of those who stay longer, so make a great first impression for the best chance at a comprehensive experience.
Expect volunteering abroad to change you; experiencing a world so far away from your own comfortable home life is bound to have an impact on your perceptions and perhaps make you think about things you’d never considered before. You could find that volunteering helps you discover a new career path, want to take up a new hobby and more – keep a journal while you’re away so you can retrace your personal development.
A volunteer vacation requires packing and preparation, and it’s worth spending some time thinking about the basic necessities you’ll need. Traveling light with a rucksack can be much easier than lugging around a heavy suitcase, especially if you’re embarking on a multi-destination trip or plan to travel around your host country.
Reminders of home, emergency information, the right clothes and toiletries can all help to ease the transition to life in your host country, ensuring you have the best experience. Bear in mind, though, that you’ll be able to pick up most basic necessities when you arrive, and your volunteer abroad coordinator will give you advice and information that will help you pack appropriately.
Above all, venturing abroad with an open mind is the key to a successful adventure. With the right attitude, you can expect to make friends and make a difference in the developing world, while achieving personal growth. Make a start today by downloading the uVolunteer program brochure.