I travel out of the country regularly and have led around 100 Short-Term Mission trips. I have developed packing lists for each of the kinds of trips that I do and keep them on my phone. I have one packing list for warm weather places, one for cold places at high altitudes, and one for trips where I will be speaking and need to dress up. Obviously, there are variations on the themes, but ten items are found on every packing list and are always with me when I leave the country. Here are ten essentials I recommend that you have with you on every international mission trip.

  1. iPad – I realize that your device may be from another company or you may even describe yourself as my friend does, “a number two pencil in a dot com world,” but my iPad is a tool I put to work on every trip. It enables me to carry maps, contact lists with phone numbers, calculator, currency converter, camera, music, airline apps, Dropbox files, Kindle with 100 of books, photos of my family, language assistance, Bible, hymnal, devotional books, and dozens of other helpful tools. I duplicate as much of this as I can on my iPhone just in case something happens to one device. It would take a dozen articles to describe everything I use the iPad for in my missions ministry and international travel.
  2. Coffee – Okay, I know that coffee is not an essential for some of you, but for those who share my passion, here is some helpful advice. Get a plastic electric kettle that works with voltage from 110 to 240. Some may be happy with packets of instant coffee from your favorite coffee bar, but for the purists among us, try a dirty sock. It’s not actually a dirty sock; it just looks like one after a couple of uses! It starts as a white cotton flannel cone shaped filter that has a metal hoop at the top. Put the filter in a stand and a tablespoon of coffee in the filter. With a mug under the filter, pour the hot water through and enjoy! I can place the kettle, bag of coffee, stevia, mug and spoon in my carry on and then start each day with fresh brewed coffee anywhere in the world.
  3. Travel Pillow – I learned the hard way on a trip to the high Andes years ago that I sleep better with a clean pillow. I was staying in a pastor’s home and his wife had (thoughtfully and with very kind intentions) doused an old pillow with cheap aftershave to make it nicer for me. I had a sick stomach and a headache by morning after trying all night to sleep on that. I bought a small memory foam pillow that fits in my carry on and I take it all over the world. No matter how nice the hotel I am staying in, I push the fancy pillows off the bed and use my small travel pillow and get the same sleeping experience anywhere I am, whether in the Amazon jungle or a 4 star hotel.
  4. Sleep Sack – I have also learned the hard way that beds are not always clean and hygienic. I take a lightweight silk sleep sack with me; it folds up to the size of your fist and fits in a little pouch. It is like a sleeping bag and allows you to get in and enjoy a good night’s sleep without ever having to touch the bed. I know it sounds paranoid, but it is amazing how much better you sleep when you can pop your travel pillow in the sleep sack’s pouch and slip in. You have the comfort of knowing that no critters are crawling on you and any dirt is kept away. When traveling in warmer climates I usually don’t even unmake the bed; the sleep sack is all I need, and it’s easy to tuck away when you get up.
  5. Transformer/converter multiplug – Plug shapes and voltage around the world are easily found by checking the Internet before you leave, but as often as I travel I sometimes forget. I avoid frustration by keeping a small portable transformer with me to use in countries where 240 volts is standard. Even though computers and phones can use both 110 and 240, some 110 devices turn into a paperweight if you plug them into 240 volts. The one I carries has space for multiple devices to plug in, which is very helpful in some countries where there is only one outlet. My transformer/converter comes with multiple plug shapes so I can adapt to any wall socket the country throws at me.
  6. Vitamins and immune system boosters – International travel and ministry necessitates interaction with hundreds of people. Any interaction in public places will have you breathing air and touching surfaces where the unfortunate cold and flu bug carriers have sneezed and coughed. I know it’s gross, but many just can’t help it, so I try to enhance my immune system by staying faithful with my vitamins and taking Airborne to give my body an edge that might help. The dangers of disease in the world today are real and while they cannot be avoided, they should not make us run and hide or dissuade us from obedience to God’s call. Vitamins, Airborne, bacterial wipes, and even missionary cologne (germex) used discreetly, can help international ministry travel to have a happy ending more often.
  7. Preaching/Teaching Bible – I know that I said above that I carry an iPad that has my Bible and devotional materials. I do indeed love using my Study Bible App during my iPad aided quiet times. However, when preaching or teaching in other countries, I prefer to have a hard copy of God’s Word. Some countries are not as developed technologically and using an electronic Bible is suspect for some. Additionally, if we communicate in any way by our actions that our iPad is essential for us, we may discourage those without one from ministry. I love holding a Bible in my hand when I preach and teach so people can see exactly where the message comes from.
  8. Pen and Journal – I find a pen to be helpful for making notes when interacting with nationals, filling out visa forms on the plane, and those times when it might be ostentatious to light up the iPad. I keep a journal in a moleskin notebook when I travel to record names of people I meet, places I go, foods I eat, experiences God allows me to have, and emotions I feel along the way. My journals look like a passport with all the places I get to go. You think you will never forget someone’s name, place, order of events, or any other detail, but you will. Taking a few minutes before bed each evening can not only give you a record of the details but also provide a daily chronicle for loved ones to read what your trip was like.
  9. Book & Magazines – I know that I have my iPad with 100s of titles, but I always carry a book or any magazines that came in the mail about trip time. Additional, many international air carriers still require you to power your phone down in addition to your computer for takeoffs and landings. An easily accessed paperback or magazine can fill the time for me and help my mind to relax. 
  10. Security awareness – Think about possible problems that could arise on the trip, anticipate any crises, and be prepared with a plan. I always have a one-page trip overview, even if it is electronic and on my devices. This overview will have my travel itinerary with flight numbers and times, phone numbers of key people for this trip, hotel names, addresses, and phone numbers. Of course, all confirmation numbers are listed as well. I get short-term international insurance and have the pertinent numbers for that. I took all my credit cards, insurance cards, frequent flier cards, drivers license, and passport and grouped them on the table, took a photo of the lot, and then flipped them over and took a picture of the other sides. This provides me with my card account numbers, and for credit cards the 800 numbers on the back for any need that arises. I keep a copy in my devices and one in the Dropbox cloud so that I can get to the information in multiple ways. I monitor international news as a matter of habit, but especially related to specific countries I’ll visit when a trip is coming up. 

This list may seem over the top but there have been many times when I was thankful for each item on the list. It’s actually easy once it becomes a matter of habit to keep these ten items up to date. They can stay in your travel bag and all you need to do is throw in your clothes. I even keep a fresh supply of all the toiletries I carry such as toothpaste, razor, etc. in my bag so that I don’t forget any essentials.

International travel is hectic enough, even when things go well. Don’t add to your headaches by not being prepared for common frustrations. Add to this list and customize it for your style and preferences and be consistent with it. If you’re like me, you’ll be glad you did.

Dr. David Sills

Dr. David Sills is the founder and president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries, a missions professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaker, and author.

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