What To Pack On A Volunteer Project

Many travellers pack everything but the kitchen sink for their volunteer placement abroad, usually not using half the items they packed.

Here are some items to avoid packing:

  • New clothes! Clothes can become dirty and ruined whilst volunteering, especially when building and working with animals. Animals can pull and dribble on clothes, not understanding that it is your favourite Tee. New shoes are a no-no, they can cause painful blisters before they are worn in.
  • Too much makeup! In hot countries a full face of makeup can feel uncomfortable and melt. Some mascara and concealer will be plenty, there is no need to take a hundred different shades of eye shadows and make up brushes.
  • Too many toiletries, these take up so much space and can be bought anywhere. Even volunteers in remote villages often pop into a town a few times a week.
  • Too many books! On my gap year I saw one volunteer with tens of books in her suitcase, for her to read on her trip. She said she loved reading on holidays, but we were always so busy getting to know one another or off doing things, she never had time to pick up one up and added them to the collection of leftover unread books in the volunteer house.
  • Too much technology! Volunteers who packed their tablet, laptop, smart phone and every other gadget they owned rarely touched them or worried continuously that they’d break or lose them. Electricity and internet can limit their use. Storage is also a worry as there is often no safe at most volunteer houses.

The theme of what to avoid packing is not to take too much of any one thing in case you misjudge. Moderation is key when packing. If travelling with a volunteer organisation they should be able to provide you with a packing list of what to take, both for yourself and for the children.

Here are some essentials to pack:

Travellers Backpack

The backpack versus suitcase is an argument that started among the first gap year travellers and has never been settled.

Backpacks are great, they can:

  • comfortably sit on your lap on overcrowded buses
  • be squashed into a car’s trunk
  • double up as a comfortable seat or pillow when waiting at bus stops or train stations

There are new innovative backpacks on the market, like the Hoverglide floating backpack which uses a frame to take the stress off joints and reduce the risk of injury.

But suitcases can come in handy too:

  • Suitcases are easier to live out of, when accommodation doesn’t offer drawers to keep your things tidy.
  • Better for your back.
  • Clothes can stay dust and damp-free, they get much less creased.

Resources for volunteering

For travellers choosing to volunteer in Africa, it is likely you will need to take more equipment for your volunteering than for other destinations. Many volunteers find that they end up taking only a small backpack’s worth of personal items for themselves whilst using all their hold luggage allowance, sometimes as much as 100lbs entirely on supplies they will use on their placement.

Collect and pack resources first to know how much luggage allowance is left before you start thinking about your wardrobe and creature comforts to take from home.

Flip Flops

Perfect to chuck on in the morning when you just want to pop to the kitchen to make a cup of tea or step outside for some fresh air, without finding socks and putting on bulky trainers. Flip flops act as slippers to wear around the volunteer house and are more sanitary when using communal showers where hygiene standards aren’t great.

Travel Towel

Trade the standard sized beach towel for a more compact and lightweight travel towel. Smaller, micro-fibre towels dry quicker. Beach towels can only be used once a day and are then out of action. Travel towels can be used after a morning shower and again in the afternoon.

Wind Up/ Solar Charger

Not all the world is switched on 24/7. Electricity may be limited to a few hours a day and few buses and trains in developing countries will have sockets. Wind-up or solar chargers really take the headache out of flat batteries. There is nothing worse than arriving at an amazing part of a new country and not being able to take any photos or videos, or worse not being able to get in contact with your project coordinator because your phone has died. Even when they are sockets with reliable electricity, you may have to fight others to get access.


Volunteering abroad often means sleeping in a dormitory style room with strangers who can have very different routines. It is best to be prepared with earbuds to combat roommates falling asleep to music, others in and out of the dorm or someone snoring. You won’t want to drain your phone’s battery every night, plugged in, to drown out background noise of doors slamming and chit chat.


Research the weather online for the time of year you are volunteering and just before you travel. Don’t rely on other people to tell you. Do check night time temperatures. You may need extra layers for evenings and mornings. Many travellers to the Kenyan plains regret not packing fleecy PJs and bed socks despite spending the afternoons sweating in shorts.

Social norms can be harder to research. To avoid insulting or embarrassing anyone, ask your volunteer sending organisation for their advice on what volunteers should and should not wear whilst both volunteering and in their free time. If in doubt, building projects are more likely to be relaxed about clothing compared to teaching projects, however strappy vests or cropped tops may still be an issue. For teaching, often volunteers will be required to dress as smartly as teachers back home.