Your departure to Peace Corps is quickly approaching and your bags sit empty on your bedroom floor. What do you pack for two years in a totally foreign, developing country — one that you’ve likely never been to before?
As an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) who’s been through this already, I’m here to help you figure out how to fill those bags for 27 months in the Peace Corps.
Although I won’t be able to tell you everything you’ll need for your specific country of service, below are several fool proof tips and suggested packing lists to help you figure out what to bring to your Peace Corps service.
Peace Corps Packing Tips
1. Peace Corps Provides the Health Essentials
This varies by country, but when it comes to your basic health and safety, Peace Corps will always provide you with the essentials — especially if they’re not readily available in your host country.
For example, if you’re in an area with malaria, you’ll get anti-malarial prescriptions and a bed net. If your site (the specific place where you live and work) doesn’t have clean water, you’ll be given a water filter. Some countries provide their volunteers with bikes, helmets, and tool kits.
Your PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) will also give you first aid and health supplies, like band-aids, Neosporin, ibuprofen, bug spray, sunscreen, condoms, floss, and — in some countries — even tampons. As someone who notoriously calls a crumpled bandaid and 4 Advil pills a decent travel medicine kit, not having to worry about this was pretty awesome.
2. Wait to Buy Home Goods
Then, there are the things you don’t get from Peace Corps, but can buy in your host country. This includes most of your home goods: pots, pans, blankets, solar panels, etc. that would take up a lot of precious space and weight in your bags.
Peace Corps will even give you a “settling in allowance” to help you with these initial moving expenses after training.
The exact amount varies by country, and sometimes you’ll get less if you’re replacing another volunteer (since you’ll likely inherit big ticket items, like a bed) but the point is, save your space and plan to buy these later.
Of course, if there’s something super specific you think you just can’t live without, go ahead and bring it. Personally, my Bodum plastic travel french press was my best friend for those two years (I’m a total coffee addict) and I’d be the last to scoff at you for bringing a good chef’s knife, or cute measuring cups.
3. Pack for Training
I found it so much easier to wrap my head around packing for training, the first 2 – 3 months of your service, rather than the whole 27 months — especially since I was placed in Madagascar, which has a wide variety of climates and levels of development among sites.
I had no idea if I’d eventually end up somewhere cold, hot, urban, or rural. I did, however, know I’d be training in a cold and rural part of Madagascar for my first two months. So, I packed for that, and restocked on toiletries and site-specific items once I was finished with my training.
4. Take Packing Lists With a Grain of Salt
PCVs with blogs love making packing lists for incoming training groups. They’re great, and very specific to your country (also, more up to date than the packing list Peace Corps will give you) but I’d also encourage you to take these lists as suggestions.
Even within countries there are differences in what PCVs will need depending on their location, sector (i.e. agriculture, education, or health) and personal preference. These lists are helpful, but you may not need everything on them.
5. Take Advantage of Discounts
Some stores and companies, like Chaco, will give “humanitarian discounts.” As a Peace Corps volunteer, you qualify for these. For more specific details, Peace Corps Wiki has a list of volunteer discounts.
6. Bring Comfort Items
It’s so important to make room to bring things that make you happy, since you will get homesick and you will appreciate those traces of home.
For me, it was having a sundress I loved. For another volunteer, it was his favorite green tea. For others, it was postcards, photos of friends and family, or personal mementos. In an experience full of so many highs and lows, I can’t emphasize enough how important these comfort items are.
Suggested Lists: What to Pack For the Peace Corps
Alright, now that we’ve gotten some of the general advice out of the way, here are a few suggested things to add to your Peace Corps packing list (remember what I said about taking lists with a grain of salt?)
- Laptops – Especially if you’re in a less developed country, go for a laptop with a long battery life and one that’s light and portable. Generally, your laptop will get the most love watching movies and sending the occasional report to Peace Corps.
- External hard drive with media – Forget about streaming Netflix. Instead, load a 1-2 terabyte portable hard drive up with movies, TV shows, and podcasts for later.
- Kindle or e-reader – Again, especially wonderful in countries with unreliable electricity or limited access to English books.
- iPod – For long bus rides and drowning out your neighbor’s annoying rooster.
- Smartphones – For some folks, I’d waiver on “maybe” for bringing a smartphone with you. Most PCVs opt to use a cheap local phone for everyday use (it makes you less of a target and less un-like your neighbors) but will also have an unlocked smartphone they use for wifi, data, or taking photos.
- Camera – If you’re not much a photographer and have a smartphone, maybe you don’t need this. Otherwise, bring something! You’ll want to remember these experiences.
Besides electronics, there are also some other general items and travel gear I’d suggest bringing along:
- Sleeping bag – I used mine primarily when visiting other PCVs; nice to have but nonessential.
- Flashlight or head lamp – Remember to bring rechargeable batteries if you need them.
- Water bottle – For everyday use and to reduce plastic waste.
- A comfy pillow – Again, nice but nonessential.
- Adaptors – Bring at least two in case you lose one.
- One nice outfit – You won’t necessarily be roughing it and you’ll need a nice outfit for your swearing in ceremony for sure, and possibly work or going out.
- Gifts for your host family – Most PCVs live with a host family for training, and sometimes longer. Bring them a gift. Toys and soccer balls for kids and edibles for the adults are great.
- Spices – This is the easiest (and most compact) way to have a taste of home; stock up on some ranch dressing packets, taco seasoning, Old Bay, whatever you cook most often with.
- Workout equipment – Like a yoga mat, jump rope, or running shoes.
… And for the ladies:
Double check on the tampon/pad situation before you leave and whether or not you can get them from your PCMO. Regardless, I’d highly recommend getting a reusable menstrual cup (like Diva cup).
Choosing Your Bag
Because you’re essentially moving to a new country to live in one place for over two years, it’s acceptable to bend that “carry on only” rule and check a bag. Choose a checked bag that you can use for travel during or after your service, and one “other” bag. In my case, I had one 45-liter backpack, like the 45 L Outbreaker, that I’d later use for long trips in Madagascar, as well as a duffle bag that never saw much action.
For your carry on, use a smaller backpack or daypack you can re-use for shorter trips during service, like the Outbreaker 35 L. You’ll likely do various short 1-3 day trips to go to nearby cities, regional meetings, or visit your friends’ sites. Small backpacks are ideal for that.
In short, it’s easiest to pack for your first months of training, bring what you love, and to remember that you can usually get the essentials once you’re there — the exception being electronics. If nothing else, make sure you bring a laptop, external hard drive, and camera to remember all the wonderful experiences!
Now go and enjoy your last days in America. Hug your family. Drink a beer with your friends; and for the love of god, eat that one last burrito!