The Swiss Army Knives of Travel Gear: 5 Small Items That Make a Big Difference

Fred Perrotta

The smallest items can be the biggest life savers. A plastic bag or a roll of duct tape is invaluable compared to the specialty gear you bought from REI.

The right multipurpose tool takes up hardly any space and can do a variety of jobs for just a few dollars, especially if bought abroad.

Some people pack specific clothes “just in case” the right situation arises. We recommend packing the following items because they’re helpful for every situation that you’ll find yourself in. Just try not using them on your next trip.

Ziploc Bags

Zip-top plastic bags are versatile and pack completely flat when empty. Most travelers use quart-sized plastic bags in place of a dopp kit to transport liquid toiletries through security in their carry on bags.

Plastic bags are a cheap barrier for anything wet or dirty in your bag. Pack dirty flip flops or sandals in a bag to keep them from soiling your other clothes.

Keep wet clothes, swimsuits, and towels away from the rest of your gear. I put an extra plastic bag in my travel towel’s carry bag to handle wet items. Packed this way, the plastic bag uses zero extra space.

You should only use a bag for this purpose for a short time. The plastic bag prevents your clothes from airing out and fully drying. Eventually, anything you have packed in the bag will start to smell musty and grow mold.

I once forgot a swimsuit in a plastic bag in my luggage. I packed the luggage away in my closet where it sat for months.

The next time I used my luggage, I had to throw the swimsuit away. The smell hit me as soon as I opened the bag.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap

Our favorite, do-it-all cleaning product. Bring a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap and leave every other liquid at home.

Dr. Bronner’s products are all-natural, concentrated, and can be used for anything.

Bring a small bottle and use it as detergent, body wash, face soap, shaving cream, and even toothpaste.

I tried brushing my teeth with the unscented liquid soap. The taste wasn’t enjoyable or similar to toothpaste, but I survived. You shouldn’t have any reservations about using Dr. Bronner’s soap externally or on your clothes.

Scarf, Bandana, Sarong, or Buff

Bring a thin, multi-functional piece of cloth like a scarf, bandana, sarong, or buff. I prefer a bandana or scarf, but any of these options will work.

Depending on the size of your scarf or alternative, you can use it as a:

  • Scarf
  • Headband
  • Dress
  • Belt
  • Shirt
  • Head covering
  • Handkerchief
  • Pillow
  • Blanket
  • Towel
  • Makeshift tote bag
  • Privacy curtain in a bunk bed (Thanks for the idea, Katie)
Wool buff for travel

How to wear a buff

(Source: Buff USA)

merino wool buff is a versatile option in this category. Wool transitions well between warm and cool weather and won’t stink like synthetic fabrics will.

Her Packing List has a great post on why you should consider a buff for anything from the neck up.

US Dollars

Stash away a few dollars from home in case of emergency.

In some countries, you can pay with dollars at the airport and near the border until you can withdraw local currency from an ATM. Dollars are also good to have on-hand for when you land back in the States.

Having money stashed is a great hedge against theft.

Extra cash can also be used if you need to “grease the wheels” to get out of trouble. If you stay alert, the world is a pretty safe place. When things go wrong, dollars are a powerful tool for persuasion. Of course, I’ve never had to do this 😉


Travel carabiner by Black Diamond

Even a cheap carabiner meant for keys, not mountain climbing, can do multiple jobs for you on the road.

A carabiner can be an attachment point for a clothesline at your hostel or apartment. You can use a carabiner for hanging clothes or shoes from your backpack.

Heavy duty carabiners can do even more work. Doug Dyment at uses carabiners to:

[P]rovide a comfortable handle for (sometimes multiple) shopping bags, secure luggage to stationary objects, attach shopping bags… to the shoulder strap of my luggage, keep my day bag off a dirty floor

More Handy Gear

We asked for your favorite multipurpose tools and received a lot of great suggestions on Facebook.

Our fans suggested:

  • Duct tape to fix clothes, mend backpacks, and seal drafty windows
  • Deck of cards to stave off boredom
  • Tea tree toothpicks to keep your mouth clean and tasting fresh
  • Ozonol for “minor medical mishaps”
  • Leatherman tool without a knife so that it’s TSA-friendly
  • Cell phone
  • iPad Mini, and
  • Pillow Pets


Want more like this?

Get weekly gear reviews, travel hacks, and packing tips sent straight to your inbox. We’ll send you a carry on packing list right away.