Many people have asked me what I wear and what I take with me when I go on missions in the field. It really depends on the circumstances—and it can vary drastically even on the same trip. I may be meeting a government minister in one meeting and then, the same day, be rushing off in Land Cruiser to a remote village for the next meeting. I have to be very mobile and my clothes and gear need to keep up with me.
- Proper and formal—appropriate for meeting with government officials
- Durable (i.e. need to be able to take a beating and still look good)
- Comfortable in all types of weather
- Breathe easily
- Repel stains
- Have plenty of pockets to carry all sorts of gear. The key here is the ability to have certain items on you and not just with you.
Another must is a travel vest with lots of pockets. This is similar to a photography vest, but not quite as obvious. Again, mobility and security is key. (For many of my trips, there is no time or even any place to buy replacement items if all my luggage is lost, stolen, or delayed.) For this, I recommend SCOTTevest. The vest I have has 26 pockets, all of them discrete. I can safely stash phones, chargers, documents, and much more. They also have lots of other travel clothes with tons of secure pockets.
As for my day-to-day attire, I need clothes that are easy to wash and dry (in your bathroom (bungee cords make for great drying lines by the way)), durable and breathable, provide sun protection, and provide protection from insects and other critters. Again camping and military-style type clothing work best. Shorts are not recommended (you are a grown man, wear long pants). Long sleeve shirts, which can roll-up easily and are insect resistant, are useful.
Again, adaptability is essential. You could be in a jungle at one point of the day and later have dinner in a nice restaurant in a city. You want to look good no matter what your day entails.
For pants and shorts, I am big fan of Prana‘s clothing, which are not only made for adventure but look good too. Prana also has a great method for ensuring breathability. The company’s pants have discreet ventilated gussets in just the right places (if you know what I mean).
Important Note: Do not wear camouflage clothing or carry camouflage gear. It is illegal in many countries (only active military are allowed to wear camo).
As for shoes, tall hiking boots work best since the ankles need to be protected from snakes and other dangers. I also usually pack a pair of rubber-soled dress shoes which can withstand the elements. I also need to be able to run in dress shoes—not for exercise, but to run away from something or run after someone.
Duffle bags, or bags with shoulder straps are good. Don’t bother with wheeled luggage. It will not only get broken, but will also make it harder to get from Point A to Point B. There are no smooth sidewalks to wheel things along. I know I’d rather sling a duffle over my shoulder than awkwardly carry a mini suitcase, especially through rough terrain and extreme heat.
In addition to that, think about what you need (bag-wise) on the trip. For me, I need to be mobile and adaptable on mission. This often requires needing a bag to accommodate inter-trip travel, as was the case on my last trip when I had to travel to an extremely remote place in South Sudan. I had my one small bag for clothes and toiletries. I had another bag for daily essentials.
Because there was no access to anything when I was out in the field, I had to bring what I needed for the day. I could only replenish at the end of the day when I returned to the base camp. I needed one strong and light bag that could carry everything I needed. It needed to not only have the proper compartments, but flexibility to be whatever type of bag I would need on a given day. For that, I got a military-style MOLLE (MOdular Lightweight Load—carrying Equipment) backpack. You can see it in the main image of this blog post.
The bag consists of a network of thin nylon webbing sewed to a framework that is stitched at regular intervals. This creates channels that allow for different pouches, pockets or other gear to be attached to the rig. I was able to stuff the pack with: a laptop with extra batteries, a portable scanner, a portable printer, paper for the printer, three litres of water, two mobile phones, a VHF radio, protein bars, nuts, basic first-aid essentials, anti-bug spray, and a lot more. The radio, mobile phones and water were all attached to the outside of the bag in pouches. Because of the MOLLE style, when I didn’t need all the extras (like when using it as a carryon on a commercial plane), I could just take those pouches off.
Another plus to this particular backpack is that it has velcro patch holder. I can attach my agency’s official patch to identify me when I need it, and take it off when I don’t want to become a target. The bag can also be strapped down tight to fit close and securely on me. This comes in handy when you literally have to jump in and out of a truck, which I did frequently over my nine days in South Sudan.
I also take a lot of camping-type gear with me on the trip. You might not think you need this, but, from my experience on hardship travel, it is necessary. Often there are no hotels where I go, or the hotels are not of a good quality. I frequently sleep in the guest house or someone else’s living quarters where they are not there. I need to have some basics with me, which include:
- Sleep sack. This is similar to a sleeping-bag but not as big or bulky. If you could see the sheets of where I have stayed, you would agree that having a barrier between you and the bedding is key.
- Quick dry towel. The towels provided may not be as clean as you would hope.
- Flip flops. I don’t want my feet in something weird whether in the room or the shower.
- Soap dish and soap. This is not always provided.
- Solar lantern. At times, there is no power so a rechargeable lantern helps at night. I have a collapsible one that you blow up with air and is bright enough to read by but still easy to pack away.
- Portable battery packs to charge phones etc.
- Bungee cords for tying up things and doubling as a clothesline.
- Medical kit.
So this is how I basically travel when I go out in the field. I am not quite like James Bond, wearing a tuxedo under a wetsuit. But do let me know if you learn of a nice tux that can take a beating, is breathable, wrinkle-free and has at least 10 pockets!
If you’re interested in reading about how other ex-pats are adjusting in Africa, click on the image below.