There are dozens of Peace Corps packing lists out there, from the official Peace Corps list to magazine articles to blogs, but as a volunteer who searched out as many lists as possible to compare suggestions, I think one more can’t hurt. So here’s my pack list, complete with ongoing notes on what I regret bringing or leaving.
- Checked baggage—2 hard-sided, full-size suitcases
Every list I saw suggested one suitcase and one hiking backpack or duffel bag, but I really hate putting soft-sided stuff in checked baggage, so, after checking with a few current PCVs to be sure there’s not some Big Official Reason not to, I checked hard-sided suitcases.
How I feel about it: This was a great choice. As I’m packing to come home, I am so glad I have hard-sided suitcases to pack souvenirs in.
- Carry-on—40L hiking backpack
Every list I saw suggested a good hiking backpack for trips in country; I picked up the Osprey Tempest 40, which is a carry-on size as long as you don’t over-pack it.
How I feel about it: This has been a lifesaver on overnight trips, shopping trips, and holidays, and I never regretted not having a larger size.
- Personal item—backpack
I prefer my personal item to hold all my electronics for better security, so my purse is packed in my luggage, and I carried a Samsonite school-bag-sized backpack with a padded pocket for my laptop and a few convenient pockets for notebooks/personal items.
How I feel about it: This thing is my everyday bag for school, market days, shopping trips, and everything else. Definitely bring a good backpack.
- Knives/knife sharpener/cutting boards
Apparently good kitchen knives are hard to come by in Rwanda. I’m bringing a Cuisineart 6-knive set (because that’s what I happened to be given)and a knife sharpener to keep them in good shape. Also a couple of those great super-thin-super-light plastic cutting boards.
How I feel about it: There is no way to get good knives in Rwanda without shelling out huge amounts of money at posh stores in Kigali. I use these multiple times a day and after using dull knives with my host family, they’re my favourite thing.
Apparently I will want this; it’s a light, flat, handheld one that’s easy to pack.
How I feel about it: I use this every single day. Hashbrowns!
- Can opener
I’m spending some serious weight on this item, because I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with cheap can openers and refuse to haul a can opener across the world if it’s going to fall apart immediately.
How I feel about it: I have used this twice. Tinned food isn’t super common here, so while it was essential those two times, it never got much use. I sent it back to America with my family after they visited.
- Vegetable peeler
How I feel about it: After peeling potatoes with a knife in the dark at my host family’s house, I’m so glad I packed this.
Fortunately I had an entire box of spices left over from my career as a broke-but-gourmet college kid, and good food really matters to me, so I’ve got a pile of these—basil, oregano, home-blended taco seasoning, cumin, garam masala, nutmeg, ginger, basil, laurel, mustard seed, fennel…
How I feel about it: So glad I brought these. Spices are available in Kigali but they’re expensive and it’s hard to find specific things.
I’m notoriously bad at plants, so these might be thoroughly useless in the long run, but they’re light and cheap, and if I can make them grow, they’ll be a great sustainable source of veggies and herbs. We’ll see how this goes.
How I feel about it: I grew a garden for the first time in my life! Not everything grows well here (my sage and tomatoes flatly refused to come up and my zucchini didn’t produce at all before dying) but the basil, oregano, and rosemary put in a good showing. UPDATE: My umukozi killed the garden off, but I don’t regret having tried hard at it.
Not provided by the PC and, of course, a necessity. I brought two full-sized sets, because you can make a full sheet fit a narrow bed, but you can’t make a narrow sheet fit a full bed. You don’t know what you’ll get for your three months with a host family, and lots of people buy full sized mattresses after PST.
How I feel about it: I did not buy a full-sized mattress after PST, instead buying two singles, and so these sheets aren’t exactly the right thing, but they’re not a problem. Fitted sheets aren’t available in country (maybe in Kigali for lots of money?) so still a good idea.
- Towels/wash cloths
Two beach towels (I hate the size of bath towels), a handful of kitchen towels, and a couple of washcloths. I’d rather use towels than hotpads, so that’s my solution. Two towels was a good call, because they take ages to dry if you wash one.
How I feel about it: Towels are important. This was a good call. Could’ve done with more washcloths.
- Gerber multitool
When is this not a good answer?
How I feel about it: This has been a screwdriver, wire cutter, hammer, saw, and more. Bring a good one.
- Sleeping bag
I’m still kind of confused about what, exactly this is for, but hey, I like my sleeping bag, and multiple current PCVs have told me they wish they’d brought one/have had to buy one in-country, so it’s in my suitcase.
How I feel about it: I have yet to use this, but I have high hopes of it coming in handy. UPDATE: It never did. I sent it back to America with my family. Don’t bother with a sleeping bag unless you have active plans to use it. It’s a lot of weight and space if you don’t need it.
- Home-crocheted afghan
Is it heavy? Yes. Is it huge? Yes. Is it taking up weight? Yes. But my mother made it, it’s all stripy and beautiful, it’s warm, it’s perfect, I want it with me. I’d have to bring some kind of blanket anyway.
How I feel about it: I’m so glad I brought this even if it is heavy, especially on chilly rainy season nights.
- Ziplock bags
Big boxes of gallon and quart-sized ziplock bags because there are a hundred and one reasons to want these.
How I feel about it: I use them for everything.
- Reusable recycled-plastic tote bag
Because I have it, and it seems a shame to throw it away, and also there are no grocery bags in Rwanda, so it seems like it’ll come in handy. Plus it has the Macmillan logo on it, and that always makes me happy because last summer was great.
How I feel about it: It’s become my laundry bag. Good call.
- Hanging organisers
These are kind of a big weight sucker-upper, but everywhere I’ve gone for the past six years I’ve wished I had hanging organisers to store things instead of drawers/shelves/closet racks. So I have these.
How I feel about it: Rwandans use pegs on the walk instead of dressers or shelves, so these are great. I did have to get someone to build me a closet I could hang it in.
- Alarm clock
The retro kind that winds up and then rings so hard it knocks itself over—for the first few days when I have no phone and the likely-to-happen days when my phone isn’t charged.
How I feel about it: I don’t use it often, but this has happened.
One. Which is not nearly as many as I’d like. Office supplies are my weakness, but they’re also unfortunately heavy. I brought four blank journals, because I whip through those too quickly not to be prepared, plus they’re comfort items.
How I feel about it: No regrets, but it’s easy to find notebooks here (graph paper only, but that’s fine) so I haven’t actually finished it off. The journals are almost all full, so that was a good call though!
I’m a disorganised type of human, but I get stressed by disorganisation, so good organisers/planners are my lifeline. I brought a large 2017 day planner and a good portfolio/organiser.
How I feel about it: These items have been lifesavers already. I never found a 2018 dayplanner, even in Kigali, and had to make a giant wall calendar from scratch, though.
- Crayons/coloured pencils
Big boxes of them. I love colours. I expect they’ll be useful in the classroom. If not, they’ll comfort my soul at home.
How I feel about it: I almost never used these, unfortunately. My students didn’t really know what to do with them. Mostly I coloured once in a while, for which I certainly didn’t need this many of them. Oops.
A massive package of colourful ones, because I’m addicted plus people have told me they’re very useful in the classroom.
How I feel about it: These come in handy all the time, especially when making teaching aids out of rice sacks.
I’m really picky about my pens, so I brought a few packs of my favourites (Pilot, specifically the G2 .38 black and a few packs of the colourful gel rollers, because I need colours to study effectively); I’m less picky about my pencils, but I happened to have an unopened pack of nice mechanical pencils, so I brought them, too.
How I feel about it: Good call. There are no nice pens here. The pencils…eh not so useful.
How I feel about it: Every note card I brought has become a language flashcard. There are SO MANY WORDS.
- Coloured tabs
You know—the mildly adhesive ones you can stick in books to mark all the important things? No idea where these’ll come in handy, but I know they will. Plus they’re pretty.
How I feel about it: Never used these.
Mine is a 2011 13″ Macbook air with an external disc drive; I had it overhauled a few months before leaving, and it should stand me through the next few years without a problem. I have three different anti-virus/anti-malware programmes on it, since I’m told that’s a big issue in Rwanda.
How I feel about it: This is important. Bring one. And make sure you have good antivirus; your flash drive will get viruses from everyone else’s computers.
- External hard drive—2Tb
I left my bulky backup drive and brought a light external drive for backup, storage, and, of course, lots of movies.
How I feel about it: You can never have too much memory space or too many backups. I would bring three more if I had them.
E-reading is not my favourite thing, but since weight restrictions prevent my bringing an entire physical library with me, I’m settling for loading up my kindle with every free classic novel I can find!
How I feel about it: I use this every single day.
- Camera I didn’t bring my American phone with me, and I was told the cameras on smartphones in Rwanda are not great quality, so my handy-dandy digital point-and-shoot came along on the trip.
How I feel about it: I was really glad to have this along on trips, although I never felt comfortable using it around my village because I felt too conspicuous. Sadly, it died before the end of my service.
- Flash drives
Three of these, all blank. I’ve been told I’ll need them.
How I feel about it: I would’ve brought more if I could’ve. You can never have too much memory space, and at least one of your flash drives (only one, if you make a dedicated trash one) will get viruses and have to be wiped and reformatted multiple times if you have to plug it into anyone else’s computer (which you will for printing).
It’s old and mostly dysfunctional, but it still holds 32gb of music/Welcome to Night Vale podcasts and it’s a must-have for long flights.
How I feel about it: This is an essential on bus rides.
- External speaker
My laptop speakers are wretched. A fist-sized, rechargeable speaker is the solution.
How I feel about it: Useful especially when it’s pouring and I want to watch something.
Obviously. And an extra pair, because I’m picky about my headphones and the ones I have are headed toward death of old age.
How I feel about it: Earbuds are always essential.
- USB charger
It’s something like this.
How I feel about it: It’s already been the right answer on those nights when the electricity is out or on especially long trips when my phone dies. I would not survive without this.
- Flashlight and headlamp
How I feel about it: Late night walks home and electricity outages have already made these practical. The headlamp is especially useful when I have to cook in the dark with the electricity out.
- Rechargeable batteries
Apparently there’s no great way to dispose of batteries in Rwanda, so I picked up a set of rechargeable ones for my headlamp and flashlight.
How I feel about it: If you need batteries for anything (read: flashlight) you need these.
- Outlet adapters
For my items that have to plug into the wall, I’ve got a handful of light, simple adapters.
How I feel about it: Essential if you aren’t buying all your electronics in-country and don’t want to buy a ton of power strips. I wound up with power strips anyway but still needed these every time I travelled.
Some areas can get cool, and I expect to be walking in the rain fairly often, so I’ve got a raincoat and a light canvas jacket.
How I feel about it: I never used this. I was cold often but never made this jacket work.
Brown and black—they’re lightweight, comfy, and classy.
How I feel about it: Essential for cold days when you still have to look nice.
I brought a handful of blouses ranging from business formal to fairly casual; they’re all fairly neutral or generic colours that I can mix and match with just about any trousers/skirts. Also one non-blouse-y long sleeved shirt, because it’s comfy and I will want it on the plane.
How I feel about it: Not sorry I didn’t waste space on clothes but I did wind up hating all my clothes pretty soon and replaced them ASAP with clothes from the free pile at PC headquarters.
Two pairs of grey/plaid pegleg jeans—both nice enough to wear for classy stuff if I need them—and two pairs of slacks—one black, one grey. Also two pairs of really comfy harem trousers from Asia, because they’re comfortable, nice-looking, have pockets, and can go for PJs if necessary.
How I feel about it: Good calls on all of these.
Two black maxi skirts and a patterned orange-and-brown calf-length skirt—all my skirts have to be past my knees and, honestly, skirts are more comfortable than slacks, so I’ve already worn these a lot.
How I feel about it: Maxi-skirts got a lot of use, but they’d be more useful if they were solid colours. I never wear the flowery skirt.
A black dress and a black-and-brown-striped one, both wrinkle-free spandexy material that’s very comfortable, and both simple cuts that I can dress up or dress down depending on context.
How I feel about it: I never wore these because knee-length dresses felt surprisingly conspicuous and inappropriate.
Two of them, one solid, one patterned, totally opposite colour schemes, good for dressing up a casual outfit or hiding the fact that I’ve worn the same shirt for three straight days.
How I feel about it: Originally I wished I had more scarves but by halfway through service I had entirely quit wearing them.
A handful of camis/tanktops in various neutral colours for layering, lots of socks, lots of undies. Going by suggestions from current/former PCVs, I have handfuls of undies and socks packed to give myself for a treat about halfway through my term.
How I feel about it: This was a good call overall. I never did open up the new undies—I just couldn’t bear to ruin them with hand washing and drying in the sun. They were so fresh and clean and soft. I saved them for a COS present instead. The new pack of socks was good, though, because the other ones I’d brought had run out of functional elastic.
Apparently shoes are a big deal in Rwanda, so my goal was to pack shoes that were serviceable, attractive, and easy to keep clean. To that end, I have one pair of boots—technically not hiking boots, but comfy, attractive, and very hike-in-able; one pair of running shoes; one pair of canvas sneakers because I only wear my running shoes when I’m actually sportsing; three pairs of flats—black, brown, and teal, all material that can be wiped off easily; one pair of brown leather sandals that are comfortable but also fairly classy; one pair of black Sanuk yoga slings, because COMFORT, people; one pair of rubber flip-flops, because those are always a necessity.
How I feel about it: I never used my running shoes, not once. Everything else got a lot of wear. I had to buy new flip-flops because mine broke.
Honestly I’m not picky about my PJs. I packed a pair of fluffy leggings and a falling-apart Avengers t-shirt that I couldn’t bear to get rid of.
How I feel about it: I wish I’d brought more comfy clothes for lounging at home. Thank God for the free pile.
Apparently this is a necessity. I have yet to discover why.
How I feel about it: Useful on holidays.
I’m not hugely into make-up, but a few extra sticks of eyeliner and an all-the-nudes eyeshadow palette, plus a couple of lipsticks, seemed like a good idea for any dressy events/in case there turns out to be a makeup culture at the school I teach in.
How I feel about it: Wore this for a while and then never touched it again.
- Oral hygiene stuff
A few extra toothbrushes never hurt, and I’m picky about my toothpaste, so there’s that. Flossers, because hygiene is a thing and I’m really bad at remembering to floss if I have to figure out that wrapping-the-string-around-my-fingers trick. Also a toothbrush holder, because that seems good.
How I feel about it: Toothbrushes and the brand of toothpaste I use are available in country at various places, but the toothpaste especially is expensive, so I’m glad I have these. The floss provided by PC medical has come in handy as string, but I’m glad I brought flossers.
Apparently stick deodorant is not a thing I can get there, and I’m a little bit attached to Old Spice’s Amber scent.
How I feel about it: Definitely should’ve brought more of this. It’s almost impossible to find good deodorant for a reasonable price.
- Shampoo/conditioner I’m sure I can find shampoo here if I look, but I won’t have to for a while because I have a giant bottle of coconut-scented-shampoo, and it makes cold bucket baths nicer.
How I feel about it: I completely stopped washing my hair before my service even ended. So much for those family-sized bottles.
How I feel about it: Nice bar soap has been wonderful. I’m not a fan of bucket baths still, but I’m a fan of my soap.
- Razor heads Venus razors are an important thing, folks.
How I feel about it: I gave up shaving. These became useless.
How I feel about it: Carmex is magical. Bring more than you expect to need.
- Travel bottles
At the suggestion of a current PCV who was surviving trips with shampoo in baggies, I packed a set of empty travel-size bottles.
How I feel about it: That PCV was right. Even after I quit washing my hair with soap, they were a good size for travel sunscreen and lotion.
How I feel about it: There are feminine hygiene products in brands I recognise available here, mostly in Kigali and for ridiculous prices. So glad I brought these. Peace Corps has (finally) begun providing pads and tampons to volunteers, though, so they stopped being necessary.
Almost entirely earrings. I did not bring any of my more expensive/sentimental jewellery, including my rings, but I brought a fairly expensive watch, so there’s that. In defence of the watch, it’s an analogue wristwatch that winds itself as my arm moves, so it’s, like, sustainable and also attractive.
How I feel about it: These are good to have.
- Hair things
How I feel about it: More rubber-bands would’ve been a good idea; still not sure where to buy these here if mine all break.
- Nail polish/nail clippers/tweezers
Obviously these things are important. A few basic colours are essential; I packed black, white, brown, and aqua nail polish.
How I feel about it: Nail polish remover would’ve been a good move; nail polish is all great until you can’t get it off.
- Q-tips/ travel-sized tissue packets/cotton balls
How I feel about it: Essentials, although I did bring more than I needed.
How I feel about it: Seemed obvious, although I’ve only worn contacts on holiday and so have only worn sunglasses a couple times. Clip-on shades for my glasses have been a much better option.
- Prescription glasses/contacts/contact solution
I picked up an extra pair of glasses plus a dark-lens attachment for pretty cheap from Zenni Optical and I brough my contacts and some solution because I’ve been told I can, in fact, wear them (despite the PC not recommending it) if I’m careful about keeping them clean, and if I do any sportsing, I will wish my glasses weren’t sliding down my nose/falling off my face/restricting all peripheral vision/etc.
How I feel about it: The glasses have been great, and Peace Corps’ replacement glasses don’t fit my face (they literally don’t have an option for frames my size, who do I complain to) so I’m very glad they have. The contacts have only been useful on holidays (can’t swim blind!) because I never sportsed here.
The Peace Corps will provide these, I know, but I have half a box of Avengers band-aids left, and I seriously doubt the PC is giving me Avengers band-aids.
How I feel about it: Genuinely have cheered me up on bad days. Good choice.
- 12 passport photos
The Peace Corps said to, so I did.
How I feel about it: There was actually a lot of misinformation on this point and I only wound up needing 6, which is annoying because passport photos are shockingly expensive in the States and you can buy more here.
Like I said, I’m addicted to journaling, and four blank ones will definitely be needed for my own sanity and emotional health as well as for recording my adventures in country.
How I feel about it: I filled most of them.
- Bible/My Utmost for His Highest
Quiet devotions ground me and strengthen me, and while I’m looking forward to the opportunity of getting involved in a local church wherever I’m placed, I also know my spirit will need moments of solitary meditation.
How I feel about it: This was a solid choice.
- Purse and wallet
Necessitites, of course. I picked up a small wallet (which I haven’t carried yet because I’ve been keeping my lunch money in my backpack, but which has been nice for storing the bulk of my cash so I’m not walking around with all my money) and a cross-body purse that folds over, snaps, and zips before you can get it open. Hopefully this minimizes the chances of anyone reaching into it, although I guess they could still slice it…but there’s not much I can do about that. (Do they sell Kevlar purses??)
How I feel about it: Not a great place to store large amounts of cash because it’s not good for thick wads of bills, but essential for all the miscellaneous cards you wind up with (PC ID, resident ID, bus card, debit card…)
- Money belt
This thing has gone on every international trip I’ve made since high school. It’s comfortable to wear (I forget I’ve got it on) and the perfect size for a passport and emergency cash/credit card.
How I feel about it: Essential for holidays.
- Playing cards
Because when does a deck of cards not come in handy?
How I feel about it: Are you planning to be with other volunteers? Do you expect to be slightly bored at some point? Do you like literally any card game? Then this is for you.
- Tide-to-go pens
I’ll be honest; I’ve never used these. However, they’ve been highly recommended and seem like a good option. They’re cheap, they’re light, I doubt I’ll regret it.
How I feel about it: This has saved my life (or at least my shirt) multiple times.
These are on a lot of lists I looked at, and loud nights have never bothered me, but I own a pair of very nice earplugs thanks to jazz band, so they came in my carry-on just in case.
How I feel about it: Just when I thought these were useless, I got a puppy who howled all night for a week. They became vital to my mental health. Also the walls here have no sound proofing. Neighbours talking in front of my house sound like they’re in my bedroom. Dogs fighting outside at night sound like they’re next to me. You want these.
- Host family gifts
I brought coasters featuring pictures of the desert and a Southwest-style photo frame, in which I hope to put a photo of me and my host family, and a bag of Jolly Ranchers, because American sugar seems like the right way to say thank you.
How I feel about it: I wound up needing to do some shopping for host family gifts anyway, but I was glad to have something from home for them.
- Hair cutting scissors/comb
I’m by no means a professional stylist, but I’ve done a decent amount of hair cutting in the past year.
How I feel about it: Good call. People who can cut hair are in high demand.
Cheez-its and Buffalo-flavoured pretzel bits. Honestly I meant to eat these before I got to staging, but hey—I didn’t.
How I feel about it: They’ve been good friends when everything here seems overwhelming. You can never have too big a stash of emergency American snacks.
- Handheld luggage scale
How I feel about it: It’s saved my tush on numerous flights over the years. Do yourself a favour and buy one if you haven’t already. You don’t want to be that volunteer at COS hauling your suitcases into the medical office to weigh them. That sounds like a pain.
- Neck pillow
For the plane. Honestly it always winds up being a lumbar-support pillow, but all’s fair in love, war, and transatlantic flights.
How I feel about it: Two days on planes made this absolutely essential, plus I used it for my entire PST because I didn’t have a normal bed pillow. Also a convenient lumbar support on the couch.
He’s a stuffed dog who has travelled the world with me and witnessed most of my best and worst moments.
How I feel about it: He’s adjusting well to life in Rwanda.
Things I wish I’d brought:
- Hand sanitiser
Hand-washing facilities are never a guarantee here.
- Comfy clothes
I brought one pair of fluffy leggings and had a sweatshirt and cozy socks mailed to me, but I severely underestimated my need for cuddly clothing, especially on chilly nights, or just comfy clothing for days when I don’t have to leave the house.
- Athletic clothes
I can do yoga in my house in my underwear, but I have nothing to wear for outside-the-house activities like running or sportsing with the neighbourhood kids, and this is a serious drawback.
- A pillow
I wrongly assumed I’d be able to buy a bed pillow right away and spent three months without a proper pillow.
- Kid-friendly activities
I have almost nothing to amuse the kids in my neighbourhood when they come visit. It’s not my job to amuse them, but a ball, puzzles, a jumprope, or something along those lines would be really nice.
Thanks to fantastic blogs like Present Tense Memoir, The Sojourner’s Log, and An Educator Abroad for making my packing and pre-departure preparations simpler than they would’ve been otherwise. Also thanks to Rwanda PCVs who answered all my myriad and sometimes irrational and/or panicked questions patiently and thoroughly, and for telling me the things I didn’t even know to ask.