Packing Light for a Year Abroad

In preparation for Korea, I watched dozens of videos and read dozens of blog posts about what to pack for a year in Korea, as well as other destinations. I made lists of things I’d need, meticulously laid out the items I’d bring, and eliminated what I could. I researched things like wardrobe pods, minimalist travel essentials, and things that aren’t available in Korea.

For the most part, my obsessive packing lists paid off. I managed to pack fairly light and had lots of extra room for some non-essentials like natural peanut butter and Lindt chocolate bars. That being said, there were still lots of things I brought here that I barely use at all, so here’s my updated list of what to bring for a year in Korea, or abroad in general, based on my own experiences.

If you’re not interested in my explanations for what I packed and what I wish I didn’t, I have the list compiled here, minus the rambling.

Luggage

  • 1 large suitcase (checked)
  • 1 day-pack (carry-on)
  • 1 tote bag, laptop bag, or purse (carry-on)
  • *Packing cubes*

Before packing, it’s important to decide what you’re going to pack it in. Keep in mind I’m a fairly minimalist traveler. I managed to easily fit everything I needed in one large suitcase, a tote bag, and my regular day backpack. I brought an extra medium-sized suitcase because it was free, and loaded it up with a smaller carry-on suitcase for shorter trips (which I’ve never used) and non-essentials, like natural peanut butter and fancy chocolate.

Now that I’m here, I regret bringing the extra suitcases. I want to travel for a few months after I leave Korea, but now I’ve got my parents’ suitcases with me that I have to bring home. So, I’ll either have to leave them here and buy new ones to replace them when I get home, or lug them around my travels for a few months. I’ll probably choose the first option, but I wouldn’t have to spend $200+ replacing them had I just packed what I needed.

I’ve also listed packing cubes here, because they are a fantastic way to haul your belongings across the globe. They were particularly useful for separating what I needed for the week-long orientation, so I didn’t have to re-pack my entire suitcase when I headed to my own town afterwards. I also use them when I got on shorter trips so it’s easy to keep my things organized in my small backpack.

When I got here, I purchased a 50L backpack for about $40, which I take on mid-length trips, like my 2 week trip to Vietnam and Taiwan.

Here is what I brought, versus what I could have brought if I followed this guide:

Clothing

I find myself wearing the same outfits to school everyday. I have enough work-appropriate clothing to make outfits for about 10 days, but I wear the same five outfits each week, and no one seems to care. I recommend bringing enough to make about five to seven outfits in the winter, and five to seven in the summer.

The key to making this work is having everything coordinate. Most of my clothes are grey, navy, or jewel tones, so I can easily mix and match what I have for more variety. I also have additional clothing to wear on weekends (more casual and comfortable) and working out.

There’s a good chance you’ll want to buy clothing when you get here, so don’t stress about having massive amounts of clothing in your suitcase. Korean fashion is cheap and decent quality, and it comes in a wide range of sizes despite the myths.

Tops

*Important note* In Korea, the chest, collarbone, and shoulder area should be well covered in the workplace, so bring shirts that cover these as much as possible. Avoid sleeveless, v-necks, and low-hanging tops.

  • 5 t-shirts
  • 3 button-ups
  • 3 blouses
  • 1-2 Camisoles
  • 2 cardigans
  • 1 knit sweater (bulky and easy to buy cheaply in Korea)
  • 1 sweatshirt (bulky and easy to buy cheaply in Korea)

Bottoms

  • 4 Pants: light jeans, dark jeans, khakis, hiking pants
  • 2 Shorts
  • 1 Skirt
  • 2 Dresses

Unspeakables

  • 12 pairs of underwear
  • 12 pairs socks (2 thermal, 6 running, 4 thin)
  • 3 bras

Activewear

  • 2 sports bras
  • 1 workout t-shirt
  • 1 pair leggings
  • 1 pair light track pants
  • 2 pairs spandex shorts
  • 1 pair running shorts

Other

  • Bikini
  • One-piece swim suit for lane swimming

Footwear

  • Hiking boots (wear while travelling)
  • Runners
  • Casual sneakers
  • Flip-flops

Outerwear

  • 2 layer fall jacket
  • Toque
  • Gloves
  • American Apparel infinity scarf (basically the only scarf you’ll ever need – also doubles as a blanket for the plane, and a million other things)

In terms of outerwear, I brought just the basics. Knowing Korea is a lot warmer than Canada, I brought a warm fall jacket, small pair of gloves, and a toque. Little did I know, I’d end up in the coldest city in the country, so I purchased a parka from the Goodwill in Seoul for about $20 USD. Had I been further south though, my fall jacket would have been sufficient. I also bought a set of thermals when I got here for about $20 USD, which I used for the 2 coldest weeks in the winter

Toiletries

  • Shampoo, conditioner, argan oil, comb (bought a brush when I got here)
  • Toothbrush, paste, floss
  • Face wash, moisturizer
  • Contacts, solution, sunglasses
  • Deodorant x 3 (for Korea, this is one thing to load up on as it’s difficult to find and expensive, though this is changing)
  • Sunscreen
  • Simple first aid kit (band-aids, Polysporin, Advil)
  • Make-up: 1 mascara, 1 eyeliner
  • Menstrual cup
  • Contraceptives
  • Prescriptions (see medicine post)
  • Quick-dry camping towel (buy towels when you get there)

I brought just enough toiletries to last me about two weeks. Orientation was 1 week, and then an extra week to let me get my bearings was more than enough. This not only limits the weight and volume in your bags, but ensures that nothing gets confiscated at the airport. If you’re worried you won’t be able to find your favourite products, the reality is, you probably won’t be able to bring a years’ worth anyway, so its best to make the transition early. You can find most stuff online or in foreign stores these days anyway.

Electronics

  • Laptop, charger, mouse
  • Phone, charger
  • 1 adapter
  • 1 portable phone charger
  • Camera (?)

I suggest just bringing one adapter. Your laptop is likely the only thing you’ll need it for as you can plug other things like your phone into your laptop if you need to charge both at once.

Things like hairdryers, straighteners, and electronic shavers often require heavy duty adapters that convert the power, so it’s best to just buy these in-country to avoid ruining the product with the wrong voltage. You can buy a local plug that attaches to your laptop power bar online when you get there.

Another really useful item is a portable phone charger. Travelling abroad can mean up to 48 hours in planes and airports, and plugs tend to be limited and in high demand. So it’s best to have an alternative source of energy to charge your phone while in transit.

Lastly, a camera can be a great way to capture your memories travelling. Afterall, there’s no need to bring home tacky souvenirs to remember your travels when you have all the best moments captured in photos. That being said, I brought my fancy Canon Rebel with me, and have barely used it. With the advances of phone technology, I find the difference in quality of my phone camera and my DSLR is fairly minimal compared to the difference in convenience. In retrospect, I wish I’d left my camera & lenses at home for my parents to use rather than taking up almost my entire carry-on bag with it.

Important Documents

  • Travel info: airline tickets and information (like baggage info, delay policies, etc.)
  • Passport & visa (duh!)
  • Documents related to the job (TESOL certificate, acceptance letter, contact info, etc.)
  • Important information about Korea (consulate contact, emergency numbers, etc.)
  • Credit and debit cards

When I travel, I like to be over-prepared. So I brought originals and copies of all the important documents I would need, as well as having digital copies on my google drive. I keep all the originals in my carry-on, and copies in my checked luggage.

Miscellaneous

  • Notebook & pens
  • Book/kindle
  • Waterbottles (1 large, 1 small Nalgene, both of which I use everyday)
  • CASH

Cash is an important one. EPIK recommends you bring about $1000 USD worth in KRW. I brought about half that, thinking it would easily get me through the month, and if it didn’t I’d just use my credit card to draw more. Unfortunately, things came up, like my toilet breaking and purchasing more toiletries when my travel sized ones ran out. Then my credit card wouldn’t work at ANY of the ATMs in town. I probably would have been fine with what I had, but I didn’t feel like drifting into payday with only a few dollars. Luckily, I was able to get cash when I went to Seoul to get me through, but it would have been nice to just have the cash on me in the first place.

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