I have never had a full-time or even part-time job that has required me to work outdoors. I find that both amazing and depressing, considering how much I enjoy being in nature. The warmth of the sun on your face, the sound of animals scurrying about, and the cool breeze wafting in off the sea create a soul-cleansing freshness that is lost in a cubicle or office. Fortunately, volunteering outdoors gives me the opportunity to work out in the elements.
Packing for international travel and/or volunteering can be a challenge. Here are my four essential items that will help make your experience smoother and more enjoyable when volunteering outdoors.
If you’ve never worked outside or worked regularly “with your hands”, odds are your hands are like mine: soft. It comes with working inside and not having hobbies that create those tough, weathered hands. Because of this, I want to avoid blisters, cuts, and scrapes while working.
Your hands are your most valuable tools when volunteering outdoors. Whether you’re building a school, cutting down invasive plant species in a natural park, or fixing a rescued animal enclosure; you need to take care of them. This is where work gloves come in handy. They protect your hands from the elements, improve your grip on tools, and reduce the potential for blisters.
Leather is best for durability, but can be expensive and often too warm in hotter climates. Synthetics are more breathable but lack the durability and will likely have to be replaced if volunteering long-term. I brought a pair from home that I used for simple tasks around the house. I realized after 3 weeks and 2 holes later that they weren’t going to cut it. I’ll be investing in a better pair soon. Don’t make my mistake, buy a good, durable pair, and take care of your hands!
Ask any outdoor worker, adventurer, or hiker what’s the one item they absolutely can’t live without. I guarantee you the vast majority of them will say the same thing: a good knife. There’s a simple reason for that; a good pocket knife is the ultimate tool.
I won’t need to go into all the benefits of what a knife can do…it’s a knife, you know what it can do. But I will emphasize the type of knife. Personally, I carry a small folding knife with a good sharp point and a belt clip. I can open it with one hand and it fits in my pocket without being bulgy. Something with a 2-3” blade is all you need. Anything larger than that and it’s both overkill potentially illegal in some countries.
Fixed blades are often stronger and more durable, but they’re also larger and not as discreet. As with anything that can be considered a “weapon”, conceal-ability is both smart and respectful. No need to scare people with a machete strapped to your hip…unless you’re in rural Costa Rica; then it just looks cool (and it’s fun to play with).
Leave the Ray Ban Aviators and Gucci frames at home. Sure, they look great, but it’s not worth losing or breaking a good pair while volunteering outdoors. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my glasses fall off my face/head on the outdoor projects I’ve worked on. Do you really need a pair of $150+ sunglasses falling into a waterfall or wetlands? Nope, me neither. I picked up mine for like ten bucks at CVS. If they break or I lose them; who cares?!?! I’ll pick up another $10 pair and not worry about them either.
Much like the pocket knife, there’s not much I need to explain about a pair of sunglasses either. They protect your eyes from the sun, debris, and sticks when volunteering outdoors. And they also make you look at least 27% cooler. That’s a scientific fact; look it up.
Bandanas, like the shemagh I recommended in 9 Things to Pack in Your Travel Backpack, have a wide array of uses. Therefore, they’re incredibly versatile when used while volunteering outdoors. The most obvious uses are as a head or face covering to protect against the elements, wipe sweat off your face, or to clean things. Other useful possibilities include: wrapping a wound or splint, padding your hand when lifting something heavy, using it to tie things together, or as a basic water filter (for removing debris, not for drinking). They can also be used as a flag or marker in rescue situations.
Bandanas are cheap (don’t spend more than a couple bucks), lightweight, infinitely packable, and fit in your back pocket. You can get them in nearly any color or pattern, so pick one (or several) that matches your personality and start thinking of additional uses.