5 min read · Written by Grant Rayner on 26 Jun 2023Share by email
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been focused on securing information in higher-risk environments. I’ve written about securing satellite communications and mobile routers, and about device hardening. I’ve also written about the importance of avoiding unwanted attention and keeping a low profile. All useful things to know and apply in dangerous places.
This week, I’m going to take a break from information security and focus on something a little more fundamental to travel: packing. Specifically, some of the things you should be thinking about when packing for a higher-risk destination.
I’ll start with clothing, footwear and bags. I’ll then get into some key items of equipment. I’ll wrap up with a few principles you can apply when packing for your own travels.
In higher-risk locations, what you wear will have a significant impact on whether you’re easily noticed by threat groups. Specific items of clothing and accessories can also make it easier for anyone surveilling you to keep you under surveillance (which can be a good thing in some contexts, but something to be aware of).
As a rule of thumb, the best approach is to opt for neutral colours and conservative styles. Take into account local cultural and religious factors when selecting what to pack. Also consider environmental factors, such as insect borne diseases, extreme heat or cold, and the need to protect yourself from sunburn. On balance, normal clothes are better than travel clothes.
When planning what clothes to pack, focus on layering. Instead of carrying a single heavy jacket, pack a 3-layer system consisting of a fleece or insulated jacket, a soft shell jacket, and a gore-tex outer shell. Even if you’re traveling to a warm climate, it can still get cold at times, so it’s always useful to pack a lightweight insulated jacket.
Make sure your shoes are well-worn and comfortable. You should feel confident that you could walk all day without worrying about rubbing or blisters. Opt for shoes that you could comfortably run in for a few hundred metres if necessary. They don’t have to be running shoes, just shoes that can handle a short sprint when necessary.Aside from comfort, also consider grip. Find a pair of shoes with good grip that won’t slip on wet surfaces.
Gore-tex shoes are a good choice for most travel, unless you’re going somewhere tropical during monsoon season. Avoid boots unless you’re planning to do some hiking in more rugged terrain.
Use bags that are uninteresting, durable and water resistant. Avoid bags that appear military (based on their colour or features, such as MOLLE or PALS).
Aside from functionality, select a bag that aligns with your purpose of travel. Business people don’t typically carry Osprey backpacks and backpackers don’t typically check in Rimowa suitcases. On that note, wherever possible, try not to check in bags, especially if you’re taking connecting flights. Aim for a carry bag (satchel or daypack) and a carry on bag (overnight bag).
Use tamper-evident locks when leaving your bags unattended. Also consider using consumer tracking devices, such as AirTags, to monitor the location of your bags.
You’ll almost always need a dedicated travel phone for higher-risk locations. You’ll need to prepare this phone especially for travel, ensuring it has minimal data and that it allows for ongoing secure communications.
Satellite phones and messengers are essential in many locations to maintain communications. Before you travel, be sure to check on any laws and restrictions that may apply to the use of satellite phones at your destination.
Pack a small power bank that will enable you to charge your phone at least 2-3 times. Keep this power bank in your satchel or daypack when you’re out and about.
If you’re going somewhere where the power supply is unreliable, also carry a large capacity power bank. Be sure to pack this in your carry on bag. Airports and airlines are becoming increasingly strict when it comes to power banks, so ensure that any power banks you carry are below the 100 Watt-hour (Wh) limit. If you carry a large-size power bank, label the capacity so it’s plainly visible during inspections.
If you’re travelling to a location with an unreliable power supply, consider packing solar panels. However, be aware of the practicalities of using solar panels. If you’re working in an urban environment, you might struggle to get enough direct sun. Also consider cloud cover and the length of time it will take to charge a battery or device (relevant if you’re on the move).
It’s useful to carry a few other bits of kit in higher-risk locations:
Nothing mysterious here. Just make sure what you’re carrying aligns with your profile.
When packing, consider the possibility of being able to purchase clothing and equipment at your destination. If you’re carrying electronics, consider whether you’ll be able to get these items repaired, or whether you’ll be able to buy power cables, SD cards, or other essentials. If you’re likely to be travelling overland or in remote areas, it may be very difficult for you to purchase necessary clothing and equipment, so you’ll need to pack with some level of redundancy in mind.
Another approach you can apply is to prepare a ‘fly-in kit’. This kit is a small box of replacement items that you’re unlikely to be able to easily procure once on the ground. Such items could be laptops, phones, a satellite phone or satellite communicator, cables, SD cards, and SSDs. If needed, you can get a colleague or family member to send this kit to you by courier.
Here’s a few principles that I apply when travelling that you might find useful for your own travels.
Weight can quickly add up, so try to pick lightweight items in each category. Be selective when it comes to heavier gear, such as computers, power banks, and camera equipment. Pack the minimum items of clothing. Three changes of clothes—in addition to the clothes you’re wearing—is more than enough for most travel contexts.
Once on the ground, layer your gear. Keep essential items, such as your phone, cash and cards, on your person. Carry important items in a satchel or daypack. Everything else can be left in a locked bag at your accommodation.
When it comes to avoiding the risk of being targeted by threat groups, managing your profile is key. Whatever clothing and equipment you are thinking of packing for your trip, consider how it aligns with your travel profile. Lay out your gear and consider what type of person travels with this type of stuff.
Consider signifying items, for example laptop stickers and woven or embroidered patches. What do these say about who you are and what you do?
Don’t pack military or military-style clothing. Some countries have laws against wearing camouflage clothing (e.g., Philippines, Zambia, Oman and others).
Don’t carry any weapons, or objects that can be made into weapons. Don’t carry tactical pens (if you find yourself in a situation where you need to stab someone with a pen, almost any type of pen or pencil will do). Avoid military-style flashlights. Any colour flashlight is perfectly fine, noting that it’s night time anyway and the person being blinded by your flashlight probably isn’t going to notice the colour.
As a passing comment, the entire EDC thing is becoming increasingly militarised. If you had been caught in occupied Europe during WWII with what many people carry around town as ‘EDC’ today, you’d probably be executed as a spy. While this stuff may be okay at home, don’t carry it when travelling. Always consider how the items you carry may be perceived by anyone overtly or covertly going through your gear.
You’ll find it useful to adopt the same approach when packing for each trip. Use the same bags, and pack items in the same places in those bags. Even if you’re an experienced traveller, use checklists to help ensure you don’t forget anything.
I’ve just published The Quick Reference Guide to Packing for Higher-Risk Destinations, which you might find useful.
When you pack for travel to higher-risk environments, carefully consider your profile. Keep it simple and discrete. The less gear, the better. Pack light in the knowledge that you can always buy stuff if you need to once on the ground.
Your knowledge and awareness is more important than your gear.
Thanks for reading.