Traveling lacks predictability. Even writing that causes me heart palpitations and a cold sweat. I like certainty and the ability to plan. I have lists — oh the number of lists I write every day! Travel seems incompatible with some of my more particular quirks, but there’s one part of travel that overrides my need for predictability: I love the constant pressure to think on my feet and come up with instant and creative solutions to problems that I could never anticipate. This need for problem solving is good for the brain too, the Mayo clinic’s research has found that lifelong learning and thinking games can help prevent cognitive decline later in life. And so when I’m on the road and straining my brain to come up with a fix — it’s probably good for me too. In fact, I think anyone traveling, even for shorter stretches understands the mental flexibility it takes to roll with new information and then quickly create a new plan.
On the road, these challenges come in so many forms. Like when you miss your train and you have to get to the next place in just three hours. Imagine your only tools are a bus schedule, a tuk-tuk driver with broken English, and a guidebook. Go!
That’s happened on more than one occasion. And even the smaller travel tasks create fun puzzles. With so much of your life pared down into one single bag, there’s not a lot of room for extras. That means many items have to multitask, even if that wasn’t the intended purpose. I often scrounge through my backpack for the perfect combination of tools and gadgets to solve the latest issue. And I’ve gotten pretty good at it!
I like to think of myself as a Travel MacGyver, and these are the handful of tiny tools that have saved many of my travel days!
Tape on a Pencil
What is it? Half of a pencil with a thick wad of duct tape wound around the wood on one end, and painter’s tape on the other. This is perhaps my favorite of the travel tools — tape rocks my world.
The MacGyver Factor?
- Tape shoes together. This can mean straps on sandals, flapping soles, and even frayed ends of shoelaces.
- Patch a hole in a backpack. Duct tape is strong enough to hold your backpack together until you can find a tailor to patch it.
- Hold plugs into the wall. Sometimes outlets are very loose, and some are located on the ceiling! I have tapped many a charger into the outlet.
- Hold together electronics. Backpacking long-term has the power to destroy laptops (and sunglasses, by the by).
- Uglify your possessions! If you have something nice but want it to look like crap, add duct tape or hideous blue painters tape. Voilà, you are now the proud owner of a sketchy looking camera/computer/phone.
- Seal wounds and brace sprained ankles. Duct tape is not the best adhesive for skin, but it does the trick to cover an open wound. Before I left to backpack, I actually broke my arm on a mountainside and I used duct tape to fashion a temporary sling to hold my arm in place. As much as I love duct tape though, it doesn’t replace also packing a well-stocked, compact travel medical kit.
- Grooming. Ladies, if you skipped on packing the strapless bra, duct tape (or band aids for a less harsh alternative) work as pasties. :)
In a Pinch: No alternatives — have tape with you!
A Carabiner Clip
What is it? Most people know what this device is, but they don’t always know the actual name. Rock climbers primarily use carabiner clips to create a strong clip to hold their rocks. These clips are sturdy and they easily latch onto things! The come in various sizes and durability.
The MacGyver Factor:
- Secure your belongings to a fixed object. I use my carabiner to quickly attach my backpack or purse to a table or chair leg when at dinner. If anyone tries to discreetly nip off with your purse, they’ll be surprised to take the whole table with them!
- Keep track of your necessities. I use a carabiner to affix my travel wallet into my purse — that way it’s easy to locate in my bag, but hard for someone to reach in and steal. I also have a separate carabiner to connect my water to my backpack so that it doesn’t easily fall out.
- Add extra space to your bag. Using a carabiner, I easily hang newly purchased souvenirs from the outside of my bag. I’ve also hung bags of wet shoes, groceries, and anything else that wouldn’t temporarily fit into my backpacks.
In a Pinch: I’ve actually wadded duct tape into a strong loop to fasten two items together! Backpacks and suitcases often have external clips — use these make fantastically complex arrangements that fasten items to you and your pack.
Assortment of Bits and Bobs
What is it? A small baggie filled with several tiny items that randomly come in hand. String, bobbie pins, a few rubber bands, and a handful of safety pins.
The MacGyver Factor:
- Dig into small spaces. Bobbie pins are thin and can be bent and shoved into nooks and crannies.
- From a clothesline to an electronics savor. While I have used think string as a small clothes line for wet socks, that same thick string (together with duct tape) actually held my computer together for the last five months of my round the world trip.
- Keep clothes together if sewing won’t work! It’s common to lose weight on the road. If your pants are loose, the safety pins come to the rescue!
- Seal away stinkiness. Rubber bands and a plastic bag keep smelly clothes sealed up tight in my backpack.
In a Pinch:A good deal of dental floss can sub for string (surprisingly strong when braided thinly) and either of these can replace a missing rubber band. The needle in your sewing kit works like a bobby pin in many cases too!
Swiss Army Knife
What is it? What list would be complete without one of these!? Knife, scissors, screwdriver, etc. I carry a small, plain pocket knife instead of my proper Swiss Army Knife because I don’t want to lose my nice knife in airport security.
The MacGyver Factor:
- Dine from the grocery store. A sharp knife makes sharing chunks of cheese and fruit easy on hikes and bus rides.
- Keep your gear in working order. My tiny screwdriver repaired both my eyeglasses and my small computer screws on multiple occasions.
- Remove splinters. A sharpened knife tip makes DIY splinter removal a cinch (sanitize first though with a lighter/alcohol swabs).
In a Pinch: Things that can sub for a Swiss army knife: small safety scissors, nail clippers, screwdriver from an eyeglass repair kit. And on the plus side, many of these alternatives easily slide through airport security.
A Sewing Kit
What is it? A couple of needles and few colors of thread; that’s all you’ll need. Unlike the treasure trove of colors in your mom’s old sewing box, just a few will serve you well. Seriously, this small sewing kit is tiny and is all you will need.
The MacGyver Factor:
- SIM card removal. My sewing kit needle regularly ejects my iPhone sim card in each new country (I’ve used a paperclip too).
- Mend worn clothes. Cheap pants rip. But so do expensive ones. While a safety pin solves the immediate embarrassment, a sewing kit is quite handy. My $100 high-tech Columbia pants (which I love) ripped when I fell off my bicycle in a tiny town in Mexico, so I sewed up the gaping hole and looked less bedraggled as a result.
- Help everyone else and make new friends. If you bring a tiny sewing kit, other travelers will think you are the quintessential Travel MacGyver since they invariably forgot to pack their kit. It also works as an ice-breaker with the other travelers. Over the years, I have taught three men how to sew their ripped pants (I demonstrated the technique and they sewed their own pants, because I draw the line at traveling the world sewing random mens’ trousers!).
In a Pinch: Cheap tailors abound in India and Asia and for a dollar or less you can have minor rips and tears instantly repaired in most towns.
Creativity, Imagination, and Invention
Beyond these small tools you might have packed, it really comes down to creativity and divergent thinking. No single tool has to fit its intended purpose — it can serve whatever need you have at the moment. Out of the box thinking goes the longest way toward being a Travel MacGyver.
When I was locked out of my room in Guatemala last year, and the hostel had no secondary key for my room. For several minutes the woman and I stood shoulder to shoulder staring expectantly at the locked door-handle. But slowly percolating to the surface of my brain was a long-forgotten childhood breaking and entering lesson from my older brothers (we only used to do it to each others’ bedrooms in our house, I swear!). In a flash of inspiration, I whipped out my credit card. I slid my card it into the doorframe and reveled in the sudden click as the latch released and the door swung inward. (Perhaps let this also serve as a lesson about flimsy hostel locks — mine took a flat four seconds of fiddling to open, no joke).
In Laos, I also had a grand time sewing a guitar strap for a friend. I had to get creative with the materials so I used the long strings ripped off of an old bikini and a length of cloth! It turned out so cute and my friend used it while she backpacked Southeast Asia.
And in Honduras, I saved the day on the chicken bus when I whipped out my duct tape to fix the fan. I used the tape like electrical tape and repared the cord on the bus’ only working fan. The locals pretty much thought I was a superhero. Really though, just another Travel MacGyver moment. :)
What are some of your best travel MacGyver moments and what tool did the trick? Or, anything you’ve repurposed in your own home to save the day?