A Little Adrift

A Little Creativity… Six Tiny Things Travel MacGyvers Should Pack

Be a Travel MacGyver on the road with these four items!

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

Clockwise from top: Duct tape & painters tape on a pencil, small screwdriver, string, sewing kit, safety pins, and a matchbook

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?

In a Pinch: No alternatives — have tape with  you!

A Carabiner Clip

My laptop backpack and purse secured to the chair with 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:

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

How pathetic; my computer held together with string and duct tape. The “fix” lasted 5 months though!

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:

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:

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

Devastated by the hole in my poor fisherman pants — they ripped in Mumbai while I was wearing them!


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:

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

A wonky way to charge my camera battery. You can just barely see that I had to add tape to the entire contraption to hold the battery into the device!

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?