A Little Creativity… Six Packing Hacks for Travel MacGyvers

Last updated on May 13, 2023

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, to travel hack my way out of an obstacle, and to come up with creative solutions to problems that I could have never anticipated.

How Creative Travel Hacks are Good for Your Brain

This need for problem solving that travel creates is also good for the brain—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 travel hack that will solve my issue—it’s probably good for me, too. In fact, 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 backpack or suitcase, there’s not a lot of room for extras. That means many items have to multitask, even if used for unintended purposes. 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!

6 Travel Hacks for World Travelers

I like to think of myself as a Travel MacGyver, and these are the six tiny tools and travel hacks that have saved many of my travel days!

A Backpack Carabiner Clip

Top world travel hack: My laptop backpack and purse secured with a carabiner clip.
Wanna quickly nab my bag while I’m not looking? NOT TODAY THIEVES. This is my laptop backpack and purse secured to my chair with a carabiner clip.

What do you need for this backpack carabiner hack?

Most people know what this device is, but they don’t always know the actual name. Rock climbers primarily use carabiner clips to as a strong link between them and the ropes they use to ascend cliff faces. These clips are sturdy and easily latch onto things! The come in various sizes and durability.

The Travel MacGyver factor:

  • Secure your belongings to a fixed object. I use my cheap 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 smaller carabiner to affix my travel wallet to 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 bottle to the outsider of 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 luggage.

How to simulate the carabiner hack 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.

Tape on a Pencil

Tools and travel hacks I arm myself with when leaving the country to travel long-term.
Clockwise from top: Duct tape & painters tape on a pencil, small screwdriver, string, sewing kit, safety pins, and a matchbook

What is the tape on a pencil travel hack?

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 Travel MacGyver factor:

  • Tape shoes together. Duct tape can fix 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 wrist in place. By the way, as much as I love duct tape, it doesn’t replace also packing a well-stocked, compact travel medical kit and good travel insurance (I use IMG travel insurance, here’s why).
  • Grooming. Ladies, if you skipped on packing the strapless bra, duct tape (or band aids for a less harsh alternative) work as pasties. :)

How to simulate the tape on a pencil travel hack in a pinch:

There are no alternatives—have tape with  you! How you carry it can vary though—another traveler hacks is travel duct tape on his deodorant stick! That’s a fairly genius way to save even more space, but would create an issue for those on the road for a long time who eventually need to replace their deodorant.

Assortment of Bits and Bobs

How Pathetic is my computer held together with string and duct tape
How pathetic is my computer held together with string and duct tape?

What is the bits and bobs travel hack?

A small baggie filled with several tiny items that randomly come in handy: string, bobbie pins, a few rubber bands, and a handful of safety pins.

The Travel MacGyver factor:

  • Dig into small spaces. Bobbie pins are thin and can be bent and shoved into nooks and crannies.
  • Use string as everything from a clothesline to an electronics savor. While I have used thin 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 when traveling long-term. If your pants are loose, safety pins come to the rescue!
  • Seal away stinkiness. Rubber bands and a plastic bag keep smelly clothes sealed up tight in your backpack. You can also seal up a bag of snacks when in transit, or keep the lid sealed tightly on something.

How to simulate the bits and bobs travel hack 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 travel sewing kit works like a bobby pin in many cases too!

Swiss Army Knife

What is the Swiss army knife travel hack?

What list would be complete without one of these!? Knife, scissors, screwdriver, etc. I actually carry a small, plain pocket knife now instead of my proper Swiss Army Knife because of a close call with my much more expensive one that I almost surrendered to airport security.

The Travel MacGyver factor:

  • Dine from the grocery store. A sharp knife makes sharing chunks of cheese and fruit easy on hikes and bus rides. My friends and I did this from hikes in Croatia to bus rides in India.
  • Keep your gear in working order. My tiny screwdriver repaired 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). This was essential on my hike in Nepal’s Himalayas when I slid down a mountainside on accident and used my hands to stop. :-/

How to simulate the Swiss army knife travel hack 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

why you need a sewing kit for travel
I was devastated by the hole in my poor fisherman pants—they ripped in Mumbai while I was wearing them!

What is the sewing kit travel hack?

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 Travel MacGyver factor:

  • SIM card removal. My sewing kit needle regularly ejects my iPhone sim card in each new country. (I’ve used a before paperclip, too.)
  • Mend worn clothes. Cheap pants rip. So do expensive ones. While a safety pin solves the immediate embarrassment, a sewing kit is quite handy. My $100 high-tech travel 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!).

How to simulate the sewing kit travel hack in a pinch:

Cheap tailors abound in India and Asia—for a dollar or less you can have minor rips and tears instantly repaired in most towns. Guesthouse owners in many parts of the world could also probably dig out a needle and thread if asked.

Creativity, Imagination, and Invention

A very wonky way to charge my camera battery - capped off with some tape!
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, 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.

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 my duct tape like electrical tape and repaired the cord on the bus’ sole fan cooling us on a sweltering day. 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?

23 thoughts on “A Little Creativity… Six Packing Hacks for Travel MacGyvers”

  1. Many years ago, while traveling in Mexico, I used the spine and the attached natural fiber of a yucca plant to stitch up a long tear in my canvas duffel bag. Our tour guide had mentioned these plants were nick-named ” the needle and thread plant”. She was certainly correct, The sharp needle easily pierced the canvas and the attached fiber was super strong!

  2. Once when I was backpacking several miles away from the nearest road, both straps on my heavily weighted backpack decided to break at the same instant! Luckily I always carry about 25 feet of parachute cord and a roll of electric tape with me. I tied the cord to the top and bottom of my pack and looped it back and forth several times on both sides of the pack. Next, I cut an old tee shirt in half and wrapped it around the lengths of cord. Finally, I wrapped the electric tape up and down the length of  the emergency shoulder straps.  It wasn’t all that comfortable but that emergency repair got me back to civilization but I did get a nasty bruise on both shoulders.

    • Woah! That’s hardcore…and thank goodness you were able to jerry-rig a
      solution because a pack without straps is pretty much impossible to carry
      effectively! I cannot even imagine. So creative though, your fix was so very
      creative and has me wondering if I need parachute cord now too! :)

  3. Wow! What a very helpful post, Shannon! Whenever we travel, we always have laundry bags (the big ones,hotel freebies) in our backpacks. It’s so useful especially from separating the dirty clothes from the clean ones. Plus it’s so easy to bring them down to the laundry shop all at once. It can also work as a carry on for some souvenirs you don’t want to get broken inside your packs. Thanks for the great tips! :)

    • Thanks so much for stopping in and sharing your tips too! I love carrying
      gallon size ziplocks but have never brought the giant ones – that could
      really come in handy, I’ll have to hunt one down and take it with next time!
      Safe travels ladies :)

  4. I dub you the most useful person to have around in a crisis that I know.

    Needles for gadgets, very definitely (I have a fine, blunt-ended one I use for rebooting phones, popping open DVD drives, etc). I keep it in a little pouch with the tiny screwdriver that tightens the screws on the arms of my spectacles.

    Further to the carabiner (good advice, need me one of those) I can recommend a “bungee cord” (eg. http://www.paragonsports.com/images/medium/5303-p450_bungee13_pd.jpg), or ideally a couple, one short, one long. Have found maaaaaaaany uses for those suckers. 

    And I absolutely love your idea of using duct-tape to “crappify” your valuables. That’s really smart. :)

    • Intriguing – a bungee cord! I’ve seen some of the off-road backpackers with
      them, people who carry tents and sleep in the wild, but I didn’t think about
      doing it myself…will have to reassess! The crapifying – I saw it really
      well done with a point-and-shoot once on a gadget blog, and the guy said he
      got robbed in his hostel, but they left the (expensive) ugly camera :)

  5. Love this post – I travelled with a guy in Mongolia for a while who I called MacGyver because of the awesome things he could do with a piece of string. This is even better! :D 

    • Do share?! What could he do with the string? I haven’t really done anything too cool with that part of my tool kit (mostly just to hold my computer together) but intrigued how he used it :)

  6. Great post! =) I’ve often had to employ the WWMD strategy (what would Macgyver do) when travelling. Have had to invoke other TV characters as well =)    


      • Haha – invoking Nancy Botwin got us out of a dangerous situation the other night…and the guy from Quantum Leap, of course, for adapting to new environments all the time =)

  7. Yes, yes – duct tape to cobble together the (often multiple!) electrical adapters/plugs!  I also favor a meter’s length of elastic, with loops tied on the ends – for line drying clothes (an be stretched beteen a doorknob and most anything.)

    • It really is ridiculous how many adapters we often have to cobble together just to charge some things! I have read that several other travelers love their laundry ropes and am curious, may have to give it a whirl next time I head out! Thanks for weighing in Dyanne :)

  8. Great post. I did duct tape on a pen and, while I never had to patch any holes or computers, I did tape my computer plug to the wall on several occasions. My travel multi outlet has a really bright blue light on it, almost blinding, so I used duct tape to cover it up so it wouldn’t bother people sleeping. Have a carabiner, but never thought of using it to attach bag to a table. Sadly, as a non sewing kind of guy, I can’t sew on a button, so when one popped off, I talked someone I had met into sewing it on. At least I had a sewing kit :)

  9. Love this post!  And I’m feeling pretty good because I do actually have all of these tools with me.  Well, I did until I stupidly left my knife in my carry-on going through airport security.

    By the way, I was totally obsessed with watching MacGyver when I was a kid.

    • Thanks Stephanie! And glad to know I hit the nail on the head with the list–I really do think we could handle some dicey situations with the tool kits we pack; MacGyver would be proud :)

    • Touche! I always bring several sizes with me as well – definitely should have made the list…it’s just insane how much they come in handy! :)

  10. Oh, that photo of you and the laptop held together by duct tape and string made me want to cry. But, do love the various uses of duct tape – never would have thought of using that as pasties (ouch??). I love sewing kits, but rarely do we actually stay in a hotel that gives them out. But, I have a friend who travels often for business who stocks up on them for me. Have become a pro at making our clothes last forever…well, at least a little longer. 

    • It was a pretty sad sight…no computer should be put to that limit but it plugged along valiantly with its duct tape band aids in place ;-) As for pasties…not saying it’s *pleasant,* but it does actually nicely do the trick, hehe, great for under those hand-mended clothes we both prolong the life of indefinitely!


Leave a Comment