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Essential Packing List for Travelers With Chronic Pain

by Liz Hamill Sep 27, 2011
“Leaving home at home” is fashionable for travelers right now.

But I can’t drop my pain in a corner of my bedroom and leave it there when I walk out the door. (Oh, how I wish I could!) Without some basic self-care gear, my pain will spike and ruin my trip.

Here’s a list of a few items that help make a traveler with pain not just more comfortable on the road, but able to hit the road at all.


I have a u-shaped neck pillow filled with silicone beads that I drag almost everywhere with me. It’s my neck pillow on planes, a soft barrier between my butt and cold hard benches and a lower-back support. It even pinch-hits as a bed pillow in really cheap motels sometimes. I strap it to my carry-on for air travel and throw it into cars for road trips.

Pick your own favorite pillow and make it your travel buddy. Some travelers with pain even find ways to bring their full-sized bed pillows on vacation with them.

A big list of numbers

I put a piece of paper in a folder and carry it with me wherever I go. The paper has the following phone number and info on it:

  • Primary Care Physician
  • Specialists I work with regularly
  • Home pharmacy
  • Emergency contact
  • House sitter/pet sitter
  • Hotel desk phone number(s)
More than enough meds

Bring along enough of all of your regular and occasional medications to last at least twice as long as you plan to be away. You never know when a volcano in Iceland will erupt and shut down half the air traffic in the Northern Hemisphere, stranding you on a strange continent indefinitely. By carrying double meds, you’ll have enough to get through most minor travel delays. For major delays, you’ll have plenty of medication to take while you’re contacting your doctor and getting refills from the local pharmacy.

Extra spoons

No, not table spoons or even silver spoons. I’m talking about these spoons. Short version: a spoon is a unit of personal energy. Healthy, pain-free travelers have infinite spoons with which to trip around the world and back again.

Travelers with pain start each day on the road with a limited number of spoons. Once I’ve used up my allotment of spoons for the day, I’m done. Like, “must be physically helped from the restaurant table into a cab, then carried up the stairs at the hotel and undressed by my husband before he tucks me into bed” done.

So how do I acquire extra spoons before a trip? The week before I travel, I try to get lots of sleep. I indulge in lavish acts of self-care, including hot baths and massages and lots of fruits and vegetables at meals. Doing these things creates a few extra spoons I can use on my trip for treats like hiking and snorkeling. Which is what makes traveling fun and worthwhile in the first place.


When I travel, even just overnight to a big city with ten thousand restaurants, I bring emergency rations. Blood sugar spikes and dips lead straight to pain spikes. For a weekend getaway to a destination with plenty of food available, I’ll slip a couple of Luna or Clif bars and a big bottle of water into my bag. For a week-long road trip, I like to sling the cooler into the truck and hit the grocery store on my way out of town.

Plenty of comfortable clothes for a variety of weather

I’m not a believer in minimalist clothes packing. While the No-Baggage Challenge amused me, it didn’t entice me. Standing at the sink washing out my undies and socks uses precious spoons. Every sock and every pair of panties costs me a spoon I could be using to visit a museum, dine at a local restaurant, or walk on a beach.

I think travelers with pain should pack enough clothes to get by without doing laundry for up to two weeks. Pack plenty of underwear and socks, plus the kind of layered clothing that matches the season at your destination.

Comfortable shoes

I love my ergonomically designed Sketchers. They’re sturdy enough to hike in, comfy enough to walk all day in, and stylish enough to go out to a mid-level restaurant dinner in.

Bringing super-stylish ankle-breakers to wear out to dinner never seems to work for me. Last time I tried, I ended up limping along the streets of London barefoot with open blisters. That did not enhance my travel experience.

Zip-Lock bags

An empty Zip-Lock bag is an ice pack waiting to happen. Especially useful on planes, where you can ask your flight attendant to dump some ice into the bag in-flight, thus eliminating security hassles altogether.

They’re also great for carrying oozy gooey stuff anytime.

Heat packs

I prefer the Thermacare or similar heat patches that adhere to my skin for traveling. For smaller heat packs, I go for the hand-warmer packets sold in motorcycle shops. They’re less than 3 ounces each, so they’re easy to fly with.

Extra cash

Nothing relieves pain quite like money. Whether I need an upgrade to a motel room with a bathtub, a prescription refill, an unscheduled cab ride, or a massage, some extra cash gets the job done. That money isn’t part of the “regular travel budget,” and if I don’t need anything I don’t spend it. But if something goes wrong and I need an assist, that money is there waiting to take my arm and help me.

Smartphone or cell phone

Bring the smartest phone your budget can bear when you travel. My phone’s as dumb as a hammer, but it’s a hammer with 411 service and I can use it to call a cab or a motel or an airline’s service center. An iPhone or an Android loaded up with public transit apps, road condition apps, travel guide apps, and GPS would be even better. Information can make traveling easier and less painful. So can the ability to make phone calls. A smartphone combines info with phone into one fabulous little palm-sized package.

First-Aid kit

Band-aids, antibacterial ointment and insect-sting-ease come in handy at the oddest times and take up little space in my suitcase. It might seem petty, but being able to relieve the pain of a cut or a sting can help stave off a bigger pain problem before it really gets rolling.

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