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The One Small Thing Spice Lovers Should Pack in Their Luggage Before Every Trip

Food + Drink
by Nickolaus Hines May 21, 2024

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I am not typically one for souvenirs. What I will almost always try and bring back from my travels, however, are local spices. They bring the flavors back home, and make excellent gifts that will get more love than that tacky magnet that most likely can be found just as easily online (and probably wasn’t made in the country you bought it regardless).

Getting said spices back home in a way that keeps them tasting as good as I remember in their country of origin takes a little more work than bringing back an article of clothing or piece of plastic. Which is where some repurposed silica gel packets come in handy.

Silica gel packets are thrown into seemingly every product you buy. New camera lenses, shoes, chips — ubiquitous is the only fitting word. They fall in the category of desiccants, which mean a material that absorbs moisture. They’re particularly handy in humid areas where the air has enough water in it to make food clump or turn stale. The pellets are made with silica and water. As Discover explains, the molecular structure is sponge-like. The H2O in condensed humid air clings on to the silica gel, thereby removing it from the nearby air.

Photo: Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock

By some measures, silica gel can absorb 30-40 percent of its weight in water. One study found 20-30 percent of absorption by weight at 90 percent relative humidity and 86 degrees Fahrenheit over 30 days. That’s not as strong as other desiccants like calcium chloride, though silica gel does better in relative humidity of about 50 percent and still performs more than enough for most travelers’ needs.

Through my years of bringing back spices from trips to places like India, United Arab Emirates, and Mexico, spice clumping issues have popped up more often than I’d like. Pre-packaged goods are usually in the clear (often because they already have a silica gel packet in them), but the spices I tend to gravitate toward are the ones put together locally and scooped from a bin and into a plastic bag. A hard clumped bag of spices isn’t necessarily completely ruined, but it’s also not true to form.

I first put the connection together that silicon gel packets could help after watching videos from travel influencers and travel advisors on TikTok.

@patricejwill Silica gel packs have a ton of uses, especially when traveling. They’re great at absorbing moisture. Throw a few in your suitcase and they can even help dry your phone out if it gets wet {do not put your phone in rice 🙅🏾‍♀️🤦🏽‍♀️} #travelhacks #travelpackingtips #packinghacks #travelwriterslife ♬ original sound – Patrice | solo travel fashion

A couple of weeks ahead of a trip to Jamaica, I started tossing these packets in my Away suitcase instead of the trash. I had a few handfuls zipped into a pouch by the time I left. Jamaica’s average humidity sits at 70 percent or higher year-round — significantly higher than the 30 percent range in my hometown of Denver.

In Jamaica, I put a few into a bag filled with jerk spices from an outdoor market in the heart of Ocho Rios. The woman putting the spices together warned me that the sugars in the mix — an ingredient especially prone to clumping in humidity — could lead to a hardened mass by the time I left five days later.

With my extra silica gel packets doing their work, everything was in the same shape I bought it when I got home and unpacked.

Spices aren’t the only thing that benefit from some silica gel packets in your luggage. Electronics, camera gear, stinky clothes that have been sweat through (silica gel is also a deodorizer), and makeup all benefit from a lower relative humidity as well. Just remember that they can lose effectiveness over time, so you’ll need to switch packets out after a few uses.

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

My main concern as someone traveling with a toddler was the very clear “DO NOT EAT” warning on every package. Zipping them away gave me some peace of mind. The fact that silica gel is nontoxic gave me more. They’re still a choking hazard, and self-indicating silica gel can have toxic ingredients, but the regular packets won’t usually lead to a hospital trip.

While I went the route of reusing the ones that made it my way in other packages, you can also buy fresh silica gel packets on Amazon for under $10.

These little packets (the ones not dusted over in chip residue, at least) officially have a forever home in my luggage for spices of all kinds.

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