How to Pack for a Boat Trip

Last year I went on an extended trip through the deserts of Jordan and learned all about packing outside my comfort zone. This summer I faced a new travel challenge: how to pack for a diving expedition on the Great Barrier Reef.

After spending more than three days on the 100-foot Spoilsport with a dozen crew members and 23 other passengers, it was easy to put together a list of what to bring — and what to leave on land — when you’re preparing for your first (or next) live-aboard boat trip.

Here are my rules for packing when you’re going out to sea:

1. Keep it simple.

Even on popular cruise lines, space in the rooms are limited. Don’t bring a bag that won’t slide under a bunk or fit on a small closet shelf. Pack outfits you don’t mind wearing multiple times, and avoid major beauty supplies, especially on a dive boat where no one cares if you hair is blown dry after a day in the water.

Think very carefully about what you might actually need, and cross everything else off your list.

2. Bring smart clothing options. 

Tip number one: There are tons of great quick-dry fabrics out there. Make sure to invest in a few key pieces before you step onto a live-aboard boat. If you’ll be swimming, pack one or two extra bathing suits (trust me, they don’t dry quickly in humid ocean air) to avoid that icky feeling of pulling on a wet bathing suit.

Tip number two: Avoid packing light-colored clothes. The long white skirt that was perfect for the desert doesn’t work so well when you’re trying to enjoy a full glass of Australian Shiraz on a listing deck. Light-colored clothes are also often see-through when wet.

3. Pack water- and wind-friendly accessories.

To prevent sun exposure, pack a hat that stays put on a windy day. To avoid embarrassing falls, throw in sandals with good tread so you can navigate slippery decks and stairs with ease. Flip flops are great, but you can say sayonara to them if you hit the water unexpectedly. Same thing goes for sunglasses. Pack eyewear retainers and water shoes or sandals that go around your ankles.

On another practical note, there is no guarantee, even when the sea looks as flat as a pancake, that the wind won’t pick up as soon as you pour that hot cup of coffee. Toss a travel mug with a secure top into your bag; you won’t be sorry.

4. Stay hydrated and energized.

Between the sun exposure and play time in the saltwater, it’s easy to get dehydrated on a boat. Toting a refillable water bottle around with you wherever you go provides a good reminder to drink up.

On the flip side, spending the day in the open air is exhilarating, but can leave you feeling famished. A bag of trail mix and a box of protein bars can go a long way to preventing hunger (and crankiness) between meals.

5. Don’t forget the entertainment.

There can be a lot of down time on a boat. Contribute to the social scene by bringing a set of dice or a deck of cards on board with you. In addition to being a good way to get to know fellow passengers, you might also end up learning new games. On my trip, an Aussie taught me and a group of fellow Americans how to play what’s become a new favorite: Ten Thousand.

Bonding is great, but be prepared to spend hours of time on your own — often without WiFi or cell service. Being at sea is a great time to catch up on the novels stacking up on your Kindle — or to read the good-old-fashioned paper and ink kind.

6. Be prepared (for the possibility of motion sickness).

Even people with iron stomaches can fall prey to motion seasickness on a windy day. Dimenhydrinate — commonly known by the brand name, Dramamine — is a popular over-the-counter option, but one that’s better taken at night because it can make you very sleepy.

Ginger is a powerful non-drowsy remedy, but it’s always comforting to know you can break out the big guns if the natural route’s not quite doing the trick. Several fellow passengers recommended the Transderm Scōp, a patch that goes behind your ear, as another solution that won’t make you tired. (You need a prescription for the patch, so plan ahead.)

7. Last, but not least: Bring your own snorkel and mask.

If you plan on snorkeling or diving (which you should!), I’d recommend purchasing your own mask to ensure a good fit. (There’s nothing worse than having a leaky one!) Go to a dive shop that knows their stuff to try them on. (In the Washington, D.C., area I recommend Blue Planet D.C.).

Once you purchase the right mask, spend some quality time (maybe while watching TV) rubbing white toothpaste on the inside of your mask, where your eyes and nose go. The dive masters at Mike Ball Expeditions recommend this trick to prevent your mask from fogging up once in the water.

Carolyn P. Fox manages digital content for National Geographic Travel. Follow her story on Twitter @SeaFox4.