Packing List for Long-Distance Rail Journeys

A lot of our readers are interested in taking long distance train journeys, like the one between Hong Kong and Bangkok, or the trans-Siberian. Here we share a list of things to think about packing for such a journey, to supplement the packing list you usually use for your travel. Once you are on a long distance train abroad you may be in situ for days, so it can be helpful to make sure you take the right things with you.

  • Food – what food you take may vary depending on how well catered the train is. Some long-distance Chinese trains have excellent meals at all relevant meal times, while on trains in Vietnam for example there is not nearly the same opportunity. At a minimum it is useful to take some dehydrated food – Asians love instant noodles, but also consider things like instant mashed potato for variety. Some tinned food like sardines can be lightweight, durable, filling and not messy to carry. Nuts, dark chocolate and similar snacks can also be a boon.
  • Drinks – many trains offer hot water on tap, so having teas and coffees can keep you cosy. Instead of instant coffee, you may want to take ground coffee or single serve coffee filters. Personally I find a very good quality coffee is a great start to a long morning on a train, and establishing some routine like that helps make the journey more mentally manageable. A hot flask can be convenient if you do not want to be heading to the hot water tap too often. I also would take wine and a spirit like brandy to while away the time. On some trains, drinks are sold but on others you may go days without being able to buy any, so it is best to take your own if you want to be sure. Trains in some countries such as Thailand prohibit alcohol consumption.
  • Bowl – it is good to have something to eat from, and if you don’t want to take a plate and bowl then a bowl is more versatile than a plate.
  • Cutlery – bringing your own cutlery is important if you want to eat any of your own food. A penknife may provide the basics, but a comfortable fork, spoon and knife can make eating in your seat or cabin a lot easier.
  • Drinking vessel – a cup of some sort is a necessity if you won’t be drinking exclusively in the buffet car.
  • Sleeping bag liner – many long distance trains provide sleeping sheets and pillows. Take your own liner if you want to know that what you are immediately sleeping on is cleaned to your personal standards.
  • Penknife – a penknife shows its utility on a journey like this and unlike a flight you don’t need to be separated from it.
  • Earplugs – a good pair of earplugs can make a huge difference to your sleep quality on an overnight train.
  • Eyemask – an eyemask can be helpful at nighttime as even in a small cabin, passengers may get on or off in the middle of the night and put the lights on.
  • Travel towel – a lightweight, absorbent towel like the Turkish towels we have reviewed before is useful as many trains provide no towel and you can also use it as a shawl if you are cold.
  • Wet wipes – sanitary conditions on trains vary a lot. A pack of wet wipes is helpful for when the sink has no water, the cabin table is dirty and so on. Even if you are not a very fussy traveller, there are moments when wet wipes are highly useful.
  • Guide book and Map – one feature of long distance train journeys is that you spend ages looking out of the window, wondering where you are and often trying to identify a given feature. A detailed guide book is a must if you want to get the most from the journey. It is also worth investing in a map or maps which show the whole route so you can track where you are.
  • Reading matter – there is not a wide range of activities to do on a train journey of several days, which for many people is part of its charm. Taking some reading material is a good way of whiling away the hours, especially as you may have long chunks of time without interruption so it can be a good environment in which to tackle books you have had on the shelf for a while. You might end up reading less than you expect, but one can carry quite a lot on a train so I suggest you pack more not less than you expect to get through. Books can be a good currency for exchange with fellow passengers on longer journeys.
  • Dictionary – a simple dictionary can make communication with cabin mates or the train guard quicker and easier.
  • Print out of itinerary – sitting for long hours on a train watching trees go by it often crosses one’s mind to read and reread the remaining itinerary. A print out is useful for this purpose. If you can include intermediate stops it will help you plan your time, for example in China you will know whether you have time to get out and stroll around the platform or if it is too brisk a stop for that.
  • Print out of travel documents – some train officials or border crossings will ask to see your documents and it may be that you run out of power, or they want to take the documents away for examination. It is thus helpful always to print out all of the documents in advance in hard copy and carry them with you.
  • Music and speakers – if you have a private cabin, some background music of your choice can create atmosphere. I take a travel radio, and enjoy tuning in to local stations, but it is also helpful to take your own music as radio reception is often intermittent on long train trips. Portable speakers are great if you have a cabin to your own party, or amenable cabin mates. Spare batteries are helpful.
  • Candles – candles aren’t for everyone and some train operators may not permit them. But if you have a private cabin and are far from home, switching to candlelight with some relaxing music playing and a glass of wine in your hand can turn even the dreariest authoritarian-designed train compartment into a much cosier home from home in an instant.
  • Adapter – many trains have electrical sockets but it is useful to make sure that you have the right adapter. A good place to start is our article on power and adapters in Hong Kong.
  • Cigarettes – even if you are not a smoker, cigarettes can be a useful icebreaker if you want to chat with your cabin mates, railwaymen or other people you meet along the way.
  • Postcards – long train journeys often involve conversations with other passengers, who typically express interest in where you are from. Having some simple gifts can help such conversations and postcards showing where you are from can be an ideal way to cross language barriers.
  • Playing cards – lightweight and versatile, a pack of cards can come in handy on a train even if you do not know many games. With lots of time and bored passengers, you may find someone to teach you the games you have wanted to learn.

In general for train travel, the Man in Seat 61 website is a fantastic resource I use regularly. It can help you judge what to expect in general terms on a given route, which in turn will help you decide what to pack. If you have additions or tips to add to our packing list, please share them with fellow travellers in the comments section below.

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