Be Prepared for the Worst: 3 Travel Tips from a Former CIA Case Officer

Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

If there’s one thing I learned during my time in the CIA, it’s to be ready for anything. You never know what sort of adventure (or trouble) the day will bring via cable traffic or just from what’s going on in your part of the world that day, so be prepared to improvise, adapt, and overcome. Not just to stay alive, but also to protect others and any critical intelligence that you may have collected as well.

The life of a Case Officer often means traveling on a moment’s notice to some of the more remote and dangerous places in the world. Self-reliance is the key to success and survival as is making sure you have everything you need, and nothing you don’t. Here are some tried and true principles that I live by when traveling:

  • Be prepared for a worst-case scenario, especially on travel days.
  • Hands-free equals freedom of movement.
  • Pack light and carry-on only.

If you are someone trying to better prepare yourself and your family while traveling, these following tips are for you. No matter where you’re traveling, keep these things in mind as you prepare.

Be Prepared for Anything on Travel Days 

Without being too doom and gloom, I try to imagine a worst-case scenario when deciding what to wear on travel days.

What type of shoes do I want to wear if I’m forced to walk through fire or broken glass?

The only good answer is something closed-toe that will actually protect your feet and allow you to move quickly. Forget the heels or sandals that are difficult to walk in and save them for a time when you don’t have to be as alert.

What clothing should I wear if there is a sudden change in temperature or I get stranded somewhere? 

Wear clothing that is practical and easy to adapt to your surroundings. That flowy dress or skirt that trips you up if you move too fast? Save it for when you are relaxed at home or in a known location. Layer clothing so you can adjust to any temperature fluctuations. Keep your protective outerwear on you during travel days in case you need it and also to save space in your bag. You can always take off a jacket or sweater if you get too hot and use it as a make-shift pillow. 

What should I bring if there is a sudden outbreak of a virus or other illness?

Aside from hand sanitizer when you don’t have access to soap and water, bring a shemagh or large scarf to use as an improvised barrier for your nose and mouth. Wearing an anti-viral face mask may be required for health reasons but note that it can attract unwanted attention to yourself depending on when and where you are traveling. If you must wear one, consider making it more discreet by hiding it under your shemagh. Protect your eyes (from projectiles or you touching them) by wearing sunglasses.

Hands-free = Freedom of Movement

Have you ever tried to run through an airport or city with a rollbag? You are slow, loud and out of control. These are not thing you want to be while traveling anywhere.

When you travel with all of your belongings, safely and securely on your back, you leave your hands free to do other important things like defend yourself, maintain your balance, help others in need, etc. Keep your hands free to move quickly and quietly by packing everything you need in one bag.

Packing Light and Carry-on Only

If you don’t already pack light, you probably don’t realize how easy it actually is to pack only a carry on travel backpack. Once you see how much 40L, 34L, 26L, even 21L bags can hold, you’ll realize that you’ve got plenty of space to bring everything you need for an entire week or more. 

Here are basic principles of packing light, for carry on only:

  • Choose the right-sized bag for you and your trip (overnight – GR1, weekend – GR1 or GR2, 1 week – GR2, 2 weeks + – GR3
  • Use organizers like Packing Cubes and Field Pockets
  • Pack only what you need, leave out what you don’t 
  • Invest in gear and apparel that are versatile and easy to clean/dry
  • Take advantage of airline personal item allowance, a rucksack plus a small, foldable tote
  • Wear your heaviest clothes during travel days on the plane or other vehicle
  • Limit yourself to 2-3 pairs max of shoes, including the ones already on your feet
  • Fill up extra spaces in the bag’s pockets and natural crevices from items

The fact of the matter is that less is more and more is lazy. We can avoid the literal burden of overpacking by being more a little more thoughtful prior to and during the travel planning process. When we default to adding more and more “just in case” items for travel or everyday carry, ultimately it will cost us:

  • Space (taking up more on planes, trains, and automobiles)
  • Effort (dragging around more rollbags)
  • Money (for baggage fees)
  • Time (to pack and repack and unpack)

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  1. JayTee2430 says:

    Ur tips are so simple but yet so so effective. Thank u emily really appreciate it. And thank u for ur service as well

  2. Veldra says:

    Hi Emily, when me and my family were in amazing Taiwan for a wonderful trip last year, i had to lug around 3 bloody roller bags through different terrain. I read this article last year when we were there and promised ourselves to pack smart and invest in a GR3, GR1 and Bullet. We’re getting prepared for our next adventure, knowing that new flying norms may introduced. Thank you for this wonderful article.

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