Packing Dilemma

I’m getting on a ship in a couple days… don’t know exactly when. And I don’t even know where the ship is going. All I know is I’m somehow gonna get the story of global trade straight from the folks who actually make it happen. And I’ve got a year to do it.

How do you pack for that? If you’ve got any ideas, throw ’em at me. Right now, my bag (I’ll list in order of descending weight, cause that’s the kicker):

  • Macbook Pro 15″, plus the brick of a charger (this is heaviest, but I’ve gotta have it to process and edit)
  • Sony PCM D-50 recorder plus AC wort
  • Nikon D3100 camera with 18-55 mm AF-S lens
  • Electrovoice RE-50 omni mic
  • 2 1-TB portable hard drives (1 Western Digital, 1 Lacie Rugged)
  • Olympus LS-10 recorder (this is my standby, and I love that it’s so small)
  • my old point and shoot camera (for when the other is too big or expensive to risk carrying)
  • Sony MDR-7506 headphones (for editing)
  • smaller Sony headphones (for fieldwork)
  • battery charger and rechargeable batteries
  • extension cord
  • voltage converters
  • extra cables
  • Windtech windscreens for RE-50 and D-50
  • 32 GB USB flash drive
  • lots of memory cards
  • notebook, pens, headlamp
  • sleeping bag
  • soap and seasickness patches

Oh yeah, and clothes. Definitely an afterthought– I’ve got a nice lightweight rain jacket, my track pants and running shoes. A couple shirts and a set of long underwear. One warm jacket, something nice in case. That’s it. I can get clothes anywhere. It’s the gear I need to make some decisions about.

I’ve got so much crap. I mean, gear. I mean, the stuff I need to do my project. I’m afraid I’ll just wanna drop it off the side of the ship, all except for the notebook. What I’m trying to do is crazy. Not the cargo ship part– to me that’s not nuts. What’s nuts is backpacking for a year WITH MY GEAR. It’s a bit of a catch twenty-two– I want to pack light and be as mobile as possible, but I also want to be prepared with the right tech gear for whatever situation I might land in. For example: I’d much rather just carry one recorder instead of two, but then what if one conks out half-way across the Atlantic?

It would be easier if I knew where I was going, and how I’d be living once I got there. I don’t, and I won’t know until I get on the ship. The destination port will depend on the market for grain when we set sail.

I know where my ship is now, though. I’ve actually been tracking it on a website I discovered called The site allows you to track any ship in the world that’s near enough to land to give out GPS data. I spotted the Isa loading in the Netherlands 2 1/2 weeks ago. It arrived in Cleveland a week ago, then headed to Burns Harbor to unload the rest of the steel it brought from Europe.

Take a look for yourself.

Right now the Isa is headed into Lake Superior, to Thunder Bay, Ontario. And I’m headed there too– just bought my plane ticket and I’m leaving in less than 48 hours. I’ll board the Isa from Thunder Bay and head over to Europe with the Polish crew and their shipment of grain.

More soon. Stay tuned.

Other posts about Allison’s Journey

Allison Swaim

Allison Swaim

Allison Swaim caught the radio bug during a month-long stint as a reporter at Radio Victoria in rural El Salvador. She learned how to tell stories with sound at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the fall of 2008. Discovering radio was like getting her license. Holding a microphone gives Allison an excuse to do what she loves: talk to people, hear their stories, learn their perspectives. Allison grew up in Salisbury, NC and is proud of her Southern roots. The Midwest became a second home in her five years in Oberlin, OH. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010.


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  • Jay Allison



    Allison, you should check Tom Lopez’s Remote Recording Survival Guide here on Transom:

    There are other good tips here on international travel/recording from Jesse Hardman, Jake Warga, and others.

    bon voyage, almost!

  • Allison



    Jay, thanks for pointing me that way. Just the advice I needed! Here in Canada now, and waiting for the ship so I still have a day or two to make final gear decisions– I can ship stuff home from here without spending a fortune, and I can order last-minute stuff from B&H to be sent to the mail boat in Detroit to pick up when we pass by. Might do so, taking Tom’s advice into account.

    I also got some great advice from Jeff Towne, Jesse Dukes, Kelsey Timmerman and many others. Thanks to all!

  • Jay Allison



    I’ll look forward to your ULTIMATE PACKING LIST recommendations *after* you’ve sailed for a while.

  • Connor Walsh



    Really impressed at how compact that is for a whole year to be honest! I’m just back from ten days in China for a doc that had to be in stereo – so had two mics and a big fostex recorder as well as an LS-10. I used the LS-10 far far more than the over-the-shoulder kit (subtlety), though there were times I would have liked something on a boom, but that would have been daft.
    The only thing that failed was the MacBook power supply! To be fair it was old and the cord had already started to fray.
    Everything in Tom’s article looks like sound advice to me too!

  • Chris



    Which DAW did you pack on your Mac? Hindenburg Journalist??

  • Loni Kaye



    Hey Allison! It’s Loni from Oberlin Street Law! I randomly came across this article and am so impressed by what you’re doing. Can’t wait to read about it and listen to your stories! Good luck.

  • Carolyn Barnwell



    Ahh, I know a Watson Fellow when I see one. I would recommend bringing a little plastic drain cover. I found many sinks in my travels don’t have a plug, and if you bring a cover you can always use the sink to wash your socks and underwear. And polarized sunglasses! Save those corneas- the glare off the ocean is brutal. Travel well!

  • Keith Sjoquist



    Condoms! I’m serious. There’s nothing better for waterproofing mics with minimal sound discoloration. See if you can get a hold of some of those silica gel packs that absorb moisture too. After a day out in the elements, throw your gear into a Pelican case with a couple of those in it and everything will be nice and dry by morning.

    Sounds like an excellent adventure; good luck!

  • Matt Brown



    Recommended dietary supplement: ginger capsules, for seasickness.

  • Lynne



    Sounds fun. Hope you brought a lot of medicine for different ailments. I think you did not pack so light when you had to bring all your equipment. But you are right, you have to be prepared for all sort of things you might encounter. Thanks for sharing.

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