What do I pack??! Do I need this?? What if I forget this?! These are some of the most common questions I get from new travel nurses across the country.
I’ve recently been sharing blog posts based on the most common questions I receive regarding travel nursing in Canada. First, I answered the question “How Much Experience Do I Need to be a Travel Nurse?“. Then I touched on “Questions for Travel Nurses to Ask During Orientation“. The next topic I’m going to tackle is a list of things you should pack for your first (or any) travel nursing contract! It’s quite daunting to start making a list of things you need to bring with you when you have no idea what you will need or what will be in your accommodations. There are a few things to remember before we dive into the list.
First…this list will be dependent upon if you drive or fly to your assignment. Obviously, if you drive, you can fit a whole lot more into a vehicle than you can into a couple of suitcases. I have both driven and flown to multiple assignments so I’ve been in both situations. I love driving because I can bring so much more, but if you are flying to a quick 2 or 3 week assignment, you really do not need all that much to make yourself comfortable (depending on the person of course!). That leads me to the next point…everyone is different. Some nurses can survive on the bare minimum of supplies and can be happy in any situation you put them in. On the other hand, some nurses are a bit more high maintenance and there’s nothing wrong with that! Next, this list is always going to change for you. The more contracts you do, the more you will know what you need and don’t need to be comfortable on assignment. I packed SO many “dressy” clothes for my first contract and I don’t think I used one piece of clothing other than scrubs, pyjamas and hiking clothes! I also packed a giant textbook that I never even cracked open! Another point to be aware of is that you are ALWAYS going to over pack for your first assignment. It’s basically inevitable. And guess what? Unless you are going to a super rural location, you can ALWAYS buy what you forgot when you get there! But maybe this list will help you pack smart so that you can be as comfortable as possible and also save money in the future!
The first thing you should always do before you start packing is get UP TO DATE information from your recruiter. I’ll be honest, most of the information that the agencies have regarding facility housing is outdated and hasn’t been refreshed in some time. Before my last contract, I was under the understanding that I was staying in a FISHING VILLAGE that I had to take a boat to and from every day across the ocean! They told me I would not have Wifi and that I would have to pay them for it. Looking back, I die laughing because I ended up staying in a nice two bedroom apartment two minutes away from the hospital with the fastest Wifi ever! I literally changed my entire phone plan the week before I left and have since been paying $20 extra a month to have Unlimited Data! LOL! So, a message to all you travel nurses out there (old and new!): after your contract, update your recruiter about the housing situation! That way they will have accurate housing information for other travellers and these types of issues can be prevented for other nurses in the future!
A lot of people don’t realize that it’s the hospital that arranges the housing for your contract. Some nurses think the agency provides it, and while they technically do, ultimately it’s the facility who is paying for it so they control it. There is the exceptional location where they give you a housing allowance to find your own place. Sometimes the hospital is unorganized with multiple housing locations and they don’t know where you’re staying until you show up! Or you might get lucky and it’s communicated to you weeks beforehand. This isn’t like booking an Airbnb where you get an itemized list of what’s included in the kitchen you’re renting. There’s a golden rule that your housing always has to provide your basic necessities such as dishes, pots, utensils, bedding, a towel and a kettle. I’ve stayed in places that literally had the bare essentials and I had to buy some stuff once I got there. At my first contract, we were expected to share one fridge and that tiny fridge freezer between SEVEN PEOPLE. I ended up buying a plug-in cooler so I could store my food! I’ve also stayed in places that had EVERYTHING provided and if we ran out of something, there was a contact person who would order it and supply it. We’re talking laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, TOILET PAPER….it was amazing! They were so grateful to have the nurses come that they provided all of that which was unreal. I was missing a cheese grater in my apartment and had one there the next day! Other places you aren’t so lucky. Obviously you won’t know 100% until you are actually there, but try to contact the facility if your recruiter doesn’t know for sure so that you can be best prepared!
1. Nursing Supplies
You’re going to your contract to work above all, so first make sure you have the supplies you need to do your job. You don’t need to pack 10 pairs of scrubs…you’re going to be doing laundry. Pack your three or four most favourite and comfortable sets and rotate between them. Obviously the number of scrubs you bring will depend on your schedule and when and where you will be able to do laundry. That’s another question to ask your recruiter…is the laundry inside your housing or do you have to go to a laundromat (very rare)? Sometimes the machines provided are coin-operated so make sure you have the proper change or that there’s an accessible bank that you can exchange money for coins. Another thing to consider… is there a mandatory scrub colour at your facility? Some places in Nova Scotia are usually only white and black. Are you doing a community-based contract? Maybe you don’t even need to wear scrubs?
You’re also going to want to pack your stethoscope, a couple of pens, a name badge, and any other tools you always have with you at work. I used to like using a specific worksheet so I always made sure to print off a couple to bring with me and had the file saved in my email so I could print as I needed at work. Some nurses wear a handy belt/pouch so they can always have a flush or scissors ready to go. An easy thing to do if you are bouncing from contract to contract is to have a designated work bag that always has your supplies at the ready that you can throw in your suitcase and go. Something to note about your name badge… if you are working a contract for Solutions Staffing, they are great at providing a generalized “travel nurse” badge with your picture on it that they try to get to you before you leave for your first contract. In the six facilities I did contracts in, I was only ever ONCE provided with a photo ID badge. So bring your badge from your home hospital if you have to. It’s super important that both staff and patients know that you are a nurse, especially considering they’ve never seen you before! Even if the facility doesn’t think of this for their travellers, you can help!
2. Important Documents
I feel like this is such an important thing to pack that often gets overlooked. I never travel without my laptop (hello Netflix and Facetiming family). I have a secure folder on my laptop that has digital copies of all my important documents. Does the facility need to know last minute that you have an up-to-date CPR certification? It’s right there for them. Need to prove you already have your mask fit testing done? Immunizations are up to date? Need to verify your identity?…have a scan of your passport ready to go. Proof you are licensed to work in a certain province? There ya go.
I like to also keep on hand a copy of my signed contract and any other documents associated with my agency so I can reference them if needed. Sometimes you forget what the number of hours are when you switch into overtime pay so the contract is right there for your review. I personally like to have hard copies of all of this stuff too, but it’s really not absolutely necessary if you have the digital copies as well. It could be safer for some people to have a file folder in their backpack, depends on the person. I always travel with a file folder regardless because I like to keep all of my time sheets to compare to my pay stubs when I get them. Even if you don’t need all these files/paperwork, it’s still a good thing to have just in case. It’s also helpful if you are working on signing your next contract (maybe with a completely different agency) so the documents are all at the ready if you do end up needing them.
3. Weather Appropriate Clothing
This might be a no-brainer for some but it’s worth mentioning in this list. Do some good research about the weather at the time of year you’re going to be in that town/city. Last year, I went to Prince Rupert, BC in December. When you think of travel nursing in December, you think of snow and cold temperatures. Wrong. It’s the rainiest place in North America! I brought a pair of rubber boots, an umbrella and a couple different thicknesses of rain jackets. I definitely didn’t need to bring anything else with me since I didn’t wear my big heavy parka once (waste of space on my lap on the airplane there and back!). Plus I had to walk 15 minutes to and from work each shift and it was often raining outside.
On my next contract, I was way up in Fort Nelson, BC for two months in January and February….the polar opposite (literally….it was SO cold!). For this contract, I actually drove all the way up there so I was able to pack a lot of winter things such as snow shoes, ice skates, ski pants, warm thick clothing, and big boots and blankets. If I had flown here in the winter, I would probably have had to ship a rubbermaid of stuff ahead of time.
Basically, be smart about where you are going and pack according to the weather conditions. There are websites that show what average temperatures and weather trends are for a place at every point in the year, it’s just a quick Google search. Also think about what types of things you’re going to be doing on your days off. Are you into hiking? Make sure you bring hiking boots! Are you near a lake or the ocean in the summer? Pack a bathing suit just in case!
4. Workout Gear
This one isn’t for everyone, but if you are big into working out, consider bringing some small items. You don’t need to pack 15 pound weights but look into things such as resistance bands, foldable yoga mats, cordless indoor jump ropes, running shoes. Maybe it’s just easier to get a gym membership? Look ahead and see what the town you’re working in has to offer for gyms. I often just got a one month membership at the local recreation centre so I had the option of using the treadmill or elliptical when I needed to relieve some stress. Right now, during the pandemic, it’s possible that gyms are closed so maybe some at-home workouts are a better option for you. Subscribe to an online workout service. I really like Beachbody On Demand. There’s so many different programs to choose from and you don’t always need equipment. But hey, even if you need some weights I’m sure there are things around your apartment that you could lift if you needed to. Get creative. There’s also free yoga classes on Youtube like Yoga with Adrienne. The best thing you can do for physical activity which requires no room in your suitcase (and it’s free!) is to get outside and walk/hike to explore the area.
5. Kitchen Essentials
When I say kitchen essentials, I don’t mean basic things such as pots and pans or dishes. Your accommodations should have all of that. Think of what you use at home on a regular basis. Do you drink a smoothie every day? Get a small travel blender! It’s the best thing and easy to pack. Check out these two options… This is the one I have and it’s super handy. I’ve also seen this one online that looks really cool. (I don’t get anything for promoting these, I just think they are good products).
If you eat a lot of rice, consider a small rice cooker. If you’re driving, maybe you can’t live without your crock pot or your instant pot. Do you like meal prepping all of your meals before your set of shifts? Bring some Tupperware with you…chances are the housing doesn’t have enough or they’re being used by other nurses if you’re sharing accommodations. Another thing I always bring is a baggie of Bounce sheets and Tide Pods that are easy to travel with…just in case your housing doesn’t provide laundry detergent for you. Just sit and think about the things you can’t live without and consider if you need them. Maybe you are only going on a two or three week contract and you can live without something for that small period of time. It all depends on the person!
This is something I really wish I would have started packing sooner when I started travel nursing. I think it’s such an important one that it gets it’s own category! Get a big sealable freezer ziplock bag and fill it with the spices you use on an everyday basis. It sucks having to buy a new salt and pepper etc. every place you go. Plus you end up wasting so much money. Spices last for such a long time so be smart and have a little package ready to throw in your suitcase. Just make sure every bag is labelled so you know which is what. I really like cooking with Epicure spices so I would put some of those in sandwich baggies and label them instead of carrying the heavy glass jars around everywhere. Do you make Mexican or Indian food a lot? Buy some taco seasoning or curry powder in bulk and pack a small bag of it to use while you’re away…it will probably save you some money. I have a travel nursing buddy who I’ve done a couple of assignments with and she always drives wherever she goes. She has this little rubbermaid container she brings everywhere that has her essential pantry items like spices, lentils, rice, flour, etc… I think it’s a great idea!
Coffee also gets it’s own category!! As nurses, we LOVE coffee, so make sure you drink what you like to get through those shifts! Sometimes the accommodations have a coffee pot, sometimes I’ve had a Keurig/Tassimo. But they always have a kettle! I always bring a French press and a bag of coffee. I also always bring a thermos to bring to work (easy to slide into the side of your backpack with your water bottle when you’re flying). Make sure you wrap the French press really well if it’s glass. I’ve had one shatter on me before when I got home! I know there are some more durable materials too. Maybe you’re a big tea drinker? Pack a baggie of your favourite tea bags. Loose leaf teas? You don’t need a big metal tea steeper. I know I have some David’s Tea fillable tea bags that you put loose leaf tea into to steep. It’s all very portable and small so it can fit into your suitcase easily.
8. Pre-Made Meals
Pre-made meals, Hales? Are you crazy? Just hear me out. I have actually never done this but someone suggested this to me to add to my list and I think it’s genius. I live in Northern Ontario so if I fly out to British Columbia, I’m taking three to four flights. It’s often a 16 hour travel day and I am physically, emotionally and mentally EXHAUSTED by the time I get to my housing. THEN I have to go get groceries and THEN I have to cook and still be up for orientation the next morning at 0700. It’s not the best start to a contract and I’ve done it so many times. But now I realize there’s another option that is so much easier on the body. ALSO…my flights were almost always delayed or cancelled. I had to stay in hotels overnight a couple of times and my only options for food at that time of night were basically pizza or a random place on Skip the Dishes!
Make some meals ahead of time and put them in your carry-on in tightly sealed containers (you were probably going to pack Tupperware anyway!). If you’re flying make sure they are liquid free and you’ll have no problems, plus you are flying domestic within the country. This will save you SO much money and you won’t have to pay for expensive airport food the whole day. Keep in mind, the agency doesn’t provide a food allowance, even for your travel day, so buying food is on your dime! Also, once you finally get settled into your new housing and unpack, you won’t have to worry about going to the grocery store til the next day because you already have food made for the next day at work! Make easy meals like chicken, rice, veggies or even small packages you can just add boiled water to like oatmeal or soup.
Also consider preparing food if you’re driving! Look into a plug-in cooler that plugs into your lighter outlet in your vehicle. I LOVE travelling with mine. I always have a cold water or some veggies to snack on while I’m driving. It will save you money on expensive gas station snacks.
I’m going to throw this tidbit of information into this post for you, maybe you have never considered this before. I have discovered the coolest travel hack for those long travel days! With my credit card, I get six free airport lounge visits a year! The card is the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite for those wondering. I don’t get anything for sharing this, I just want you to know how many benefits this gives you as a traveller! This card gets me into the Priority Pass lounges which are in every major airport across the entire world! There’s always a comfy chair or couch to lounge on, fast Wi-fi, all you can eat food AND free alcohol! This is the definition of travelling in style for a travel nurse! I’ve had 6 hour layovers before where I just sat and watched Netflix and drank some delicious champagne/wine. It’s the best. Plus it’s free! Something I will also add about this credit card is that I earn SO many travel rewards. I put everything I can onto my Visa then pay it off right away so that I earn as many points as I can. We just bought a house this summer and all furniture, decorations etc were purchased with the card. It accumulates pretty quickly. Then you can apply points to any previous travel related purchase in your transaction history. Right now we have about $500 in free travel credit that we are saving for a trip after the pandemic is over. In the summer, we rented an Airbnb cabin for a couple nights which ended up being free. For my best friend’s birthday party in September, I rented the nicest hotel room with the nicest view in town and used my points for it so it was free! I’ve used the points for my flights to Thailand, France, you get the picture! Sometimes my parents will even use my card to book their own trips then just transfer me the money right away so that I get even more points! For another travel hack…book your own flights to your contracts, earn travel rewards then submit receipts for reimbursement!
10. Personal Comfort Items
This last one is all the random things that are needed for your personal comfort. What can you not live without for X amount of time? I always bring my own towel and face cloth. If I can squeeze it in, I like bringing my favourite pillow and blanket. These are the things that will keep you comfortable in your home away from home. I know some people even bring their own sheets.
Bring things that remind you of home. A picture frame with pictures of your family or significant other, your favourite pair of PJs, a cozy pair of socks…whatever you need to make you happy. Sometimes I bring my heating pad which comes in handy after a few back-breaking shifts in a row! Maybe you have medications you need- don’t forget those! A weird thing I always bring is a mini extension cord and a mini fan. I can’t sleep without a fan blowing on me (also good for white noise while sleeping in between night shifts)…and there’s never enough outlets to plug everything in! Some people pack black-out curtains with them so that their room is really dark. Sometimes I bring my Go Pro camera depending on what I’ll be doing while I’m there…Whatever you want! This is your home away from home so do what you need to do to make your experience that much better.
Newer travel nurses always wonder how many suitcases they can bring with them. Obviously you have your carry-on. You also can check a 50 pound or less item. They have always approved a second checked bag for me up to $50. I’ll tell you right now though, the two times that I brought two checked bags and a carry-on…..I didn’t even use half of the clothes I brought. It was a waste of time, space and money. But I was able to squeeze my pillow on top of the second bag which was nice! If you are going to a rural area, consider checking a second item such as a large rubbermaid full of non-perishable food! When I was in Bella Bella, groceries were either hard to find, or pretty expensive. I could have brought so much with me to save some money. If you’re going up North, this is a really good idea to consider.
Maybe this list will help you decide whether you should drive or fly to your assignment based on how much you need to survive on! Even though it’s nice to fly across the country for a short contract, sometimes I really do enjoy driving a lot more. It’s nice to pack whatever you need without the limit of space. However, something to remember is that if you forget something, or don’t want to pack it, you can always get it when you get to your new location. Things like soap, shampoo, and hairspray can be bulky so maybe consider buying those things once you get to your new place.
Another tip is that there are Facebook groups out there that Canadian travel nurses can ask questions about facilities across the country. It’s a great resource if you are wondering about a specific place…chances are someone out there has been there! If you want the link, message me and I can invite you to the group! There are so many options when it comes to packing! Everyone is going to have a different list that works for them! I really hope this list helps you to get started. If there’s something else you always pack or if this made you think of something I did not mention, feel free to comment below so other nurses can see your suggestions!! Share the love!