by Janet Meydam
These days most people research their family trees at home, scrolling through online record collections, scanning old family photos and building a digital family tree. At some point, however, you will want to leave your home office in search of hard-to-find records or see the places your ancestors lived.
Local archives, big research repositories, cemeteries, locations of old family homes and businesses, and relatives who have family history treasures to share will all require visits in person, and this means you’ll be hitting the road for some genealogy travel.
In addition to packing your suitcase, you’ll want to prepare for the genealogy portion of your trip. In other words, you will want to have some items with you to help with your research and to record and store the information you find. Keep these items together in one place so you can grab them and go when you are ready to head out on any kind of genealogy trip.
How to Build Your $25 Genealogy Travel Kit
Everything on this list can easily be compiled for under $25 if you are frugal on purchases like the bag, and are using apps on a current smartphone or tablet instead of individual devices (such as for your camera, audio and scanning needs). If you buy these items separately, the price could be considerably more. Most of these items you will likely already have in your home, however, so your cost will likely be even less. Purchasing travel size items is also a great way to reduce cost – big box stores often have bins of travel items that work great.
A notebook and pencil or pen ($3)
These are must-haves. While there are many high-tech ways of recording or copying family tree information (see here, here or here), handwritten notes are always a wise back-up plan, especially when technology fails. Plus, they can be less intimidating to older members of a family during interviews, and are often better choice than an expensive device when outdoors.
A multi-pocket folder ($2)
You will want a sturdy folder to hold printed documents so that they do not get bent. If you can grab a couple of folders, or a traveling file folder with sections, that is even better.
Your smartphone or tablet and a charger (most people already own one)
Your main device can be a vital partner in your research, make sure you carry it with you and bring your charger. There is nothing worse than a dead battery when you need an app or your camera. Just be sure you have a good, protective cover if you plan on using your device outdoors or in dusty archives.
A reliable camera (free on your phone or tablet)
If your smartphone includes a good camera, that will certainly do. If you do not own a smartphone, put a digital camera in your kit, along with extra batteries. You will use that camera to take pictures of tombstones (since rubbings are no longer OK), old family homes or land, old family photographs and records.
An audio recording device and scanner (free on your phone or tablet)
Gone are the days when you need to carry around a scanner or recorder. Both of these items can easily be an app on your smartphone or tablet. Audio recording is great for stories told by relatives or when listening to someone speak on a topic of interest (ask permission for either one). You could also use a recording device (or the speech-to-text functionality on your smartphone) to record notes from your research if you don’t care to write them by hand. You may like to try Evernote’s built-in audio note functionality if you already use this program. A scanning app, on the other hand, is a great alternative to simply taking photos of documents and records, as well as old photos. Consider this one or this one. Of course, you can still choose to purchase these items individually – but your cost will go up considerably. Here are some options if you do want to go this route.
Some loose cash and change (we won’t count this cost since you will be making purchases with it)
You don’t want to have too much, since you don’t want to risk losing it. But you never know when you may have to pay for record copies with cash, need to use a vending machine or want to purchase something that you cannot use a credit card for. Libraries, historical societies, and archives all have different methods of offering copy services to patrons. Here and there you will still run into one that uses the old coin-operated copy machines. Since you will eventually want to copy paper records, keep some loose change handy to allow you to operate these machines – as well as some fives and ones for other purposes.
A photo ID (most people already own one)
At some point, you may want to access specialty archives or request copies of restricted records. To do this, you often need to prove who you are. A photo ID might be required, so keep one with you.
A paper copy of your family tree ($1 for printing and stapling at your library if you don’t have a printer at home)
You’ll want to use this to reference and compare facts on the go. Don’t depend on apps that rely on the internet, as access is not consistent everywhere. If your family tree is massive, just take copies of the branches you intend to research on a particular trip.
A digital copy of your family tree (free from FamilySearch, Findmypast, MyHeritage and Ancestry, as well as others)
Despite the above warning, you will also want access to your full tree and all records whenever you can. While internet should never be counted on – some apps can download your tree for use offline. So be sure to download the correct app for the tree you are using (if online) ahead of time. See this article for help.
A list of family contacts (free if you write them in your notebook or store them on your phone)
You may sometimes have questions about the information you find, and the ability to call a relative to help answer those questions can make or break a genealogy trip. Keep a list of names and phone numbers in your kit so that you can contact people when you need to.
A county plat book and good GPS system (free to $1 for copies)
We all know how to use Google Maps, and this will be incredibly important if you are searching out new places – like an archive, old homestead or cemetery. But Google Maps does not always mark cemeteries and boundary lines for property. If you are looking for homestead or cemeteries you may need a plat map. Get current plat books for the areas where you will be researching online or from the local historical society or library. Make a copy of the pages you need so that you don’t have to pay for the whole book.
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Travel-size insect repellent and sun block ($4)
Yes, the mosquitoes, flies and ticks who live in cemeteries find you just as tasty as bugs anywhere else. Use insect repellent so that you can concentrate on finding your ancestors instead of swatting at pests. Always keep sunblock to protect yourself from burns. Look for travel sized options to reduce cost and weight.
Travel-size wipes ($2)
You will want these if you ever visit a cemetery or dusty archives – not for the tombstones or books but for your hands and face afterwards. Read this article for a full list of items you should bring to a graveyard and things you should avoid while you are there.
A healthy snack and water ($5)
You do not want to find yourself travelling down a dusty road, mostly lost, looking for a cemetery or old homestead and realize that you have no food or water. Always keep a couple of water bottles and some healthy, nonperishable snacks on hand. Granola bars work great for this. A reusable water bottle is a better choice than plastic bottles as it can be clipped to the handle of your bag and is safer for the environment.
Contact information for yourself (free)
In case you ever lose your kit you will most certainly want someone to be able to return it to you. It is also a good idea to include emergency contact details, since accidents do happen away from home sometimes.
Plastic baggies or a medium wet bag ($2)
A couple of large and small plastic baggies or a wet bag will come in handy if you ever find yourself out on a rainy day and want to protect precious items. You will also want to keep your wet items – like wipes, bug spray and sun block in one to reduce the risk of them leaking on your paperwork.
A sturdy bin or bag (depends, but often less than $5)
This is to keep it all together, of course. Having some sort of bin or bag will allow you to keep everything in one place and grab them quickly whenever you need them. Make sure it has some pockets and is easy to open and close. Bonus points if it has a document compartment or is waterproof. But if you are on a tight budget, even a reusable grocery bag will do and you can often get them at the grocery store for $1. Also check thrift stores as they usually having many old, multi-compartment bags at next-to-nothing costs. Just a few dollars can go a very long way in a store like this and can help you score a great bag for your genealogy needs.
A genealogy trip can be lots of fun and often very fruitful. These tools will help you to capture all the information you find on your journey. Happy family history travels!
Janet Meydam is a freelance writer who has over 40 years of experience in genealogy as a hobby. Her knowledge includes researching many different records from the United States, Germany and Poland. She is also a co-author of her parents’ family history book “I Come from a Long Line of Dilleys.” Janet works as an occupational therapist. She and her husband Tim have three adult children and live in Wisconsin.