Backpacking: what to take with you

Read any article about what to pack when you set off backpacking and the advice will be the same: pack light! Over the years I’ve become increasingly ruthless about what makes it into my bag, but trust me when I say that on any long trip you will come to resent any useless item that takes up unnecessary space and weight. Aside from a few luxury items, you can usually buy most stuff cheaper overseas anyway.

I’ve broken this article down into three sections: main bag, hand luggage and optional extras. Obviously everyone’s priorities are different, but this is my essential packing list.

Main Bag

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  1. Carabiners. So bloody useful. I use a small one to clip room keys into my board shorts so I don’t lose them when I’m swimming, and bigger ones to clip stuff safely on my backpack, or suspend things from a hammock while I’m sleeping in it.
  2. Padlock (and keys). A really valuable thing to have with you for hostel lockers or simply securing your room or beach hut. Some hostels will rent you a padlock, or lend you a flimsy one, some expect you to have your own. Either way it’s nice to have a solid lock of your own for added peace of mind. Just don’t lose your keys!
  3. Swiss army knife. Endlessly useful. Open bottles of beer, uncork bottles of wine, snip, cut, file, saw, trim and even remove stones from horse’s hooves. Get a cheap one if you must, but quality ones last forever; mine is over 20 years old and still going strong.
  4. Charger and adaptor. Speaks for itself. My smartphone is usually the only electronic item I travel with, and I try and keep the charger (and adaptor) handy at all times. Remember that you can charge a phone using a USB port on most flights.
  5. First aid kit. One way or another I’ve used this on every trip. Good things to include are band aids, bandages, antiseptic cream, iodine, gauze, imodium, ibuprofen and blister plasters. Modify however you think is best.
  6. Silk sleeping bag liner. Not particularly cheap, and you might not use it often, but if you find yourself in a grotty hostel with no other options it’s nice to have a clean silk sheet of your own to sleep in. You can buy cotton liners more cheaply, but they’re bulkier and heavier.
  7. Dry bags. I use different ones to organise shirts/t shirts, shorts/trousers, underwear, and dirty laundry. You can just use carrier bags if you’re on a budget; either way it’s a lot better than having clothes loose in your bag, as it makes packing/unpacking much quicker and easier and also keeps your stuff dry if you get an unexpected soaking.
  8. Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack. This has been a game-changer for me! See the hand luggage section below for more details.
  9. Loo roll. Possibly the most essential item on this list. Most public toilets in developing countries require you to bring your own.
  10. Head torch. Keeps your hands free. An invaluable bit of kit; especially for night hikes, outside toilets or finding stuff in your bag on a night bus. Try not to shine it in people’s eyes when you’re chatting to them though!
  11. Waterproof jacket. Aside from my smartphone, this is one of the most expensive items in my bag. I opted for a Patagonia Torrentshell, which is super-light, totally waterproof, and looks pretty smart in just about any situation. You can buy a cheap option if you’re on a budget, but you can wear a decent shell layer in tropical conditions without getting sweaty. A good investment.
  12. Travel towel. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, ‘a towel is about the most massively useful thing a traveller can have’. Most hostels will either provide you a towel or rent you one for a small fee, but travel towels are cheap, lightweight, pack down small and dry in no time at all. Plus it gives you something to lie on when you go to the beach. They tend to be on the small side so I’d suggest getting a big one.
  13. Washbag. Pack this somewhere you can access it easily – I usually use the top pocket on my pack. Everyone has very different ideas about what to include in a washbag.  I have a couple of tips:

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  • I’d recommend picking up a universal sink plug – it’s amazing how few places have plugs, which can make shaving or washing your face difficult. A universal plug also allows you to wash clothes in a sink if a laundry service is unavailable.
  • A pack of wet wipes can be really handy.
  • Keep condoms somewhere you can get them in a hurry! Trust me when I say it’s a mistake to have these buried deep in your bag…
  • Don’t forget your toothbrush.

Water bottle. A no-brainer. Save money on expensive bottled water, save waste on countless plastic bottles, and keep yourself hydrated! Nalgene make good ones, but I’d recommend anything that seems tough, has a wide mouth (easier to clean, plus you can fit ice cubes inside), and it’s a bonus if you can clip a carabiner to it. Hostels usually offer free/very cheap refills of safe drinking water in countries where the mains supply is dodgy.

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Hand luggage

When I first started travelling I did what most backpackers do and had a big main pack on my back and a daypack strapped to my front in the classic ‘tortuga’ style. There are countless times when you need a daypack on your travels – to hold a bottle of water, suncream, book, towel etc. – but I always felt over laden, heavy and awkward travelling with a daypack stuck on my chest and my main bag on my back.

A packable daypack  offers the best of both worlds: it barely weighs a thing and folds down to nothing, but it’s tough enough to take a beating in day-to-day use. No more tortuga travelling! There are loads of options out there, but the Osprey  Ultralight Stuff Pack has been with me on two trips so far and it’s still going strong. Most of the time I keep it packed down small in my main bag, and just keep a small ‘man bag’ on me containing my most essential items.

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Packable daypack opened and packed small, with the ‘man bag’ alongside

There will be countless hours on the road when your main bag is stowed on the roof, in a luggage hold or wedged in the front of a speedboat. It will be out of your sight and therefore vulnerable to potential thieves. A small bag of essentials is much easier to hold on to at these times, and keeps your most important stuff safe.  I use the Eastpak The One bag, and I’ve found it’s all I ever need on bus, boat or plane journeys. Here’s what I pack in it:

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  1. Sunglasses. Get a pair with proper UV protection. I lost 3 pairs on my last trip to Central America, so I tend to buy fairly cheap pairs now!
  2. Phone charger. On a long trip I often squeeze this in the essentials bag, that way I can recharge at airports/bus terminals if I’m stuck for ages without my main bag.
  3. Snacks. Snickers seems to be the most universally available chocolate bar, and as a result I’m now addicted. A lollipop can be a pretty amazing addition to your bag if you’re stuck on a bus for hours.
  4. Headphones. Get those cinematic feels as you look out the window on a train, plane or automobile while listening to atmospheric music. Or just drown out the crying child two seats in front of you. A pair with a built in microphone helps keep skype chats more private when you’re in a hostel.
  5. Earplugs. Totally essential in a party hostel or shared dorm. I also keep a single immodium tablet and a couple of valium in the little earplug case. It always pays to be prepared!
  6. Buff. I bought this 11 years ago to keep dust out of my face while cycling the world’s most dangerous road in Bolivia, but I’ve since discovered it makes a good makeshift eyemask, and can keep you warm on buses with icy air con. Failing that it’s good for cleaning the sunglasses.
  7. Pen. Obvious really, but it’s amazing how often you need one. Especially useful at border crossings.
  8. Important documents. Keep your passport, airline tickets , insurance details and emergency credit card safely with you at all times.

That’s pretty much it for the essentials! Clothes will obviously vary dramatically depending on where you’re travelling, but remember to be as ruthless as possible. As I mentioned earlier, you can usually buy clothes more cheaply abroad than back home anyway. Pack light!

Non-essentials

There are plenty of optional extras you might like to add to your pack. Here are a few to consider:

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  1. Hammock mosquito net and
  2. Parachute silk hammock. I took these on a three month trip to Central America and they were brilliant! I spent a couple of weeks in total sleeping out in the hammock, sometimes wild camping and sometimes staying for free or at a very reduced rate in the grounds of a hostel. The hammock is great for a day at the beach as well – there’s nothing better than drinking a beer in a hammock as you sway beneath the palm trees!
  3. Mosquito net. I don’t travel with one of these anymore, as in my experience it’s very rare that hostels don’t have them. Having said that, there are times when the nets provided by hotels and hostels are old and torn, so you might want the peace of mind of taking your own.
  4. Snorkel and mask. Depends where you’re travelling of course, but it can be nice to have a decent mask with you rather than relying on rentals.
  5. Deck of cards. As a traveller there are only two card games you need to know: Shithead, which is endlessly playable and works just as well with two people as it does with a big group, and Ring of Fire/Kings/Kings Cup, which is one of the all-time classic drinking games. If you’ve never played either of these timeless traveller classics don’t worry about it. Just crack the cards out in a hostel bar and someone will teach you before long.

I hope you’ve found this useful. One last time; pack light! Good luck and happy travels.

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Main backpack (Lowe Alpine Airzone Pro 45-55) and essentials bag
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