There are really two different kinds of backpacking. First you have the more ‘hardcore’ backpackers that travel the world camping out each night with nothing between their sleeping bags and the stars, and then you have the slightly more pragmatic backpackers – those that move from place to place with a huge backpack, stopping by camping sites, hostels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, motels, you name it. Neither is the ‘right’ way, all that matters is that whichever category you fit into, you’re getting out there and experiencing what the world has to offer.
What I’ve found from my experiences, is that there are a few small comforts you can take with you that go a long long way when you’re off the beaten track. Some of them will make life more comfortable, others will let you experience the full potential of wherever you are, and then there are the additional extras which will make you the most loved person around. They’re all small, they’re all easy to carry, and you don’t need all of them all of the time. Make sure you plan your trip properly and take only what you need with you. That’s to say, you won’t need a machete to backpack around Europe.
How important each one is largely depends on where in the world you’re heading, and the kind of company you’re keeping on the way. For that reason I won’t rank these in any particular order (I lie, they’re alphabetical).
Backpack for day use
When you’re out on your travels, particularly for longer journeys, you aren’t going to want to carry your worldly belongings everywhere with you. Besides, that would also make you stand out, which could compromise your safety. Instead, it’s much more practical, and safer, to carry a day pack. For me, that’s easy – my backpack has a day pack attached to it, which I can easily unzip and take with me whilst leaving the bigger, heavier backpack safely in lock up wherever I happen to be staying.
A day pack is certainly one of the most useful things you can take with you. If you enjoy exploring a new city, it means you can put away your water, a book, sunscreen, and some snacks. It’s a huge quality of life upgrade for any traveler.
Although technically covered with a swiss army knife, there’s no comfort quite like knowing you have your own trusty bottle opener with you. Mine makes up part of my key-ring, so I almost always have it with me. If you’re staying at a hostel or hotel and decide to get a few beers in, the one thing that is universally forgotten is the trusty bottle opener that you’ll need to actually get into them.
Travelling often means you have quite a bit of downtime. Whether that be sitting on a bus or train, or waiting for a flight at the airport. It can sometimes be tedious and having something to do to pass the time make things more bearable. Then you have the alternative occasions when you’re out walking, or exploring, and you find a peaceful spot to sit down and spend some time, and a good book can really make the moment.
They’re better than using a phone because you don’t need any charge, and you don’t have to worry about whether you have a signal or wifi, or those damned roaming charges. They’re also relatively small, and will easily fit into a day pack. For the amount of space they take up and the effort of carrying them around, they’re definitely one of the must-haves.
Carrying a camera with you when travelling can be extremely satisfying. For many people, their camera is the first thing to be packed. Cameras are particularly good because they allow you to take visual proof of where you’ve been, and they help you to build memories of the different places you’ve seen, and experiences you’ve had. Sometimes it’s nice to just spend some time taking an environment in, trying to get a special photograph to share with your friends and family. Other times, it gives you something to do – If you’re spending a long time in transit, it can be a good opportunity to edit a few pictures, or clean up your memory cards.
Remember though, sometimes it’s much better for you to step back and take things in without using a screen, phone or camera.
Space within a backpack or suitcase is limited, especially given that some airlines only allow a limited number of baggage items. That’s why you might find it easier to fit as much into the smallest possible space, and compression sacks are a great way to do just that.
There are different kinds of compression sack, the most common is the sort that you usually find home to your sleeping bag. It helps keep your sleeping bag rolled up and makes it easier to pack things around it. The second kind is a vacuum compression pack, which you can use to suck the air out of your baggage. This will help you fit much more into your luggage, and will allow you to take the same belongings but with fewer bags to carry.
Mosquitoes? Noisy roommates? Jet engines? No problem!
I’ve found earplugs to be the single best way to get some sleep, whether you’re in a tent, a hostel, or on a plane. Sometimes the most difficult part of travelling can be getting a good night’s sleep. You’re somewhere foreign and you miss your nice, warm, comfy bed. It happens to the best of us. Couple that up with potentially being sleep depraved from having to stay up to catch trains, flights or taxis, and a little bit of jetlag, and you quickly understand why it’s worth doing everything to can to get some shut eye.
Ear plugs are small, cheap, and add a huge level of comfort and convenience wherever you find yourself.
First aid kit (immodium)
Trips to a hospital can be expensive in other countries, and you can run into issues with medical cover or insurance. If you have issues with the spoken language in another country, it can be difficult to get any first aid or medicine you need. That’s why I would always suggest carrying some form of first aid with you. A bandage or plaster (aka band aid) will help you keep cuts and grazes clean and infection free, which could be vital depending where in the world you are. However, the one thing I always carry no matter where I travel is immodium.
The main point of immodium is that ingesting some foods and liquids, particularly street food, can disagree with your digestive system. Immodium is the answer to that, being most well known as a potential method of easing Delhi-Belly.
I find that whenever I’m on the road I tend to do a lot more walking than I would when I’m home. It might be that I’m out exploring a new city, or trekking up a mountain, either way, I’m on my feet for a long time and a comfortable (preferably waterproof) pair of walking boots or shoes can make all the difference. I’ve included hiking boots here for that reason – I firmly believe that the best way to experience a new place is to see it on foot, where possible (and safe). Make sure your boots are a good fit and offer the support where you need it, the last thing you’ll want is to have blisters ruining your trip.
Now, boots can take up a lot of space, so I usually opt to either wear them, or hang them off my backpack. Laces make this so much easier! You can check out the Columbia hiking boots I wear here.
There are numerous times when it can be a huge relief to have somewhere soft to rest your head. If you’ve ever had to catch an extremely early flight that required you spending the night at an airport you’ll understand what I mean. You might also find yourself at a hostel lacking in pillows, or where you’d rather not put your head down – unfortunately, they do exist. In both cases, an inflatable pillow will save you. They’re also good if you’re camping, because they can be rolled up tight to be easily packed away and carried. Much more convenient than an actual pillow, and softer than a pile of clothes!
They don’t take up much space, but the added comfort they bring is really understated.
Getting bitten by insects can be rather annoying. They often leave you itching and scratching, and when they don’t bite, they buzz around you and crawl all over you, it just isn’t pleasant. In some parts of the world, you may get mobbed by insects, namely flies and mozzies.
The single best way to prevent this, is to use insect repellent. Depending on which repellent you use, it usually takes the form of a liquid, so you’ll need to make sure you don’t pack it in your carry on. There are different types though, including insect repellent wrist bands which I’ve had success with in the past. Ultimately it’s up to you, but if you’re going to be out in the wilderness at night, you’ll almost certainly want some form of repellent.
Journal & pen
This one is a more personal note, but it may prove useful to some people. I’ve found it greatly helpful to keep a journal and pen with me on my travels. You never know when your phone battery will run out, or when you need to note something down for later.
It could be the contact details of a new friend, the address of a great place to visit, or a hand drawn map from a local helping you find your way. Even if it isn’t any of these, you can write down things you have learned and the experiences you’ve had, so that you can look back on your journey and remember, hopefully fondly, what happened. I’ve found this to be a good accompaniment to photographs, where you can tell the story and show the pictures together.
I’ll clarify here, I mean a pocket knife or swiss army knife. You really don’t need to be taking a dagger like the one from crocodile dundee. The idea is that a knife substitutes as a slightly more versatile pair of scissors. You need to cut a bandage? some cable ties that you’ve used to pack your backpack tightly? You’re having issues with the rope tying down your tent? Or maybe you’re struggling to get into the food you’ve brought along with you for your trek. Either way, a knife will make things easier for you. You can even use a knife as a makeshift fork.
A swiss army knife is even more versatile, because it gives you the brilliant extras by way of a corkscrew or a bottle opener. There are loads of different types with different attachments, and it means you don’t need to keep a bunch of smaller tools individually.
Make sure it isn’t in your carry on, you don’t want to get pulled over for carrying a weapon.
Lighters, much like pocket knives, are a small but useful item you can carry with you. Besides the obvious “you can start a campfire” that you get with lighters, and the similar applications including lighting a barbecue, they are an excellent way to meet people.
You’ll probably be surprised the number of people that ‘need a light’ and carrying a lighter is a good way to meet people to strike up a conversation. After all, building relationships with people from different backgrounds and cultures is one of the best parts of travelling the world.
Safety is probably the most important part of travelling that often goes under the radar. In many places there can be unsavory people willing to try to steal from you, and one of the best ways to keep your belongings safe is to keep it under lock and key.
Many hotels and hostels will have lockers or a dedicated lock up or safe. However, they don’t always have locks available, so you may need to provide your own. By carrying a couple of locks you can not only keep the gear you’re carrying with you safe, you can also keep any personal belongings you leave at your accommodation safe from opportunist thieves.
Pack of cards
This one is a bit similar to carrying a lighter. You’ll easily make plenty of new friends if you pull out a pack of cards at a hostel. It’s almost a guaranteed way to meet people. Just avoid playing high stakes poker. I’d probably advise against showing whether or not you have money with you, but that comes down to staying safe on the road.
Meeting new people aside, you also get a way of passing time when you’re in transit. Stuck on a train? pack of cards. Bored on a flight? pack of cards. The theme continues. You might even learn a few new card games from locals or people from different cultures. Might be worth noting down how to play it with your journal. See where I’m going with this?
Painkillers & anti-inflammatories
You could almost count this as first-aid, and you could substitute them for travel sickness pills. Both painkillers and anti-inflammatories are useful to have with you, so long as you remember they go in your backpack and not your carry on. The reason being that you never know when you’re going to get a headache, either from drinking, from dehydration, or bright light. What I do know, is that being able to ease any pain you have whilst on the road will make your trip much more enjoyable.
The anti-inflammatories are there because they are particularly helpful if you have a trip or fall whilst on a trek, and you can’t really plan for that kind of thing.
Plastic bags allow you to separate different parts of your luggage. They’re relatively small, and don’t take up much space, but they’re great at keeping your bags in order. If you’ve been hiking on a muddy a trail, a plastic bag will let you keep your boots away from your clean clothes. you need to wade through water and don’t want to get wet feet? Bag your feet up! Dirty laundry? Separate bag.
The ease of carrying plastic bags versus the benefits they give you by nature of being waterproof containers is unrivaled.
Inevitably your electricals are going to run out of charge. You may have brought a powerbank with you, but there’ll come a time when they too, run out of charge. Unless you happen to use the same mains socket as the place you’re travelling in does, you’re not going to be able to plug your chargers into the mains.
That’s where plug adapters come into play. Now I’m not saying you need to travel with every different type of adapter to cover yourself. You’ll need to do some planning. Check in advance the kind of adapter you’ll need in your destination. You’ll probably only need 1, unless you’re planning on charging multiple devices at once. Try to save battery if you have long flights, that way you won’t need to worry about using different adapters at stopovers.
You may also find that having the correct mains adapter will also make you a few new friends.
As I mentioned, being able to recharge your devices is an extraordinary ability to have when you’re travelling. It helps to keep you safe if something happens and you’re out of battery, and it means you can go for longer trips without needing to plug in. Bringing a powerbank with you on your journey is a good way to guarantee spare juice should you need it.
You can get powerbanks in all different shapes and sizes, and you’ll need to check how much energy it can hold. I’ve seen extremely cheap powerbanks, but they don’t always hold charge well. I’d generally recommend going for at list a mid-range one. Mine is 8000mah and can usually give my phone 3-4 full charges.
Whether you’re camping out under the stars, in a tent, a swag, a bus, train or hostel, you’re likely to notice that it gets a bit colder at night. That’s why I’d recommend taking a sleeping bag with you when you’re on the road. Granted, hotels and hostels will generally provide bedding, but you may encounter a few places where you’d rather be tucked away in a sleeping bag than take a chance. Otherwise, you’re guaranteed a warm and cosy place to sleep, and you can always use it as an over-sized blanket if you feel like it.
Remember to bring the compression sack with you. They usually have straps attached to keep the “loose” end covering the sleeping bag, and you can use these to attach the whole bundle to the outside of your backpack, saving you valuable space.
Again with keeping things charged up. Powerbanks are great, but they can be restrictive. Not all devices can easily be charged via USB, so you may want to bring extra batteries for those devices with you. The main offenders for this are cameras, though newer models are generally more flexible.
They’re small and, if your battery gets damaged, you’ll have a replacement to keep you going. When it comes to safety, you’re better having additional charge AND back up batteries.
Spare sd card
Similar to carrying additional batteries, I always try to keep at least one spare SD card with me when I’m travelling. There are a couple of reasons for this. The most obvious one is that, when you’re somewhere new you may want to take a lot more photos than you initially thought, and if you’re planning on editing them later you’ll need the memory space to save a lot of .raw files. The easiest way to prevent you running out of memory is to carry more of it.
The second reason is that, in the past, I’ve lost a large memory card full of precious photographs. It wasn’t physically lost (though it could have been), rather, the case of the SD card broke rendering it unreadable.
Always carry spares, especially when they’re so small.
Personally, I take my sunglasses almost everywhere with me, so it should come as no surprise that I include them here. You never know when you’re going to have a bright clear day, unless that is normal weather for wherever you’re visiting. In either case, it’s always handy to have sunglasses with you.
They protect your eyes from the sun, and they make it easier to see things without having to constantly squint or shield your eyes. They have an added benefit of keeping things out of your eyes, such as sea water, sand and dust, and bugs. All around winner.
Not many things will ruin a trip quite like sunstroke. Sunburn is a close challenger, making it painful to shower and your skin tight and sore. It’s much more difficult to ease the discomfort of sunburn than it is to prevent it in the first place. I would recommend covering up where possible, and staying in shade should you find it hot outside, however they’re not always appropriate courses of action.
In that case, you should take a strong sunblock, ideally factor 50, as not only will it help prevent short term pain, it will lower the risk of melanoma.
You’ll call these something different depending where in the world you’re from, but flip-flops are a great comfort to have on your travels. They’re lightweight and compact, and have a range of uses. Particularly if you’re staying at a hostel, as it will make it more hygienic to use the communal showers. They’re also great for lounging around, keeping your feet a bit cooler in a warm climate, and great for preventing you getting sand in your shoes at the beach.
Once again, you can generally affix these to the outside of your backpack quite easily.
There are a lot of places you can go where you get wet, or rather, where you’ll need a towel. You’re surfing? swimming? splashing at the beach? showering? even sunbathing. All of these things will likely require you to need a towel, and unless you’re staying in a hotel, you’re not going to have access to one. And then there’s the fact that weather is often temperamental and casual downpours often come at the most inconvenient times.
If you are staying at hotel, and do have a towel available, it’s still worth taking your own with you, because you just never know. As long as you roll it up, it won’t even take up much space in your luggage.
Whether you’re walking around a city, or on a lengthy walk through the woods, a water bottle is almost always a great idea.
It’ll prevent you getting dehydrated, particularly if you’re somewhere hot and dry, and it’ll mean you don’t have to go searching for somewhere to buy a drink. You’ll save time and money this way, and it will help you keep your strength as long as you’re doing a physical activity such as hiking. Some water bottles will fit nicely into your backpack, but it may be worth getting a water bladder/hydration pack, which will allow you access to water without having to carry a bottle. These packs are better suited to more strenuous activity i.e. hiking and climbing.
A water straw has more uses depending on the kind of travelling you’re doing, and where you are. If you’re on a city break, it’s much less useful, though again it depends on which city you’re going to. Not all countries have the same level of water treatment, so it may be better to be safe than sorry.
The main use of a water straw is to allow you to drink clean water from a dirty water source. That means the biggest use will be when you’re hiking/camping and not near a treated water source or tap.
In an unfortunate situation, the straw can literally be a life saver.
First and foremost, in some situations wet wipes can be an alternative to taking liquids in your carry on, which in itself is a major convenience.
There are inevitably going to be sticky situations. It could be your ice cream melts on your hands and you’re a bit sticky with nowhere to clean up. Or it could be that you need to take off your makeup… Maybe not. However, wet wipes are brilliant when you need to clean up. There are likely to be places on your travels where you don’t have access to a sink. They can help remove mud from you or your belongings, or clean up after yourself. You get the idea, they’re useful.
Just remember to think about the environment, and try to get biodegradable wet wipes whenever possible.
You don’t need many of these, I usually only bother with the one.
The reason being, they’re an easy way of waterproofing your valuables. As an example, my phone more or less breaks if it gets rained on, and if the rain is heavy and my pockets get soaked through, my phone becomes unusable. In this scenario, I simply drop it into the bag, zip it up, and it’ll stay dry for as long as I need it to. This also works with keeping your passport, and your cash notes dry, assuming they’re not already plastic and waterproof.
So there you have it. These are the top 30 things I pack whenever I’m off on my travels. They don’t necessarily all fit for every person in every situation. You’re going to Finland in the winter? There are a few things you won’t need to worry about packing. Be sensible with what you take with you, and check in advance if you’re allowed to bring it.
Remember that some things will be much safer and easier to transport if you leave it out of your carry-on luggage.
The final reminder being to keep your personal safety and well-being at the top of your priority list.