After 19 years of backpacking around the world
this is my best advice to you on what to pack for your own journey.
The never-ending debate between travellers on what to pack for travelling – between the ultralight and the ones with the need to carry everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. I fall into the lightweight category.
When I first started travelling back in 1997 I made the mistake most travellers make and packed way to much stuff, which I realised already on my 3rd day. I then proceeded to give half of it away to poor people on the streets of Cairo.
Over the years I perfected what items to carry on my worldwide travels.
I became an expert, and have given a lot of advice to other travellers.
In this post I will show you exactly what I will normally have with me. If I’m not 100% sure on the kind of adventure I will have then this is what I will take.
I have a general philosophy in life that –
“The less you have, the less you have to worry about”.
That is true for the way I pack for travelling. Travel light always. You’re travelling for adventure so do yourself a favour and make life easier. Ever watched movies like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and dreamed of adventure? Well you don’t see Indiana running around with a heavy pack! I know it’s just a movie but you can easily transfer that into real life.
I got mugged in Bogota, Columbia (a story for another time) where I had my bag and everything stolen. I had a flight back to Amsterdam 10 days after it happened, and knowing that I decided to not bother buying anything new as I had some clothes etc left at a friends apartment there.
So for 10 days I travelled with just the clothes on my back and a toothbrush and toothpaste in my pocket. Every other night I would wash my socks, underwear and t-shirt in a sink and leave overnight to dry. Living this minimal way I have to say is one of the most free feelings I have ever felt. Total freedom. Nothing to worry about.
Even with my minimal living now I miss that feeling.
Many other travellers give the advice of saying “imagine what you think you need to bring, then cut it in half”.
I take a different approach – imagine what you need and then get rid of all of it. Put your passport in your pocket with a bank card and smartphone and just book a flight somewhere you want to go and go for it.
You can easily buy things you need as you go along after that. Why buy things in the USA if you’re flying to say Bangkok where most things will be cheaper.
Something to think about.
Down to business. What to pack –
1. The Backpack
The size of your backpack is very important. The smaller it is the easier your life will be. whether from the ease of carrying, to being able to take it as a carry on when flying and saving money not checking it in.
I use a 30 litre pack that I find to be the perfect size, and really you don’t need anymore than that, as I will show you. If you need a little more room then stretch to a 40 litre pack, but no more.
DON’T buy a wheeled bag or suitcase, they are totally not appropriate for travelling in many places. For any kind of real adventure they are a bad idea. Can you imagine heading into the desert with a wheeled bag? That’s just one example of many. Yeah it’s a stupid idea.
A backpack is easy to carry anywhere.
When looking for a backpack to buy look for decent side pockets to store things and 2 compartments or more is better for organising. Also make sure the material is reasonably strong for durability.
Another good thing about buying a smaller pack is that it will be cheaper than getting a large one. I cringe every-time I visit an outdoor shop and the person working there is recommending a huge 60 litre bag for going backpacking, often with a price tag of $200.
Having said that don’t get the cheapest bag you can as it won’t be as comfortable or durable due to quality than a more expensive bag. For a good 30 litre bag spend an average of around $80. It’s best to get one designed for hiking as it will be very comfortable for carrying.
It’s good to get one with zips as well for easy access but also so you can padlock the zips together so no-one can snoop in your bag. Obviously if someone really wants to get into your pack they will just cut it open, but having the zips locked at least prevents someone from trying to steal something easily.
You can use the same pack you travel with as your day pack as well as it is a small size. Just take the things you don’t need out and leave in your private room, or locker or plastic bag in hostel dorm.
Having the smaller pack will allow you to take it on as hand luggage saving you money on budget airlines where you have to pay extra for hold luggage. Also if you show up somewhere and have a few hours to kill before moving on but want to have a look around the area it’s easy to wander around with a small pack, whereas having a larger pack will be heavy and uncomfortable to do so.
The pack I currently use is a 29 litre Granite Gear Kahihltna.
The only rule against this is if you need specific equipment to your travels, such as if you are a pro photographer etc and need the more space for gear. But 99% of people reading this will just be “normal” travellers.
Here’s a rundown of all the clothing I carry.
I pack so that I can get down to temperatures around freezing point as this is a good overall average to aim for. If I end up in colder climates at any point I will buy a cheap pullover and leggings for the time that I am there and then give them away to a homeless person when leaving to a warmer climate. It saves you lugging around extra cold weather gear when you may only need it for a short part of your trip.
For example I went from hot Thailand to the freezing Himalayas in the middle of winter and picked up a warm pullover for only $3 when there. Even in expensive countries you can find very cheap clothing in the cheaper clothing stores.
I take only one pair of trousers with me and one pair of shorts. Make sure they are reasonably lightweight as you will need that comfort for hot places, and synthetic is better for easy drying.
Do not carry jeans and heavy cotton clothing!
The shorts (or maybe a dress instead for women) are obviously for a warmer climate. But make sure the shorts (or dress) cover the knees, as in some cultures this is more respectable, especially for visiting religious sites. Also try to have at least one zipper pocket for storing money or phone safely.
I know people who fell asleep on a bus and the phone slipped out of the none zipped pocket and they lost it without realising in their tired state that it had fallen out. Every pocket in my trousers and shorts has a zippered pocket.
You will only need one pair of each as trousers etc only need washing every few weeks, and when you do wash them late at night in a sink before going to bed and they will be dry the next day to put straight on again.
As for underwear that is up to you as they don’t take up that much space. I carry 2 pairs of underwear and 2 pairs of socks. This is because I use the washing method of when a pair has been worn give it a quick wash in a sink with shower gel or soap and leave to dry overnight. This way you can alternate and always have a clean pair to put on.
For those complaining they hate washing their clothes – no-one does! But it’s better than lugging around extra smelly clothing in your bag for days until you do a bulk wash. Plus, no offence, but you are a grown adult and washing your clothes is a part of life. You’re family is not there to do it for you.
I have one pair of lightweight waterproof over-trousers (Alpkit brand) for rainy days hiking etc and they can be worn if my trousers are still drying from being washed. I also have a pair of running shorts that I use for exercise (don’t laugh the people that know me well. I exercise sometimes)! They are also super comfy for just lounging around in and wearing to bed.
As for the upper body I carry 2 cotton t-shirts, 1 long sleeved synthetic top (for exercise and cold weather), 1 lightweight long sleeved fleece style top (super comfy) a lightweight waterproof jacket and finally a lightweight down jacket.
I’m sure you can see that I use the word lightweight a lot but that’s a general philosophy and practical. Travel light always. Also when hiking it’s way more comfortable and easier to have lightweight items.
The footwear I use are a simple pair of trail running shoes and flip-flops. Do not even think about carrying a pair of boots with you, they are heavy, smelly and would barely be used. I have been 4000 metres high in mountains in winter and was fine with trail running shoes.
Unless your whole trip will be based in cold weather conditions boots will be a waste of space and weight.
Flip-flops are always handy. If somewhere hot they are comfortable for wearing outside and even in cold places can be used for walking around inside a hostel/hotel or for giving your feet a breather after a day of hiking.
One of the best things you can travel with is a sarong. I use it as a towel, for relaxing around somewhere hot, for a screen when staying in a bottom bunk in a dormitory. It’s a multiple use item that is perfect for travelling.
I carry a pair of running/cycling gloves that keep my hands warm enough in around freezing point temperatures. A buff headwear can be used for extra head warmth and also as a mask which is especially useful if travelling desert or dusty environments.
I use a simple cap for hot weather, but you can use a wide-brimmed one. If going somewhere hot make sure you have a hat to protect you from the sun. A small beanie is for colder conditions.
Accessories will change between person to person depending on exactly what your personal requirements are. I keep things simple.
Now I have to say that in the past I would not carry a mosquito net as they are bulky and to be honest in places that you really need them, like malarial zones, the hotel or hostel would normally have a mosquito net on the bed already.
Nowadays though you can get a double sized mosquito net (like Sea to Summits one that I use) that packs down very small. I have found that it has come in handy in non-malarial zones to keep out insects in cheaper places and also dengue fever mosquitoes. It’s not a must carry but I enjoy the peace of mind and comfort factor of keeping the creepy crawlies away. Only take one if it packs small though.
Take a head-torch as it will come in useful when out in nature camping/hiking, or in places where the electricity cuts out early. A head-torch is more convenient than a hand held one. Sunglasses are obvious, as is a power adaptor for different countries.
I also carry a Steripen. Now this is not essential if travelling in Europe or places where you can drink tap water no problem. If heading into parts of the world where you can’t drink tap water and need to buy bottled water then the Steripen will be a good investment.
The Steripen is not cheap to buy in the beginning but calculate how much money you will save in the long term instead of having to buy plastic bottle drinking water. Also not buying plastic bottles will help the environment. Take a wide mouth water bottle to purify the water with it.
Take a padlock with you so you can lock the zips on your backpack (if they have zips) and for when using lockers in hostels. Make sure it is a key code one and not with a key.
Another item that is essential depending on where you are is s small compact umbrella. Very good to have in rainy places like east-southeast Asia.
I have a wash kit bag that holds the bare essentials- toothbrush and toothpaste, shower gel or soap bar, condoms, beard trimmer, ear-plugs (essential for noisy sleeping environments) and my medication that I take. Naturally it will all depend on what your personal needs are.
3. Camera, Smartphone, Laptop etc
Electronics will depend on what you do.
I recommend not taking a laptop with you unless you need it for professional work that you do online, or are seriously into photography and need a laptop for photo editing. If I wasn’t blogging and doing photography work I wouldn’t travel with a laptop but just have my smartphone. I have a very lightweight laptop perfect for travelling – the MacBook 12.
Just take a smartphone with you or at the most an iPad otherwise. This will be enough to keep in touch with friends, search the internet, have games to play when killing time waiting on buses etc, watch the occasional movie. You can even just use your smartphone as your main camera if you don’t care about taking great quality photos but just want some for memories.
I use a Motorola Moto G4 Plus smartphone. It’s not that expensive and is great. Unless you have the latest iPhone or Samsung etc don’t worry about getting one of those. The Motorola G4 Plus for example will cost you only around $200 and do almost everything you will need. It also has a good 16mp camera.
As far as cameras go a simple point and shoot will do most people, or like as I mentioned for simple memories the camera on your smartphone will do. Even doing pro photography some of my favourite photos for memories were taken on my smartphone.
If you want to take your photography a bit more seriously then I recommend a compact system camera setup as they are not so big to carry and yet you can have interchangeable lens to expand the system and the quality is good. The first 2 years of photos on my blog were taken on a compact system camera.
Unless your hardcore into photography or don’t mind taking the extra size and weight then don’t bother with a large and heavy dslr setup. The camera I currently use is a Sony A7ii which to me is the perfect pro travel camera as it’s full frame, great quality, and not that big and heavy.
I still have my compact system camera with me which I use from time to time. It’s a Sony Nex 6 and a great little camera.
The first compact system camera I took travelling is in the picture below. This will be perfect for the traveller wanting good quality photos.
And this is my new camera setup for more professional photography.
This entire list fits into my 29 litre backpack and is all I feel I need. As it is I could get rid of some of this if heading to hot climates only.
I normally carry my Sony a7ii around my shoulder though for fast access when moving if i see a photo I want to take. The time I put it in my backpack is if I’m in slightly dodgy areas and don’t want to show it.
Only Hot Travel
Travelling just to hot places, or mostly just hot places, is the easiest packing list you can have. Take the standard list above and cut it in half.
You won’t need any of the cold weather gear, but keep the lightweight fleece as it can get chilly in some places if going up a volcano for example in the tropics.
Only Cold Weather Travel
So you would think that you need a bigger pack for colder weather right?
Think about it. You are somewhere cold so you will be wearing your cold weather gear and therefore don’t need that extra space to put it in!
This is one area where I go from lightweight to ultralight. Simply because I want as little weight on my back so the hike will be more comfortable. You really have to figure out if you will be hiking a lot or not.
If you plan only a few weeks of hiking and are travelling for a year you will have to lug all that heavier hiking gear around with you. The best bet is to just rent or buy cheap hiking gear where you plan to hike.
For example I got to New Zealand and bought a cheap tent, sleeping bag, hiking pack and mat. I did one month there hiking and camping loads. At the end I sold on the tent, sleeping bag and mat to other travellers and got some money back.
I kept the pack as it is a decent one and because I was going to my parents back in the U.K. for my sisters wedding so knew I could keep it there.
If you plan to do a lot of hiking then you will have to do a whole new way of packing. I will do another post just on what to pack for hiking as there will be a lot to advise.
So that should give you an idea of what you need to go backpacking.
My biggest advice is don’t go crazy thinking that you need to get loads of things and spend money on it.
Load up Google Maps and take a deep breath and close your eyes. Open them and look at the world. Big smile 🙂
At the end of the day all these things we think we need doesn’t matter. The most important thing when it comes to preparing for your travelling adventure are your dreams and imagination for the experiences you will have.
Shed the things you don’t really need and head out into the world for the ultimate free feeling of being on the road.
Travel. Live. This is your time.
Here’s a good guide to various backpacks available at the Backpackhack.