Here's what you need to take backpacking, where to get it from, how to pack
it and how to keep size/weight down. Quite frankly, there's so much crap
written on what to pack and a lot of scare mongering about taking this or that
essential for fear that if left behind it could not be bought abroad. Many packing
lists are aimed at mid-range travellers or are featured in travelogues as examples
of 'I took this' whether or not it was useful/necessary. Stores that sell equipment,
who of course want you to buy as much as possible (how often have you seen items
like survival bivvi bag and stoves on their so-called travel packing lists)
are also a big part of this problem. Anyone who has travelled before will feel
nothing but disdain at short, ambiguous lists in travel mags, guidebooks and
charlatan websites. For the record, you will have to think very hard of something
not recommended on the list below that could not be bought abroad and normally
much cheaper. Mosquito coils for instance appear on many lists: these are almost
always available abroad and always at a fraction of the cost compared to Western
countries, leaving aside that there are much better ways to tackle mosquitoes.
This page may look like a very long list (comprehensive is a better word), but is well and truly meant to inspire travelling light; read on for why. You might have read that the happiest traveller will be one who can fit their bag/pack under the seat of a bus or take it as hand luggage on a flight. You may not believe this is possible, especially when first throwing a few things in a bag. However, after learning the hard way with 70-90 litre packs, every subsequent trip you always try to take less and less and still lament having too much. Then at last you manage to get everything (with a few secrets that are shared here) into a 35-40 litre pack that fits neatly under a bus seat or overhead bin and are truly a free and happy traveller who would never ever even consider taking a 'standard' backpack again to a developing country. A small portable backpack really is the difference when it comes to independent travel. The freedom it offers and hassle it removes is worth what you sacrifice in not taking ten times over. Not to mention the fact that you will be the envy of everyone you meet! Don't believe it? Sceptical? Read on for some reasons why you should, if nothing else, pack light.
..or find a basic (check-list) list here without any of the detail or discussion.
The famous saying goes, everything is essential, only some things more than others. You will have no idea of what you actually need and how little you use when you are away when sitting at home. Everyone says pack light, but the vast majority of backpackers don't until they have learnt the hard way - ten reasons why you really should:
And the sacrifice? Leave behind the camping equipment and sleeping bag. If taking bulky footwear or a thick jacket - keep it on your feet/body. But hey don't let this site preach to you. You can take what you like, but do have a look at a few of the comments received shown at the page bottom and in the guestbook.
Let's make clear, this is not a definitive list (but
as close as you might come to one); needs and people do vary, as does
what is 'essential' in particular regions. In reality
you need to learn most of the lessons below yourself. However,
if this page persuades you to leave at least one thing at home that
you would not need, then it has at least achieved something.
Remember, don't worry - you could go to most typical backpacker destinations, with only the clothes on your back and buy a backpack, all your medication, cosmetics, clothes and bits and bobs there for much less than at home (with the possible exception of the essential clothing section below).
The famed adage goes: Lay everything out that you
really want to take, halve it and take twice as much money. Unfortunately
the best time to pack for a trip is straight after the lessons learned
on a previous one.
The most important bit: The less developed a country you are in and the more you move around the more this (the advice below) counts. The more developed a country you are in and the less you move around (certainly if you have your own or prearranged transportation) the less this counts. It is also worth remembering that this list is not designed to cover every eventuality or circumstance. It is based on experience, the necessity to keep size/weight down, carry practical items, and what the average backpacker on the average trip would need (which in fairness is most independent travellers who are not camping).
Clothes may be light, but they are also bulky, so it is advisable to take a minimum and what you do take should be of decent quality and fit for as many purposes as possible. It is best to buy a good part of the following items in a developed country, i.e. your home country or when on a trip in developed hubs. At least a few sturdy/quality items from either specialist outdoor/travel clothing company or decent clothing bands will ensure durability, functionality and that you feel good in what you wear. The below ideas of quantity (they are only ideas, each individual has to travel with what he/she feels comfortable with) include what you would wear to initially (leave) travel in.
Many prefer to take a polo shirt or short-sleeve shirt instead of T-shirt since it is smarter, can have its collar turned up (to block out the sun) and be worn with a T-shirt underneath if the temperature drops. One polo shirt and one T-shirt is a good mix. Women will be able to pack a few little vest-tops without taking up much room. As above moisture wicking fabric or breathable cotton can increase comfort since it is important to remember that depending on where you are going, you are probably going to sweat a lot.
The importance of having at least one item of clothing
with long sleeves, even if a thin cotton top, cannot be overstated since
sun and insect protection can be paramount.
For all climates... no matter where or which
climate you are heading to, pack yourself a thin, lightweight [micro]
fleece (or something similarly warm and light) and an ultra-lightweight
(very thinly filled) down jacket. Even in the warmest of climes it can
get pretty chilly on airplanes, air-conditioned buses/trains and during
early mornings/late evenings (among others, SE Asian transport is notorious
for fierce air-con). Light weight or 'ultra-lightweight' (as they are
sometimes called) down jackets with minimum fill can compress down to
the size of a large orange and are great to have on hand (Uniqlo for cheap versions). If you don't use, carrying
around is no great hardship and if/when needed pack impressive warmth.
Keeping warm/cool: It's not easy putting together a guide like this with so many varying climates across so many destinations and you will see much of the focus here is on keeping cool, as most budget travellers head to the tropics or to Oz/Europe/America during the summer period, when staying warm is less of a concern and keeping cool is more important. However, if you are going somewhere that you have a feeling might be cold and have reason for not wanting to buy something while there, then having sufficient clothing is really worthwhile, as you generally spend most of your time outside walking around, which is hard to enjoy wearing a thin fleece in a biting wind. Wind chill (and damp) has an underestimated effect and if you feel you will be wearing it most of the time in a miserable climate then a decent Gore-Tex (light) jacket will stop the wind cutting through you and keep any rain out. Recommended, for example, in a European or North Asian winter.
As a very rough rule, if you are travelling mid-(northern hemisphere)winter north of an imaginary horizontal line that can be drawn on a map through Hanoi, Nouakchott (North Africa) and Gujarat (India), then days - depending how far north of this line you are - will be mild (Delhi, Luxor) to cold (Beijing, Istanbul), but mornings or evenings will certainly be cold enough to warrant a second (or thicker) fleece, warm under-clothes or down jacket. The same is true for mid-(southern hemisphere)winter south of an imaginary line dawn on a map through northern Australia, Southern Brazil and Botswana. As always if you are lucky enough to be going on a long trip through many regions over many months don't panic by packing great bulky warm clothing for a cold stop on your trip months down the line - simply buy en route.
Two pairs of trousers (pants). Quick drying, light travel types (whether basic cotton or made from a special fabric produced by an outdoor clothing company). Some are fitted with internal secure pockets, others you can fit something similar yourself with a little innovation. The material should be such you can wash and dry overnight. For the second pair a slightly heavier material might be better especially if you expect cool weather. Convertibles are a popular choice, but not for everyone, since not all wish to wear shorts and these trousers often don't look too great converted or otherwise.
Make your own choice, but get at least one nice hard-wearing pair. Basic cotton trousers can be bought with ease and cheaply in Asia or elsewhere on the road. Women could take one pair of trousers and see skirt recommendations below. For the vast majority of destinations, do yourself a favour and leave the jeans at home if heading somewhere hot and wishing to travel light (if you change your mind, hit a cooler climate or want to feel like you are blending in western style-cultures, you can always buy a pair locally for next to nothing). Jeans are the first item most want to pack, since we all have a pair and are use to wearing them, but in over 25 degrees C they are not the best, plus being heavy to lug around and difficult to wash/dry.
You'll be forgiven if you don't like or feel awkward in trousers/pants sold as 'travel/outdoor' since most are cut very baggy in light colours with a ridiculous number of pockets. This goes for many other clothing items marketed as 'outdoor/travel', but is particularly relevant to trousers/pants. Such styles and/or features can be brilliant for certain situations, but not if you want to head out to a club or feel a bit smarter. As with shirts, if you feel the item is a decent quality, light, comfortable (in it in the climate where you are going) and you feel good, then don't worry about taking something from a regular clothing brand that might be a little better fitting and smarter. You'll almost certainly look less like a tourist and remember where you take two or more of any clothing item, best that they are of different styles, thickness, smartness, etc.
Wrap-around or other long skirts are great for females who may get a lot of unwanted attention (normally in Asia) for showing too much skin and should be sensitive to the culture, particularly in religious areas. Such a skirt also comes in handy for making bathroom stops au-naturel with a little privacy, say when your bus pulls over by a field for a toilet stop. Girls, depending on their destination should also consider packing a thin lace or cotton cardigan to cover shoulders/midriff when wearing a vest-type top and wishing to enter a religious building or, and especially in Southern Asia or the Islamic world, it makes sense not to show any midrift and in some cases pick up locally a tunic-like light cotton top that hangs long down over your rear, that you'll see locals and other travellers with.
Some also recommend [for female travellers] leggings
to provide a lightweight and fast drying alternative to jeans that can help
make you feel more 'normal' when hitting a cosmopolitan city on your travels.
As long as you can hide the waistband and any revealing areas you feel uncomfortable
with, they look just like skinny fit jeans. They also double up as extra insulation
if you get too cold.
Wearing shorts will pretty much always make you stick out as a tourist, sometimes command you less respect and will not allow you to enter most churches, mosques and temples. You will almost never see locals wearing them, however if you want to take a pair of shorts (and can't use your swim wear as a substitute when on a beach) feel free.
Female swim-wear & modesty issues
Tourist-patronized beach resorts across the world (e.g. Southern and South East Asia or South/Central America) are fairly liberal (or at least the tourist population acts so) and what is acceptable in Europe normally goes (with the general exception of topless bathing). A sensible costume (two pieces is fine) is best, but the rule is really whatever you would feel comfortable in at home in front of your parents. In more sensitive areas and off tourist beaches, wearing a T-shirt and even sarong over your costume may be necessary as local women will probably bathe fully clothed.
Underwear: it's recommended (guys) to take only a few pairs, let's say about three to six (you can wash them!). Moisture-wicking, non-chafe, fast-drying underwear (e.g. Lowe Alpine Dry-Flo, Under-Armour or ExOfficio brand) is expensive, but comfortable in a hot climate, very easy to wash, extremely fast drying and some are even odour resistant! Women will no doubt take more pairs of knickers (they are smaller) plus a bra or two of which one might be a (sometimes very useful) sports bra. It's really not worth taking anything that's white. Underwear is quite a personal thing and difficult to talk about as everyone will have their own (hygiene) standards. Do remember, you can always buy more on route if needed (although larger sizes will struggle in Asia).
How many pairs of socks you might need, depends very much on what footwear you take, the climate and how often you will be inclined to wash them. Around three to six pairs is a good basic rule of thumb, although if you won't be able to wash them frequently and will be walking a lot in a hot climate, a few more would be good, since the last thing you want is a fungal infection. Note even if you are travelling only with sandals, take at least one pair of socks. As with underwear, spending a little bit of money on technical fabrics makes good sense. There are many technical socks on the market and you will be spoilt for choice. CoolMax works well and will dry easily, but gets very funky, very quickly. Socks with a silver fibre (anti-microbial) weaved into the foot area are available from a few producers and can cut down on the funk, but are quite expensive. As with underwear, socks are easy to buy en-route (aside from in Asia, in the case you need a very large size): sometimes they're cheaper than laundry!
» Where does all
this stuff come from? Over the last decade there has been somewhat
of a fabric revolution fuelled by increased long-haul travel, meaning
options and innovations are better now than ever. That said, modern
day travel clothing is often still quite expensive, but well worth the
investment for a few must have hard-wearing items. It is also now possible
to find items that don't make you look like a 19th century African explorer.
However, not all your clothing need be US$200 priced North Face's
or Patagonia's latest offering - having said that anything
that makes you feel cool or is light/compact is well worth the investment.
Consider some packing aids aka.
pack-it cubes or alternatives to keep clothing together and compressed.
Netted bags are useful for items like underwear, so are freezer bags,
zip-lock bags or a pillow case to keep dirty items separate. Another
good idea is to simply keep things together with thick elastic bands.
Bottom line: Bring clothes you are comfortable in and like! If they are light and practical all the better.
One pair or a combination of the following:
Ideally the best place to pack shoes is on your
feet as there will likely be bulky items. However if you have to pack
a pair (say you are wearing sandals), the best way is to compress them
together, one on top of the other, facing but fitting front to back.
Then take a piece of strong string and wrap it around them. Stand on
the shoes, compressing them and shorten the string so the two ends just
meet. Make a loop on one end of the string and fix a strong clip on
the other, so that they can be easily fastened, keeping your footwear
as compact as possible.
» Okay where does this leave me, what should I take? The choices: Footwear is probably the most difficult area to talk about when it comes to packing and of significant influence to your trip and the size of your bag. To summarise here are your main options:
I am just going to a hot/tropical climate in one region (i.e. South East Asia), will not be doing any big walks and understand I must keep my feet covered with insect repellent at certain times. I'm also not too squeamish and understand that on the odd occasion my feet will be open to some less than clean streets - take only sandals.
Really keeps your pack small/light and you get to wear a nice pair that support your feet and are practically uncovered walking shoes with thick soles. Your feet stay cool and you'll be wearing the same as most locals. See comment.
You can always wear socks with them if your feet get too cold such as on, say air-conditioned night bus, but at almost all times it'll be too hot to wear normal shoes comfortably. If for any reason you need something formal/alternative, you'll make a cheap local purchase.
It is going to be fairly cool/cold where I am going (I am not moving around, i.e. single climate, European/N.American winter) and even with the temperature I want to trek/climb. It may also be wet - take shoes appropriate to the climate. i.e. good shoes for real cold (China or Japan in the winter) or heavily vented shoes for warmer slightly varied dry climates (East Africa).
Trail running-type trainers are perfect, sturdy, light and very comfortable for walking. They are produced by most major outdoor companies and come in varying weight, waterproofing and venting. Coupling with nice thick sock such as a merino wool pair, will add loads of warmth and padding.
You could purchase a new pair in any major Asian capital and/or pick up flip-flop type sandals on the way if you need them.
I am doing a trip across different climates, regions and altitudes. I like to walk and plan to trek at some stage - take both shoes and sandals.
First timers and those unsure should take both, especially if they have limited info about regions and will visit more than one. Sandals should really be the light and compact flip-flop variety that can be stored easily in or on the outside of a pack, without adding too much weight.
If necessary wearing the shoes (trail-running variety as per option 2) when carry your bag to keep its size down. You do not need any more footwear than this. Remember both can be bought (of limited varying quality) abroad, basic sandals being easier. Remember you could start with one or the other, get somewhere like Australia and buy more or send one pair home.
And lastly.... a rock of sense - if you feel you need heavy footwear for certain areas and are making a loop, perhaps through the capital, most guesthouses won't mind you leaving your footwear or anything else to pick up later. A good example would be for trekking in Nepal/N.Thailand/N.India. On your way south, leave your footwear in Kathmandu/Bangkok/Delhi before heading to lowland warmer areas. Chances are you will be passing through the capital again on the way to another destination or flight. The same can be done for bulky clothing needed for colder regions.
It's funny, in some countries, normally the less developed ones (generally, when you go a few dollars above rock bottom accommodation rates), you don't use your towel once and in others, you end up using it every day. If you do get fed up of your little travel towel you can always spend a bit more on a slightly nicer hotel and get a 'real' soft white fluffy towel at least for one night. Hostels will sometimes hire towels and some of the more progressive ones even offer them for free.
With all travel towels, note that the sizes they come in are pretty small and you may need to take two or get an X-large if you have long hair and/or want one to wrap completely around your body.
Umbrella: a light compact (micro) one. A waterproof jacket is on the whole not recommended over an umbrella in most situations (you will sweat in one, it will be bulky and a pain to repack when wet) unless doing a lot of trekking (or other activity that will means you are outside for long periods in climates known to be wet) or going somewhere you know it to be mild and likely very wet (Europe/NZ/North Asia winter). A waterproof jacket can be very handy in a cold climate as a windproof item, but in tropical climates not so great. It's worth understanding that if you arrive somewhere like New Zealand and find continuing rain, you can buy something locally. However, if you do find it really wet, nothing will keep you 100% dry (your legs/feet will get wet) in heavy rain, such as tropical rain, and in most cases you just can't do anything, except wait for the rain to let up. Two people could share one umbrella and cheap plastic ponchos are often available to help to some extent (worth keeping an emergency one in your bag). Do a little research and try not to end up somewhere in the wet season if you can help it, although it can have some advantages in a few cases. If the climate is cool/mild, notorious for rain and you plain to trek, you are strongly advised to add a pair of waterproof trousers and ensure your shoes are Gore-Tex lined - otherwise somewhere like Patagonia during Spring/Autumn you may have a miserable time or skip many activities.
Emailed comment: 'So far I have experienced only about 14 totally (i.e. rained from dawn to dusk) wet days in over a thousand days or so on the road and when it does normally rain it is only for a few hours and during that time the rain is so heavy that unless you have full water-proofs (top, bottom and shoes) you get wet to some degree anyway. When and after it rains, water-proof (Gore-Tex) footwear really makes a difference since it's hard to avoid every puddle!'
Sarong (great covering, clothing, skirt, towel - you name it): you can pick this up en route anywhere there is a tourist beach and they come highly recommended for a multitude of ever surprising uses.
Knife, fork and/or spoon: Only really useful in more developed countries where high food and eating out costs force you into self-catering. Purpose designed compact sets can be bought or the regular versions 'acquired' on the road. Actually the plastic set from your airline meal is good enough. Saves you from having to check your bag on a flight as with a pen-knife or metal versions and to access such delights as yogurts even in developing countries when you get fed up with breakfasts on offer. A lightweight (camping style) plastic bowl can also be quite useful in some cases, as it can be used, amongst other things to eat cereal in. Where food costs are quite high and supermarkets plentiful, being able to eat cereal or knock up a sandwich is a quick and cheap meal. However, somewhere like South or Southeast Asia where food is cheap and supermarkets scarce, a bowl would be pretty useless and is far from a necessity anywhere. In developed countries where you can stay in hostels they normally have a full kitchen for guest use.
The jury is out on taking a Swiss army or other (Leatherman) knife. There are many uses if on a long trip such as peeling fruit and having a can-opener, corkscrew and bottle opener when self-catering - the tweezers are useful too. However if you are travelling light, taking a few flights and want to take advantage of the added bonus (for so many reasons) of taking your gear as hand luggage on a flight obviously forget about a knife - you can live without it or buy one locally. In some parts of the world there are one too many stories circulating (as featured in Around the world in 80 scams) of corrupt police attempting to extort money for carrying a knife in places like Mexico - so be warned. A Leatherman micra is handy since it is compact with a short blade and comes with a good pair of scissors (but not a can opener).
A sleeping sack will give you your own space every night, will allow you to stay in low cost/dirty accommodation, can be used in rented sleeping bags, or under dusty/itchy blankets and provides great flexibility. A sleeping sheet/sack also means that you save money by not having to rent sheets in some hostels and can be used when a cheap hotel simply doesn't supply a top sheet or seems less than clean.
You do not need a sleeping bag....
You do not need a sleeping bag (if the size of your bag is any consideration to you); there are always blankets or bags for hire if needed. Plus do you really think you will be checking into hostels/hotels and them not provide any bedding? Over 100 countries down, thousands of days on the road and no one connected with this site has ever absolutely needed one - unless of course camping. Sure there are times (outdoor holidays) when you need one or when one would be nice (but so would a pillow), but look into it very, very carefully. Most travellers end up with a small lightweight bag that gives no real warmth in the extreme situations when you need to rent one or pile on the blankets. In hostels (European summer - perfect example) bed bugs thrive and are easily picked up on sleeping bags - which many hostels ban for this very reason.
It does get cold sometimes at night in surprising situations (i.e. deserts) - these are simply the times that you ask for extra blankets or spend that little extra on a nicer (warmer) room or wear something warm to bed. No hotel or hostel is going to let you freeze to death. Okay a train or bus might be cold at night, but a better jumper or jacket is so much more versatile than a sleeping bag that has such a limited application. In addition, a sleeping sack will give you the cleanliness benefits of a sleeping bag that is often their false selling point.
The great sleeping bag debate, (and you thought Malaria medication was a hot topic). Many e-mails have been received from obviously experienced travellers putting the point forward that a sleeping bag is a must take. Our opinion regarding the need to take a sleeping bag is stated above, however in order to present a balanced argument and hopefully to put this matter to bed once and for all (excuse the pun), let's look at the following comments:
'From my experiences I have found that sleeping bags are an absolute necessity for most countries especially if you are spending any time in them and they are necessary in some seasons/areas of theoretically hot countries e.g. cheap hotels in Peru and Bolivia do not provide sufficient blankets to keep you warm. Highland areas in Laos, Vietnam etc. can be very cold at night.'
From visits to both Peru and Bolivia and also to the highland areas of Laos and Vietnam, in mid-winter - you can say for sure yes it can be pretty cold at night. However, blankets can be had; one night in Bolivia (thought would be a cold one (at 3000 metres)) we asked for extra blankets and was offered tens of them. Piled most of them on over my clean sleeping sack and thermals and woke up at four in the morning, sweating! Sure it's not an ideal situation, but these kind of high altitude extreme temperatures are rare occurrences and not generally experienced for long durations - travellers move on. In all the areas listed above there are many guest houses and it is easy enough when checking out a room to ask if you could have some extra blankets. You will also find that the Footprint South America and other guides list places to stay with heating - very nice and if for a few nights and if you have to pay $5 or so more for a room to save from having to carry around a sleeping bag, so be it.
'I recommend sleeping bags as being multi-purpose (just as a sarong is). A sleeping bag can serve as a mattress in very basic hotels and as a mattress in lower class sleepers in Indian trains etc. Sleeping bags also serve as cushions when taking long, hard trips in buses or trains in various parts of the world.'
Again true, but they serve as cushions no more so than a sleeping sac can or a fleece (you will need one anyway) stuffed into a bag. It is not that much more to take a higher class train in India or find a hotel with an okay mattress. Work it out against the cost of your sleeping bag and having to carry it around. Maybe if you need padding it would be a good idea to take a therma-rest (camping mat). Stop and think. People live in these places too, do they freeze at night? If the worst came to the worst, could you not get a better room or even buy a blanket (they cost next to nothing). Also don't forget if you are going to cold places (do your home work before you go) you will need to take warm clothes - thermal underwear, beanie hats and fleeces are all far more multi-purpose than a sleeping bag when it comes to allocating space in your bag (they can keep you warm in both the day and night).
This is obviously a very controversial issue and we'll hold our hands up and say, yes okay there are a few times when a sleeping bag would be nice or you'll needed to pay to rent one, but with warm clothes, quite simply a good sleeping bag takes up too much space and is incompatible with travelling light especially when 90% of backpacking travel takes place in tropical temperatures or at least moderate climates. Ironically the several times when a sleeping bag would be fantastic are nights in hot climates while on overnight buses/trains that have crazy air conditioning cranked right up all night long.
Just to balance the argument, here is another email: 'I'd suggest sleeping bags are unnecessary for those travelling along well established routes with good hotel and transport infrastructure' (most places). 'For something beyond that especially if you are going to spend some considerable time beyond the possibility of finding a more comfortable hotel, renting or upgrading in cold/high regions, a sleeping bag is much closer to a necessity.' - like this one, but must warn - don't panic!
It is unlikely you will really get off the beaten track like this on your regular backpacking 'walk-about' for extended lengths of time. One of the few ways you can is when making your own way. That is to go (often on foot or by private car/bike) where very few go, thus there is little support and you would likely be carrying a tent, camping gear and sleeping bag anyway.
Lip salve with sun protection, cold/flu pills (with decongestant), something for a sore throat, plasters (band aids), condoms, antiseptic/antibiotic cream, diarrhoea blocker, Pepto-Bismol or similar (Bismuth: upset stomach and diarrhoea reliever, pill form easier to carry), alcohol based hand-rub (or bar of soap in box), Hydrocortisone cream (2%) or something else to treat insect bites, oral rehydration salts (ORT), needle (maybe part of a mini-sewing kit) for blisters, perhaps a forehead digital thermometer and of course plenty of pain killers.
If you feel you'll need them, then to the above list you can add: anti-fungal cream, laxative, hang-over remedy, travel/motion sickness pills, (on longer trips) mouth ulcer (aka canker sores) treatment (especially if taking Chloroquine malaria medication), an antidopaminergic [suppresses vomiting/nausea] such as (Domperidone), anti-parasitic (Tinidazole for Guardia or amoebic dysentery), anti-histamine pills, and syringes and needles (but don't go mad and only if really heading off the beaten track - generally these are not something you really need to carry around with you).
In practice you can and will be able to buy and
replenish supplies of any common medication you need while travelling.
All things medical are available cheaply and plentifully on
the road. There is very little point in weighing yourself down
with a huge first aid kit. For example Salbutamol/Ventalin inhalers
are available in major Asian cities at a quarter of European prices.
The same goes with anti-malarial's in Bangkok, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam
If you can help it, you need have no item in your wash kit or anywhere else in your bag, greater than 50-100ml, i.e. little travel size bottles you'll find if you hunt around and certainly when travelling, they'll hold enough for a few weeks' use, when at which point you can purchase more. This makes even more sense if you plan to take your bag as carry-on on flights. As is common knowledge regulations are in force limiting you to 100ml of liquid/cream/paste per item. This bullshit which started in Europe quickly spread around the world, although outside N.America and Europe airport security isn't quite as clear and you'll see all variations of notices ranging from a total ban to limited amounts. If you hunt around you can find solid (soap like) shampoo (Lush sell it) which along with olive oil soap is often recommended as highly multipurpose (from skin to clothes to hair) and cuts down on liquids.
Some emails have recommended 'Wet-Wipes' the disposable hand cleaning wet tissues that most commonly find their way onto babies' bottoms. Good for freshening up after dirty travel or if you can't shower or getting some of the grime of third-world travel off you. Hand sanitizer (no water required) also comes recommended particularly if you are eating on the go or hygienically minded and is one thing you might struggle to find abroad. Equally you will want to take - and keep in easy reach - at least a small supply of something to wash your hands with and tissue/toilet paper - a handy pack is fine to start with since it's easily replenished.
block/cream: you will of course need some, but not in numerous different
factors and huge quantities unless you are heading away specifically to
lie in the sun. Pick up a small tube of the best quality lotion you can
find. One you can use sparingly, will let you build up a base tan (if you
can), is oil-free, water/sweat resistant and will last all day if needed
Riemann P20, which comes recommended). If you really don't
want to burn on the beach, in the water or wherever, keep a shirt/hat on.
In tourist beach resorts and major cities you can obtain more, along with
lower factor products if you are set on tanning. However, in the developing
world away from popular beaches and big cities you can struggle to find
extra and sun block is commonly sold coupled with some other ingredients
as 'whitening cream', but it works okay (at blocking UV, not whitening that
is). See sun in the travel health
section of this site. Some people can handle the sun much better than
others, if you are fair skinned and one of those who suffer more than others,
the best advice again is cover up and take a little more than recommended
above in case of needing to re-stock somewhere without decent availability.
You might also like to pick up a small tube of some moisturising /Aloe Vera lotion to use as After Sun and for general needs. And don't forget (girls) a few items of make-up will probably make you feel more at home/comfortable in certain situations.
E-mailed suggestions, female hygiene:
Several female readers (all seemingly experienced
travellers) have recommended the use of a
Mooncup, which is a silicone menstrual cup that lasts for
several years. It needs to be emptied less frequently than you would
change a tampon/sanitary towel and is of course far more eco friendly,
cheaper and healthier than pads or tampons. The obvious advantage always
flagged up is that the user never has to worry about buying pads or
tampons along the road, and does not have to pack those bulky items.
However, you do need to be in a region where you can maintain good hygiene
since you always need to be able to wash it and your hands - so not
the best in parts of Asia/Africa.
Something often over-looked when packing is thrush treatment. Thrush (aka yeast infection).. see full comment.
Dozens of other suggestions have been e-mailed in over the years, some obviously take travel and general well-being/heath more seriously than others, if that is you then it's likely you'll know most of the remedies already. These suggestions include numerous herbal, homeopathic and other such remedies. It still remains the overriding belief of this guide that no one should unnecessarily worry about travel health and travellers should pack as light as possible. Cotton wool and Q-tips come up often as well as suggestions for holistic, all-natural supplements. Most often suggested and useful are vitamin supplements and immune boosters containing vitamin C, zinc, etc. which are certainly worthwhile if you feel you are easily prone to illness, since it's easy to get run down and ill if travelling hard and fast in crowded transport and extreme climates.
You'll be doing yourself a big favour by keeping everything liquid in either a water-proof wash kit or zip-lock/money bags tightly fastened with an elastic band. An item leaking into your bag is a pain that's worth avoiding. If you are a couple it makes sense to share a wash and medical kit rather than double up on everything. And finally, empty film canisters make useful containers and you'll meet travellers who keep a first aid kit in one or two.
It is worth noting that the rising popularity of portable electronic devices such as smart phones, digital cameras or tablet computers which almost all travellers seem to take away with them has resulted in an equal rise in the number of these items disappearing. Whereas the vast, vast majority of the world has in general low levels of violent crime and a low threat of terrorism or other dangerous activities, petty theft, is becoming increasingly common, and travellers should take precautions, especially with mobile phones, digital cameras, and other small electronics which are easily “misplaced.” Some do feel uncomfortable with expensive smart phones or other electronics seeing as most insurance won't cover their loss.
Whatever you decide to take away with you - camera, iPod, mobile phone - in most cases it will be expensive and you would mind losing it, which is a risk when travelling, so make sure you have good insurance that covers the total cost of your camera, if it's an expensive one.
See the 'Insurance' section on the 'Before you Go' page for more info. They are mentioned there, but as a quick plug here as well, World Nomads has been repeatedly recommended for many reasons, one being you can list separately expensive equipment which is quite rare (note up to cerca US$600 per item depending on your location).
A music player is also useful if you don't want to talk to someone on a long bus/train/plane trip. Compact noise cancelling headsets are now also available, but costly and not effective for blocking out sleep disturbing noise.
LED Torch/flashlight: there is really no reason to take a large flashlight away with you, a small LED (key-ring sized) light (such as a Princeton Tec Pulsar, Impulse or similar) is fine - ask yourself: how much do you plan to walk around in the dark? Use candles during power cuts in hotels (normally provided). A LED (compact) head-lamp (again Princeton Tec have an excellent range) can come in useful, notably if camping or on night-buses. New LED technology means tiny torches are very effective. Plus they can be carried with ease and always kept easily accessible (there is no point having a great flashlight in your bag if you can't see to enter the padlock combination). There are loads of good torches available - get a compact one and keep it within easy reach.
A small calculator (dual power, not just solar): compact enough for carrying around to make currency conversions with, confirming prices and generally keeping track of your budget (better than taking out an expensive smart phone all the time if in a developing country). Also an alarm clock (or the alarm on your mobile phone is just as good), maybe with a world-time feature. You will also probably need an international plug adaptor (see plug types), maybe with a USB plug charging facility if you are taking electronics that charge via USB (example).
To be realistic those who benefit the most are travellers to developed countries who have a very real reason to use a computer regularly. It is true that in developed or tech friendly countries you can find enough public Wi-Fi hotspots and more clued on hostels do offer Wi-Fi. Nonetheless any hostel/guesthouse offering a free Wi-Fi connection is also going to have a hard-wired internet connection you can use or you could pick up the connection on a smart phone/tablet. Or in all cases and certainly in less developed countries where Wi-Fi spots are few and far between there are plenty of other ways to access the net or use a PC to upload a blog, photos or chat on-line.
There are just too many pros and cons, but for first time travellers who plan to move around without a serious reason to need a computer - leave it at home. Alternately if you know the destination you are going has Wi-Fi spots and you are tending to stay in one or a few spots and would really benefit from having your PC with you then okay.
Last words, tread with care, a laptop is seriously removed from being an essential item. There are often much better (and lighter) alternatives which, can be considered such as a tablet (ipad) or decent smart phone.
Taking a cell phone has many advantages and is highly recommended, but several disadvantages worth noting. Firstly if roaming on your home network, call costs (made or received) will be significant (but SMS costs are manageable). Make sure the phone you take is of the correct type for your destination/use (i.e. 'unlocked' if you want to use local SIMs and the correct band (here's a good link for those in US and elsewhere)).
A Smart Phone (recommended) doubles as an alarm clock, MP3 player, web browser, translator, calendar/calculator. You will find picking up Wi-Fi to send the odd e-mail or check something on the web is a great tool to have (we particularly like phones that let you download maps to use without a data connection - Nokia and some others). Although costs to make/receive calls while 'roaming' are normally very pricey. You'll also likely come across numerous roaming and signal black spots, but having a means to pick up and send SMS messages is very handy, simply because it's cheap and instant. Equally staying in touch with those you meet and contacting guides and drivers, many of whom are increasingly willing to give out their numbers in case you wish to use their services, all of which makes taking a cell phone highly recommended.
It's very important to note here that generally speaking if you use a mobile phone abroad (SMS aside) as you would at home you are going to have a huge shock when you get the bill. Buying local SIM and/or international SIMs plus other methods to keep cost down are covered in the 'stay in touch' section of the 'On the Road' page.
Other gadgets: Laptops and smart phones are already mentioned, both items are now considered 'essential' by many and would have previously been an expensive luxury. The very fact that more and more travellers are taking to the road with a laptop is testament to how technology has progressed and prices have come down. About all that can be said about taking a laptop is already mentioned above, but it is worth mentioning here that if you don't take a laptop, there are a myriad of devices that can substitute most of a laptop's functions and be far more portable. One already mentioned above is a [mobile] Smart Phone that can - by virtue of picking up Wi-Fi - deal with e-mails, Skype, web browsing, GPS navigation, streamed radio, etc. The other is a tablet computer or Kindle which if you already own and don't mind taking with you can be a fantastic resource and source of entertainment for minimal weight. It's a reflection of how the world has changed, since a device like an iphone, ipad, Kindle or Samsung Galaxy/Tab is often the most useful item in a bag, with their endless entertainment options and practical uses. There a dozens of other gadgets and new ones become available all the time. Nowadays, in reasonably developed countries on the tourist trail you will find Wi-Fi of varying quality in many guesthouses/hostels/cafes in big cities.
Something to keep it all in
If you are going to less developed countries and plan to travel, i.e. move about during your trip on public transport, if your bag is heavier than 12kg (even with a bottle of water stuck on the side) and much too big to go carry-on on a plane, then consider re-examining what you are taking. Wheeled backpacks/bags are becoming more popular (especially among Americans) and do have some benefits, but should only be considered for use in developed countries and if your bag is heavy.
If you don't have a day pack and only a shoulder
or other bag (recommend above) and need something stronger for walking
on a day-trip, you can always empty your small main backpack and use
that. If you are dead set on having something with you that has back
straps for day use then there are several packable, very small/light
packs now on the market from Sea to Summit, Meru and
Those little bastards (mosquitoes)
Books: Taking guidebooks for countries you won't arrive in for several months isn't good science. These can be found on the way, especially in India/Nepal, South East Asia and any developed country. Besides if you are a manic reader a Kindle or similar is the best way forward. See the country breakdowns for where books are available if you are not going the e-book route. A phrase book and/or tiny dictionary, for South America/West Africa especially, may also be handy - or the equlivent app on your phone. For most others destinations many don't bother unless they really want to make the effort - your guidebook will have a basic language section. Reading books can be swapped along the way, but don't expect too much from your trades. If you want to start off with some good reads, several are recommended and can be viewed on this site - click here and select the region you are interested in.
Locks & security: Little combination (not key) padlocks to keep you bag secure. You can take a larger spare (combination) padlock in case your hotel door has only a hasp or you want to add extra security - padlocks are normally supplied, but it can be nice to have your own. Equally essential is a cable or wire lock, produced by many manufacturers including Eagle Creek or Pacsafe. This is essentially a padlock with an added cable that can be looped through your bag to secure it to a bed or railing, say when sleeping on transport (as an alternatives a simple wire with loops in each end, for use with a regular padlock is often sold). Don't just take this, use it. Or you could use cable ties for temporary situations (just make sure you have something to cut them with) - see comment.
Notebook and a pen (you will fill in many a entry and departure card) and/or pencil. Some find taking a small supply of post-it notes useful for keeping the relevant pages of guidebooks quickly accessible. And seeing as we are going for a complete list, it'll help to have a tag with some contact details somewhere on your bag.
Money belt or travel organiser or anything similar (even if a bit basic) keeps your essentials organised and together. Don't leave this site before reading the advice on avoiding theft advice in the on the road section.
If you are a glasses wearer take a note of your prescription should you need a replacement while on the road. If you take sunglasses, which is a good idea, make sure, as with eyeglasses, you have a case to keep them in to prevent damage.
If you use contact lenses, then you have many options open. If you take re-useable lenses, you will need to carry a reasonable supply of solution as this is only available in larger cities when in less developed countries. The other option, if you can afford it, is daily disposable contacts. The advantages are that you worry less when swimming in any other situation they may 'pop out' and there is no carrying heavy solution. You will only be able to buy top-up daily disposable lenses in the biggest most developed Asian and Latin American cities and any stops you make in developed countries, solution is easier to find, but again it needs to be in a major city. Again take your prescription and keep a copy of it in your webmail account by putting it in an e-mail to yourself, in case of theft
» Forgotten essentials:
» A few last tips and ideas:
Several emails have recommended water purifiers (pump water filter), normally from those on longer trips, volunteering and staying in the same place. Bottled water is always available, but can get expensive. Having said that water purifiers aren't free and they are also a little bulky. Nonetheless if travelling somewhere like Africa for a few months and you can find water you are happy to fill them with, they can save a good deal of money, see comment.
Also sometimes recommended and of varying degrees of usefulness depending greatly on the individual and situation, is a simple small heating element that can boil a quick cup of water for tea/coffee, noodles and/or purify water. They don't weigh very much and can pay for themselves very quickly especially if off the beaten track and for a long (budget) trip where purifying water and noodle meals save money/time .
[Lloyd] I just want to say thank you for
the great site! I recently went on my first backpacking trip to Thailand
and Laos and I used your site extensively for my preparations. Your
recommendations and advice is simple and practical. The single most
valuable piece of advice was to take a small pack (followed closely
by no sleeping bag). I cruised around happily with my little 30litre
pack laughing at all the others cursing and struggling with their massive
backpacks (usually combined with a slightly less massive 'day pack'
on their chest). I just can't comprehend how 95% of backpackers haven't
figured out the immeasurable joys of a small pack, it makes no sense.
I've browsed a lot of independent travel websites and yours is by far
the best. I now have a severe case of the travel bug and I will definitely
be using your site for all future trips.
[Andrew White] I just wanted to commend you on your excellent what to pack section. I spent 12 months on the road a couple of years ago and although I did a good bit of research I still made loads of mistakes (all of which you highlight):
[Les] I used this site almost exclusively to inform my packing for 3 months around Malaysia - other websites weren't as comprehensive or realistic. My wife and I never met a single couple during that trip (nor since!) who has as small and light a load as us, yet we were of course lacking nothing. Many thanks to this website which proves the maxim - the smaller your pack then the better your trip. We had 30-35L backpacks and never needed any more space, and we could always keep them with us on coaches so we never had to worry about security, and needless to say it made walking around towns etc. finding accommodation much easier than it could have been otherwise.
[Lena] No other travel site is so comprehensive and intuitive! The "what to pack" bit made me review my approach to travel entirely - I've dedicated a blog entry to packing - Good article with images from female perspective.
If the main focus of your trip will be trekking (i.e. away
from towns), you are advised to give more thought to packs, appropriate food
and clothing options, (especially the importance of waterproof and warm clothing)
than is given on this page. Most trekking guidebooks and good outdoor stores
can help you here in tandem with the above.
Remember quick check: Can I live without it? Will I cry if it gets stolen tomorrow? & can I buy it local? You can find a basic (check-list) list here without any of the detail or discussion.
And very last... if you feel that something is incorrect or has been left out, please get in touch.
If need more packing help, almost all planning guides and guidebooks have much more detailed help for specific destinations (unlike this site which is general). For a full recommended list see here.
"Originally we wanted children, but plane tickets seemed so much cheaper than college..."