It's not easy getting your head around what you need to take. Deep down you know
over packing is a terrible idea, but when you have no idea of what may await you it is easy
to be scarred into packing for as many possibilities as you and an over-active imagination can fathom.
Let's be frank, there's a lot of crap written on travel packing and a lot of scare mongering
often featuring on travel sites/blogs, many of which are aimed at mid-range travellers on city or beach trips, or
featured in travelogues as examples of 'I took this' or 'am taking this'
whether or not it was useful/necessary.
Anyone who has travelled before will feel nothing but disdain at short, ambiguous packing lists in travel magazines,
guidebooks and charlatan websites.
Nonetheless it is not easy putting together a list of items to recommend to take. We are all different, with varying needs and destinations. However, it is amazing at just how similar needs are and that probably 95% of independent travellers (especially those with more time than money) will be be heading to the same locations and doing roughly the same things. If you are the other 5% you will know it.
Deciding what to pack really should not be a big stress. If you departed with only your passport and ATM card (assuming there is some money in the bank) to any major hub (be it Asia, African or Latin America) you will be able to find pretty much everything you need - and what you actually 'need' is very little. Of course this is not recommended and laying your hands on the best possible items when away and possibly pressed for time is not always easy. Likewise it is always great to have more that you actually 'need', to be able to bring some organisation, security and creature comfort with you.
Skip the introduction and why to pack light - jump right in and go straight to:
..or find a basic (check-list) list here without any of the detail or discussion.
It is easy to forget we live in a modern, globalised world where many Asian cities are becoming more (not less) modern than the Western world. A world where tourism is the largest global industry and everything possible to cater towards (and make money from) visitors is done - including providing any items for sale specific to local circumstances or the whims of those that pass through.
So there you have it. You can relax. Or can you? You probably still have those niggling doubts
and it is worth looking at why we have all become so brain-washed into thinking we need to pack as if we were
having dinner with the ambassador one evening, hitting the disco after and heading into the woods to live
wild the next. Well part of it is our own bizarre expectation of what the world is really like.
Nepal, Thailand, Kenya or Guatemala may sound strange and exotic, but all (and most countries on the planet) feature big modern cities with a [okay often small] part of the population living as you do. Another core issue is that most packing lists - if they are not trying to sell you something - have yet to catch up with just how small, well travelled [in places] and globalised the world has become over the last ten years as emerging markets/countries took huge leaps forwards.
And lastly we have good old variety to thank. Wearing the same items of clothing a few days in a row seems strange at home, whilst travelling no one cares! Washing clothes or buy the odd new outfit is much easier than carrying around spares. Girls may feel strange without make-up or something to do their hair, but again no one cares. If you really do get caught out and need something warmer, smarter, cooler, or to make you more beautiful, just look locally.
Another big issue is the blur between backpacking travel and backpacking backpacking (as in the North American
definition of self-sufficient living in the wild).
The stores you will venture in and the brands you will consider will cater for both.
Thus it is very easy to start considering if you really do need an ice-pick since the backpack
you just bought has an attachment for one!
So we can also blame the stores, adverts and sales persons, since they will all be dead keen to sell you said ice-pick, survival bivvi bag, wild animal deterrent, cooking stove, Everest grade sleeping bag, anything... and to put them on a so called travel packing list. Take for example mosquito coils which appear on many lists: these (or something better) are almost always available abroad free or 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.
We hope you are not sick of reading already!
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 35-45 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.
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:
Your bag is your life, or at least becomes it. The smaller it is the less it sticks outs and the less vulnerable you feel. The closer you can stick to it and less cumbersome it is the happier you will be. Imagine you are on a bus. Do you want your bag under the seat in front of you or in the luggage hold or roof above/below/under you?
A large, bulky, full bag gives less room to fill with souvenirs, becomes a nightmare when using motorcycle-taxis/rickshaws and has to be checked in (often at extra cost) and waited for, when taking flights.
The thought of wearing the same thing day in, day out may seem terrible now, but it gets easy with the right clothes, and is always preferable to unpacking your entire bag. Circumstance are different when on the road with everyone in the same boat. Nobody cares if they see the same T-shirt two days in a row! There is no need to take too many clothes as they can be easily washed and dried, normally overnight.
You will need to walk with your pack on freely (sometimes quickly avoiding touts/traffic), sometimes right across town or from hotel to hotel and it's often hot, really hot. When you do take transport, you can swing a small bag over your front and jump in a taxi/rickshaw with ease, quickly and without having to separate yourself from it. In addition, leaving your pack in lockers can be a problem if it is huge.
Carrying a large, heavy, bulky bag onto a bus may sound alright, but when it is packed you cannot and are therefore normally separated from it (it goes on the roof, underneath or is left at the back next to god knows what). It is normally okay there, but this can make you a little paranoid about theft as it does happen.
When using mini-buses that stop at the side of the road - a common way of getting around in many countries - they are normally crowded and have no luggage holds, so your bag comes on with you. If crowded you'll whack everyone in the face [with bag] finding a seat and might need to buy an extra seat for a large pack. The same is true of public transport (notably metro/underground and/or tram systems) in rush hour where you find the same issue and may have to pay a surcharge a large bag.
If your pack is full it is difficult to get to things without pulling other stuff out, so you don't use what's at the bottom, it being easier to wear what you had on yesterday or what is at the top.
You will be uncomfortable moving from town to town (short hops) not being able to jump on and off small buses/taxis. Not to mention that a giant oversize bag does not exactly make you the most confident as you will always feel like you are sticking out.
You will not believe what an advantage it is to be able to travel from A to C with a quick stop off to see a sight at B carrying your bag, rather than having to do it in a separate day trip, wasting time and money.
Quite simply you'll spend a good deal of time on the road thinking, 'if I had a huge pack or one like that girl/guy we saw at xyz I could not do this' - of course you need some bulky items, but there is no need to have a 60 plus litre bag. Not unless you are camping and if so why?
And the sacrifice?
Leave behind the camping equipment and sleeping bag. You won't be able to pack supplies for 'wild' living.
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.
There is of course no such thing as a 'universal' or 'one-size-fits-all' packing list. The biggest differentials are undoubtedly climate and style of travel. You have to note that this list is geared towards independent travellers with the focus on practicality and weight, and unless where mentioned, within a moderate or tropical climate.
Once again, 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.
No more than two T-shirts or similar. You
could keep one to mess up and/or sleep in if needed (buy locally,
you might acquire one as a souvenir) and the other could be a nicer
moisture wicking polyester/cotton type or similar, made from
a special fabric designed to suck sweat away from your body. You
can always buy and discard more on the road.
When you sweat and need to wash/dry in a hurry, modern synthetics are the business.
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.
A shirt and/or a polo shirt. At least one item with long sleeves (if these can be rolled up and fastened, even better). Shirts really are the way to go. They are the one item of clothing that will make you look less of a tourist and are practical in many ways. Their front pockets are pretty secure and easy to access when sitting down (i.e. paying bus fares). They can look and feel both casual and smart, are cooling (after your head, the second best way to lose heat is through the neck area) and sleeves plus up turned collars are great sun/wind blockers. See one of many comments.
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.
If you want to blend in as much as possible when away, long sleeve shirts as opposed to T-Shirts are the clothing item of choice for much of the developing world. However, bear in mind you will never blend in completely and those who try often end up looking pretty comical. It's amazing just how funny a sari worn with a pair of Teva sandals can look!
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.
For somewhere a little cooler... Upgrade your micro fleece for something a little thicker and perhaps get a better (more technical/expensive/hooded) micro down jacket. Worth considering as a great small and light duo to complement a fleece and/or down jacket is a very thin water/wind-resistant jacket (typically sold/designed for running). This can compress/pack small and be worn separately, together or with a fleece/jumper. It will keep light rain/snow out and block all wind making anything worn underneath seem much, much warmer.
For somewhere cold and maybe wet/miserable... Simply upgrade the fleece to something thicker/warmer and the outer jacket to a full-on waterproof shell with a hood to keep out all wind/rain. When it will be really cold add warmth with thermal underwear - vest/leggings -(merino wool T and polo shirts are excellent options) and if really necessary a decent down jacket and hat will give you the most warmth for space you can find and are a great investment. If you wish you could also compliment a hat/gloves with a neck gaiter, but then you are ready to tackle even the coldest winter.
Whatever you go for take care to buy as much insulation for space as possible - you can always layer for extra warmth. It's useful for any fleece to have pockets and a front zip so it can be zipped up to cover your neck (warmer) or down (cooler). You'd be mad to take any clothes to keep you warm that are made out of cotton.
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 if you think you need. The material should ideally 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. Likewise they can never never double up as something smarter if needed.
Make your own choice, but get at least one nice hard-wearing comfortable
pair and maybe the second pair less 'outdoors' in appearance and smarter, more fashionable.
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. It would be worth avoiding anything too tight on the rear if heading to India or a Muslim country
(excluding modern Gulf States like the UAE or Indonesia)
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. Chinos, cargo pants or simple cotton are some much of a better option.
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.
Swim-wear: If you think you might need some, grab a pair of swimmers (girls - see text on the right) that are fairly lightweight, don't take up loads space and are quick drying.
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.
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.
Hunt around and especially in the summer you might find some practical items in high street stores (particularly for women or for men, standard cotton (business) shirts - see comment). They may not be as hard-wearing and you may need to fit secure pockets, but are a good price. The same goes for picking up clothing whilst on the road, especially thin cotton garments in Southern Asia, South East Asia and Central America. Otherwise, the internet provides access to some great bargains on travel focused clothing. In the UK there are many web-based discounters. USoutdoor or MooseJaw come recommended in US/Canada. Sierra Trading Post is one US outlet with reasonable overseas shipping rates.
Consider some packing aids aka.
pack-it cubes (Eagle Creek among others sell them) 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.
As a general rule, it's always wise to avoid thick 'cotton' items of clothing or underwear. They don't dry well, can mould easily in the seams if they are dampish when packed and weigh more that synthetic blends.
Sure you have heard it before, but it's better (not to mention easier) to roll than fold. One email comment suggested putting all the tightly rolled items in plastic bag, squeezing out the air, and wrapping with a couple of elastic bands, but this doesn't sound very practical! For practical, Eagle Creek (or similar) pack-it cubes are well worth the investment.
Bottom line: Bring clothes you are comfortable in and like! If they are light and practical all the better.
In hot climates there is no beating the air on your feet and,
between the tropics sandals are the choice of most travellers and
locals alike. Such sandals normally fall into two categories: either
the sports sandals type or basic flip-flops (as pictured).
Those often referred to as
sports sandals and known as a sometimes unpopular icon of the
modern backpacker are epitomised by the brand Teva (they
don't have to be Teva, there are many brands and loads
of choice), have solid moulded soles, good foot straps and are made
from strong modern fabric. They are comfortable to walk in, quick
drying, sturdy and often lightweight - the perfect 'shoe'
for warm weather.
It is possible to complete long trips with only sandals and still do a fair bit of walking. If it's hot at your destination, you're not squeamish about having exposed feet at all times (say after rain in a dirty city), don't plan to visit smart nightclubs or up-market restaurants and you don't plan a full-scale trek, go with just sandals - either the sturdier 'sport' versions referred to above or if you feel comfortable walking in them, the light flip-flops, type mentioned below which are more common with locals.
Light flip-flops, (thong/jandals) type sandals
which can always be bought locally, are normally very lightweight
and pack neatly. These, at least for most, are no good for walking
long distances in, so a comfortable pair and/or normal [closed]
footwear, as an alternative, are recommended. If taking closed footwear
these are perfect as a hot weather/beach/shared-bathroom footwear
option that will not take up loads of room and are light. Never
keen to recommend brands, but
Teva do a great range of cheap, super light/comfortable
flip-flops (thong) type sandals for both men and women.
Although these will never be as comfortable or sturdy as the 'sport' sandal variety they are sometimes preferred (for good reason) by those aiming not to appear as a stereotypical 'backpacker', although that of course needs more than just a change of footwear!
As a third option between sandals and shoes, worth mentioning are very thin soled vented shoes, such as footwear designed for, among others things water use, minimalistic or barefoot running. Most running/walking is vented but basic venting does not help that much to keep your feet cool in really hot climates and the ultra-thin soles plus collapsible sides of minimalistic running shoes really help pack-ability. These are a perfect cross between sandals and shoes to protect your feet/toes in/for a hot environment. If it will be cold and wet, you'll need better shoes or at least waterproof socks.
Low cut light running shoes or trail running
shoes (there are many outdoor/running brands) are prefect for trekking
and cooler weather or when you're just not into sandals and/or want
closed footwear to keep your feet clean/safe or simply something
with more padding or smarter for say getting into a club. Whatever
pair you select make sure they are broken in before you hit the
road. Basic sandals are always available abroad, good shoes are
not (in less developed countries anyway - you will now find them
in big Asian capitals). If you expect rain or wet weather then Gore-Tex
lined versions are a very worthy investment.
Big hiking boots take up a lot of room and are heavy/bulky to carry. They are hell in hot weather and you will go through socks very quickly, constantly having to wash them and continually having smelly feet. These could be the worst thing you take. Many travellers strap them to the outside of their bags or wear them when on the move. Think about where you are going, the temperature, altitude and any must-do treks, i.e. Nepal, Peru and New Zealand (and if you will actually do them). It's only when trekking in cool mountainous regions with difficult terrain (most major trek are along cut trails) that you might feel you need the extra ankle support a boot offers, but from a standard travel point of view, low-cut (compact), cool and light is the way to go.
Quite frankly in many, many popular destinations it is just too hot to wear serious hiking boots and they are quite unnecessary.
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.
Chances are you might not have room in your pack, and for this reason you'll see many travellers who make provisions to hang footwear on the outside of their packs.
Lastly, most modern footwear does have anti-bacterial liners, but if yours are a little old or absent, new full strength, anti-bacterial linings/pads are a god-send, since in hot weather things do get a little funky.
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. If you want to go simple a pair of low cut Converse or similar will do. 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 and/or hitting the beach.
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.
Trek-type towel: the ones that claim to absorb several
100% of their weight and are fast-drying.
Viscose is one of the materials available (feels like soft,
fluffy leather), but there are now many other types such as Micro
Fibre (which is anti-bacterial and has a toweling feel). Frequently
recommended and the subject many a glowing
review are those produced by
Discovery Trekking. They are akin to wicking fabric and stay
fresh with their 'Ultra Fast-dry Towel' being the best on the market.
Some do still however prefer a much bulkier small 'normal' thin cotton towel over the above mentioned travel variety as these can take a bit of getting use to. Whatever you take make sure you have some tassels on two corners of your towel in order to hang it up to dry.
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 30 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!'
Platypus style water bottles (go flat when not
used): These are great when trekking and dare it be said, as a pee
bottle. However, if you are not likely to do those, pick up water
bottles on the way - you get one free every time you buy water,
with a tight seal and a fresh smell, something a bought bottle will
not maintain for that long.
In Nepal, Guatemala, South America and many other places, you can buy straps that fit over a 1.5ltr water bottle for easy carrying. These are handy. Also make sure any caps are very tightly screwed on a water bottle whether in your bag (not a good idea) or when on the move as vibrations from buses tend to unscrew the tightest tops.
The only times a woman will absolutely need a simple head covering are in Iran, Saudi Arabia (where in both you also need a mid-length jacket to hide form) and visiting some mosques. These are easily bought locally and can be handy/worth having in Pakistan, Eastern Turkey and less developed Gulf states.
Baseball hat: is useful when on open (windy) transport and to keep serious sun off your face. A bandana can also be useful, if you want to pack one, because you can use it for many purposes such as protecting your face/mouth/nose/neck from dust, sun and wind. If you feel you are particularly sensitive to the sun then a wide-brimmed hat is probably a must, although you won't see too many travellers wearing them.
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).
Not necessarily essential, but something found to be very useful [when staying in cheap accommodation] for its size, is a lightweight sleeping sack/sleeping bag liner - the best type is a silk one (these are good value in NZ, but otherwise quite expensive - see resources page for link for purchase from NZ, delivered worldwide) - they are warmer in the cold and cooler in the heat than cotton. They also pack up a lot smaller than cotton. They're pretty tiny really - smaller than an apple, and give you peace of mind, no matter where you end up bedding down.
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 (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.
Medical kit: make your own up and keep it small - just what you need to get through any bad times/emergencies until you next get to a pharmacy. Pharmacies abroad are normally excellent, easily located and 9 out of 10 times someone there will speak English, Spanish (in Latin America) or French (in West Africa). So while away or before you head off, pick up only a couple of doses/treatments of the following suggestions:
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 and similar.
If you need to carry unusual prescription medicine, check it is legal in the country
you are visiting and take a photocopy of the prescription.
For ideas and details of Malaria medication see the before you go section, but as a general note, this can be bought cheaply in Asia/Africa too.
Wash kit: you'll need some shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant/antiperspirant and a toothbrush + razor - all of which and other such items (hair gel, conditioner, soap, etc.) are always available along the road in neat, small and cheap travel friendly quantities, so take the absolute minimum.
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.
Shaving cream - the tiny bottles of Silicon based cream (non-soap) which go incredibly far are highly recommended. The brand 'King of Shaves' is the most common (there are other) and is far better than having to carry a bulky can and/or shaving brushes. E-mailed comment: 'I've been using it [King of Shaves] and travelling with that product for years. A tiny bottle will last a long time and a little goes very far'. Equally in many parts of Asia it's easy and very cheap to get a shave from numerous barbers on or off the street (hopefully one whom uses a new blade for every new client).
Don't forget nail clippers if you are away for a good while and maybe a pair of tweezers. A cover for the end of your tooth brush, to stop it messing things up when re-packed may be handy. Dental floss (not tape) is also often recommended since it can double as a strong thread for other jobs.
A travel washing line (twisted elastic - no need for pegs) can be useful if away for an extended period and washing clothes regularly. Some couple this with a universal sink plug, but it's not too hard to find a bucket if you need to wash clothes. Washing powder can be bought in small quantities locally, cheaply; so can laundry soap. Having a washing line and sink plug can make any washing you do much easier. See washing clothes in 'on the road' section.
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. Tea-tree oil is also sometimes recommended for those who make use of it at home, since it is compact and has multi-uses.
It is generally never a problem to buy either tampons or sanitary towels in major towns. Stock up before you head out into remote areas where supply will be more limited. Tampons are of course less bulky to carry, so it's good to keep a few for emergencies. Buying ultra-thin sanitary towels can sometimes be difficult as can finding tampons off-the-beaten track where big bulky towels are occasionally the only option. Remember that there are more women on this planet than men.
On a longer trip, some consider taking the contraceptive pill or better still having the equivalent injection (ask your doctor) to be recommended even if they are not sexually active since it offers you the choice, in the case of the pill to 'carry on' for consecutive months and to not have your period and in the case of the injection to totally be without the hassle of periods abroad. If you're sexually active, take your pill instructions with you, since it may not be effective if you have a stomach bug, are on anti-biotics or Doxycycline anti-malarials. Also make sure you keep a separate supply in your bag or partner's bag, in case your main supply goes missing. A doctor or family planning clinic can give you the best advice.
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.
Most e-mails received thoroughly recommend this product for female travellers and normally state that it is the most useful thing packed. See all comments.
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.
camera: to what extent are you into
photography? And how much time and effort do you want to spend on
it? Point and shoot (compact cameras, Go-Pro or high-end phone cameras) aren't perfect for
amazing photos but with a good eye for composition you can take
reasonable pictures. However, they are perfect to carry around carefree,
light, less expensive, with reasonable zoom and excellent for a
record of people and places. For those serious about photography
will want an
SLR, which will take better pictures, but (with lenses)
might be considered too big/bulky for lightweight travel. If going
the SLR route get good lens(es) including one with a long (300mm)
zoom which makes all the difference for wildlife and shooting people
discreetly from a distance (you might consider a teleconvertor).
However this really adds to weight.
This is a really tricky subject to cover, since many are passionate about photography and everyone wants great photos to remember their travels (and travel becomes a strategy for many to accumulate photographs). However it must be considered if you are on a photo shot or travelling? Clearly going on safari in Africa with a good camera (SLR), no matter how bulky and impractical is worthwhile. Conversely bumming around Thailand or Brazil, carrying the extra weight (both in your pack and when you go out of the day) and more over having the physiological perception that your camera (the bigger the more noticeable and more expensive looking) is a target of theft, makes you stand out as a tourist and is out of place in the extremely poor areas most travels pass through is something worth considering. Ultimately in the compact/high-end phone Vs SLR debate, you need to make the decision and field test both.
Go for decent size memory card in your camera/phone, although they can be bought abroad, there is nothing
worse than being without space. The same goes for a spare or external battery.
If you're taking a SLR make sure you have a UV filter,
air (puff) cleaning brush and cleaning rag.
A can of air is also useful, as equipment can get pretty dusty.
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.". Remember the latest iphone is worth more than the average monthly salary in most parts of the world and more than the average monthly salary in some. 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 MP3/music Player, these have to be a gift from God to the traveller. Dedicated players or Smart Phones are great for holding enough tunes, photos, videos and the like for any trip. They can also be combined if you so wish with fairly light and compact travel speakers, if you feel you might need 'broadcasted' music at any point.
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).
If there is one item that more and more travellers
are packing it's a laptop (see tablet computers below). Think
about it, you can store/edit all your photos, write a blog, find
Wi-Fi spots and access the net, listen to music or watch movies.
Sounds great and yes having a laptop can be great, but
it's not for everyone and certainly only recommended in some cases
and for a few destinations. The first issue is weight, unless you
have a travel designed ultra-light laptop it's going to be debatable
if the extra kgs it and all the leads adds is worth lugging around.
Secondly, you've got the theft/damage factor, say you do have a nice ultra-light laptop then you unfortunately do have to accept the real risk of theft or damage and finally please remember you are on holiday - it's not a sin to leave the computer at home!
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.
Probably the biggest measure of a rapidly developing world aside from the proliferation of the Internet is the use of cellular / mobile phones in some of the world's poorer countries (countries like the Philippines have some of the world's highest mobile phone usage and parts of Africa are the fastest growing markets). Major North American/Australian and European networks which allow roaming, will pick up a signal in the vast majority of the populated world.
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.
Smart phones eat battery. Take a spare external battery you can charge from via a USB cable.
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. 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.
Don't forget of course a power adaptor plug with a build-in USB socket, your USB charging cable. Highly recommended are also a spare back-up (reserve - external) battery pack you can keep charged and use to top-up a phone or other device. Although not frequently needed, but small/light enough worth considering taking are a car light plug to USB adaptor and a 3.5mm to 3.5mm sound lead so you can hook your phone to a car or other sound system if available.
Backpack: with about 30-10% spare space
in (room to manoeuvre and to collect more stuff) - go for between
35 and 45 litres (35 or 40 litres is perfect, that's 2,135-2,500
inches). Sizes vary by manufacturer; one 30lt might look as
big as another 40lt. A pack from a range such as
North Face or
Lifeventure are perfect - there is a mind-boggling
choice available from loads of manufactures.
Recommended is a pack that is lightish weight, with (important) comfortable hip and back straps, a zip front opening (easily secured - much more so than clips (although clips can be locked like this or this)) and that zips down far so items at the bottom can be accessed easily. Look for zips that can easily be secured with a small padlock (that is loops in the zip where the lock can fit through - note these are getting harder to find).
Extra pluses are straps to compress the bag down if not full, any degree of waterproof-ness and netting/straps on the front/sides to cram things into plus gain access to in a hurry. If you have a small bag and you can't fit everything in it all the time, for example if you buy food/water, don't worry, just carry the rest in a sturdy shopping bag or strap it to the outside. See example image and e-mailed comments. Remember there is no 'perfect' pack, it is what works for you and is available for you to buy in the part of the world you are in. The MEI Voyageur often comes recommended and there is plenty written about on the net. You can now also find it in the UK.
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.
Daypack: a daypack commonly refers to a
small backpack for day to day use - this is on the whole completely
unnecessary and you are much better off with a packable (i.e. not
rigid) carrier (tote bag), shoulder or messenger bag,
(even cheap canvas shopping-type bag that the handle will fit over
your shoulder, or strap that allow it to be worn over your back).
Their advantages, despite saving space, weight and not giving yourself
an extra bag to worry about/carry, is they can be compressed down
to be stored in your main bag and when using can be moved easily
over your front (when sitting down or for security/ease).
In addition your back won't get too sweaty when carrying it in hot climates, as there is nothing worse than a pack on your back all day when it's hot and sticky. You'll attract less attention and feel less like a tourist; 9/10 times, you'll only be carrying a camera, guidebook, water and maybe an object of clothing/towel or sun block - why would you need an upscale hiking type small backpack? You'll find great choice of perfect bags at next to nothing prices in most tourist destinations (India, Peru, Thailand, etc.). See an example image of one option.
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
Remember anything that looks like a handbag or small bag of value is a top target for bag snatching/lifting, especially in Latin America and much, much better left at home. If you have anything stolen while abroad it is most likely to be a small bag - the more you depend on one, or the more valuable it looks, the bigger the risk.
Mosquito repellent: most travellers don't like DEET much (among other things, it can irritate your skin and ruin clothes) - some natural repellents (e.g. Citronella) seem to be just as good. So is generally covering up in the evening. There are many brands of good repellents on the market and repellent is normally available in major towns abroad or anywhere with tourists and a large mozzie population. Repellent in pump-spray or aerosol form is handy since it is so much more easily applied to feet, ankles and other areas (most mosquitoes - at least the nasty ones - are ground feeders). For the record mosquitoes will sometimes bite through clothes and go for hand and face areas - so occasionally it is pretty hard to stop them when they are really hungry (say at certain times of the year in jungle areas) and you certainly don't want to put DEET on your hands, face and clothes.
Highly recommended is to buy a plug-in mosquito repellent, often branded 'mosquito vaporiser' or 'liquidator' from any Asian (Goodnight is the most famous brand), Latin American, American or European drug store. You plug this small item into the mains and it releases a vapour by heating liquid from a small bottle that you screw in or from pads you insert (bought separately, last for ages). Choking mosquito coils should not be used in unventilated areas and are a fire hazard.
It's also said that taking 500mg of Vitamin B1 daily two weeks before travelling and continually whilst travelling, prevents bites. There is no scientific evidence that this works, but you will read it widely as a solution to the question of why some people get bitten more than others. It seems that very high vitamin B levels that your body tries to sweat out will deter mosquitoes (see word of caution). In reality mosquitoes are more attracted to people with fair skin. Don't think that getting a tan will help you - that just changes the colour of your skin, not the thickness. Seems we are doomed as easier targets!
A bite is uncomfortable, but if treated with Hydrocortisone cream immediately (or another of the many excellent new remedies widely available in developed countries including little devices that gives a micro electric shock and are frequently recommended) and not scratched will soon disappear. If you are covered with bites and are finding it hard to sleep, try anti-histamines. Malarial bites will likely occur in the early hours of the morning, so make sure your room is sealed and if necessary your vaporiser plugged in. Most common are bites in the evenings and mornings on the ankles, so in endemic areas a quick spray there makes sense.
A mosquito net is never something personally needed outside
sub-Saharan Africa and you'll hear many a traveller in other areas
lamenting why they brought one. For a start they take up a fair
amount of room and in most cases, are pretty difficult to fasten
above you (take duct tape). Add to that fact they only protect you
as much as a mosquito vaporiser (recommended) or at worst a mosquito
coil under your bed. When you actually need one, like in beach huts
or the jungle, they will 9/10 times be provided (even if they need
some patching up with duct tape and a coil lit for added protection).
If you are really squeamish about bugs you might make a case for
bringing one, however then again if this is you, why would you stay
somewhere with lots of bugs? Simply check-in to some where nicer
and/or get the room sprayed/sealed.
However, if you are travelling in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), where the vast percentage of Malaria occurs, you should take a compact net. You might still not use it all that often, but will be glad you had it. It's better to be safe than sorry in this region. Buying a compact net on the ground in developing countries can be tricky, so get one before you leave.
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
On a long trip.... perhaps: photos of your family, house and loved ones. These will come in handy to show locals; they are also great to stave off homesickness that can hit us all at times. If it's your thing: something like a small pot of Marmite or Vegemite might be worth taking as a small comfort of home. This and the photo suggestion are not suited nor needed by everyone, but it is worth thinking laterally about the term 'essential'.
Just an idea: Some cards with your name, address and e-mail, to give new friends; locals love to collect western names and addresses. Large clips for keeping together great big wads of low value notes. Some people also take a change purse.
Compass?: proper one or cheap key ring version - with this and a map, it is tough to get lost. Or forget it and use the Bear Grylls menthod of finding which way you’re heading – in the northern (southern) hemisphere, point the hour hand of your watch at the sun, and halfway between that and 12 will be due south (north). Obviously doesn't work well on a cloudy day, or near the equator! Great to know which way to walk out of a station or in disorienting markets and narrow streets.
Student ID: get your Student ID (if you have one) turned into an international (ISIC) card. Fake cards can be bought easily in Bangkok and a few other places. In most places the card won't be much help, in others it is well worth having. Egypt, Russia and European trains for example. Discounts can always surprise you or make you mad that you left your card at home.
An ATM and/or credit card, along with a spare. You will also need to take other funds - see here for more details.
Your driving licence if you do want to drive (motorbike or car) or think you might have a chance to. It also doubles as a handy wallet size ID.
Certificate of all vaccinations: it is rare outside Africa, but you sometimes will need to show this even if just to avoid border (bribe) fees. If you have a certificate of vaccination against Yellow Fever, you should definitely take it with you as you may be refused entry to certain areas (i.e. Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania).
Make sure you have enough time on (at least six months over when you wish to return) and pages in your passport.
On a long multi-country trip, several passport photographs for visas/visa extensions are always useful - but you can pick up more on the way.
Ear plugs and eye-mask: noise/light at night in some countries is one of the biggest pains of travel. Ear plugs don't really work against the serious noise that you can come across but pack them all the same - they are almost as vital as your passport.
Pack of cards or some other type of entertainment - don't get carried away with too much, travel scrabble, travel chess, etc. (one suggestion is 6 dice - many an entertaining evening teaching others the dice game '10,000').
Several plastic zip lock bags, money bags and elastic bands and maybe some duct tape (especially if you are carrying a mosquito net). Little fabric nets are fantastic to keep small items together. These can be made, bought or found inside packets of washing powder tablets.
Don't take anything too valuable and certainly nothing sentimental. Make sure you save your receipts of everything you bought you might need to make an insurance claim for (this includes ATM and money changing receipts).
Photocopies of everything important (passports, traveller cheque numbers etc.), leave a copy at home, on the internet (internet mail account / drop-box) and - if possible - with your travelling partner.
It's a smart idea to have acolour photocopy of your passport to keep on you at all times. Write you passport number and start/expiration date on a label on something you use every day (like the back of the passport, phone, wallet) - it will save you a tonne of time as you need it often.
If you don't use something at home, what makes you think you will when you are away? For example a copy of that huge book you never read.
Don't forget left luggage: If you're not travelling light don't discount the option of leaving a bag at the airport/ train or bus station. While it may not seem the cheapest option at first, it's far safer and easier to negotiate the metro, buses, cobblestones, turnstiles etc. with a small day bag (or no bag if you're not staying a night) and can save a lot of time and money in the end. For example: a stopover in Madrid - a locker at Barajas airport is pretty cheap, a taxi to the centre costs €35-40 and the metro costs just €2.
Try to avoid packing anything white (it won't stay that way long). Greys, khakis, beiges, light blues/greens and creams are better choices. Apparently very dark colours attract mosquitoes - although you can be the judge.
Another idea: a plastic container (Tupperware) for the bottom of your pack to stop things from getting crushed and to keep little things together. You can also use it as a bowl or to keep items dry if needed. See comment.
The jury's out on... but often recommended are water purifiers and travel pillows. If you intend to travel overnight an inflatable travel pillow (you know the type) is suggested (some might say essential for night buses). Okay you'll look a bit silly (but then again it will be dark), but will sleep about a thousand times better. It's uncommon to see backpackers using them, but it's up to you.
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 .
These may not be used, but if trekking, iodine tablets (with taste remover) to purify water are sometimes handy. Chlorine tablets can also be used, but are less effective. Many reason that a few of these are so small that even if you don't plan to need them they are worth taking 'just in case' or for an emergency.
If new get all this stuff a month or so before you leave and really give it a good testing. Try and innovate - maybe create secret pockets and/or hiding places, tassels to hang things from or modify.
Don't forget that loads of stuff is available on the way, at much lower prices. You will be able to buy most items left at home on any popular route or one taking in semi-developed countries. For example, many backpackers are amazed that there is a 'Boots' the Chemist and numerous ' 7-Eleven's' on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, the heart of the backpacker district.
Don't think for a minute that you won't be able to buy almost anything you need en route, especially in touristy areas.
Get good traveller clothing, but remember you might feel uncomfortable sticking out as a tourist and when meeting peers. Don't take anything you do not feel really comfortable in. Bright colours and particularly shorts will always make you stick out as a tourist, but then so will virtually anything you wear!
Three final items it all always makes sense to have somewhere
in your bag or on your person:
1) a little snack like a cereal bar or some biscuits,
2) some water and
3) some tissues/toilet roll. If you are travelling from town to town, leaving early or arriving late in hot weather or away from civilisation you'll find the back-up food/water almost as vital as the bog roll can be!
Teva - Not the only sandals available, but definitely the benchmark for others.
Discovery Trekking - travel towels set apart from the rest and other wicking (but not smelling) clothing.
Mountain Equipment Co-op - a favourite with Canadians. A good value - own brand - option for pretty much anything for outdoor activities. REI is a perennial in North America with excellent value own brand gear.
Rohan - Real specialists in functional travel clothing. Everything packable, lightweight and easy care. Great innovator, but not youth fashion.
Mountain Hardware - tough, practical (buy once) if not a little expensive.
Eagle Creek - pack-it system / cubes, security equipment and great general accessories. Sea To Summit also have some great light weight packing and organising gear including a really novel tiny/light packable day sac.
IceBreaker or SmartWool - Pricey, but amazing warmth for weight ratio. Great items of clothing made from merino wool that can be worn as thermal underwear next to the skin as a base layer when really cold and when milder as a smart outer layer.
If you are looking for warmth of a budget, especially an ultra light-weight down, try for a Uniqlo near you.
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.
To be completely honest, initially we were both horrified at many of your suggestions! The thought of discarding our beautiful new packs (mine 60L plus 15L, and his 75L plus 15L) seemed unthinkable. How could we ever leave home without necessities such as denim jeans, mosquito nets, sleeping bags, extensive first aid kits, and all of those things that tend to get packed just in case but never ever used? Anyway, the more we thought about it, the more it made sense. We eventually bought new bags. After we came to see the great wisdom in packing light. People have all sorts of crazy ideas about what defines an essential travel item - e.g. beanie just in case it gets cold when your are heading to SE Asia, a hair straightener, complete sewing kit.... see full comment.
Sarah and Luke —
The small bag is a winner. What amazes me is that in six months we've met nobody with anything approaching the size of our packs. '"Travel light" is such clichéd travel wisdom but I guess most people haven't read it's possible to fit everything into a 40 litre pack. I've managed fine with 34 litres; my girlfriend who feels the cold has a 45 litre to fit her sleeping bag.
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):
75l backpack - like carrying a wardrobe on your shoulder, now I travel with a 45l, brilliant.
I brought a mosquito net... Duh. I used it once just to try it out. Sold in Bangkok for 1 dollar
I brought a guide book for New Zealand, even though I didn't arrive there for 4 months. Also sold in Bangkok for 2 dollars.
I brought Hiking boots. I wore them once or twice in Asia & Australia but otherwise they took up space in the bottom of my pack. I used them in NZ & South America. Should have bought them in NZ.
One thing I did do right and you also recommend is bringing shirts. They really do help you blend in. Nothing like a loud t-shirt with "Harvard" on it to make you stick out.
Andrew White —
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.
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. What did you take and love? Leave behind and loath? Get in touch, together we can grow an even better resource.
If need more packing help, buy something and read it. 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.
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