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When planning out a trip one of the hardest things is deciding what to bring in your backpack. This is amplified with a longer trip, where you don’t know exactly where you will be, what environment you will face, and how long you will be gone. The weight of your pack becomes a factor when you start to think of all the possibilities. Here is the ultimate guide to the essential things to take backpacking long-term or short-term. Some of these may seem like strange or unusual things to bring, but I’ve found them to be extremely helpful when traveling light.
Which backpack you bring is one of the most important factors of your trip. Your pack will be your closest companion for the length of your travels. It’ll be there every step of the way, on every bus, train, tuk-tuk, boat, hike, hitchhike, and long walk. It fits your stuff, sits on your lap, acts as your pillow, footrest, shield, punching bag, and more.
Meet Odin, or Big-O. When choosing a backpack, some things to consider are size, material, compartments, and of course color. Unlike most things, bigger is not always better. Too small and you wont have enough space for everything you need, too big and it’ll be too heavy to carry everyday and it won’t fit on busses and trains. Somewhere around 35-liters seems to be the sweet spot. Some bags have a top and bottom opening which while making access incredible easy, I’ve seen several open from the bottom unintentionally, with the contents spilling out on a bus. The Marmot Odin 35 Pack I brought was a simple top opener with hood, which keeps things secure and intact, despite its slightly limited access.
Backpack Rain Cover
Unless you spend quite a bit of money, odds are your bag won’t be waterproof. A Backpack Rain Cover comes in very handy, not only to protect your only belongings from getting soaked in the rain and molding up. This thing protects your stuff from opportunistic theft when you leave your bag alone in a bus stop, hostel, and more. Rather than just slapping on a garbage bag, with a rain guard you can still wear your backpack easily with one of these.
Sometimes while traveling, you don’t want to bring your full pack, but can still use a bag. Thats when a smaller bag comes in handy. A bag, like my Marmot Kompressor Plus, collapses into itself, and can expand to fit up to 20 Liters and compress to fit anything smaller.
Waterproof Compression Stuff Sacks
My entire pack is usually composed of these. I took way too much stuff with me on my first trip. These babies are the reason I fit everything in my tiny 35-liter bag. They’re also great for compartmentalizing your backpack so it’s super easy to find something, provided that you remember which bag you put it in. I used a regular eVAC Dry Sack for small things, and an eVent Compression Dry Sack for long-term storage.
- Clip stubborn curtains closed in your room, bus, or train.
- Hold your earplug container to your shirt, pants, or backpack.
- Keep the end of your belt from flapping out.
- Keep your emergency money and bank cards tight and out of sight.
- Use it as a makeshift clothespin to help your clothes dry faster after a bucket wash.
The possibilities are endless.
Similar to binder clips in their usefulness. Attach two to six to your backpack and you’ll be golden:
- Carry your shoes without taking up backpack space or getting the inside of your bag dirty
- Carry an extra 2- or 5-liter water bottle when your bottle webbing is full
- Carry your bag of food for your 40 hour bus or train ride
- Tie up a bag with your wet bathing suit without soaking everything inside your pack
If it has a hole, you can hook it somewhere.
Some people are against bringing any technology while traveling. Some bring too much. While both of these are admirable, I prefer a nice middle ground. Travel smart with just a few pieces of tech to make things easier and more fun:
International USB Charger
The best way to travel is with as little tech as possible. Less to worry about breaking or losing. But as I’ve said, some things just make sense to bring. So if you’re going to bring, bring just a few items and have them chargeable by USB so you don’t have to worry about a lot of wires. I use the Amazon Kindle EU Power Adapter as my go-to travel charger in Europe and India. Its slim profile and built-in USB port makes traveling with tech easier without the need for a separate adapter. Just switch out the wires as needed.
I’m an iPhone man. Guilty. But any good smartphone that you’re comfortable with will work. I use it as my calendar, notepad, word processor, alarm clock, web browser, camera, photo album, trip planner, travel dictionary, music player, and more. Oh yea, and it also works pretty well as a phone. Don’t waste your money getting an international calling plan. Instead, just pop in a local SIM card after you (legally) unlock it, and you’re good to go. It’s much cheaper, and you don’t have to worry about it. Over twelve tools in the palm of your hand to stay organized and connected. Can’t beat that while traveling.
USB Extension Cord
If the only electronics you’re bringing are those chargeable by USB, you’re in great shape. Throughout my travels, outlets always seem to be just out of reach by the standard charging cables. Outlets tend to be on the other side of the room as your bed, eight feet up the wall in the train station, and on the floor on the train when you’re on the top berth. Bring a USB extension cord, or buy one there, and be able to charge and use your tech almost anywhere.
iPod with Earphones
It’s always good to have a backup. When I first travelled, I had to reformat my phone to make it work with my Indian SIM card. I lost all my music. Luckily I came with my super old iPod touch, which was just sitting in my car for two years, as a backup. Loaded up with all my music and the same apps on my phone, I use it whenever I don’t want to kill the battery on my phone but want to maintain functionality. The thin size is definitely not a sacrifice while traveling for double the functionality.
An infinite collection of books, incredible battery life, a tiny size, and chargeable by USB. Perfection. It’s hard to beat an E-book reader. I really regret not buying one before my first trip. Never again. I’ve since gotten one, and it really is outstanding. The Kindle Paperwhite is my pick with its built-in light.
Even if you’ve sworn off buying paper books and switched to reading on your iPhone or kindle, consider bringing one on your travels. There will be plenty of times when you won’t have power, and even though that kindle battery lasts for what seems like forever, it still may die. Bring a book, read it, then trade it or give it away. It may take up a little bit more of your valuable backpack space, but the lack of boredom and connections with others it provides could just be worth it. A good place to start is Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Stereotypical traveling books always work well for the backpacker book trade ring.
What’s in your wallet? Here’s mine:
Money is a tough thing about travel. Figuring out how to have enough cash on hand, and how to access your money abroad is not easy. Exchange shops can be tricky, and carrying all of your cash is risky and incredibly unsafe. Instead, I advocate opening up a Checking Account, bringing a Debit Card or two, and just using ATMs. ATMs usually give the best exchange rate, and it gets easier to spot a legitimate ATM rather than a legitimate currency exchange shop. I use a checking account from Capital One 360 bank, which charges no international ATM withdrawal fees, so you just have to pay the fees charged by the ATMs themselves. Plus, with the free online checking account, you can send paper checks through the website, so you can pay any bills you have while your out of the country. The savings accounts are also great, allowing you to set up multiple savings accounts for different purposes.
Another place where Capital One excels is their credit card travel policies. Most of their credit cards have no international fees on purchases made overseas, which is a spectacular thing. Just make sure to let them know you’re going to be using it out of the country, which is easy to do online.
I like to keep my passport in a zippered compartment at all times. But I’m paranoid. Either way, keep this safe and secure. And it builds character.
Copies of Documents
Bad things happen, things get lost. You should always carry color copies of all important documents, and spread them around so no matter what you lose, you always have at least one copy. A cheap USB Flash Drive with digital versions is a great idea too.
Health & Safety:
While traveling for a long time, and in more rural areas, planning ahead for your health and safety become even more important. Here are some things that helped me preserve myself and my stuff:
First Aid Kit
I cannot stress this one enough. I ended up using this just about once a week, including on the first day of my trip. Either buy one or make one yourself. Just make sure to know what’s it in. I used the Coleman Expedition First Aid Kit. The hard-shell case is a bit big, but the central section is stuck in with velcro, so I just pulled it out and stuffed it in one of my Dry Sacks. It’s probably a good idea to beef any one up with some extra Neosporin and bandages. It also helps if you know how to use it: take a First Aid course by Red Cross or another provider. If you’re going somewhere more remote, consider a Wilderness First Aid course as well, by SOLO or others.
One of the most versatile things you can carry. You’ve heard of bringing Duct Tape, but white fabric Sports Tape or athletic tape is even better. The rolls are smarter, more discreet, and easier to rip. I’ve used it as a belt, to patch my clothes and my backpack, as a First Aid tool, and much more.
Crying babies on 40 hour train rides. Need I say more? I’ve found reusable silicone ones to be best.
Another thing I didn’t bring on my first trip and learned about the hard way. If you’re traveling the right way, you’ll be in situations where there is no light. Instead of constantly killing your iPhone battery by using the flashlight app, opt for one of these. Whether it’s a trek in the dark, cave exploring, an unlit street, a power outage, or just an area without electricity, a flashlight attached to the head is a very useful thing. It also comes in handy for reading that book in the dark.
Flexible Cable Locks
These Lewis N. Clark TSA Cable Locks are great to quickly and easily lock up backpack zippers. The simple 3-digit combination, and TSA safe flexible wire lock, make it a great travel tool.
Sometimes you need something a little stronger, like this Brinks Brass Padlock. Whether you opt for a bigger backpack lock, or you don’t trust the cheap ones your guesthouse provides to lock your room, having one of your own you can trust is a bit plus. While you’re at it, maybe keep the key on a dog tag chain around your neck for the whole trip. This is especially helpful when living on a beach for two weeks and swimming everyday.
Nail Clippers & Tweezer
If you’re traveling for more than a week, you’ll probably end up needing these at some point.
Quick Drying Towel
A towel is one of those essentials that are oft forgotten on long backpacking trips. As the late, great Douglas Adams once wrote, “Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with. For all these reasons and more, brining a compact, quick-drying Camping Towel is one of the better ideas you can have.
Most people bring too much clothing when they travel. Clothes are the easiest thing to overpack, and yet the easiest thing to buy abroad. The trick is to bring as few clothes as possible, and buy what you need there, and bring home some awesome wearable souvenirs. Here are the bare essentials of what clothing you need:
You’ll be doing a lot of walking, if you’re traveling the right way. I use Vivo Barefoot minimalist shoes, in general, so it made sense for me to bring a pair. They can be a bit expensive, so I bought a few pairs through a sale from The Clymb and LeftLane Sports. They kept up pretty well, and I alternated between them and a couple of pairs of handmade sandals I bought on my trip.
These things are incredible. Small, anti-microbial, quick-drying, and super comfortable. I brought three pairs of these exOfficio Boxer Briefs for my six-month trip, which should be enough for just about any length of a trip. Just wash them in the sink, or bucket, with some soap or shampoo, set them out to dry for an hour or so. They have women’s too.
A few pairs of lightweight, quickdrying synthetic socks are great, both in ankle high and longer. A long pair of wool or merino smartwool socks can also come in handy, but you could always buy them there too.
All you really need is one or two T-Shirts made of some synthetic quick drying material. I brought only one Lululemon shirt which I wore just about everyday.
Synthetic Long-Sleeve Shirt
If you like, you can bring along one long-sleeve shirt too, if you’re going to be going into colder zones.
Before I left, I hated these. After owning a pair in the 7th grade I vowed to never do it again. The fashion statement they make is horrendous. But man, they are amazing. When it was a week until my departure date and I still hadn’t found a pair of super thin pants that fit me, I took the plunge and bought a pair. I vowed never to unzip the legs, I’m not a shorts guy. Then one scorching hot day in India, two months into my trip, I took the plunge. I fell instantly in love with not overheating on a daily basis, that I kept them that way for over a month and a half. The leg portions are noticeably darker, about 8 shades darker, but it was so worth it. And not just for the killer leg tan. Two pairs of these should be more than enough.
Priceless if you’re staying on or near a beach. If you’re not planning on it, you really should.
At one point or another on your trip, it’s bound to get a little chilly. Or very chilly. If not, roll it up and use it as a pillow. Just whatever you do don’t shove it as far down in your pack as possible so it’s impossible to reach when you really need it. Oh, and toss it in a stuff sack to squeeze out the air and cut down on the puffy size.
It’s bound to rain, snow, hail, or get windy at some point along the way. Toss in an ultralight windbreaker rain jacket that collapses into its own pocket. Takes up only a little space and weight, and you’ll be glad you did when you’re caught in a monsoon, or decide to trek into the Himalayas.
What Not To Bring:
Too Many Clothes – Buy what you need there, and bring back some awesome usable souvenirs.
Other Winter Gear – Unless you’re going primarily in super-cold weather, just buy some there.
Hiking Boots – Again, unless you’re doing nothing but climbing, buy a cheap pair and trade them.
Computer – You’re traveling. You don’t need to bring a laptop. A smartphone, E-book Reader, or tiny tablet are enough. Or use an internet cafe.
More than One Full Backpack – If you can’t fit all of your things in one bag, you’re bringing too much. Don’t bring a suitcase, a backpack is easier to move around, and much more convenient.