Have you ever gone through a backpacking packing list and wondered why on earth you’d need a kettle, hairdryer and your own extension cable?
Yeah, me too.
Turns out those items offer a good commission to whoever wrote the packing list.
So rather than bore you with high earning products that you don’t need, we’ll drill down into the real essential items you need for backpacking. Whether you’re travelling for two weeks or nine months, we’ve cut out all the unnecessary junk and left only the must-have essential backpacking items.
We’ve broken the article into:
- Truly Essential Items
- Essential Clothes for Backpacking
- Essential Electronics
- Not Essential but Still Useful (Don’t worry, there’s no portable washing machines or lint rollers here!)
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Essential Backpacking Items You Can’t Travel Without
These essentials are pretty boring but they are the only things you NEED to travel. Everything else is about making your trip a comfortable and rewarding experience.
You won’t get far without your passport. Ensure it has plenty of spare pages and at least six months before it expires. If you’re travelling long term, you’ll want to make sure there’s plenty of life in it before it needs renewing.
Whether you’re getting a plane, train or bus, you’ll need tickets — unless you’re disguising yourself as a FedEx parcel and going in the hold, that is… However, we don’t recommend that approach.
Unless you’re going for the begpacking thing, or have a way of making a living on the road, travelling without money isn’t an option.
Carry your money in different ways to be safe. Take at least one Visa Debit and one MasterCard Debit — you’ll often find ATMs abroad will only take one or the other. Carry a few hundred dollars in cash hidden somewhere in your bag or on your person — dollars are always helpful to get you out of a tight spot. It’s also a good idea to take an emergency credit card but only if you can trust yourself not to get into trouble!
Finally, keep your various cards and cash stashed in different places. Keep some on your person and hide the rest amongst your gear.
Top Tip: Choose a travel-friendly bank to avoid withdrawal fees while travelling. These banks usually have great customer service teams who can often be reached 24 hours a day through their dedicated app. Our favourite bank for travellers is Starling. Unfortunately, Starling is only available to UK residents. However, there are plenty of other travel-friendly mobile banks that offer accounts to US, European and Australian travellers too!
Okay, so it’s not technically a requirement to go backpacking (unless you’re visiting somewhere like the Galapagos Islands who will refuse you entry if you don’t have valid travel insurance). However, a good travel insurance policy is as important as having your passport, tickets and money in our opinion.
I’m fully aware insurance is a con. I understand that these companies make money from our fears. And I know that nine times out of ten I’m going to be fine while travelling. But when that one time out of ten could cost me tens, if not hundreds of thousands, then I need to be prepared.
Remember, travel insurance isn’t just for your peace of mind. If the worst should happen while you’re travelling, a good policy will ensure your remains can be repatriated. Without it, your family who are already suffering will have to find the money from somewhere!
We recommend SafetyWing as our travel insurer of choice. They offer a flexible, subscription-based insurance plan that can be purchased and extended while already on the road (read our full SafetyWing review). They also offer pandemic cover!
Those are the only items you MUST have to go travelling. However, you won’t get far without a tad more gear — you’re unlikely to be allowed on a plane without clothes on! Keep reading to discover our essential clothing items for travellers.
Essential Clothes for Backpacking
Across much of the world, clothes are cheap and easy to find. If you’re unsure about whether you’ll need an item of clothing, leave it at home. It’s better to spend a few dollars on a jumper in a local market than carry one you never end up using.
I know, it’s not really a clothing item but you do wear it and you’ll need one to store all your clothes.
For most, a travel backpack larger than 55-litres is too much. And many can get away with an even smaller bag. There are obviously some exceptions. If you’re going somewhere cold or taking a lot of extreme sport/expedition gear, you’ll need more space — but that’s not most backpackers!
Check out our guide to choosing the best size backpack for you!
A more expensive, premium quality option is The Backpacker from Salkan. This larger 55-litre pack includes a detachable 20-litre day pack and is one of the most beautiful packs we’ve ever tested. However, it does come at a much higher price point.
Flip flops/ Sandals
Buy these at your destination to save carrying them.
We recommend Tropicfeel shoes. They’re comfy, lightweight and versatile!
You’ll only need these if you’re going to do A LOT of walking. Otherwise, sneakers will be fine.
Two to three different t-shirts is your best bet, with at least one being long-sleeved. If you want to look smart at any point, a button-down shirt is a good idea — especially if you want to visit nice restaurants or bars while you travel.
Plenty of backpackers wear nothing but shorts in hot regions like Southeast Asia. However, parts of South America can be much too cold for shorts — you’re bound to want long trousers over there!
Swimming shorts are a good idea as they’re light, fast-drying and pack down small. But you may want slightly more formal shorts depending on your plans. If you want to take a pair of trousers on your trip, a good quality pair of jeans is hard to beat for a more formal look. However, most backpackers will choose hippie pants or leggings as they tend to be more comfortable in hot climates!
Three to five pairs is enough. In hot climates, you’ll probably end up barefoot or in sandals most of the time anyway. If you’re hiking or trekking, then you may need a couple of extra pairs of specialist socks. Otherwise, your everyday socks will do. Don’t bother wasting money on travel socks unless you really need to!
You all know what sunglasses do. They protect your eyes from the sun. Good-quality sunglasses are noticeably better than cheaper models. However, they can be expensive. If you can afford it, we recommend investing in a decent pair. But if you can’t, any sunglasses are better than no sunglasses!
Top Tips for Essential Clothing:
- Opt for dark coloured or patterned clothing whenever possible. They hide stains better and don’t need to be washed every day — it might sound gross but you’ll quickly learn to appreciate it!
- Cotton is not your friend. It takes an age to dry and quickly starts to pong. However, if you’ve only got cotton t-shirts, don’t bother going out and buying more. Just stick with what you’ve got and buy something cheap at your destination if need be.
Cold Weather Essential Clothes
These clothing items are essential if you’re going to be in colder regions while travelling. They will need to be included with all the above clothing essentials.
A thermal base layer is a must-have item if you’re in cold environments or at elevation. They’re thin, lightweight and easy to pack. Merino wool is a really good choice but can be expensive. Whatever you opt for, make sure it’s moisture-wicking and quick-drying.
When combined with a base layer, a good jumper can offer a ton of warmth. Any lightweight hiking or outdoor jumper will be enough unless you’re going somewhere especially cold.
“Never go out without a hat” is what my grandma always used to say. That’s especially true when travelling in cold climates! Your head is often the only place not wrapped up warm, so instead of reaching for another coat, protect your noggin!
Not Quite Essential But Still Bloody Useful Items
This is especially useful if you’re travelling light. A foldable daypack means you don’t have to take your main bag out every time you want to carry a jumper and a book. It also packs down super small when not in use.
We love this collapsible daypack from Zomake. It’s cheap, lightweight and durable. What more could you ask for?
Microfibre travel towels are lightweight and pack down super small. Honestly, they’re not as good as a real towel but they’re much better than nothing! They’re great for using at the beach or for drying off after a shower — cheap hostels rarely offer towels to their guests.
Top Tip – Ensure you wash and dry your travel towel regularly, they are known to take on a distinct smell if packed away camp too many times!
Whether it’s hot or cold, a buff will protect you from the elements. It can be worn as a scarf to keep you warm or to keep the sun off your neck. It can also be worn as a bandana or hat to protect your head or used as a sweatband.
We recommend Turtle Fur buffs as they’re moisture-wicking and super comfy!
While not strictly essential, a good water filter will save you money and save the planet from the millions of single-use plastic bottles sold each day.
Outside of your phone, there are almost no essential electronics you need to take backpacking. Heck, you could even go on a full adventure and give up the phone!
But that’s unrealistic so here are our top choices for essential electronics to take travelling:
Top Tip: Save money on an e-reader by downloading the Kindle app to your phone!
Phone cameras are great these days but if you want something a little better, a good quality mirrorless camera is a worthwhile investment!
A computer or tablet makes booking tickets or researching destinations easier. You can do it all on your phone but the bigger screen is a treat!
You won’t always be able to charge your phone. It pays to be prepared.
- Travel adaptor
When you can find a plug socket, you’ll want a universal travel adaptor to make sure you can charge everything!
- Head torch
A travel head torch is one of the most underrated bits of gear you can take travelling!
- Unlocked smartphone
Your current smartphone is fine for the job, just make sure it’s unlocked. This allows you to use local or international SIM cards as you travel, making staying connected much cheaper!
- All associated chargers and cables
It goes without saying you’ll need your charging cables! Most common cables are available across the world so you should be able to replace any that get lost, broken or left behind!
Any personal medications you require
While it’s possible to buy most meds in much of the world (trust me, I’ve purchased strange items in Southeast Asian chemists as well as South American hospitals), it’s still a safer bet to bring what you need from home.
Birth control pills and condoms are relatively common across the world, but it’s better to be prepared.
It can be hard to get tampons in some parts of the world. If you want them, it’s worth taking a stash with you — don’t worry though sanitary towels are ubiquitous across most of the world so you’ll rarely get caught short.
Another option is the menstrual cup. Some women find these quicker, easier and more comfortable. Plus, they’re reusable and save a huge amount of waste entering landfill.
Shampoo, Conditioner, Toothpaste, soap etc
Can all be bought while travelling. Take a small travel toothpaste and toothbrush for the plane and maybe some soap so you don’t have to worry about finding a shop as soon as you arrive.
Things You Don’t Need
It’s not that there’s no need for the Lonely Planet anymore. There’s just no need for YOU to carry one. Every backpacker hostel will have an old battered copy kicking about somewhere for you to thumb through.
Guidebooks should be used as inspiration instead of a set plan to follow. Besides, the internet has rendered most guidebooks obsolete. Blogs and websites can be updated far more regularly than a guidebook and are easier to hunt through quickly. (Not that we’re biased…)
Unless you’re tackling some serious treks, hiking boots are unnecessary. They’re too big, hot and bulky to carry about for months on end. And honestly, unless you’re taking on some proper hiking, you’ll barely use them!
Some folks swear by a money belt but they’re not as common as some would have you believe. Plus, chances are any would-be thieves already know about their existence!
An oversized medkit
Don’t get me wrong, carry some plasters, a bit of antiseptic cream and some pain killers but you don’t need a full-on paramedic’s kit!
Unless you’re camping, a sleeping bag is unnecessary. Hostels will provide bedding and a sleeping bag takes up way too much room in your backpack!
It’s a nice idea, swinging in the trees and sleeping for free. But in reality, the hammock will probably sit in the bottom of your bag taking up valuable space. By all means, buy one when you get to your destination if you spot an opportunity to use it but don’t bother bringing one from home.
It doesn’t matter how good it makes you look, it also makes you a target. Leave the jewellery at home. If you can’t bear to see yourself without the addition of bracelets or necklaces, adopt the backpacker jewellery style!
There it is, the essential items you need for travel. Not a hairdryer, sonic clothes washer or tiny steam iron in sight. These items will see you through a two week trip to Thailand or two year around the world adventure. The best bit? You’ve probably got most of the gear sitting at home already!
Travel light, travel cheap and travel far.
Do you have an essential backpacking travel item that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below!
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