Updated July 11th, 2018.
It’s the last job before you set off – cramming everything you think you’ll need for the next ‘however-long’ into a bag you must be able to carry without:
a) Giving yourself a bad back (and embarrassing yourself at the luggage carousel).
b) Missing out on bringing that one item that you really wish you’d brought with you!
Everyone’s different but our rough guide, specifically geared toward the climate and activities common to a South East Asia backpacking trip, will start you off:
Everyone’s different – but our rough guide, specifically geared toward the climate and activities common to a South East Asia backpacking trip, will start you off.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive Southeast Asia packing list, see our brand new checklist!
1. First step: bag yourself a bag!
The main three things you need to consider when choosing your bag are the type, size and cost. If you’re going trekking you’ll probably want to take a rucksack, although you can usually hire the necessary gear locally should the need arise. Otherwise, a bag on wheels (if you can endure your mates’ ribbing!) could save you a lot of shoulder massages!
Whichever type of bag you go for, it’s helpful to have several sections and pockets so it’s easier to find what you need without unpacking everything. You’ll also find it invaluable to have a bag that unzips all the way around rather than a top-loader, as it’s a pain pulling everything out to get to the stuff at the bottom.
A bag with straps on the outside allows you to attach your sleeping bag, yoga mat, camping gear and whatever else to the outside. Bear in mind that, whatever size bag you have, you’ll fill it to the max and then you’ll have to carry it, so keep it as small as you can get away with. If cash is an issue, why not have a look for a second-hand bag or ask around your friends and family if they have one you can use.
2. Safety on the road
If you’re not able to fit everything in one small 35-litre backpack that goes on the aeroplane with you. We recommend that you take two bags with you to Southeast Asia.
- One larger bag – for all of your belongings: clothes, toiletries, shoes etc. (Stuff that of course, you don’t want to lose, but wouldn’t be the end of the world if you did).
- One smaller bag (a day pack) – for all of your precious items. Anything considered an essential that’s difficult or expensive to replace goes in your day pack which NEVER leaves you, including cash, credit/debit cards, passport, driving license and any expensive items (camera, phone, etc).
Buy a small padlock (nothing too heavy) and with a combination (so you don’t have to take care of a key) to give your bag a bit of extra security. If you’re taking two bags, make sure you lock the bag that will be checked into the luggage compartment on the plane, or go under the bus (or on top of the bus) when you’re travelling overland.
Always take a few copies of your passport and passport photos for visas.
3. Clothing and toiletries: think small!
Having been there, we know it’s hard to know where to begin as there’s no correct way to pack – but whether you’re the full-on girly-girl complete with ceramic hair straighteners and accessories to match every outfit, or you’re the guy with barely more than the clothes he stands up in – it’s all about efficiency!
Our strong advice is to keep it to the minimum as you won’t end up using half of what you take anyway.
It’s hot and humid in South East Asia – you won’t need as many clothes as you think you will – and, as your clothes will mainly be small and light, they’re quick to wash and dry.
Don’t bring jeans as they’re heavy and impractical in a tropical climate. If you’re unsure, take a couple of changes of lightweight clothing and, if you don’t have enough when you get there, you can buy the rest locally cheaply and suited to the climate.
Underwear: Note to the girls – underwear is near-impossible to buy in Western sizes in Southeast Asia so take what you need, in cotton, as it’s more comfortable in the humidity.
Put together what fashionistas call a “capsule wardrobe” – which basically means every item of your clothing can be mixed and matched or even have multiple uses (such as a sarong – see below), giving you more outfit options using the fewest items. And don’t bring anything too clingy – your clothes stuck to you with sweat will drive you insane. You may wish to invest in a trekking top to hide sweat patches!
Don’t forget a pair of lightweight long pants or a long skirt and a long sleeved top if you want to visit any of the religious temples because you will need to cover your shoulders and legs.
Also, take two swimsuits, so you don’t have to put a wet one on the next day! Ooh nasty!
Where possible, pack miniatures – smaller toothbrush, small travel towel, smaller versions of makeup and toiletries – unless you’re brand-loyal there’s nothing you can’t get at least a half-decent version of in Southeast Asia so you needn’t worry about running out of anything.
Multi-purpose items are the backpacker’s best friend!
- All-purpose soap (shampoo, shower gel, hand-wash all in one!)
- A bandana or hair band doubling up as a sleep-mask!
- A sarong (with ENDLESS uses such as a cover-up in the sun and in religious temples, a bed sheet, a window-blind, dish cloth, bath towel… the list goes on!
- A mobile device such as a Kindle E-reader with WIFI ability, which can be used to read books, listen to music, email, skype, get maps, download dictionaries, look up reviews etc. and it fits in your pocket!
You will need no more than two pairs of shoes – flip flops, and some suitable for other activities such as trekking, although trekking shoes (for example in Nepal) can often be hired or bought locally and then sold or donated when you leave and move onto the land of flip flops and beaches…
4. How to pack?
Rolling everything up tightly can take up a lot less room than layering (or just “stuffing”!) and makes it so much easier to find things than layering – you can remove items in “sausages” and put them straight back!
Stuff underwear into shoes and into any gaps.
Girls, knickers stuffed in bras will help keep their shape.
The organised among us may wish to use packing cubes, or a cheaper version – put similar items in different coloured carrier bags to save you rummaging!
5. The check-list: essential and non-essential items
- A small Maglite flashlight or, better still, a head torch. An essential for electricity cuts when in more rural areas and perfect for reading your book in a hostel or on an overnight bus / train if everyone else is asleep.
- Insect repellent is a necessity. We recommend Jungle Formula which seems to work well. Bizarrely, it seems impossible to buy DEET in many parts of Asia, especially India. This seems strange as these are precisely the countries which need strong repellant against diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
- Waterproof jacket (or you can just buy a poncho when you get here!).
- Sunblock (it can actually be more expensive to buy in Asia than in Europe and the US).
- A Swiss Army Pocket Knife is one of our best pre-travel purchases, that we’ve used so many times – to cut fruit or open bottles (hey there are lots of new beers to try!).
- And, of course, until you’ve learned how to get by without it (and yes that will happen)… toilet paper!
LEAVE AT HOME:
- Mosquito net. (We bought a mosquito net before travelling to India this year and found that we just didn’t need it. Most of the hostels and guesthouses we stayed in already had nets. Plus, it was just impractical to put up and take down in every new place we stayed which required nailing the walls! Instead, we bought a cheap mosquito bat in the local shop when we arrived at a new destination and zapped all the mosquitos in our room before going to sleep!
- Waterproof trousers. (Your bare legs dry quick!)
- Heels! (Yes, you will be enjoying the nightlife of Southeast Asia but the scene is super chilled and you’d look ridiculous in heels when most people are wearing flip-flops. Some don’t even bother doing that!)
- Jumpers (one hoody will do).
- Too many shoes.
- Books (are just too heavy and you there are many second-hand bookshops in Southeast Asia).
- Too many toiletries (again, buy it all when you get here!).
We hope that helps to get you started! If you have any comments, we’d love to hear from you below…
Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. South East Asia Backpacker Magazine is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.
Join Our Community
Add purpose to your travels.
Do you want to find out about free opportunities to review hostels and experiences, as well as keep up to date with the latest travel news in Southeast Asia & get special offers on trips? Thought so!