So you’re taking the leap. The big trip is booked. There’s nothing standing between you and the unforgettable adventure that’s about to unfold…except, you still have to pack.
Wondering where to start? Avoid backache, ripped zips and other packing nightmares with our essential backpacking packing list.
How to pick the right backpack
Before you decide what to take, you need to determine what to take it in. Choosing a backpack can be confusing, and the web is rife with advice from people who insist you can travel for six months with nothing but a postage-stamp-sized carry-on, while others woefully recall their experience of lugging a 90-liter bag around the world. Newbie travelers are often tempted to take everything but the kitchen sink, but limiting your backpack space is the best way to avoid this common pitfall.
The sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle: a backpack between 40-70L is fine for a long-term trip – the trick is not to stuff it full.
Try the Kelty Redwing 50 for men or women. It has an internal frame, fits carry-on requirements for most major and regional airlines, is extremely durable and performs well whether you're out on the trails or jumping from hostel to hostel.
Remember to also take a good-quality day bag that can be kept inside your backpack or used as hand luggage. We like the Osprey ultralight stuff pack. It only weighs three ounces and feels full-featured despite its packable design.
Packing cubes and compression sacks
Stuffing socks in shoes will only get you so far. Believe me – compression sacks are your new best friends. Besides saving considerable space, they can protect clothing from grime and spillages, as well as separate dirty laundry from the holy grail of backpacker apparel: clean underwear. Use packing cubes to store individual outfits if you’re going somewhere where it will be difficult to sift through the contents of your backpack – this can be particularly useful when camping or staying in cramped conditions such as a sailboat or camper van.
For the ultimate in packing cubes try Shake Pak. These cubes are built to last through weeks on the road.
Keep toiletries in a good quality transparent waterproof bag to contain shampoo explosions and allow for easy access. Like these TSA-approved toiletry bags.
Always pack versatile clothing
We know this sounds like jargon, but truly the best way to look half decent on the road is to pack a “capsule wardrobe”. Sticking to a neutral color scheme and packing plenty of layers means you can mix and match outfits easily, conjuring seemingly countless looks for a variety of climates out of a few tops and some cleverly chosen accessories.
A large statement scarf or sarong is a great multipurpose item: it keeps you cozy, doubles as a cushion for long bus journeys and can cover your shoulders when visiting sacred temples. The Mer Sea travel wrap comes with its own bag and is so versatile it can be cozy or fancy whenever you need it to be.
Health essentials, COVID-19 and creature comforts
You know you need a first-aid kit. But be strategic: unless you’re going somewhere so remote that you’ll have no access to key medicines or supplies, you probably don’t need 12 packs of painkillers and a liter of liquid skin glue. A pack of high-quality face masks, bandaids and blister patches, (a reasonable amount of) painkillers, antiseptic cream, antihistamine, travel sickness tablets and prescription medications/contraceptives should suffice, along with your soon-to-be-treasured anti-diarrhea pills and laxatives. For the sake of your mental health, pack earplugs, an eye mask and if you know you struggle to nod off, a calming lavender essential oil roll-on.
Even though you're likely going to be outside a lot, you still will need to know the local advisories and regulations regarding COVID-19 safety. What vaccines will you need? Do you need test results and if so, what kind of tests qualify and in what time window? Will you have to quarantine upon arrival? With regulations changing daily, start at Lonely Planet's Health Hub for up-to-the-minute pandemic travel advisories.
These earplugs are reusable and moldable so they work great in lots of different ears.
This silk eye mask from Slip helps fight fine lines and wrinkles all while ensuring proper sleep on long-haul flights.
And for non-GMO-verified essential oil, try NOW organic Lavender calming blend and rest easy.
Tech and entertainment
Digital nomad or not, chances are you’ll be taking some tech. Even if you’re flying by the seat of your smartphone, you’ll need a charger, a global adaptor and a portable battery (a life-saver if you’re dependent on mapping apps). Throw in a laptop, camera, GoPro, drone and Kindle and your inventory suddenly got a whole lot more valuable and heavier. Keep tech in hand luggage wherever possible and, to echo the station announcements you’ll soon be hearing everywhere, never leave your bag unattended.
Do some digital packing too: download crucial apps before you leave home to avoid flaky wifi or expensive roaming charges. If you’re a paperback fan (or love a good guidebook) don’t take more than one or two – you can switch them at book swaps as you go.
It’s 2022. The “take only pictures, leave only footprints” backpacker mantra is no longer enough. Pack a reusable water bottle (with an in-built filter if necessary) like the LifeStraw Go. Look for packaging-free or refillable toiletries. Bring lightweight bamboo straws and cutlery like this travel cutlery set that comes in a neat roll with a brush for cleaning. Finally, don't forget environmentally-friendly sunscreen like Thinksport SPF 50+ which is safe for coral reefs and top-rated by the EWG.
As refreshing as they are, even biodegradable wet wipes can clog sewage systems, particularly in less developed countries; take a flannel or muslin cloth for thorough face washing. Zero-waste sanitary products (reusable towels, menstrual cups or period-friendly underwear) will minimize costs and use less backpack space too.
Padlocks and backup documents
A mini padlock on your backpack zippers will help deter anyone from pinching whatever you last stuffed into the top of your bag, while larger ones are handy for hostel lockers (they usually sell them at an inflated price if you’re stuck). It’s worth taking hard photocopies of your passport, driving license and insurance documents, or at least a USB stick with the digital versions, in case any get lost or stolen.
Still not sure what to pack? Read our ultimate guide to packing like a pro before you go as well!
What not to pack
- Sleeping bag: most hostels ban them anyway due to their bedbug spreading properties, providing clean sheets instead. If you’re fussy about bedding, bring a silk sleeping bag liner – but this is totally optional
- Hairdryer and high heels: embrace the laid back look – you can always pop to a salon or buy a cheap pair of snazzy shoes if you have an impromptu glamorous night out
- Neck pillow: unless it’s inflatable (others add too much bulk). And even then, is it really worth it?
- Anything of true sentimental value: because insurance can’t replace the irreplaceable
- A standard towel: or so say... most travelers. Four months of carting around a smelly, useless microfiber towel taught me to always take one just in case – which takes us to this article’s caveat: everyone’s different. If you really want to take something, just take it. You’ll soon find out if it was the right decision!