Backpacking Essentials: What to Pack

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An old camping adage has it that you can always tell a true back-country trekker: she’s the one who filed the handle off her toothbrush to save a few precious ounces.

Chances are most hostel-to-hostel backpackers or volunteer travelers won’t need to be quite so finicky, but one thing’s for sure: when you’re on the road, your whole world becomes about what’s stuffed in your rucksack.

A bag that’s too heavy will weigh you down in more ways than one.

So how do you balance being prepared with sparing your shoulders?

One thing to consider: it’s amazing how easy it is for backpackers to beg or borrow, by invitation only of course!

I came across lots of “Extra Clothes” closets and “Free Stuff” counters for the current travelers at hostels and volunteer sites  – mostly populated with umbrellas, maps, shampoo, and other odds and ends that previous travelers had left behind.

When I packed for my trip, I nixed my favorite heels, my hairdryer and my trusty yoga mat for being too bulky. Luckily, I was kindly offered the use of all three of these things (and more) from friends I made on the road at one point or another.

You can’t depend on this type of thing, but it might help you relax into the packing state of mind you’re going for: think essentials!

Every Go! Girl has a different idea of what she can’t live without, but here’s what topped my list of must-haves for a backpacking adventure:

LED Flashlight

My keychain-sized light was a lifesaver! No big batteries to replace, which made it space and energy-efficient.

It was bright enough to light my way to many an outdoor toilet, down dark country lanes and, once, on a midnight escaped-chicken hunt.

I’m just sayin’, you never know.

I’d also recommend an LED headlamp – still smaller than most handheld flashlights, but hands-free and ever-so-stylish.

Be Alarmed, Be Very Alarmed

Make sure you’ve got a way to wake up for volunteer hours, early flights or post-siesta parties.

Alarm Clock 3

To save space you can double up and default to a cell phone alarm, but since I was traveling without a phone (more on this in a forthcoming post!) I picked up a cheap digital watch for my trip.

Nothing like a tool you can wear instead of pack.

An added surprise: I got tons of use out of my alarm as a midday reminder for those strange tasks that start cropping up in the life of a backpacking volunteer… 10am, it’s my shift to stoke the hot-water boiler! Noon, must take the bread out of the oven! 3:30, I’ve gotta get back and check out of my room!

Water Bottle

You might start to feel like a beast of burden lugging your gear, but make sure you think camel and pack your own H20 wherever you go.

Nalgene, SIGG, whatever the brand, a solid water bottle is crucial to keeping yourself good and hydrated.

It’s light, easy to hook to the outside of your pack when it’s full and when you empty your bottle for plane travel (no fluids or gels! I’ve had to chug a few bottles of water in airport security lines) you can stuff t-shirts or socks in there, making its space-taking basically negligible.

Bring Bling

I didn’t want to crowd out work-wear or warm layers with a lot of dressy clothes. But despite my more casually-styled, outdoor-focused mode of travel, there have been plenty of occasions when I wanted to hit the town.

Toting a pouch of my favorite flashy earrings felt like doubling my wardrobe with a barely noticeable amount of used space – I could throw on a pair with tank tops that I also used as gardening gear and feel totally transformed.

Call it backpacker chic.

Paper Back

It may be bigger than your iPod, but you can’t beat a book for on-the-road entertainment.

The key here is stuffability – a paperback book will hold up to even the most merciless cramming and shoving into any available pack space (Kindle users, do not try this at home).

Books and Books

And a book in the bag is worth tons on the trot: when I finished a book, I’d swap it for another with a hostel roommate or fellow volunteer. Not only was this a horizon-expanding way to discover new reads, it’s also a great way to meet people!

Comfort Object

Ok, ok, the diehard toothbrush-filer might sneer, but I think it’s worth it to give a nod to the emotional essentials, too.

Something small, like a photo of family or friends, a little print of your favorite piece of art or your lucky boondoggle you made when you were six, can really make a difference when you’re on the road. Lay it out on your hostel nightstand, in your volunteer pad, even on your airplane tray table, and make a foreign space a little bit more your own.

One Pack, Two Pack

Great, you’re packed and ready and you’ve got your whole life stuffed into a torso-dwarfing weight bomb!

Now, wanna go for a day hike?? Ooh… Trust me, you’ll want to keep “The Big One” room-bound when you can, so bring another small pack to feel light on your feet when you’re daytrippin’.

I made sure that I had enough room in my big pack to fit my small one, and broke it out when I reached each place I was staying.

But for those whose destinations or constitutions make them open to having two bags in transit, put your big pack on your back and wear the small one in front… the distributed weight actually makes this pretty comfy!

Getting ready for a trip is all part of the fun, so savor the packing experience!

  • Enjoy taking the time to pick out a pack – if you’re going to give this bag a planet-wide piggyback ride, you want it to work for you.
  • Once you’ve found it, do a practice pack-up, then strap in and strut your stuff down your own home street. As silly as it sounds, it’ll let you try out the weight and see if you can take it.
  • And don’t stress, when you’re on the go you can always ditch anything that’s seriously dragging you down.
  • Finally, remember, there’s a reason generations of travelers have lugged, hauled, and packed their way around the world: there’s nothing like the thrill of exploring to really lighten the load.

What was the most indispensable item you took with you on your travels? Got any weighty warnings about the things you’d never haul round the world again? Write in and let us know: what’s in those packs?!

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About Author

When Julie was a little kid, she conspiratorially whispered to her dad, "You know what? I have powers." It took the world, and Julie, about 20 years to figure out what the heck she meant by that. But in 2010, when a chance backpacking adventure turned into a year of transformational travel, she cracked it: her super power is Wonder Wandering. Her mission? Using her powers of volunteering for globe-trotting good, not evil. Her kryptonite? Stayin' put.

4 Comments

  1. I’m a horrible packer!! But I’m a fan of the book-trade… I got Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend- 2 good reads!

    A small first aid kit’s a good one to add.
    Thanks for the tips, I will use them for Thailand!

  2. Can I JUST say….I love that the water bottle made it into this blog 🙂 it really was the linchpin of your entire trip, findable or otherwise.

  3. Pingback: Quiz: What Travel Movie Are You? — Go! Girl Guides

  4. Pingback: Packing Essentials : Everything You Need, Nothing You Don’t | Sean in Shorts

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