Backpacking Packing List

Two packed backpacks

What to Take Backpacking

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This backpacking packing list is meant to serve you as a loose outline for long-term budget travel. You’ll need to customize it here and there for the geography, climate, and your own desires.

Also, this packing list is for backpacking travel…not for walking the Appalachian Trail.

The old mantra of packing light is a cliché, and you have heard it so many times before, but really — DO NOT TAKE TOO MUCH!

Packing too heavy will literally dictate and shape your entire trip experience, and not in a good way. Little did I realize that I would end up giving away and throwing out lots of things I brought along on my first trip!

No Matter What: Do Not Overpack!

I was always taught in the Army to be prepared. Unfortunately, extreme preparation equals extreme weight. Your pack will inevitably grow as you travel; gifts, souvenirs, new clothing purchases — expect to be going home with more than you brought along.

Depending on where you are going, chances are you can purchase the same items as you need them at your destinations anyway. And depending on the country, buying locally may be significantly cheaper, too! So why haul things thousands of miles from home and risk getting them broken, stolen, or lost, when you can buy local and help an economy that probably needs it as well?

Packing Tips for Long-Term Backpacking

  • Keep in mind that whatever you bring may be stolen or broken at any time.
  • Unless you are going to the middle of the desert, many items will be available at your destination. Buy local.
  • There is a direct ratio between weight and how much you will enjoy your trip.
  • You will not need as many distractions as you normally do at home because you will be in a new world!

Here are some examples to get your mind working in the right direction. Please use the following backpacking packing list as only a means for ideas. Everyone has different needs and desires on the road.

Tip: I’ve got links to Amazon for a few of the small-but-reliable items I carry and use. You can save time, read reviews, and help this site out by purchasing via the red links!

Backpacking First Aid Kit

I ended up using less than half of the first aid items that I brought on my first backpacking trip to Southeast Asia. Out of a box of bandages that I brought along, I consumed a grand total of three. Instead of trying to prepare for every emergency, take only a few of the very common basics and then purchase whatever you need. Bring several aspirin instead of the whole bottle, three bandages instead of the box — you get the idea.

Helping others is technically not your responsibility, but it does feel good to give someone a motion-sickness pill before they get sick all over everything.

Tip: Don’t buy one of the generic, pre-packed first aid kits. Build your own with stuff specific for your needs!

Here are some basic first aid Items that I found very valuable:

  • Anti-Diarrhea Pills:  If you eat the local food, Traveler’s diarrhea is almost inevitable at some point. Blame food handling or just the bacterial differences between continents, it happens. Although bananas and white rice do wonders for soothing a bad stomach, you may need medicine for long journeys or times when toilet breaks aren’t convenient (i.e., 10-hour bus rides.) Brands containing loperamide are the most effective. Remember: only take loperamide during long moves or emergencies, otherwise use food — bananas work particularly well — to control your stomach.
  • Tweezers: Tweezers have a multitude of uses including:  popping blisters, removing ticks and splinters, etc. Buy the super-pointy medical kind but don’t try to bring them on the plane in your carry-on bag!
  • Alcohol Prep Pads: Individually wrapped prep pads are a convenient way of disinfecting skin, cleaning your tweezers above, treating insect bites, etc. I take a lot of these.
  • Motion Sickness Pills:  Even if you don’t get motion sickness very often, offer pills to other travelers that do so they don’t puke on your bus! The regular version of Dramamine can also double as an emergency sleeping pill because of the drowsy side effects.
  • Bandages: Band-Aids, plasters, whatever you want to call them, you are going to need a few. You can also use bandages to put on hot spots to prevent blisters.
  • Ibuprofen: Ibuprofen (branded in the U.S. as Advil) is good to stop swelling, muscle pains from long treks, and hangovers after Full Moon Parties.
  • Acetaminophen: Branded as Tylenol in the U.S., acetaminophen is more effective at lowering fevers than ibuprofen. It also works for hangovers.
  • Benadryl Pills:  Benadryl’s active ingredient is diphenhydramine. Even if you aren’t allergic to much at home, it is very possible that you will come into contact with plants or new materials that will give you a rash. If you’re stung or bitten by something new (e.g., a scorpion) pop a couple pills immediately to counter the venom.
  • Multivitamins:  Vitamins are optional, but possibly useful to keep your immune system happy for public transportation and in case you can’t maintain proper nutrition on a local diet.
  • Hydration Sachets: Carry a few or many hydration sachets that contain electrolytes. It is inevitable at some point that either yourself or a fellow traveler will become dehydrated or suffer from heat exhaustion. You can become dehydrated in extreme cold, too!

Remember to bring enough of your prescription medication to last the trip. Try to keep medicine in the original, labeled bottles to avoid raising the eyebrows of people in uniform, and keep a copy of the prescription with all the pills. If you wear contacts, bring your glasses and prescription along as well for emergency situations.

For more details about medicine and pills you might want to carry, read about what medicine to include in your travel first aid kit.

Clothing

  • Ultralight travelers adhere to the wash-one, wear-one theory and wash their laundry in the sink often.
  • Swimming shorts that are not too colorfully obnoxious can double as your second pair of shorts.
  • Socks (I no longer carry any) and underwear can be washed and dried quickly in the sink, so take less.
  • Choose polyester, rayon, nylon, and other materials over cotton whenever possible because they dry faster. They also tend to stink less when drenched in sweat.
  • Blue jeans are heavy and dry slowly; leave them behind if you only plan to visit tropical locations (i.e., Southeast Asia).
  • Be just a tad more conservative in choosing messages on your shirts. It may be easier to offend local people than you realize.
  • You’ll need one pair of lightweight trousers for places where shorts aren’t acceptable (e.g., when visiting temples).
  • One good shirt can be included for meet-ups or party nights, but make sure it can survive without a proper ironing!
  • Tans, browns, and earth colors are always a good bet because they do not show dirt and stains, don’t attract so many mozzies and insects, and you won’t be as easily spotted by people that make a living hunting tourists.
  • Bring a thin, light rain jacket that can also be used as a cover-up on very cold air-conditioned bus rides or at night if the temperature drops.
  • Laundry is regularly lost, damaged, stained, and color-bled in local laundromats. Don’t pack your vintage Rolling Stones tour t-shirt!

Jewelry

Leave that $300 Swiss Army watch at home! You do not want to attract attention to yourself by wearing expensive or flashy looking bracelets, rings, or necklaces. Wearing bling will definitely get you higher prices from merchants or maybe worse from unscrupulous individuals! A good, cheap watch with a light and an alarm is really all that you need — or just take your smartphone.

Some female travelers opt to bring a fake gold wedding band along to wear in countries to take some pressure off the advances from locals. Being “married” is hardly a get-out-of-jail card; the local men in many countries do not care.

Shoes

Shoes are heavy and consume a lot of room. One pair of “proper” shoes and a set of flip-flops are all you really need. The shoes should be good enough for trekking and scrambling and be dark enough to wear out in case you go to a restaurant or club that requires proper shoes. Your flip-flops will work for everything else.

Leave the $60 Teva sandals at home, take cheap flip-flops or buy some locally! In Southeast Asia, shoes have to be left outside when you enter many places, and it is very common to have them disappear if someone was needing an upgrade.

Travel Toiletries

  • Liquids are heavy, so bring small bottles of everything. You can team up with other travelers to buy full-sized bottles locally, then refill your small bottles.
  • Branded travel-size bottles are a rip off. Buy the full-size equivalents and then fill small bottles. At least you’ll have more left at home to refill before your next trip.
  • Put all liquid items into a plastic bag and then into a waterproof toiletries bag. Airplane pressure changes can make them ooze all over everything.
  • Don’t pack glass bottles.
  • Shampoo can double as soap and also laundry detergent in a pinch if you choose a clear one that is “regular” or “normal” rather than specific to a hair type. After years of hearing travelers talk about it, I started using Dr. Bronners’ liquid castile. It’s mostly non-toxic, so you can use it to disinfect the toothbrush, wash clothes, etc.
  • Take anti-bacterial soap (tea tree oil is good) to keep bug bites and small scrapes in check.
  • Men, electric razors are heavy. Either go into Robinson Crusoe mode or just bring along a good razor with some replacement blades. The Mach 3 razor is popular all over the world, and blades are usually easy to find. Otherwise, finding replacement blades for other razors is a matter of luck. Soap or shampoo can double as shaving cream if you want to eliminate one more thing from your bag.
  • Any body wash or shampoo that smells sweet or fruity will make you an insect’s dream come true.
  • Individual face wipes or handy wipes are very useful for times when you have no access to water.
  • Pack hand sanitizer; you’ll rarely find soap or even water before eating in local restaurants or at street stalls.
  • Bring a small, non-breakable camping mirror because many cheap bungalows and guest houses do not have one in the bathroom. I switched to using a small, signal/survival mirror.

Miscellaneous Items to Pack

  • Book: You need a distraction for inevitable delays. Just bring one, it can be traded with other travelers or in bookshops for something new. If it’s new, leave the price tag on it for a bargaining advantage later. Put a rubber band around the book to keep the cover from being bent inside your bag. Although I’m still carrying at least one book at all times, my Kindle Paperwhite is my best friend for saving weight from numerous books.
  • Journal: I use a journal for recording the personal aspects of my adventures, of course. Having a real journal as an offline way to capture thoughts is a blessing. You’ll really thank yourself later. Get a good one. I prefer the Paperblanks journals (they are indestructible and have all the features) or Peter Pauper Press journals.
  • Small Notepad: Separate from your journal to keep in a pocket for recording other travelers’ emails and also writing bus schedules, directions, and things you don’t need in forever in your journal.
  • Sink Stopper: For doing laundry or washing small items. Get the big floppy universal kind — they’re only around $2.
  • Alarm Clock: If your watch alarm isn’t loud enough, get a small travel alarm to help you avoid running to catch early buses and trains. Obviously, a smartphone, if you choose to carry one, will do this for you.
  • Toilet Paper: Take it off the cardboard roll so it takes up less space. You will definitely need this in all parts of Asia unless you plan to “go native” and wipe with your left hand. Put it inside something waterproof.
  • Anti-bacterial Hand Gel: Public transportation and airports are full of sick people. Also, a majority of places in Asia will not have ways to wash your hands after using the toilets.
  • Sewing Kit: Good for field repairs. Stick some fishing line in it for making serious backpack or shoe repairs. The safety pins are good for keeping things together and your clothes on the dry-line when it’s windy.
  • Clothesline: Parachute cord or military 550 cord is available everywhere now. It’s light and works great. Use for hanging up laundry, fixing stuff, and lots of other things. If you need smaller threads, you can dissect it for the nylon inside.
  • Torch: Flashlight, LED, headlamp, whatever you decide to call it, bring one that is reliable, water-resistant, and uses regular batteries (nothing proprietary; AA is the easiest to find). I carry this awesome Fenix flashlight for when my headtorch isn’t handy. It’s tiny enough to keep in pocket, indestructible, and produces 130 lumens with just a single AA. (tip: invest in a single lithium AA battery and it will last the whole trip!)
  • Sleep Sheet: Silk is lighter and protects you better than cotton — bedbugs can still bite you through cotton. This is invaluable for dirty beds and to keep warm at night. It should be wide enough for two. They are expensive, but I use Jag Bags from New Zealand, now part of TerreVistaTrails. My first Endura silk sleep sheet lasted eight years of heavy use; invest in a good one.
  • Hat: It doesn’t have to be stylish or Kentucky-Derby-quality, just something to keep the sun off while on the beach or in the field. Comes in handy to sleep under, too. A bandanna can substitute.
  • Duct Tape: No explanation needed for this one. Break a piece off of a pencil and wrap some duct tape around it to save room. You can also wrap tape around a cigarette lighter.
  • Compass: You do not need a lensatic or serious military one, just something small and simple for knowing which direction to turn at an intersection when you are looking at a map. The small round ones with the pin are really cheap but work good enough. I have to replace mine every year.
  • Knife: You don’t need a 37-option Swiss Army knife, just something small, light, and sharp for cutting tape, cord, fruit, etc. I like a non-folding knife because it’s better for opening coconuts and spearing things. Knives are adored by thieves; don’t spend too much. This is my favorite travel knife so far. It’s perfect for my needs. I replace the heavy plastic sheath with a cheap, nylon one to save a few ounces.
  • Some Sort of Waterproof bag: Put your electronics and journal inside of it in your daybag in case you are caught in the rain. It can be used temporarily for many other things as well.
  • Guidebook: Or, even better, go without! Only buy and carry the one for your first destination. Guidebooks can also be obtained from travelers or shops for cheap once you arrive. Feel free to rip out huge sections for places you will never visit to save weight and room. Alternatively, you can also save PDFs to your smartphone. Just make sure you have an offline option for times when you don’t have internet access.
  • Sunscreen: Locals probably don’t use it, and it will be expensive or expired. I use Badger, a natural brand, because of the better ingredients that don’t break out skin.
  • Lip balm: It’s hard to find locally sometimes and a must for dry places; will help on flights, too. Don’t get the round kind that requires a dirty finger to be stuck in it!
  • Insect Repellent: You can buy small bottles of 100-percent DEET to save weight, just be careful with it — this stuff is bad for you. Only spray on clothing, screens, mosquito nets, etc
  • Condoms: Brands are extremely limited and the local ones have a failure rate that is often frightening due to the hot weather and poor storage techniques. Sizes also vary by region in the world [insert joke here], it’s true.
  • Earplugs: Get the small kind that you stuff in your ears. They come with a case to keep them clean. Good for noisy rooms above pubs and bus rides. Or you can just keep your mp3 player charged.
  • Sunglasses: Don’t take anything that costs over $10! They will most likely get broken or lost along the way. You can almost always find cheap sunglasses at the destination.
  • Batteries: They are heavy so just bring a couple. Try to choose gear and gadgets that use the same battery type. The easiest battery type to find on the road is “AA.” Lithium batteries weigh less and last longer. Remember to put them in the carry-on bag; they aren’t allowed in your checked luggage.

Optional Luxuries

Here are some things that you can live without while backpacking, but they are nice to have along sometimes!

  • Sharpie Marker: Use it for marking gear, leaving messages on walls in hostels, or to make a sign if you run out of money! No, please don’t beg to fund your trip.
  • Headphones Splitter: You will be surprised how many times you will be sitting with a new friend on a bus, train, or on the beach and wish that you could share the same music together.
  • Chem Lights: Glow sticks, light sticks, whatever you want to call them. Can be used as a lifesaving light source if you are caving and your light fails. Also can work as an emergency signal in the dark, and might even come in handy at a rave or party.
  • Storage Devices: Good for grabbing pics quickly from other travelers, as well as mp3s, and maybe backing up your own pictures on the fly. USB memory sticks, SD cards, etc, are smaller and lighter than an actual HDD.
  • Lithium Battery / Power Pack: Although power packs are relatively heavy, you may want the ability to charge your phone safely, especially if you depend on it for photos, navigation, and communication. I prefer the durable-and-waterproof chargers from RavPower. Note: many airlines forbid large lithium batteries in checked luggage; you’ll have to carry it on board.
  • Whistle: Carry in your pocket for peace of mind when walking dark beaches and streets. It gets attention, which is exactly what an attacker does not want.
  • Bandana: If you’re not worried about being stylish, the army ones are large enough to use as a sweat rag, emergency bandage, cleanup rag, filter over your mouth for dusty roads — you name it.
  • Travel Towel: The small ones roll up very small. It may take a while, but they will dry your entire body. Travel towels are not good for running down the hostel hallway from the shower because it won’t cover your bum! Be cautious: travel towels are expensive and tend to get stolen off of lines easily.
  • Item for Hiding Emergency Cash: Don’t buy a false rock. Get creative and make your own from some common item like a toiletry or makeup container. Fold up currency and hide it inside, then put it in your regular backpack in an unexpected place (toilet kit, maybe?) in case your daybag is lost or stolen.
  • Additional Passport Photos: Will save money, time, and headache when you cross borders and apply for visas on arrival. You can get an entire sheet made at printing shops for cheap.

What NOT to Pack for Backpacking Travel

  • Travel Pillow: An empty pillow case can be stuffed with laundry or whatever to form an instant pillow rather than carrying a bulky travel pillow. You can also put it around dodgey pillows that are provided in guest houses to keep the bugs out of your hair.
  • Camping Gear: You don’t need camping gear unless a big part of your stays will be camping. Gear can be bought or hired at almost all national parks or from other travelers that are finished with their camping.
  • Camping Stove: Expensive, takes up room, and it can be difficult to fly with the fuel, or to buy it at your destination. Even on an extended trek, your guide will provide a way to cook food.
  • Snorkel Gear: You can hire it at your destination for cheap on days that you want to use it.
  • Hammock: These will be available in the islands to use or to buy for cheaper than they are available in the West.
  • Mosquito Coils: In any area that has a mozzie problem, you will be able to buy coils cheaper than at home.
  • Weapon: Even pepper spray will only get you busted at some checkpoint or screening when you least expect. Don’t risk it. Many destinations aren’t even as dangerous statistically as your hometown!
  • Electronic Language Translator: Forget about it. Use your phone.
  • GPS: Maybe tempting, but leave this expensive gadget at home. They eat batteries and sometimes part of the fun is getting lost anyways!
  • Mosquito Net: In any troublesome mozzie area these will be available to use for free, or you can buy for a fraction of the cost in the Western world.
  • Travel Underwear: Usually expensive and makes very little difference anyways. Do you really want to squeeze a couple extra days from those undies you are wearing?

Conclusion

As usual, this backpacking packing list is just a suggestion based on my experiences as a long term backpacker. You will have other comfort needs I am sure, but remember the basics and before you pack anything, ask yourself these three questions:

1) Can I live without it?
2) Will I cry if it gets stolen tomorrow?
3) Can I buy it locally?

Note: Before you send bewildered comments, please realize that this packing list for backpacking pertains to international budget travel, not American “backpacking” in the woods on the Appalachian Trail, PCT, etc.

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