By Greg Rodgers
(part 1 of 2)
No Matter What: Do Not Overpack!
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. Little did I realize that I would end up giving away and throwing out lots of things I brought along on my first trip!
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 many 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 travel first aid kits.
Backpacking Packing List Suggestions for 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 slow, 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!
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 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.
- 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.
Note: Before you send bewildered comments, please realize that this backpacking packing list pertains to international travel, not American “backpacking” the Appalachian Trail, PCT, etc.