What to Pack

PACK LIGHT. If you do nothing else, pack as little as you can. I guarantee you that you will only regret taking too much stuff.

If I go away now, this is what I would take with me:

  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap
  • Sleeping bag
  • 1-2 pairs of clothes
  • Camera
  • Passport and debit card
  • Knife
  • Kindle or books
  • Notepad (to write down ideas)

If you can’t travel light, here is advice more the more conventional traveller…

Packing is one of the most important, yet badly done parts of every trip. The biggest mistake is always overpacking. Why is overpacking such a big mistake?

  • Security. The more that you have, the more you have to lose.
  • Flexibility. The less you have, the easier you can move about, get onto public transportation, and carry your bag when you need to walk. This gives you more options when you are considering where to go and where to stay when in a new location with your backpack on.
  • Peace. You will have less stress about losing belongings, more time because packing is quicker, and generally your life will be that much more pleasant without excessive material possessions to worry about.

The two most important pieces of advice one can offer are:

  • You don’t need as much as you think you need.
  • Other countries have shops.

It is far too easy to take too much stuff away with you. Once you have stuff with you, you feel loathe to part with it and end up carrying it around for several weeks / months without ever using it. It is far easier to take less and if you really need something, you can buy it on the way. Chances are, shops aren’t that much more expensive once your journey has began (unless you happen to be visiting Norway, Switzerland, or Japan).

When you pack, think about:

  • Weight reduction.
  • Utilising the space you have.
  • Taking only what you need.

Rather than going into detail on how to fold clothes so that you can fit them into the tiniest of bags or where you can buy a towel that doubles as a superhero cloak, I will simply offer you a packing list that covers the bare essentials.

The following list details generic items that you will need for a typical backpacking trip and can be applied for males or females.

Documentation

Documents

  • Passport. You can’t go anywhere without this.
  • Bank Cards. You need money. Alternatively you could try street performing (although you do need a license for this in many locations).
  • International Driving License. Great fun if you have one.
  • Travel Insurance information. Whether paper based or electronic, make sure that you have this close to hand in case of an emergency. From experience, I highly recommend that you do not travel without travel insurance.
  • Initial Ticket. Unless you are hitchhiking or your ticket is saved electronically, you need something to get you going. You do not need to take copies of every single document in your life because nowadays, everything is electronic. I email all necessary documents to myself so that I can print them at a later date. It did take me a couple of trips, but I eventually found out that it isn’t only my home country that has printers. When I travel now, I normally take a kindle and I email all the documents to my kindle so that I can pull them up for reference at any time. You can also do this with smart devices.

Toiletries

Toothbrush and Gel

  • Toothbrush and Toothpaste. Just because you’re travelling the world, it doesn’t mean that you need to be unsanitary.
  • Razor (unless you prefer au natural). Everybody likes to make new friends in new places. You may also want to take shaving cream, unless like me you are not blessed with extensive hair growth and you find that you can get away with an economic shave using soap (or your friend’s shaving cream). From past experience however, I would not recommend buying cheap razors. It hurts your face. Or worse.
  • Smelly Stuff. Sometimes it can be nice to be clean and when you are around other clean people you may appreciate smelling nice. They will also appreciate you smelling nice. One deodorant / antiperspirant and one perfume will suffice.
  • Make Up. For boys this is normally just hair styling product. For girls, a little bit more. Try not to take everything. You are a backpacker and you don’t need to look like you just walked out of a magazine. Some girls like to include a hairbrush. ‘Make up’ is not really necessary but the feel-good to weight ratio of these products makes including them justified.
  • Medicine. Not all people need medication, but don’t forget your life saving medication if you need it or if it stops you from biting strangers. When I travel, I take antihistamine tablets for allergies, Carmex for dry lips, 3 sachets of antiseptic wipes for when I cut myself open, and 3 sachets of rehydration salts for when I have spent too much time in the sun. This takes up a very small amount of space and weight in my backpack but covers me for everything I should need. Girls need sanitary items. Bare in mind that you can also buy these in other countries too, so don’t take more than you need. Remember that most of these items will be in your backpack and might not actually be available when you need them.
  • Miniature Soaps / Shampoos / Clothes Wash. These are optional because you can buy them all around the world. If you insist on putting them into your backpack, try to find miniature versions of everything that you are getting. If you are travelling with a friend, you can take it in turns to buy / carry the products and share them between you. I often ‘share’ with friends who like overpacking.
  • Micropore Tape. This stuff is amazing. If you cut yourself and have a gaping wound, you can strap it back up long enough to reach professional medical attention, or ideally, long enough for it to heal by itself.

Clothes

Clothes

  • 2 Pairs of Shoes. One for nice stuff, one for normal stuff. Flip-flops are a great option because they are lightweight and can be worn in a huge variety of situations.
  • 4-5 Lightweight Tops. Take one for nice events such as going out and the rest for casual wear. Sometimes I add an extra item if I feel like taking two shirts.
  • 2 Pairs of Trousers / Shorts / Skirts. One for going out and one for day wear. Typically I take a pair of shorts and a pair of jeans and they cover me for everything. Remember that clothes can easily be washed. Girls clothing is generally lighter and smaller (as are they), so they may be able to take a couple of extra garments.
  • Something Warm. A big thick hoody works best for me and can be worn in a variety of situations. Even in warm countries, it can get cold at night.
  • 4 Pairs of Underwear. You can wash them easily.
  • 3 Pairs of Socks. As I prefer to wear flip-flops, less socks are necessary.
  • Swim Wear. Only necessary if you are too shy (or prude) to swim naked. Your shorts can actually double as swim wear if you don’t mind waiting for them to dry or if you have swim wear that looks like shorts (more applicable for boys).

Miscellaneous

Camera

  • Travel Adapter. So that everything works.
  • Camera (and charger). To make your journey into a story and share it with the world.
  • Duct Tape. This stuff has a million and one uses including repairing shoes and stopping your toiletries from leaking in your bag. It is an absolute lifesaver in so many situations and I think that you must take it with you.
  • Water Bottle. We need water to survive. Even an empty plastic water bottle will suffice and it is lightweight.
  • Reading Material. Books are heavy but they form an integral part of many traveller’s favourite past time. I now carry a kindle because of the weight reduction and the number of books instantly available to me.
  • Notepad and Pen. Because memories and thoughts are precious.
  • Travel Towel. Lightweight and quick drying qualities are essential.
  • Waterproof Backpack Cover. Invaluable to protect all of your possessions.
  • Day Bag. I take a handbag sized bag capable of carrying my passport, money, camera, and water bottle. On most days, you don’t need anything more than this.

That pretty much covers everything that you need for a basic backpacking trip. However, there are some other specifics that you may require on certain trips which are detailed below. Consider each one carefully and assess it’s usefulness before committing to putting it into your backpack.

  • Country Specific Medication. This includes diarrhea medication, malaria tablets, and water treatment chemicals that you would not want to be without in certain parts of the world.
  • Winter Clothing. This covers thick socks, a coat, a hat, gloves, and possibly even thermals when travelling to cold places.
  • Sun Cream. You can easily buy this if you are going to a sunny place, but if you are particularly susceptible to sun burn, it doesn’t hurt to take it with you.
  • Medical Kits (including syringes) for Emergency First Aid. I don’t carry these because I normally don’t take my backpack everywhere with me and find that most the time, these things simply take up space and weight in my backpack. If you are far from ‘civilisation,’ a medical kit may be necessary.
  • Rain Jacket. Personally, I hate rain jackets. However, I appreciate that they can be useful in certain situations. When hitchhiking, I generally find shelter or remove my top when it starts raining as I hate the heat and sweat accumulation that occurs within a water-proof jacket. One day I hope that ‘they’ will make a one-way permeable membrane in order to overcome this problem.
  • Padlock. Great if you are staying in hostels to help keep your belongings safe. If you aren’t sleeping in hostels, this isn’t necessary.
  • Tent. Fantastic freedom and money saver for the right situation. Assess this dependent upon where you are going.
  • Sleeping Bag and Liner. Once again this is invaluable whilst couch surfing or free-camping. However, if you are staying in hostels, this most probably isn’t necessary.
  • Internet Enabled Device. If you can’t survive without the internet, you need it for making plans, or you work on the internet, you may need one of these. If you only need internet access for contacting family and posting pictures onto facebook, chances are that you will find internet access wherever you travel that is far more efficient (and less likely to be stolen) than what you can fit into your backpack.
  • Phone. Great for emergencies. If my network works in the countries that I am visiting, I normally take my fully charged and switched off £9.99 phone along with me in case I get stuck in a dangerous situation.
  • Nail Clippers, Scissors, and Tweezers. Once again, you must ask the question of how essential is self pruning?
  • Knife. Men love to carry knives. It makes them feel more like men. At times however, a blade can be very valuable (such as when eating food on the side of the road or digging sea urchin spines out of your foot). If you are practical, not staying in hostels, and won’t damage yourself, take a knife.
  • Hand Sanitizer. Sometimes you just feel a bit dirty.

That’s it for generic packing lists. At a later date, I will provide packing lists tailored to specific trips. If you have any thoughts on the above material, please feel free to comment below.

 

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28 Comments

  • Salut folks! Jamie thanks for your blog.

    I travelled almost 3 years (in a more comfortable way) before i moved two years ago to Berlin where i live now a life consumption free (almost). That means monthly rent for a room in a flat sharing community and up to 20-30 Euro, for a beer here and there. So i like your mindset a lot.
    I am gonna quit my job end of september and going on the road again in november.

    Because i didnt save up any money, i am willed to do it this way. I have some fears, but i am gonna fight them, no doubt. But my biggest concern is the winter.
    Probably i am going to head down south alongside the coast for a while, still i am curious if you Jamie or any other here travelled for a longer period in the winter in the free-camping mode and has any suggestions, advices for me (tent, sleeping bag for minus temperatures, clothes…) I mean advices more in general.

    Cheers and take care of you!

    Patrick

    • That sounds exciting. As for the winter, I haven’t spent much time free camping in cold weather – my brother and I walked across Iceland (and free camped) which was very cold (it snowed twice), but we were under prepared and had to keep walking for 12+ hours a day to stay warm! What I wish we had for this journey were good gloves, good shoes, a low temperature sleeping bag, wool thermals, and padded jackets. In the book I wrote about Walking Across Iceland, I said that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices, and I think that remains true. If you have appropriate clothing, the winter will not be a problem to you. However, as I like the sun and not having to carry much, I have always found myself following the birds, heading south as winter sets in, chasing the sun. I know that Alastair Humphreys cycled across Siberia in winter and Tom Allen cycled through Scandinavia in winter – you can probably find their stories through Google. I met a guy who hitchhiked through Mongolia in winter and he sometimes used to hitchhike in his sleeping bag because it was so cold!

      So be over prepared for the cold weather you may encounter, or chase the sun, but have a great time. I’d love to hear how you get on. Happy adventuring.

  • Hi Jamie,

    Fantastic blog! Just wondering where you leave your stuff (backpack, tent, etc.) when you’re out for the night or exploring a city or visiting a tourist attraction?

    Thanks,
    Simon

    • Thanks, Simon. I often carry it with me, although occasionally I hide it in bushes. Couch surfing or staying with friends often solves this problem.

  • Hi! Great blog, great advice. I’ve just decided what I’m going to do the next two years. Question though – have you ever had the problem of having to sleep outside in the rain? If I’m travelling with just a sleeping bag and no tent, I’m unsure how not to end up soaking wet and ill.

    Many thanks,

    • I am struggling with the rain issue right now as I am living on a bike. If I was hitchhiking, I would find it easier to travel long distances and find somewhere to stay. Often a bridge can be a saviour (see my article about free-camping or my video about cycling in Japan), but sometimes it just gets a little bit difficult. I generally try to stay places where the weather is good when free camping, but it’s a hit and miss game at times. The Sunhitcher might be a good book for you to read.

  • Hey Jamie,

    getting really pumped starting my first hitchhike trip in a few weeks reading your website. So thank you for all of this! 🙂 Just one question: sleeping out in the open, how do you manage not to get your stuff stolen? Not that i believe this would happen often, but i still get the feeling i should be secured in some way, what do you think?

    • I think you’ll be okay.
      Tie your backpack to your body if you’re sleeping in a city. I find I’m more comfortable putting my valuables into a small bag and shoving that bag down my trousers. Take a concealed weapon or a whistle if you’re really worried about being mugged?

      I slept rough about 30 times last summer and only had one minor difficulty. I was sleeping in a park in Prague during the day when I woke up to find a pickpocketer’s hand inside my pocket. Fortunately I was wearing shorts underneath my jeans in which I had my wallet kept. In that case forethought saved me!
      Good luck 🙂

    • I normally sleep where I won’t be found and that works just fine. If I have a tent, everything is in the tent and it is unlikely that people would come into the tent. When I’m sleeping in just a sleeping bag, I sometimes put my valuables in the bag with me, but apart from a camera, I hardly have anything worth stealing, so I normally leave it in the open. With the exception of kids throwing something at my tent in Estonia (I was a little tipsy and had camped in the middle of a busy park) and being arrested in Amsterdam, no one has ever disturbed me when I’ve been camping out, so I think the chance of having something stolen is small. Or I hope! Happy adventuring, I hope you enjoy yourself.

  • Do you recommend that I finish college first? I plan on finishing but I feel like im young right now and I should enjoy it.

    • ALWAYS delay or avoid institutional/formal education if it’s an option! It’ll prepare you for a life of avoiding institutional/formal employment.

      • Ha, I love your advice Katie! Hayden, do what’s right for you. I explored for a year, then did school, then started moving about again after. Was that the right thing to do? No one will ever know, nor do I. [I am now very much in Katie’s boat]

  • If you’re looking for a good rain jacket, a one way permeable fabric, and one that is lightweight try Gore-Tex. It’s not the cheapest, and it isn’t the easiest to find, but it does it’s job better than anything else on the planet. You can normally find something in one of those fancy Outdoor Supply Shops, just ask for a Gore-Tex jacket. Mine was around $100, I know that’s steep, but the jacket can’t be beat. (Oh well look at that, a rhyme.)

  • It’s a bad idea to walk with 36 kg backpacks in 40 degrees celsius for days. Gladly I’ve learned from that experience!

  • I’m considering backpacking Europe this summer by means of hitchhiking and free-camping. Just wondering whether you think a sleeping bag would be vital? I’m unsure whether to bring one or not because it would take up a lot of space in my pack and I would already have a tent in there. Thanks.

    • Given the choice of a tent or sleeping bag, I would take only the sleeping bag. I have met lots of people who travel with just a sleeping bag, but no-one who travelled with just a tent. Tents are cold and bridges or a bit of plastic keep you just as dry. I hope you have a wonderful time in Europe.

  • Thank you so much for all the advice and inspiration! I am going to be leaving America soon and I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. I am wondering what I will do about the fact that I need prescription anti-seizure medication. How will I get it in other countries? Will I have to visit a doctor every time I cross a border?

    • Sounds like fun. In the UK, I believe you tell the doctor and he will give you an extended prescription. If that fails, take empty boxes or a prescription with you and try to get it when you need it. Make sure you have enough if it’s important (which it sounds like it is).

  • HAVE YOU TRAVELLED COMPLETELY WITHOUT MONEY THOUGH? As outside the related article, you seem to remark a lot the fact that one needs money to travel…

    • No I haven’t. This is because I like the option of stopping for a cold beer or having a get out of jail free card when I need it. I have travelled in comfort for only a couple of euros a day and rarely spend more than this, but 100% moneyless travel isn’t my thing: read The Sunhitcher though, a true story of a guy who travelled without money for years.

        • To tell people that it is possible. I have travelled for days at a time without money, but choose not to do it for a whole journey because somewhere, money is involved and rather than taking it from others, I prefer to depend upon myself. In a similar way, I also tell people that they can cycle around the world if they want to, but have only ever cycled 1,600 km at once. I share ideas and imply that people should follow them as much or as little as they feel happy to do so.

          • But how do you know that it’s possible if you have never done it?! I think it could be quite dangerous to suggest that people can travel without any money, as, obviously, some could take it seriously and put themselves in a very bad place; may be you should only give REAL examples, rather than vague, utopistic possibilities.

  • I used to be a heavy traveler ,i thought i wouldn’t do with many things ,well i learned it the hard way , when you feel tried you just like to throw all your stuff away , so i just traveler pack with the most basic things .

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