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Backpacking 101: What to Bring

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Living out of a backpack is surprising rewarding, but figuring out exactly what you need, and what you can do without is one of life’s greatest conundrums. After years of backpacking, this list works for me. Excluding food and water, generally the whole lot adds up to somewhere between 20-25 kilos.

My experience is that most people tend to over pack things like clothing, and under pack on first aid. For me, I’ve found it’s better to slightly over estimate first aid needs (a few spare diarrhoea pills never go astray), and pack as few clothes as possible.

This list is intended for a long term trip, and for me works well as a base for any kind of backpacking. For a shorter trip (less than 3 months) I’d only take one pair of clothes (maybe a change of socks), and not bother with books. Of course, this can be a little risky, as my girlfriend just pointed out. On the first day of a short trip to Colombia, someone threw up all over her. Without a change of clothes, things got pretty uncomfortable. So, I guess the moral is that most sane people should probably keep a back up shirt, just in case.

As well as the obvious climatic considerations, cultural norms also need to be considered by anyone who wants to be taken seriously. Sure, you (probably) have every right to wear a singlet (or bikini, or whatever) around the medina, just don’t expect locals to like you for it. Besides, long sleeves save money on sunscreen.

So, behold!

Health

A well stocked first aid kit is by far the most important thing you’ll pack. Some pretty solid advice on what to include can be found at this Thorn Tree discussion, but I’d also strongly advise checking out the Red Cross recommendations. Don’t go overboard though, remember these are emergency supplies, and most items in your average kit can be purchased in most large cities. However, if anything should be packed in excess, I’d say include an extra pack of iodine tablets (for purifying water). In my experience, they can be a bit difficult to find in some places. I also like to keep some tiger balm on hand, as it has just so many uses. A roll of toilet paper is also a must. For something that is easy to steal from restaurants, it’s surprising just how bad things can get without that backup roll.

Lastly, this post is a testament to the importance of never forgetting a toothbrush and toothpaste.

  • first aid kit
  • diarrhoea medication
  • antibiotics
  • antiseptic
  • iodine tablets
  • painkillers
  • toothbrush
  • microfibre towel
  • toilet paper
  • tiger balm

Clothes

Over the years I’ve discovered just how easy it is to get by with just one (or maybe two) changes of clothes. The trick is to buy just one or two decent quality sets of clothing that are lightweight, waterproof/ fast drying (if possible) and most importantly, durable. Quality outdoors threads can be expensive, but as I’ve discovered it’s a price worth paying. I’d also advise bringing warm clothing on pretty much any trip, even if you don’t expect you’ll need it, and a scarf that’s both warm and can be wrapped around your face (like say, during a sandstorm). Also, jeans suck. They are heavy, take up a disproportionate amount of space, and turn into a satanic mess when they get wet.

  • 2-3 shirts
  • 1 pair of decent walking pants
  • waterproof, thick jacket
  • waterproof pants
  • light jumper or jacket
  • thermal underwear
  • gloves
  • scarf
  • hat
  • 2-3 pairs socks and underwear
  • well worn in hiking boots

Accessories

Money belts rock, but over the years I’ve learned to put everything that goes inside mine in plastic bags, otherwise after a few weeks it all starts to smell like salt and vinegar chips (if you’re in the tropics, make that a few hours). Those little square bags used for small change in banks (and money changers) are good for gently rolled notes. Just remember, gentle! In some countries, people get picky about crinkled notes, especially US$100, which are apparently easy to fake. So, keep your notes in good condition.

  • sunglasses (that fully cover your eyes)
  • water bottle
  • one or two small bags
  • hidden money belt

Electronics

Alarm clocks and plenty of spare batteries (good batteries can sometimes be hard to find) are pretty essential, but for most people a laptop might not really be worth its weight. As for a camera, it really depends on what you want to get out of it. Despite its chunkiness, I couldn’t live without my DSLR, but if your photos are only ever going to be posted on Facebook, then a small digital point-and-shoot should be more than adequate, and cut down on weight. In either case, it’s great to keep your camera close at hand, but as well hidden as possible. I keep mine in a waterproof camera bag, hidden inside a cheap cotton shoulder bag; my camera is protected from the elements by the inner bag, but the outer bag negates the latter’s “look there is something expensive in here” effect.

  • camera (consider a lens cleaning pen as well)
  • spare batteries
  • spare memory card
  • adaptor
  • laptop
  • alarm clock

Camping

I’ve gotten into the habit of always packing my basic camping gear. Not only can a tent come in handy when you figure out you’ve picked a bad place to try hitch hiking, but it also gives you some extra flexibility when it comes to accommodation. Plus, a sleeping bag can be a good idea in some budget hostels.

  • tent
  • lightweight stove (preferably something that can run on unleaded petrol, just in case)
  • fuel container (well cleaned before flying)
  • sleeping mat and bag

Papers

Keep photocopies of everything! Passport, visa, flight itinerary, insurance and any receipts! Also make sure you packed your guidebook, phrasebook and a few reading books, pens and a notebook.

Money

Don’t rely on an ATM being close at hand, and keep currency that’s easy to convert on the fly. For me as an Australian, that usually means stocking up on USD. Keep your cash evenly divided: some in your hidden money belt, some in your day pack and some left behind in your (locked) backpack in the hostel.

As well as figuring out that traveller’s cheques are generally a complete waste of time, I’ve also learned that a fake wallet can go a long way. Stuff it with some expired bank cards, old ID and anything else that could liven it up. Library and video store cards (chances are if you lose them on holidays, nobody’s going to be using them to max out your borrow limit) should do the trick. I also keep an expired passport on hand, with a fake front attached.

  • local currency
  • USD/Euros
  • bank card and back up
  • travel money card or credit card
  • fake wallet (and passport)

Miscellaneous

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve found my hostel with a compass, or stitched up my pants on the fly. After eating out of too many cans, I’ve also decided that a spoon/ fork is essential, and locks on all your bags (even the one on your back) can save a lot of hassle.

  • knife
  • compass
  • fork (or a fork/spoon/knife thingy)
  • mini sewing kit
  • padlocks (for everything!!!)
  • torch
  • emergency food
  • lighter (dump before any flights)
  • keep cup (or other reusable plastic cup)
  • fork/spoon (it seems like the world over, street vendors seem to think that washing cutlery involves a quick splash in a bucket of muddy water. It’s always good to BYO the fork)

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