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Backpacking Essentials - What to Pack

Updated on August 6, 2009

Obviously, the name of the game when backpacking or budget traveling is to pack light. There are lots of great resources to help you figure out what to take and what to leave at home.

This article is specifically about those backpacking essentials that are going to make your trip more comfortable and enjoyable. A few of these items will help you pack lighter because they’re great multi-taskers. Other items will be things that you don’t necessarily think of, but that will come in very handy on the road.

There are lots of places that publish big long lists of everything you should bring. This is not one of those lists. (You can find some of the links at the bottom of this article and in the comments.)

The items on this list are ones that most first-timers won't think of, but that veteran backpackers and budget travelers have learned not to forget.

Photo by zeraien on Flickr
Photo by zeraien on Flickr

1. Earplugs

Nothing can ruin a trip faster than too many sleepless nights due to noisy hostel rooms or budget hotels. Do yourself a favor and take a few pairs of earplugs. These come in handy too when you need to sleep on buses, airplanes, or at the airport. Consider bringing a sleep mask as well if you’re light sensitive.

2. A small padlock or sturdy luggage locks

These aren’t just for locking up your bag -- which is definitely a smart thing to do when you’re leaving it in the hostel or hotel for the day -- but also for hostel lockers. Many hostels provide lockers, but no locks. They’ll gladly sell you a padlock for an outrageous price, so save the money and bring your own. I recommend carrying a padlock because luggage locks can be too small (or too easily tampered with) to secure a locker.

3. Flip flops

An essential for using shared bathrooms. They also come in handy when you’re just hanging around the hostel, on a hot day, or when you’re visiting a beach or pool.

4. Pashmina

A great item for female travelers. I took a pashmina on my most recent trip and was amazed at how many uses it had. I played around with it and learned to tie it in lots of different ways, including as a scarf, a stylish cover-up, a beach cover-up, a light blanket, and even a skirt (in a pinch).

5. Towel

There’s some controversy on this item. Some people say that most places provide towels -- though sometimes at a small charge -- and schlepping one around is just extra baggage. Then there’s the question of whether to bring a regular towel or one of those high-tech quick drying ones.

Well, here’s where I come down on this topic: I always carry a moderately-sized cotton towel with me. Nothing too big, but enough to dry yourself off after a shower. Pick one that’s a bit thinner, so it dries quicker. I avoid the quick drying towels because if you ever have to leave in a hurry and pack it up even slightly wet, bacteria will grow like nobody’s business and it will smell terrible. I like the convenience of having my own towel because it’s not guaranteed that one will be provided. Plus, if you hang it up by your bed, it provides some privacy when you’re staying in a shared dorm room.

6. Laundry detergent

If you’re traveling for longer periods of time -- and if you’ve actually packed light -- you’ll probably have to do laundry at some point in your trip. I usually do a load of laundry every 7-10 days.

Things like socks, underwear, light shirts, and tank tops can easily be washed in the sink or shower when you’ve finished wearing them. This way, you can easily get by only carrying 2-3 of each of these items. But I still like to give them a proper wash -- along with bulkier items like pants, sweaters, and towel(s) -- when I have the opportunity.

Lots of hostels have laundry facilities. Unfortunately, not all of them sell laundry detergent and if they do, it’s usually ridiculously overpriced. You really can’t pop into the store to buy this along the way because laundry detergent usually only comes in huge amounts. I recommend you bring a small container of detergent from home, or look for some single-use laundry soap at your local megastore (often in the section with all the other travel-size stuff).

7. Multi-purpose knife

It’s a good idea to just toss one of these into your bag (provided you’re checking luggage -- you can’t carry on a knife of any kind). I have a cheap Swiss Army knock-off that has a knife (for peeling fruit, cutting bread or cheese, and who knows what else), a bottle opener, a small screwdriver, and a nail file.

Remember, it’s a fine line between bringing enough stuff to make your trip comfortable and bringing so much stuff that it becomes uncomfortable. Just because you’re traveling on a budget, don’t be tempted to bring something for every contingency. You can always buy stuff along the way if you need to -- local versions of common items make great souvenirs.

For more advice on how to travel light and travel on a budget, check out my tips on how to travel long term and how to stay in hostels.

I hope that these tips help you make your backpacking trip a bit more enjoyable. Happy travels!


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    • stephflood profile image

      stephflood 6 years ago

      Great hub! Backpacking's becoming a pretty popular way of travel I think, maybe with the younger generation? I like the way backpacking has an open air to travel.

      Personally, I could only do it for a couple of weeks before I had to get homestay though and keep in one place for a bit : )

    • profile image

      Bex 7 years ago

      Great post! I totally agree with your last part, sometimes backpacking in Asia can be tricky unless you know how to navigate through specific situations. Best to always be prepared for anything.

      Would love your feedback on my travel blog that talks a lot about the same thing - check it out!

    • NathanSyckel profile image

      NathanSyckel 7 years ago from Akron, Ohio

      Great List. I would add toothbrush and toothpaste. My first backpacking trip I forgot mine and I didn't realize it until I was too far from town to go back. Also, I can't live without my sunglasses.

    • profile image

      Bex 7 years ago

      This is a great overview! Pretty much covers it all when it comes to packing right - and I've been backpacking a lot around the world. You should check out my backpacking blog :)

    • festersporling1 profile image

      Daniel Christian 7 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Actually funny. I wrote the same hub, but had entirely different items!


    • profile image

      Bex 7 years ago

      Great list. Prety much covers it all, and agree with Jade - earplugs are important and often overlooked!

    • jade3hh profile image

      jade3hh 7 years ago

      Great Tips, Never thought of the earplugs, brilliant idea, ill use that one! :)

    • festersporling1 profile image

      Daniel Christian 7 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Great ideas. Thanks so much. By the way, enjoyed your selecting a backpack hub, but there was no comment feature on it for me to comment. :)

    • june of ages profile image

      june of ages 7 years ago

      Duct tape, some small tupperware, zip lock baggies, 10-12 power bars and small LED flash light should also be added.

    • ManekiNeko profile image

      ManekiNeko 8 years ago from USA

      Thanks mkamdar! That's a really thorough list -- I'll be checking it before my next trip!

    • mkamdar profile image

      mkamdar 8 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Good starting list for backpacking around the world, but for a complete traveler's checklist, check out:

    • bala99 profile image

      Bala Subrahmanyam Vishnubhotla 8 years ago from Hyderabad, Telangana, India.

      A tube of mosquito repellent can be very critical, water purification tabs absolutely essential! Good hub for backpackers.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 8 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Excellent advice, thank you