Picking up a backpack and traveling the world can be very daunting, but traveling light has become one of the most popular ways to see the world on a limited budget.
Young people around the world are booking flights, reserving bunk beds in hostels, and going on holiday with nothing more than a bag on their back. This form of travel is growing increasingly popular in countries like Australia and New Zealand, as well as many parts of Europe.
If you are ready for a backpacking adventure, booking your flight and planning your route is just the first step. Picking the items you will take with you (including your backpack) is the next step. This guide will help you prepare for your trip, no matter where you’re going or how long you’re going for.
General Packing Tips
Choosing a Backpack
Before you make your packing list, you will have to choose a backpack. This isn’t the backpack you’re used to carrying to school every day; specialty backpacks have special compartments and design elements that are added for long-term travelers. You will need a backpack that is durable enough to last weeks or months, but light enough to carry on your back comfortably. With so many companies and models to choose from, the choice isn’t always easy.
When you’re choosing a backpacking backpack, consider the following factors:
The Length of Your Trip: Packing for a week looks very different than packing for six months. A seven day trip won’t require a trip to the laundromat, and most of the itinerary will be planned before arriving. Packing for six months requires packing more “just in case” items, unless you plan on buying items as you need them.
Are You Flying? If you’re flying anywhere during your trip, you may have to pay extra to check baggage. Each airline has different specifications for what can be brought on a plane, including height and weight. Some airlines may charge hefty fees for bags that are not initially checked, but are too big to be carried onto the flight. These specifications don’t apply for trains and buses, but fitting a larger backpack underneath a bus or storage area of a train may be inconvenient.
What Equipment Will You Bring? “Backpacking” could include hiking, camping, and trekking… or just hopping from hostel to hostel in big cities. If you’re bringing speciality gear with you, you will need a speciality backpack that takes hiking poles, tents, etc. into consideration. Some backpacks have pockets specifically designed to carry this kind of gear. Extra straps and buckles on the backpack will also help campers attach gear on the outside of their backpack.
What Is the Purpose of Your Trip? Most backpackers are on holiday, and can leave their work life at back at home. Long-term travelers or “digital nomads,” however, may bring their work with them while traveling. More information on what to bring if you are traveling long-term can be found later in this post. A “digital nomad” may need a larger backpack to carry items like laptops or clothing for all seasons.
How Often Are You Moving? Most likely, you won’t be carrying your backpack with you every day. Once you get to your hostel or accommodation, you will be able to put down your bag and possibly unpack a few items. A heavier bag may be fine to carry once in a blue moon, but when you’re traveling from city to city every few days, a big bag may easily become a big pain.
What Will You Bring Back? Planning on bringing souvenirs back to your friends and family? You may need a bigger backpack. Even if the souvenirs you choose to bring back are small trinkets, your list of people to buy for will get longer and longer as you travel. For long-term travels, these souvenirs are best mailed overseas, but posting souvenirs home may not be worth the price if you are only backpacking for a few weeks.
Check the weather where you will be traveling. Backpacking in colder weather is quite different than backpacking when it’s warm. Even though collapsible and packable coats and jackets will make the load a little lighter, everything from your shoes to accessories are bulkier and harder to pack when it’s cold. If you are limiting your items to a smaller backpack, you may have to take less and re-wear outfits two days in a row.
If you’re backpacking during a rainy season, be sure to take the proper precautions and protect your backpack. Consider a backpack made of water-resistant material, or purchase a waterproof cover that can be slipped over your backpack while you’re in the rain.
If you are backpacking through a country that is similar to your own, you won’t have to put much extra thought into what clothes you bring. Some countries, cultures, or tourist attractions, however, may require outfits that are more modest than Western or European countries. Women especially have to take their wardrobe, and the cultures they are visiting, into consideration when packing.
For example, if you are visiting Thailand or surrounding Asian countries, you may want to pack a pair or two of long pants. In order to visit Buddhist temples, you will have to cover your knees, shoulders, and midriff. The hot, humid weather in Southeast Asia isn’t the ideal place to wear long pants, so flowing and loose pants are recommended. Scarves are also recommended to cover shoulders or the head, but can be removed and packed away after visiting a temple. In many parts of Southeast Asia, conservative dress codes only apply to temples and high-end restaurants. Tourist attractions, like Bangkok’s Khao San Road, allow shorts, bare shoulders, and bare knees.
In other countries, conservative dress is recommended at all times to respect the culture and not stick out. If you are traveling to places in the Middle East, Turkey, or countries in Africa, it is important to stick to more conservative clothing. Dressing immodestly may result in being turned away at restaurants or unwanted advances from locals. These rules may also apply if you are visiting a pool or beach.
Along with culture, consider your safety. While most backpackers’ biggest fears are pickpockets or thieves who will take their cash, other countries come with increased dangers. If you are traveling to a country where solo backpackers or women may be unsafe, for example, take precautions. For example, you may want to pack a fake wedding ring or a self-defense keychain to carry with you while you are walking alone.
Consider your accommodations and the countries where you’re traveling. Hotels will provide small bottles of shampoo and body wash, for example, but not all hostels will have those amenities available. A packing list for Southeast Asia may include items like toilet paper or baby wipes - the toilets, especially in the countryside - may not have all of the amenities that you’re used to. Bringing toilet paper to Europe is unnecessary, but you should still consider bringing soap or cosmetics.
There are two approaches to packing. One is to bring everything that you may need on your trip, including medications, cosmetics, or even clothing. This mentality leads to less waste, and saves you money, but results in a much heavier bag. Another approach is to only pack only a few, very essential items (like your favorite outfit) and purchase items as you travel. This will result in a much lighter backpack initially, but may result in stretching your budget and having to leave items behind when you go home. When you consider leaving items to purchase abroad, consider how accessible these items will be. Common medications or hygienic products may not be readily available in more secluded areas.
Packing For Seven Days
A seven day backpacking trip requires a quick packing list of only the essentials. Luckily, you will most likely stay in one or two locations, in similar weather, and most of the trip will be planned in advance. Packing lists will look different if you are in the city or the countryside, visiting tourist locations or camping, but you won’t need too many “just in case” items.
Backpacking doesn’t require fancy attire; a week’s worth of clothes should easily be able to fit in a backpack. Laundry can be done once you’re back home, so feel free to pack different outfits for the entire week. This will include six pairs of undergarments (not including the ones that you will wear to fly or get to your destination). People who are considered about putting together a stylish outfit should keep all of their outfits within the same color scheme; that way, one pair of shoes or set of accessories will match with all of your clothes.
If you really want to pack light, consider the fabric of the clothes that you are bringing. Silk will be easier to pack than denim, but will not be appropriate if your backpacking trip involves hiking or extreme sports. Denim will be durable and can be worn multiple times, but will be extremely uncomfortable during hot weather. Look for light, moisture-wicking fabrics that will keep sweat off your body and can be layered with other items during colder weather.
As appropriate, make sure you have packed an outfit that allow you to:
- Go out to a nice dinner
- Go out and experience the bars or nightclubs
- Take day tours and walk around for the day
- Travel comfortably
- Endure colder nights outdoors in your tent
- Sunbathe or go swimming
A week trip will only require one or two pairs of shoes. Consider purchasing sleek sneakers that will last through day-long walking tours. Closed-toe shoes will keep your feet protected in the rain or dirtier streets; in some cities, closed-toe shoes are necessary to enter a restaurant, bar, or club. Flip flops/thongs or sandals may be useful if you are visiting the islands or are nervous about sharing a communal bathroom in a hostel, but may cause some blisters on a walking tour. Hiking shoes are advised if you are camping or properly hiking, but should be worn with proper socks.
Bulkier shoes can be tied or attached to the outside of your backpack to avoid taking up unnecessary space. If you are placing your shoes in your bag, save room by packing your socks or cosmetics in your shoes. You can also wear your bulkier shoes on travel days to save space, but remember that you may have to remove them during airport security checks.
If your backpacking trip involves camping, you will need to bring a good camping backpack and camping essentials. Communicate with anyone who may be traveling with you; if you can share a tent or any other essential camping gear, you and your travel partners will be able to save a lot of space in your bags or on your backs. Checklists for camping trips are available online, but know that every item on these lists are not always necessary for a camping trip. The most important essentials include:
Tent and Tent Accessories: Choosing a tent may be just as important as choosing a backpack. Consider the season when you are camping, and the amount of people that will be sharing the tent. What features will keep all campers warm? What features will prevent the tent from getting stuffy? Does the tent have pockets or areas to protect and store important items?
A tent is more than a tent; test the weight of your tent and its accessories before you make a purchase. Make sure your tent has the appropriate poles, stakes, and tarps. If you are camping in more humid or wet conditions, consider extra tarps or mats to place above and below the tent.
Cooking Gear: Plan your meals for a seven-day trip to save a lot of space and stress while packing. If you are backpacking, you may not have the luxury of being able to bring a stove or foldable table where you can set up and prepare meals. Meals may be limited, but keep in mind that you will only be hiking for seven days.
Check online to see if the campgrounds that you will be visiting offer grills, stoves, or other areas for cooking. If these amenities are available, you may be able to leave a few items at home. In any case, you will need to bring fuel. Bring a small pan or skillet that you can rest your food on or in. Consider a collapsible cooking device that will allow you to boil water or heat up items wrapped in aluminum foil. (A good roll of aluminum foil is recommended for items like potatoes or vegetables.) You will also need cutlery, plates, cups, and other items to prepare, cut, or eat your food.
For all food items, especially ones that you buy before you start hiking, remember that you will need to pack plastic bags or storage containers. Once you’re finished your meal, you’ll need to clean up; try and find a soap for body that can double up as a soap for your clothes and cooking gear.
Map and Compass: Even if the campground has phone service, you can’t always rely on Google maps for information about the trails. Invest in guidebooks related to the specific parks and areas where you will be traveling.
Other essential items for camping or hiking include:
- Sleeping Bag/Sleeping Pad
- Hiking backpack
- Lighter/Matches/Fire starters
- Portable Shower
- Clothes For Evening Temperatures
- Water Filter
- Solar Battery Chargers
- Walking sticks
- Climbing equipment
Leave room in your backpack for food items, which should be purchased outside of your destination. Popular food items for backpackers include dry foods (instant rice, soup mixes, instant coffee), canned foods, or flavor tablets to add to water. If you are only bringing a backpack on your trip, you will most likely not have access to refrigeration, so only pack enough fresh foods for one or two days.
If you take a daily medication, bring a week and a half’s worth - just in case you lose a pill or two. Most additional medication can be bought as needed at a local pharmacy, but if you know that you will need something specific, like a sleep aid or seasickness medication, pack a few pills just in case.
Consider packing a first aid kit if you are hiking or camping on your trip. A basic first aid kit should include bandages, cleansing wipes, tweezers, antiseptic cream, ibuprofen, and distilled water for washing out wounds, among other items. These items may not be necessary to pack if you will be staying in a hostel or hotel that will have these items or is located near a drugstore.
If your hostel or hotel will provide shampoo and body wash, you will not need to bring these in your backpack. Otherwise, it is safe to assume that you will want to shower during your week abroad. Don’t forget to pack cosmetics.
Unless you are particular about the brand of soap or shampoo that you use, look for a variety that works on the face, body, and hair. Multi-use soap can be bought in travel size containers that can be placed in a carry-on bag. Containers of this size can also be bought individually, so you can carry your favorite shower gels or shampoos on the plane with you. Certain cosmetic brands also offer solid versions of their shampoos and shower gels so that they can fly and travel with you. Most drugstores have a section of travel-size items, including hairbrushes or miscellaneous cosmetic items, that will be useful and take up less space in your bag.
Other cosmetic items to consider include:
- Contact case and solution (if you wear glasses or contacts)
- Travel hairbrush with mirror
- Mini comb
- Hair ties/pack of bobby pins
- Coconut oil
Many backpackers leave their makeup at home, but if you would like to bring makeup, consider bringing solid, travel-sized items. Your items may be jostled around by baggage handlers, and powders may end up making a big mess. Only bring the essentials.
Cosmetics should be packed in a plastic bag, in case they spill or explode during transit.
Will you need the following items? If so, put them on your packing list:
- Phone or camera chargers/batteries
- Sleep mask, earplugs, headphones, or other items to help you sleep
- SIM card for the country that you are visiting
- Identification cards and important documents (passport, driver’s license, student identification card, insurance information, etc.)
- Photocopies of important documents and credit cards in case they are lost or stolen
- Personal hygiene items (some feminine products, like tampons or menstrual cups, are not available worldwide)
- Sunscreen, bug repellent, aloe vera gel (many of these products are not available, or very expensive, around the world)
Fanny Pack/Bum Bag
When you’re only carrying a backpack, your passport, money, and important documents will always be in that one bag. If you’re traveling to a country or city that is notorious for pickpockets, carrying that backpack might make you feel uneasy.
The best way to protect your valuables from pickpockets is to keep your money on your person. (Important documents like your passport or driver’s license should be kept stowed away in your backpack. Don’t bring them out unless they are necessary to get into a tour or bar.) A fanny pack (also known as a “bum bag”) is commonly worn around the waist and can be hidden under a shirt or jacket while traveling. Wearing a fanny pack will certainly make you look like a tourist, but will give you peace of mind. You can view your fanny pack at all times and never have to worry that someone is sneaking something out of your pocket or backpack.
If you are concerned about pickpockets, consider hiding cash on different parts of your person. Bring sneakers where you can leave some spare cash. Women can store cash in their bras (although this solution may leave you with uncomfortably damp money during warmer weather).
Forgetting something on a one-week backpacking trip is usually not a big deal; after all, you’ll be home in less than seven days. Backpacking for a month requires more consideration. Most likely, you’ll be moving through different cities and staying in different hostels or hotels.
In addition to the items to pack for a seven day backpacking trip, consider the following for your month-long journey.
Let’s continue the conversation on pickpockets and keeping your valuables safe. Once your backpacking trip extends to a month, you may find yourself in multiple hostels, storing your backpack under bunk beds or in lockers. Many hostels will have padlocks for sale, and hostels are generally safe and free from theft, but having a padlock will give you peace of mind while you’re exploring for the day. Just remember to pack the padlock when you’re flying; when airport security needs to check a bag that has been padlocked, they might have to break your lock.
Reusable Water Bottle
A large bottle may feel bulky for a week of traveling, but constantly buying plastic water bottles can be a hassle (and not so great for the environment). A reusable water bottle will save you money throughout the trip, even if you have to buy drinking water. (If you’re backpacking in Southeast Asia, for example, drinking water isn’t always available from the tap.) Consider buying a foldable or collapsible water bottle to save space in your bag.
Depending on how sweaty you are and how many clothes you bring, you may need to do laundry once or three times during your month backpacking. A great way to separate your dirty clothes while traveling is to bring a bag specifically for laundry. The bag should be made of a material that can be thrown in the wash (or sink) and kept fresh every time you clean your clothes. If you’re camping, it may help to bring a pillowcase for your laundry bag. Your laundry will be kept separate from your clean clothes, and as the pillowcase fills up, you will be able to use it as a pillow.
Laundry detergent will probably not be necessary if you plan on visiting laundromats. In more remote areas, consider packing a soap that can be used to wash clothes and your body.
Towels are available at hotels and most hostels, although some hostels charge a fee for towels. Once you hit a few different hostels, these rental charges can add up. A light towel is useful for general showering, as well as bringing to adventure tours that involve swimming, trekking, or climbing. Towels can also double as a yoga mat for traveling yogis. Yoga towels are generally lighter than regular towels, and dry faster. Consider a lighter towel; a wet towel in your bag will start to stink.
Gear for The Weather
Even if you’re staying in one country without much change in the weather, you may encounter some rainy days. Online sources may not be trustworthy when they are predicting patterns across the globe, so be prepared. Consider bringing a raincoat that packs into itself, or a small umbrella that can be tucked away into a pocket. If your footwear is not already waterproof, consider bringing a pair of waterproof shoes, or spraying your shoes with a waterproof spray before you go.
When you’re backpacking for six months, you’re in it for the long haul. Backpacking becomes more of a lifestyle than a quick holiday. Less of your trip will be planned, and more considerations must be taken when making a packing list.
Packing for a longer trip does not mean that you have to pack more; you have to be smart while choosing what clothes, accessories, and necessities to bring. Items like makeup or camping gear may become items that you buy on the fly, rather than carry with you throughout your entire journey. Durable clothes may be more important than cute clothes. Money or room in your backpack may have to be allocated for warmer clothes in colder months. A six-month trip requires a lot more planning.
Clothes for Changing Seasons
Unless your travel route is planned based on the changing seasons, you’ll most likely experience a change in temperature or seasons during your trip. The best way to ensure you have the right clothes, but don’t overpack, is to bring layers:
- Opt for zip-up jackets instead of long-sleeved shirts that can’t be removed in the warmer hours.
- If you are going to experience colder weather, consider bringing a winter coat that packs into itself. Some coats will come with a small bag where the coat can be packed and hung off a backpack.
- Consider footwear and accessories. A comfy pair of socks or beanie can make a big difference without taking up too much room in your backpack.
At some point, you may get a rip in your clothes or your backpack. If you want to save money, a small sewing kit will keep your clothes functional so you don’t have to throw them out and buy anything new. Backpackers also use sewing kits to put patches on their backpacks; this is a common way to commemorate your trip and show other backpackers where you’ve been. If you have a sewing kit, you will either use it or let someone borrow it during your trip.
Once travel plans extend past a few weeks, planning accommodation becomes tiring and pointless. Most hostels can be booked the day of arrival, and you will get recommendations along your route. Alternative forms of accommodation, like AirBNB or Couchsurfing, may serve as a more cost-worthy option. Big groups of travelers may rent an AirBNB to save a few dollars. In situations like this, or Couchsurfing arrangements, you may find yourself crashing on the couch or even the floor. Having a sleeping bag will ensure a good night’s rest anywhere, even if you’re camping or taking an overnight bus. Sleeping bags can also double as a pillow or an extra blanket when a hostel is too chilly for your liking.
Not all destinations will require your large backpack. If you are taking a weekend trip to the countryside, or plan on coming back to a central city where you are traveling, you may find it more convenient to leave your large backpack in storage and bring a weekend bag with you. This bag may be able to double as your day bag if you pack strategically. Some travelers use this type of bag as their carry-on luggage; a weekend backpack may be worn on the front, with a larger backpack on the back.
Laptop and Laptop Accessories
Many backpackers who spend over six months traveling end up finding work online, in hostels, at dive centers, etc. Other backpackers leave home with the dream of becoming a “digital nomad,” making money remotely. If you plan on working while backpacking, bringing a laptop will be extremely useful.
Short-term, computers can be found at Internet cafes and in some hostels, but having a computer on hand in airports, in remote locations, or hostels that don’t have computers available. Travelers can work, find work, apply for visas, or do research wherever they can find wifi. Just like any other item on your packing list, you will have to consider the type of laptop you are bringing, and the necessary accessories to make it a useful item in your bag.
Start with the size of your laptop. Smaller models will make packing easier, but may hold less memory. If you are just using a laptop to surf the web or send messages, a tablet may be a smaller and more portable option. If your plans include video editing or working a full-time job online, a light laptop is worth the investment.
In addition to your laptop, you may want to bring the following accessories:
- Laptop Charger
- Outlet converter
- Laptop lock
- Laptop cover or case
- External hard drive or USB
If you are going to bring your laptop traveling with you, take a look at your day bag. Will your day bag securely fit your laptop and its charger? Will your laptop backpack protect your laptop from rain or hot temperatures?
If you are bringing a laptop and plan to take a plane, be sure to keep your laptop in your carry-on bag, and check with your airline about whether laptops are allowed on your specific flight. Laptops and other technology will most likely have to be removed from your carry-on bag during airport security lines as well.
Pre-Pack Before You Go
Once you’ve made your packing list, test it out with your travel partners. Will you have room in your backpack for souvenirs? Will you be able to fit everything in your backpack when you have less time to pack? Will your backpack fit comfortably as you walk 10-20 minutes to find accommodation in the cities? Will your backpack fit comfortably as you walk longer distances to your campsite?
Once you have figured out what you are bringing in your backpack, decide where you will pack each item. (This information is more important for campers, hikers, and backpackers bringing specific gear on their trip.) Strategically packing your items will make hauling your bag a lot easier on the trial or in transit. Follow these quick tips for mapping out your packing list:
- Items at the bottom of your bag should be items that you won’t need until nighttime, including your sleeping bag, heavier shoes, or warmer layers. These items will leave more room for items that you need to access throughout the days, and will protect those items if you need to put your bag down.
- In the middle of your backpack, pack heavy items that you won’t need immediate access to. Pack camping gear, food items, cooking gear, etc. Pack the heaviest items toward the back of your backpack (close to your body) to stabilize the bag. Heavy items at the top of your bag are more likely to tip you backward.
- If your backpack has separate top compartment, leave this space for items that you want to access quickly. This is a great place for your first aid kit or toilet paper. Remember to keep all of these items in a waterproof container, and pack a waterproof bag cover in this compartment.
- Use side pockets wisely. Place smaller items in smaller pockets to prevent them from getting lost among other travel accessories. Organize pockets by use; place cosmetics in one pocket and trail essentials in another. Check to make sure that your pockets are secure and there is no risk of items falling out when you are hiking or need to put your bag down.
Backpackers are going on longer trips, taking less items, and spending more money than ever before. In spring 2017, 47 million people in the United States picked up a backpack to hike or travel.
Backpacking has taken on many forms; some travelers prefer to go backpacking in big cities, taking walking tours during the day and hitting the bars at night. Some travelers prefer staying in the countryside and camping instead of staying in hostels.
Backpackers are typically young adults who are taking a gap year or have recently finished their studies, but retirees and middle-aged couples may also strap on a backpack and take a similar adventure. Backpackers may travel for a week, a month...or even a whole year, with only the things they carry on their backs.
No matter where your travels take you, you will have a great time if you prepare and do your research before heading out. Don’t be afraid to reach out to fellow travelers and guidebooks for advice, and know that backpackers abroad will also have great tips for where to get essential items, and how to make life out of a backpack work for you. Happy traveling!
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.