Backpacking Essentials – What to Pack

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.

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.

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