This list of backpacking essentials includes all the items that should never be missing in your backpack.
You’re all ready for your big backpacking trip. You’ve been dreaming of this for years. You got your flights. You have thought about a rough itinerary. You booked a place to stay for the first few nights. You’ve been counting the days until departure day. But have you really thought about what you should be packing and carrying with you?
Packing for a long term trip is easier said than done. I know it all too well – some even called me unsuccessful backpacker for my habit of packing too much. And after having packed so light that I left behind items I would have actually needed, I have mastered the art of packing and I know know what to include among my backpacking essentials.
Continue reading for the perfect backpacking checklist, and for a few things you must consider before you start packing.
All The Backpacking Essentials You Can’t Travel Without
Opt for a backpack that packs 65 liters or under, whether you are a man or a woman and get something that is:
- Light yet sturdy
- Waterproof or at least with a rain cover – essential if you travel in places where there are high chances of rain
- Has padded shoulders and hip bands
- With plenty of pockets to keep things separate and easy to reach
- Opens from the top and the bottom to allow you to easily reach what you need
- Possibly has a zipper on the larger compartment – so you don’t have to empty it completely to reach right in the middle
- Adjusted to your body size
- Comfortable, sitting nice and easy on your hips and not pulling down your shoulders.
In theory, you should try your backpack before you buy it. But you’ll never really know how it fits when it is full.
I swear by Osprey. They have a fantastic app which you can download on your smartphone and helps you pick the perfect backpack for your size and body type. That’s how I picked an Ariel 65, which is much better for my body type than the Berghaus Wilderness 60+15 (which however may be perfect for someone taller).
These are the best backpacks in the range of 60 to 70 liters:
- Osprey Kyte 66
- Ariel 65 – my overall favorite
- Atmos AG 65 – it has a great air flowing belt; they have a version for men and women
- Ariel pro – it’s very light, but it can carry all your backpacking gear and it is very comfortable
- Berghaus Wilderness 60+15 – it’s one of the largest ones around
- Berghaus Trailhead 65 – a smaller version, you can pack loads on it. They also have a 60 liters version.
Your daypack is just as important as your backpack. This is where you will keep your computer (if you travel with one), your purse and other items you want within easy reach when moving from one place to the other. You’ll use it during the day, every day, when you’re out exploring or on day hikes. It has to be sturdy yet lightweight; it should ideally have side pockets to hold a bottle of water; it shouldn’t be too big.
Remember that oftentimes you’ll be wearing your daypack in front of you. Some aren’t really suitable for this. I love my Osprey Daylite Plus. It is perfect for a short hike and to walk around. However, it is oh so uncomfortable to wear in the front, as its handle won’t fold so it literally chokes me.
These are some good daypacks:
- Zomake Lightweight – it’s foldable, it’s light and comes in many colors. And it’s very budget friendly.
- Osprey Skarab 22 – a very good daypack with plenty of pockets to organize your stuff. It’s excellent for short hikes.
- Twentyfourseven 20 by Berghaus – perfect for a day in the city as well as a short hike.
Keeping things tight and well organized in a backpack is easier said than done. Packing cubes should never be missing from your backpacking checklist. They can take some extra space and weight which you could use otherwise, but they help you keep things organized so you know where they are and can easily reach them if you need them. You can use one for your t-shirts, one for your underwear and one for your cables and camera equipment.
I learned the trick of using vacuum seal storage bags when I was living on campus and had a tiny closet. I occasionally do the same when backpacking – it saves a lot of space. You can keep your dirty clothes in it (it won’t matter if it gets all creased) or items you don’t need for a while – ie sweaters when you are traveling in hot climate.
Consider using some dry bags to keep your electronics and cables – stuff such as your camera and other important gear that you want to protect from water. It’s worth the investment to save yourself a headache!
The tech stuff
Most backpackers will only carry a compact camera or a smartphone with them. If you a re into photography, you may want something more:
- A good DSLR camera. I use a Nikon D3300.
- A good lens. Mine is a 18-105 mm which is perfect for wide angle and a bit of a distance. I also take a 70-300 mm if I know I’ll be taking pictures of wildlife.
- A few spare memory cards.
Alternatively, bring a good compact mirrorless camera. Depending on what you aim to photograph, this is more than enough.
Unless you work remotely and plan to grab some work here and there while traveling, don’t carry a laptop. It’s a hassle, as you always have to make sure it is locked safely while you are out and about. A malicious person will manage to get into a good locker. Besides it is extra weight you can do without.
Having said so, if you really want to carry it with you, opt for something that is super light and high quality. Here’s what I recommend:
- MacBook Air – I challenge you to find a laptop that is as light as this, and as efficient.
- iPad Pro – a great alternative if you want something even more lightweight.
- An external hard drive – make sure to back up your photos, documents and any other important thing.
Miscellaneous tech backpacking essentials
Other items that are essential in your backpacking checklist include:
- A smartphone -best to communicate with your family and friends. Make sure it is unlocked, so you can buy local SIM cards if necessary.
- A reliable power bank – you’ll use it to charge your phone and other tech items on the go.
- A universal plug adapter – get one before leaving, or you’ll have to get one at the airport for 10x the price, or discover the word for adapter in whichever language before you can head out to get one.
- A kindle – get one with a built in light so you can read when everyone else around you is already asleep. Or else you’ll have to rely on book crossing which at times have a shortage of good books in your language.
- A lock – this is one of the most valuable backpacking essentials. You will always have to pick a dorm where lockers are available to guests. Pick a lock that has a combination so you won’t have to worry about the key.
I love Kuhl clothes because they are extremely comfortable, perfect for hiking, easy to wash and dry and at the same time very stylish.
If you are planning a long term trip crossing several climates, your list of backpacking essentials should include:
- 3 pairs of pants, best if in neutral colors. I love Horizn Convertible and Splash roll-uppants. Convertible pants are a great solution if you think you will need shorts at some point.
- A pair of shorts such as Kuhl Cabo shorts.
- A combination of 6 long and short sleeves t-shirts. Go for 100% cotton for the summer ones, and cotton mixed with wool for the long sleeve. Also pack a thermal or technical shirt. I swear by my the Kuhl Intent Hoody t-shirt, which I have in several colors, and the Kleo Hoody shirt. For short sleeves I use the Kuhl Acacia and Kuhl Sona t-shirt.
- A comfortable t-shirt that you can wear to go to bed: it takes less room than a whole pajama. You will also need a pair of leggings – you can use them to go out and to sleep.
- A couple of tank-tops to wear on warmer days. I usually pack my Kuhl Katrin Tank.
- A sweater or, even better, a micro fleece. I use the Kuhl Alska and as an extra I often carry the Kuhl Lea Pullover.
- 6 pairs of very comfortable underwear and the same amount of socks. A couple of pairs of hiking socks too.
- A sports bra and a normal one.
- A rain and windproof jacket and a poncho. I normally use Kuhl Hydroflex Rain Jacket.
- A hat or a beanie.
- A swimsuit.
- A pretty dress. Kuhl has tons of pretty looking dresses that are also very comfortable. My favorite is the Helix Dress as it is very easy to wear and it packs really small.
Much like for clothes, when deciding what shoes to include in your backpacking essentials you must consider what activities you plan to do. If there are good chances of hiking, you need good boots. They are heavy and bulky, but you can save space in the backpack by wearing them when you move from one place to the other. Other than that, bring a pair of flip flops (you can use them to go to the beach and to shower) and a pair of comfortable walking shoes.
These are some good shoes:
- Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX – the best overall hiking boots.
- A pair of flip flops.
- Alternatively, a pair of walking sandals.
- A pair of good walking shoes.
Your backpacking checklist must include personal care items you may need during the trip. Chances are you’ll have to buy them during the trip again, but things such as tampons (for women) and good razors (for men) aren’t easy to get hold of in certain countries. You will need a good toiletry bag like this one, which you can hang and that has multiple pockets to store all your toiletries. Other than the obvious, make sure to pack the following:
- Sunscreen with very high SPF.
- Hand sanitizer.
- All purpose biodegradable soap bar – you can use it to shower, wash your clothes in the sink, and even as a shampoo if you run out.
- Tea tree oil: you can use it to medicate minor cuts, or for insect bites.
First Aid Kit
Make sure to take a first aid kit with at least some medications such as:
- basic pain relief medicines such as paracetamol.
- imodium or any other diarrhea medication.
- bandaids and other bandages.
- antiseptic wipes and cream.
- cortizone cream.
Miscellaneous backpacking essentials
Other things you should be including in your backpacking checklist are:
- A quick dry towel – because not all hostels will provide you one.
- Ear plugs and eye mask – in case someone is snoring.
- Head lamp – not all hostels have bed side lamps.
- Water bottle and filter – so that you use less plastic.
- Pins and clothing line – for when you do your laundry.
- Sewing kit – in case you need to fix a hole in your t-shirt.
- Notebook – for when you want to write down your thoughts or need to take some notes.
- Spare cash – for those emergencies when your card isn’t working.
- Spare passport photos – in case you need them to get a local SIM card or other document.
By all means, get a good backpacker travel insurance to cover you throughout your trip. If you are still wondering whether you need it, head over to my post Why You Need A Good Backpacker Travel Insurance. Otherwise, you can get a good travel insurance here.
Are there any other items that should be included among these backpacking essentials?
9 Important Things To Consider Before You Start Packing
How long are you traveling for?
Are you backpacking for a month, two or more? Do you have a return date, or you’ll just see how things go?
Depending on the estimated duration of your trip, you may want to pack differently. You don’t necessarily need to pack more for longer trip, but if you are planning to travel for a long period of time, you may want to consider bringing sturdier stuff – clothes that won’t get ruined or that won’t wear out after being washed a couple of times. On the other hand, if you are only traveling for a month, you can do with lightweight stuff that you won’t mind getting rid of when it gets ruined.
Packing light is key
As I have said already, a longer trip doesn’t mean you have to carry more stuff, but just that you have to pack smartly. There will be times when you’ll have to walk for quite some time before finding a place to stay; or when you’ll be stuck in traffic and decide to get off the bus to walk to the train station, which is still quite a way. The heavier the backpack, the more the effort you’ll have to make to walk and the more painful it will be on your back.
Don’t travel with a backpack that holds over 65 liters and don’t pack more than 12 kgs (26.4 pounds) into it.
What places are you visiting?
Are you into tourist attractions and famous places, or will you go off the beaten path as much as possible?
While off the beaten path places are fascinating, you won’t get easily get hold of things you may need there. You can easily find a new pair of pants or shoes in big cities such as Bogota or Cartagena, but not in places such as the Rupununi region of Guyana.
You must avoid tourist prices
Shopping opportunities may abound in the places you plan to visit. In some cases you will manage to get a good deal for slightly faulty stuff, as it happens in places where big multinationals have their factories (ie in Sri Lanka or Vietnam).
More often than not, however, you’ll be charged an arm and a leg for a thing you can get at a much more reasonable price at home. That’s the case of tiny El Chalten, in Argentina.
Try to pack whatever gear you need so that you won’t end up paying tourist prices for it during your trip.
What will the weather be like?
Will you be traveling to countries that have a tropical climate and are warm year round, or will you also be going to colder places? Will you be visiting any place during its rain season?
If you are on a long term trip in Central and South America, you will be crossing several climates. Some places are steadily hot and humid year round, so you won’t really need to pack warm clothes, but you may need rain proof gear.
In Colombia, you’ll be going from the steaming Cartagena to the constantly chilled Bogota. And places like Patagonia know sudden weather changes even in the summer and you’ll need to be prepared for any conditions.
What kind of transportation will you be using?
Will you be catching a lot of planes, or try to overland as much as possible?
You need to consider the baggage restrictions and regulations if traveling by plane. Different airports in different parts of the world implement different rules and security checking procedures. For information about traveling in Europe, consult the website of the European Commission.
Once you arrive at your destination, you will mostly be taking public transportation – buses and trains, at times small tuk tuks, and the occasional cab here and there. The last thing you want when running to hop on a train about to depart in a crowded station or when boarding a packed chicken bus is to juggle a very heavy backpack.
Where will you be sleeping?
Are you going to sleep in hostel dorms, or will you be looking for camping sites? If you are camping, you must carry the necessary equipment and must save space here and there so that you can fit a tent, a sleeping bag, a thin mattress, and other camping gear.
If you book hostels along the way, you’ll be spared the hassle of having to wander around town with a heavy backpack. Other times, booking is not actually possible – some hostels do not take reservations – and you may end up having to walk around in search of a bed.
Regardless of what accommodation options you are considering, you must pack light.
What are you hoping to do?
Are you likely to just be a beach bum, or will you be exploring cities and archeological sites? Will you go hiking or are you more into wildlife spotting? Your backpacking checklist will change depending on what you plan to do.
Comfort is everything!
A backpacking trip is about having fun, exploring new places, getting to know new cultures, meeting new friends. You won’t be asked to walk on a catwalk; but you’ll likely have to walk on narrow hiking trails. You don’t have to be glamorous, but you have to feel comfortable. Keep this in mind when deciding what goes in your backpack – it will save you a lot of space.
These other posts may come in handy:
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- The Perfect Hiking Packing List For A Long Distance Trek
- What To Wear On Safari – The Ultimate Packing List For Africa
- The Art Of Packing Light: 21 Useful Tips To Travel Light
- Jungle Clothes And More: Everything You Should Include In Your Amazon Packing List
- 30 Things You Should Consider Before Traveling To Patagonia
- Hiking Gear And More: The Perfect Patagonia Packing List
- The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler