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 – I have done multiple trips that were longer than a month. After having packed too much the first couple of times – to the point that they’ve called me “unsuccessful backpacker;” 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.
However, before I go on to explain you what you should be including in your backpacking list, let’s go over a few questions that you should be considering before packing.
Backpacking For Beginners – 9 Important Things To Consider Before You Start Packing
How long are you traveling for?
Are you planning to go backpacking for a month, two or more? Do you have a return date, or you’ll just see how things go and swing it?
Depending on your estimated duration of your trip, you may want to pack differently and your backpacking equipment may change. I don’t necessarily mean to pack more for longer trip – in fact, your final overall weight should remain more or less the same and never exceed 12 kgs, or else you’ll break your back.
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
Let me say it one more time: a longer trip doesn’t mean you have to carry more stuff, but just that you have to pack smartly and learn some ultralight backpacking skills. Keep in mind that 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 even if you do, don’t pack more than 12 kgs 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?
Keep this in mind when putting together your list of backpacking essentials. While off the beaten path places are fascinating, you won’t get easily get hold of things you may need there. For example, if you find you need a new pair of pants or shoes, you’ll have plenty of shopping opportunities in big cities such as Bogota or Cartagena, the same can’t be said for off the radar kind of 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, where you’ll find any possible thing you may need for hiking, but at an unreasonable price.
In general, your objective is to pack all the necessary backpacking gear so that you won’t end up paying tourist prices for it during your trip.
Are you hitting El Chalten during your backpacking trip to South America? Make sure to read my post “An Excellent Guide To El Chalten.”
What will the climate be like?
Will you be only 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. In fact, you’ll be crossing several climates even within one country at times. For example, Guyana is steadily hot and humid year round, you won’t really need to pack warm clothes (other than a sweater and a jacket you can wear during the flight), but you may need rain proof gear.
Traveling to Guyana? Head over to my post “Jungle Clothes And More: Everything You Should Include In Your Amazon Packing List.”
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 weather conditions.
Visiting Patagonia? Make sure to read my posts “30 Things You Should Consider Before Traveling To Patagonia” and “Hiking Gear And More: The Perfect Patagonia Packing List.”
What kind of transportation will you be using?
Will you be catching a lot of planes, or try to overland as much as possible?
First of all, I strongly encourage you to take less planes, in an effort to be a more responsible traveler and lowering your carbon footprint. For more ideas on how to become a more ethical traveler, read my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
Having said that, remember that you need to consider the baggage restrictions and regulations if traveling by plane. Keep in mind that different airports in different parts of the world implement different rules and have different 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 that is about to depart in a crowded train station like that of Roma Termini, or when boarding a packed chicken bus in Nicaragua, is to juggle a very heavy backpack. That’s why you need to pack light.
Where will you be sleeping?
Are you going to sleep in hostel dorms, or will you be looking for camping sites? If there are high chances you’ll be camping at times, you should be carrying the necessary equipment – which means that you’ll have to save space here and there so that you can fit a tent, a sleeping bag and 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.
Once again, regardless of what accommodation options you are considering, you need to pack light. I have learned from experience that having to look for a dorm while carrying my 18 kg backpack (that’s how heavy it was during my first long term trip) in the blistering sun is hardly my idea of fun.
What things are you hoping to do?
What are you planning to do during your backpacking trip? Are you likely to just be a beach bum, or will you be exploring cities and archeological sites? Will you often go hiking or are you more into wildlife spotting? Your backpacking packing list will change depending on what you plan to do. If you plan to just go beach hopping, you won’t need hiking gear. If you are mostly hiking, there are some items that shouldn’t be missing. And if you are joining a safari (yes, there are plenty of budget yet responsible safari companies around) you will need adequate clothing.
Make sure to read my posts “The Perfect Hiking Packing List For A Long Distance Trek” and “What To Wear On Safari – The Ultimate Packing List For Africa” for even more targeted packing lists.
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 a narrow hiking trail. This is to say that you don’t have to be glamorous, but sure enough you have to feel comfortable. Keep this in mind when deciding what goes in your backpack – it will save you a lot of space.
Backpacking Essentials – All The Items You Shouldn’t Travel Without
Remember that your objective is to travel as light as possible. I recommend to opt for a backpack that packs 65 liters or under, whether you are a man or a woman. Make sure to get a backpack that is:
- Light yet sturdy
- Waterproof or at least with a rain cover – this is essential if you travel in places where there are high chances of rain
- Padded at the shoulders and hip bands
- With plenty of pockets to keep things separate and easy to reach
- Opens from the top and the bottom, once again to allow you to easy 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. However, I doubt that whatever shop you’ll go will allow you to pack it with all the backpacking essentials you will be taking with you, so you’ll never really know how it fits.
That’s why I swear by Osprey. They have a fantastic app which you can download on your smartphone and which helps you to 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 who’s taller than I am).
These are the best backpacks in the range of 60 to 70 liters:
- Osprey Kyte 66 – it fits all your backpacking essentials
- 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 than the one above, 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 very 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 as lightweight as possible; 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 you can add to your backpacking essentials:
- Zomake Lightweight – it’s foldable, it’s light and comes in many colors. And it’s very conveniently priced.
- 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 gear. 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 while attending the University of Essex. My closet was so small that in an extreme effort of saving some space I discovered these bags that I could hand roll shut to expel all the air and reduce the volume and weight dramatically. 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. I love taking photos, so I never leave without my camera.
This is the camera gear I normally take with me:
- 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, you can take 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, I don’t recommend bringing a laptop with you. It honestly is 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; and it is honestly 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 items to add to your backpacking essentials
Other items that are essential among your backpacking equipment include:
- A smartphone – this is the easiest way you have 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 – make sure to 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 – if you are a fan of reading, this is a must. 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 – no matter what you plan to carry in your backpack, and even more so if you take a valuable camera, a computer, a tablet and so on, a lock is one of the most valuable backpacking essentials. Needless to say, you always have to pick a dorm where lockers are available to guests. Pick a lock that has a combination – it’ll help you having to put keep the key to it handy and safe.
As I have said before, your aim when backpacking is to be comfortable. Being pretty while you are also comfortable comes as an added bonus. 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 Kuhl Cliffside Convertible and Kuhl Hykr pants. Convertible pants are a great solution if you think you will need shorts at some point.
- A pair of shorts such as Kuhl Horizn 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. You may also want to pack a thermal or technical shirt. I swear by my the Kuhl Sora t-shirt, which I have in several colors, and the Kuhl Wunderer shirt. For short sleeves I use the Kuhl Kyra and Kuhl Sora.
- A comfortable t-shirt that you can wear to go to bed. 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 Karisma.
- A sweater or, even better, a micro fleece – these are usually lightweight. 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 Airstorm rain jacket.
- A hat or a beanie.
- A swimsuit, for those days at the beach or for jumping in the pool.
- A pretty dress. Kuhl has tons of pretty looking dresses that are also very comfortable. My favorite is the Sora dress as it is very easy to wear and it packs really small.
Much like for the clothes, when deciding what shoes to include among your backpacking essentials you need to consider what activities you plan to do. If there are good chances of hiking, a pair of good boots have to be included. 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, make sure to 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 for your backpacking trip:
- Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX – they are thought to be the best overall hiking boots.
- A pair of flip flops
- Alternatively, bring a pair of walking sandals
- A pair of good walking shoes
Your backpacking essentials have to include all 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, to 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. You should include the following:
- 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 among your backpacking equipment 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
- Guide book – because you don’t always have internet to find information
- 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, make sure to 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 or here.
Are there any other items that should be included among these backpacking essentials?
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