If you are traveling – whether long or short term – there are some things you can’t do without. Discover what are the main backpacking essentials you should take with you in this post.
Packing efficiently for a trip – whether a long or short one – is easier said than done. Until not long ago, my packing list was the perfect reflection of my status of unsuccessful backpacker. I carried around 18 kg of stuff on my back (although to be fair that included two bottles of Malbec wine I had bought in Argentina and one bottle of Mezcal I had bought in Mexico), and something like 10 kg on my front. It was way too much, and I could hardly walk from the bus station to the hostel.
Find out why I think I am an unsuccessful backpacker.
In fact, it is thanks to that huge backpack and day-pack, each filled to the brim with all the useful items on my backpacking essentials check list, that my ex started calling me “Turtle Tavani,” stressing that I did resemble a turtle and that if I ever fell down I wouldn’t be able to stand up again. I realized he was right when I went through border control in Colonia del Sacramento, in Uruguay, and I dropped something on the floor. I had to beg someone to get it for me as I could not bend.
Years on, my backpacking essentials list has significantly shrunk: I understood that traveling is much more about being comfortable than it is about looking pretty in pictures. Now I pack smartly, trying to make sure I bring clothes that I can easily wash and mix and match. This way I carry less stuff, because I refuse to travel with a backpack that weights more than 12 kg. What hasn’t changed is that my ex still calls me “Turtle Tavani.”
I have also learned to pack more efficiently. Regardless of how much stuff I put in my travel list, I make sure that the heavy stuff goes on the bottom of my backpack, so that the weight is on my hips rather than on my shoulders.
But what items are never missing among my backpacking essentials? Here they are, in no particular order – I understand that this is a very girly packing list, but I am sure guys can easily adapt it to their own needs!
Backpacking Essentials: Everything You Need To Take On Your Trip
Backpacking essentials #1
A good backpack
This is the most important item on any good backpacking essentials list. I have tried several backpacks in the course of my travels, but the ones I like the most are the Osprey Ariel 65, which fits very comfortably on my shoulders and hips (they have a woman and a man’s version); and the Berghaus Wilderness 65+15 (this is a lot larger, though!). Beware that choosing a travel backpack is no easy task – it has to fit perfectly or else it will be a pain to carry.
Or a nice carry-on
If I am going for only a short time, I’d rather travel carry-on only. My favorite carry-on bag is by Cabin Zero: it fits up to 44 liters of stuff, which means I can carry most of the items on my packing list. The good thing about it is that I don’t have to check it in, which is especially convenient if I have short connections between flights.
A good daypack
The second most important item in my backpacking essentials list is a good daypack. This is where I keep my important stuff (whichever can’t be missing in my travel list!) when commuting – my sunglasses; my iPhone and headphones; my MacBook which I always carry if I am traveling for more than a week; my camera and lens; all my cables; my power bank; my book or my kindle; a guidebook if I carry one; a headlamp (I hate being unable to read if the hostel doesn’t have a personal light); my passport, wallet and travel documents; and a few toiletries such as a travel toothbrush. It often ends up being as heavy as my backpack.
One of the best backpacking essentials is packing cubes. I didn’t even know what they were until a friend of mine showed me the marvel. They allow me to organize my clothes and to keep them in some decent order (I am otherwise unable to keep my backpack organized). I also carry dry packs, in order to keep my stuff safe from getting wet.
A hangable toiletry bag for all my toiletries
In my backpacking essentials I always include a good toiletry bag which is both waterproof and that I can hang on a towel rail or in the room. I prefer carrying the toiletries that go in my packing list from home rather than buying them on the way, as I can’t usually find small sizes or the products I prefer using (I prefer stuff that isn’t tested on animals).
The toiletries that are never missing from my travel check list are: a shampoo and a conditioner bar by Lush – they last forever, they leave my hair soft, my scalp never itches, and they are 100% vegan; a good shower gel or, in alternative, a good bar of soap; an electric toothbrush – I am mildly obsessed with brushing my teeth properly – toothpaste and dental floss.
Among my backpacking essentials there are a good sunblock with SPF 50+; deodorant; a night cream; a bar of massage oil – it is super handy to moisturize my skin and takes up very little room; some make up stuff – though I hardly wear make up when I travel; nail clippers, a file and tweezers; a small brush and a comb; some elastic bands for my wild hair; daily use contact lenses.
Other items that are generally in my travel list are a bar of laundry soap (I normally buy one that is ecologic, and that can also be used on the body and hair just in case I run out of everything else) and a disinfectant hand gel.
Clothing and shoes
The clothes in my backpacking essentials list vary depending on the place I am visiting and on the season. I can safely walk around in shorts during the summer months in Sardinia, in Spain or in Central America. But no matter how hot it is, I can’t do that in India, where I need to cover my shoulders and wear large pants or long skirts. And if I go to cold places such as Ukraine in the winter, or Tierra del Fuego or Patagonia (whether in the summer or in winter), I need to wear warmer clothes.
Having said, there’s a number of items that I carry with me pretty much regardless of the season, and that hence are always in my travel check list.
I never travel without my wind and waterproof jacket by The North Face. It’s always among my backpacking essentials because it has proved to be extremely reliable under any weather conditions: I can wear layers under it and feel warm and dry; or just wear it by itself if it’s not cold outside. I admit it was pricey, but a great investment.
My backpacking essentials also includes a scarf, which I wear on long flights or bus rides. In some countries, it seems that the hotter it is outside, the colder the air conditioning is and this doesn’t agree with my delicate throat – so I’d better wear a scarf. Besides, I can ball up a scarf to use it as a pillow and I can use it to cover my shoulders on religious sites. That’s why I always have it in my travel list. Keep in mind that in some religious sites, such as Angkor Wat, visitors are required to actually wear a t-shirt that covers the shoulders and long pants.
Read more about Angkor Wat and the appropriate dress code to visit on my post “Visiting Angkor Wat and other things to do in Siem Reap.”
If I am traveling to cold places, I also include a hat and a good pair of gloves in my packing list.
A couple of fleece sweaters and jackets – Columbia makes some top quality ones – are a must among backpacking essentials. I have one that is thicker and has pockets and a zip at the front, which is super warm; and another one which is thinner but extremely comfortable and warm and packs really lightly, and is always in my packing list. I even carried it to Ukraine recently, and it proved to be a saver in the extreme chill!
Also in my packing list are a number of cotton tank tops and t-shirts. Nothing fancy: it’s stuff I can easily wash in a sink if I have to and which I won’t regret throwing away if they break.
A good pair of hiking pants is usually included in my backpacking essentials. I go hiking on pretty much all of my travels, and hiking pants are perfect as they are generally waterproof, windproof, and they dry super easily. My travel check list also includes a pair of shorts, a number of leggings, and cotton pants or sweat pants – whatever is comfortable to walk around in, and whatever can be easily washed without fear of it getting ruined. I used to never include jeans in my travel check list because they don’t keep me warm if it is cold outside, and they don’t keep me cool when it it hot. However, I find that if I am traveling to milder climates they are actually ok to wear. And I throw in a pretty dress, just in case.
As I love hiking, I never forget to include a few pairs of hiking socks among my backpacking essentials. These are socks that are meant to keep my feet warm and dry, especially if they are paired with good hiking boots. Normal socks may be fine, but there are chances that feet may move around in the shoe and the rubbing may cause blisters. I’d rather play it safe and wear good socks. And I try to remember to also pack a hat, so that my head doesn’t burn under the sun.
Lots of people I know say that they don’t include hiking boots among their backpacking essentials because they are heavy. I actually don’t carry them around in my backpack, but I wear them during flights or long commutes. I have two pairs of hiking shoes and I generally include one of the two in any packing list. One is a pair of sturdy Dolomite boots, so comfortable that when the sole was completely consumed, rather than throwing them way I opted to have them re-soled. They keep my feet dry, they give me proper ankle support and they are very reliable on slippery and uneven terrain. I don’t think they are even produced anymore, but there are plenty of other good hiking boots around.
Unless I am carrying my Dolomites, the other shoes that go in my travel check list are a pair of Solomon hiking shoes. These are a bit more lightweight and good for easier hikes – I would not recommend them for several days hikes, for example, but they are fine for a short, easy walk.
Other than that, the shoes that are never missing from my backpacking essentials list are my Converse All Stars shoes, and a pair of Havaianas flip flops which I use to get in showers when I stay in hostels, and to walk around in cities when it is too hot. This doesn’t apply to India though – it is simply too dirty there not to wear proper shoes!
Finally, my backpacking essentials usually include one or two bikinis. Whether I am traveling to Koh Chang, in Thailand, or to Flores, in Indonesia, where snorkeling is a must; or whether I am going to colder places where there is a gorgeous spa like Bergamo, a bikini packs so small that I hardly have doubt about including it in my travel list.
Find out more about Bergamo on my post “Why I loved Bergamo.”
Whenever I go on a backpacking trip, I make sure to include a quick dry towel in my packing list. This folds really small, and it dries super fast. I use it in hostels when they don’t rent towels (yes, there still are some that don’t!) and whenever I go to the beach.
A good backpacking essentials list is never complete with a proper selection of medicines. The very few times I didn’t carry any where also the times I needed them the most. My friends even made fun of me when we backpacked across Peru, as my pharmacy included a thermometer. But they were happy I had one when one of them was terribly sick. Besides, I have asthma and I always have to have a selection of prescriptions in case I get sick.
As part of my travel check list, my pharmacy includes some non-prescription stuff such as Imodium and paracetamol. I also always have a good mosquito repellent with some Deet, as at times I visit places where cases of dengue, malaria and chikunguya have been recorded.
What items do you always include in your backpacking essentials list?
For a more detailed guide on what to bring on long term trips, read my post “All The Useful Backpacking Essentials For Long Term Travel.”
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