Backpacking is in our blood. Even when we are travelling to a fancy resort or city break, the lessons we learned during a five-month trip to Asia (and around 60 subsequent trips) have honed our packing skills. We love hand luggage so we have really nailed down the backpacking gear essentials that we really need when we are carry-on backpacking. Here are the 20 backpacking gear essentials we never travel without!
Obviously, you need to pack your liquids bag carefully for carry-on travel (there is a whole blog post about it here) and I have written a whole article about generic hand luggage packing, but there are some things that you will need for a backpacking trip/extended travel that are a little different.
20 Backpacking Gear Essentials for Carry On Backpacking
1.) Money, Money, Money
OK, so this goes for every trip but with long-term backpacking, you can’t travel with your entire trip’s budget in a big, fat wallet. Back in the old days, we relied on traveller’s cheques but now we are spoiled for choice with cards that are commission free when used abroad and widely accepted. We favour taking this combination of money options:
About £200 in emergency funds
It is important to carry some cash, something we forget as we flash our Apple Pay at contactless machine across the UK. We actually choose to take dollars as this seems the most widely appreciated currency over British Pounds or Euros. This money should be spread across your person, backpack and extra day bag. Some places will only take cash so to have some at the ready for taxis from the airport, sticky situations etc is important.
A credit card or two with a decent limit
If you trust your budgeting and have a way to make sure it is paid off every month, you can use your credit card to earn points. If you pick a travel-related account you can redeem those points for a night in the odd nice hotel, flight tickets etc. Most countries prefer Mastercard and Visa over things like American Express or Diner’s Club. If, like me, you would quickly max your card out, just keep it for emergencies. It also helps to show a large credit limit when entering countries that like to see proof of funds.
A pre-paid money card
This is our main form of payment these days. You can pre-load your card and spend with no commission. Limiting the amount of currency on there at any one time means that if it is stolen, they can’t run up a huge bill or drain your main bank account. There are a few companies that do this but our favourite is Revolut.
The basic Revolut offering is a pre-paid card that allows unlimited commission-free usage and £200 of free withdrawals per month. After this, there is a small charge for withdrawals but most of the world takes Visa so there isn’t usually more than £200 required per month. They have higher levels of subscription too. Premium, which is £6.99 per month) brings your free withdrawals up to £400 and benefits including priority support, purchase protection, travel insurance (but it won’t cover extended trips) and cheap access to airport lounges. Metal (which is 12.99 per month) gets all of the above but increases the fee-free withdrawals up to £800 per month and also includes 0.1% cashback in Europe, 1% elsewhere in the world and car hire excess insurance.
Check out Why Getting Travel Insurance is Vital!
2.) Passports Plus
Do NOT forget your passport! You might be used to travelling around the EU with an ID card, or in the USA with a driver’s license but for most international travel, only a passport will suffice. Now, this doesn’t come from a place of superiority complex, I have had to make a crazy dash for it after leaving my passport at home en route to the Eurostar AND I accidentally threw my passport away on the plane as we travelled to Germany. So believe me, I know you don’t get far without one.
As well as playing the, “Here is my passport and this is the bag pocket I am putting it in” game, we like to take photocopies of our passports which we keep in a separate bag. The passports tend to be in our day bags and the photocopies in the carry-on backpack. These really are backpacking gear essentials if you are travelling for a long time. You will probably have a few visas in your passport and so when you photocopy it, remember to do the visas too. You should also take photocopies of your insurance details. Important things, the basic coverage, your policy number and the emergency numbers to call.
Finally, it is a good idea to take some good quality passport photos with you. You may need them for visa applications on the road or if you need an emergency document if something happens to your passport.
3.) Your Smartphone
Do I really need to remind you just how useful your phone is? This is your source of:
- Banking – Internet/app banking makes it much easier to keep track of your budget and ensure your money is secure
- Communication – Social media and emails to your mum etc are much easier when your phone is with you. We used to have to search out internet cafes and let’s face it, they barely exist now!
- Travel Agent – Whether you are finding your next bed, booking bus or train tickets or securing your spot on special activities, it is much nicer to compare prices and get confirmation on your phone so you have it all in one spot.
- Photography – With the quality of most smartphone cameras, and the ability to edit and share photos on go, most people will not need to bring a separate camera.
- Entertainment – Videos, audiobooks, podcasts, music, social media and reading apps make your phone a powerful entertainment tool. Staving off boredom on long bus rides is important but remember to turn off your phone and engage with people or your surroundings too. Oh, and make sure your travel insurance covers your device. I learned the hard way that mine didn’t.
4.) Duct Tape
Best friend of engineers, theatre technicians, serial killers and a backpacking gear essentials. Duct tape is the saviour of everyone that needs something strong and sticky in a hurry. When you are backpacking, duct tape can solve a multitude of problems.
- Fix bags that are starting to rip. Duct tape can stop the straps or stitches from dying completely and your items going everywhere!.
- Whack it on shoes that are starting to “talk”. It will look pretty silly but will tide you over.
- Stick it over holes in mosquito nets or screens to prevent those sneaky bugs from getting through.
- Attach phone chargers or questionable plug fittings to the wall more firmly.
The best thing about duct tape over other kinds of tape is the ease of ripping it up easily. You can create mini squares or let it run and run. Oh, and it doesn’t have to be boring black or silver. My duct tape has groovy 60s flowers but I’ve found this cool rainbow one which makes me smile!
5.) Zip Ties or a Cable Lock
During your trip, you might need to secure your luggage. Whether you are leaving your bag in a slightly questionable luggage room, or want to secure your bag to your bunk in a dorm room or overnight train. Alternatively, you might need your own lock for a locker. In either circumstance, we suggest you avoid a lock with a key. These are easier to pick and you might lose the key!
- Cable ties are handy if you just need a quick deterrent that you can chop off. We use an old pair of nail clippers to chop thin cable ties off because they are allowed through airport security.
- A small cable lock with a combination fastening will last longer and can’t be so easily chopped. They will fit through both your backpack zips and any locker loops provided. You can get it round the thin bars/legs of a night train bed.
6.) Considered Clothing
Before you pack an item of clothing, squeeze it. I know you might feel silly but you need to know that your clothes will pack down without taking up too much room and won’t end up a wrinkly mess. There are a million packing lists for backpacking and it really all depends on where you are going, the weather, the activities you plan to do and your style. However, for my backpacking gear essentials I pack:
- 4 tops
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 pair of leggings
- 1 pair of jeans
- 1 cardigan
- 1 down jacket
- 7 pairs of seamless pants
- 2 bras
- 7 pairs of socks (of various kinds)
- 2 dresses
- 2 Instagram dresses
- 2 swimming costumes
For cold places, add some gloves, a thick buff, a warm headband, another jumper and replacing one dress and the shorts for more trousers.
7.) Packing Cubes
These may not be for everyone…but they should be!
Packing cubes are a series of fabric bags that are zipped up and packed, Lego/Duplo/Tetris style into your bag. Dividing your belongings into easy-to-negotiate blocks makes finding things quick and easy. I lent mine to a friend who went backpacking in Oz. She was able to access her whole wardrobe whereas her travel buddy was constantly digging around in the bottom of her pack looking for a specific top. Plus, dividing your clothes into smaller blocks means you can really compress them.
With my packing cubes, electricals go in one, undies in another and clothes into either tops and bottoms or clean and dirty (depending on how far into a trip we are).
8.) Ziplock Bags
Plastic zip lock bags are part of my backpacking gear essentials as they can be useful for a host of things. Firstly, you can pop your liquids in them to pass them through security at the airport. Then when you are on the road, they can keep things dry if it starts raining whilst you are out and about. They are great for stashing undies in when they are on the way to laundry and swimwear on the way home from the beach/pool/river. Finally, if you are making sandwiches from your hostel’s continental breakfast, you have somewhere to pop them for the day.
9.) Medical Kit
First Aid Kit
A simple medical kit is always a good plan. Our backpacking gear essentials always contains:
- Painkillers – You know why you need these. Headaches, tummy aches, toothaches, bumps and bruises etc. Bring some paracetamol for general pain and ibuprofen for any muscle pains where you need to take down inflammation.
- Plasters – I mean, I keep these in my handbag in real life too. These protect your cuts and allow them to heal safely. (Plus, they are a godsend for blisters).
- Antiseptic Cream and Wipes – To clean wounds, prevent infection etc
- Pro Plus – For times when we really need to stay awake to catch a bus or…well, for whatever reason.
- Sleepeaze – These are drowsy antihistamines and can help when jetlag keeps us up all night.
- Imodium – These powerful little pills can help stop diarrhoea. They are to be used with caution. If you get real traveller’s diarrhoea, you need to let things “run their course” to rid your body of dangerous bacteria. However, if it’s just IBS and you have a long bus journey, use a stopper!
- Senokot – The opposite of Imodium, these help you if you can’t go.
- After Bite Cream or Clicker – Insect bites are inevitable, no matter how long your sleeves are and how DEET you bathe in. To ease the discomfort, get an anti-itch cream or one of those little
As well as the above, make sure you pack any medicines that you need. Again, I learned this the hard way. After a last-minute repack, I managed to leave 5 months’ worth of contraceptive pills on my family home floor. Luckily, the same brand was sold over the counter in Thailand so I was able to stock up but it cost a fair amount of money and stress. That being said, make sure all the countries you are visiting allow your medicines. Some places like the UAE have banned all sorts of medicines, including codiene-based painkillers and a lot of anti-anxiety medication, and you may be fined or arrested. You can see the list HERE.
10.) Multiuse Shoes
Probably the biggest difference between those that check bags in and those that carry them on as hand luggage is the shoe situation. You need shoes that are comfortable, practical, and multitask their butts off.
I LOVE glittery jellies, and I know that sounds bonkers but they are proper multitaskers. My favourites are JuJu Jellies but I have found some similar ones on Amazon. They go from day to night, and have a tiny bit of sparkle so they feel pretty, going with dresses and shorts alike. More than that, they are incredibly comfortable. The longer you wear them, the softer the plastic gets. There is a slight platform so you don’t get heel strike. I have managed a 30000 step day in them easily. They can be slipped on and off in seconds which is so good for temple hopping. Best of all, they are totally waterproof so they can be worn in hostel showers, hosed down after dusty days or stepping in questionable puddles, do beautifully in monsoon rains and are sand-free in seconds at the beach.
For those that love to hike, Keens are the way forward! Keens are perfect for hiking, especially if you might encounter water along the way. The walking shoes are waterproof so you can step in puddles without stress. The kind designed for watery trekking (below) has all the sole structure of walking trainers but the open sides mean they are a little less chunky. Keens are pretty stylish and not horribly wide so they can be worn around cities and with shorts/skirts without feeling like you are clumping along the pavement.
11.) A Scarf
Another wonderful multitasker is the humble scarf. Find one that is smooth to the touch (a pashmina/sarong) and really wide. You can use it:
- As a blanket for cold tains or buses, or in addition to an insufficient hostel blanket.
- You can also throw it over the top of a questionable pillow or sheet. It is much easiest t wash the scarf afterwards.
- Of course, it can be used for its original purpose, keeping you warm when the temperature drops.
- You can use it at a window that needs a better curtain, or to just create some shade.
- If it is silky enough you can use it as a beach throw.
- You can cover up your shoulders or legs when visiting churches or temples, as well your head when visiting a mosque. You can also cover up like the day I ripped my shorts and didn’t want to share my undies with the residents of Mexico.
- It also covers you up beautifully if you get a sunburn….I spent three days in 32-degree heat with a scarf covering my horrifically burnt neck.
There are two schools of thought here, those that try to reduce the number of plugs they take and those that try and reduce the number of adaptors.
If you are taking a lot of electricals that require USB connections (phones, headphones, Bluetooth speakers etc) then look for a multi-USB plug with international connections. It is great to be able to swap out the plug adaptor sections to give you charging options at your home airport and the countries you travel through. Most countries use the same kind of connections (two flat pins or two round pins). Of course, there are annoying individuals like the UK and South Africa that you need to consider, but you may be able to find one that includes those connections.
If you have lots of things that require full plugs then maybe the better option is to take a small multiplug. This allows you to bring just the cables and home plugs that you need rather than using multiple adaptors. I love to travel with my hair dryer and straighteners which both have big UK plugs so this works very well for me.The one below also has USB connections so it covers my phone and charger too.
13.) Foldable or Flat Day Bag
This is especially important if you airline doesn’t allow an extra (personal item) or if you just like to keep your packing light. If you are planning on hiking then you are probably best off taking a folding backpack/rucksack. Some hiking shops do rentals but it is also nice to be handsfree when you are exploring a city too.
For those that like to have everything super handy, a side hangbag/tote bag is a good plan. I hate wearing a daypack at the same time as my big carry on backpack so I prefer to have something like this tote. This one also expands so i can use it as a small handbag on the flight and then a larger day bag or beach bag during the trip. It can be packed away really easily if I am only allowd one bag. It is a win/win/win.
14.) Microfibre Towel
This is one of the most important items in your backpacking gear arsenal. Expecting all your accommodation to provide towels is pretty optimistic. plus, those that do, often give you just one and it is usually pretty small and scratchy. Instead, it is much more reliable to bring a microfibre towel with you. It also means you always have one if you go to the beach, random waterfall swimming or just get drenched. Lots of people have the super fluffy versions but I prefer the more traditional towelling or shammy style materials as I find they feel less weird when wet. Whichever kind you choose, they will dry quicker than a standard beach towel and pack MUCH smaller. I have found this very cool patterned one on Amazon which you’ll be able to identify easily when it is washed or laid out on a beach.
I also like to pack a small hair turban towel which stops me from dripping everywhere as I come back from the shower (in the room or through the hostel halls). It also allows my to get dry and change before dealing with the hair underneath which won’t be so wet by the time it comes out.
15.) Poncho or Umbrella
Rain is inevitable. Whether you are travelling through South America, Europe, South-East Asia….well, anywhere, you will come across a spot of rain at some point.
Ponchos are a great option to keep your entire outfit and your backpack completely dry but there are some drawbacks. The robust ones are very heavy and are quite large to pack whereas the thin ones can rip easily when being put on or taken off. You also end up with a soggy face as there is no protection there. They do protect you from the wind and create an extra layer if it cold though so they gain points there.
My preferred option is a small umbrella (how British is that)? My backpack can get a bit wet and cope so I enjoy the breeze that an umbrella allows in hot, sticky rain. You can huddle under an umbrella if you are stuck waiting for a bus or need to munch your lunch. It also protects your phone if you have it out for navigating or something. My smartphone screen just hates rain! A brolly can also be used as a sun shade, which is why I like to have a nice bright colour. Finally, you can share it with other people.
16.) Filter Water Bottle
If you are going on holiday, taking any old water bottle will suffice. You will be doing the environment a favour by not buying bottle after bottle of water. However, when you are travelling for longer (especially if you’re on a budget) look for a filter bottle. It will cost you more at first but will save you lots on bottled water in the long run. These are great for people that could potentially be drinking from outdoor water sources.
Alternatively, if you are sure you’ll be sticking to bathroom water, you could opt for a bottle that uses UV light to kill germs in the water. They make unsafe tap water perfectly drinkable. Trust me, remembering you need water to brush your teeth when you are already in your undies for bed, you will be so glad that you can take the H2O straight from the tap!
17.) Portable Charger
As mentioned before, your phone is going to be one of your main travel buddies. The main downside of these wonderful devices is that the batteries drain far too quickly! This is especially true when the temperature is particularly cold or warm. It is also very noticeable if you are using data roaming. Having a portable charger means you can keep taking photos/videos all day or binge a whole series on a 24 hour train ride. It is also a great backup if you heading into the rainforest, up a mountain or somewhere else that lacks electricity and you might need emergency support.
18.) Sleep Aids & Headphones
Backpacking means trying to sleep in less than luxury circumstances. No 3000 thread count Egyptian cotton, king-size beds for us. Instead, we are often required to sleep in places that are too light, too noisy and often, moving! (Buses, trains and planes are always part of the repertoire). There are a few backpacking gear essentials that can really help.
Eye Mask and Ear Plugs
They are cheap, they are cheerful and they are vital!
If you want a decent night’s sleep in your guesthouse/dorm/bus/plane/train….well anywhere, you will want to give yourself the best chance. To block out the light, a good eye mask is a must. The free ones you get on the plane aren’t usually great so invest a couple of pounds in a good quality one. I favour these moulded foam ones. They tuck around your nose and don’t push on your eyes so they are super comfortable.
For sound, there is nothing quite like a decent pair of earplugs. Whether you like the little foam ones (my preference) or the wax variety, they deaden the hum of a plane engine, the snoring of a dorm mate and the honking of horns enough for you get some proper rest.
If like me, you like to listen to something as you drift off, it is worth hunting out some headphones lie the ones below. These tiny earbuds can be comfortably worn in bed as they don’t poke out of your ears. This allows you to sleep on your side and also means they cancel out a lot of noise even once your podcast/music/audiobook has run out.
19.) Dry Bag
If you are planning on doing any sort of water sports, boat trips or wet hiking, having a dry bag is a musy. I used to think that using my handbag would suffice but over many trips I have totally changed my mind. It is so nice to know that your change of clothes/towel/electronics will be kept dry is such piece of mind. It also separates wet swimwear or muddy shoes after your activity. You can pack a small dry bag and it won’t take up that much toom. Alternatively, you could use it as an extra packing cube. This one comes with a small waterproof phone case. These are nice to have as a little back up but I no longer trust them in the water after the phone drowning disaster in Croatia. (Click here for that little tale of woe).
The camera on your phone is likely to be great but it cannot do everything. A great DSLR can produce some stunning shots but they are not very hand luggage friendly. I wouldn’t make a heavy camera one of your backpacking gear essentials unless photography is your true passion.
However, I DO suggest bringing some form of action cam or waterproof camera. It is highly likely you will be doing some crazy activities (jumping off cliffs, sliding down waterfalls etc etc etc) and your phone just wouldn’t survive. We love our GoPro, especially since the latest models have the ability to record in linear mode (without the fish eye), wide mode (with the fish eye) and with a pleasing stabilisation which is great for moving shots.
Final Thoughts on These Backpacking Gear Essentials
So now you know backpacking gear esstentials every time I travel, even if it is only a mini backpacking adventure to Belize, or ( to some extent) a city break to Paris. Is there anything you can’t backpack without? We would love you to hear your backpacking gear essentials!