Backpacking can be a strenuous way to travel, especially if you over-pack, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. What goes into your small bag of treasures and comforts will make all the difference when you’re knee deep in your long journey, but what to pack will depend largely on where – and when – you’re going. You’ll want to cover your basics (food, water and shelter), though you likely won’t need a fire starter or a reflective blanket if you’re not hiking through the wilderness. So, what are the universal things any savvy backpacker should carry? Begin with these eight core items, and build out from there according to your specific itinerary.
If you’re trekking into the desert, you’ll probably need a sizable waterskin, but a durable water bottle is a better idea for city travel. It’s bad for the environment and your budget to rely solely on bottled water, and even in countries where you may shy away from the local reservoir, there’s often potable water offered in communal spaces. Bring along a medium size metal water bottle that can fit in your backpack pocket or clip on to it easily; anything over 750ml will probably prove too heavy to cart around when full. Alternatively, you can invest in a flexible plastic water bottle that can flatten right out when empty, which will hardly take up any space at all.
Sure, some places offer linens and towels, but it’s best not to count on that. Plus, when you have your own towel, you know exactly where’s it’s been, and where it can go: a thin, soft towel can double as a blanket, or folded up, a pillow to use on a train or plane. A Turkish bath towel (also known as a pestemal towel) is a good option, since these are typically quite large but roll up very small. Quick-drying towels can be a bit scratchy, but they certainly get the job done, and can be packed back up in a couple of hours.
Even if you’re not a prolific writer, a little soft-cover notebook is never a bad idea. If you feel the need to record a momentous occasion or a particularly good day, you can jot it down right away, and when the pages are already marked with the date, it serves as a perfect reference. But a notebook is a good repository for important information, too. You can plug in phone numbers, addresses, upcoming tasks and other personal reminders that could make or break your schedule down the road. Whatever you end up writing down, your notebook will be a charming souvenir of your travels once you circle back to your regular routine.
Light rain jacket
You can’t stop the rain from falling, but you can protect yourself from the chilling, soaking results. A heavy, high-tech rain jacket will likely take up far too much space, but a lightweight waterproof shell should give you the protection you need without weighing down your pack. Find one with a hood and a couple of pockets – better to keep your maps and money nice and dry, too – and practice folding it up before you buy it so you know it won’t be too bulky. Paired with a soft base layer, your shell should help you keep out the chill.
You never know when the lights will fail you – and you don’t want to be left in the dark. Losing your map, missing your train, or following the wrong street can land you into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation if the sun goes down, and your prospective roommates will be pretty annoyed if you’re turning on the lights in the middle of the night. Luckily, a little flashlight can help you get back on track: choose a lightweight version that takes few batteries (AA, if possible, since these are fairly prevalent wherever you wander), and can slide easily into your daypack, pocket, or keychain. LED flashlights typically last the longest and shine the brightest.
It can be painful to shell out a small fortune on a few pairs of socks, but these are some of the most important accessories you can bring along. Whether you’re hiking up hills or trekking through a labyrinth of cobbled streets, your feet need to stay cushioned and comfortable if you want to keep enjoying your surroundings instead of tending to blisters. Merino wool is the gold standard: in warm or cool temperatures, it will wick moisture away from the skin, eliminate odors, and dry quickly. You should be able to stretch a good pair of socks for two or three days before they need washing.
Dark colored clothing
No matter where you’re going, you’re not going to be taking a different outfit for every day you’re away. Even if you have ambitious wardrobe plans at the get-go, you’ll soon discover that the absence of convenient laundromats (and your lack of will to visit them) throws off your stylish intentions. Instead, focus on a few pairs of pants, a handful of shirts, and a couple of sweaters or cardigans – all in fairly dark colors. Navy blue, charcoal gray, black and brown will hide dirt well, and are basic enough to pair well together. A couple of colourful accessories can add some interest and style to your neutral palette.
Thermal base layer
Whether you’re travelling through snow-capped mountains or simply suspect that there may be a few chilly nights ahead, a thermal base layer is a very good idea. It should be thin and stretchy and comfy, layering easily under your other clothing and folding up tightly. A light merino long-sleeve can even be nice on a sunny day, when the risk of sunburn is high and you don’t want to worry about reapplying lotion. It will also be soft enough to wear as pajamas in a dorm room of a hostel or in a tent under the stars.
There are plenty of other excellent backpacking accessories out there, and if you can afford to include some extra gadgets, go for it. Just be sure to honestly consider how and when you see yourself using the item before you commit, since every extraneous piece of clothing or equipment is bound to get in your way (and on your nerves). On the other hand, a set of ear plugs, a sink stopper, and a few re-sealable bags are cheap and packable additions that will likely come in handy wherever your journey takes you.