The Bare Necessities: A Beginner (and Frequent) Traveler’s Guide to Perfect Packing for a Backpacking Trip

It’s like the bear in that movie says: the simple bare necessities of life are all that is needed. It’s no less true for travel than for the other, less interesting parts of our lives. Truly, the planning and executing of trips of significant duration is an art form. It’s a trick to pack enough of the right items so that, for weeks on end, the traveler isn’t caught unprepared, while simultaneously keeping the pack to a manageable weight. If it begins to rain, does the traveler in question coolly pull out a lightweight jacket arranged in the pack so as to be easily accessible in that instance, or does she or he panic, running for the nearest overhanging roof and hoping desperately for the squall to pass quickly? Does the traveler have a secure place, inaccessible to pickpocketing bandits, in which to stash money, train tickets, and passport? Perhaps the greatest threat to the Prepared Backpacker is overpacking to the point at which it becomes impossible to hoof it those two kilometers from the train station to the hostel.

Collected from experience and random searches on the interwebs, here’s my checklist of necessities for a lengthy (or short) backpacking trip:

The Backpack. The backpack, being the most basic of basic necessities for a backpacking trip, should be big, but not too big. The traveler should find that Red-Riding-Hood happy medium that is just right in size and functionality for the journey ahead. 40-45 liters has been my pack size for the last two years, and that seems to be a happy medium between the massive, two-heads-tall packs some kids carry around and the day packs that are clearly too small for the job. It should have a frame, ideally with a mesh backing to put some space between the traveler’s back and the bulk of the pack itself.

Clothing. Probably the second most basic of bare necessities required for any journey. The traveler, if the traveler wishes not to be arrested, may only appear in (most) public places fully clothed. (Unless the traveler is headed to Australia. Apparently, anything goes there.) When it comes to the “what” and “how much” of packing, it’s good to follow a rule of thumb: clothing is heavy; clothing can be reworn and can be washed clean of sweat and pretzel crumbs. Concordantly, the Prepared Backpacker should not pack more than is needed for four or five days. This rule of thumb assumes the traveler is visiting a modernized country, complete with laundromats available to keep the traveler smelling (mostly) fresh and feeling (basically) clean. Pack for four to five days, and pack clothing made for traveling: underwear made from synthetic blends, which are very easy to wash in a sink and to dry overnight; lightweight shirts that wick sweat away from the body and do not retain that moisture; and no more than two or three pairs of pants – ideally, one pair of jeans, which can be reworn for many days running without a wash – and a pair or two of synthetic travel pants. These, too, should wick and not retain sweat. Some good brands to consider for clothing are Kuhl, Ex Officio, Columbia, Arc’teryx, and – for those on a more restrictive (but by no means cheap) budget – REI-brand travel clothing. Ex Officio and REI seem to be the only real competitors in the travel underwear market – please correct me if you’ve found otherwise. The clothing of the Prepared Traveler should be packed by the tried-and-true roll-and-seal-in-a-gallon-bag method, or by rolling and placing the lot into what are called packing cubes – a recent discovery of mine. The latter look nice and are much more wear-and-tear resistant, but are not nearly as compressible as are gallon bags with the air forced out of them. Ah yes, and you’ll need that squishable, packable rain jacket, as well.

Shoes. Hiking shoes (Merrell, Keen, etc.) are the best for all of the walking the traveling backpacker will need to do on lengthy trips. Don’t expect to be let into fancy restaurants or theater-hosted symphonies, however, while you’re wearing these kinds of shoes. If you must, bring a nicer, second pair. But remember: shoes are heavy, and you probably don’t need more than one good pair. The Truly Prepared Traveler carries a second pair of shoelaces, but these can be acquired with relative ease in most cities if it comes to it and the Prepared Traveler is, in this case, not prepared.

First Aid. The Prepared Traveler keeps a basic, lightweight, travelers’ first-aid kit. It will include (or you may need to add) pain reliever, sleep inducer, dormmate silencer, bandaids, and the like. If you’ve ever had a serious allergic attack, bring that epi-pen along, too.

Sleeping Accountrements. Most people don’t think too hard about this one, but ignore it at your peril. The Prepared Traveler carries a sleep mask to shield early morning sunlight and 3am explosions of full-room brightness (when less-prepared dormmates stumble in for the night). The Prepared Traveler also brings earplugs (just a few dollars for 20-packs of the foam variety at your local supermarket or drugstore) to block out the unwanted invasions of sleep guaranteed by hallway doors slamming, squeaky bed frames, and vocal midnight assignations in the bunk across the way from where you had hoped for a decent night’s rest. Last in this category, the Prepared Traveler carries with her or him some kind of sleep aid; these are to be used to combat jetlag and are to be used sparingly as the need arises.

Bathroom Needs. If one wishes to be truly prepared, and to avoid fees at hostels that do not provide towels (and many, in fact, do not) free of charge, one should carry a chamois-style bathroom towel. They are lightweight, pack small, and can be acquired online or at any outdoor outfitter. They dry quickly, too, which is important, because you’ll usually be attempting to ready this bare necessity for your morning departure by slinging it over an open window or bunk frame. Cotton absorbs moisture and does not dry quickly, so unless you want a too-heavy backpack that will eventually smell like the mildew spores you’re colonizing on your towel, do not pack a cotton bath towel. The smelly traveler (if you have to ask, you are one of these) should always carry deodorant. One of course needs a toothbrush; though if you’re looking to save weight, wait until you arrive at your destination to purchase toothpaste. Floss will be a nice addition to your supplies, too, when you arrive. Don’t purchase shampoo or soap until you reach that faraway land, either. These things weigh quite a lot. (On a related note, the Prepared Traveler does web searches before her or his trip to ensure to choose hostels and apartments near enough a grocery store or apothecary to acquire the items excluded from the packing list).

Entertainment (What Not to Bring Along). Leave all physical books at home, other than perhaps a journal in which you will keep an annoyingly detailed diary. Leave your desktop and 15” laptop at home, too. All of these items weigh too much to justify your bringing them, and if you happen to find a small paperback in a cute little bookshop on your trip, don’t you want to have enough energy to feel as though you’ll be able to add its weight to your pack without risking aneurysm or heart failure? (And What To Bring.) Bring some earbuds – not bulky, noise-canceling headphones, assuming you followed my advice about earplugs. Don’t forget a few power converters suitable to your destination – they’re cheap and the simple ones are lightweight, so take a few extra with you when you go. Put any power cords and electronic support items in another gallon bag and keep them together at all times.

Lock and Lamp. The only other items important to hostel-based travel are a lock for cabinets, lockers, and storage trunks and a backpacking/camping headlamp. You’ll want the latter for nighttime access (minus sleep-interruption to dormmates) to your belongings. The former should not be massive and heavy, obviously. You’ll want to keep your essentials along with crucial travel documents out of the hands of your mostly friendly but sneaky, sneaky neighbors – (they’re really friendly, but the Prepared Travel is not to be caught unawares by the exception to the standard rule of expectation). A combination lock is a lot better of a bet for your own sanity than a lock whose key you will lose in a communal bathroom drain.

The Less Concrete Items You’ll Need. The Prepared Traveler notifies credit card companies and the State Department of intended destinations. Doing the former will allow one to spend money while abroad, and doing the latter will register you to receive travel alerts (“Soccer Riot in Barcelona!” “Coup in Canada!”), and, if something big and bad happens in your locale while you’re abroad, your government will know to look for (and, hopefully, to extract) you from said bad circumstances. The Prepared Traveler also does some googling and pays a nominal fee to a reputable firm for what is called travelers’ insurance. This means that, if you require hospitalization while you’re abroad, or if your cruise ship explodes and you perish, you (or your family) will be compensated for the expenses you (or they, on your behalf) incur. You’ll also need to bring along your wits and your firm constitution – especially if this is your first trip.

A Note About Cell Phones. At least at present, my current provider (AT&T) only sells 3-month bundles of international service, and this comes at a premium. If you have an unlocked phone and want to use data (to access street maps, perhaps?), you can replace your sim card with an international one. Your best bet, if you want to remain in radio silence or cannot acquire an international data package, is to carry your phone with you but to leave it on airplane mode, if you leave it on at all. Be sure, just in case you switch off airplane mode by mistake, to set your phone’s settings not to use its international roaming capability, or you may find yourself with an unexpected and large phone bill following your trip. Keep in mind that the internet is not so widely accessible in Europe as it is in the states, and is less so elsewhere. Do not expect to find your way through your usual means, if you are as heavily reliant on map applications as am I. Use that notebook you’ve packed to write down walking instructions, and collect city maps at train terminals.

You, another Prepared Traveler, will likely wish to add to or subtract from my list. Please post below in the comments section if there’s something in particular without which you cannot manage. As I’m in the process of packing right now, it’s entirely possible – and is a very real concern – that I’m forgetting something terribly important.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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3 Responses to The Bare Necessities: A Beginner (and Frequent) Traveler’s Guide to Perfect Packing for a Backpacking Trip

  1. I love that you have started this post with a jungle book song haha! My favourite! Thank you for some ideas, I’m heading to South East Asia in October and it’s my first backpacking trip so I am reading lots of packing blogs!

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