There are plenty of backpacking checklists out there, reminding you to take your toothbrush and your insect repellent to your far-flung exotic destination. Useful as these can be for backpacking beginners, that's not what you'll find here.
We're not going to write down everything we think you'll need because at the end of the day that's up to you. You might be a lipstick and berkenstock backpacker or the ice pick and GPS watch kind. What you prioritise in your travel gear is up to you. But if you are starting out on te backbacker circuit, these are 10 items that will separate you from the travel amateaurs.
10 items that every backpacker needs...
1. A water purifier
Useful if: you want to help the environment, promote sustainable travel and save money if you're going away for a long time
Not bringing a water purifier with us on our overland adventure was one of our main travel purchase regrets. In just a two week holiday, you can get through a LOT of plastic bottles (which you should do of course, to stay hydrated). But not only do many countries not have the resources to recycle them, bottled water is 1000x worse for the environment than drinking tap water, true story.
There are loads of types of inexpensive water purifiers and they'll actually save you money so it's a win win! Invest in one and feel like a backpacking pro.
2. Sandwich bags
Useful for: absolutely everything
Ok so not the most enironmental suggestion but hear me out. Need to shield your toiletry bag from shampoo explosions? Sandwich bags. Protect your phone/book/kindle on the beach? Sandwich bag. Snacks for a long-distance bus rides? Sandwich bag. Touching something unhygienic? Sandwich bag glove. No rubbish bin by your tent or hotel room (*cough* India *cough*)? Sandwich bag bin.
Need a clean surface to prepare food? Sandwich bag plate. How about keeping food warm while you cook on a camping stove? Sandwich bag. Or keeping your feet dry in wet shoes? Ok, you may need tiny feet like mine for that one but you get my point; The possibilities are endless. A true backpacking esential if ever there was one.
3. Head scarf / bed sheet / large, thin rectangular piece of cloth
Useful if: you're a woman visiting conservative countries, and any gender that sleeps
For women visiting conservative countries, a headscarf is invaluable. Although I can count on one hand the amount of times I actually wore it over my head, it's a great accessory for general modesty – you can get away with vest tops if you wear it over your shoulders, or shorts if you have the ability to cover up at a moments notice. It's a much cooler, lighter and more versatile option than clothing and frees up a lot of backpack space. Other uses include a sarong or beach towel for the beach and a bed sheet or blanket on overnight journeys (or if your hotel/hostel bedsheets are not to your standards– India, I'm looking at you).
4. Maps.me (app)
Useful for: always knowing where you are, not getting ripped off by taxi drivers and general safety
If there's one backpacking tool we've recommended more than any other, it's this app. It truly is a travel essential. This app's offline maps and GPS system has saved us a few times. If you like exploring places on foot, or even just want to walk to/from the station to your hostel, maps.me makes navigating so much easier. We've even successfully used it on a few hiking trails.
Having something that fully functions without 4G or wifi is also great for security, as you can easily track your whereabouts in taxis and make sure you're heading the right way. It can take a little while to wake up after you've travelled a long distance, but usually after the classic 'on-again-off-again' routine, it finds you. Yes we know Google has offline maps, but there's something about maps.me that makes it a very easy and reliable method of knowing where you are. Plus it takes up 0 backpack space!
Useful for: visas, money exchanges, security
As in actual USD. If you always have a little float of Washingtons to see you through, you're practically invincible. In lands without ATMs, it's usually the preferred currency of money exchanges, and often the only currency on offer. If you're applying for any visas, or visas on arrival, on the road as well, USD seems to be the universal language of international admin. Your spare cash or emergency money should always be in USD. Some foreign ATMs offer USD as an alternative currency so look out for places to replenish your stock!
Useful for: souvenirs, keep-sakes and back pain
There's a lot of backpacking checklists out there telling you what to bring. But sometimes, less is more. No matter how many time you say you "travel light", it's pretty inevitable that a few keep-sakes and gifts are going end up fighting for a place in your backpack. I was so happy when I finally got a year's worth of belongings to comfortably squish inside my bag, I immediately filled the free space I created with a few extra items of clothing I didn't want to choose between. What I should have done, however, was leave that gap for clothes I would want later, instead of having to wrestle my bag closed at least once every three days. Prioritise anything you KNOW you won't be able to buy where you're going (which probably won't amont to that much) and go from there.
7. Bag inception
Useful for: make-shift backpack compartments, waterproofing
The best tip I have for a backpacking beginner is separate your stuff into different bags within your backpack. For unorganised people like me, it really helps you not let all your worldly possessions explode over hostel dorm room.
We know you can buy fancy bag dividers in outdoors shops, but we make do with flimsy, Ikea style zipped nylon bags of various sizes. A separate bag for electrical wires, toiletries, socks, underwear, a meshed one for washing and a large, more expensive waterproof one for the bulk of everything else gets me by. Colour-coded, of course.
8. Very, very small pieces of home
Useful for: making conversation, having something to offer
This can be really difficult, especially if you're going away for a long time. A few sweets from your country will go down well but may not last long! Photos are a must, a few passport ones of your friends and family can do wonders to break language barriers. A lot of people we've met have also been interested in British coins, so maybe bring a bit of loose change from your home country to give to people? Whatever you are prepared to carry really!
9. A folder for important documents
Useful for: not losing important documents
Obviously important documents are a travel essential, but some of us *Alex* are better at organising them than others *me*. Somewhere water and damage proof to put important pieces of paper and tickets is a must. I have a plastic wallet that is now in tatters and it's contents aren't in much better condition. Alex's hard plastic folder is still fresh as a daisy.
Things like insurance info, the yellow fever booklet nobody ever asks for, international drivers permit, flight confirmations should all go in here if you want people to know you're not a backpacking amateur. Good additions are also passport photos (maybe cheaper to get on the road) and photocopies of your passport/visas.
10. Backpacking essentials for campers, hikers or shoestring travellers
1. Clothes Pegs
Useful for: hand-washing
A few clothes pegs don't take up much space in your bag and are pretty versatile. You can use them to hang your stuff if you wash your own clothes on the road (or your towel if you're camping). Plus, they double up as bag/ crisp packet sealers.
Useful for: Emergencies
Spare laces are good for hikers because if you're on a multi-day hike and your shoelaces break, what are you going to do? To be honest, we've never needed them, but they have come in useful for other things like securing the tent.
4. A tiny spice dispenser
Useful for: Flavouring boring camp food
Ok, this is a bit of a weird one. My good friend Dorka once gave me a tiny, plastic spice shaker as a parting travel gift and I lost it somewhere, only to discover that a little salt to flavour your camping food can go a long way. So instead of taking a tiny salt shaker with us and stocking up when the opportunity arose, we lugged around a massive sandwich bag of salt for about 2 months, which is awkward, heavy and gets you some very suspicious looks at border control. A tiny spice dispenser can help you eat very plain food while your camping, or maybe even make some local cuisine you're not a fan of a bit more bearable.