Surprisingly, the longest column on the cult of travel packing list is the one labeled “stuff”. What is all this travel stuff? Well, gadgets of course which we covered in Part 5 and all the extras that can make living out of your backpack a bit easier.
Comfort & convenience
If you’re traveling on a budget, you’ll likely encounter some less than pristine hostels or guest houses along the way. A cotton or silk sleep sack can put and extra layer between you and that nasty hostel sheet or give you a personal cocoon when trying to sleep in a bunk on an overnight train. A pillow case has multiple uses: cover a dirty hostel pillow, laundry bag, stuff with clothing it becomes a pillow.
I’ve tried out several synthetic travel towels and have yet to find one that doesn’t end up smelly even if it’s washed in a machine. These past few years, my travel towel of choice has been one made of thin cotton. It’s light and thin enough to dry in a few hours.
Carrying a small supply of tissue (Kleenex) or toilet paper is a good idea for all the obvious reasons. Toilet paper can be scarce in many budget accommodation and totally non-existent in developing world toilet facilities. Even in Europe, I’ve found myself reaching for my pack of tissues in some “upscale” toilets like at the British Museum.
Earplugs are a must unless you’re the type to sleep through fireworks. Trying to get a good night’s rest can be a challenge in a crowded hostel, on overnight transport or if your room faces a noisy city street. Also helps block out the interesting “sounds” coming from that other bunk in your hostel room. Pack a few pairs, they are very easy to lose or misplace.
Sunglasses are always on my packing list. Bring a cheap pair and leave the expensive designer sunglasses at home if you’re at all uncomfortable with the possibility of losing or damaging them.
To sleeping bag or not too sleeping bag? There are countless arguments for and against. Personally, I’ve never regretted taking a sleeping bag. Even when I’ve only used it a few times, but I tend to sleep “cold”. Many argue that it’s a waste of valuable packing space and that you can always buy one along the way if necessary.
If you do decide to bring a sleeping bag, buy the lightest and most compressible sleeping bag you can afford. Also, choose a bag appropriate for the activities and climate you’ll be experiencing. A sleeping bag that zips open can be used as a blanket which is often more than enough when sleeping indoors. A down filled bag will naturally be lighter and more compressible than synthetic, but down is useless if it gets wet. On the other hand, synthetic bags are much heavier and generally aren’t as warm as a similar weight down filled bag. Using a liner in your sleeping bag, like a sleep sack described above, will also keep you warmer and the inside of your sleeping bag cleaner.
Generally speaking, the more expensive the bag, the better the weight-to-warmth ratio will be. But that’s no reason to spend a fortune. Retailers like MEC (Canada) and REI (USA) carry a wide selection of inexpensive sleeping bags. Getting a good compression sack for your sleeping bag can easily halve the volume of your packed sleeping bag . A compression bag looks identical to a regular stuff sack except that is has straps down the sides that can be tightened to compress the contents.
Sink plugs are a rare commodity in many places. If you plan on hand washing your clothes in a sink, a universal sink plug, the round flat kind, will fit most drains. I’m not a huge fan of those travel clotheslines. They always end up being too short, too long or won’t stay up. A length of nylon (parachute) rope can easily be strung across your room and used to hang clothes. An alternative is to bring a couple of lightweight plastic hangers that can be hung just about anywhere. A small sewing kit can easily be put together from your supplies at home. Wrap some thread around a small piece of cardboard, tuck a couple of needles in and put it, a few spare buttons and some safety pins into an empty film canister or an empty mint tin. I also keep a small pair of folding scissors in my toiletry bag.
Packing a mosquito net is really only necessary for travel through Africa or if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in remote, jungle areas of Asia or South America.
Consult your doctor or travel medicine specialist before leaving home. They’re the best source for information regarding mosquito born illnesses like Malaria and Dengue Fever and affected countries around the world.
Plastic zip ties (cable ties) can be used to keep zippers closed on your backpack in cases where a padlock is not convenient. They can also be used to hang stuff off your pack, secure broken pack straps, etc. A good padlock and plastic coated aircraft cable (or lightweight chain) with secure loops on the ends can secure your backpack to the overhead rack or a pipe when traveling on overnight trains or even in a hostel dorm room. Learn how to make your own backpack cable lock here. Some hostels have lockers and you supply the padlock. A combination lock saves worrying about losing a key.
Safety whistle: a loud, piercing sound can help drive away a would be assailant or at least draw the attention of someone nearby who can help.
A compass is a good accessory to your guidebook maps. These maps are not necessarily the most accurate but you should be able to count on the map’s indication of North. Coupled with your compass, you should be able to navigate even the most labyrinth like city.
Flimsy doors that don’t close properly can be secured using a plastic or wood door stopper. Another trick for securing a door is to jam a knife into the door frame (if there is one) horizontally with the handle laying flat against the door.
I still carry a guidebook, though it seems that even the most recent editions are dated the minute they hit the bookstore shelves. If you need save space and weight, rip out the sections you need and leave the rest at home. I always photocopy often used pages like city maps. It’s so much easier, and a little less conspicuous, walking around a new city with a folded sheet of paper than a big floppy guidebook. For long-term travel through several countries, carrying half a dozen or more guidebooks is really not practical. Many larger towns will have used and new bookshops that carry most popular guidebook series. Another option would be to trade guidebooks or buy them used from other backpackers just arriving from your next destination.
Put together a small writing kit: a notebook or two, a few pens, some elastics, paperclips, sticky notes, and envelopes.
Even if you are an avid reader, you don’t have to use up valued pack space on books. Many hostels and budget hotels have small libraries, usually a bookshelf in the common areas, where you can exchange your finished books for some new ones.
I always pack some extra zip top bags for snacks and to contain leaky toiletry items and a couple of big garbage bags. Use the garbage bag to cover your backpack when it rides on the roof of a vehicle or even as a rain poncho.
And, last but not least, no packing list would be complete without a mention of duct tape! It can be used to fix holes in mosquito nets, backpacks, sinks, repair shoes & books, attach things to your pack and even hold a gauze pad in place. A compact roll can be made by wrapping some tape around a pencil, pen or plastic bottle.
There are tons of other travel gadgets and accessories out there and everyone as their list of essentials. The items described above cover the basics.
What not to pack?
That’s a tough question. Do I carry a multi-tool or knife? For many reason, including constantly changing luggage restrictions on flights, I leave the Swiss Army knife and Leatherman pocket tool at home. If you need or want to carry a pocket knife, consider buying a cheap one locally. Unless you plan on doing a lot of self-catering, leave the travel cutlery and travel dishes at home. Unless you’re doing some serious trekking, leave the hydration bladder (Camelback, Platypus) at home. They really aren’t easy to clean while traveling as they need to dry out properly between uses. Water filtration systems are bulky, complicated and really only necessary if spending long periods of time in very isolated areas without access to bottled water. Water purification tablets take little room and are better than nothing in an emergency situation, though these tablets may not kill all known (or unknown!) parasites and bacteria.
Did I miss anything? Any other travel essential you never leave home without? Use the comment form bellow to share your travel packing tips and questions.
Now, two of the most important travel items have been saved for last: your passport and money!