Heading off travelling or backpacking for the first time? Unsure of what to pack? Well as a rule of thumb, most people pack way too much. While it is tempting to pile in everything you think you might need and all your favourite items, you will soon regret it once you’re rushing around in the sweltering heat of some far-off destination trying to find somewhere to stay, not to mention on crowded train and bus journeys with luggage racks that aren’t quite big enough for your beast of a backpack. Below, we’ll look at what to take backpacking around the world if you’re heading off on a big trip.
Step one though, is to first get yourself a good quality backpack as you’re going to be living out of it for the duration of your trip. Shop around and choose one that is comfortable, strong but not too heavy. One with a waterproof cover that you can pull out if needs be is a major bonus as rains can be torrential in many places. You can find good quality backpacks and a huge variety of travel items on the web but it’s useful to see how it feels first before buying it. If it’s not comfortable empty, then chances are, it won’t be when it is full!
If you are only going on a shorter trip, then consider getting a smaller backpack that you won’t need to check into hold on planes, which can often be seriously expensive on many airlines. If you’re just travelling for a few weeks and your trip will involve several flights, you may be wise to opt for an ultralight backpacking checklist, but this article is mostly geared towards long-term travellers who will be backpacking for several months.
What to take backpacking around the world – Points to Remember
1) There are shops in every town in every country in the world. They sell pretty much the same stuff as shops back home and if you’re from an expensive country, items will often be much cheaper abroad. If you forget something, you can always buy it when you’re abroad and if you’re unsure as to whether you’re going to need it then it’s probably best to leave it at home. It’s better to pack too little than too much initially, as long as you remember the absolute essential items (passport, documents etc).
2) Leave a bit of space in your backpack as you will no doubt find some exciting gifts or other delights that you want to buy while you’re travelling and you don’t want to be throwing stuff away just because you packed too much. It’s also worth noting that while you may have time to perfectly fold your clothes and squeeze everything in when you first pack for your trip, you may not have the patience to do that every time you pack up and move to a new place. That may be 50+ times if you’re on a long trip around South America for example, so you don’t want such a tight fit that it’s a struggle to get everything in every time you leave a hostel.
3) Consider the climate of the places you’re going. This is pretty obvious, but even if you’re just visiting hot and sunny countries, it’s a good idea to pack at least one set of warm clothes. Nights can be chilly in many hot countries and even if you have a planned itinerary, it will almost certainly change. Buses and hostels do sometimes like to blast out the air-con too so wherever you’re going, have options to wrap up warm if you need to.
4) There are laundry facilities everywhere, particularly in destinations popular with backpackers. In some cases, you can even wash your clothes for free in your hostel. Perhaps plan on washing your clothes every 7 days so take this into account when packing.
5) US Dollars are accepted or the reserve currency in many countries, so even if you’re not from the States having $40 or so stashed away somewhere is useful for emergencies. Other currencies may be harder to exchange, with Euros your next best bet for a reserve fund. If you are only planning to visit one or two countries, the local currency will be a better option.
6) You will almost certainly lose things while you are travelling and if you are particularly unlucky you may have some belongings stolen. Don’t bring anything you really couldn’t bear to lose and try to keep valuables to a minimum otherwise you are increasing your chances of being the victim of theft (remember that other travellers as well as locals can steal). Bring a padlock and use lockers in hostels whenever possible. Read our hostels guide if you’re not sure what to expect from typical backpacker accommodation.
Packing Checklist for Backpackers – Essentials
- Money – A debit/credit card plus a bit of cash is a good starting point. However you want to choose one of the best debit cards for travellers to ensure you don’t get burned by high exchange rates and other fees. You can get some local currency before you go or when you arrive at your destination – consider keeping a small stash of cash hidden in your backpack for emergencies. Your exact approach will depend on your destination though as while some countries have fully embraced contactless and mobile payments, others retain mostly cash-based cultures. Do your research before you travel.
- Documents – Your passport is the most important document so take good care of it. It may also be wise to carry a photocopy of your passport, a record of any vaccinations you’ve had and a few passport sized photos. You may also need to obtain some visas while backpacking, although these will most likely either be attached to your passport or available digitally. Any relevant youth or student ISIC cards may also be useful to carry.
- Daytime Wear – Pack for maybe 7 days worth of clothes. You can always do laundry when travelling.
- Evening Wear – This will depend a bit more on the individual. Most popular backpacker nightspots are fairly casual affairs where t-shirts, shorts and casual dresses are perfectly fine but if you plan on going to fancier bars or clubs, you may want to pack one slightly smarter outfit.
- Location-specific clothes – What to pack for a backpacking trip in Europe is not the same as what you may need in Southeast Asia. Research the climate in the countries or regions you are travelling to and pack accordingly! If you’re on a long trip and will be visiting various regions, you may want to prioritise the place/s you’ll be spending the first couple of months in and purchase anything else later on. For example, you don’t want to be lugging a bunch of hiking gear and warm clothes around Southern Thailand as you hop between sun-soaked islands. If you’re going to be in cities or a cooler climate for some period first, you can probably buy things like swimwear and sunglasses later on.
- Underwear – This shouldn’t take up much room in your backpack so again make sure you have at least a week’s worth of underwear. This is something you should typically be able to buy quite cheaply if you need more – socks do have a mysterious habit of going missing!
- Shoes – Lightweight flip-flops are a nice option if you’ll be spending time by the beach and may come in handy in hot countries or just around the hostel even if you’re not. A sturdy pair of trainers/hiking boots is also advisable with perhaps one more lightweight casual option.
- Towel – Some places will give you a towel but not all hostels do so it’s useful to have one for your showering needs and maybe another that you don’t mind getting messy. Again lightweight options are highly advisable as thicker towels can take up a lot of room.
- Toiletries – Take bare essentials but don’t pack for 6 months, even if you’re on a long trip. Just buy more toothpaste, sunscreen, shower gel and such like when you run out.
- First Aid – On an active backpacking trip of any length, there’s a decent chance you will at some point fall ill or suffer minor problems like blisters. It’s best to be prepared for this rather than ending up needing to locate pharmacies in unfamiliar foreign countries when you are ill. Plasters, diarrhea pills, paracetamol, contraception and malaria tablets will most likely be easier to find in your own country before travelling and won’t take up much space in your backpack.
- A Lock – Take a small lock for lockers in dorms as they aren’t always provided and thefts do happen in hostels. You may also want one for your backpack if it’s easily locked.
- Music/Podcasts/Books – The less glamorous side of backpacking trips is the many, many hours spent on buses, trains, boats and planes, getting from A to B. You’ll want something to keep you occupied but try to avoid taking expensive electronic devices if possible. Many hostels run book exchanges where you can deposit a book when you have finished reading it and take a new one, so maybe start out with only a couple of books if you’re a big reader.
- Adaptor – Worldwide adaptors are a sound investment for any multi-country trip. There are about 4 or 5 major socket types in the world and there is occasionally some variation even within countries. For peace of mind, it’s easier just to buy a worldwide one before you leave home.
What else might you need?
- A Guidebook – A guidebook can be very useful but it also takes something away from the randomness and excitement of travel. Almost every backpacker seems to have a shoestring guide which does come in handy if you’re on a tight budget but believe it or not, it is possible to travel without a copy of the latest Lonely Planet. Many of the big guidebooks have not been updated since before the pandemic anyway and are likely to contain a lot of inaccurate information.
- Mobile Phone – It’s fair to say most 20 or 30-somethings these days wouldn’t contemplate going anywhere without their mobile. You certainly don’t need an absolute top of the range phone to go backpacking, but if you do have one, be sure to take good care of it (and preferably get travel insurance). Taking your mobile will help with getting from A to B by using apps like Google Maps. It’s probably worth getting your phone unlocked before you travel and getting a local sim in any countries you will be spending a reasonable length of time in.
- Camera – Advances in mobile cameras in recent years mean most travellers won’t need an actual camera, unless you’re really into your photography. Be careful when taking pictures in busy or seemingly unsafe areas though as it’s an easy way to attract unwanted attention.
- Laptop/Ipad – This is something that you probably shouldn’t bring backpacking unless you are looking to work a bit online whilst travelling. If that’s you, don’t take anything too heavy or too large. There are internet cafes everywhere and almost all hostels have internet/wifi so it’s easy enough to keep in touch with people back home using your phone or hostel/cafe computers.
In truth, most travellers these days don’t go abroad without some tech in addition to the more essential backpacking gear listed above. There are clearly advantages to travelling with the latest gadgets. It’s advisable to not take all your most expensive items though as they can make you an easy target for thieves.
If you do travel with some of these items, try not to flash them in areas where thieves may operate, particularly if you obviously stand out as a foreigner/tourist. Apply common sense and never leave your gadgets unattended in hostels. Use lockers and pay a bit more to stay in well-reviewed hostels if you’re travelling with a lot of expensive items.
There are plenty of other things you could consider taking if you’ve got room left in your backpack. A lightweight hammock for example can come in handy on the road or you may want to look into a tent/other hiking equipment if you plan to camp out which can help you save money on accommodation.
Remember not to pack so much that you can’t even carry your backpack though! Go for a walk in your local area with it on and see how it feels. Remember it will most likely be much harder when you’re tired and hungry after a long bus journey in a hotter climate than your own!
This long term backpacking packing list was last updated in March 2023.