16 essential backpacking items

Backpackers are perceived to be a bunch of dirty, disorganised hippies (sometimes true) but really, they’re organised and resourceful (and ridiculously good-looking 😉 ). Whether you’re backpacking out of necessity (budget) or for pure enjoyment, backpackers carefully select essential items to help them along the way. Why are they essential you ask? Good question, reader! We’ll show you…

Tasmania's Overland Track
Tasmania’s Overland Track

What makes an item essential?

As this is a blog, this is completely subjective (and naturally, the truth). Each item is essential to our journey for a couple of reasons;

  • Multiple uses
  • Can be used as a substitute (or ‘make do’ item)
  • Creates comfort
  • Saves you money
  • Difference between toasty/cold, healthy/sick, etc
  • May be difficult to buy on the road, whether it’s too expensive or just doesn’t exist
  • Every time, I empty out my backpack, these items are always considered useful and stay in the bag all year around (you could go on an impromptu backpacking trip; you never know, it happens!)

Bag Most Travelled’s Backpacker Essentials

  1. Quick-dry towel – despite the look of the towel in the photo, this is actually a full-sized towel (150x75cm)! Quick drying means less washing time, less drying time and less money spent at the laundromat. It absorbs quickly, is lightweight and can be folded down to the size of my hand. It also doubles as a blanket, cushion when sitting on the ground waiting for a bus that will never come, as well as a pillow. At a stretch, you could use it to cover your head and shoulders (or around your waist to cover your legs) when visiting temples and other sacred sites.
  2. Snap-lock bag (also known as clip-seal bags) – securely carry your liquids and aerosols for international flights (read more here). Otherwise, use the bags to carry your sandwich, snacks, used tissues, loose objects (like jewellery, safety pins, bobbby pins), use as a glove, the options are endless! If we were lucky enough to stay somewhere that provided breakfast, we’d sneak an extra bread roll or piece of fruit for later. The bags can help you to comply with the principles of Leave No Trace when camping or out in the wilderness.

    * Practical tip: Don’t forget to label your snap-lock bags, otherwise someone could steal your cheese! Hard-boiled eggs in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (El Camino de Santiago)
  3. Journal – I write all the time. So, having a journal (at least, a scrap of paper) is essential and important for recording your thoughts, writing map directions or getting a new friend’s email address. You can read our post about the Reasons You Should Keep a Travel Journal. No further explanation necessary. You’re welcome 🙂
  4. Pen – Without Ben, there would be no Jerry, and that is madness. Paper is always accompanied by pen. If you don’t want to keep a journal (fine, it’s your lost 😛 ) but at the very least, you will need to complete your immigration and customs forms, as well as your luggage tag (since you forgot to do it at home). One time I forgot to bring a pen on the aeroplane and when I asked the flight attendant to borrow hers, not only did she look at me with her judging eyes, I’m pretty sure, she said ‘amateur’ (in her head).
  5. Sleeping bag liner – Unless I’m planning to camp or travel somewhere extremely cold, I don’t bring a sleeping bag (it reduces unnecessary packing, therefore unnecessary weight), but I do bring a liner. Mine is pre-soaked in insect repellent to deter those pesky mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies. Not only do they make comfy bed sheets (especially when arrive late in a hostel and don’t want to make too much noise), the liners also double as somewhere to get dressed, a cushion, pillow, nest, hood and hiding place. I bought mine from Sea to Summit (which just happens to be Western-Australian based) and contains CoolMax fabric which is wicks the sweat away, breathable and easy to care for.

    Arriving at 3am into a hostel. Don’t make enemies, just get into your liner and go to sleep! Photo taken in London, England
  6. Solar light – bright, light-weight, doesn’t use batteries and water-resistant. What more could you want? If you’re lucky, some are strobes, degrees of brightness or blink out SOS. One of the more commonly forgotten travel items, but always receives the most compliments.

    *Practical tip: Hang your solar light to the outside of your backpack (or secure on the dashboard of your car) during the day, so it’s always charges and ready to go! Photo taken on Tasmania’s Overland Track, Australia
  7. Cable ties (also known as zip tie or hose tie) – used as an improvised bag lock, to secure things to the outside of your backpack, or hold your backpack together when it’s falling apart. Cable ties have endless uses. Just chuck a few in the external pocket of the luggage, you never know when they might come in handy!
  8. Pegs – hang your washing, close your unfinished bag of chips or peg your nose. Again, lots of uses, I carry two in my backpack.
  9. Bag clips – Same as above (and of course, easily interchangeable. You don’t need to bring both), but I also used one as a substitute to put my hair into a ponytail when it was getting too long.
  10. Toilet paper – For bathroom or snot emergencies. Many public toilets are BYO toilet paper. I’ve even used a roll as a seat cushion whilst waiting for a train (when times are tough, you have to improvise!)
  11. Swiss army knife (multi purpose tool) – There are many combinations of tools and gadgets on an army knife. Macgyver always used his knife to get himself out of trouble and save the day, I can’t see why you can’t do the same. Check out which models he used here. We’ll just stick to making sandwiches, opening packages and tightening lose bolts.

    A decent knife makes a delicious sandwich.
  12. Underwear – From a comfort point of view, some countries just don’t have your size and fashion sense, so bring your most comfortable, breathable and easiest to wash pairs of undies. Rob always says one to wear, one to wash and one in case of emergencies. Keep a spare pair in your external luggage pockets, you never know when an emergency could arise!
  13. Packaging tape (also known as sticky tape or cello tape) – for anything that requires sticking down, from loose notes in your journal to parcels you send home to your backpacking falling apart. I once saw a guy who had torn a hole in his jeans, so he simply patched it up with duct tape!

    Sending parcels home. Even though I securely taped it, Customs had to inspect my trinkets. Parcel sent from Zagreb, Croatia
  14. Reusable bag – be a good global citizen and recycle. Using a reusable bag is not only stronger than paper or plastic, you reduce waste. Some countries are on top of this, and will not offer any carry bags (Kudos Tasmania and South Africa!). Mine is a collapsible bag that tucks up into itself, which is awesome for saving space.
  15. Plastic grocery bag – If you don’t have a collapsible bag, a plastic bag is fine. Reusing it is a good compromise and of course, you can squeeze it into your pocket or any other tiny crevice. On my first backpacking trip, I developed a chest infection that was causing me to cough. I was on a long-haul train trip and there was always a long queue for the bathroom. One time I coughed so hard that I had something that needed to come up and luckily, I had my plastic bag to catch it. You can just use your imagination.
  16. First aid kit – western medicine and feminine hygiene items can be difficult to acquire in countries where it is not common. Bring single doses and sample amounts, if it you want to conserve space. Remember to check expiry dates every now and again. We even had a pocket-sized first aid book with us. *Practical tip: Here’s a downloadable, printable one just for you here and the best part, it’s FREE! We pack our medicines and book into a plastic lunch box to avoid getting crushed or rolling around loosely in the bottom of our backpacks.

Important note about health:

Always make your health=your number one priority coz if you’re sick, it’s really difficult to travel (or worse, you could have to cut your travels short and go home!). Consider your regular prescription medications and supplements. These might not be as accessible on the road, or could be a banned substance in the country you’re travelling to. Consult the travel doctor and make sure your vaccinations are up to date. For example, it’s a requirement to show proof of your yellow fever vaccination after you return from South America. Bring your prescription documentation with you, think about refrigeration and mostly importantly, have travel insurance as well as keep the emergency assistance numbers and references numbers handy.

Other items worth taking:

  • Hand sanitiser (could be part of your first aid kid)
  • Dry sacks
  • Padlock (for hostel lockers)
  • Earplugs
  • USB charger
  • Universal adapter
  • Pillow case liner (water-proof)

Ready. Set. Go!

We’re always working on improving our essentials list. So, feel free to pick and choose items from our list that suit the type of trip you’re taking. As the saying goes, hope for the best, plan for the worst, don’t stress if you forget something coz at the end of the day, if you’ve got your passport and access to money/credit cards you’re set 🙂

Tell us about your essentials. We’d love to know if you pack similar things.

Happy packing