When preparing yourself for a few weeks or even months on the road, oftentimes the hardest part, even more than planning the details of where you’ll go, is what to take. Certainly for me, I kept finding new and essential items to have in my bag. Each time I walked into REI, I’d walk out with another few hundred dollars’ worth of stuff I just HAD to have. Each article I’d read on the subject would list endlessly new ‘must haves’.
So what really are the key elements to deciding what to take? First, determine what your trip intends to accomplish. Are you blogging? Are you a photographer? Is it a spiritual journey? Is it just for fun? Once you’ve established your intended purpose, consider where you’re going and what climate you can expect. These analyses will help you focus on what’s meaningful, and what’s excess. Our goal? Pack as lightly as possible.
Let’s start by creating a list of categories:
Now we’ll look into each category. Trust me, you’ll list out more than you need. The best advice I’ve heard is this:
Lay out what you’re going to take. Take half of it. Then double how much money you’re allotting for the trip.
Below is what I’m taking for 6 months in Latin America. It’s minimal, but I know I’ll be able to buy anything I need cheaply, and easily dispose/donate what I find unnecessary.
- 2 pairs of shoes, no more. Having ones that serve multiple purposes is key. Comfortable walking shoes that can also be good for a hike off the beaten path and strutting around a metropolitan area is key. For me these are my Nike Free running shoes. They weigh nothing, fold any which way, and allow me to go on a morning run, out to lunch in the city, explore a ruin, and hike a trail. Next, sandals that you can wear on the beach and comfortably walk around a city. Vans or Converse in lieu of the runners or sandals. Considering hiking boots? Really assess whether you’ll be hiking enough to justify bringing bulky, heavy shoes. If you’ll use them at least 40% of the trip, then yes. If you’ll be doing a single hike that could be done in your runners, scratch them off the list. Last, if you’ve got the space, consider a pair of mildly dressy shoes. But if you’re pressed for space or reaching your weight limit, cut them. You’d be surprised how inexpensive it is to buy shoes in South East Asia or Latin America.
- Socks: Moisture wicking athletic socks (3 pairs should do). Also SmartWool socks if you’ll be hiking. They’re durable and can be worn several times between washes.
- Underwear: Cotton is out (includes shirts and socks). It’s bulky, heavy, retainsmoisture and bacteria, and should be left at home. I recommend Ex-Officio. Their slogan is 17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of award-winning underwear. (Ok, maybe two.) The amazing thing about these is that they are easy to wash daily (think showers and sinks), dry fast, and allow you more space and less weight than taking 8 pairs of cotton undies.
- Shirts: 2-4 shirts. Always have at least 1 (even 2) collared shirts. You’ll inevitably be invited into someone’s home. Or go out dancing. Or want to impress that cute girl/guy from the train. I personally recommend DriFit shirts and a Henley type shirt.
- Bottoms: Pants like the Prana Zion hiking pants serve 3 uses: 1. Rugged for those days on a trail. 2. Clean khaki look when you want to dress slightly up. 3. Stain/wrinkle resistant so you can really pack them away. Also, gym shorts with a zippered pocket. 1 pair of jeans. 1 pair of swim trunks (weather permitting).
- Jackets: I’m taking a weatherproof shell. It’s light, packs well, spacious if I need to layer underneath, and breathes enough for the warm wet days of summer.
- Rule of thumb: Everything can be bought abroad. Take small amounts of toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, and body wash, but not wholesale containers to last you the entire trip. Everyone uses these things. We live in a truly globalized world.
- Medications: See what you’ll need for where you’re going (i.e. Malaria pills. Altitude sickness meds. Yellow fever shot and certification). Then, the all important anti-diarrheal tablets. Allergy pills. Antacids. Iodine tablets. Etc.
- First aid kit: Don’t go overboard with all the worst case scenario stuff. Think a few bandages, ointment, and an alcohol pad or two. Pharmacies are everywhere.
- Sunscreen and bug spray
- Eagles Nest Outfitters specialize in lightweight, minimalist equipment. Things that pack well, are rugged, and serve multiple purposes. Consider a Single or Doublenest hammock, or a backpacker’s favorite, the Sub7. They are comfy to set up almost anywhere there are two hang points, but can also serve as a barrier between you and that yucky hostel bed, the grass you’re picnicking on, or the beach you’re hanging out at.
- Backpack: Must be properly fitted. REI does an excellent job of both fitting you and providing size and usage options. Forget brands and colors. Focus on comfort and utility. Things to know:
- Backpacks come in sizes (S, M, L, XL) to fit your torso. Get measured.
- They’re measured in liters
- There’s no answer to how many liters your pack should be, BUT, everyone travels differently. I’m taking a 60L. It’s pretty full, but I know if I took a 70 or an 80, I’d fill that too with extra stuff, just because I had the space.
- (Another series on the different types of backpackers coming soon!)
- Packing cubes keep everything tight and organized. Neat-freaks rejoice. Eagle Creek make really good ones in a variety of sizes, colors, and uses.
- Like to cook while you’re traveling? Grab some local ingredients from the farmer’s market and keep them in your ENO Grocery Getter (a 4-part blog series on this coming soon).
- Microfiber towel
- Headlamp for days that turn into nights while hiking trails
- CamelBak reservoir. I recommend 3-liter capacity. You can always fill it with less, but the extra storage is critical for those long haul in-between trips (think Salar de Uyuni)
- Water an issue? Consider a UV water purifier. Lightweight, kills 99.9% of bacteria, protozoa, viruses. Much more portable than a water filtration pump.
- Computer/Tablet: Not sure which? Blogging can mostly be done on a more lightweight tablet, but video and picture editing oftentimes require a laptop. My pick: MacBook Pro.
- Note: Only take expensive electronics if it’s critical to your objectives (i.e. blogging, work, editing photos, etc.)
- Taking photos? Here are our options: DSLR v. Point & Shoot v. GoPro v. Phone.
- DSLR‘s take the highest quality shots, but unless it’s a core element of your trip or you’re a professional, they won’t easily fit in a backpack with everything else we’ve just listed.
- Point & Shoot cameras are an excellent alternative to the DSLR if you decide to take high quality photos and want to save lots of space and weight.
- GoPro style cameras are definitely the most versatile. They take great shots, are rugged, capture your most extreme adventures, and most importantly, are small and light. Be careful not to go overboard with all of their accessories Pick the one’s you’ll truly use.
- Phones have such powerful cameras that this may be the best way to go. You’ll probably already have one with you, and waterproof casings are smaller than ever. Rather than doubling up on cameras, this can kill two birds with one stone.
- Memory cards. External drive too if you’re taking a computer (always backup your data).
- Charging cables and organizer. Reduce the clutter.
- Extra batteries. Never be stuck in a remote location with a dead camera/phone.
- Power adapters/converters. There is no universally accepted socket or voltage, so do your research (another post on this coming soon).
Limit yourself wisely here. This is what separates the pro traveler from the novice adventurer.
- Camera accessories. Straps. Mounts. Tripods. Lenses.
- Pen and Paper. Highly useful. Easy to come by.
- Maps and guidebooks. Heavy and bulky, but essential when you’re disconnected.
- Sunglasses (keep it under $15)
- Watch (keep it under $15)
- Waterproof bags
- Compressible sacks (reduce the size of sleeping bags, pillows, etc.)
- Travel pillows for long-haul bus/plane rides. ENO makes 3 great options.
- Noise-cancelling headphones. I consider them a must-have, but they can be pricey.
- Joby GorillaPod camera stand. Selfie stick.
Packing for an extended trip is hard. Backpackers must face giving up the comforts of home for the relief of back pain, being able to buy locally made crafts, and limiting how much they’re spending before departure (and how much they’ll lose in the event of theft). The list above is intended to help weed out excesses from essentials. Also important to note is that not everyone will need the same things on their trip. Everyone travels different. If you’re on the fence about bringing something, it’s better to leave it at home.
My final piece of advice: Lay out your essentials from each category (clothes, gear, toiletries, electronics, accessories), and get a feel for how much space it’ll take up. Buy a pack and fill it with these things. If you’re good on space, carefully select the extras that’ll be useful. Otherwise, rejoice in knowing that you’ll be able to buy that poncho or custom tailored suit from that one guy at that one stand in that one place you may never get to see again.