Achtung! I am Obersturmbannführer Fahrpackung, and this guide has been written to impart some advice on what to pack on a typical backpacking trip. In my time I’ve been away on two year-long periods of travel, and as a result I reckon I have a good idea of what should come along with me and what should be left in the cupboard.
In all seriousness, even though I am a self-confessed Packing Nazi, bear in mind that packing lists are subjective things that can vary wildly depending on your personal requirements and itinerary. The following is a guide with suggestions, not the gospel truth. With that in mind, let’s get started.
Size matters. The behemoth 100-litre backpack you pick off the shelf and model in your local outdoor store may look great, but you won’t be so pleased with your choice when it’s chock-full of 25 kilograms of crap and you’re lugging it down the street on the way to your next hostel in a rainstorm, or shoving it into the compartment under a puttering bus. The smaller the backpack you bring with you, the easier it will be to manage on your trip. I would strongly recommend aiming for a backpack of carry-on size, which is approximately 22″ x 14″ x 9″ (although it varies; check your airline) and equates to a capacity of around 40 litres. A carry-on-sized pack allows you to have your stuff on you at all times – no checking it in on airplanes, no waiting around for it when landing, and no putting it into distant bus or train compartments where you don’t have your eyes on it.
Packing clothes for a trip requires you to suspend all knowledge about your wardrobe habits back home and seek a new practicality. You can only wear one set of clothes at a time, so why would you need more than a few days’ worth of clothes in your pack? I bring enough clean clothes for four or five days on the road, and even that’s too many for some hardcore light packers. I choose clothes that are light and quick-drying; no jeans allowed. Here’s my typical travelling wardrobe for a hot climate:
Bringing anything more than that doesn’t make sense to me when you can get your clothes laundered, dried and folded for you for pennies in India. Of course, if you’re going up into the mountains, you’ll need proper cold weather gear – a thicker fleece, a Goretex jacket, thick socks, sturdy shoes and the like.
Again, simplicity is key. I have a simple roll-up washkit with various compartments, which I first travel with empty and then stock up when I reach my destination. I carry deodorant (just because you travel light doesn’t mean you have to be a stinking hippy), small-sized shampoo, shower gel or a small bar of soap in a soap box, toothbrush, toothpaste, Acuvue contact lenses, razor. I accompany my washkit with a travel towel, which is tiny, ultra-absorbent and quick-drying. It’s a bit of an odd sensation at first to use – it’s a bit like a chamois leather you’d use on a car – but you get used to it after a few times. Running a brand new towel through the wash a few times before using it helps break it in.
The less electronics gear you bring, the less likely it’ll get stolen, lost or broken. I’m a geek who loves gadgets, but I limit myself to a cheap, small (but good quality) point-and-shoot digital camera and an mp3 player. I believe both of these items are essential for backpackers, unless you have a photographic memory or like staring out of the window on long journeys. I also travel with a laptop, but that’s only because I absolutely need one, as I work along the way. I wouldn’t bring one if I didn’t; too pricey and too easily broken (as experience tells me).
I carry a small medical kit with just the basics: plasters, antiseptic cream, Immodium, rehydration sachets, malaria medication if relevant for the destination. I don’t carry sterile syringes, but then I don’t tend to go off into the wilderness much, generally staying in or around tourist areas.
In a hot climate a small travel umbrella does a perfectly good job at keeping the (monsoon) rain off you. I find rainjackets too bulky to bring, and even breathable ones can make you feel hot and clammy. A travel umbrella is compact and can easily be stuffed down the side of your bag and forgotten about until the heavens open.
All of my odds and ends live in a tupperware box at the bottom of my bag, which includes things like a pocket torch, multiplug travel adapter, cables/chargers for electronics, vaccination book, and other random small items.
As I said, this is what I’ve found works for me, but this packing list might not necessarily work for your circumstances or chosen destination. Often the only way to discover how you can best pack for an extended trip is by experience, learning what you use on the road and what permanently stays in your bag.
Fancy a trip to India? This blog follows the preparations, deliberations and travel experiences of a solo backpacker tackling the Indian subcontinent for the first time.
About the Author
As a "keen traveller" (or "professional bum", depending on your point of view), Steve James has visited more than thirty countries and enjoys writing about his experiences for shits and giggles, in passing hoping to inspire others to undertake an extended period of travel and experience the freedom and inspiration it can offer. Click here to contact Steve