What to take

This is what you are going to have to carry with you on your back each time you decide to move. Obviously, the more you pack, the heavier your bag becomes, so you want to pack as little as possible. Backpacks come in various sizes and styles. I have a 72 litre world travel bag with a detachable day pack. With all of my gear packed inside, my pack weighs about 20 pounds and is only half full. Over time, I accumulate a few souvenirs and my pack can weigh as much as 30 to 40 pounds before I mail a box of the things I picked up home.

Your gear is important, so choose wisely. After all, this is the equipment you need to keep you safe and happy for the duration of your journey.

Packsack: Don’t skimp on this one. There are many types of bags that you can choose from. My preference is a World Travel Bag. It is specially designed for travellers. It has all the webbing (shoulder, chest, and waist straps) of a normal backpack but can also be transformed into a duffle bag. The main zipper goes all around from the bottom to the top that allows you to lay your pack down and have access to everything without being forced to go through the top or side access areas. There is also a small detachable day pack with shoulder straps that zips onto the main pack.

Have the retail staff select the right size of pack to fit your body. If not, you risk having some pretty uncomfortable moments, not to mention a sore back, shoulders, and waist. Prolonged use of a poorly fitting pack can lead to serious injury. The size of your pack depends on your back length, not your overall height, and since people have different body types, you’ll need to find one that suits you. Learn how to use and adjust the straps since they will need to be readjusted occasionally during your travels.

Ask the sales clerk to throw some phone books inside so you can get a feel for what it will be like when it is full of gear. If the suspension (webbing) of your pack is doing its work, most of the packs weight should be transferred to your hips. Before you travel, take some time to break in your pack. Walk around with it on for a while; make sure that it is comfortable.

Guidebook: This is so important that I placed it second in the list. A guidebook (often referred to as the “good book” by packers) is a publication specifically for travellers. It contains information on where to go, what to see, where to sleep, what to eat, what to avoid, how to get there, etc. This is an essential tool that cannot be left at home. Pick your guidebook wisely. I have dedicated a complete section under ‘Your guidebook’ on how to choose a proper guidebook.

Sarong: A sarong is one of the most versatile items I own. It is a lightweight, rectangular piece of cloth that is the size of a large towel. I use it for a blind fold at night, a towel to dry off with, a blanket for the beach, a head wrap for the sun, a wrap for walking to public showers, a bag for carrying items, a screen for my bunk bed, etc. It dries quickly, is easy to pack, weighs next to nothing, and is easy to clean.

Note: If you are a man, be careful where you wear one in public. There are many places in the world that are stringent about gender roles and it is foolish or even dangerous to wear anything that will make you stand out in a crowd. Do your research and make sure you don’t make yourself a target for any unwanted attention. Always try to blend in with the crowd.

Bathroom kit: This is a special waterproof bag that holds all my necessary toiletries: toothbrush (with a plastic cover for the head), soap (in a plastic container), shaving cream, razor, deodorant, nail clippers, shampoo, exfoliating gloves, contact lens solution, and a comb.

Money Belt: A thin pouch that can be securely strapped inside your clothes, to hold anything valuable. I keep everything that I cannot risk being stolen in there: passport, flight tickets, back-up credit card, photocopies of all important documents, and the bulk of my money. Make sure you get a money belt that breathes (made from cloth) since you will be wearing it next to your body everywhere you go. You keep it on while you are asleep during night and when you are travelling during the day. The only time you take it off is when you wash it.

Note: It is best to keep a small amount of cash in your pockets and everything else in your money belt. In the event that you are mugged, you can simply hand the thief whatever you have in your pockets and hope that he or she won’t think to push the matter further. Most money belts are not waterproof, so keep everything that you have inside sealed in a plastic bag. Wallet: There are travel wallets that attach onto the belt of your pants. It can then be covered by a shirt to keep it out of sight. It is easy to access since you can keep it by your front pocket. Just keep enough money and identification in there for convenience. The majority of your money and identification can be kept in your money belt for extra security. Purses just attract extra attention and should be left at home.

Belt: Not only can you use it to keep your pants up, but you can get ones that have a hidden zipper inside the seam. It’s a good place to store spare sets of keys and some emergency coins.

Note: Anything that is not metal and stored in the belt tends to get destroyed. Don’t keep your traveller’s cheques in there. If there is metal stored in your belt, make sure you take it off when you go through a metal detector.

Pack safe™: This is a wire mesh cover that you can use to keep curious people from exploring your pack when you are not looking. You can use it when you check your luggage on the plane, when walking through crowded stations, or when you have to leave your pack in storage at your hostel. It is slash proof and is a great way of ensuring that the unattended pack without a pack safe™ will get stolen while yours remains safely attached to something immovable. However, it is expensive, heavy, and takes up space in your pack.

Locks: Combination locks are good since you don’t have to worry about losing the key but they are next to impossible to open in the dark. When choosing a lock, make sure that you have a couple locks that are small enough to lock your zippers on your packsack together. Get one lock big enough for your Pack safe™ (if you decide to purchase one). When I leave my pack unattended, I lock my zippers into my Packsafe™ mesh so that no one can move the zippers apart and reach through the mesh to get inside my pack.

Jacket: A high quality, properly designed, weather resistant jacket is important. I look for several things in a good jacket. I prefer to have one that is made from Gore-tex™. Gore-Tex™ is expensive material but it is waterproof and, more importantly, it breathes, which means that you don’t have to worry about getting soaked in your own sweat.

All the jackets main pockets should be accessible from the outside and should have zippers or Velcro™ fasteners Big pockets are a plus since I usually carry my wallet, sunglasses, camera, gloves, and emergency food in my jacket. A detachable hood is also a nice feature when you get caught in a rainstorm. Pit zips, or zipable vents under the arm pits are great for increasing air flow. A zip-in inner fleece is handy to have since you can remove it or put it in whenever you want.

Note: I purchased a BMW Bomber jacket in Singapore. It looked good but when it started raining, I got soaked and cold. It was impractical but fashionable. I switched to a three ply Gor-tex™ outdoor jacket. This jacket was able to keep me dry and warmer in any weather. Being comfortable and safe with the right choice of clothes is an important part of travelling. You are going to be relying on your gear to keep you alive and well.

Pants: I prefer taking a pair of cotton pants with zip-off legs. They are made out of a durable cotton fabric that is light, water repellent, and can dry within an hour. You are able to unzip the pants just above the knees and turn them into shorts. The pockets with zippers or Velcro™ on them help keep things safe and are easy to roll up into a ball and store in your pack. I tend to go with darker colors. When they get dirty it is less noticeable. I find blue jeans are too heavy to pack, uncomfortable to wear in hot climates and take too long to dry when they get wet.

Shirts: A basic cotton t-shirt is great to have. You can sleep with it on during the night or use it solo on a hot day or in a layer with warmer clothes when you are in a colder environment. Do some research on the environment that you will be staying in and use common sense when picking out your clothes.

Long sleeve fleece shirt: Fleece is great for keeping the heat in and is completely breathable so you won’t sweat as easy. It is great to wear with just an over shirt, or layered with a Gortex ™ shell jacket. Remember to try to keep your fleece dry, and if it does get wet, take time to dry it out. It is not very wind resistant and a cool breeze can quickly suck the heat out of your fleece.

Note: A rolled fleece shirt can also substitute for a pillow in times when you don’t want to use the one provided for you. Bathing suit: Even if you are not going in the summer time or near any beaches, it’s good to have a bathing suit along. There are times when I relaxed in the local aquatic centre. If you have swimming trunks, they can double as a pair of shorts.

Femine hygiene products: If you are a woman, make sure you take an extra supply of these products in your bag. Don’t forget, you can restock almost anywhere in the world.

Waterproof bag cover: You can get a waterproof cover for your packsack. When you are outside with your pack and it is raining, you can cover it with this light bag to ensure the contents stay dry. I also use it for taking a shower. Instead of leaving my personal effects (passport, wallet, keys, towel, and clothes) hanging up outside in the open, I bring everything into the shower with me and place them in the waterproof bag. And I don’t have to worry about anyone taking my gear or it getting wet in the shower.

Photocopies: The overall idea is to have a backup of any documents or ID that are important for the trip. Send yourself an e-mail to your Internet web mail of any important information and make photocopies of all important documents. Try to fit everything on one or two pages. Even though these are copies, the information contained is still valuable and sensitive. Place the photocopies in various places throughout your gear. I had a total of three sets: one went in a zip lock bag in my money belt, the second was in my main pack in my utility bag, and the third was hidden in a compartment in my day pack.

Make sure that you copy: Shoes and sandals: Make sure you have a good pair of walking shoes and that you break them in before you leave. You will be wearing them every single day so make sure that they are comfortable and suitable for any sort of terrain you might come across. Sandals can be used in the outdoors and even inside the hostels while showering.

Sleep sheet: Sometimes when it is necessary to sleep in a bed that you believe could be a bit questionable, using a sleep sheet is a good idea. It is a sheet the length of your body that has the side and bottom sewn together. It is effectively a silk or cotton barrier between you and the sheets on the bed. You can buy a cotton or silk sleep sheet or make your own. Just take a regular flat sheet from your bed and sew the bottom and side up. You now have your very own sleep sheet.

Note: Some hostels require you to have a sleep sheet. If you don’t have one, you may have to rent one for the duration of your stay. Save money and bring your own.

Compass: It is a good idea to have a compass, as well as a good map, while travelling. Take the time to learn how to use it properly, or you may as well cut down on the weight and leave it at home. Most backpackers don’t use compasses but I became a compass addict and used mine extensively.

Sunglasses: Get a good pair with at least UVA and UVB 400 protection. I would strongly advise a decent pair of sunglasses. The knock offs look good but they could end up hurting your eyes in the long run. Keeping them in a clamshell case helps protect them from getting bent or broken.

Glasses and contact lenses: If you wear contacts, make sure you carry at least one full bottle of each type of solution with you. Most places in the world carry solutions for various types of contacts, but sometimes it requires a little searching in an unknown country. If you do wear contacts, have a backup pair in your money belt.

If you wear glasses, it is also a good idea to have a back up pair just in case. Use a hard clamshell case when storing them in your pack.

Vitamins and energy bars: Always have a supply of full spectrum multi-vitamins and emergency energy bars on hand. It’s wise to take your multi-vitamins daily as it’s hard to gauge the nutritional value of some of the food you’ll be getting. Flashlights: I am a big fan of the LED headlamp. It is small, powerful, and comes with a headband, allowing you to have both hands free. It is also lightweight, energy efficient, and will save you valuable space in your pack. There are some waterproof head lamps that you can get. A regular flashlight is usually bigger and heavier but gives a brighter beam of light and lasts a bit longer.

Birth control: It’s smart to be careful when you are travelling. If you are planning on being sexually active or if there is a small chance that an encounter could happen, be prepared. If you are going to have sex, use the proper protection. Not only will it prevent an unplanned pregnancy, but will help to prevent you from getting sexually transmitted diseases.

Utility kit: I have a bag of items that I use on occasion. They include: a small first aid kit (the suggested contents are in the ‘My first-aid kit’ section of this book) sewing kit, super glue, multipliers/Swiss army knife, lighter, candle, sunscreen, bug repellent, and spare batteries.

Camera: Even though digital cameras are more expensive than 35mm cameras, I would still recommend choosing digital. You can burn your pictures to CD in nearly every country in the world and you don’t have to worry about buying film. If you bring your digital camera, make sure that you have your cables and driver software with you.

Necklace key chain: Instead of putting keys in your pockets, buy a neck strap and put your keys on that. It is easy to find your keys. They’re also out of the way, and much harder to steal.

Wristwatch with alarm: Get a digital wristwatch with an alarm and backlight instead of a travel clock. They come in handy when you have a schedule to keep or when you need to take a nap at the train station and should wake up in x minutes. I have a Timex™ Datalink watch which stores some of my emergency telephone numbers and important dates. It has up to ten individual alarms you can set and two time zone settings.

Journal: I would highly recommend you get one and keep it up to date. It is amazing what you forget if you don’t write it down right away. A journal takes time to write, but when you are looking back on your adventures, it is nice to see what you have done and who you have met. Also along the way, you are going to start collecting other backpackers’ contact information and e-mail addresses. Keeping it all in your journal makes it easier than trying to keep track of napkins and stray bits of paper.

Hostelling International (HI) Card: This card will allow you to stay at HI Hostels around the world. The Hostel Association has a website (http://www.hihostels.com/openHome.sma) where you can go to find out which countries have hostels that will recognize this card. Do your homework. In certain parts of the world an HI card can save you a lot of money and in other places it will be virtually useless.

Student card: If you are a student, bring your International Student Identity Card (ISIC). It will save you a lot of money on admission and events in many places around the world. I have heard of lots of backpackers “obtaining” student cards in the streets of Bangkok.

Bank (ATM) card: Your bank card should work nearly anywhere in the world. Just make sure that it is affiliated with the international banking systems such as Curris™, Interac™, Visa™, etc. Be careful of variable service charges and exchange rates in different countries. There have been bank machines that are known to ‘eat’ bank cards. Just make sure you have a spare handy.

Credit card: Great to have and accepted nearly anywhere. Take a good look at what your credit card’s extra features offer you. Many times you can get travel insurance, as well as product insurance on your purchases.

Emergency food: Non-perishable, well-sealed food for when you don’t have a chance to eat. I go with a couple high end energy bars or some energy gel. Experiment before you leave to see which brands you like the best.

Earplugs: For those times when you need to get that good night’s sleep and there is a person snoring in the bunk above you. Take a couple pairs in case you lose one or if they get dirty. You can pick these up at a local pharmacy, but they are cheaper at the hardware stores.

CD/MP3 player and book: Books are good since you are able to trade with other packers and lots of hostels have a section called “Take a book. Leave a book.” A CD/MP3 player is great but it does use up a steady supply of batteries and you’ll feel terrible if it gets stolen.

Deck of playing cards: It’s a great way to meet other backpackers, and it helps to pass long hours of travel time on the bus or train.

Jewellery: In general, don’t bother. It’s an unnecessary nuisance and an attraction for thieves. Make sure your watch is not an expensive one. Anything that makes you look better off than the locals is bound to get you unwanted attention. Women, however, might consider wearing a wedding band, especially in many South American and Arabic countries where single women are much more likely to get hassled than those who are supposedly married.

Pins: Get a handful of pins of your countries flag. It is a really nice gesture to give someone a pin like this. Each time I ran low, I went to my consulate to get another handful. Overall, when you are packing, remember to focus on function over fashion. You can still look good by just packing the basics. When at home, there is a lot of pressure to be “in fashion”. When you are travelling overseas, you don’t have to care too much about this. It’s more important to blend in with the locals and be comfortable than be on the cutting edge fashion from your home country. I strongly suggest that you choose function over fashion.

Remember, people all over the world wear clothes. Shocking, I know, but it is true. This means that they have stores that sell clothes. Sometimes you can buy the same thing for a lot less than what you would pay for it at home. Also, they have various supplies that you can buy at the stores. There is no need to take a bunch of tubes of toothpaste, extra sunscreen lotion, or even a stockpile of bar soap.

Buy it on the road, I purposely under pack whenever I can. If I know that I can get the same thing cheaper when I arrive at my destination, I don’t bother to pack it. Replenish your supplies as you go.