recently sorting through old travel documents - from a bygone era - and came across a single-sided A4 typed letter
from a close friend and travel guru, complete with the following sets of instructions: how to navigate immigration and customs and
which items are essential to every backpacker.
At the time, I was eighteen and had never left Australia. I was preparing to leave the security of
everything I had known and embark on a life-altering journey. Her thoughtful, guiding words of wisdom led me down the path of travel success.
I had a
great start and, as such, wish to offer you the same. Here within I include a comprehensive list of
travel essentials travellers should consider packing for every new journey.
- Several t-shirts. Include a variety of colours, to suit your
needs and style, however don’t forget to incorporate diverse fabrics into your
selection. This is invaluable when moving
through different climates; it saves time when washing, and it can be a valuable
protection from the environment i.e. mosquitos in hot climates are
generally attracted to bright colours.
Wearing loose fitting, plain coloured clothing will help serve as a
- At least one dress shirt (for men),
or dress (for women, unless otherwise inclined). An occasion may spontaneously arise in which
you may need to dress up. Many of my
friends have been invited to weddings and other festive celebrations while on
the open road. Something above casual to
smart casual is always useful to have in such instances. It may save you a few valuable dollars better
spent elsewhere, and means you don’t miss out on experiencing something unique
- One fleece, or warm jumper/cardigan.
Merino wool is ideal for
particularly cold climates.
- One wind proof jacket that is
ideally water resistant as well.
- A cotton scarf. It’s a versatile accessory: worn around the
neck, it’s fashionable and keeps you reasonably warm; worn around the forehead,
it stops sweat pouring into eyes while trekking; worn around the waist, it can
be used as a belt; placed under your head, it can also be used as a pillow in
airport layovers and long bus journeys.
- One waterproof poncho. Rain occurs in all countries, regardless of
what we like to think about island paradises.
A poncho will save your clothes and health when you’re caught short in
the middle of nowhere without shelter.
- Several pairs of shorts. Ensure they’re made from different fabrics to
suit all your travel needs.
- A pair of long trousers for walking
and hiking. Linen is cool and
breathable, but something hardier is ideal to avoid rips and tears.
- At least one pair of dress trousers. See my comment above regarding dress shirts
- A pair of jeans or comfortable
trousers. They are versatile and, as
mentioned already, comfortable – this is key when you’re having an ‘I miss
home’ kind of day. Jeans can also be hardy,
especially if you get caught short and need to hike without appropriate
protective trousers. They can be dressed
up or down, accessorised and work with multiple outfits, including a diverse
array of shoe types. They’re a
- One pair of swimwear. Don’t forget the principles of modesty,
respect and convenience when selecting an appropriate pair to pack. For women, this is particularly important,
especially when traveling to conservative countries such as those in the Middle
East. Board shorts for men, generally,
are universally acceptable.
- A belt. It goes with most things, enhances outfits,
keeps your trousers up after several bouts of Delhi belly and a significant
- Several pairs of underwear. I tend to be generous when packing underwear,
and consider more to be safe. Some travellers
wash a pair every day in the shower, but I tire of doing so after a few
- Several pairs of short and long socks. Ensure you have these in a variety of
fabrics, to suit the various climates, temperatures and environments you may
visit. Don’t forget that most countries
around the globe have variable temperatures.
If your feet are warm and dry, then so is your core.
- A hat or cap. Avoiding sunburn on long trips – or any trip,
for that matter - is imperative. No-one
wants to be peeling and barred from the sun while he or she loses several
layers of skin after a terrible burn.
One that can be folded is ideal, so it can be packed neatly into your
checked in luggage. Otherwise, you’ll be
stuck carrying it through airports, onto transport and risk leaving it
somewhere (it happened to me leaving Cuba).
- An odorised bag for dirty clothing. Some backpacks, such as the one I recently
purchased, come with one as a built-in inclusion. It’s useful in separating dirty from clean
clothing every morning when getting dressed, and can be whipped out at the
laundromat immediately rather than having to sort everything at the last
- One pair of flips flops (British),
sandals (American), or thongs (Australian).
These are versatile, and comfortable.
They are useful for use in grotty public showers, trips to the beach,
and general travel through South America, South East Asia and Australia. Their
rubber versatility makes them an invaluable packing list commodity on every
pre-departure list. Sandals may be more
fashionable, however they’re not nearly as ‘useful’ as a pair of thongs (I am
Australian, after all). My personal
preference is black Havaianas.
- One pair of sneakers and tennis
shoes. They provide comfort and protect against pedal wear and tear. They’re versatile, and can be dressed up with
decent trousers or dressed down for a day exploring a new city. I usually take a pair of black Adidas for day
to day activities as well as a pair of slim sole white converse for dressing
- One pair of hiking shoes, or boots. These are not necessarily essential, unless
you’re an avid hiker or trekker. They
can, most of the time, be hired locally for major hikes such as in Arusha for
Kilimanjaro or Kathmandu for Base Camp.
- A silk liner. When linen is unavailable or soiled and you
suspect bugs may be present, a silk liner will protect you from the outside
world. It can be used instead of a
sleeping bag in warmer climates and doesn’t weigh much.
- A yoga mat. If you find yourself without accommodation, a
soft foam mat can serve as a faux-mattress.
It beats sleeping on concrete, and can be rolled and clipped to the side
of a backpack with ease.
- A travel pillow. Not considered an essential travel item by
most, I feel it is necessary. I’ve been
caught short many times and have had to endure the discomfort of using a t-shirt,
pair of trousers or jumper as a pillow. It’s
hurt my neck and left me in pain for days.
An inflatable pillow is light, doesn’t consume much space and can be
used in many instances: under one’s head in planes, trains, buses and cars as
well as in public spaces. It can also be
used as a cushion for uncomfortable seats.
Toiletries and hygiene
- Clothes line. You may like to think that you don’t smell or
that you’ll just drop your clothes into a dry cleaner once a week when
traveling. The reality: we all smell
after a while as do our clothes, and you’ll have neither the time, money nor
desire to send them to be cleaned every week.
Washing your underwear and socks in a basin or shower and hanging them
for the day isn’t as burdensome a task as you think, and it will save you a
fortune in the long run – money better spent on a rickshaw, plane fare,
alcoholic beverage or nice meal.
- Sachets of washing powder. Rather than use your body wash, shampoo or
cake of soap, take a few sachets of washing powder. Simply drop them into the basin with your
clothes, squeeze and swish, then rinse with water.
- A toiletries bag. It makes bathroom time a no-fuss-affair,
especially when the bathroom is communal.
Ensure the bag includes a small mirror, particularly beneficial for both
men and women. Items to include are as
hairbrush or comb;
cake of soap;
clippers (for extended trips);
(yes men, bushy eyebrows need attention – it’s called manscaping); and
bottles of shampoo and conditioner, unless you wish to use soap to wash your
- Hand wash.
Many public bathrooms do not supply soap. As a nurse, I can confidently say that hands
are the place of the external body on which most microorganisms reside. They’re filthy, and can become highly
infectious to you and others. As such,
carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer in a day bag is essential, especially
when you’re visiting restaurants of countries in which it is customary to eat
with your hands.
- A roll of multi-ply toilet paper. There will be times in which nature calls,
and toilet paper may not be available.
Rather than tearing the thin rough pages from your favourite paperback,
carry a roll of your favourite soft toilet paper in a day bag. It may save you a little discomfort and a lot
of embarrassment. Trust me (see my article entitled
NAME (insert URL)!
- A microfiber towel. Not all hostels and lodgings supply
towels. They do hire them; it ends up
being very expensive after months of continuous travel. Microfiber towels are priceless: they clean
you satisfactorily, dry very quickly, pack lightly and cost you nothing to use,
after the initial purchase. I’ve always
used them and although I prefer using a full-size fluffy towel made of Egyptian
cotton, it wouldn’t be practical when traveling.
- A First Aid Kit. Even if you have never completed a first aid
course, having the supplies on hand will appease foreboding subconscious anxiety,
particularly when traveling alone in isolated rural areas. Knowing the basics regarding the utilisation
of products within your kit will be advantageous. A good kit should include:
(plasters) in various sizes;
wipes (alcohol free);
or white tape;
gauze dressings in all sizes;
sterile eye dressing;
water for wound cleansing;
such as paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin;
thermal blanket; and
- Debit and credit cards. Visa
is the most universally accepted type of card, followed by MasterCard then
American Express (Amex).
- Cash. It’s important to diversity your payment
options, especially in cash economies such as Cuba. Plus, there may be times when your card
simply doesn’t work. It can be stressful
and embarrassing to have ordered a meal and eaten it without being able to
pay. Carrying some cash, in either USD
or Euro, is fundamental.
- Passport/s. This item is self-explanatory. I always carry this in my hand luggage, in a
secure inner console close to my body.
It’s also where you’ll find my bank cards and other important documents. Many carry it in a pouch attached wrapped
around their waist or hanging from their neck underneath clothing. If security is a concern in the country
you’re visiting, then utilise this option.
If your bag is stolen, at least your passport – your LIFE while abroad –
will be safe. I now have a pair of
underwear that contains pockets for passports and bank cards. They’ve been invaluable in Central America.
- Drivers licence. This is beneficial, particularly if you’re
considering hiring a car or motorbike/scooter.
If you are certain you’ll hire a car, then obtaining an international
driver licence pre-departure is advisable; it’ll make the hiring process much
less arduous. In some countries, an
international licence is a requisite, so ensure you research this before prior
- National Identity Card. This is useful only for those traveling to
sister nations, such as European citizens traveling within the European Union
(EU). Mostly, a passport will be
required for international travel.
- Travel and/or medical insurance. This is OBLIGATORY. Any traveller who leaves home without it is,
frankly speaking, STUPID. Unless you’re
superhuman, you cannot predict the future.
As such, we know neither the time nor the place in which the bus we’re
on may crash, the chicken we eat might give us food poisoning worthy of a
hospital stay, or the scooter we’re riding will be hit by a car and we’ll need
emergency air evacuation to the nearest hospital. Things get stolen, we get sick, and other
unfortunate circumstances arise in which we need protection. DO NOT TRAVEL WITHOUT IT.
- Photocopies of important
documentation i.e. passport/s, bank cards, travel insurance and other
identification cards. These should be kept in an alternative piece of luggage
to the originals, in the instance only one bag is stolen or lost. Additionally, I would highly recommend
maintaining up to date and easily accessible electronic copies of these
documents; they’re more difficult to steal, and relatively easy to print if
- Your choice of travel guide. Although you may wish to create your own
journey replete with spontaneity and individuality, these ‘travel bibles’ are
useful when getting lost, in multiple senses.
They are a reliable backup if your intrepid sense of adventure and
spontaneity fail and leave you stranded.
I don’t recommend living by it as though a Christian would the Bible,
however they can be practical when you’re feeling tired, weary, uninspired or
unadventurous. They shouldn’t detract
from your overall experience, and I don’t recommend living by their every word
– unless you wish to end up as part of the pack. There are many varieties on the market, so do
your research and choose one that suits your style and preferences.
- A map. If your travel guide does not include a map
of either the region, country or city you are intending to visit, then buying a
map will be highly advantageous. Even
without a car, knowing the major roads and routes will help you identify the
direction in which you need to walk to arrive at, for example, point b.
- An electronic device i.e. IPad,
smart phone or IPhone. Even though I
lived for many years travelling without one, I now find it hard to live without
one when navigating foreign cities. The
application maps.me is invaluable, and has revolutionised one’s navigational
- At least one camera. This is entirely a decision of personal
preference. Some people like simple
digital cameras, and others prefer SLR varieties. Whichever it is that makes you happy, pack
it. Capturing exceptional travel moments
is invaluable: our memories eventually fade, and we may never return to the
places with which we’ve fallen in love.
Although some overdo it and snap every moment of every day, it’s
important to digitally capture at least some moments in time.
- A travel journal. Regardless of whether you write explicit
details of your innermost thoughts and feelings, or simply record objective
statements regarding the day’s events, making a record is important. As mentioned above, memories fade; reading
about the experiences years after the event helps one sharpen the recollection and relive the moment
through tears, laughter, smiles, frowns and a myriad of emotions. Some now opt for digital journals in the form
of blogs; ensure your audience is receptive to that which you plan on writing,
and that your writing is grammatically correct and stimulating. Few people, aside from perhaps your parents,
want to read about the mundane. However,
creating something audacious and read-worthy doesn’t require expert writing
skills: use your imagination, keep it simple and recount one idea per
entry. Remember, you’re the one
traveling, not your readers. They want
to live vicariously through your experiences.
Practice makes perfect.
- Unlocked mobile phone of your
preference i.e. iPhone or smart phone.
It speaks for itself.
- Metal knife, fork and spoon. If you spontaneously decide to trek the Jesus
Trail from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, then aside from the tent and
sleeping bag, you’ll also need eating instruments. Additionally, in times of financial
difficulty, as outlined below, resorting to tinned food is likely; having a fork
to eat the beans that resemble the baked variety you’ve bought from the local
Greek supermarket may prove useful.
- Can opener. In times of financial distress, baked beans
or tinned tuna may become your mealtime options. As such, having a can opener or,
alternatively, a Swiss army knife on hand can be particularly beneficial. I think it’s self-explanatory. Alternatively, you could opt for having only
a Swiss army knife (outlined below).
- Swiss army knife. Its uses are multitudinous: cutting food,
employing personal safety strategies in dangerous circumstances (I’ve never
done this), getting into tinned food without a can opener, opening corked wine
bottles, carrying the keys to your hostel dorm room, removing debris from your
teeth, and plucking overgrown hair from your travel weary eyebrows. It’s a highly valuable resource to pack.
- International adapter. Ensuring you can charge your camera and phone
and use the hairdryer you now regret packing is important, but only possible
with an adapter for the charger.
Unfortunately, plugs are not universal, and require the use of an
adapter through which the charger can be plugged in to the outlet. If you’re traveling to multiple continents, a
universal adapter will be necessary, as plugs are variable between
continents. Mine has never let me
- Cords for phones, laptops, kindles, iPads/tablets
and other electronic devices. This is
- Several snap lock bags.
- Head torch.
Not essential but potentially useful (open to
- A single person tent. I’m not a camper personally, however, having
a small lightweight tent in your possession can be particularly beneficial in
these cases: some hostels offer cheap rates for those travellers who wish to
pitch their tent in the garden or outdoor space; if you get dumped in the
middle of nowhere without accommodation options, having a tent certainly beats
sleeping unprotected on a bench or on the grass. Obviously, with a tent, you need:
- A sleeping bag. Again, it should be lightweight, breathable
and compact; you don’t want it to occupy too much space, and it shouldn’t break
your back to carry. One to suit all warm
climates is ideal, unless - of course - you’re planning a trip to a ‘brass
monkey’ destination, such as the Himalayas.
Personal preference but not essential (again,
open to debate)
- Pyjamas. If you sleep naked, then this will not be an
item you’ll consider, unless of course you intend to sleep in shared lodgings. I simply use a t-shirt and soft cotton shorts
or trousers. However, if you’re a pyjama
fanatic, then I recommend packing something that makes you comfortable. Sleep, after all, is valuable.
- A laptop. Having a large screen and full keyboard is
more convenient to use when booking tickets, doing research and watching films
on long bus trips. They can be a
liability, however, and tend to weigh on the heavier side. Think twice before packing yours.
- A kindle/tablet. As a traditionalist and a book lover, I
personally prefer reading books with tangible pages; carrying them around the
world, however, is not always practical.
Downloading your favourite reads onto a kindle or similar device befits
the cliché of taking long train, bus and plane journeys: you can lose
yourself, kill time and laugh out loud so those around you become