How do I pack a travel backpack?

10 Backpacking Essentials

Planning on doing some traveling by foot this year? Maybe you want to hop trains in Europe or make your way through the Southeast Asian loop? Either way, you are going to need to pack lightly, efficiently and intelligently. We compiled a list of 10 backpacking essentials we never travel without. Think we missed something? Add it in the comments.

big backpack

Disclaimer: This list is for urban/rural backpacking, not for overnight wilderness backpacking. The traditional ’10 essentials’ are for saving your life. This list is for saving you time, money and discomfort.

In no particular order:

1. Backpack: Having a good backpack is a given, but choosing one is more difficult than it sounds. Raymond, Eagle Creek, Lowe Alpine, Teton, Osprey, Gregory and tens of other brands offer backpacks of all shapes, sizes and designs. Volume, shape, material and fit are all going to be important factors. Read some reviews online and then make sure to go into a brick and mortar store, at least to try some on, because no backpack will be perfect for everyone. Here is a good list of backpack FAQs.

2. Durable and comfortable footwear: This is arguably the single most important purchase you will make for your trip. It can be a tough decision because shoes can add a lot of weight and volume to your pack, but if you get stuck without the right kind, you’ll be sorry. If you are planning on traveling mostly in urban areas and doing a moderate amount of walking, you may be fine with a good pair of walking athletic shoes and an extra pair of sandals for hot weather. Any trips that involve heavy walking, side trips into the wilderness, up mountains or through forests will require some sort of trail shoe or hiking boot. There is an entire spectrum of these, ranging from lightweight and less durable, to heavy duty and indestructible.

Head into your local REI or outdoor store, speak with an associate and try on some options. A trail runner hybrid shoe can bridge the gap between walking shoe and hiking boot in some cases. Also look into buying some wool or synthetic hiking socks to prevent blisters and wick sweat. It is a good idea to also get some moleskin and ointment in case you do develop blisters.

3. Undies: Around the internet, you can find different rules for how to pack underwear (3 pairs for every 3 weeks etc). Personally, we recommend spending some money up front and getting some Ex Officio travel underwear. You can literally wash these things in any sink and they dry extremely quickly, so you can have a fresh pair within an hour or two. You won’t need more than 3 pair ever. You can purchase them for about $30 (Men’s and women’s) at any

4. Duct tape: Duct tape has thousands of uses, from fixing a torn pack, to covering a blister in a bind. Don’t leave home without it. Jeff demonstrates the makeshift duct tape hammock below.

5. Sunscreen: This seems like an obvious pickup for anyone traveling in the summer months or in sunny areas, but it is a good idea year round anywhere you will be traveling. You will be spending a lot of time outside, and UV rays can be damaging even in overcast areas, especially at high altitudes. Check out this post from lifehacker regarding new FDA regulations on sunscreen. In the case you forget to apply, aloe vera is a tried and true method for soothing your burned skin.

6. Money belt: Yes, it makes you look like a tourist. No, it doesn’t higlight how worldly and street smart you are. Travel long enough without one though, and you will get pickpocketed or, at the very least, lose something. You can keep cash, emergency cards and your passport in here. Besides, you don’t have to let anybody see it. In fact, that's the point.

7. Laundry kit: This one is pretty self-explanatory. You need to be able to wash your self so you don’t end looking like a smelly, matted-hair vagrant. Make sure to get environmentally friendly soap so you don’t go around polluting foreign water supplies. Also a sewing kit can come in handy for impromptu repairs.

8. Refillable water bottle: One of these will keep you hydrated, and because you won’t be buying disposable water bottles, will help save the environment and your beer money. Try to go BPA free so you don’t get The Cancers and purchase some purifying tablets if you will be anywhere with a sketchy water supply (i.e. Asia, Africa, and pretty much anywhere considered ‘3rd world’). Once you’ve had typhoid, you will agree that avoiding it in the future is worth a pretty penny.

9. Waterproof poncho: Having a foldable, waterproof poncho can be a godsend, whether you find yourself in a torrential downpour in the tropics, or just schlepping through a drizzle in London. They don’t look cool, but sopping wet hair and mildewy clothes aren’t very cool either.

10. First aid kit: You can get some pretty compact first aid kits, but make sure the one you choose has the essentials: antibiotic ointment, bandages, gauze, aspirin, an instant cold pack, scissors and gloves. You can also put an extra list of emergency contacts in here as well as your condom stash (see honorable mentions below). Note however, that condoms should be used as a preventative measure rather than 'first aid'.

Honorable mentions:

  • ear plugs
  • travel lock
  • condoms (mentioned above, but depending on the traveler, they probably deserve their own post)
  • clothsline
  • drylite towel
  • mini flashlight
  • swiss army knife (be sure to check at the airport)
  • travel lock

Think we missed something? Let us know your essentials in the comments section.