The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
― St. Augustine
Everything you need to know about how to pack for weeks or months of backpacking around the world. Based on first-hand knowledge after 15+ years of travel to over 75 countries. Here is a specific and detailed list of what to pack for your trip, as well as what not to pack! It goes in depth about exactly what you need for your trip. There is a packing list for women, and a packing list for men; with step by step instructions, tips for how to decide what to pack, and recommendations for what specific gear you need while backpacking. Customized lists for what to pack for months of backpacking Europe, Asia, SEA, Central America, South America, Africa, Australia, etc are coming soon!
Leaving home for weeks or months at a time can be the adventure of a lifetime. Packing the right set of gear is crucial to a fun, safe, and smooth travel experience. This is the Master List. It has details on everything you need to pack, not pack, and buy once you get there. It also gives you a good idea of what junk you should leave at home. If it’s not on the list, you don’t need it.
This information applies no matter your destination. Think of it as the keystone which you can tailor to your own preferences. Start here and then for more specific advice, read the packing list for your geographical area of travel.
Use this list as a reference: jump to the parts you find relevant and skip what you already know. These step by step instructions make knowing how to pack for any trip easy!
Step 1: Read the rest of this list and take note of what you will need on your trip. Click here if you want to jump to the complete list.
Step 2: Do a little research on the climate of your destination, especially for the time of year you will be there. Read my area specific packing lists for advice tailored to your location.
Step 3: Consider any extra items you need (or want) to bring, but that are not on this list. Such as any ESSENTIAL items like medication, etc.
Step 4: Gather all the items you now know you need.
Step 5: Once you have everything you need in one spot, get a rough idea of how much space they take up; then pick out a bag that has a little extra room for souvenirs. If you need help with picking the right bag, read my article on Pack Selection.
Step 6: Do a test run to make sure all the items fit in your pack and can be carried comfortably: put everything into your bag, and try walking around your house and up/down stairs for 10 minutes. If you survive, you’re good to go. If not, you may need to adjust the straps of your bag or even find another option.
There are a few general principles to consider when deciding what, precisely, to pack.
What you wear is important because it helps protect you from the elements. What clothing to pack for months of backpacking is a tough decision, but it’s not as dire as it may seem. So relax a little- you don’t have to get this exactly perfect right now. Why not? Because anything you decide you need can be acquired during your trip (did someone say souvenir?). This guide lists what you need to get started, and it leaves room for adding to it as you go.
This list is for a temperate climate, for example: temperatures range from approximately 55-85℉/13-30℃.
CLOTHES FOR WOMEN
CLOTHES FOR MEN
Bring items that are multi purpose, that you can wear with more than one function in mind. For example, a black tank top can be your nightly PJs or a timeless selection for an evening out. Men can wear their swim shorts as regular shorts. Do not try to pack for every possible date night, weather variation, or Indiana Jones adventure. Bring a few versatile items that you will be comfortable in.
Sleepwear: Many backpackers choose to stay in shared dormitories. Cultures differ, so with respect for your fellow dorm mates in mind, it’s always frowned upon to sleep in your birthday suit. But pajamas weren’t on the list, so what pjs do you need for backpacking? It’s not worth the space in your bag to bring designated sleepwear. Instead, make sure at least one pair of shorts and a top is comfortable enough to do double duty, like in the description above.
Beach Clothes: It’s always a good idea to pack a bathing suit. It takes up relatively little space in your bag and is one thing that may not be easy to replace while traveling (unless you are specifically going to beach towns).
Sunglasses: Backpackers spend a lot of time outside, so polarized sunglasses are a must. You can tell if glasses are polarized by holding two pairs together with the lenses crossed like a +. If the crossed lenses appear black, both pairs are polarized. Start with a pair from home that you know are polarized so you can use this test while shopping abroad.
Sarong: A sarong is the most versatile piece of gear in your backpack. It can be a beach towel, scarf, skirt, dress, rucksack, and more. If you don’t already own one and don’t have time to get one, don’t sweat it, most beach towns and tourist markets will have them for sale for roughly $5. Even if you aren’t planning any trips to the beach, a sarong is still a good idea because of its versatility.
There are dozens of options for clothing materials. For the sake of brevity, let’s split them into two broad categories and quickly discuss some pros and cons:
The best course is to bring a few of each type. Bring several cheap T-shirts that can be your wardrobe workhorses, and a nicer wool long sleeve shirt for chilly nights. Now is a good time to refer to the area-specific packing lists.
For an overwhelming amount of information about fabric options for backpackers, read Materials 101. It has more about specific types of fabrics than you ever wanted to know.
Excessive clothing is arguably the most common rookie mistake. All you need is enough to get you going. As you travel, you will pick up new pieces of clothing and your bag will fill up. Unless you are okay with ditching something to make room for a souvenir, it shouldn’t get packed. The more space you have at the beginning, the better.
If you are still struggling with what clothing to bring, try the following exercise:
Step 1: For five days, keep track of everything you wear. If you tried it on, but decided to wear something else instead, it stays off the list.
Step 2: At the end of five days, cross off anything that was a “work uniform”.
Step 3: Next, cross off anything worn for a special occasion such as a fancy work dinner, your bestie’s bachelorette party, or anything to survive extreme weather conditions.
Step 4: Now look at what’s left. When backpacking, four to five outfits is more than enough to get started.
In general, you will need:
Your footwear requirements are going to vary enormously depending on your destination and activity plans. In most cases, all you need is one sturdy pair of flip flops and one other set of shoes that covers your foot, i.e. sneakers or hiking shoes. For the full discussion on which shoes to pack, read Footwear. And then reference the packing list for the region you are visiting.
You never need more than 3 pairs of socks. Set one aside as camp/sleeping socks. Alternate wearing the other two pairs during the day. On off days, wash your socks and clip them to the outside of your bag so they dry while you are hiking. My socks are color coded so I know which are for sleeping and which are for hiking. If you are somewhere that isn’t cold enough to warrant sleeping socks, you can cut down to only two pairs.
It’s important to bring at least some toiletries to start your trip with. Every item is fairly easy to replace but having your own supply to begin with means less hassle.
As for toiletries, only bring items you use regularly. Leave behind those ‘sometimes’ items. You WILL be able to find any type of product, and frequently you can find the same brands. It’s a good idea to start with some of your favorites that you’ve transferred into travel size bottles (3oz/100ml) .
Travel Towel: Not every hostel provides personal towels, and some charge a fee for the service. So it’s a good idea to bring your own. Don’t pack anything terry cloth, it’s too bulky and can get moldy inside your pack. All you need is a small microfiber towel to wear in and out of the bathroom. Use your sarong in lieu of a beach towel.
Toothbrush, Toothpaste, and Floss: If you are trying to go ultralight, cut off the bottom handle of your toothbrush, pack a travel size of toothpaste, and ditch the case to bring only the roll of floss from inside it.
Face Lotion with SPF 15: Backpackers get a lot of sun, so it is important to protect your skin. Everyone should start their day with lotion containing broad spectrum spf 15 or higher.
Deodorant: The fact is: if you stink, people are going to avoid you. If you spent your day exploring the town from top to bottom, you likely worked up a sweat and are none too fresh by the time you return to the hostel. Please, please, please pack and use deodorant.
Baby Powder: When my best friend from college moved to Cambodia full time, she called to ask what to do about her…well…swamp ass. The answer: baby powder. Guys will especially appreciate this piece of advice. Your welcome. You can find a travel size at any pharmacy. Make sure to get the talc-free kind.
Castile Soap: If you don’t already know and love castile soap, then consider this your lucky day. It is a vegetable oil based soap with just short of a zillion uses. Top uses for backpackers include: facewash, shampoo, bodywash, shaving lather, dish soap, and laundry soap. In a pinch, you can even brush your teeth with it, but the lingering flavor leaves something to be desired.
Conditioner: If you’ve got long hair, pack a 3oz/100ml travel bottle of conditioner. Now may also be a good time to get that pixie cut you’ve always wondered about.
Disposable Razor: Once you’ve left your fourth razor in a hostel bathroom, you’ll realize it’s time to switch to the cheap disposables.
Tweezers: It’s surprising how many uses you can find for such a small tool: from removing a splinter to changing a SIM card. Tweezers are something that most people forget to pack.
Scissors: Cuticle scissors are teeny tiny scissors that can prove handy in a number of ways. Most often, they are useful with a needle and thread, but they are also convenient for trimming papers to fit into your journal. Tiny cuticle scissors are unlikely to be questioned during a security check, but pocket knives- no matter how small- can be confiscated at border crossings, airports, bus stations, and even ferry terminals.
Sunscreen: One of the best things you can do for yourself is to wear sunscreen. Sunscreen also seems to be the one thing that Beach Towns have decided to charge x10 the price for. Do your wallet a favor and start off with a large bottle from home. Keep it in a plastic bag to guard against leaks. It’s also helpful to pack a small travel size bottle that you can pop into your day bag or beach bag, rather than having to lug around the whole supply.
Lady Stuff: Everyone knows their preference for dealing with their menstruation. Keep doing what you normally do. However, it may be difficult to find tampons in many developing nations. Bring a stash to start out with and stock up whenever you come across them, or you will have to do without. Look into a Diva or Moon Cup and consider giving it a try before your trip.
Optional Makeup: Go easy on the makeup. You look better without it.
There are lots of items you will need on your trip that don’t fit neatly into any other category, so they are listed here. Most of these things can be found at your local supermarket, hardware store, or outdoor/sporting goods store. Details on each type of item are explained below.
Passport and 2 color copies: While your passport is a no brainer, it’s also a good idea to make a few color copies of your passport and driver’s license and keep one copy in your big backpack and one in your day bag.
Journal, Pens, and Clear Tape: Even though it can feel like a chore, keeping a journal is incredibly rewarding after your trip is over and you want to look back at your travels. Or maybe, you can’t remember which country you were in when you were doing whatever-it-was with who’s-his-face. In either case, the first step is to keep a journal. Sketches, bullet points, iambic pentameter…find what works for you and do it. Instead of dragging around a stack of papers to scrapbook with, carry a roll of clear tape and paste that museum ticket -or whatever- directly into your journal. It’s quick, easy and you’ll thank yourself later.
Water Filter or Purification Tablets: For more in-depth information about your options, read Water Filters or Purification Tablets.
Every backpacker should carry a method to clean water. That way, you will always have drinkable water and cut down on single use plastic bottles. Filters are bulkier but work quickly. Purification tablets take up no space in your bag, but take at least 30 minutes to work and can leave a slight taste.
Luggage Lock: Backpackers need at least one luggage lock to keep their things safe when they are away from their backpack. Most hostels have large lockers that fit your entire bag. Others have cubbies and lockers for just your important items. In smaller hostels, they may only have a safe behind reception. Use your own judgement and don’t leave anything important lying around.
Locks only stop honest thieves. But that’s no reason to make it easy for them. When picking out a luggage lock, select one that has a wire instead of a hard metal hook. The wire is more difficult to cut through.
Ziplock Bags: Starting off with half a dozen plastic bags is one of the greatest gifts you can give your future self. Bring both the sandwich and gallon sizes.
5L Dry Bag: One valuable multi purpose item is the dry bag. A 5L bag is big enough to fit a large tablet, your cell phone, a camera, and all your important documents with room to spare. It provides protection any time you are near water and saves you from having to purchase a dozen item-specific waterproof cases. So no, do not buy that waterproof money case you have in your Amazon cart!
Another great thing about a dry bag is that it doubles as a dirty laundry sack. And once it’s time to wash that laundry all you have to do is open the bag, toss in some water and detergent, close the bag, shake it up, rinse, and repeat. It’s a great way to wash a few items at a time, keep things fresh in your pack, and save money.
String (aka Utility Line): Start with about 25’ of string. Anything with a bit of sturdiness will do. It is easy to find “Utility Line” in most stores: check the hardware, camping, or housing goods sections. Look for something along the lines of ⅛” nylon braided cord or something that mentions a weight rating of between 100 and 200 lbs.
String is useful for a lot of reasons, but one you will use over and over is as a clothes line. 25’ is enough to let your towel and clothing dry out when needed, and have enough to spare for side projects. One of the best places to string up an impromptu drying line is back and forth across the far side of your bunk. Just don’t forget it when it’s time to pack up and leave! For that reason, think about getting a string that is brightly colored.
Small Bottle of Bug Spray: Some travellers swear by DEET, others prefer a mist of eucalyptus and citronella oil. Whatever your choice is, don’t forget to pack at least a small bottle of it. Bug spray is something most tourist towns now carry, so you will be able to buy more after you run out. Which means you do not need a full six month supply, just enough to get you started.
Headlamp: A headlamp is a useful item for late night navigating, caving, or moving around your dorm. A small one is enough for most situations. A small, lightweight size is a trade off for lumens (brightness) but provides enough light to get around. A lamp with a red light setting allows you to use it without bothering other sleepers. You will have to decide which has the right features and price for you.
Umbrella or Raincoat: If you already have a strong preference for one vs the other, bring it. You do not need both. You do not need a fancy pack cover. In a pinch, you can always use a trash bag.
A small collapsible umbrella is adequate rain protection for most activities, such as exploring a market square or temple, visiting a botanical garden, or navigating a city. It has the added ability of providing shade on super hot, sunny days. An umbrella is more versatile than a raincoat in hot climates.
A raincoat makes more sense if you are planning to visit a cooler climate where it can double as wind protection. It’s also the better choice when you will be doing a lot of hiking. If you plan to visit the jungle frequently, but not constantly, opt for an umbrella and just accept that you will get wet when hiking.
Packable Jacket: If you are travelling to a warm area, consider bringing a cheap jacket that you can donate when you arrive. In cooler climates however, you will want to hang on to it. When elevation and cold temperatures become a factor, it’s practical to invest in a higher quality jacket that can compress down to a manageable size. If your trip will encompass several continents, you will need a jacket at some point- and in the meantime, you can always use it as a pillow.
Earplugs: Sharing a dorm can be fun. Unless your roommate snores. Earplugs are essential for a good night’s rest in a crowded dorm or as protection from 5 am mosque and rooster calls.
Sleep Mask: A sleep mask is vital in busier dorms with lots of people coming and going. Or for those times when you need a midday nap. If you are sensitive to light, invest in a higher quality mask, otherwise just hang on to the free one from your international flight.
Optional Drain Plug: If you plan on hand washing most of your own laundry, consider bringing a small item called a drain plug. It is a small plastic disc that creates a seal over most sink drains, thus allowing it to act as a washing basin. They may be hard to find overseas, so if you want to start your trip with one and later realize it’s not something you use, it’s an inexpensive item that you can ditch without worry. Note that many sinks will have their own plug, either as part of the sink drain or attached to a chain.
Cell Phone: Your cell phone does everything. It’s magic like technology that Captain Kirk never dreamed of. A nice cell phone no longer paints a target on your back because pretty much everyone has one. But that doesn’t mean you should forget about common sense: don’t leave your phone in plain sight when you go to the toilet, don’t keep it in your open back pocket, blah blah blah common sense.
Digital Camera: Let’s talk about cameras. There are a thousand options. If you are not passionate about photography, point and shoot cameras are relatively cheap and can still take great photos. If you are travelling alone, consider one that has a flip out screen for selfies (everyone does it). Depending on your destination, a waterproof camera may be a great idea. Whichever you select, purchase at least one spare battery for it.
Memory Cards: Bring at least one SD card with 64GB of memory or higher. Bring at least one 64GB flash drive and take the time to back up your photos. If you want to really ensure you don’t lose your photos, have a second backup that you keep in a different pocket of your pack.
Card Reader: You will need a memory card reader to facilitate backing up your cards. They also come in handy when sharing photos between friends. Have at least one card reader that works with a computer. Also, for about $15, you can buy one that plugs into your phone and share photos on the move.
Chargers, Adapters, and Power Converters: Do not forget to pack your chargers. If you are getting new electronics for your trip, think about buying ones that use the same type of charger so you can share the same cable between all your devices. It’s highly likely that your plug will not match the outlets, so you will need an adapter. An adapter either fits one specific kind of outlet or configures to multiple outlet types (universal). The universal adapters are great if your trip spans multiple countries and continents, but they can be bulky. Opt for the smaller outlet-specific adapter if you know you are only visiting a few regions. Most devices today can plug into both 120V and 240V. If you are concerned about frying your gear, purchase a power converter.
Power Bank: If you can’t stand the idea of running out of power on a 12 hour bus ride or overnight stay at an ecolodge, pack a small backup battery. Also think about reevaluating your priorities…if you are travelling across the world just to stare at a screen, why bother?
Disclaimer: The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Bandaids, Neosporin, Hand Sanitizer, and Wipes: Think about your typical day. You start at home, go to work (or school), maybe hit the gym, visit the store, feed yourself, and relax with a movie or book. If it’s a weekend you may grab lunch with a friend, play a sport, visit the city, go to the movies, go camping, or whatever. During how many of those activities do you carry enough supplies to kit out Grey’s Anatomy? Probably never. You live your life with the reasonable expectation that if you do get hurt you will have enough common sense and ingenuity to get yourself patched up so that if you need real help you can survive long enough to get to a hospital.
As romantic and exotic as Borneo, Iquitos, and Addis Ababa sound…..the fact is that no matter where you go in the world, they know what first aid is. Just like in your normal day to day life, a few basics like band aids, disinfectant cream, and hand sanitizer are enough to handle most cuts and scrapes. If you are accident prone, add alcohol wipes to the list. All tourism operators will have their own first aid kit.
If you live in the US, where meds are crazy expensive, it’s cheaper and easier to buy whatever you need if and when you need it. Pharmacies in a lot of the world are like Starbucks: most towns have at least one. And visiting them isn’t a hassle since they are usually run by someone who can prescribe you something then and there (but consider visiting Dr. Google as well).
Motion Sickness Tablets: One thing to stock up on before your trip are Motion Sickness Tablets. Those gems can save you from a world of unpleasantness if you are prone to motion sickness, or simply don’t want others puking around you. A bottle of 100 capsules takes up no room in your bag and means you have enough to share. Put a few into a smaller bag in your day bag so you can access them quickly- you never know when you are going to need them!
Sleeping Pills: If you are a light sleeper, consider taking along some sleeping pills to help you nod off. You’ll likely be taking some overnight busses on your trip and it’s nice to be able to sleep through the night. If you do decide to use them, make sure to follow the instructions.
Needle and Thread: A small spool of thread and a few needles are essential for keeping your gear in working order. Black thread is a good default, but if you have options, pick whichever color occurs most often in your wardrobe. Stick the needles into the spool and keep it out of the way so you don’t poke yourself.
Every traveller needs a day bag. It can be a small backpack, a shoulder sling, a fanny pack, or whatever.
Your day bag is going to get a lot of use, so make sure it is of sturdy construction. Also make sure there are zippers or ways to secure items against falling out. At minimum, it should be large enough to fit the items on the checklist. But it’s helpful to have extra space for something like a water bottle.
Don’t stress over getting the perfect bag before your trip, start with what you have and shop for a better option while you travel. For whatever reason, bags and satchels seem to be the international souvenir of choice, so they are easy to find.
These are things you should acquire shortly after you land. Don’t go out of your way asap, just keep your eyes open for them. These items are all easy to find.
Laundry Powder or Bar: A great way to save money and time while traveling is to hand wash a few items every other day. Powdered laundry detergent is much lighter than liquid. Buy the smallest bag available and keep it in a plastic bag in case of tears. You may also find detergent in bar form which works just like a bar of hand soap, but for clothes. Wash a few items as part of your nightly routine, and when you are going to be somewhere for several days, get your clothes professionally laundered.
Don’t bother with a Tide Pen or other stain treatments. Your clothes are going to get worn out no matter what you do.
Pocket Knife: If you are going to be in one country for a while, and don’t foresee any security checks, pick up a small pocket knife at the market. Don’t splurge on anything fancy…all you need is something that can cut fruit or slice salami. Keep in mind that you will likely be forced to get rid of it at your next plane or ferry ride.
Super Glue: Also called crazy glue, a tiny tube of this stuff is super useful for any backpacker. It will save you time to always have some on hand. It’s great for quickly repairing a busted shoe, fixing sunglasses, or patching holes in your backpack (which you should also reinforce with your needle and thread).
If something isn’t listed above, you don’t need to pack it. You may need additional items throughout your trip, but you can purchase those things as the need arises.
Flashlight: Don’t expect to be feeling your way around pitch dark dormitories in the middle of the night. As much as some of us would love for that to be the case, the reality is that you will rarely, if ever need a flashlight. Most places you’ll go are adequately lit (they do have electricity in SEA). Or if not, the flashlight on your phone is enough. Any time you will actually need one, it will be provided by your guide.
Travel Sheet: Every hostel provides some amount of free bedding. At minimum, it is a fitted sheet and a pillow. If you don’t like the look of one hostel’s sheets, just move on to the next one.
Sleeping Bag: Only bring a sleeping bag if you already have plans to use it: for example you are planning several solo hikes, bush camping, or are exclusively couchsurfing. If that all sounds fun, but in a nonspecific way, you don’t need your own sleeping bag. Anytime you want to do an activity that requires one you will be able to rent one, buy one, or it will be provided by the tour company.
Walkie Talkies: As much as walkie talkies are a fun idea for families or groups of friends, you really don’t need them. Remember the 90s when cell phones weren’t a thing? Everyone survived. While life without constant contact is a theoretical concept today, you likely won’t have to find out. Most of the world has cell coverage (it’s actually one area where The US is lagging). And every year, the list of locations without some amount of WiFi gets smaller and smaller. So purchase a SIM card or download WhatsApp and make do with those.
MultiTool: Humans clawed their way to the top of the food chain in part because of their ability to use tools. But unless you plan on volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, you will be able to survive without a multitool. Multitools are heavy- the number of times you might need one doesn’t make up for the annoyance of constantly lugging it around. The best tool you will always have with you is your own ingenuity. And don’t forget that us humans are herd animals: if you can’t fix something on your own, ask for help.
Everything you pack, you will have to carry.
The point of this list is to emphasize that a few multi purpose items can get you a long way. And that it’s better to deal with gear needs as they arise, rather than to overburden yourself trying to prepare for every situation.
Anything you could ever think of needing will be available, somewhere, for purchase no matter where you go. Just like your small town of Wherever, USA, they may not have the latest shwag, but you can find it at the next big town. So don’t stress. If you only pack the things on this list and a little common sense, you will have a great trip. Good luck and best wishes!
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission or compensation if you click through and/or make a purchase. The opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own.
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
― St. Augustine