A few years back I decided to go travelling on my own. I was thinking big. Not just a few days or weeks, but months – maybe a year – on the go. Planning the trip itself was great fun. But I found backpack packing for long-term travel quite a disconcerting task. As my friend Rachel once asked: “How do you condense your whole life into your luggage?”
Well, I discovered the answer is: You can’t.
While researching my trip, I was warned I might have to walk with my backpack on my shoulders for distances long enough to be unpleasant (something which turned out to be true – apparently you are never quite as close to a bus stop as they say). Also, as I was jumping between hot and cold countries, I needed flexibility. With this in mind, I decided to take just a few clothes.
I calculated that I could make do with two bras, five knickers and five pairs of socks (of which at least two pairs were good for walking). Two all-season long-sleeve tops, two T-shirts and two vests. One pair of leggings, one pair of loose gym trousers, and a pair of those light trousers with zips that allow you turn them into incredibly unflattering shorts (rest assured, I haven’t unzipped them to date). Plus a mac, a fleece with a zip, flip-flops and walking boots.
That was it, for half a year. My backpack was indeed very light – 7.5kg to be precise.
But my calculations were wrong. The problem was, I’d packed so lightly, I had to buy loads of clothes. Not because I liked what I found, but because I was (in sequence) really cold, absolutely out of place, desperately hot, and by the end aesthetically quite confused.
One of my most precious buys was a pair of jeans I bought in Tokyo. I’d had enough of the zipped trousers and tried some lovely denim in a cool shop. I’m not really skinny, but I’m not a big girl either. In fact, I’m fairly small. But this time I couldn’t pull the trousers higher than halfway up my thighs. So I had to go to GAP and find the chubbiest Japanese girl in the store so she could sympathise with my, ehrm, ‘superior’ size.
Slowly, my wardrobe changed. After a couple of months I could easily disguise myself instead of looking like a tourist eyesore. My backpack became my home. My life. A trace to all the things that had made me ‘me’ before I left and a link to all those new treasures found along the way.
And I learned that it’s irrelevant what clothes you stuff in your luggage, as you can easily find things along the way (or discover interesting new fashions).
So, instead of worrying about what T-shirt to bring, concentrate on the practical stuff. This will leave plenty of space for the nice things you pick up as you journey, or for your newly discovered love of Peruvian hats.
Here is a massive list of all the tiny things I found useful on the road. Not all of them will be necessary all the time, and of course it also depends on how you travel. But I bet anyone would find at least a few items absolutely indispensable, so think about it.
I’ve ‘tested’ this list on two dear friends who have gone travelling on their own for over a year: one is a girly seasoned traveller who was itching to get back on the road again; the other is a male banker who had never gone travelling beyond a month or the boundaries of Western civilization. She confirmed the list was good. He brought absolutely every item on the list and now, after two years of solo travels, swears by it.
I hope you find it useful too.
- Passport and visas
- A list of your emergency contacts with relevant info (father, mother, friends, what language they speak, etc.)
- Vaccinations card with blood type info
- A list of your allergies and diseases (if you have any)
- Travel insurance details
- Driving licence, if you have one
- Bank cards, including a credit card. Also bring the numbers to call for lost/stolen cards (keep this in a separate place to your cards).
- A list of your important details, including all relevant numbers and information for your passport, visa, insurance, and valuable equipment (don’t keep this in the same place as your passport).
Things you don’t know you need until you need them
- A few elastic bands
- Plastic bag
- Padlock, preferably combination
- Small torch
- A couple of safety pins
- Two or three clips or pegs
- A bit of gaffer tape (you can tape up everything with it, even clothes)
- A pen and a small marker
- Swiss Army Knife with bottle opener, can-opener and tweezers
- Spoon and fork (or a ‘spork’)
- Ear plugs!
- Baby wipes – for cleaning all manner of things
- Eye mask, if you find it difficult to sleep in odd places
- Camping towel – they are really worth the price (and the weird sensation you get when you dry yourself).
- Small blanket and pillow (bus rides can be very cold). If you can, steal both from an airline on your way there.
- A small plastic mug – you can also steal this during the plane trip.
- Squash ball or a universal sink plug
- A large light scarf or sarong (that you can also use as a pillow, sun hat, blanket, or bunk-bed curtain)
Toiletries + medical
- A small bottle of all-purpose soap – in most poorer countries, hostels have laundry services that cost peanuts, but it’ll come in handy to wash a pair of knickers or socks on the go. If you’re travelling to places where you can easily find launderettes, bring a few sachets of laundry liquid instead.
- Enough tampons and/or sanitary towels to last you a day or two – you don’t want to get caught out if you are in the middle of trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro.
- Condoms (whether you’re single or not, you might not find them, so please bring a few)
- Sanitising gel and a few disinfectant pads
- Sterile kit – one with sterile needles (if you go to countries where the medical system isn’t trustworthy, you can just hand it over to a doctor or nurse).
- Plasters, sterile needle strips (basically a substitute for stitches when a cut is not too deep), and plenty of blister plasters!
- Medicines – discard the boxes to reduce weight and volume, but keep the instruction leaflets! Read the medical info sections in your guidebooks to help you decide what to bring, but I think its better to have more than to have less. Even though you’ll be carrying more weight, there’ll be occasions when you can’t communicate what you need or are too far away from being able to buy medicines, or you can’t see a doctor who speaks your language.
- A list of all the medicines you are carrying, with an indication of what they are for – in case you’re feeling dizzy or sick and don’t have the strength to go through all the info on the leaflets.
- World adaptor with a USB plug
- MP3 player with earphones
- Memory cards – if you like taking pictures with a camera rather than a phone and you are going to remote destinations, bring loads of them with few gigabytes rather than one card with loads of space (1 or 2 gigabytes are the best). This way, if you’re unable to download your pictures often and your camera gets stolen, your memories will be saved.
- All your relevant cables and cases
Other optional little things
- Laptop or iPad – you may or may not want to risk bringing one with you, but rest assured you’ll find internet cafes almost anywhere in the world.
- A book – to read, lend, leave or exchange
- Your address book if you like writing postcards/letters
- A small notebook – to write down all the lists that you are making, info you pick up along the way, names and addresses of the people you meet and, if you fancy, your experiences and thoughts.
- A swimsuit (you never know!)
- Some tea/coffee/sugar/salt/pepper sachets (but you can steal these along the way as well)
- A needle and some thread
- Sleeping bag liner – if you always want your own sheets
- Mosquito net (depending on your destination, of course)
- Some passport pictures of yourself – for last-minute visas or to give to new friends.
Photography: Dee Ramadan
Styling: Margherita Poggiali