A Traveller’s Backpacking List: The Absolutely Necessary, The Handy and The “Sounds Useful” but Never Actually Used Stuff to Take in Your Backpack

We’re often asked “How do you pack for 6 months?”. Well if backpacking has taught us one thing, it’s how to pack a bit more savvy. Space and weight is everything because like it or loathe it you have to carry your backpack and its contents everywhere you go.

Sara is a self-confessed over-packer when it comes to her backpack and sees the error of her ways only once she is on the road, ditching items at every opportunity. Jonny on the other hand is pretty cautious to begin with, but often realises something he left back at home would in hindsight have been useful to take.

So where is the happy middle ground?

We’ll give you an insight into the absolutely necessary items to take, the handy bits and the things we thought would be useful but barely get used.

We should note we are in not in any way endorsed by any of the brands or suggested items below, nor do we receive commission.

The 22 Necessary Items

Here are the essentials that we wouldn’t travel without:

  1. A backpack! We’d recommend investing in a reputable backpack with an adjustable back. We both have Osprey backpacks: Women’s Kyte 66l and Men’s Atmos AG 65l. For our last trip we bought cheap Karrimor backpacks (under £30) and they fell apart quite quickly, plus they were really uncomfortable.
  2. An unlocked mobile phone with as much storage as you can afford. You’ll want the storage for travel apps, photos, downloading offline maps etc. Make sure you enable cloud storage and regular back-ups! It helps if your phone is unlocked so you can use local SIM cards. Tip: If you’re coming from the UK, we’d recommend getting a Three SIM card as they allow roaming to a lot of countries now at no extra cost.
  3. Obviously your passport & travel insurance (make photocopies and keep these in a separate bag). We tend to email ourselves copies of any important documents so we can always look them up.
  4. A Pen – this one is so easy to forget. However, you’ll need a pen for border crossings to fill in the immigration forms.
  5. A portable charger is very handy when you’re travelling so that you can charge your phone.
  6. A worldwide plug adaptor with USB ports – we bought this one. Jonny also bought extra long phone charging cables so if the plug socket is in an awkward place the cable will reach.
  7. Headphones (& a splitter if travelling as a couple) – for long journeys music, films and podcasts make the time pass much more quickly. As a couple we also have a headphone splitter so we can listen and watch things together.
  8. Luggage organisers & dry bags – these are so handy! We line our backpacks with a large dry bag (we had an incident before where all our stuff got wet from a boat ride so we learnt from that). The luggage organisers or packing cubes make finding items a lot easier as you just have to pull out each organiser rather than everything item one by one. We pack all our tops into one bag, underwear in another etc. We also have smaller dry bags for our day backpacks.
  9. Ear plugs & eye mask – for long-haul flights, overnight bus journeys, noisy rooms, snorers etc.
  10. Camera – your phone camera is likely to be good enough but if you use your phone a lot it could be a drain on battery. We have a Go-Pro for adventure activities and an Olympus E-M10 mirrorless camera which makes it much more compact than your standard SLR which is ideal for travelling. We also carry a spare battery for the camera.
  11. Head buff or wrap – these little beauties double up as a bandana, scarf, headband, eye mask, sweat band. They are ideal for trekking too when the weather is unpredictable.
  12. Day backpack – we have 25l day backpacks for daytime or short trips where we can leave our big backpacks in a hostel. Sara also finds it useful to take a small cross-shoulder bag for evenings out or daytime sightseeing.
  13. Sunglasses & sunscreen – hoping we don’t need to justify these!
  14. Bank cards – ideally one credit card (we use Halifax Clarity) and a debit card like Monzo or Revolut which are more travel friendly. All of these cards minimise the bank fees for withdrawals. In general we keep the two cards apart (one in a day bag, one in our big backpack) so we still have one, if the other gets stolen.
  15. Hand sanitiser – so many times there are toilets without soap (and sometimes water) to wash your hands.
  16. Micro-fibre towel – ideally one that packs down small and dries quickly.
  17. Lip balm – come rain or shine, wind or snow, you’re likely to spend a lot of time outdoors. We find our lips begin to suffer without lip balm.
  18. Pocket tissues – just really handy if you get the sniffles, spill something or for some toilets. They are also sometimes hard to buy in remote areas.
  19. Basic clothes – as an minimum: 3x T-shirts, 1x shorts, 1x long trousers/leggings/gym pants, 1x warm long sleeve fleece or top, 4x of knickers/boxers, 1x thin long sleeve shirt, 4x socks (trekking, trainer & normal), 1x sandals/flipflops, 1x swimsuit, 1x trainers/trekking shoes, 2x bra (sports & normal). In reality we take more clothes (see the handy items for the rest!).
  20. Mosquito repellant – it can be hard to know when these pesky critters will be about and you definitely don’t want to get caught out!
  21. First aid kit – this contains fairly basic items like plasters, anti-diarrhoea tablets, pain-killers, antihistamine, antiseptic wipes and decongestants.
  22. Raincoat & backpack rain-covers – keep you and your stuff dry. We both also have waterproof trousers for trekking. We’ve upgraded to good waterproof jackets for this trip due to the amount of treks we’d be doing. Sara has a North Face jacket and Jonny has Rab but there are many out there!

Some of our essential items.

Packing everything into luggage organisers or packing cubes is so helpful to find items. It also helps keeps clothes crease-free if you roll them!

14 Handy Items to Take

These next items have evolved during our travels. We’ve found them very useful.

  1. Travel apps – we download offline maps on Google maps and maps.me is useful too for directions. The Kindle app with Kindle unlimited is brilliant for downloading all Lonely Planet guides for the places we intend to visit. For budgeting we use Trail Wallet (iOS) or Trabee Pocket (Android). For long journeys we use Spotify and Netflix. Booking.com has been useful for almost every accommodation we have stayed at. To blog our travels we use the WordPress app. TripIt has been good to have all our flights and accommodation in one place. Google translate is still bit flaky but can really help you out. Also having online banking as an app, social media platforms and other language learning apps are useful too.
  2. Wash stuff – all your wash stuff like a toothbrush, shampoo etc you can normally pick up as you go which is why we’ve decided to not put them in absolutely necessary. We use a bar of soap instead of shower gel because it’s cheap and lasts longer. Lush produce great shampoo bars which are compact and last a long time too. We bought soap boxes/tins to carry them in. Remember to consider the weight as well as the space bottles of lotions and potions take-up. Don’t forget to bring tweezers, a nail file and nail clippers.
  3. A sewing kit – useful if you rip a hole in your clothes or bag. We’ve used the sewing kit more than we thought we would. Usually you can replace items but not always the same day.
  4. A cap or sunhat – keeps the sun off your face/neck when you’re in the sunshine. Neither of us brought one from the UK but we realised we needed one almost instantly! Particularly useful for safari or boat trips where it’s tricky to keep reapplying sun cream.
  5. A tablet or iPad – a bigger screen for us to watch things together and helpful for research.
  6. Menstrual cup – this one is specific to ladies and we know it sounds gross. However, it helps save space, avoid having to buy sanitary items (& pay the tax!), it’s good for the planet (reusable) and actually works!
  7. Spare small micro-fibre towel- if you like to wash your face every morning or have long or thick hair it may be useful to carry a hand-size microfibre towel around.
  8. Tea-bags – we’re British okay?!
  9. Playing cards – great for socialising and for long waits at airports/bus terminals.
  10. Hair bands/bobbles – we both have long hair so they are useful for hot climates. These are also useful if you need to secure something like your soap dish.
  11. Extra clothes – on top of the essential clothes listed above we both have brought short pyjamas, 3x more knickers/boxers and socks (7 in total, enough for a week), a second pair of shorts, extra warm top, thin long sleeved top and swimwear (2 in total). In addition, Jonny has 3x extra t-shirts (5 in total), 1x shorts (3 in total) and Sara has 1x t-shirt (3 in total), 4x strap tops, 2x dresses, 1x leggings (2 in total), 1x maxi skirt, 1x cardigan. She also has trainers and walking shoes 😅
  12. Reusable water bottle – we’d suggest one that collapses so that if it cannot be washed out for a while so it doesn’t become cumbersome to carry. For example, Sara has this one.
  13. Head-lamp or torch – can be useful depending on what you’re doing. We’ve got one between us and only used it a handful of times for exploring caves or at night. We use the torchlight on our phones primarily.
  14. A chiffon style oversize scarf/sarong/blanket/beach towel/wrap – this thing has so many uses. I purchased mine in Asia and it has surprisingly lasted well. They are cheap to buy when travelling but I use it as blanket on a long journey, a scarf when it’s cold, to lie on the beach and to wrap around me as a sarong. If you’re not sure what I mean, this should give you an idea.

Handy items to bring.

The “Sounds Useful” But Never Actually Used
  1. A pen knife – we may have used this once or twice to cut up some fruit or open a bottle of wine. Honestly though, if you’re staying in hostels it’s not normally hard to find one to borrow. It’s the same with the ‘spork’ (a spoon, fork and knife in one) we brought too.
  2. Elastic string – a travel site once recommended bringing this to make a washing line. We used it once in 6 months.
  3. Duct-tape – useful if your bag rips but then we’d use the sewing kit. Never used!
  4. Mini immersion heater aka water boiler – in principle this sounded great and was recommended in a travel packing list. Plug it in, put it in a mug of water & get instant hot water! We bought this one. It’s never been used.
  5. A notepad – we use our phones for notes or as a diary now and back this up on the cloud. We find a notepad just takes up unnecessary space.
  6. That extra top– Sara is especially guilty of this: I brought 2 extra tops (on top of those listed above) which I really didn’t need. In fact, I haven’t even worn all the clothes I took and we’ve been travelling for a whole month. Luckily as you travel, you start to appreciate which clothes you really need and can opt to ditch items. It also depends on the climate on what you’ll need. We’ve bought new clothes as we’ve needed them.
  7. A marker pen – we thought this might be useful. It does come in handy for labelling food in a shared fridge but normally a hostel will have a pen you can use.
  8. Sleeping bag liner – we’re a bit on the fence about this one. For the vast majority of our accommodation (dorms or private rooms) we have not needed it as bed linen was provided. There are rare occasions where they provide a warm duvet in hot weather so the liner is preferable or it’s freezing or dirty so again a liner is useful. We both still have ours with us on our current trip have used it 0 times. On the last 6-month trip we perhaps used it 5 times.
  9. Travel guidebooks – these can take up a lot of space. We ditched our Lonely Planet guide and stuck to the Kindle app for all our travel guides.
  10. Make-up & jewellery – Sara’s downfall: I always take a small bit of make-up and jewellery with me and always end up barely wearing any. Luckily it packs down quite small.

A few of the items that we barely (if ever) use.

Hopefully this either answers the question of what do we pack or helps you pack for a trip!

Tips for couples

Travelling as a long-term couple, we decided to create a shared email address and have a joint bank account to pay off our credit card. We find it makes travelling easier for us. It also means, we can both log into the majority of our travel apps with the same details so both of us have the same information.

Other Comprehensive Packing Lists

There are some very in-depth backpacking packing lists out there. We particularly liked this comprehensive one by Gap Year and our friend wrote this excellent website with simple travel tipslp to help travellers prepare for a trip (which includes a downloadable packing list).

Whatever you pack, don’t be this guy…

How not to pack 😂 this was taken when I was naive to backpacking and had a ridiculous amount of bags!