Our backpacking essentials: fifteen items we could not travel without
All travellers have items that get relegated to the bottom of their backpacks. For us, it was an umbrella and an endless supply of miniature toiletries.
On the flipside, our year of being away from home gave us a pretty good idea of what we couldn't have lived without.
Here are 15 of the things we found indispensable during our travels.
Before we visited Colombia, we had started watching Narcos on Netflix (along with every other backpacker in Latin America, it seemed). With long bus journeys ahead of us, this teeny addition to our hand luggage became sacred; no one likes listening to Pablo Escobar sneering in one ear and the salsa beats of ‘Despacito’ from the bus speakers in the other. They're incredibly cheap and well worth it.
This is the ultimate travel shoe. They're durable, not unfashionable and ridiculously comfortable. I’ve walked through dirty markets in them, worn them on the beach and, once thoroughly cleaned, out for evening meals. One pair should easily last you a year - I'm a fan of the Mayari sandal.
Swiss Army knife
Are you an intrepid explorer in need of a sharp knife to prepare your campfire dinner, or a cosmetic buff looking for a pair of tweezers? Enter the Swiss Army Knife. You can clip your toenails, slice fruit, remove splinters and, importantly, open a bottle of wine! A truly fantastic piece of kit.
An effective waterproof jacket can turn a potentially grim experience, such as hiking the Quilotoa loop in the pouring rain, into a great experience. My Matt bought me a Kathmandu ngx 2.5 waterproof in Sydney before I flew to Asia. It's effective and durable, and it also folds into a small parcel when it's not needed. Matt swears by his North Face Apex Flex.
I've always been a fan of Merrell products, and their high rise Moab walking boots looked like a great option. They have served me well over the past two years: they're extremely lightweight and waterproof, and they aren’t as bulky as many other walking boots, despite coming up to the ankle. I actually love them. Matt liked the look of them so much that he ended up getting the same pair in a different colour! #couplegoals
Matt’s iPad screen broke after falling from a temple in Myanmar and the glass started flaking away. Gorilla tape to the rescue! My Teva sandals started breaking early on into our trip too, so we taped over the edge. We’ve seen bags, furniture and even DSLRs held together with Gorilla tape – do yourself a favour and get a small roll.
You may think they're old-fashioned or a little embarrassing but they make perfect sense in many travel situations. There have been countless times when we’ve started a hike in the chill of the early morning and have been scorching at midday. Bringing a change of shorts adds extra weight, there may not be suitable places to change outfit and rolling up trousers can be a pain. My North Face and Matt’s Mac Pac zip-offs offer the perfect solution. They are incredibly convenient, versatile and damn comfy.
Motion sickness medication
Ever since a hair-raising boat ride between Penang and Langkawi back in 2013, I have been cautious when it comes to winding roads and bumpy oceans. Heading to the pharmacy to stock up on meds was the best decision. I found tables and wristbands worked well. Find what works for you and your body will thank you later.
Okay, so not something you can 'pack' per se.
Everyone told us that we would need to know our ‘cerbaza’ from our ‘cerveza’ to get by in Latin America, so we downloaded Duolingo to help us learn Spanish. We didn’t bother getting a local sim card in Colombia, and instead used Google’s offline maps and MapsMe to get around when we had no wifi. MapsMe was particularly invaluable in Myanmar. We saved playlists on Spotify and TV shows on Amazon Video, to watch offline on the plane. And then there’s budgeting apps like TrailWallet that help you keep track of your travel money. There is no end to how helpful apps can be for travellers.
Merino wool or similar clothing
If you have particularly smelly feet (like me) merino wool is the absolute dream. Never before had I worn socks three days in a row and not turned my nose up when taking my shoes off. Merino has amazing moisture wicking properties which means your clothes won't smell even if you sweat like a pig. It keeps you cool when you're hot and warm when you're cold, and dries quickly after washing. It is a pricy investment, but well worth it if you're going to be wearing the same thing day-after-day (e.g. if you're on a hike), if it will be a while before you can wash your clothes and/or if you want some staple pieces to rely on.
Merino is also great for underwear, but expensive. We opted for Uniqlo's Airism range of quick-drying pants instead, and I would highly recommend them. The women's versions are no-VPL and they come in neutral colours.
We rate Icebreaker for merino clothing but there are plenty of other brands that offer similar quality.
Nowadays, a lot of guesthouses and even hostels provide towels. Having a lightweight, quick-drying towel in your backpack is ideal for situations where this might not be the case, or if you're camping, or just want a towel to take to the beach. They can also act as a curtain for those bottom-bunkers who want a little more privacy.
They fold up really small and our favourite from Mountain Warehouse (below) comes in a convenient carry case.
We found that the best way to learn about a place is to talk to fellow travellers and, of course, locals. That being said, it's great to have a paper guidebook to flick through, to inspire your next adventure.
A great way to arrange luggage, these make it very easy to organise your backpack and to keep on top of where everything is. They come in a range of sizes which is handy: we tended to have one for underwear, one for gadgets, one for bulky clothing, etc.
For when you need to secure your hostel locker or when you're leaving your luggage unattended (e.g. as part of a long bus journey), a solid padlock is a must. We've found the best padlock is one that doesn't require a key, as it would most definitely get lost.
If you're on the road for some time, investing in some good-quality storage boxes is a great way to store all sorts of things: medication, leftover food, packed lunches, electrical wires, herbs and spices...
It's worth spending a bit more on tupperware that has clip lids (we recommend sturdy Lock & Lock) as opposed to the takeaway style, which are prone to popping off at random.
Get some tupperware
Travel would be made far easier if every country used the same type of plug! Alas, that is not the case, but luckily some bright spark invented the multi-plug adapter.
Although more bulky than one-way adapters, they're pretty much essential if you're travellign across continents, or even countries, in South America's case.
This article is a great resource to work out what plug you need for each country you're visiting.
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