Backpacking abroad can be a life-changing adventure. However, whether you’re exploring Sequoia National Park, trekking through the Bagan Archaeological Zone in Myanmar, or hiking up Huayna Picchu in Peru, it takes some advanced preparation. Deciding what to pack and (just as important) what not to pack are of paramount importance if you want to have a good time.
Here’s a fact: The weight of your backpack is inversely proportional to how much you will enjoy your trip!
Most of us have the tendency to overpack. The truth is, unless you are going to the most remote places on the planet, there will be stores where you can buy anything you’ve forgotten. Here are a few of the “rules” I keep in mind when I’m putting together my kit. You might have a different approach and that’s great! Hopefully, these suggestions will help even the experienced traveler pack for their next big adventure.
Rule #1. Organization is key.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost or misplaced something on a trip. To keep that from happening, I try to always store items in their designated compartment. Just throwing important documents in your bag can leave you rummaging for your passport at the airport (meanwhile, the plane’s already halfway down the runway). I also pack most items in zip top bags. They keep stuff clean, dry, and organized.
Rule #2. Leave some room in your pack.
That last-minute stuff you throw in your pack is usually the stuff you won’t use! If your backpack still has some room left over (and it should) then you’ve packed well. And, you’ll have room for souvenirs.
Rule #3. Don’t bring anything you’d mind losing.
Items that you bring with you are very likely to get damaged, lost, or stolen en route, so leave expensive watches, sunglasses, and jewelry at home.
Rule #4. Bring a good backpack.
The first step to packing a backpack is deciding which model to take with you. When you go to buy a bag, assume it will be very badly mistreated, so choose one that’s durable. After getting caught in the rain more than once, I’ve settled on using a waterproof backpack to avoid similar disasters in the future.
If you plan on carrying it on a plane (rather than checking it in), make sure that you know the carry-on dimensions of your preferred airline. Lastly, the backpack needs to fit your body. Do this by measuring the length of your torso and buying an appropriately-sized pack.
Rule #5. Pack light!
I’m not an ultra-light traveler, but neither do I boast ox-like strength. Shaving off a few ounces here and there adds up. Do you really need that extra pair of pants or well-worn copy of War and Peace? Optimize your pack for weight and your back will thank you later.
That being said, there are some essentials you simply can’t do without. The following are some must-have items for any hiking trip.
Not having proper documentation can end your trip before it starts. If you’re heading overseas, you’ll need your passport. Copy the first two pages of your passport and hide them in the lining of your backpack, along with some emergency cash and copies of your credit cards. Depending on where you are going, you may also need travel visas and/or vaccination records. I also take a couple of extra passport pictures and a laminated sheet with emergency contact information.
Don’t forget your travel insurance papers. If you haven’t thought of travel insurance, do. It’s cheap and it can save a whole lot of time and trouble if you get sick or injured while abroad.
You should always have a first aid kit with you but, since you’re hiking, it should be pared down. Here’s what I take in mine, but feel free to modify it to your needs.
- 5 or 6 adhesive bandages
- Ibuprofen PM (I take these as soon as I board the plane; I can live without another airline meal)
- Anti-diarrheal meds
- Dramamine (if you suffer from motion sickness)
- Prescription medication
- Allergy pills
- Insect repellent bracelet
- Alcohol wipes
For most of these, I don’t take the entire package. That’s the genius of zip top baggies! However, that’s not true for prescription medications. Always bring enough prescription medication PLUS two days extra, in case you are delayed getting home. Keep prescriptions in their original, labeled bottles, and have a copy of the prescription with your travel documents, just in case customs asks.
Ok, I’m a simple girl and I’m not a clothes horse. I also don’t like the feeling of carrying my entire closet with me. I use the rule of thumb “pack one, wash one” and never have more than three of anything in my backpack. I also wear clothing that’s neutral in color—it doesn’t show dirt and it doesn’t attract attention. Never wear any kind of political statement on your clothing when you’re abroad.
Finally, take into account the clothes you’ll wear on the plane as you’re thinking about what to bring. For example, I never pack my jeans or fleece hoodie because I always wear them while I’m traveling.
My typical travel wardrobe includes the following:
- 3 pairs of underwear
- 2 pairs of socks
- Warm fleece hoodie
- A pair of jeans
- A pair of microfiber khakis (I do like to go to a nice restaurant on occasion)
- No-iron business casual shirt
- Sleeping tee shirt
- 3 short-sleeve shirts
- An ultra-thin, long-sleeve over shirt (handy for avoiding sun and mosquitos)
- Bathing suit
- Thin anorak or compressed poncho for rainy days
- A pair of rugged, comfortable shoes (broken in, not new!)
- A pair of water shoes (I prefer these to flip-flops as they’re more versatile and provide more protection for my feet)
- Hat (A hat is especially essential for hikes in hotter climes, such as those at the Grand Canyon)
- A pair of dollar store sunglasses
I bring very little in the way of toiletries. You can buy anything you need at your destination and I like trying foreign products. This is what I do take:
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Travel-sized stick of deodorant
- Small bottle of unscented (to avoid attracting insects) body wash/shampoo
- Sunscreen (SPF 80)
- Hand sanitizer
- Gents might also want to bring along a small tube of shaving cream, a razor, and extra blades. The ladies should pack any necessary feminine hygiene products.
If you’re going ultra-light, there are some nifty items that can save you even more space, such as tablet towels and soap leaves. Liquid soap is a problem if you don’t want to check in your luggage.
Here are some other important things you should have with you.
- Cash (new $1 bills are accepted almost anywhere, plus local currency), credit cards, and traveler’s checks
- Snacks and water! Don’t do what I did and forget to bring enough water for your five-mile hike through the Jordanian desert
- Kindle or netbook in a waterproof bag
- Small notebook and a few pens
- Smart phone and charger
- Clothesline (A bit of paracord does the job nicely)
- Hand crank flashlight with USB port
- Sleep sheet. I use silk. Bed bugs can’t bite you through silk, plus it’s lightweight and warm.
- Duct tape (Wrap some around a pencil—don’t take the whole roll)
- Compass and maps of the area
- Army knife (if you are checking in your bag)
- A cheap, low-key watch with alarm (or just use your smartphone)
- Earplugs and earbuds
- Whistle (Wear it around your neck at night for security)
- Bandana (I use a Japanese Tenugui I got in Tokyo)
- Travel towel
- A compact, but sturdy umbrella
- A large garbage bag or two. Garbage bags can provide shelter from the rain or a barrier from damp ground. They’re also great for garbage!
Before you go, make sure that you pack your bag, weigh it, and take a couple of long day-trips with the pack to ensure it’s comfortable. Ultimately, less is more. A great hiking trip isn’t about the stuff you bring with you. It’s about the memories you’ll bring back! If you’re not sure where to go, I recommend checking out this list of beautiful state parks in the United States. Happy trails!
About the author
Angelica is a lifelong traveler and a contributor at The Tactical Guru, where she writes about hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities.