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First Steps

One of the biggest obstacles I faced when first preparing to travel was deciding what to pack. If you’re planning to be out for an extended amount of time, it can be difficult to fight the urge to overpack. It’s important to always keep weight in mind, however, as you’ll not only be lugging that bag around with you for the foreseeable future, but paying a hefty price tag for it at the airport as well.


 
Clothing

This will be a difficult thing for some people to accept, but if you’re going to travel longterm, forget about being fashionable. No backpack in the world is going to accommodate your entire wardrobe plus whatever else you decide to bring with you. You’ll end up wearing the same outfit often. On the plus side, with every new location you visit, you’ll meet a whole new group of people who have never seen you in it, so you can take solace in that at least.


shelves of clothing

Assuming warm to mild weather, I typically pack:

• T-shirts – 4-5
• Shorts – 1-2 pairs
• Jeans – 1 pair
• Socks – 5 pairs of everyday socks, 1 pair of hiking socks
• Underwear – 4-5 pairs
• Button-down shirt – 1 shirt in case you go somewhere somewhat fancy
• Sweatshirt – 1 light to medium weight sweatshirt
• Jacket – 1 lightweight waterproof jacket
• Shoes – 1 pair of comfortable sneakers, 1 pair of waterproof hiking boots, 1 pair of sandals
• Hat – 1 baseball cap
• Bathing suit – 1 pair of swim trunks
• Sunglasses – 1 cheap pair that you’re not afraid to lose

That should cover pretty much all your everyday needs. Five days worth of clothes might not seem like much if you’re planning to travel for several months at a time, but most hostels you’ll stay in will have washing machines available (or you can sink wash if you really want to save your money. That’s what I did!).

If you’re going somewhere cooler or plan to travel into the colder seasons, the trick is to layer up. Don’t waste precious backpack space packing bulky outwear that you may not even need or could acquire later. Worst case scenario, you could always leave a box of warmer clothes with a family member or good friend and have them mail them to you should you need them!

Also, trust me on the sunglasses. I made the mistake of bringing an expensive pair of RayBans with me once and while diving to photobomb a group of girls in Paris, they flew off my shirt without my noticing. By the time I realized they were missing, someone else had found them and claimed them as their own… But I’m sure the photobomb was totally worth it. Group of girls, if you’re reading this, send me that picture!

 
Gear

This depends largely on what sort of traveling you intend to do (mainly cities vs camping). However, backpack camping could be a post of its own, so for this one, I’ll focus on basic city traveling.


an overhead photo of a map and laptop

Here is what I recommend bringing:

• Combination lock –  Almost every hostel will have lockers available to store your backpack while you’re out exploring. While I’ve never had an issue with theft, it doesn’t hurt to lock up your belongings. I highly recommend a combination lock over a key lock in the not-so-rare event that the tiny key is misplaced.

• Rainfly – I’ve previously discussed picking a backpack made with water-resistant materials in another post, but it never hurts to be over prepared. A rainfly is a large nylon cover that fits securely over your backpack to keep out all moisture. If you’re carrying all of your belongings in that bag, it’s well worth the inexpensive purchase to keep them dry.

• Small medical kit –  You don’t need anything too extravagant for city backpacking, as you can always find a hospital for any serious conditions. That being said, it’s a good idea to have some basic supplies on hand such as bandaids, aspirin and burn cream in the event of minor injuries. Most outdoor retailers like EMS will have portable, prepackaged kits available to purchase.

• Small flashlight – This is a great tool to keep somewhere handy, like a keyring, so that if you come back to your hostel late at night, you can manage to find your way to bed without disturbing everyone. Trust me, you don’t want to be that person that turns on the overhead lights after stumbling in drunk from a night on the town… Not if you want to make friends at least.

• Water bottle – A good water bottle is an absolute necessity while traveling. You would not believe how many people I came across who were throwing away money by buying bottled water after bottled water. You know places give that stuff away for free, right? Having a quality reusable bottle with you will save you a ton of money in the long run and ensure you remain properly hydrated at all times.  


Electronics

There are some backpacking purists who will tell you to leave all electronics behind and get off the grid while traveling. While I totally get it and respect them for it, it’s just not for everyone. Personally, I like having my phone’s GPS at times, and it’s always nice to keep in touch with family and friends back home.

Here’s what I bring with me:

• Unlocked cellphone – Having an unlocked cellphone means you’ll be able to use sim cards from anywhere in the world in your device to get internet and phone access. Most places will have relatively inexpensive short-term data plans available for tourists. Use this in conjunction with apps like Viber or WhatsApp and you have a cheap way to talk to people back home.

• Small camera – I’ll admit, this is one area where I don’t practice what I preach. I’m big into photography, so I lug around my clunky DSLR with me everywhere I go. I wish it weren’t the case though, as it’s heavy and requires its own bag. If you’re not an aspiring professional photographer however, I would strongly recommend a tiny point and shoot digital camera. If you’re feeling fancy and want some action shots as well, look into a waterproof version for underwater photos and video.

• Tablet – I used to travel with my laptop, but have recently switched to a tablet. It’s lighter, has all the same features I would need from a computer, and is far more practical for traveling and performing basic tasks like reading. Remember, backpack space is extremely limited, so if you don’t need a full laptop, don’t bother with it.

• Universal adapter – Many people incorrectly believe that you need to buy a power converter for your electronics, otherwise you run the risk of overloading them, and *poof*, boom goes the cellphone. Thankfully, most modern electronics have made this a non-issue. Check the label carefully on your device’s plug, but you’ll find that most are capable of handling 100-240 volts. This is considered a universal range and you will be able to use your device safely in just about every country. What you will need, however, is an adapter. One of the many joys of traveling is the ever-changing electrical outlets you will encounter around the world. A good universal adapter should fit most any outlet you will come across in your travels.

• Travel power strip – Don’t forget, you’ll need to charge your electronics as well. You may find open outlets tough to come by, especially in places like hostels where other travelers are looking to charge up their phones and tablets too. A travel power strip is immensely helpful in this situation, as it will allow you to charge multiple devices at once while needing just one outlet.

 

Miscellaneous

These last few items are what I like to call “worst case scenario” supplies. You probably won’t need them, but it’s good to have them in case you do.

• A copy of your passport – Whenever I travel, I take a scanned paper copy of my passport to keep tucked away in my bag. If my actual one happens to get lost or stolen, I at least have some way of verifying my identity at an embassy so that I can get a replacement. I also like to keep the scanned image uploaded to a cloud server like Google Drive so that no matter what, I am always able to access a copy.

• $100 cash USD – Obviously, this one only applies to Americans, but I always like to keep some cash with me in the event that my wallet is stolen. Most card companies will be able to express deliver you a replacement to anywhere in the world, but until they arrive, you’ll at least have something to get by with. I’m sure it goes without saying, but keep this secret stash well hidden in your backpack in a place that thieves wouldn’t think to check. I’d tell you my hiding place, but that sort of defeats the purpose.

• Snacks – Okay, admittedly, this isn’t a real worst case scenario item, but getting hungry on a cross-country bus ride can certainly feel like the end of the world. I always try to keep a few granola bars on hand when traveling. Don’t go overboard packing these. The rest of the world has snacks as well, and you can try something different everywhere you go!

That’s it for my basic packing list. If you have questions about what to bring or if you think I left something off the list, contact me!   Now that you know what type of things to bring, it’s time to choose the actual items. If you need some suggestions, take a look at my gear recommendations!

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First Steps

A common point of contention between people who travel often is whether to use a backpack or rolling suitcase to carry your belongings. Both certainly have their merits. I can certainly appreciate the ease of pulling a suitcase on wheels behind me as opposed to carrying the weight on my back, but that being said, the moment you encounter stairs, everything changes. Have you ever tried carrying a 50 pound suitcase up three stories? It doesn’t look fun.

In my opinion, backpacks are for travelers and suitcases are for vacationers. Suitcases are typically heavier, don’t travel well over unpaved surfaces, and their rigid shape limits what you can put in it. On the other hand, a good hiking backpack is typically much lighter, can go anywhere, and is able to compress down or expand depending on what you need to bring. On top of that, if you get your pack properly fitted to you, the weight of the bag is spread evenly across your hips, minimizing any strain felt on your back or shoulders.


What to Look for In a Backpack

The first thing to consider when looking for a hiking backpack is size. If you intend to be out for over a month, I would not recommend looking at anything under 50 liters. There are some backpackers who swear by the ultralight lifestyle and travel with far smaller packs, but personally, I like to change my clothes once in a while (just kidding, you ultralighers out there). On the other end of the spectrum, some bags are too monstrously huge. Anything over 80 liters and you risk being vilified by strangers on the overcrowded bus you’re bound to take at some point.   Next, you should consider features. When searching for the perfect backpack, you should look for a bag with the following:

 
• LIGHTWEIGHT

The contents of your bag are going to be heavy enough without the backpack itself weighing you down. When you also consider that most airlines charge for your luggage on a sliding scale of weight, it becomes increasingly important to shed some pounds wherever you can. Many modern hiking bags are built with an internal aluminum frame for a solid construction with minimal overall weight. Keep in mind, however, it’s important not to skimp on materials in the quest for weight reduction. A featherweight bag is no good to you if its paper-thin fabric tears in the first week of using it. A well-made backpack should strike a balance between the two.

 
• WATER-RESISTANT

Inevitably, you are going to get caught in the rain at some point in your travels. In everyday life, this isn’t a terribly big deal, but when you’re carrying all of your worldly possessions in a backpack, it’s very much akin to living in a house with a cloth roof. In addition to using a rainfly, it’s important to find a backpack made with water-resistant materials. Cordura or any other ripstop nylon is a safe bet for lightweight water protection.

 
• SEPARATE COMPARTMENTS

There is nothing worse than looking for one small item in your backpack and needing to unpack the entire bag to find it. Having separate compartments makes organizing and finding your belongings much easier. For instance, you can keep emergency items that require immediate access, such as a medkit, in the hood. Meanwhile, things like your sleeping bag can be kept in a compartment at the bottom of the bag, as there are very few emergency situations that require you to deploy a sleeping back in seconds. Also, while not entirely necessary, having a backpack with bottom access is a nice convenience feature that can save you precious unpacking and repacking time when you need to grab something from the bottom of the pack.

 
• COMFORT

You’re going to be carrying this bag around for the better part of the foreseeable future. Better make sure it’s comfortable. As I mentioned earlier, a properly fitted bag should have the majority of the weight sitting on your hips, so it’s important to make sure those hip straps are well-padded. Discovering that the straps dig into your sides a few days into your trip will undoubtedly make the rest of it seem long and miserable.

While your hips will be doing the majority of the work, it’s important to not neglect your back and shoulders either. Just like the hip straps, the shoulder straps should have plenty of padding as well. I would also recommend finding a bag with a well ventilated back surface. Until you experience it, you would not believe how much heat builds up between your back and the bag, especially during those hot summer days. Being able to get some airflow between the two makes a world of difference when it comes to your overall comfort.

 
My Recommendation

After all that, you’re probably wondering what bag I personally recommend. My go-to backpack for the past 3 years has been the Deuter ACT Lite 65 + 10. I’ve gone around the world with this bag and it’s held up perfectly in every situation from mountain camping to urban exploring. Aside from having the features I listed above, I love the fact that it’s scalable. Packing light? Use the built-in compression straps to shrink it down and save space. Bought a ton of souvenirs while traveling? The lid adjusts heights to give you an extra 10 liters of space.  

Of course, everybody is different and every situation is unique, so there is no one size fits all answer to which backpack you should buy. I highly recommend stopping into an outdoors store such as EMS or REI and talking to a professional before committing to any one bag. Once you’ve found the perfect backpack for you, you can start figuring out what to pack. And as always, should you want any more advice from me on the subject, don’t hesitate to contact me!

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