Welcome to the ultimate backpacking pack list.
This beast of an article started out as a OneNote page that I’ve been obsessively researching, tweaking, and updating for a year before I even left on my big trip.
Through my years of traveling, I’ve learned what I’ve done right and wrong, and had many conversations with other travelers. Especially the last year has been filled with many great lessons. This article isn’t set in stone either; it will be modified and refined in the future as I learn new things.
Everyone has a different idea (and limit) for that they want and need, but this list has been extensively field-tested and proven to be effective. It should work as a good guideline for pretty much anyone who’s going on a backpacking trip.
One of my obsessions in life is optimizing things as much as possible. I’m a maniac when it comes to this. During my backpacking adventure, it has worked in my favor. I carry less with me than most other backpackers, but it seems like I have more, because every single piece of kit is well-thought-out and often multi-functional. Even most of my clothes aren’t “normal” clothes.
A couple of basic things about this backpacking gear list
- This is a packing list for backpacking and long-term travel. Everything here is 100% function over form. I might do other packing lists in the future, but this is mainly for roughing it out and maximizing space/weight efficiency.
- If you take away one thing from his post, it should be: “Pack light.” From what I’ve seen, about 80% of backpackers bring way too much stuff, and end up leaving things behind after lugging them along unused. Every pound you bring with you, you have to carry with you… through rain and sunshine, in crammed buses and on the back of mopeds, and of course, on your back.
- Buy once, buy well. It’s generally best to spend more money to get the better product than to buy cheap and having it to break on you on crucial moments. This is especially true for backpacking, as anything and everything you bring with you will have a rough time.
- The clothes on this list are aimed at moderate to hot climates.
- There’s a big difference between what you want and need.
Alright, let’s rock ‘n roll!
There are several advantages to taking both a large and a small backpack.
- It allows you to keep your valuables with you. Big backpack=checked bag, small backpack=carry-on luggage.
- It gives you the option to easily carry things (food/drink/camera) during the day once you’ve settled into a place.
- A small backpack also comes in handy for grocery shopping when you’re staying in a hostel.
This is the bag for your clothes, toiletries, and other big and non-valuable items.
The Gregory Baltoro 65 is my big backpack of choice. It is very sturdy, comes with a lifetime warranty, it’s packed with smart features, and it has won several awards. Most of all, it’s by far the most comfortable backpack I’ve been able to find after trying dozens of them on.
There are bigger backpacks out there, but as a rule of thumb: the bigger your backpack, the more you will bring with you. 65 liters has been plenty for me to roam around the planet for over a year. That’s all you really need to know.
One of the main reasons I like this particular backpack so much are the smart features. It’s obvious that a lot of research and development went into this piece of gear.
- The sturdy, metal-framed backpanel is vented and adjustable. It has a piece of grip silicone on the lower-back part, which keeps it from sliding around. Even if you’re climbing a mountain or walking down a rough road, it will stay stable and comfortable on your back.
- It has an advanced suspension system that makes the waist belt and shoulder straps automatically pivot into optimal position. Even when fully loaded, this backpack is incredibly comfortable.
- The top-loader design allows for quick access, but it can also be completely zipped open from the front like a suitcase.
- The bottom can also be zipped open. Access from all sides!
- The main compartment has a separator on the bottom that can be optionally engaged. I use it to separate my dirty and clean clothes.
- Inside the main compartment is a mini-day pack included, which is a nice bonus.
- The backpack has two large side-compartments. I use it for things I don’t use very often, like souvenirs I pick up along the way, a GorillaPod tripod, and a deck of playing cards.
- The lid has two compartments on top, which is great for storing things you need to access frequently. Underneath the lid is a “hidden” compartment for valuables.
- The lid is attached to the backpack with four adjustable straps. These can be extended in case your backpack is filled to the brim, or if you want to store something between the lid and the backpack.
- The hip-belt has two pockets for easy access, one of them weather-sealed. These pockets are great for things like a phone, a wallet, a compact camera or a passport. They’re always in your sight and reach.
- A rain cover is included.
- The backpack has a bottle holster that can be completely stowed away with a Velcro strap.
- For the mountain-climbers among us, there are loops on the back to hold your ice axes and trekking poles.
- There are two adjustable straps on the bottom to store a hammock/tent/sleeping bag between the lid and the rest of the backpack.
This is your “day-pack”, as well as the bag for your electronic gadgets and most valuable items. Usually you will either put this inside your big backpack, hang it on the back of your big backpack, or you wear it on your chest.
I recommend getting one between 20 and 30 liters. The particular one I have is 28 liters. It’s on the large side, which means it’s not filled up all the way. This is handy, as it allows me to easily take some sandwiches and drinks with me.
The Osprey Men’s Quasar Pack is a great choice. Made by a well-known brand that’s renown for high quality products. The small top compartment is lined with heat embossed fabric to keep valuables like sunglasses and phones scratch-free. The bungee wire on the back is convenient for easy, quick storage. I usually use it for a water bottle or my towel when it’s wet.
Having a rain cover is crucial.
I can’t stress enough how it is one of the most important things to bring with you, even if you’ll only end up using it once. Because I didn’t have one, I ruined a camera and damaged a laptop when I was caught off-guard by a thunderstorm in the tropics.
Almost all big backpacks come with their own raincover. For the small backpack, however, get a small rain cover.
Hanging toiletry bag
This toiletry bag made by eBags folds up very flat, and is big enough to hold all the essentials. The hanging-up part is especially handy, as hostel bathrooms are often not very spacious or conveniently set-up.
It has four separate compartments, comes with a lifetime warranty and has a durable zipper.
General toiletry bag tips
- Putting your toothbrush in a tube will help keep your toiletry bag clean.
- A deodorant stick takes up a lot less space than a spray can. It’s also cheap, and it lasts a very long time.
- Hostels don’t provide you with soap and shampoo like hotels do; you’ll have to bring this yourself. Taking regular bottles of bodywash/shampoo with you is inconvenient because of their size, and more importantly, they’re not leak-proof at all. I’ve seen many backpackers lose their shit after they discovered that their shampoo bottle leaked all over their entire backpack. Leak-proof, travel-sized bottles are the solution to this. Fill them up with your favorite bodywash/shampoo, and you’re all good.
- Use a safety-razor instead of the multi-blade shavers. It’s much cheaper in the long run and it gives you the best results. I wrote an extensive article about it here, before I changed the focus of this site to travel-related things.
- Shaving cream from a tube is cheap, lasts a very long time, and takes up way less space than the stuff from a can.
- Bring rubbers with you. Don’t be a dumb-ass when it comes to decisions that can be potentially life-changing. Always keep a couple in your wallet as well; you never know when or where you’ll get lucky.
- Use laundry bags to group and organize your clothes within your backpack. This is a huge time-saver. Laundry bags are also good at what they were designed for in the fist place: keeping your clothes in good shape. Most hostels have heavy-duty washing machines that are brutal on clothing.
- A couple of waterproof bags are handy to take with you. You never know when you’re going for a spontaneous adventure involving water. They’re not very expensive, and they can prevent your phone or camera from getting ruined. They also protect your gear against dust and sand.
Yes, you will need to wear clothes.
As I wrote in another article, I am a huge fan of Merino Wool. It’s an incredible fabric for many different reasons, and its benefits especially shine during long-term travel.
Merino wool is versatile and practical; it is an active fiber which reacts to temperature changes. It keeps you warm when it’s cold and it keeps you cool when it’s hot, all while being more lightweight than cotton and regular wool. The color and shape retention of this stuff is also second to none.
Its natural anti-bacterial properties allow you to wear it for several days before it starts to reek (assuming you still take a shower every now and then, like a civilized human being). I can walk around in a cotton shirt for a day, maybe two, before it’s time to throw it in the laundry. Merino shirts and underwear have lasted me close to a full week before they had to be washed.
Thanks to this, you’ll be fine by just taking a handful of clothes with you, without falling into the “dirty, stinkin’ backpacker”-stereotype.
Roll up your clothes instead of folding them. It takes a lot less space and it will prevent wrinkles.
Supernatural merino boxers
These are a blend of merino wool and artificial fabric, combining the advantages of both. Easily the best underwear I own.
Perfect fit and very comfortable. Four of these.
These are 100% merino wool boxers. Perfect for when it’s a little colder, for flying, or for sitting in a bus or car for a long time. Really nice stuff. One of this one.
I kinda treat them as my “Sunday underwear”.
They’re pretty pricey but really good.
Icebreaker merino T-shirts
My main thing to wear pretty much all the time. Warm when it’s cold, and it protects me from the sun when it’s hot. Three short-sleeves, one long-sleeve. Available in many different colors. I stick with dark blue and black.
Icebreaker merino dress shirt
One of these. Nice to wear instead of a t-shirt every now and then. I like it for warm weather because it protects my arms from the sun on hot days while still being breezy, and on cold days it’s good for layering.
One of these. A very comfortable sweater that provides plenty of warmth, without adding a lot of weight and bulk to my backpack.
It’s comfortable over a t-shirt and a dress shirt, and the way it drapes has a dressy look to it, which is never a bad thing.
One of these for very hot days. Made of high-tech synthetic fiber. Many smart features, like a fold-up collar that protects your neck against the sun, drying loops, and a wipe for you (sun)glasses. 100% mosquito-proof, and complete UV blocking.
Great for tropical environments and jungle adventures. I was very glad to have it in Northern Queensland, Australia. They also make other clothes made of this fabric.
Two of these, one in gray, and one in olive green. Absolutely perfect for travel. Very lightweight, folds up very small, many handy pockets, built-in belt, quick-drying, and airy. Made from high-tech fabric. Excellent protection from the sun, moisture wicking, and durable.
Also available as zip-off model.
Arguably an even better choice, since it’s literally two in one.
One of these, and that’s already too many, really. Jeans are the very worst thing to take with you in a backpack. They’re bulky, very heavy, and they take a long time to dry when they get wet. But, they’re comfortable, indestructible, and good-looking.
A pair of Levis 514 are pretty much the only inconvenient vanity I allow myself, and it’s worth it. 514s are a little more tailored than the classic 501s, but you can’t really go wrong with either. If you must take a pair of jeans, only take one.
I love running shoe socks. They’re pretty much invisible and they won’t get dirty because they’re tucked in your shoes almost all the way. I take five pair of these because they take little space, and it’s nice to have clean socks on your feet.
Merino wool socks
Merino wool socks by Smartwool.
Good for colder days and flying. One pair of these. Nice and snuggly. They’re good for long hikes as well.
I love flip-flops. When I put them on, I’m instantly in holiday-mode. The feeling of not having your feet inside shoes is liberating in a way.
You can buy them for as cheap as $10, but they will leave you with blisters after ten minutes of walking on them. Reef is an established brand that makes flip-flops designed for comfort. I like these particular ones for their leather footbed and straps. This prevents sweaty feet.
The sole is made out of rubber and provides plenty of support. You can walk on these all day without destroying your feet.
Flip-flops are great and I wear them most of the time, but sometimes you just need shoes. Sneakers are the best shoes to take on a long trip because they’re lightweight, comfortable, and durable.
If you’re planning on picking up a job during your travels, there’s a good chance you’ll be required to wear closed shoes, as well.
As for which is best, that’s hard to say. They’re all pretty good. Pick your favorite brand and color. I got a pair of Nike running shoes right now. Good enough for me.
Hiking shoes, as great as they can be, are not necessary 99% of the case. Even if you find yourself in in a situation where they’d be nice to have, their enormous bulk and weight are simply not worth it most of the time.
Unless you’re going on a serious hiking trip that require you to wear them at least 80% of the time, leave them at home.
If you plan on visiting a sunny country, investing in a decent pair of sunglasses is definitely worth the money since you’ll be wearing them all day every day.
The lenses in the cheap knock-offs often do more damage than they do good, as they reduce the overall brightness which causes your pupils to dilate, but don’t properly block damaging UV rays.
Ray-Ban shades have always been my go-to choice. Great quality and comfort, and iconic looks. It’s the company that designed the B15 lenses and Aviator shades for the United States Air Force during World War II. No way to go wrong with that, I’d say.
After owning a trusty pair of RB3301s for over ten years, they sadly got stolen. I looked everywhere to get the same ones without success (if one of you guys happen to find a place that still sells them, please let me know). So, I replaced them with a pair of RB3183s. Similar kind of model, but a little different. Very happy so far.
If you’re looking for something less pricey that’s also great, Polaroid makes high quality sunglasses with excellent polarized lenses. Can’t go wrong with these, either, and you won’t be paying a price premium for the brand name.
Travel watch: Casio G-shock
A watch is the only accessory that a man can truly wear every day. Any guy who uses his phone to check the time looks like a child, a boy who hasn’t figured out the very basics of life yet. Don’t be that guy.
The Casio G-shock series is the best watch you can take with you on your backpacking adventure. Affordable, virtually indestructible, and worn by astronauts, Navy-SEALS, and other ass-kickers and bad-asses.
They’re bulky and crude-looking, and yet impossible to hate. G-shocks are solid, accurate timepieces that have an undeniable cool-factor.
They are the Dodge Challenger of watches. Not very refined nor classy, but it’s the one that the bad guys in the movies use. It’s cool.
All of them show the date, and have an alarm, illumination, and a world clock. If you want to get fancy or something for a specific purpose, you can also get models that show the tides, moon phases, altitude, and barometric pressure.
I personally own a Mud-man. The damn thing is so rugged that it almost hurts to press the buttons on it. So far, it has served me well, even through I’ve put it through hell. From extreme cold (-20c/-4f) to extreme heat (45c/113f), through salt water, through dust… it just keeps on going. It has a little solar panel built-in and never requires replacing the battery, and it syncs with the atomic clock through satellites every day. Pretty cool stuff.
One of the most versatile objects in my pack. Use it as a Rambo-headband, head-scarf, or neck scarf. No need for a hat.
Buff is legendary among seasoned travelers at this point. You can either get the original, or the UV model. Like the name implies, the UV model offers better protection against the sun, and it deals with sweat better.
I usually wear it as a do-rag when I’m in sunny places. That way, it protects the top of my head, as well as my neck.
In extremely hot conditions, I wear it as a balaclava. Combined with sunglasses, literally my entire face is shielded from the sun.
That might seem excessive, but in some parts of the world, you really need that kind of protection.
The many ways to wear your Buff
Smart travel gear
Two luggage locks
A luggage lock is essential. You don’t want to leave your bag with your passport and valuables out in the open. The sad reality of hostels is that things sometimes get stolen. Most hostels have lockers in the rooms, but you’ll need to put your own lock on them. I bring two with me, which has proven to be practical. I keep one with each backpack, that way I never don’t have one when I need one.
Be sure to get TSA-approved locks.
I’ve had a suitcase completely destroyed by some TSA barbarians on a trip to Florida because it was locked by a non-approved lock.
They crow-barred it open, went through my stuff, and duct-taped it shut after finding nothing.
They put in a little pamphlet in my suitcase that basically said: “We couldn’t open your suitcase with our master-key, so we forced it open. This is a national security issue, and this was the only way we could do it. We will not reimburse you for the damage we did, and we are sure you understand this. Fuck you, buy a new suitcase.”
Harsh lesson learned. Only TSA-approved locks from now on.
These locks by Forge are my choice. More heavy duty than average. They also lock in the TSA agent’s key when they’re open until they’re closed again, which forces the agent to re-lock your luggage. Another great feature is they have an indicator when they’ve been opened with the TSA master key. That way you’ll know when your luggage has been inspected.
Fenix HL50 Headlamp
Headlamps have several advantages over flashlights. Having both hands free while using it is a big one, especially when you’re carrying all kinds of stuff around, setting up a tent, or trying to navigate through a hostel dorm in the middle of the night. Another great advantage is the light shines exactly where you’re looking.
I use the Fenix HL50. It’s small, light, waterproof, and made out of aircraft-grade aluminum.
Thanks to LED technology, it’s incredibly bright yet the battery lasts a very long time. The light has three brightness settings, as well as a burst-mode, which is convenient when you only need a light for a couple of seconds. The brightest setting is so bright that it makes people go “whoa”.
The Fenix HL50 takes standard AA batteries, but you can also use a lithium CR123 cell, which I recommend. A single one of these high-capacity batteries lasted me over six months of extensive use. Take two or three spares with you and you’re good for a long time.
They’re pretty cheap on eBay. Get Duracell or Panasonic, and steer clear from the cheap Chinese shit, unless you consider risking having a chemical fire on your head worth saving a few bucks.
Leatherman Super tool 300
Leatherman makes heavy-duty multi-tools that don’t take up much space.
This is a very useful and versatile piece of gear that gets plenty of use. I use the can-opener, bottle-opener and the knife the most, but the screwdriver and pliers have have also come in handy more than once.
The Leatherman Super Tool 300 is made out of hardened stainless steel, which means you won’t have to worry about it rusting all over your backpack. It’s a very solid piece of gear that its manufacturer stands behind, as it comes with a 25-year warranty.
Even though the Leatherman has a decent knife, a folding hunting knife is also good to have with you if you’re an outdoorsy person.
Bungee clothes line
It might sound silly, but this is one of the most handy things to take with you.
Many hostels have washing machines, but no dryers, and if they do, they’re the industrial type that tear your clothes to shreds. Besides, merino wool doesn’t fare very well in dryers, either.
This travel washing line doesn’t require pegs, as you put a little corner of your clothes trough the loops of the line. It is also elastic, which makes it suitable for many different situations. I’ve set it up in several different hostel dorms between bunk beds and locker cabinets.
I’ve made other people happy by letting them use it to dry their towels as well. That’s always a nice bonus.
Microfiber travel towel
You need a towel, as most hostels don’t provide them. In the rare case they do, you’ll need to pay for it.
A large cotton bath towel is nice and comfortable, but also very bulky and heavy when wet. A microfiber towel is a much better alternative.
Besides being small and lightweight, it has other convenient qualities. Microfiber is ultra-absorbent, dries up to literally ten times quicker than cotton, and it has naturally anti-bacterial qualities.
The material is very strong, as well. If you wring it out hard after use, it’s almost completely dry right away.
A must-have for every backpacker. Get the medium or large size.
LifeStraw filtered water bottle
If you’re visiting Asian countries, it’s generally not safe to drink the tap water.
A filtered water bottle is a great solution to this. It’s also a big money saver, as you won’t have to buy bottled water any more. Bottled water is one of those things that adds up pretty quickly. Also, if you’re in the outdoors and need a drink, these bottles will allow you to safely drink from rivers and creeks. It’s pretty damn cool.
Even through the tap water in Western countries is mostly safe, it sometimes tastes bad. This bottle also takes care of that.
The filter is good for a thousand liters (264 gallons), which should be enough to last you around a year of heavy daily use. Replacement filters can be bought here.
Sleepmaster sleep mask
A sleep mask is something you’ll enjoy every night. Be sure to bring one.
Hostel dorms are rarely peaceful, quiet places at night. When you share a room with six or more people, there’s always someone snoring, going to the bathroom, and arriving drunk in the middle of the night. Sometimes there’s partying, drinking and even fucking going on.
All these things are part of the hostel experience and that’s great, but sometimes you just want to sleep. A sleep mask is a good solution to aid you in this. What makes the Sleepmaster unique is that it completely wraps around your head. This means it blocks out all of the light at all times, including when you’re laying on your side. Another advantage of this is that it also covers your ears, blocking out sound.
Also great to have for overnight flights and bus rides.
When you’re traveling, especially backpacking, there will be a lot of downtime. Plane rides, bus rides, train rides… you name it. An e-reader is a fantastic travel companion. It is probably my favorite invention of the last ten years.
Yes, it’s not the same as reading a real book. The flipping of the page, the smell of the ink, the feeling of real paper, and trading/sharing books with others and all that, I get it. It’s all great, and you can’t do all that with an e-reader. But, for backpacking, there’s no better device out there. It’s the size of a small tablet, and it can hold thousands of books.
In terms of practical entertainment, nothing comes even close to touching it. There’s no device out there that is this small and light, and yet can keep you entertained for several weeks on a single battery charge.
And no, reading on your tablet or phone isn’t even nearly the same kind of experience. The screen of an e-reader looks like paper. It does not not reflect like glass, which makes it perfectly readable in bright sunlight. The screen itself also doesn’t radiate light like a phone/tablet/computer screen, which means you can read for hours without tiring out your eyes.
I own the Kindle Paperwhite, which has a backlight. This is very practical, as it’s basically a built-in reading light. It’s the first generation one from 2012, and it’s still working like new. The one you buy today is several generations newer and better.
They have fancier models as well. Have a look at the whole range to see which one is for you. You can’t go wrong with any of them, although I wouldn’t recommend getting the most basic version without the backlight.
Someone sitting next to me on the plane had the high-end Oasis model, and it’s gorgeous. Expensive, though. Maybe someday I’ll get one.
And on a side-note, if you’re not interested in reading books, you’re failing at life.
If you got your phone through a contract, it will not work with foreign SIM cards. If you’re traveling long-term, it’s convenient to get a local SIM card for the country you’re in. It will make it significantly cheaper to make calls and browse the web wherever you are. Especially data is incredibly expensive when you’re not on your own network. Now, I’m not someone who’s hooked to his phone all the time, but it’s pretty damn convenient to be able to pull up Google Maps every now and then.
It doesn’t really matter which brand you pick. Pretty much all smartphones support the most important network bands around the world. However, I would advise against buying something really expensive, as backpacking isn’t friendly on delicate devices like phones.
If you want to try something different for a change and bring something affordable with you for your travels, try a Windows Phone. No other phones offer better value in the lower price range than these things. It’s downright amazing how good they are for the money. The cameras in them are really good, and another advantage is that the maps app allows you to save maps to the phone’s memory. This means you’ll be able to navigate without having a data connection.
A powerbank is not absolutely necessary, but it is handy to have.
Hostels don’t always have power outlets in easily accessible places, so it’s nice to still be able to charge your gear. They’re also convenient when you’re stuck on a long flight or bus ride.
Anker makes safe, reliable powerbanks. They charge everything; iPhones, Androids, Windows Phones, cameras, and basically anything else that charges with a USB cable, which is almost everything these days.
This specific model has enough juice to charge the average phone up to four times. There are bigger ones out there, but they are also larger and heavier. This is the perfect compromise between capacity and volume.
Taking a laptop on a backpacking trip isn’t a good idea for most people.
Laptops pretty bulky (even the small ones), heavy, vulnerable, and expensive. Smartphones do most of the things you need, and if you need to do a lot of typing, you can find internet cafes everywhere. A Bluetooth keyboard is a great way to make your smartphone better for writing long emails home or keeping a diary.
This is a good Bluetooth keyboard that actually folds up onto a neat package. It barely takes any space, it works with any phone and tablet out there, and the batteries last forever.
Because I’m taking my photography/web-design business on the road with me, I did take a laptop with me. I opted for a real no-nonsense workhorse: the Lenovo X250. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have it, and it as helped me make money on my trip. It has also been a burden at times, as it’s an expensive piece of gear that isn’t designed to get thrown around.
Even though it’s an ultrabook, it still is the biggest thing I have with me, especially taking the charger into consideration.
Bottom line: unless you you actually need a laptop (you probably don’t), it’s better to leave it at home.
Things to buy on location
- Sunscreen – No need to go through the hassle of taking it with you on an airplane. Also, it’s a disaster when it leaks into your backpack. If you go to a sunny country, use this stuff. Don’t be an idiot.
- Food – Save for some snacks for during the flight, buy this local. If you’re flying, there’s a good chance they will take away all your food when you land, anyway. Especially meat and fruit (They made me throw away my ham sandwich when I landed in Sydney, Australia). Also, eating local exotic dishes is a great part of the adventure!
So there you have it. These are pretty much all my possessions at the moment.
I left out my camera gear, as I will write a dedicated article about that in the future. Stay tuned for that.
Don’t worry about missing your possessions. As strange as it might sound, it is nice to not have a lot of stuff. Sure, sometimes you’ll miss your Xbox, kitchen, comfortable couch, guitar, and your desk. All those things are great to have, but ultimately, you’ll be just fine without them.
I’m not saying I’m some hippie weirdo who’s against owning things, but there’s some truth in what Tyler Durden says in the book/movie Fight Club: “The things you own, end up owning you.”
Interpretation: anything you don’t have, you don’t have to worry about. It’s one of the things that I’ve learned during this adventure.
If anything, I hope this list will give you some inspiration to embark on your own adventure!
Not knowing what to take with you is off the list of excuses now.
Now go out there and do it.
Version 1.0 posted on Oct 18, 2016 Cover shot by Garry Knight