Saturday, June 2, 2012

Backpacking Essentials

It's pretty ironic that I am blogging about packing, because when I studied abroad in Florence I brought three large rolling duffles and additional baggage totaling over 200lbs!  I could not even make it off the train platform until one of my friends arrived to help me.  To make matters worse, I vacuum packed everything so it was even harder to get it all home.  One lesson I have learned (the hard way) is how to pack.  It is possible to pack light and fit everything you need along with some comfort items!  You should be able to walk at minimum of 30 minutes carrying your fully packed backpack.

You dont want to end up like these guys ...


What to bring, and what to leave at home ...


Choosing a backpack. I recommend buying your pack online.  Websites like backcountry or sierra trading post are a good place to start looking.  I have even ordered multiple bags and then mailed back the ones I didn't like.  Personally, I look for a bag that has an access zipper to the main compartment because I think it is easier to stay organized that way.  Look for something you will be comfortable living out of and carrying for the next month, or year.  Another easy way to organize your pack is with stuff sacks or dry bags.  These little bags are relatively inexpensive, come in all different sizes, and some will protect your stuff even if they are submerged in water. Also, consider a dry pack cover to protect form the elements and theft.

A rain jacket. It rains everywhere, invest in a jacket appropriate for the climate! At home you can sprint to your car and drive away, but when you're backpacking you spend a lot more time walking to and from and will be outdoors much more in general.  You should be able to get away with only one item of outerwear, two at the most if you are traveling in colder areas.

A variety of clothing that is easily layered and will dry quickly. Sorry guys, but this is a little bias towards women.  A few weeks before any trip I start to put aside clothing items Im planning on bringing.  This avoids chaotic packing at the last minute.  Tops and bottoms should match the majority of items you choose.  Don't bring anything that requires a specific article of clothing to go with it.

I avoid bringing too many pairs of shorts because many cultures do not wear them and they are less versatile than capris.  I generally bring one or two dresses (if you wear them) for warmer climates because they are comfortable and will keep you cool.  I suggest 5-6 bottoms, and 7-9 tops, that way you can get away with doing laundry about every other week.

My advice is not to bring anything white, light colored clothing turns grey when you wash it with the rest of your (very dirty) clothing.  A specific article of clothing I recommend is a pair of black leggings.  I often wear them when hiking to protect my legs from bugs, plants, and the sun and they are also great to sleep in or layer under a skirt.  Skip something specifically for sleeping because it's not an efficient use of space if you can't wear it during the day.

1-2 bathing suits. Unless you are going to Antarctica, bring them.  I have made the mistake of not bringing one (who needs a bathing suit in land locked Bolivia?) and finding out the hard way that a bathing suit may be the most difficult thing to purchase in a foreign country.  These can double as shorts or underware, and they are so small you can let your self splurge and bring two :)

Sunblock and bugspray. As mentioned above, expect to be outside in the elements for the majority of the day (and at night if you're camping).  Effective sunscreen and bug repellant can be hard to find and/or very expensive in other countries for a variety of reasons - most often because the locals dont use it.  So stock up at home and bring it with you.

Earth friendly water bottle. Even if you never use this at home, it will come in handy while traveling.  Many places will allow you to fill it up for free and it can be easilly attached to your pack with a mini carabiner.  I recommend the 27 oz Kleen Kanteen.

Expensive electronics. With the exception of a DSLR camera or electronic reader, leave these at home.  You don't need your laptop when you're traveling.  International phones are expensive (think $2-$3 per minute) and if staying in hostels it can be difficult to find a place to charge your stuff without worrying about someone stealing it.  Getting robbed is no fun, but sometimes you can't avoid it.  That's why you should leave all non-essential valuables at home! Rule of thumb here: if you would be upset to lose it, don't bring it. If you must bring something (mp3 player, reader, etc) choose one that gets wifi, this way you can stay connected without carrying too much.

Pack Towel. It's definately worth buying one of these.  Look for one that has soft, quick-drying fabric and an antimicrobial treatment to help prevent mold.

Basic First Aid Kit. You can buy band aids in pretty much every country, but if you need medical supplies it is much easier if you already have a small supply in your pack instead of having to locate the nearest pharmacy and purchase everything asap. You can easily make this from stuff your probably already have at home:  variety of different size band aids, antibiotic ointment, antibacterial wipes, medical tape, gauze, benadryl, ibuprofen, imodium.

Comfortable bedding. If you can squeeze one more item in your pack, this is it.  Whether it be a small travel pillow, an easilly foldable sheet or blanket, a hammock, or a sleep sack - pick one of the above and bring it along.  Bus rides can be cold if the ac is blasting or you're driving thourght the mountains and although most hostels provide some type of bedding you never know what you'll get or how clean it will be.  These items come in handy for last minute camping as well!

Books. If you read a lot and/or are traveling solo go ahead and bring a few.  Many hostels have book exchanges and most travelers are willing to swap as long as you've got something interesting.  English bookstores are hard to find in some places (and usually expensive) but places frequented by backpackers often accept trades.

Shoes. I find this item to be one of the most difficult choices when packing.  Shoes take up a lot of space, but are one of the most important items because you will be on your feet all day, everyday.  If you will be doing a lot of trekking bring hiking shoes.  Tie them on the outside of your pack or use a stuff sack if necessary.  For women, Land's End makes a variety of durable and comfortable mary jane style shoes.  These types of shoes are great because you can wear them for light hiking, city walking, and even with a casual dress or skirt.  If you bring flip flops along with something like these you should be set.  You do not need more than three pairs of shoes.  Depending on what else you might be doing, bring a pair of flats or a second pair of flip flops that are a bit dressier.  If you cant comfortably walk two miles in it don't bring it.

Anything that plugs into the wall for your hair. Leave it at home.  When your new friends at the hostel invite you out for drinks at the bar and you tell them you need to blow dry your hair they will probably laugh at you.  Chances are it will break when you plug it into the wall anyways.  Think no more than fifteen minutes to get ready, and you'll be in a dorm full of 20 people, probably without a mirror.  Bring a few items of makeup but leave the hair stuff at home with your high heels.  They take up a lot of space and stilettos and unpaved roads to not mix.

But what will I wear to the club/bar/disco? The solution here is to bring (or buy while you're traveling) one or two nicer shirts and pair them with something you're already bringing or bring a necklace to dress something else up.  I try to bring a dressier top that is not revealing, or that can be worn under something else during the day.  Jewelry is small and easily packed so even if you only dress up once or twice it's easier than bringing a whole new outfit or a pair of heels. Just don't bring anything too flashy or valuable.

Easily purchased items (and relatively inexpensive) in every country I've been to: clothing, sunglasses, purses/bags, flip flops, headphones, any and all toiletries.

Difficult to find or expensive when you do: sunblock, bugspray, sport/outdoor clothing and accessories (brands like North Face, Nike, etc).

That's all I've got for now :)
Feel free to add your own packing and travel tips in the comments!

Where are you in the world?