What to Pack in Your Backpack – Essentials for Travel

Packing for a long backpacking trip can be difficult.  There are so many things that would be useful, and so many that take up valuable space that it can be difficult for a backpacker to decide what to pack!  These are the things I couldn’t do without on my travel backpacking trips, all of those backpack essentials for travel I guarantee you will need on your trip!  

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If you’re looking for backpacking essentials for a hiking trip, I’m afraid this post is talking about backpacking as in long-term travel on a budget, like backpacking in South America or Asia, staying in hostels and travelling with a backpack instead of a suitcase.  I’m working on a backpacking packing list for hiking but it’s not ready yet so please check back later.

Packing Tips for Backpacking & Long-Term Travel 

When you are carrying all of your gear on your back, then packing light really is the golden rule.  While it is tempting to bring everything with you and cram it into the biggest backpack you can find, you quickly realise that lugging around a backpack that weighs more than you do isn’t going to work. 

So, only plan to pack the absolute essentials for a backpacking trip, then you can add in a couple of extra items that might make your stay more comfortable.  Some little luxuries are very welcome on a long trip, but try not to overdo it – less is more!

Packing cubes can help you to keep your backpack organised, and make sure you practise packing before you set off so you know what can fit in – and what you can realistically carry!  

However, most important is what you actually carry all your gear in.  While I don’t have an issue with suitcases for shorter trips or city breaks, when you’re backpacking long term you have no idea where you might end up, and trying to drag a heavy suitcase along a muddy dirt road is not fun.  A travel backpack really is the only way to go.

Two backpacks on the ground with a beautiful lake behind them - What to Pack in A Backpack - Backpack Essentials for Travel
What to Pack in a Backpack – Essentials for Travel

The Best Travel Backpacks

Check-in Backpacks for Travel

Osprey Backpacks are THE name in backpacker & travel backpacks.  They make excellent quality backpacks for travel, hiking and a whole range of other activities so you can choose the right backpack for you.

The Osprey Fairview 70 Women’s Travel Backpack is a firm favourite for backpackers and it comes with a detachable daypack with a built-in laptop and tablet sleeve.  Carry them separately when you’re flying so you can check in the larger section and take the day pack on the flight as carry-on, or attach them so you can keep your hands completely free when you’re on the move.

The Fairview 55 is basically the same design but with a smaller capacity, so better for carrying around if you can pack that bit lighter.  The Farpoint 55 and Farpoint 70 are men’s travel backpack equivalents.  

Carry-On Backpacks 

Smaller backpacks with a maximum of 40-litres capacity are great for taking as carry-on only if you can fit in everything you need.  They are perfect for short trips or ultra-lite backpacking adventures and can be combined with a day pack as a personal carry-on item if you need some extra space.

I have the 40 litre Osprey Fairview pack for women which I have used as my main luggage for weekends away, and I often use as it a carry-on when checking in a larger suitcase for longer trips.  The Fairview is designed for women, and the men’s equivalent is the 40 litre Farpoint which is just as good.

These travel backpacks meet carry-on restrictions for most airlines, and are flexible if you don’t overfill them, so they will squeeze into luggage racks.  They have a separate laptop sleeve, supporting hipbelt and open fully so you can easily access anything you’ve packed. 

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: The Best Carry-On Travel Backpacks

If you’re looking for a cheap travel backpack for carry-on, the Asenlin 40 litre travel backpack is a unisex design, and gets excellent reviews.  It opens fully like the Osprey backpacks, has a 17-inch laptop compartment, is water-resistant and comes with a set of 3 packing cubes included.

Osprey

Farpoint 40 Men’s

Osprey

Fairview 40 Women’s

Asenlin

40l Travel Backpack

Day Packs

Remember that if you are carrying a larger backpack on your back, you won’t be able to carry a 40-litre backpack as well.  Smaller day packs are better as you can carry them on your front without too much discomfort, and you can use them for day-to-day activities while you are at your destination.

Small day packs can often be used as a personal item when flying as they can fit easily under the seat, as long as you get one that fits the specific dimensions.  I’m currently using a Lowe Alpine Edge 18 day pack which is great, but I’m looking at getting a new one for my next backpacking trip.

The downside of having a backpack is that everything you put in it is out of sight once it’s on your back!  An anti-theft backpack with slash-proof material and securable zippers will help keep everything safe.  Pacsafe are a well known and reliable brand, and their 25 litre anti-theft backpack is a great choice.

Flatlay image of a map with various travel items on top including a camera, sunglasses, money and passport - Backpack Essentials for Travel You Need to Pack!
Backpack Essentials for Travel You Need to Pack!

5 Travel Backpack Essentials

When getting ready for an epic trip, make sure you don’t leave these five essential backpack items behind!

Passport & Tickets

Whatever you do, don’t forget these!!  For some internal flights in your own country you may be able to fly with your ID card or driver’s license instead of a passport, but make sure you check carefully what is required for your country and destination in terms of passport and ID, travel insurance and COVID regulations.

Check your ID or passport is valid, with the correct number of free pages in your passport and that the expiry date is well outside of the limit required by the destination.  Some Brits have been caught out this year as new BREXIT regulations mean that UK passports have to be less than 10 years old in order to enter Europe, as well as having at least 6 months of validity left, so check and double-check everything carefully!

COVID regulations are also changing all the time, so follow instructions from your airline and the government regulations of the country you are visiting to make sure you have any test results or vaccination certificates with you for COVID or any other vaccine required for travel such as Yellow Fever.

Even if you have an e-ticket on your phone I also like to have a paper copy just in case!  You might also need to show proof of where you are staying in the country (depending on where you are travelling).  I also have a photocopy of my passport, as well as a scanned electronic version stored on my phone in case it gets stolen.

Travel Insurance

Boring I know, but travel insurance really is essential for any trip – especially if you’re going to be sharing a room with other people.  I am very glad I had insurance when my laptop and passport got stolen from a hostel locker, and I never leave home without it!

These days as well as coverage for your health and personal belongings you also want to look for travel insurance which covers COVID disruption such as World Nomads which is great for active travellers or Safety Wing which can be renewed on a month-by-month basis if you’re not sure how long you will be travelling for.

Travel Credit Card

Having access to money while travelling is essential, but it can be expensive with excessive fees and charges.

I have a travel bank account with Wise (formally TransferWise) which allows me to receive money in various currencies and easily convert it into other currencies without the hefty fees you expect at most bureau de change facilities.  The exchange rates and fees for taking money out of the account abroad are much better than using regular bank accounts or credit cards too.

There are other options worth looking into depending on where you are usually based; Monzo is a popular option in the UK for example. 

Water Bottle with a Filter

Water-to-Go

Absolutely without a doubt the one thing I used every day without fail on my travels, I cannot recommend a filter water bottle highly enough!  You will save money and cut down on waste plastic as it negates the need for buying bottled water every day.
 
Water-to-Go is the bottle I use everywhere which filters 99.9999% of illness-causing contaminants, including those as small as a virus.  You can drink water from taps, rivers, streams and any freshwater source wherever you are, without fear of a dodgy stomach or waterborne disease.

All Tales of a Backpacker readers can get 15% discount on a Water-to-Go filter bottle with the code BYORB

GET YOUR WATER BOTTLE

Personal Medication 

If you take any medication on a regular basis then make sure you have enough to last the entire trip, or that you can arrange to stock up along the way.

Be careful to check the rules about drugs in the countries you’re travelling to, as some countries have strict rules regarding medication containing codeine, sleeping pills and anti-depressants for example.  

Bring your prescription and the original packaging for your medication where you can as this will make it easier to explain what it is if border control agents want to take a look. 

This post has some more tips about travelling with medication, but the best source of information is usually the official government website of your own country or the country where you’re travelling to.  The UK government website is pretty good with this kind of information.

OK, so we’ve covered the absolute travel backpack essentials – passport, insurance, money and drinking water and medication – so now let’s see what other extremely useful backpack items you need!

Safety Essentials for Travel Backpacks

First Aid Kit

We all hope we won’t need it, but inevitably I always need something from my first aid kit, even if it is just a plaster for a paper cut.  Having a well-stocked first aid kit is essential for any backpacking trip, and while you could make up your own, you can also buy a handy travel-sized first aid kit with everything you might need ready done for you.
 

FIND A FIRST AID KIT

Padlock

If you’re wondering what to pack in a backpack, padlocks are a must.  Although they may not prevent the most determined thieves, they are an excellent deterrent from most opportunist thefts and help to keep your stuff safe in hostel lockers.
 
Locks with a number code mean you won’t lose the keys for the locks – as long as you remember the code!  Make sure it is something you won’t forget, I once had to ask a hostel to break my lock when I forgot the code which wasn’t ideal!  

I also like the locks with an extra-long loop as you’re never quite sure how big the lock mechanism will be.

I usually take two padlocks with me, which can be helpful if you leave your luggage somewhere overnight and take a smaller pack with you on a day or overnight trip somewhere else.

These padlocks are TSA approved so you can lock your luggage when you’re travelling and can then use the padlocks for your hostel locker.

BUY YOUR PADLOCK

Travel Scarf with Hidden Pocket

Travel scarves are great for women backpackers as they can keep you warm in cold weather, a damp scarf will keep you cool when it’s hot, and these travel scarves from Waypoint Goods have a hidden pocket for storing phones, wallets and passports to keep your belongings nice and safe. 

I love my Waypoint travel scarf and wear it everywhere, it comes in a variety of colourful patterns and you can wear it in various styles including as a headscarf and a shawl, but most importantly it helps me to feel safe in the knowledge my passport and cash are safe too – even in pickpocket hotspots like Barcelona!  

Money Belt / Other Hidden Pocket Items

A money belt is the classic hiding trick for cash and credit cards, but they can be uncomfortably sweaty, and every pickpocket and thief knows to look for them. 

Other ways to hide money while travelling include actual belts with hidden compartments to fit cash in, hidden bra pockets, hidden pocket wrist wallets and more.  Anything that helps keep your money safe is worth the investment!

Travel Backpack Essentials for Comfort & Cleanliness

A Decent Waterproof Coat

Even hot countries have rain too – and when it rains, it rains; you don’t want to get caught in a monsoon with just a poncho!  Good quality coats can be quite an investment to buy new, so if you are on a budget check second-hand shops and eBay to find a bargain at a fraction of the price.

Goretex jackets are good quality and waterproof. If you are going to cold areas, consider getting a size larger than you would normally, to leave room for a fleece or other extra layers underneath.

Comfortable Shoes

I won’t list all of the clothes for a backpacking trip here, but one thing you absolutely cannot do without is a comfortable pair of shoes.  Depending on where you’re going, that could be a pair of hiking boots, or some lighter travel shoes.  As well as closed-toe shoes or boots I also like to have a pair of good quality sandals too, as well as flip flops.

Flip Flops

Flip flops, thongs, beach sandals, whatever you call them, are a must for your backpacking packing list.  Whether you wear them on a flight, in a hostel bathroom or heading down to the beach, having something comfy and breathable to slip on your feet feels so good!
 
I bought a pair of Havaianas which I wore till they fell apart, but they did rub a bit at first – even though flip-flops should be comfortable, get your feet used to them before you wear them all day.

Earplugs

Essential for sleeping in shared dorm rooms to block out snorers, on aeroplanes, buses, and anywhere you need a power nap – I can’t do without ear plugs! Buy them from pharmacists in packs of two or three, or bulk buy online before you travel, safe in the knowledge you can get a good night’s sleep.
 
Having a little case to put them in is also really useful to keep them clean and dry while you’re on the move.  I like to use simple foam earplugs like these, which I trim down to size (they’re often too long and make sleeping on my side uncomfortable, but snipping a bit off the end solves that!), although there are lots of different designs and materials to choose from.

Eye Mask / Sleep Mask

If you are a light sleeper like me, then anything you can do to help block out noise and light will help – that’s where an eye mask can make a huge difference – especially when hostel roommates turn the light on during the night or you have a long flight or bus journey to snooze through!
 
I love this eye mask which is soft and comfortable, and you can adjust it around the nose so it fits closer to your face and blocks out more light.  It also has a handy little carry bag too.  

GET AN EYE MASK

Inflatable Neck Pillow

Hostel beds with rubbish pillows, long journeys on uncomfortable buses, or nights in hammocks  – all these mean a neck pillow comes in mighty handy when you’re backpacking!  I prefer an inflatable neck pillow over the cushion type, to save a bit of extra space in my rucksack when I’m not using it.

 

CHECK PRICES ON AMAZON

Microfibre Towel

More compact and quicker drying than normal towels, these trek towels don’t take up much space and can save you money as you won’t have to hire towels at hostels.

Microfibre travel towels are quick-drying, easy to wash and come in a variety of colours and sizes.  I actually travel with two – one for the beach and one for the hostel.

If you’re travelling somewhere hot and want to pack ultra-light you might get away with a sarong instead of a quick-dry travel towel, but personally, I can’t do without a microfibre towel!  They also double up as blankets on cold nights or air-conditioned bus journeys so I’d say they are worth the space.

Travel Toiletries

Backpacking isn’t like your average hotel vacation – you need to be prepared with everything you need on the road.  Having travel-sized containers to decant your own toiletries into is a fabulous space-saving trick, as well as reducing pointless plastic use when buying mini-sized toiletries at the airport. 

If you’re flying and plan to carry on any liquids you will need a clear bag to put them in – I usually use a ziplock freezer bag but once was forced to switch to a smaller bag by the security guy.  A TSA approved toiletry bag can set your mind at ease, and this one has a handle for hanging in the shower too.

I also like to take solid shampoo and conditioner bars which don’t contribute to your liquid allocation for hand luggage.  Lush does the best ones I’ve found, although I’ve yet to find a solid conditioner that really works for long thick hair.  You can also save a bit of space with a folding toothbrush and by using toothpaste tabs instead of paste.

I always take the following essential toiletries, plus a bit of make-up and nail varnish (and remover pads) if I’m feeling fancy.

Electronic Backpacking Essentials

I’m assuming you will already have your phone and charging lead ready to go, but have you thought about these?

Travel Plug Adapter (with USB Sockets)

When moving from country to country, plug sockets can change with annoying frequency, so a multi-plug universal travel adapter is a must!
 
Something like this universal charger socket is bulkier than individual adapters, but the USB ports are very useful for hostels where plug sockets can be hard to come by – you can charge up everything all at once, and even make friends by offering out spare sockets!
 

BUY AN ADAPTER

Portable Power Bank

A last-minute purchase before I left for my backpacking trip around South America, I am so glad I bought one of these!  Power banks are great for long journeys where you are zapping your phone’s battery playing music or games, and for hostel nights when the plug socket is on the other side of the room!
 
They are also essential for multi-day treks, camping or wilderness stays without electricity.  They even come in handy on day trips where you plan to take a lot of photos and need an extra boost of juice! 

Anker is one of the best brands for portable chargers and after testing out several brands I always choose Anker.  I have a small version which is great for overnight or weekend trips and a larger one which can charge a phone several times for long periods without electricity. 

If you can’t find the one you want on Amazon, try eBay – there is a shortage of new electronics at the moment so you might get lucky with a second-hand one.

BROWSE POWER BANKS

Memory Sticks or Cards

Memory sticks or smaller memory cards are vital for backing up all of your photos when poor internet at the hostels makes cloud upload a mind-numbingly impossible task.  If possible take at least two and keep them separate and backed up as often as you can. 

I can’t emphasize enough how gutted I was to lose all my photos when my laptop got stolen! These Sandisk Ultra Fit memory sticks are small enough to leave in your laptop all the time if you have one with you or to hide in secret places to keep safe.

GET A MEMORY STICK

Lightweight Camera

While it isn’t a backpacking essential, having a camera to be able to take photos of your travels is a very nice extra.  You can of course use your camera phone quite happily in most cases, but for zooming in to take photos of wildlife or underwater shots while snorkelling then a lightweight camera for backpacking is very useful.

Other Essential Backpacking Gear

Worldpackers Membership

If you are planning to travel for a long time, then membership to a work exchange website like Worldpackers or Workaway can save you A TON of money.  These websites offer a platform for hosts who are looking for volunteers to help them with their business, family life or eco-project, and members offer their skills and time in exchange for free accommodation.

Working in a hostel as a volunteer is great fun, and as well as free accommodation you often get other benefits such as free meals or tours as well as the opportunity to learn a new language, have a unique and immersive experience and spend more time in a different culture.  You don’t have to work in a hostel though, there are lots of other options for work and cultural exchanges to choose from.

All Tales of a Backpacker readers can get a $10 discount code for Worldpackers (that’s a saving of 20%) right here, or if you’re not sure if work exchanges are for you, check out my more in-depth articles on work exchanges

ACTIVATE YOUR DISCOUNT

A Dry Bag

Any kind of additional bag from a linen tote bag to a light laundry bag can serve a multitude of purposes, but for me, a waterproof dry bag ticks the most boxes. Choose the size that is right for you and the size of your backpack.

While you’re travelling it will keep your electronics and a clean set of clothes clean and dry.  It can be used as a laundry bag to keep your dirty stuff away from everything else, and at night if you’re sleeping somewhere without a locker you can put your valuables in it and clip it to your bed or cuddle it like a teddy bear!

CHOOSE A DRY BAG

Packing Cubes

I am a recent convert to packing cubes, and I love how organised they make me feel – however, you can of course travel quite happily without them so I class them as very useful instead of essential.  If you’re desperate for more space and don’t mind more weight then you could also get some compression cubes to stuff in some extra clothes!
 

GET SOME PACKING CUBES

Head Torch

Not cool or attractive in any way, but a head torch can definitely come in handy if you end up anywhere in the dark that you don’t expect, from walking back along a track from the bus stop to stumbling around trying not to wake everyone in a hostel dorm! 

Sure, you can use the torch on your phone, but having your hands free is very useful.  This head torch is chargeable by USB, so no batteries are required.

BUY ON AMAZON

Notepad & Pen

Often overlooked, I actually can’t do without a good old fashioned pen and paper.  Make a note of hostel addresses, recommendations from other travellers, shopping lists, or start a travel journal.  

For me, no amount of iPhones, tablets or laptops can make up for doing it old school! Hardcover journals are more sturdy, so if you plan to keep it as a souvenir then go for a hardback or leatherbound journal although it will add more weight and bulk to your backpack.  If it is just for jotting down useful information then any old notepad will do.

BROWSE TRAVEL JOURNALS

I hope this has given you some packing tips for your next backpacking trip.  Come back soon for a full downloadable backpacking packing list that I’m working on, but for now, these backpack essentials for travel will help you to cover more than just the basics!

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