Backpacking Essentials: Packing Tips from the Experts

Whether you’re a backpacker, a carry-on-only nomad, or a first-time gap-year traveler, here are a few tips to help you pack smarter.


Four young women backpacking in Cuba walk down a street in Centro Habana in Havana Photo © iStock/Joel Carillet

The secret to packing smart is to pack the essentials only. Before you go, read up on cultural norms and the current climate at your destination to avoid carrying unnecessary items.

To help you narrow it down, we asked our community to weigh in on their packing secrets:

1. Packing Tips for Clean-Freak Travelers

Picture this: your 24-hour transit is over and you finally lay down in the hostel bed to get some rest, but you wake up to a horrible itching sensation three hours later.

Congratulations, you have bed bugs! The solution to this? Add some extra weight to your luggage by packing these items that’ll keep the heebie-jeebies at bay.

Self-confessed clean-freak Emily Willis says she won't leave home without these essentials: “I wouldn’t leave home without my travel washing line, thongs for the showers, and my sleep sheet for when I'm staying in the last room available in town, and it’s really skanky.”

2. Packing Tips for Travel Photographers

There really is no definitive guide for packing when it comes to travel photography, but you’ll be lugging around a lot of gear.

“I slimmed down my massive Canon 5D to an Olympus PEN-F mirrorless system, and I never looked back. It's about a third of the size and the quality is just as sharp.

"If you have older gear, consider selling it, and using those funds to help upgrade to a different system. You're also likely to take more photos with a smaller camera because you're more likely to have it with you than a bulky DSLR." - Martin Hong, World Nomads

“For shorter trips, you might want to take a big camera. But if you do, you’ll be checking in luggage.” – Mark Seldon

3. Packing Tips for Indecisive Packers

If you’ve ever stood in front of your wardrobe and thought, “I’ve never worn that before, but it might look great in the Amazon,” consider this advice.

Emily Willis says to "be savvy with your clothes and only pack items that are lightweight, easy to wash, quick to dry, multi-purpose, can be layered or mixed and matched, and worn day/night."

Pack the essentials – do your research on what types of material work best. Look for natural fabrics that will wick moisture away from your skin. Merino wool is expensive, but it’ll last longer before smelling, and will dry quickly in the shade.

Nylon and polyester are moisture-wicking fabrics that’ll also help keep your skin dry, and are quick-drying, wrinkle-resistant, and lightweight – which is great for those of us who don’t fold clothes.

4. Packing Tips for Tech Fanatics

"If you’re like me, and like to wake up to the news of the world (or news of Facebook) while you’re in bed, then pack a three-meter charging cable. Seriously - it’ll change your life." – Martin Hong, World Nomads.

“Always pack spare chargers and memory cards. If you've never left a phone charger or camera charger behind in an airport hotel room, then you probably haven't travelled enough yet! Always back spares with universal adapters to avoid flat technology.” – Alexis Zahner, World Nomads Contributor

5. Smart Packing Essentials That’ll Likely Save Your Life

“Pack a small tactical flashlight for those times the power goes out, or you close the bar on a dark street in Kathmandu." – Randy Zaddach, via Facebook.

"Pyjamas for getting to/from shared bathrooms in hostels. A big coffee cup if you hate tiny hotel ones. A sarong, which will work as a wrap, towel, raincoat, skirt or blanket. Incense for smelly hotel or hostel rooms. Fluffy socks for sore feet after trekking. A poncho. And sporks." – Zoe Shipley, via Facebook.

"A hat, or a bandana to wrap around my head. Sunglasses and sun screen, especially if you get burnt easily. A camera and a good book. I often also carry a notepad to write down my impressions." – Giulia Cipollina, via Facebook.

"A battery-powered phone charger. Pens for immigration and customs forms. A first-aid kit, essential oils, and baby wipes." – Lori Lu Green LeRoy, via Facebook.

"Being an avid hiker, I always bring along zip-lock bags. They serve as a de-facto dry sac, a packing cube, to hold snacks, keep your rubbish in regions without bins, or store leaky waste – and they barely take up any space!" – Stefan Chan.

"A lightweight but durable scarf. Aside from serving as a plain old scarf, it can be a shawl when it’s cool, a head covering when culturally appropriate, a towel or a pillow in a pinch. If you forget it, you can always pick one up on the road – which also makes a lovely souvenir. " – Alicia Crosariol, World Nomads.

“You’ll definitely need a neck pillow for long flights and buses. I’d strongly recommend a lock for your bag/locker to keep your belongings safe in hostels and in transit. An eye mask is crucial for hostels – you’ll thank yourself when someone stumbles in at 3am using their phone as a torch.

"A micro-fibre towel doesn’t dry humans well, but it dries so quickly that you won’t have a sopping wet towel when it comes to packing again.” – Jess Grey, World Nomads.

“Do not forget insect repellent. This comes from someone who is allergic to mosquito bites, and missed a whole night’s sleep on the Mekong playing ninja with mosquitoes that got beneath the bug-proof net.” – Milly McGrath, World Nomads.

“Earplugs and an eye mask. Who wants to hear or see what goes on in shared rooms at night?” – Christina Tunnah, World Nomads.

6. Non-Essential Items that Might Come in Handy

Brock Weaver always packs a deck of playing cards: “It’s a great way to pass the time on long train rides or lonely nights, and a fun way to meet new people. I once played Go Fish with an elderly Italian woman on a train from Venice to Budapest. Though we didn’t understand one another’s language, we managed to find a way to make it work."

“For those of you who have to pack heaps of medication, pack individual dose bags, and don't forget to keep a detailed letter from your doctor explaining your need for each medication." – Cheryl Olenczak, via Facebook.

"I always travel with my ENO Hammock. It's small and easy to throw into my carry on – aside from being a great way to relax just about anywhere; it's also an instant bed if needed. I have actually used it to sleep in an airport when my flight was cancelled" – Julie Davidson, via Facebook.

“Chopsticks: not just for trips to Asia, but they double up for propping books on the beach, hanging toiletry bags in shared showers, hair ties, setting up a privacy screen from a bunk bed, passing through bolt holes to lock a door, and whisking eggs on a camp trip.” – Christina Tunnah, World Nomads.

“Some kind of light blanket/towel for public transport with air-con – those ferries and buses can get pretty chilly. This can also double as a curtain when it’s necessary.” – Jess Grey, World Nomads.

6. Packing Tips for Carry-on-Only

If you manage to master the skill of carry-on-only packing – you’re a travel wizard.

But, you’ll need to squeeze all your essentials into a 40l or less backpac, and make sure it weighs less than 7kg.

There is a large downside to this method: you can’t carry any liquids, sharp objects, and (thanks to the new laptop ban) you might actually run into restrictions with your tech gear depending on where you go.

If you’re happy with buying a new tube of toothpaste and body soap every time you land in a new country, listen up to these wise nomads:

“If you can travel with only your carry-on bag and no check-in luggage, you’re laughing. There’s nothing more embarrassing than being the girl on the chicken bus whose backpack is so large that the local men struggle to even lift it.” – Emily Willis, World Nomads.

“I always take a carry-on – regardless of the duration of the trip – with enough clothes for two weeks. The pieces are carefully selected to make sure they are versatile to be worn with everything – long live basics – and that they fit the type of activities I'll be doing.

"To avoid 'just in case items' stick with the 20/20 Rule. It states that anything can be replaced for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes from my current location. And, in all my years of traveling, this has always held true” – Diana Costa, via Facebook.

"For my big trip, I left with 8kg of carry-on luggage only. I had a tiny camera, a tiny notebook and the bare minimum in clothing. If you’re going for a long time, don’t pack everything you need for a year. Pack for the season you’re starting in and swap/change/buy clothes as you go along.

"Also, forget souvenirs, knick-knacks, keepsakes… don’t keep every ticket for every museum you went to. Sentiment has no place in a carry-on trip. Never, ever travel with anything you can’t afford to lose, and leave all your jewelry at home!" – Mark Seldon

7. Packing Tips For Every Nomad

So you’ve packed all your clothes and essentials, including a head-torch and a Leatherman, but you’ve totally forgotten the most important of all.

Your travel documents.

Always save copies of pdfs for all your essential travel documents (Insurance PDS, flight itineraries, tour itineraries) on a Google drive, and print them out to leave with family or friends. That way, if they get stolen, you can phone a friend and get them to send you a scanned copy to your email.

“Ensure you understand the visa and travel requirements BEFORE getting to the airport to the country you're traveling to. This will ensure you avoid missing flights or being denied entry to your chosen destination.” – Alexis Zahner, World Nomads Contributor.

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