Vagabonding Packing – Top 20 Goodies to Take

You never know where your feet might take you

Vagabonding Packing List

In my opinion, budget travel is far too important to be left to the professionals. Ask 20 backpackers what they packed and the only thing they will have in common is the fact that they all probably brought too much.

Packing is personal, but if you see one good new idea for your kit, this read was worth it. I’ve picked up ideas over the years from books, travelers, and websites…but as you already know: experience is the best teacher.

So without further delay…this is part one: my top-20 goodies to take with you on your backpacking trip!

My top-20 never, ever, ever, leave home without-its for vagabonding:

Sidestepping the boring, obvious stuff like camera, toothbrush, or flashlight…

  1. Silk Sleep Sheet

If you aren’t a backpacker, you’re probably wondering what in the hell I am talking about. Coming from a comfortable home where I never once fed a bedbug or had to sleep on a sex-stained mattress, I didn’t know what a “sleep sheet” was either, but I can tell you it is my favorite purchase.

A sleep sheet is basically a very thin sleeping bag that protects you from the horrors of hostel mattresses that only an ultraviolet light could expose. It will keep you warm, clean, bug-free, and happy. Many people make their own simply by sewing a bed sheet into a cocoon, but if you buy one piece of travel equipment, it’s worth investing in a small, silk sleep sheet/liner. Endura silk is light, warm, and strong; plus, some nasties can still bite you through cotton — not silk. I ordered mine from a very friendly company (formerly Jag Bags): I also recommend that you get the double with Endura silk so that you will have more room for guests or to roll around in your sleep.

2.  Travel Journal

It doesn’t matter if the last meaningful thing you wrote was in third grade, you need a small notebook. Particularly if you travel alone, a journal will keep you from the brink of madness and provide an outlet for your new thoughts. You need an efficient way to keep those memories and that hot Italian guy/girl’s email accurate for years to come when you are busy killing the same brain cells the email was recorded on.

To make it interesting, I stick ticket stubs, bottle labels, and whatever else inside. You can have locals write things in their native script, have friends sign it, and even put some drops of blood inside from your first “motorcycle tattoo” (wreck), which you will probably have in Thailand. If you decide to smash and keep an exotic flower, just don’t show the customs guys at the airport or you might be writing a new entry about quarantine.

3.  Toilet Paper

Many, many developing countries still use one hand for eating (usually the right) and the other hand for wiping their bottoms. No joke. Locals take care of business, wipe with the left, then wash their hand under the little tap (keep in mind there is rarely soap). If you wish to “go native” as some backpackers do, then no worries — just please don’t ever try to shake my hand.

I take the TP off the roll and wind it into a plastic baggy. It might not be a good idea to pack such a necessity at the bottom of your big rucksack either — keep it handy!

4.  Extra Passport Photos

Inevitably, you will get asked for one or two every time you get a visa to cross a border. You can have your passport photo reproduced into sheets of 15 at a printing shop for cheap. Stick a few into your money belt so you won’t have to dig for them in front of perpetually grumpy border officials. (see some more tips for crossing borders overland without getting busted.)

5.  Photocopies of Your Passport

Some places want to hold your passport as collateral for staying in a hotel, renting a motorbike, etc. Don’t trust strangers with the most important travel item in your life — make them settle for a copy instead.

6.  Duct Tape

I know, very predictable and Macguyver-esque of me, but duct tape has saved me too many times not to list (including helping keep my shoes together in Portland). Break a pencil and wrap some around to save space.

7.  US Dollars

Even after getting beaten to horrifying lows, the U.S. dollar still speaks loud and clear even in the most remote jungle. Bring some one-dollar bills to trade currencies with people or to give as gifts; it’s a great way to make new friends in China.

8.  Sunscreen

My Irish DNA provides me the privilege of getting sunburned in seven minutes or less. Even if you’re already bronzed to a cancerous, corrugated brown, keep in mind that the sun is stronger in different parts of the world. Plus, if you go somewhere that the locals are brown, sunscreen will be very expensive and possibly expired already.

9.  Small Sharpie Marker

You can buy miniature ones at office supply stores. These are good for marking your belongings, labeling hostel food in the communal fridge as poisonous, and making cardboard signs in case you exceed your getting-home budget.

10.  Clothes Line + Safety Pins

Army parachute cord or “550 cord” is great stuff. I use 550 cord for laundry, clotheslines, and even making the occasional “leash” to tie myself to my day bag in case I fall asleep on a dodgy bus or train. The safety pins keep your underwear from blowing down the beach.

11.  Sink Stopper

Save some money yourself in the islands and do your own laundry if you have time. Sometimes you’ll need to hand wash a shirt just because of circumstances. You can get the big, floppy rubber sink stoppers in home improvement stores or drug stores for cheap. The hard, pre-formed ones rarely fit properly.

12.  Camping Mirror

The light, unbreakable kind are cheap in camping stores. Lots of bungalows and budget places (other than hostels) will not have a mirror…plus if you ever want to get off your isolated island, you could always use it to signal a plane.

13.  Vitamins or All-Natural Supplements

New continents = new bacteria waiting to ambush your immune system — the same immune system that is probably still recovering from the long flight. Also, it is possible not to get all the non-carb/protein stuff your body needs if you only eat a lot of cheap street food every day such as noodles or rice.

14.  Fishing Line in a Sewing Kit

Unlike thread which will rot or break, lightweight fishing line (3 to 5 pound test) is thin enough to sew up straps on backpacks and fix shoes permanently. I’ve had to do both while backpacking.

15.  USB Thumb Drives

I now carry several cheap USB drives just in case I have to share photos with someone. Plus, if internet speeds are too slow for a massive upload to or Flickr, I can mail home backups every now and then.

16.  Headphones Splitter

So many times I have sat on a long, dusty bus ride next to a new friend and wished that we could share the same music on an iPod. Problem solved! This is the one I use [link removed].

17.  Liquid Bandage

Infections are so commonplace in humid, jungle environments that I started carrying a small bottle of liquid bandage with me to seal them up. Good for quickly putting over your mozzie bites and blisters too. Just remember not to inadvertently seal up infection inside!

18.  Small Padlock with Two Keys

Great for securing lockers in hostels, footlockers in guest houses, and your bungalow door. The owners will usually give you a lock, but only one key. This way you can share with a new roommate or it guarantees that no one can get inside with a copied key without breaking something. Sure, combo locks are an option for not losing keys, but either you or your travelmate will inevitably forget the combination.

19.  Compass

No need for a digital one, GPS, or the lensatic that Army Rangers use. A simple, ball-style compass available in any camping department will work just fine. Now when someone tells you to “turn north” at the end of the road to find that cool temple, you won’t be looking at the sun and guessing.

20.  A Smile

A smile will nearly always get you better prices, out of trouble, and new friends along the way.

These packing lists are fun to build, but in reality, Rolf Potts said it best in his book Vagabonding: “The simple willingness to improvise is more vital in the long run, than research.”

That contradicts the purpose of most of my travel websites, but I have to be honest — it’s true!  Don’t overplan, overpack, and research yourself to death…chances are that anything you left at home can be purchased locally (for cheaper) anyway.


(I’ve got a much more extensive backpacking packing list on my site).

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39 Responses to “Vagabonding Packing – Top 20 Goodies to Take”

  1. Interesting about the carbs. The most difficult thing for me to deal with has been the difficulty in getting protein. High carb breakfasts, sandwiches with just a tiny sliver of ham, breaded meats. It wreaks havoc with my blood sugar and endurance. Luckily I’m in argentina so it isn’t extremely difficult to find meat, but it still can be a challenge and adds to the cost.

  2. Hi David, I agree…I lost 20 pounds in 3 months of eating only noodle and rice based meals. Meat is expensive and can be a gamble if its not fresh….I usually go for beans, hummus, garbanzos, lentils, etc when I can find them.

  3. Good list. To me, nothing still beats the trusty old Swiss Army Knife to solve a multitude of issues. Mine has travelled with me for over 20 years and managed never to be lost. Only problem now is that carrying a knife means your luggage needs to be checked in on flights but still think it is worth having with you.

  4. Hey Mark, definitely…my Swiss Army Knife is actually a Gerber multitool I got in the Army…but same difference. I guess I didn’t list it because its one of my defaults..just like flashlight, toothbrush, etc. 🙂

  5. Great list!

    Your idea of a having a keyed padlock to lock a door is great! I’ll have to add that and the sharpie marker to my pack next time I travel.

  6. Great list! Head phone splitter is a great one, thanks! I would maybe add some prayer beads to my gear, too! It cannot hurt! 🙂

  7. I agree totally. I had never thought of fishing line. Have to purchase now, might do miracles to my backpack which is falling apart.
    Also I didn’t know that the bugs don’t get trough silk – they seem to get through my cotton though. Bastards! Silk needed! (Although when I said this to my husband he rolled his eyes and mumbled something about a wife wanting to travel with her silks…) A head phone splitter might have saved us from some inter-marriage “negotiations” too. 😀
    What I would ad to the list is a few reclosable plastic bags in different sizes. Can storage stuff you want to keep dry (like passports inside your money belt when sweating like pig in the tropic), or prevent your bags from wet stuff (like swim wear after beach, or a leaking shampoo bottle in the plane)… multiple usage possibilities. Some have even used them as emergency relief-yourself packages in the long bus rides, or so the travel lore says…

  8. Can I recommend two small alterations?

    While a padlock is essential, consider a combination lock rather than one with a key. It’s too easy to lose the key(s) forcing you to find someone with a bolt-cutter to get into your back. Yes: speaking from experience.

    Instead of US$ carry euros. They’re worth more to exchange and are fast becoming the new international currency. The only problem people have with them is that they’re harder to counterfeit…which is great for you too.

  9. The notepad is a definate must as far as entertainment /recording goes. I have spent so many countless hours on QRF in iraq and Afghanistan that if I didnt have something to put my ideas down on Id go insane. One suggestion on the notepads is get “rite in the rain” brand, they are a little more expensive but in a humid environment and if they get wet they will never run ink or fall apart and you can still right on them.

  10. Great list and excellent blog!

  11. Tim (Island Tim) April 22, 2009 at 22:04 pm

    Additional items for your packing list:

    1. MOST IMPORTANTLY – Electrolyte powder. Really.

    2. Dental Floss – is VERY strong, comes in a handy little dispenser and works well as sewing thread or for lashing. Works as a suture thread for those long nasty cuts.
    3. A few sail making needles. They have great curves useful for many, many applications. Trust me here.
    4. Bright colored packs, daybags, etc. are easier to chase when stolen.

    Been There, Shit Happened……Island Tim

  12. Great list..Some I’ve always used and some are new to me. I;ll include them on my trekking thru Central America soon…

  13. Greg, after having spent quite some time reading through your blog, I’d like to say that I’m truly amazed by your travels. You are doing exactly what I dream of doing, and for that you have my deepest respect. I think what you do is awesome, astonishing, incredible… well, I’m out of words, but you get the point.

    In regards to your “Top 20 things to take backpacking”, I’d like to ask you how much clothes you are carrying around with you. I’m doing a 4 month backpacking trip next year to South America, and I’m wondering how much I need to be carrying around, so by asking you, I hope to get an answer from a true expert.

    Keep doing what you’re doing 🙂


  14. Dude, you may *think* the sleepsheet is protecting you from cooties, but in reality, it just turns you into a taxi service for bedbugs. If you use your sleepsheet in just ONE bedbug-infested bed, the bugs (and their teeny-tiny invisible-to-the-naked-eye eggs) will climb aboard, and you’ll become a bedbug Typhoid Mary, leaving infested hostel beds in your wake.

    And if you play your cards right, you’ll even bring bedbugs home with you. Enjoy the multi-thousand-dollar pest-control bill.

    Just say NO to sleepsheets. Instead, inspect your room for signs of bedbugs (peel back the sheets and look at the mattress seams for bugs or their reddish droppings), and REFUSE to sleep in a bedbug-infested room. Using a sleepsheet just makes the situation worse for everyone.

  15. If your a sleepingbag travler a sleepsheet is the best purchase you could get. Espacially in countries where the temp. changes alot during Day’N’Night.

    It keeps your sleepingbag more or less fresh and smell-free, and its easier to wash a sleepsheet then a sleepingbag. Trust me 🙂

    But to the pest problem I dunno what to say really, sanitise it if possible and take out our aggressions on it with a stick or a rugwip. 😉

  16. alyssa the soon to be April 21, 2010 at 21:39 pm

    I love your blog it’s awesome i’m planning on an around the world trip no home stops and this has helped i’m going to be camping most of the time (i don’t have to worry about bed bugs) i’m hoping this trip will be my life long fullfilment what about short jobs to take for one or two days i may need some extra cash……..:)

  17. Protein problems? Take along a bag of Quinoa. It is a complete protein and was the staple food of the mayans. A quarter cup simmered for 15 mins in a half cup of water is all it takes.

  18. I am planning on leaving from Oaxaca, Mexico, and backpacking on foot down through Central America into South America. I will stay out of hostels as often as possible. For the most part, I will be in the wild, and away from cities. That being said, a survival knife and machete are commonplace items in the jungles and rainforests. Will I have any trouble with customs when crossing borders on foot? I will be taking no air travel. Only foot. These are not items I would like to have to purchase over and over, as that I have purchased some rather good ones that have cost me a lot of money already. Also, what vaccines are required to enter which countries? Is there a list?

  19. How do you get your passport photo reproduced at a printers? I’d love to save some money and reproduce my quite favourable passport photo. 😀

  20. I’ve always loved travelling, but I’ve never done it alone… I’ve always known I COULD do it alone, that’s the kind of person I am, but I’ve always made excuses not to!! I’ve finally grown a pair and as of 15th December 2012 I’m off to Australia on a 12 month working holiday visa. If you do fruit picking for 3 months, not only do you get to see parts of rural Oz that most tourists don’t, but you can nearly always get a 12 month extension on your visa if you do this type of work for that length of time. My plan is to do as much work as possible for the 1st year (fruit picking work is very easy to come by, and can offer some very good wages – plus you don’t have much to spend that money on as you are in the middle of nowhere) and then for the 2nd year I will use the money I have saved up to go on some serious adventures.

  21. For women I definitely suggest that they bring a black pashmina (a large, lightweight scarf). Especially when traveling in Asia and Africa, you never know when you might want to be modest. It will help you feel more comfortable and will get you in to some amazing places.

  22. Great list mate, I especially like the clothes line which we will definitely take with us! We’re leaving in two months for a 12 month trip and can’t wait!

  23. I see I’m a little late on this post, but I just came across it and wanted to give my two bits. I agree wholeheartedly on the duct tape. However, I’m not so sure about other thing. The sleep sheet sounds alright for warm climates, but not so for cold ones. I carry a sleepingbag that works to 5 degrees F, which in the hot climates simply laying a sheet over it to lay on top of works lovely. Another thing I carry that is great is a sham-wow, you know, those kitchen clothes that soak upten times its weight in water? Great towel. Also, CD Rom doesn’t seem necessary,go with a USB drive. There’s nothing quite like having an umbrella in my opinion, and as for travel journal, always go with moleskin or even better Clairefontaine.

  24. Matthew Hylton July 29, 2012 at 21:44 pm

    Hey, I loved the list, thanks alot. I am about to do a backpacking trip… but i have not quite narrowed down my destinations yet. This is also my first time. I wanted to do RTW Asia, Europe, and South America mostly. How much does one generally need including costs of tickets. I am going to be a tight budget i think. Any ideas as to what I can do to earn money while I am travelling? I will be on the road for about 6 months or so.

  25. Great list! Only feedback would be to take a combo lock rather than one with a key! If you have any feedback on our list it would be much appreciated!

    Thanks for sharing and happy travelling!

  26. Whaaaooo, what a great article. I’ve been on the road for a few years and thats the best list I’ve seen.

  27. 1. cancel the sleep sheet, replace with a lightweight hammock
    2. replace us dollars with euros and traveler checks
    3. superglue (gorilla glue)!!!
    4. waterproof matches (just in case)
    5. make sure the travel journal is waterproof, lasts much longer!
    6. very cheap gsm phone, they can be found at goodwill and as long as they have a sim card slot, they will work almost anywhere in the world.

  28. Always pack a smile along with your fun and adventurous attitude! However, one tip for that padlock one, which is great we should all have these, however using a combination lock is much better as you don’t have to have a key and the possibilities of loosing it and etc. Go the combo lock for sure, cheers

  29. Waterproof journal
    I use Rite on the Run waterproof and comes in many sizes
    I wear hearing aids so waterproof bags are essential as well
    Roots has a waterproof bag for cell phones $20 that floats and one for iPads
    There is good camping soap that washes dishes clothes body and hair
    With iCloud you no longer need memory sticks
    I agree water filters are expensive, but I hear there is a pen like object that had mix reviews but when it works is the best on the market
    Be aware to test the cap, in Turkey many vendors refilled their own bottles.
    Keep the tips coming I find them useful

  30. Compression bags
    I forgot to add to the above comment, there are now some very interesting waterproof compression bags, they can double as a pillow
    I started with one that had a valve system like an air article and recently there is a new company that has a two way air exchange, think nabob coffee bag with that little airlock
    I still have a hard time with shoes as I must always wear one and bring one do to feet issues,

  31. Really great post. For me most important is toilet paper:)

  32. Great list. I would also like to add – a bottle on antacid tablets. I love spicy food, and I never travel without some. I used it a few times when I was in Cambodia.

  33. I had never heard of the sleep sheets before, but now I really have to get one. Too bad it’s already too late to ask for it for Christmas… 😀

  34. Great post and great tips here! Shall be using for my upcoming trip – thanks 🙂

  35. I never would’ve thought about a silk-sleeping sheet but that it keeps the bugs out and you in a safe environment it might be a good idea to bring even camping in a warm climate. Good call! Thanx for sharing this awesome list.

  36. It is funny how the Toilet Paper always shows up in every post, I guess I spent so much time in Asian and African countries that I got used it and think it is completely normal now. Actually it is better than toilet paper if you think about it 😉

  37. i loved the list ,I’ve been on the road for a few years and thats the best list I’ve seen.


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