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 TerreVista Trails, 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).