In my opinion, vagabonding and solo backpacking travel are purely a matter of personal preference. Ask 20 backpackers about their vagabonding packing list and the only thing they will have in common is the fact that they are 1) carrying dirty laundry and 2) packed too much.
Packing for vagabonding travel is personal, but if you see one good new idea for your travel kit, this read was worth it. I’ve picked up ideas over the years from books, travelers met on the road, and websites — but as you already know: experience is always the best teacher.
So without further delay, here are my top 20 goodies to consider putting on your solo backpacking travel packing list!
(Foregoing the boring, obvious stuff like camera, toothbrush, or flashlight…)
- Silk Sleep Sheet
If you aren’t a backpacker, you’re probably wondering what in the world 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 piece of travel gear.
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 lighter, warm, and strong; plus, some nasty creatures can still bite you through cotton — not silk. I ordered my sleep sheet from TerreVista Trails (this is not an affiliate link but there’s a discount code there), a very friendly company formerly known as Jag Bags. These things last a long time — mine nearly 10 years of heavy use. 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 — of which there will be many while on the road. You need an efficient way to keep those memories and that hot Italian guy/girl’s email accurate for years to come. Don’t rely solely on a smartphone. Your travel journal will quite possibly become the dearest thing you add to your vagabonding travel packing list for every trip.
To make it interesting, I stick ticket stubs, bottle labels, and whatever else inside my journal. 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 are most likely to have on some Thai island. 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 cultures still use the right hand for eating and reserve the left “dirty” hand for wiping their bottoms. I’m serious. Locals take care of business, wipe with the left, then wash their hand under the little tap — keep in mind there is rarely soap available. If you wish to “go native” as some backpackers do, then no worries — just please don’t use your left hand at the table. And never 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!
Note: Carrying TP is a good idea, but –never- flush it in a country that doesn’t have sewer systems to handle the paper. Naive travelers do this all the time, causing hostels and restaurants great expense to clear the disgusting blockages. A lot have stopped allowing Western travelers from using the toilets because we keep screwing up a good thing. Don’t flush your toilet paper!
4. Extra Passport Photos
Inevitably, you will get asked for one or two every time you get a visa to cross a border. Other bureaucrats may ask for them, too, in special circumstances. For instance, I needed a photo for my security pass to see the 14th Dalai Lama while in India. 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.
Yes, you can often have these photos made at border crossings and wherever they are needed, but you’ll be charged a premium and may have to wait in the queue with everyone else who didn’t think to pack a few extra photos. Also, once in Vientiane, Laos, I saw a lot of travelers who were stuck because the camera booth for making passport photos was broken.
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.
Many places will still demand your original passport, but at least having a copy will come in handy for yourself should something terrible happen to your actual passport.
6. Duct Tape
I know, very predictable and Macgyver-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. U.S. Dollars
No matter the state of the world economy, the U.S. dollar still speaks loud and clear even in the most remote places. Bring a mix of denominations, but make sure they’re all in excellent condition and aren’t folded. Just for fun, bring some $1 bills to trade currencies with people or to give as gifts. I found that swapping $1 bills is a great way to make new friends in China.
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 — especially the tropics. Plus, if you go somewhere where the locals are brown, sunscreen could be extra expensive or 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 to hitchhike 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 for drying swimwear, and even making the occasional “leash” to tie myself to my day bag in case I fall asleep on a dodgy bus or train. You can also pick it apart to get individual nylon threads for making field repairs. The safety pins are nice for keeping your underwear from blowing down the beach.
11. Silk Pillow Case
I know I kind of beat the silk thing already when talking about my sleep sheet, but I carry a silk pillow case for three good reasons: First, they weight very little. Second, they will protect you from mites, dust, and whatever filth lives inside the average guesthouse pillow. Third, they provide a reassuring, psychological boost. There’s something about having that soft, familiar feeling against your face at night — especially if you use the same pillow cases at home.
Pro Tip: Don’t get a white case! Get red, black, or something that really stands out so you won’t accidentally leave it on a hotel pillow.
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. You can also use it on overnight trains and buses. 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 you won’t get all the good stuff your body needs if you only eat a lot of cheap street food every day. Don’t cheat yourself: food is a big part of the adventure, and there’s a lot of good food to be enjoyed out there!
This isn’t medical advice. In fact, I don’t take vitamins while at home. I prefer to adjust my diet accordingly. But while traveling, you may not find what you need and may wish to consider supplementation, especially if you think you’ll be surviving on cheap street food for long periods of time.
14. Fishing Line in a Sewing Kit
Unlike thread which will rot or break, lightweight fishing line (3 – 5 pound test) is thin enough to sew up straps on backpacks and fix shoes permanently. I’ve had to do both while backpacking. Plus, you can fish with it for fun. I did while in a remote part of Borneo.
15. USB Thumb Drives
I now carry several cheap USB drives just in case I have to share photos with someone. Sometimes internet speeds are just too slow for a massive upload to the cloud or social media. You may have hundreds of photos with someone after traveling with them for a while. This is a quick way to share the love and memories electronically.
As a former IT geek/hacker, I also carry a bootable Linux USB system that I can put in untrustworthy computers (e.g., internet cafes) when forced to use them.
16. Headphones Splitter
OK, now days many smartphones don’t have the good ol’ headphones jack. That’s too bad; sharing a single AirPod each isn’t that fun. 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. Problem solved (if you’re using a dongle, iPod, or your phone still has a headphones jack).
17. Liquid Bandage
Infections are so commonplace in humid, jungle environments that I started carrying a small bottle of liquid bandage with me to quickly seal up small scratches and bites before they fester. Just remember not to inadvertently seal up infection inside! If a scratch is already red or puffy, don’t use liquid bandage.
18. Small Padlock with Two Keys
These are useful 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. Bring your own so you can share with a new roommate without juggling control of the key. Also, bringing your own lock guarantees that no one can get inside with a copied key (or one “borrowed” from reception) without breaking something. Sure, combo locks are an option for not losing keys, but either you or your travelmate will inevitably forget the combination — or you won’t be able to work the lock in darkness.
If you do opt to go with a combination-style lock, make sure you can work the thing in the dark while drunk.
No need for a digital one, GPS, or the lensatic beast that I once used in the U.S. Army. A simple, $3 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.
Sure, you’ll probably also have Google Maps, but getting out the smartphone (and using battery/data) is overkill when you simply need to know which direction is which.
20. A Smile
OK, I know it’s cheesy and you can’t really add a smile to your vagabonding packing list, but you understand. A smile will nearly always get you better prices, out of trouble, and new friends along the way. I’ve been in some sticky situations while traveling, but a smile nearly always got me out of trouble.
These vagabonding 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.
Experience is the best teacher. You’ll only know what you need to carry for vagabonding travel — and how to avoid overpacking — by getting out there in the field and learning the hard way.
(I’ve got a much more extensive backpacking packing list on my Startbackpacking.com site).