Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
Backpacking – Tips on what to pack
Those that are starting their trip whether it be a short trip or a long trip, are probably wondering what should I take and how do I pack lightly.
The best tip is travel as light as possible. The lighter you are, the easier it is to walk around, jump between modes of transport and generally be able to carry on your own things without losing sight of it, such as on top of a bus. We haven’t gotten quite to this stage like some other well-seasoned travellers, but we are trying to get there.
At the time of writing we had been travelling for four months. We have both travelled quite a lot before this trip, so we weren’t amateurs. This was definitely the longest trip we had done though and meant we were learning a lot as we went.
I have found out the hard way, there is a lot of stuff in my pack I still haven’t used and therefore must be thrown away (and I only have a 45L pack). I have learnt through my initial travels what are the key essentials and have been life savers on my trip so I have decided to write a summary for those that are starting a trip (to prevent the heartache of carrying unwanted weight).
I have one 45 liter pack and one smaller day pack for carry on. The easiest way to stay balanced and keep your arms free to do other things like open doors is with the big pack on your back and your day pack on your front.
When buying these packs make sure:
1. They have good support and fit you comfortably. You will be doing lots of walking with them so make sure they are comfortable.
2. They have sweat relieving on the back (it looks like gridlines). This is essential in any humid climate, because your bag might get drenched with your own sweat
3. Buy a rain cover if it doesn’t have one inbuilt; the brighter and more unique the better for identifying your stuff. Chicken buses and even a lot of shuttles tend to put their luggage on the top of the bus. If you don’t have a cover everything may get wet! Also if you’re travelling anywhere by boat this will keep everything dry.
This topic is long debated amongst travellers. We found that polyester was the clear winner. Polyester is a quick drying material, therefore anytime my clothes were wet either from washing/cleaning, rain storms, or swimming; they always dried by the next day. Another benefit of polyester is that it is odour resistant, especially compared to cotton, so you smell cleaner for a longer time. You might not win fashion contests in some of this stuff, but it sure is functional.
Polyester long sleeve top: This is perfect for the “autumn/fall” type weather and cooler nights at higher altitudes. They pack really small and are great to get out for staying warm in the cold air conditioned buses. They are also useful for places where bugs and mosquitos are commonly carrying disease as you can put them on to cover your skin and not get overheated.
Short sleeve polyester t-shirts/singlets: These are perfect for everyday use and hiking. I know you will look like you are about to do an exercise workout, but as these clothes are made for exercise, they take the wear and tear of multiple uses. I’ve met so many backpackers along the way that had holes in their mostly cotton clothes and had to buy new clothes along the way. These also follow the rule of the long sleeve tops by resisting odour and sweat.
Polyester underwear: You only really need 2 pairs; one that you’re wearing and the other that you’re washing. I got in the habit of washing them in the shower in the morning so they could dry in the heat of the day and be ready for the next day to repeat the process. They also stay much drier and resist odour far better than cotton.
Polyester zippy short-pants: I always wear these on my travel days, as I don’t know if the bus is going to be hot or cold, and also carry these on long hikes therefore if the weather changes I’m easily prepared for change without carrying excessive items. These are perfect because if you are hot you just wear the shorts, however if you get cold you can zip on the bottoms and they instantly turn into pants. These pants also come water resistant, which is perfect for hiking.
Swimmers/bathers and swimming shorts: The swimming shorts have been awesome when it comes to water activities. There have been a few times I needed shorts in the water for example when rafting. It’s not comfortable when your bum is sticking to the raft so shorts are definitely recommended. Swimming in rock formation swimming pools, this basically involved a hike in the water and using a waterfall as a slippery slide. I could have ended up with some painful scratches if I wasn’t wearing shorts. The shorts I have are basically Nike short shorts (which are meant for running) but perfect for water activities as they always dry quickly.
Thermals: (one long sleeve top, one long pair of pants) Even though I’m travelling through Central America, there have been some unexpected cold nights in the mountainous regions. Especially when in Gutemala/Honduras around November/December at altitude over 2000m (6000ft), the nights can easily dip below 10C (45F) and closer to freezing. I currently have icebreaker thermals, which are made out of 100% merino wool. The benefit from merino wool is not only does it keep you super warm, it is breathable and wicks away odour. You can see a trend here.
Rain jacket (lightweight): I have a summer lightweight Columbia rain jacket. It’s really just a shell that resists rain and wind. It’s perfect as it scrunches up really small into my day pack so it doesn’t even feel like I’m carrying it. Make sure you invest in a good rain jacket; you will hit rain at some point and you don’t want to get wet as it may make you sick. Tiny travel umbrellas can be useful, but more of a luxury item if anything else.
Socks: I have wicking, merino wool socks (as stated above, reducing smell)
Shoes: 1 pair of Gore-Tex waterproof hiking hybrid shoes. By hybrid – I mean these are not just made for hiking and can be used for everyday use (as they are the same height as regular runners). I currently own a pair of Merrel’s which have been fantastic lasting through torrential rain and floods in the Grand Canyon, multiple bus rides, multiple walks in humid cities and even rafting. I also had a pair of flip flops which unfortunately broke. Let me recommend you buy a pair of sandals you can also take in the water (e.g. merrel, reef). That way you can wear these on the beach, rafting and in destinations that require walking in water. I unfortunately didn’t bring these so my feet hurt after walking through Semuc Champey, Guatemala and I had to wear my hiking boots while rafting.
So by following the above and bringing mainly polyester items you won’t need to bring lots of shirts and pants. Even two or three shirts are sufficient due to their quick dry capabilities. Most of the above items I have bought from camping/hiking stores (MEC Canada, REI- USA), brands such as North Face, Patagonia, Columbia, MEC etc. to be high quality and last a long time.
The other thing to note is you can hand wash and quickly dry a lot of this stuff, saving you time and money on having to do laundry regularly. Humid conditions can make drying stuff difficult like what we found in Roatán, Honduras.
Other essential items
Flashlight/headlamp: This is very important. If you arrive in an unknown town late, sometimes there aren’t any street lights. This is also good for black outs; which tend to happen a lot in Central America. I have also used my headlamp a few times for hiking sunrise hikes or to take on a day hike that might go late. Also, if you’re in a strange hostel/hotel and need a late night snack or restroom stop, this saves turning on the lights.
Ear plugs and eye mask: This is perfect for long bus rides and also noise reduction in noisy hostels/hotels.
Container for your electronic cords: If it’s all in a container it won’t become a tangled mess in your bag. Use stringy wire, Velcro or rubber bands to keep the wires from tangling initially.
Clingwrap/glad wrap sandwich bags: These have been awesome as they have multi uses such as cooking way too much food and needing somewhere to store left overs. Carrying your lunch for a hike, and holding wet products that may leak (such as mini shampoos).
Rubber bands: To close any unfinished cereal, chips etc
Bug Spray: Ideally with 30% DEET. I know this is toxic, but it’s the best things for keeping those pesky bugs away. Mosquitos in many parts of Central America carry malaria, dengue fever amongst other things. Sand flies are painful and annoying in Roatán and Utila, Honduras. etc. . There is nothing worse than having an itch on you that won’t go away.
First aid kit: Build your own from something basic at the pharmacy/drug store. Make sure to include the basics like bandages/bandaids, alcohol swabs, tweezers, scissors, tape. I would also suggest an Anti-itch cream to dab on those bug bites. Also bring the basics such as some cold and flu tablets, diarrhea relief, headache tablets, and pain reliever. Another good item to have is cough syrup as everyone tends to get a cough at some point that doesn’t go away for weeks. Sure you will be able to find this stuff in a store wherever you are, but often when you need it you can’t find one that’s open or understand exactly what you need.
Pocket knife: Our preference was for a small swiss army knife. Useful as a knife for peanut butter sandwiches on the go, as a can opener and most importantly beer bottle opener.
Travel towel: There’s so many to choose from. Keep it as small as you can functionally use and go for a material that is quick dry but doesn’t feel like sandpaper to use. This can get a little pricey, but they last for ages and can be used for such a long time.
Travel pillow: Great for long bus rides and/or camping
Water purifier: We have the 750ml Camelbak All Clear UV water purifier which retails for about $100. It is a clear plastic water bottle with 2 lids. The first is a slimline for after purification. The other is the UV light that treats a full bottle in 60 seconds after you shake it up and down and lasts for 10,000 treatments. It has a battery rechargeable by USB that lasts 80 cycles.
Matches/lighter: Developing countries still seem to use lots of propane gas burners for cooking. So it’s good to have a lighter or matches on hand. In communal kitchens these disappear and it’s annoying to go looking for something. We’re not smokers, so it’s not something we use everyday. This also came in handy on Christmas Eve for lighting fireworks.
PDF travel guides: Do not bring a physical copy of the Lonely Planet. I brought mine and didn’t use it for three months as we were using the PDF version on my phone. It’s a waste of space and weight. You can even live without the guide entirely to get yourself off the Gringo trail and really seek your own adventure.
Plastic bags: Always useful for dirty clothes, as a sick bag or simply storing things separately in your bag
Space bags: These are awesome to save space and separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes. I bought mine from Canadian tire and unfortunately one of them broke (it was really cheap so not really surprised). However, I have been using my dry bag instead as you can compress your clothes in a dry sack/bag by making sure there is no air is in the bag when you squish it down. Not only is this a great space saver but is useful for when you go to the beach and don’t want to leave any of your valuables on the beach, as you can take this into the water with you and nothing will get wet.
This is also useful for keeping your clothes dry if your whole pack gets wet through rain or on a boat ride. Your pack will likely get wet, but most things inside will be clean and dry.
Waterproof phone case: Again per the above so you can swim with your valuables
Money belt: This is great for travel days – just in case. Try get one with RFID protection as it prevents your credit card from being electronically scanned by the technology smart criminals.
Travel belt:Toby has been using a “Pacsafe Cashsafe Anti‑Theft Travel Belt Wallet”.We bought this from MEC in Canada for $17. It looks like a regular outdoors type belt, but has a zip on the inside to store things. We have some US$ and paper copies of our passport just in case we’re in a situation where someone wants to take absolutely everything.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/