Packing your backpack for the first time can be a hard, very hard. Where to start? I remember packing mine for the first time last year and feeling completely clueless. I think I’ve made all the mistakes a beginner can make, but in the meantime I’ve learned a lot, both from experience and from the tips handed down to me by fellow-travellers. I thought I’d pass on the knowledge and spare you the trouble.
- Take a photo of what’s inside your backpack. Spread everything you’re going to pack out on your bed/the floor and take a photo of it. This might be of great help in case of claiming lost/stolen luggage at your travel insurance.
- Make sure to have (a lot of) copies of your passport. It might be useful to put a (plastified) copy of your passport in several places (one in every bag you’ll be using, one in your moleskine, one in your wallet, etc.). Send a digital copy to your own e-mail, and have a downloaded version on your phone or tablet for offline emergencies, so that you’ll have access to a copy of your identity wherever you are – even in the unfortunate case of losing all your luggage.
- Have a dummie-wallet. I am incredibly greatful for this advise passed unto me by a fellow traveller. The dummie-wallet is filled with a bit of cash and unimportant cards that you carry in your handbag or pocket, while you carry another wallet with your creditcards and bigger money in a place less easily targeted by robbers and thieves (like on your body, see below). This way you might be able to fool your predators in the unfortunate case of being robbed.
- Have more than one card to withdraw money with! You don’t want to be dependent on the mercy of locals and fellow-travellers in case you lose your credit card and are waiting for you bank to send a new one (which can be a very lengthy process).
- Wear pickpocket-proof underwear. You can find different sorts of this smart underwear online, but it’s not that hard at all to make it yourself. Pickpocket-proof underwear contains almost invisible pockets in which you can subtly wear your valuables underneath your clothes. I simply used two identical singlets, put the one around the other, and stitched a seam from left to right halfway my belly, and then one more on the left and right side of my body along the already existing seams, in order to make sure my passport and money stay in place.
- Very important: spread your valuables over different places. This way you’ll avoid losing all important things at once whenever one of your bags is lost or stolen. Never put your creditcard with your phone, and it might be useful to spread different cards over different pockets/wallets. It does complicate making sure you have all your valuables with you a bit, but I personally find it worth the trouble.
- Bring your own number-locks. Most backpacks allow you to secure the zippers with a lock, so that it’ll be harder for thieves to get into your belongings. Very handy in hostels with a locker-system as well – this way you’ll never have to worry that staff members might abuse their position to empty your safe and disappear with your stuff.
- Basic handies. Personally, I always try to have some paper napkins, toilet paper/wet nap and a desinfectant within hand’s reach. Furthermore, I hold unto and re-use all disposable cutlery that is be provided along the way (in airplanes, take-away restaurants, etc), along with any sachets of salt, pepper and sugar. I keep all plastic bags to re-use for purposes like laundry and to wrap around liquids to avoid any leaking. A tupperware container has proved to come in useful many times. A bottle of sunscreen is, of course, inevitable as well.
- Charger with extra long cable. I’ve been using an extra long chord myself since this trip, and find it a very convenient solution whenever I’m sleeping in a dorm and the powerpoints are relatively far from my bed. (For Dutch people reading this: you’ll find them for a sweet price at Action.)
- Since space and weight is only very limited, it’s a complete waist to carry around normal towels. Microfiber towels are not only lightweight and take a lot less space, they’re also easy to wash and dry within a couple of minutes. I unfortunately forgot to bring mine, and since the only one I could find in Bogotá costed over 12 dollars, I simply bought two microfiber kitchen towels and stitched them together manually.
- Not only did it prove to be my first aid when I lacked a towel, but also has a sewing-kit more than once come in handy. When there was a hole in my favourite joggers (on my butt!), for example, but also when removing a splinter from my finger, and when my travel-bud had a blue finger nail (after it being crushed by a hammer) and needed some good old ‘auto-surgery’.
- Have a self-defence aid for in cases of emergency. Being a solo woman traveller, I like to carry a sharp (very sharp) pocket-knife within hand’s reach (as it serves many more an occasion than an attack), but you might be helped more with a self-defence weapon that is less easily turned against you (think pepperspray for example). There’s no need to be nervous, but it’s good to be prepared in case a person with less harmless intentions comes around.
- Pack a pareo, large scarf, or other light-weight blanket as an alternative for a heavy beach towel. Will prove to be highly useful at any picknick occasion, too.
- Repellent. Very important to always carry in your handluggage if you want to avoid malaria and other local ilnesses spreaded by mosquitos and bugs. Try to get your hands on a local repellent, as they may work better to keep away the particular species of the area.
- Speaking of which, you might consider bringing vitamine B-supplements if you’re travelling to a country where dengue, zika or malaria are frequent. Taking these will change your body odor and make you less attractive for mosquitos.
- Bring a lightweight,windtight rain jacket. It might seem unnecessary at home, but you’ll love yourself for bringing one.
- The same goes for hiking/mountain shoes. I thought that my pair of high-quality sneakers would do, but I find myself dangerously sliding down slippery slopes and regretting that I didn’t get myself a pair at home.
- Bring some sort of torch. Most phones have this as a built-in device, but if not, bring a light source (preferrably one that can’t run out of energy). I have a rewindable torch hanging on my daypack, that has for example helped me not step on frogs on my way to the bathroom when I was volunteering at a farm in the woods and the electricity went out for the the hundreth time.
- For obvious reasons, don’t forget to bring an international adapter to transform your own if travelling to a country that uses different powerpoint entries.
- Mini USB-speaker. This is a highly personal recommendation and definitely not a must, but it has made my travels a lot more pleasant. It enables me to do dance-workouts in order to stay fit and I turn out to be the hero at spontaneous dorm parties.
- Don’t pack more than 20 kg in total, hand-luggage included. Ideal would be between 14-17 kg, but if you bring any sports- or camping gear like a tent, hammock and/or sleeping back, you’re more likely to end-up packing something between 18-20 kg. A good guideline: you don’t need more than two (and sometimes less!) of every item. So two tanktops, two t-shirts, two pairs of trousers, etc.
- Pack heavy things in the core zone. Putting most weight in the middle of your backpack helps create a stable center of gravity, which will help you carrying your pack.
These are only very general recommendations that are valid for the majority of backpackers. It’s simply meant as a starting point. The list is by no means complete – there’s different rules for everyone. If you’re planning on camping and/or doing many outdoor activities for example, these tips obviously don’t suffice – you’ll need a lot more and specific gear. Since I’ve been going a bit more adventurous myself since this trip, I’ve noticed that my type of backpack isn’t ideal for trekking and camping and that I do want to bring other things next time. I might want to find a backpack with more add-on options (pockets and straps on the outside) for example, and bring a single-person tent, sleeping mat, warm lightweight sleeping bag, and perhaps a lightweight hammock. What I’m trying to say is, what you choose to pack all depends on your plans.
I do hope that these basic tips will serve you and help you out if you’re going backpacking for the first time. Good luck packing and safe travels!