I’ve been asked a number of times what I carry in my backpack and I’ve held off posting this until my return to travelling. The first time round I was a bit less organized and had a few things that quite frankly shouldn’t have been in my bag. I should note that I’m not a fastpacker, flashpacker, ultralighter, or any of those fancy terms. I love camping and that means I take a few more things that most people otherwise wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) particularly as this time I’m headed for Patagonia. To make things easier I’ve stared* the items most people wouldn’t carry. It was a bit hard to categorize some of my gear as well because I often try to carry things that can serve more than one purpose. I’d suggest using multipurpose gear whenever possible to save weight and space in your bag. Oh and a quick warning, this is a massive article, I give a brief explanation of why I carry nearly everything as I figured a list tells you nothing in and of itself.
*Tent – I have a Stratospire 2 from Tarp Tent and I love this thing, its light, roomy, and waterproof. It doesn’t have poles thus the need to use my hiking poles, but since I’m carrying them anyway its no extra weight.
*Sleeping Pad – I used to have a regular NeoAir from Thermarest until it was destroyed by a colony of leaf cutter ants. If you’re going hiking in warmer temperatures I’d suggest the Xlite, for colder temperatures or quilt sleepers it seems the Xtherm is a better choice.
Sleeping Bag – I just picked up a Sawatch -10 C from Katabatic Gear and though I’ve yet to test it out it seems like it should keep me plenty warm. Its a bit bulkier than my -4 C bag, its lighter and seems like it should keep me much warmer. If you’re going anywhere in Latin America I would say that carrying at least a light sleeping bag is a good idea, you’d be surprised how many times it comes in handy in the mountains.
Silk Sleep Sack – Great for not caring if the sheets are clean or adding just a bit of extra warmth when hiking. I found I needed a silk sleep sack a lot less in Latin America than I did in Aisa. I had mine custom made for me in Vietnam for $12 USD.
*Stove – I just picked up the MSR Microrocket stove, I’ve not tried it yet but MSR makes spectacular gear.
*Pots – I carry the Snow Peak Trek Combo Titanium Cookset, I find having two pots can often make life a bit easier. They are compact, light, strong, easy to clean, and great on your own or in a very small group.
*Cooking supplies – I have a little bottle of oil that I refill, a small bottle for soap on the trails, a scrub brush, and a spice kit because I don’t have my normal premade meals I dehydrate at home.
*Solar Charger – The hikes I headed out on are up to 9 days and I thought I’d test out the Bushnell Bear Grylls SolarWrap Mini USB Charger on the trip. I plan on using it to charge my headlamp and phone which I use as my GPS. I can pre-charge it before the trip and use it while travelling in general for extra power on those looonnnggg bus rides.
*Rain Kilt – Rain pants suck, but so does getting wet. I recently came across rain kilts and they seem like a good alternative at a fraction of the weight and size. I made my own inspired by this video.
Head Lamp – For dorms or camping, I always have my head lamp. I recently upgraded to the Petzl Tikka R+ Headlamp as someone lost my old one. The advantage of this headlamp is not only is it absurdly bright, but it also charges via micro USB along with nearly everything else I’m carrying.
First Aid Kit – Personally I think a small first aid kit (.3) is a must for travel or hiking. It’s not uncommon for local tour guides to be under prepared for emergencies and having some basics on hand is good planning. I remember one trip where 5 Canadians had first aid kits and the guide had nothing. I’ve added a few extras to mine for hiking such as an emergency blanket and a fire steel.
Knife – Outdoors, random travel purposes, preparing food in the hostel, there are tons of uses for a knife, bring one and make sure it has only a few functions, over time I’ve moved to a single locking blade because quite honestly its surprisingly the most versatile.
Spork – I love my Snow Peak Titanium Spork, its light, multi-purpose, and great for hostels, hiking, and market food.
Water Bladder – I carry a 3L Platypus water reservoir and I’d take it over traditional bottles any day. I drink a lot of water and the ability to have 3L of clean water at all times while hiking or staying in a hostel saves me tons of money and hassle.
Water Filter – I wrote about water filters in this post and I’ll reiterate here that I feel water filters (or similar) are great for travelers regardless of your plans, they save a ton of money. When hiking they can help to ensure you’re carrying less weight as you can fill up anytime there is a source.
Sandals – Because how can you go to tropical countries without them?
Bandanna – My favorite type of bandanna is made from merino wool and I recently picked up this new one from Icebreaker. The advantage over a traditional cotton bandanna is they dry super fast and don’t smell, on a hot day I can have it wrapped around head in two different configurations and each time I move it I get a dry bandanna all day long. One of my bandannas is also a mini Canadian flag (multipurpose).
Dress Shirt – There are moment when travelling when you don’t want to look like a bum, nice dinners, dancing, and for those times I got myself a Sherpa dress shirt. It doesn’t need ironing, it dries fast, and if I have to I can even use it hiking.
T- Shirts – I love my Icebreaker lightweight t-shirt but as anyone with merino wool gear can attest to, they just aren’t that durable, I use mine for exploring cities and chilling out. When I expect to be carrying my big back pack I’ll throw on something like the MEC Transit 2 Tee, polyester, quick drying, and light weight, it just needs to be washed a bit more often than the merino wool.
Thermal Shirt – For me, thermal layers is really where Icebreaker shines and a good 200 weight, long sleeve, form fitting top is perfect for colder environments and hiking.
Long Sleeve Shirt – For me, anything quick drying and loose fitting works here, I just needed something between a T-shirt and a jacket for cooler weather.
Sleeveless Shirt – I carry a completely destroyed and mutilated sleeveless shirt (that once had sleeves), is quick drying, breathable, and lightweight. If its hot I use it for my only top, when its cooler I might put it over my thermals. In general its mostly just to protect my skin and merino wool gear from shoulder straps and hip belts.
Socks – I’m a huge fan of Wright Running Socks, the dual layers are great for protecting against blisters. For colder weather there are some nice Smartwool options I use. I also have a pair of wool work socks, that are great as slippers in a hostel or keeping my feet warm with my sandals after a long day on the trail.
Underwear – As far as I’m concerned, Exofficio has no competitors. I love their GiveNGo boxer briefs myself but get what you normally would. They are durable, lightweight, easy to clean, and dry super fast. They suggest two pairs, I take three because I don’t want to do laundry every damn night.
Swimming Shorts – Whatever works for you, I got a nice handmade pair in Montanita, Ecuador.
Zip-off Pants – I have two pairs of zipoff pants, one is hand made based off an old pair from MEC that I killed in Guatemala and the other is from prAna and they are amazing. I change climates a lot and so always having two pairs of pants and two pairs of shorts is a must for me, with convertibles I kill two birds with one stone. The key features I look for are; unobtrusive zippoff, zippered cargo pockets (to deter theft), quick drying, and comfortable.
Sarong – Perhaps one of the most multi-function things I have. Lay on it on the beach, its the only towel I carry, its a light blanket in hot climates or an extra layer in cold ones, create a private space in your down bunk and block out the light, pillow, scarf, and more.
Belt – I like to use a money belt, not the big bulky kind, this type. In my case I found a style I liked and made my own by just sewing a zipper on the back. I nearly always have about $60 US in it for emergencies and have actually used it a few times.
Rain Jacket – I use something like a MEC Alpine Refuge but I keep hearing good things about eVent and will probably make one my next jacket. Honestly however, in most cases, nothing beats an umbrealla, to me, my rain jacket is more about creating a layering system for wind and cold.
Down Jacket – They pack down small, a light weight, very warm. With proper layering my MEC down jacket has kept me warm down to -10 in Ottawa. Knowing what I know now I’d suggest an Arcterx down jacket as they apparently perform better and pack down smaller. You’ll need to judge if you like hoods or not and if you need a light jacket or a warm one depending on where you’re going.
E-Reader – I often say that an e-reader has been my single greatest travel purchase. I’ve read more books while travelling than I have in the many years leading up to my travels and the ability to chose any book and switch on a whim is a big part of that. A I’ve written here, I really like my Kobo Glo, if I were to get a new device today I’d go for the Kobo Aura H2O, I like reading on the beach and the environmental sealing would be a nice touch. Mind you, the kobo mini with a light would be tough to beat, I’d love to have something truly pocket-able. For cases I love the Moleskine E-Reader Cover as it has a notepad for my thoughts.
Headphones – When I was younger I went through probably a dozen cheap crappy headphones. In contrast I’ve carried my Shure SE215-K Sound Isolating Earphones all over the planet. They’re durable, but more importantly, the soft foam inserts are comfortable and quiet. They aren’t noise cancelling but the foam ear plugs will drown out most of the noise around you to the point where I often have the volume on most airplanes and music players set to almost minimum.
Camera – I’ve written about it on 43Rumors and I’ve been carrying my Olympus OMD-E-M5 for about two years now. Its compact, water resistant, durable, and takes fantastic photos. I have the Panasonic 17mm F1.7 lens for walking around, though I would have gotten the Olympus 17mm f1.8 had it been available at the time. I recently added the coveted Olympus 12-40mm lens in place of the kit lens and 45mm to minimize lens changes in my travels. Two years on I’d still say that the E-M5 is a fatastic travel camera and even better now that its come down in price. If you’ve never used a big camera before, don’t buy one just for your trip, get something you’ll feel comfortable using.
Plug converters – Pretty much a must for any traveller, you can carry them individually as I do or as a single unit often with USB connectors. Keep in mind however that with a bulkier unit you may have more trouble finding a plug.
*Mini Tripod – I’ve been carrying an UltraPod 2 as a tripod alternative for hiking and travelling for years and I love the thing. Some might argue that I can’t set it up whever I want, however I can set it up in a lot of places I couldn’t set up a tripod thanks to the Velcro strap. I even carry an extra compression strap for going around larger poles and trees. The UltraPod is light and super compact, if my camera is with me, so is the tripod and I rarely notice it’s there. I’ve found the UltraPod to be far more compact, reliable, lightweight, and flexible than the often touted GorillaPod.
Smart Phone – Phone, texting, camera, alarm clock, booking hostels, planning your trip, tracking expenses, tinder while travelling, couch surfing, etc. Honestly, this list could go on for ever. I used to hate the idea of carrying a smart phone, now like many people, I’m not sure what I’d do without it. Just make sure it’s unlocked or get it unlocked when you get where you’re going.
Otterbox – I strongly recommend getting a decent case for your phone, I swear half of all the phones I’ve seen travelling that don’t have cases are broken, maybe more. The most popular cases are Otterbox and Lifebox, but quite frankly anything that has a decent shell and a lip protecting the screen will do. For scratch resistance, any screen protector will do, personally I prefer the stick-on kind as they stay clearer longer than the plastic covers.
*Emergency Beacon – I know its bad practice, but I often go hiking solo, I’ve started carrying a personal beacon as a safety measure and would recommend ResQ Link though I couldn’t get one when I was purchasing mine. Be sure to get one corresponding to your country and to register it. They are NOT a toy, NOT a GPS and should only be used in life threatening circumstances.
Universal Charger – I’ve owned (and broken) a number of universal chargers while travelling and my favorite to date is the Digipower TC-U450 Universal battery charger. I can charge my camera batteries, spare phone battery, and with the built in USB port, anything that uses USB. At this point the only thing I can’t charge with it is my laptop, however it seems like even that should be possible within a few years.
Silica Gel Desiccant – Electronics are delicate and sensitive to moisture, I carry a reusable Silica Gel Desiccant in my camera bag to fight moisture from the coasts, jungles, and rain.
There is no right or wrong answer to what bags to take, but keep in mind you will fill whatever size be it 40L or 90L.
Day Bag – I’ve switched to the Miwok 18L day bag from Gregory. In general I find their products well made and my last day pack from they took abuse for about 8 years intermittent use and 18 months of serious travel. I debated a bit between black and blue colours but in the end decided being seen and seeing my bag were more important than blending in. The reasons I chose this bag are the following:
- Big enough to hold my computer, camera, and few extras.
- Small enough to go in the main bag if there is room.
- Has a spot for a water bladder and a good hip belt with pockets.
- Good quality and warranty.
- Great for day hikes, travel, busses, and other uses.
Main Bag – I used to have a Gregory Z-55 and while it was an amazing bag for lightweight hikes it could no stand up to the rigors of my travels. While being a hiking guide in Nicaragua I saw tons of people with Osprey backpacks and they always seemed like the best performing bags. I got an Osprey Aether 60L about a year ago and it is amazing. Its a great size for my travel style, tough, tons of features, and fits well. Some awesome reasons to go with Osprey:
- Tough as nails and backed by a solid lifetime warranty.
- Sooo many features yet no extra bulk or weight, access zippers, detachable top pouch, accessible water bladder holder, and on the go trekking pole storage just to name a few.
One thing I would note is that while I love this bag for travel and hiking while travelling, its too big and heavy for me to bother with back in Canada where I don’t need to carry as much gear.
Toiletry Bag – Outdoor Research have some good zipper bags for this purpose but generally just go with anything that works for you. Keep in mind you can get nearly anything you can possibly want while travelling in most regions of the world. So no need to bring your Costco size shampoo, they have some there.
Lock-and-Lock – Like most people I hate when liquids leak all over my bag. If you use bar soap, ditch those cheap plastic camping soap containers and get a lock and lock, you’ll never have soap liquid on your stuff again!
Pad Lock – Get a combo lock or pad lock, it doesn’t have to be big or fancy, just something you can use for dorm lockers.
Ear Plugs – Dorms, busses, planes, trains, and automobiles, if you are a light sleeper, you’ll be happy you brought ear plugs. I recommend the smooth foam over the spongy kind, they can be used more times (read at least once) and are easier to clean.
*Moleskine Journal – I love these journals to keep record of my thoughts of my experiences, they are good quality, archival, and pocketable.
Pepto Bismol Tabs – Poop happens, nuff said.
Bug Repellent – It can be hard to get good bug spray in some countries, gauge where you’re going and how much bugs irritate you. In over a year I barely used up the little bottle shown below, others used gallons, YMMV.
Rain Covers – I’ve a small cover for my day bag and a big one for my main pack,
*Map – I nearly always have a physical map of the region I’m visiting, I find that being able to look at a country or region can help me to decide where I’m going, what I have time with and help to reduce unnecessary back tracking.
Duct Tape – Gear repair, blisters, waterproofing, the list is a mile long, throw a strip of paper around a pencil and wrap your own mini roll instead of taking a big roll or buying the expensive mini rolls.
Sunscreen Squeeze Bottle – I use a lot of sun screen and tend forget to put it on in the morning, carrying this little squeeze bottle with me helps to ensure I always have some in my day bag.
Cord – The climbing/camping section in most outdoors stores will have high strength, lightweight cord. Great for use as a clothes line, shoe laces, putting gear back together and a ton of other purposes.
*Knife Sharpener – I hate dull kitchen and hiking knives so I carry a small ceramic sharpener.
Hydration Salts/Tabs – I get sun stroke and dehydrated very easily, I’ve found hydration salts seem to bring me back from the dead better than anything else. You can buy them cheap at most pharmacies anywhere in the world.
TP in a Ziplock – Because one should always carry TP.
Immunization Card – Apparently some countries require certain immunization and others are just a good idea to get, I’ve never been asked but I carry it anyway. While writing this I was told by a friend who visited Cuba she was asked for her’s.
Keep in mind this isn’t everything I’m carrying, I’ve a few toiletry items and pouches/bags to keep me organized, but this is most of it.
What’s not in my bag?
There are a few things you may have noticed aren’t on my list, some things I’ve lost, decided I can do with, or simply have an alternative solution for.
Hiking boots – I haven’t worn them in years, even in near winter conditions I prefer my minimalist shoes. My feet are often wet or cold, but I’ve learned to live with it as I feel the benefits outweigh the detriments.
Sweater – I have a long sleeve shirt and a down jacket, sometimes I’ll look like an idiot wearing my jacket indoors but I can live with that.
Alarm clock – I rely on my phone for damn near everything
Calculator – Know the conversion for the country you’re visiting, ballpark it if you have to and round liberally. Eg, Colombia is 2050 COL to 1 CAD, so I take 3 zeros off the number and divide by two when looking at prices. Oh, and there are apps for that.
Towel – I used to carry a travel towel the size of a wash cloth, honestly, a sarong will work just as well in most cases.
Kitchen Knife – On occasion I’ve been known to carry a kitchen knife. I like to make my own food to save money and make sure I get my vegetables. I can deal with most aspects of a crappy hostel kitchens, a bad knife is not one of them. I now carry a sharpener and usually that solves the issue. If you’re stuck however, use the side of the sink like you would a sharpening steel.
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