When you’re backpacking, you’re supposed to travel as light as possible. Backpacking has made me stronger – I can carry about 30kg on me – but you just can’t enjoy yourself as much when you’re weighed down like that. Unfortunately, I’m very much a flashpacker and there are just some things I simply cannot do without. To budget backpackers, these must seem like luxuries – but luxuries I exhort everyone to consider investing in and packing in because they can make all the difference!
1. Neck Pillow
I can’t stress this enough. It’s not for business class tourists. In fact, it’s especially for weary travelers! Get the proper kind that’s light enough to carry around but also firm and dense enough to actually support your neck well that your head stays on it comfortably, and doesn’t drop into your neighbour’s lap. Whether it’s a seven-hour flight, 13-hour train journey or 24-hour bus ride, you’ll be thanking the heavens you brought this. Travelling is tiring business, especially if you change locations every 2-3 days like I do. One of the worst feelings is feeling cooped up on moving transportation and not being able to take a refreshing nap, but instead constantly having your head fall joltingly in all sorts of directions. You’re also less likely to get a busted up neck when it’s nicely held in place with a sort of brace.
2. Good Shoes
I am torn whether my Timberlands or my Crocs are the best purchase I have ever made. Neither of them were cheap, costing about a hundred bucks per pair. And me being as budget-conscious as I usually am, these purchases took a whole lot of consideration. But on all my trips I am constantly being thankful that I decided to invest in good shoes.
Packers (flash, back or trashpackers) will invariably always end up walking a lot; there’s no tourist bus to hop on to after checking out a place of interest. There will be a million steps to climb (I think I counted 2000 at one particular climb), hills to conquer, kilometers to traverse to get to the nearest bus station, or you might suddenly find yourself trekking in knee-deep snow. Thank god for my rain-resistant, anti-fatigue, sole-cushioning, ankle-hugging Timberlands.
Or, you might find yourself kayaking, canoeing, rafting, crossing rivers, exploring waterfalls, cave-tubing, whatever that might mean stepping on little stones or climbing big slippery rocks. Water shoes do what flip flops never will – keep you protected, stay on, not break at the worst times etc. And having water shoes means that you’ll be able to change into dry shoes. Always a good idea.
In particular, I must sing praises for the Duet Busy Day Skimmer. Unlike the early Crocs that were made of the same material all throughout, this design’s flexible, stretchy top means no more weird sores and blisters from friction or misfitting. They’ll accommodate your feet even if one’s a little wider or fatter or bigger than the other. They’re easy to slip-on, slip-off, but they fit snugly and will stay on your feet even when you’re swimming or floating down a river. The sturdy base means stepping on sharp objects in the water won’t hurt your feet, and will even cushion your step when walking on hard ground. Plus, pack them toe to heel, bases outwards, and put a rubber band on them, and they pack smaller than a sandwich.
You’re on your feet for hours and hours on end each day, trust me, it’s worth it.
3. Good Backpack
Your items are going to weigh like bags of rice on your back. And you’re going to be carrying them for long periods of time. While walking. Or hiking. Or climbing. Or crossing borders. You definitely want a good backpack. Some things you might want to consider:
Lightweight material – Always check the weight of the bag itself before you even put anything in. If it’s already 3kg, that’s 3kg of dead weight that’s unnecessary. I’ve personally found Osprey to generally carry the lightest backpacks in their collection, but I think there are other brands that are now introducing bags in more lightweight materials too. I still do find Deuter a little on the heavy side though.
Expandable space – Yes you’ll end up with more stuff along the way or coming back than when you first started off. Make sure you don’t start with a full pack and that there’s still room for all those things. Not only does that mean perhaps getting a larger capacity pack, but being able to tighten the straps when you leave and then loosen them when you need to create more storage space. Some packs come with a +10 that you can utilise if you need it or stuff it away if you don’t. Note though, some companies sell their bags as 45+10, while some are just 55 but already inclusive of the +10. Decide and see what works better for you.
Zipper entrance – Backpacks with only a drawstring top will be a bitch to work with. If you’re moving from dorm to dorm to dorm, staying at different hostels every night, that’s a lot of packing and unpacking going on, and having to pull stuff out of just the top is crazy annoying. Having at least a zip at the bottom helps a lot, but even better if you can find a pack that has a zip all the way around or on its side, so that’s less digging, saving you time and energy.
Compartments – Some packs allow you to create compartments within the pack, which are useful for things like separating shoes and clothes, or if you’re lazy like me, dirty clothes and clean clothes. Or you could also use it to differentiate summer and winter clothes.
Harness – This is probably the less thought about point but in my opinion the most important. The trick to why people use backpacks lies largely in its harness. Contrary to the term “backpacking”, you don’t actually carry the pack on your back. Most of the weight goes onto your hips, not your shoulders. In fact, the pack should be carried far away from your shoulders instead of hugging your back. So when shopping for a backpack, make sure you put some heavy stuff in the backpack to test this out. With it on your back, lean slightly forward, push the backpack up until you can clip the harness over your waist, then stand up and let it fall naturally to your hips. You should feel the pressure being exerted downwards on your hips, and almost nothing on your shoulders at all. If you’re not feeling this, you need to find the right backpack to fit your frame. If done right, a 10kg backpack will easily feel like a 1kg weight on you.
4. Good Swimwear
If you’re just going to wear a bikini and parade on the beach while working on your tan, who cares. But if you’re packing one set for a long trip and plan to do some adventure activities, then invest in a good one. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but just opt for halter tops with buckle clasps over your usual string bikinis. The last thing you want happening is having them fall off halfway. Also, you might have to take a bus to get to your destination, so clasps lay flat against your back instead of a knotted bunch that’s just really uncomfortable. That also makes it a better choice under a wet suit.
A good quality bikini will also provide the sufficient support you need in case you’re engaging in sports or rough and tough activities. Or even for everyday use when everything else is in the laundry.
5. Waterproof/Shockproof Camera
Water sporting, biking, sandboarding, horseriding – whatever it is you plan to do, if you’re going to be active, take a camera that can keep up with you. Then secure it on a lanyard. You’ll want your hands and wrists free, you won’t have pockets, but you still want it close to you so you don’t miss those great in-action shots.
They’re not that great in terms of photo quality as compared to even your usual point-and-shoot cams, so yes, you’ll probably need to bring this as an additional camera, but hey, they can boldly go where no PnS has gone before.
6. Power Bar / Chocolate
On some days you’re going to be hungry, famished even, and you’ll be on some mountain somewhere with nothing for miles. Always, always have a bar on you. They’re small and not hard to pack, and you don’t have to be too kiasu and pack 10 of them. Just make sure you always have at least one or two in your day pack. It could make all the difference between fainting on the side of a mountain road… or not.
7. Hair Dryer
I know, I know, this is where it starts to get a little frivolous. It was my thought too – I’m more concerned about finding a place to sleep for the night and where to get my next meal than I will be about my hair! But consider this: There will be times you might reach a certain destination at night, and you badly need to shower and wash your hair after a long day’s journey. But you really shouldn’t sleep with wet hair (I think old wives’ tales say you’ll either get sick or go mad, I forget which one exactly but neither sound ideal), or it’s too freezing cold to leave your hair wet like that. Ta-dah! Hair dryer to the rescue.
Also, I’ve found it incredibly, incredibly useful to be able to dry my underwear or socks in countries where it’s simple too cold and wet for them to dry normally overnight. And, bonus, if you’re feeling really, really cold, just plug it in and warm yourself up.
8. Wet Wipes
Multi-purpose little things. You know they’re useful in plentiful ways. But especially in countries where sanitation isn’t quite what you’re used to, they’re great for cleaning your hands after (I have an issue with using hand gel; it feels like I’m just smearing it all over further). And in countries where it’s too cold to take a shower, well, wipe away, jose. If you get the kind that are gentle on skin, you can double them up as makeup removers as well. I use them to wipe my neck pillow because it gets around but I want to know it’s clean when I’m going to put my face on it. The list goes on, I’m sure you’ll find a multitude of uses for them. You can get 2 packs of 40 pieces each for just $2 at Daiso, so it’s more a weight issue than cost, but I’m sure their usefulness will more than make up for the burden.
9. Makeup / Nail Polish
I used to think, well, I was just going to go au natural. After all, I’m roughing it out. Who cares how I look? Well, the camera, for one. I don’t want to look like shit in all my amazing holiday pictures! But also, I’ve found that it’s more about how you feel inside than how you look outside. Sometimes you’ll feel homesick or miserable or lonely, and having lovely bright nail polish just makes you feel a tad better about yourself. Don’t ask me why, I’m still waiting for someone to do a correlation study on this topic. But I swear it must be scientific.
I’ve never been that crazy about makeup, but I’ve noticed that female travellers do put in some effort, whether with eyeshadow or lipstick. It just adds that little colour to our faces so we don’t look deathly pale. It’s also quite nice to meet new people with your best face forward and feeling confident than rather than insecure.
And it’s a fact that people are more drawn to people they find attractive or who look good. If you look decently pleasant, there’s a better chance you’ll find buddies to hang out with or explore the city with. And if you’re terrible at reading maps, this is always an advantage.
10. Cute Dress
Yes, you’re not a true backpacker until you’ve worn hipster elephant print pants with hiking boots. (Or at least this is what I was told.) And that’s fine for travelling, walking around, exploring, hiking, whatever. Until you get invited to join a bunch of people for a night out at a jazz festival. Or a Christmas party. Or a birthday celebration. Or a goodbye gig. Or some dancing. Or – and I really like this one – a date. Just pack at least one cute dress. Your awesome night will thank you for it.