Practical Packing Essentials For First Time Solo Travellers
If you are going backpacking for the first time you’re going to need some gear.
Before I went travelling, I didn’t have a clue what to take and spent a long time wandering through outdoor and camping shops buying stuff I eventually didn’t end up using.
The temptation is strong to kit yourself out like Bear Grylls and embark on your solo backpacking trip with enough gadgetry to survive a nuclear apocalypse. Having been that person with the useless faff, I do not believe in purchasing unnecessary stuff.
What I have realised after several years living out of a bag is that, actually, travel turns you into a bit of a minimalist. You’ll quickly realise you don’t need as much to be perfectly happy and get by adequately in most situations – hurray!
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
What to pack for your first backpacking trip
The ‘what should I pack’ question is at the very tip of every first time backpacker’s tongue. Knowing what must-have backpacking gear you need to take on your trip takes a little bit of figuring out.
Everyone knows that backpacking light – i.e. not carrying a ton of unnecessary stuff with you – is the name of the game. What’s more important is to figure out what are the travelling essentials for backpackers so that you can ditch the items that will not serve a purpose and only bring what you will need with you.
The things you need for backpacking will depend on where you intend to visit and the things you want to do:
- Research the climate and check out temperature and rainfall levels.
- What are the religious or cultural norms in that country?
- Are you going for a city-based break or beaches and island hopping?
- How long are you going for?
- What activities do you plan to do and do these need specific clothing or gear?
Asking yourself these ‘what should I pack’ type questions in the planning stages of your trip will help you get organised.
Understanding your destination as best you can will help you to figure out what you need to bring. Ultimately, the essential backpacking gear is anything that will be useful and necessary to you. Everything that makes it into your bag should serve a purpose and be a must-have rather than simply a nice-to-have.
Backpacker travel essentials
Here are my favourite travel essentials to ensure that any solo travelling you do is convenient, fun and safe.
Please note, that these links are affiliate links meaning that if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase I will receive a small commission. This is at no extra cost to you. I will only recommend things that I have used and loved that I genuinely believe will benefit you on your travels.
With that disclosure out of the way, the following products are my essential backpacker items that I use on a regular basis whilst travelling in Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Borneo and parts of Europe.
Stuck on the planning stages of your trip?
- I’ve written a guide on the steps to take to book your first backpacking adventure
- What it’s like staying in a hostel for the first time
- Everything you need to know about aeroplane travel
- How to choose your first time travel destination.
Practical items every first-time backpacker should bring
Now you’re beginning to think like the savvy backpacker I know you can be, let’s take a look at some practical items you should consider packing for your first backpacking adventure.
These are items that I have personally packed and used or seen my fellow travellers use and been incredibly impressed.
Functionality is key because everything you bring should make your backpacking trip easier and not simply take up space and weight. Here are my basic packing list tips for backpackers:
1. Bring luggage that is easy to carry
Travelling under your own steam on planes, trains and automobiles is a far cry from a one week holiday in the sun. Suitcases may be ok in the boot of the car to the door of the hotel, but it’s likely that your first solo trip is not going to be quite so sedate.
- You may be negotiating public transport to and from the airport or around a foreign city to your accommodation.
- You may be island hopping in Indonesia by boat.
- You may be bumping around in the back of a tuk-tuk in South East Asia.
Whatever you end up doing, strapping your pack to your back and forgetting about it is a lifesaver. Having your hands free to deal with tickets, money, doors and all other obstacles is much more convenient than hauling a suitcase up and down kerbs.
Apart from the ease of use of a backpack, they are smaller in size than most average suitcases. Lightweight backpacking gear is going to be your new best friend. Using a smaller bag is going to be crucial in ensuring you do not over pack. Bring only what is essential on your travels to save weight. Believe me, no one wants to arrive at their new destination in a sea of sweat from lugging your 30kg suitcase up the steps in the London Underground, for example.
My recommendation for well-made, reliable backpacks are the Osprey brand. They are hard wearing, light and have an array of pockets to make your organisation top-notch.
The backpack that I used myself for six years (and counting) is the Kelty Redwing.
How to choose the best backpack for your travels
This is a huge decision and there’s a lot of choice out there… Ask yourself some questions about the bag’s style and functionality to help you choose a good one.
– Look for a front opening bag
This is an absolute lifesaver when it comes to staying organised, finding things and repacking. This means you can lie the bag down on its back and undo the zip on the front, essentially opening it like a book. This option will come in handy so that you don’t have to dive in from the top of the bag and rummage around inside for something that I guarantee has dropped down to the bottom! This front zip also hides a small pocket behind it, which is great for slipping a few things into for super easy access whilst you’re on the go.
– Does the bag have side pockets?
My backpack features a pocket on each side of the bag just above the waist belt. I used these pockets every time I backpacked and found them to be brilliant for storing anything that was a bit taller and longer that I didn’t fancy stashing in the main section of the bag. Ideal for holding bottles of toiletries that may be a bit bigger, umbrellas (yeah, I often carried a cheap one for monsoonal rain showers) shoes or just about anything you want (as long as it is not valuable). They’re brilliant for slipping items in that you need quickly when you’re on the move. Many backpacks don’t have external pockets at all, so it’s definitely something to consider.
– Is there an inbuilt rain cover?
One thing you can be sure of when you travel for an extended period is that you will encounter some rain. You don’t want to let a deluge stop you from what you want to be doing. Protect your bag and all of your belongings by checking to see whether your backpack either comes with a rain cover, or make sure you purchase one separately.
2. Universal Power Adaptor
I can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve been hit in the airport with the realisation that I don’t have a travel adaptor for my plug. Seriously, I have a drawer of the things at home, but I can guarantee that as soon as I land in any new country I will realise I don’t have one with me.
A universal plug adaptor is the answer to your problem and slipping this into your bag will solve you a lot of headaches in a foreign country as you scratch around to find one to purchase as your mobile runs out of battery. Before you go, remove any unwanted adaptors from your pack so that you are not carrying any unnecessary weight with you.
3. Portable Mobile Phone Charger
Speaking of mobile phone battery, it’s worth investigating a portable mobile phone charger so that you don’t have to rely on those crowded hostel plug sockets for charging up your phone.
A mobile charger stores power in its own battery for several days after being charged up, so you can plug in your phone and charge on the go without electricity. I recommend bringing one if you’re planning on doing a lot of hiking, camping or road tripping where you are potentially away from electricity for several days, otherwise it may not be essential.
Most hostels provide a locker these days but require you to bring your own padlock. It’s a huge peace of mind to lock away your valuables, or even your entire bag, when you’re out of the room during the day. Even if you’re not staying in a hostel, a padlock is one of those useful items you may find you need during flights or even to secure items or baggage in a hotel room.
There are two kinds of padlocks that you could choose.
One that has a little key with it and another with a code combination lock. It’s a hard call to choose between these types. I’m a little hesitant of using one with a code in case I somehow manage to change the combination and lock myself out. I also appreciate that carrying a little key with you may not suit everybody.
I prefer to use one with a keyand simply attach this to my own keys/the hostels key or key card they give me for the room, so that I know I always have it to hand.
5. Unlock your phone and buy local sim cards
Free WiFi is becoming more and more available these days. However, there’s a huge comfort knowing that you can easily be contactable, make local calls or jump online to check directions so I would recommend buying a cheap local sim card.
You can usually pick these up at the airport as soon as you disembark the plane. If you’re staying in a country more than a couple of weeks then having a local sim card will be pretty invaluable to you.
Many years ago, a day or so before I was jetting off, I realised that my phone was not unlocked. Cue me spending hours on the phone with my network provider and paying a charge to unlock the phone. When I arrived on the other side of the world a few days later, the phone turned out to still be locked to my home network provider. I’d lost the money I’d paid and would have the hassle of sorting out the mess from another time zone. Luckily for me, a friend loaned me an unlocked phone so I didn’t have to deal with it.
6. Silk Sleep Sheet
This little item takes up no room in your bag but is worth its (feather-light) weight in gold.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve entered a hostel room in South East Asia and been confronted with sheets and bedding that look less than fresh. It’s not that these sheets are dirty, but they are more than likely old and have been washed a thousand times over the course of their live.
I’m really cautious about things like bed bugs, and so if I ever doubt the cleanliness of the hostel and the potential presence of these nasty little critters then I pull out my silk sleep sheet and use that instead of the sheet provided by the hostel. It is claimed that bed bugs can’t bite through silk; I’m not sure whether this is a valid hypothesis but the silk sleep sheet provides me peace of mind and I’ve never been bitten.
The sheet is also brilliant as an extra layer when the air-con is cranking, which can happen more than you’d expect in warmer climates. A cotton sleep sheet could be something you also consider, however I would recommend silk over cotton for the reason above plus silk doesn’t seem to get as smelly and grubby as cotton.
7. Reusable Water Bottle
My water bottle is without fail my most-used item in my day bag. I drink a lot of water and I implore you to do the same when travelling, especially in hot countries. There’s nothing worse than an awful headache and crushing tiredness after a day of sightseeing because you’re dehydrated.
I bring a reusable water bottle with me every day and make sure I refill this as frequently as I can.
My absolute favourite has to be one that has a clip lid. This means I can clip the bottle onto the side of my bag when I’m out and about and can keep my hands free when I walk.
My water bottle survived hikes all over Australia’s red dirt outback. It’s been bashed up and down the walls of canyons, scraped passed bushes and dropped on the floor and it is as sturdy as the day I bought it. It is reassuringly leak proof, so I can pop it in my bag knowing that it will not drench my belongings.
If you go too cheap and too thin on your water bottle you’ll quickly regret it as it will not be able to stand your pace for very long.
8. Head Torch
Your nose may wrinkle slightly at this thought, like I’m suggesting you’re going full Indiana Jones on your trip. Even if you don’t plan to ‘get off the path’ in terms of your travelling, I can’t tell you the number of times a head torch has come in handy:
- in a dorm room when people are sleeping and you need to search your bag for something
- to light your way on a path at night, in the tent when camping
- in the van on a road trip…
The list can go on. In all of these examples, hands free is the key element.
It’s no fun clamping your phone between your teeth and feeling it getting coated in drool as you desperately forage in your bag in a dark hostel room.
Do your phone a favour and pack a head torch. They take up no space and weigh next to nothing and you’ll use it more than you realise.
9. Waterproof Wash Bag – with a hook
Hostel bathrooms are notorious for their wet surfaces. The times when I’ve tried to find a dry patch beside the sink to perch my wash bag as I’m brushing my teeth are notable by my failures. Even worse, is getting into the shower to find to my horror that there is no shelf on which to put my belongings to keep them dry.
With all of these wet surfaces, a waterproof wash bag is invaluable. You can place in at the side of the sink knowing that it will withstand splashes.
My other tip is to search around for a wash bag that has a hook for your backpacking toiletries. This little gem of advice saved me from many a shower related hissy fit when I could happily hang up my wash bag on the hook on the back of the door (or the door handle if there is no hook) in the absence of a shelf in the shower cubicle.
Sadly, hostel bathrooms can sometimes be woefully inadequate on the simple details of a shelf or hook. Being prepared with your waterproof wash bag with a hook will mean you can shower smugly as everyone else struggles to keep their personal items dry.
Take a look at washbags with a hook – you won’t regret bringing one with you!
11. Microfibre Travel Towel
To make your travel showering experience complete, don’t forget to bring a microfibre travel towel with you. Before you roll your eyes at the thought of this, I believe travel towels have improved a lot over the years. They are no longer a smelly little piece of fabric that only covers one inch of skin at a time and never dries you.
My tip with the travel towel is to go large. Honestly, you won’t regret this. Even an XL size towel will take up next to no space and weight in your bag and you will not regret your choice to treat yourself to a few extra inches.
Not only will a larger towel protect more of your modesty in a shared hostel bathroom situation, there is obviously going to be a greater surface area with which to dry yourself.
I absolutely recommend an XL size travel towel. It will dry you and then itself in an instant. Travel towels often come with their own handy little storage pouch. My top tip is to use this for an additional packing cube in your backpack.
Trust me on this one when I say that you will not want to be lugging around a full-size shower towel in your backpack. These are heavy when damp, take longer to dry (so many times I’ve seen backpackers walking with their towel attached to the outside of their backpack like some oversized bandanna in an effort to dry it), and quickly smell awful.
Not just for the ladies to use as a beach cover up, a sarong is probably the most practical item on this list. You can use this as a:
- picnic blanket,
- beach towel,
- scarf or shawl for long, cold travel days,
- pillow on bumpy bus journeys,
- make-shift bag to scoop up belongings,
- head scarf,
- extra layer at night
- curtain for your dorm room bunk bed…
I could probably go on but I think you get the idea. Packing a sarong takes up no space at all and you will be using it on a daily basis. Guaranteed.
13. Packing Cubes
My last packing essential has to be the humble packing cube.
I was late to jump on this bandwagon and had been backpacking for several years before my bag benefited from the glorious organisation that packing cubes bring. Before I used packing cubes, my belongings were (neatly) rolled and packed into my backpack. However, a day of travel later and some rummaging around in my bag for something or other and all semblance of order has been ruined.
Packing cubes are an absolute God send for ensuring that your clothes are beautifully organised.
- Tops in one?
- Trousers, shorts and skirts in another?
- Fab. Everything is logically packed together.
This saves you so much time when packing and repacking, as everything automatically has its place. Even better, when you need to put your hands on an item of clothing ASAP, you know exactly where to reach. You do not need to fumble around in the depths of your bag for minutes at a time, a place where everything you own suddenly seems to take on the exact shade of black.
Savvy packing #top tip – be strict on yourself!
Make sure you are as ruthless as you can be when it comes to packing. The temptation will be to pack lots of clothes – especially underwear! – so that you have a wide variety. This is great if you are only heading off for a week or two, but when you’re backpacking for anything longer remember that this is all adding to your weight limit. Restrict yourself to one week’s worth of underwear and you’ll be forced to wash your clothes regularly; a win-win situation as you keep your clothes fresher and you pack less. Underwear can be rinsed out in the sink every night and hung to dry, so you don’t need to bring enough for every day of your trip.
What to pack for a backpacking trip
I hope this article has helped you figure out what to take with you when you are embarking on your first trip. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line either by email or in the comments. I’d love to hear what your essential backpacking items are and how you figure out what to bring with you on your trip.
More reading to inspire you:
- What’s it like living out of a bag? An interview with a first-time backpacker…
- Could you live out of a bag? Find out here…
- Your guide to staying in a hostel for the first time
- Choosing where to go on your first solo trip
- How to book your first solo travels.
What backpacking essentials can you not live without? Share your experience of backpacking with me so that we can help other first timers plan and pack for their upcoming adventure!
* Please note: some links contained in this post are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase, at no extra cost to you. Love it? Pin it! (Note: Image below is half sized. For a full sized image, click the Pin It button on my floating social media share menu.)