Most new backpackers have no idea what to pack for long term travel. I get it, when your trip spans six months and as many climates it can be daunting to figure out what deserves its coveted space in the backpack. The good news is that, through trial and error, most backpackers are old pros at packing by the time they’ve ticked through a few passport pages. However, this method takes time and a lot of hauling around an excessively heavy pack full of items you never end up using (fashionable but impractical boat shoes I’m looking at you). Lucky for all you lovely readers I’m about to spill the secrets that I’ve painstakingly learned over the past 2 ½ years, 35 countries, and countless flights about what to pack for long term travel.
This is where most people drastically over pack. I recommend only have enough clothes to last you a week without doing laundry. It will be a hard mentality to break if you’re used to one to two-week trips where you bring an outfit for every day, but you will thank me in the end. You will know you packed well when at the end of the week most of your clothes are dirty, congrats you only packed the things you need! Now to get down to the specifics…
Shirts are highly dependent on where you are going. If most of your trip will be in hot climates, then pack mostly tank tops and T-shirts. If, on the other hand, you are traveling to Scandinavia in winter stock up on those long sleeves. Whatever you do, do not pack more than a week’s worth of shirts.
On my most recent 9-month trip that took me to Southeast Asia, Australia, Hawaii, Portland, and the crisp mountains of New Mexico I wore casual tank tops (4), casual T-shirts (3), dressier crop tops (2), and a casual long-sleeved shirt (1). Another important thing to consider is fabrics and washing requirements. Do not bring anything that is dry clean only, cold wash only, or requires an iron because when you are on the road you will be washing your clothes wherever you can and you won’t always get to be fussy. Also, do not bring anything that you would be distraught to ruin or lose, shit happens on the road and I can’t even begin to tell you how many shirts I have shrunk, shoes I have lost, and earrings I have broken on the road.
A good, simple, no-fuss shirt is this prAna V-neck.
Important Note: Always consider the cultural norms of the country you are visiting. While certain places, like Southeast Asia may be very hot, the people may be socially conservative so do not wear revealing clothing out of respect. Leave your skimpy shorts and shoulder baring shirts at home if you are visiting temples or in a less touristy area. This is also why I love my genie pants so much, they cover me up, but are breathable in hot weather, perfect for travel to countries with more modest dressing norms.
Pants and shorts
These are, again, dependent on climate. When I backpacked Europe, I had two pairs of jeans due to the chilly Scandinavian summer nights, but on this current, much warmer trip I only took one pair of jeans and haven’t worn them much. However, one pair of jeans is always a good idea to take in case of unexpected cold weather.
I always travel with a trusty pair of high waisted jean shorts, because I love them and they work in many different situations. I also love my light cotton shorts and long, lightweight genie pants that I bought in Thailand because they are perfect for hot, sticky weather.
My other must haves in the pants/shorts department are at least one pair of leggings or joggers. I have recently fallen in love with the slimmer cut relaxed cotton jogger, because they are so perfect for airline travel. Planes get cold and I always like to travel in something that I won’t boil in when I make it to my destination, but will keep me from freezing mid-flight. The pockets on this pair is a huge plus as well.
Skirts and Dresses
Full disclosure, I am not a fashionista or high maintenance traveler. I do not travel with many dressing up clothes as my budget backpacker life doesn’t take me to many places that need fancier attire than a sundress and a nice pair of sandals. That being said, I really don’t think you need more than a couple of dresses and skirts.
For my current trip, a trip that has taken me from the hectic markets of Cambodia to being a bridesmaid in not one, but two of my friend’s weddings, I traveled with a short sun dress (1), maxi dresses (2), and a just above knee length skirt (1). If I hadn’t been in any weddings I would have ditched one maxi dress and just traveled with my Billabong Women’s Wrap Dress, a great travel dress option as it is long, covers shoulders, and is flowing for those hot Australian days.
If your personal style is more skirt and dress heavy than mine is plan accordingly by swapping out some of the shorts/pants allotments with a few more dresses/skirts.
Ah, shoes the bane of every minimalist packer’s life. Shoes are heavy and take up a lot of space in a pack so do not, under any circumstances, take more than 4 pairs. I travel with hiking boots, running shoes, a great pair of leather sandals from Chacos that I can dress up or down, but still walk across cities in, and a cheap pair of flip flops that I picked up on the road in Australia.
About the flip flops, I traveled for 2 ½ months in Southeast Asia without these, but they probably would have come in handy then. Many places in Southeast Asia ask that you remove your shoes before entering, a Buddhist custom, and having a cheap pair of easy on, easy off shoes that you won’t care if they get stolen is a good idea. My nice sandals never got stolen, but I did drive my partner a little crazy by taking twice as long as him to go anywhere because I was constantly unbuckling and re-buckling my shoes. I ended up getting them as kick around shoes while camping, because I did not want to ruin my nice sandals. It was a good purchase. They are also really useful for showering in caravan parks or hostels.
Underwear, Bras, and Socks
Pack only a handful of normal bras, I travel with two underwire bras and one bralette, but go crazy on the underwear. Women’s underwear doesn’t take up much space in a pack and if there is one thing you don’t want to have to re-wear if you miss a laundry day it is underwear. I travel with a heaping 14 pairs of underwear.
One reason I travel with so many pairs of underwear is that I run everywhere I go. Most bloggers out there telling you what to pack for long term travel often neglect this aspect of packing. The fact of the matter is that if you are going to keep up a workout schedule on the road (like I show you how to do here), you are going to need to pack for it. Pack more underwear and socks than you normally would, because they get dirty fast if you are going through two pairs of each a day. I currently have 10 pairs of socks and 5 sports bras, but I am training for a marathon so if you aren’t quite as active (I work out at least every other day) you can cut this down a little.
Okay so we already addressed the need for extra socks, underwear, and sports bras, but what about active wear? As a marathon runner, I do not run in cotton (too much chafing) so I bring specific workout clothes made of tech fabric. My must have items for this section of packing are as follows: short sleeve shirts (3), tank tops (1), running shorts (4), running capris (2), my trusty running hat, my old Garmin GPS watch, and a Flip Belt.
The FlipBelt is the best running belt I have come across and I love it. It carries my massive Samsung Galaxy S6, keys, and a bit of cash in case of emergency with ease. There are so many pockets that I can carry my partner’s phone as well when we run together. The best feature for travel is that this belt fits beneath your clothes, successfully obscuring the fact that you are running around a developing country with an expensive smart phone.
I have tried other belts and armbands, but they all felt like they were screaming “Rob me, look at all the money I have!” because they displayed my phone too visibly. This is also why I refuse to update my ancient Garmin Forerunner 15 GPS watch; the new ones are just too flashy for me to be comfortable running around in developing countries alone.
It’s slumber party time! Just kidding, but if you will be staying in hostel dorm rooms about 8 perfect strangers will get to see what you sleep in so either a) decide that you don’t care who sees your side boob or b) bring one or two pairs of respectable sleeping clothes. I like to have one pair of sleep shorts, one pair of comfy to sleep in pants (my joggers currently play this role), a comfy sleep T-shirt, and a hot weather sleep tank top.
Never ever leave your rain gear at home. I don’t care if you are traveling to Australia in the dry season, if you don’t have rain gear it will rain. It’s Murphy’s law. I love traveling with this NorthFace raincoat, as it is folds down very small, but I did feel that an umbrella might have been a better call in Southeast Asia, it was just so humid that wearing any coat was uncomfortable even if it was just a rain shell. One positive of the rain shell option is that you can wear it over your fleece jacket as a wind break in very cold weather (this saved my butt in the freezing wind atop Volcan Tajumulco).
Speaking of fleeces, do yourself a favor and bring one. Yet again, I don’t care if your trip is to the Sahara Desert, there will be times when you want it, like on the aforementioned overly air conditioned plane. A nice fleece also bunches up to make a good DIY pillow in a pinch. I have taken my black Denali fleece on EVERY SINGLE trip I have ever been on. I have owned this jacket for 7 years and it is still amazing, I couldn’t recommend it more.
Swimsuits, Hats, and Sarongs
I’d wager that at least one swim suit should be on every what to pack for long term travel list out there. Maybe you aren’t planning to go to the beach or the pool, but if your trip is longer than a couple of weeks the likelihood of you knowing every single place you are going to at the start is low thus the need for a just in case swim suit. Now, if your trip is going to involve a lot of swimming, like my road trip up the northwest coast of Australia, pack at least two suits so you can wear one while the other one is drying.
A good hat is a life saver when you are spending hours of everyday walking in direct sunlight. I like this big floppy, squash-able sun hat from REI because I don’t have to worry about it getting ruined when I cram it into my bag. Maybe it’s not fashionable enough for you, but I like it and I don’t have to carry it on planes, so yay!
And finally, you should always pack a sarong, the Southeast Asian staple, or a large scarf. Both these items work great as impromptu shoulder coverings to make yourself presentable for temples or churches and have the bonus of being a pretty good beach cover up. Pro tip: If Southeast Asia is on your itinerary, don’t waste your money on one back home, buy one once you get there, there are plentiful options to choose from and they are dirt cheap. Actually, you could probably arrive in Southeast Asia with no clothes and outfit yourself pretty cheaply. Moral of the story, leave space in your bag for in country purchases.
Now for the stuff you put all the above stuff in….
There are two main options for backpack styles: the hiking backpack and the traveler specific backpack. I travel with a hiking backpack as I go on multi-day hikes back home and I like that I can use it for both activities, multi-day hiking and traveling. That being said, it does have its downsides for travel.
An introductory hiking backpack like this one, is top loading and made of very lightweight material. This lightweight material is great when you are hiking up a mountain as it cuts weight, but it doesn’t fare so well through the abuse it will see by baggage handlers if you travel a lot. The good news is that this amazing product will patch any holes those bastards rip in your pack. (Seriously, my pack would have died long ago if not for Gear Aid’s Tenacious Tape.)
My partner travels with a front zip backpack by Denali and he loves it. It won’t take him up any mountains, but the tough fabric withstands airline abuse and the large front zip keeps him relatively organized. Another great (and cheaper!) option for this style of pack is REI’s Ruckpack 40, it has a full front zip integrated with an internal frame to keep you going all the way across Rome.
Now you may be wondering why I went straight to backpacks and didn’t give a suitcase option. This is because I have traveled with both and backpacks win every time. Many countries do not have elevators or even paved streets so instead of dragging your heavy suitcase up 10 flights of stairs in Amsterdam or across the broken, irregular cobblestone streets of Guatemala save yourself the pain and take a backpack. And now you know why I’m so against overpacking, everything I pack ends up on my back.
A day pack can be a smaller backpack or a purse, depending on your trip. When I traveled around Europe and was spending more time walking around famous plazas than hiking, my day pack was a leather purse I bought in Rome. Key features for any travel purse are as follows: a long cross body strap for extra security in crowded place and a full zip top (mine has a zip top with a flap that flips over it). Some people purchase specific anti-theft purses with enforced straps to avoid cut purses and RIFD blocking to avoid credit card theft, but I tried one and wasn’t a fan. Honest reason, it looked like my grandmother’s bag. I have had no problems with theft with my little leather bag and looking at it makes me happy so it’s a win-win.
On this trip, I have a small backpack and a purse. I chose to go this route because I would be hiking a lot on a 3-month road trip up the Australian Northwest, but I also wanted a cute purse to take out at night. Yes, I may look like a turtle when carrying it all, but it’s actually not too heavy and now I have stomach protection when I inevitably trip on a curb!
Remember how I said that, while I love my backpack, the top loading aspect of it is a bit annoying? Well this is the solution: packing cubes. I love to be organized and these packing cubes let me organize with ease. I know what clothes are in what bags and I can take them all out of my pack in about 5 seconds. They simply make life easier. The Eagle Creek packing cubes I have are super lightweight and take up no extra space in my bag.
Now this one isn’t just about organization, though it is a bonus, this one is about air pressure. When you go on a plane they pressurize the cabin area so your ears don’t explode, but they don’t do that for the baggage hold. The result of this is that without fail, every time I fly something explodes in my bag. Shampoo bottles just weren’t meant to fly apparently. Save yourself the hassle of cleaning conditioner off all your clothes and put anything that would make a mess if it exploded in its own bag. It’s also nice to have all your toiletries in a convenient bag when you have to carry them back and forth to the hostel shower every day.
If you are used to staying at nice hotels it might come as a shock that most hostel do not provide towels, you have to bring your own. Unfortunately, the big fluffy towels your mother always stocked the bathroom with are huge and entirely impractical to pack. Luckily for us, microfiber towels exist. They aren’t as luxurious as normal towels, but if you’re a budget backpacker you quickly learn that you can’t afford to pack luxury and they do a surprisingly good job at drying.
My sister gave me this PackTowl for Christmas the year before I left on my first big trip and I think it was the best Christmas present I have ever gotten. (Ya, I know I’m weird, my favorite Christmas present is a towel, but it is pretty awesome so there’s that.) The body sized one is big enough to wrap around me when I’m walking to and from the showers, the microfiber fabric dries super-fast, and it packs down to about the size of a sandwich. Sand also brushes of it easily if you take it to the beach.
Laptop or Tablet
Funny, that a travel blogger takes 3,000 words to get around to mentioning a laptop, but here it is! If you plan to keep track of your travels online or are running a blog a good tablet or laptop is necessary. I started out blogging on my little iPad Mini with an attachable keyboard and while it was great for portability (it fits in my tiny purse!) it’s not so great for writing for hours on end. I currently do most of my writing on my partner’s Lenovo Ideapad 100S that I have co-opted.
The Ideapad is great for travel due to its small size and extremely affordable price (seriously a laptop for under $200!?), but I am eventually in the market for a laptop upgrade, as this one has miserable Wi-Fi connection. Seriously, it can only pick up a Wi-Fi signal if it is right next to the router. If anyone out there has a small, portable, highly functional laptop that they love and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg give me a shout out in the comments section, I’d love to hear it!
Your phone will be your lifeline to the world if you choose to not travel with a laptop or tablet. I have a Samsung Galaxy S6 that I bought for the camera (this is important for a travel blogger), but has since gone downhill after dropping it in a Belizean river last year. It is still limping along even after its swim, but the battery is slowly dying and a new one will be in order soon.
Whatever phone you choose to bring be careful with it and remember that smart phones are expensive and will paint you as a target for theft in the developing world. When I was living in Guatemala, I bought a cheap $20 USD Guatemalan phone and SIM to use for in country communication. I never took my smartphone out after dark and would put it away immediately after taking a picture during the day. Just be aware and be smart.
The same warning as above goes for cameras. Walking around with a big DSLR hanging around your neck in a crowded market in Honduras is a great way to get rid of your camera. Still, cameras are very important to a travel blogger’s retinue and I loved being able to use my partner’s DSLR throughout Southeast Asia and Australia. We had no problems with it in Australia (who was going to steal it in the outback, a kangaroo?), but we were cautious in Southeast Asia. We only took it out during the day and made sure that we had a backpack to carry it in so it wasn’t always visible.
When I was traveling alone, my main camera was my GoPro Hero4. I love this camera as it is tiny (great for packing), sturdy, and waterproof (with the right housing). If you can afford it, a GoPro is a great travel camera.
Even if you don’t read much at home, you will read on the road. The simple fact is that reading is great entertainment while stuck on long distance bus rides that only show movies in the native language. Also, I love to read and will read at any chance I get, even at home, so it makes sense for me to bring a Kindle along on any big trip. As a book nerd I was a hard sell to the Kindle world, but I’ve gone e-reader and I’m not going back. While I will always love the feel of a traditional book in my hands, I didn’t fall in the love with the feel of my library on my back. It is just so convenient to have your entire library contained in 170 grams (6 ounces). I use the Kindle Paperwhite E-reader.
Charging cords and plugs
This one sounds like a no brainer, but newbie backpacker me didn’t think so as I was scouring the Italian countryside for a micro USB charger for the keyboard for my iPad. I hadn’t given any thought to how I would charge the keyboard once its impressive battery ran out and was thwarted in my blogging attempts until Florence, where a well-stocked train station saved my blog. Make sure you have all the charging cords and plugs your devices need before you leave home.
Not all countries have the same outlets or even voltages. Thus, any international traveler needs a good set of outlet adapters. If your trip is long term enough that you don’t know what countries you will visit bring a worldwide set, like this worldwide adapter set that REI sells. The one thing that you don’t need that some people will say you do need is a bulky voltage converter. I brought one on my very first trip abroad to Spain in 2009 and it broke on day two. I’ve never bought a new one and my devices have been fine. However, I do not bring hair dryers or straighteners and I have heard horror stories of these catching on fire or taking out the entire hostel’s electricity if used without a converter so plan accordingly.
A good power bank will save your butt on long plane or bus rides where you want to use your phone for entertainment, but also have it functional to find your hostel once you reach your destination. It’s also necessary if, like me, your phone is slowly dying and can’t keep a charge for more than 4 hours.
I always bring a headlamp with me when I travel and I even gotten good use out of it on non-hiking or camping trips. On this last trip where we camped for 72 straight nights I used it every day. If there is even a remote possibility that you’ll be camping or hiking, bring a headlamp.
If you looked at what I packed on my first backpacking trip you would assume I didn’t believe there would be shampoo in Europe. I brought enough shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotion, toothpaste, and mouthwash to last my entire 3-month trip. In hindsight, this was entirely unnecessary. Europe does have shampoo and in fact most countries do sell shampoo. The only things that I would recommend you take a full trip’s worth of are speciality items if you are traveling to a developing country. For example, I try to only use SLS-free shampoo, but this doesn’t really exist in Guatemala so I did take multiple bottles. For everything else, bring one bottle and replace on the road as you go.
Also, it pays to think ahead when packing expensive items, like razors, as the brand you prefer may be much more expensive abroad. A couple of other items I forgot the first time around and vowed to never again forget are nail clippers, a nail file, and a luffa.
Make up is a big space waster in my bag, but that is because I don’t wear make up daily. In fact, I think I have used the make up that I have been hauling around for the past 9 months a grand total of three times, two of which were for weddings. In summary, bring make up if you wear it at home, don’t bother if you don’t. For my next trip I’m going to pare my make up kit down to a tiny eye-shadow palette, mascara, and a little tube of lipstick.
Passport and Extra Passport Photos for Visas
If you are traveling internationally you need a valid passport. Make sure to have enough pages left in your passport to fit all the stamps you will be getting with room to spare, as some borders will not stamp on the last page of a passport. Make sure your passport will not expire during your time abroad, as this would be a disaster and could potentially strand you a long way from home. Also, make color photo copies of your passport in case your passport gets stolen. I also like to travel with a passport cover, because it hides my nationality to a degree and there are places in this world where I’d rather not have everyone know I’m American.
Bring extra passport photos for visa applications in country. I did not know this before this last trip and ended up having to pay extra for my Vietnamese visa to make up for the lack of passport photos. I was lucky, in countries that don’t so readily accept bribes my visa would have been denied.
Multiple Credit Cards
Bring multiple credit and debit cards, because you want to be able to have one or two in your wallet and at least one other emergency card hidden in your bag. I also recommend hiding a bit of emergency cash just in case all your credit cards manage to get stolen. Make color photo copies of all your cards for the worst-case scenario and don’t forget to call your banks to let them know where you will be traveling so they don’t shut off your card when you leave the country.
Medications and Prescriptions
Make sure you have the written prescriptions for all your medications and glasses/contacts just in case you run out or lose/break something. I like to travel with at least one back up pair of glasses in case they break when I can’t get them replaced. Medications can be difficult/expensive to come by outside of your home country so I recommend bringing a full trip supply if you can.
A couple of small TSA style locks are always a good idea as you will often need to use them in hostel lockers and they offer the peace of mind that no one will mess with your bag while traveling.
In countries with drinkable tap water having a good water bottle will save you tons of money and the world tons of wasted plastic. In countries with less than sanitary tap water they allow you to save a little plastic and money by buying one 10 L water container instead of 50 small plastic bottles.
I love a good Nalgene hard plastic water bottle as they are light weight and sturdy enough to survive the abuse that traveling will bring.
First Aid Kit
If you are traveling for long enough you will most likely get sick, so packing a good first aid kit is important. For a more detailed look at what should be in your first aid kit, read this post I wrote about how to survive getting sick abroad.
Some other important things to pack are bug spray, anti-itch cream (I like the Benadryl based ones), and AirBorne or Emergen-C (something to boost your immune system for long travel days).
If you are traveling to developing countries with less than perfect sanitation practices I would recommend bringing a fruit and vegetable disinfectant wash, oral rehydration salts for when you inevitably get the runs, and possibly anti-malarial pills, depending on the country you are visiting.
Travel forces us to sleep in all sorts of different and potentially unpleasant situations, but just a few items can make your flight with a crying baby or hostel room full of snoring Brazilians that much better. An inflatable travel pillow is a must for any red-eye flight and a good set of ear plugs/ eye mask will let you sleep in even the most uncomfortable of places.
Washing and Fix-it Items
When you’re on the road things get dirty and they break, that’s why you bring a sewing kit, backpack patch kit (here’s the one I mentioned earlier), a clothesline, a sink stopper, and some emergency washing papers. Most of the time you will be washing your clothes at places that have washing liquid (in countries like Guatemala and Thailand you drop off your clothes in the morning and pick them up in the evening all washed and folded), but sometimes there just won’t be anywhere to wash them and you will have run out of clothes. That’s where these handy little washing papers and clothesline come in, you can do a quick emergency wash in the hostel sink and not have to wear dirty underwear.
And there you have it folks, the definitive guide of what to pack for long term travel, a guide that encompasses everything I have learned about packing over 2 1/2 years on the road, 35 countries, and 6 continents. If there is one tip I should leave you with it is that less is more when it comes to packing, you will thank me when you’re hiking across Florence and hauling all your luggage because Italian bus maps are non-existent.
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