There are a number of indispensable items that any travel guidebook worth its’ salt will recommend that you bring. Backpack, Band-Aids, raincoat, camera. Check. Check. Whoops. Check.
Backpack: A backpack is the most ubiquitous item to a traveler. The actual activity is now probably more often called backpacking than it is traveling. Buy something lightweight, comfortable, adjustable, comfortable and practical. And comfortable. A waist-strap is a must-have, and multiple access points are great. Getting out those running shoes at the bottom of a 70 L pack with your only access at the top is annoying. That means that everything must come out and go back in again. Trim your pack’s straps to only the length that you need, and melt the nylon edges with a lighter so that they don’t fray. Excess straps can get caught in x-ray machines, taxi doors and airport trolley wheels. A rain cover is also a must-have, as it not only keeps things dry, but keeps the pack clean in dirty bus compartments. I’d recommend a neutral colour, as people (read thieves) are drawn to flashy colours. If a thief has the choice between black and neon yellow, their eye will be drawn to the neon. I met travelers (backpackers!) in South America who went a step further and used a burlap sack as a combined cover and theft deterrent. Also, keep some excess room in your pack for souvenirs (the standard advice I’ve heard is 25 %). Leaving for your trip fully loaded will make it annoying to cart back all those toques from Lima and coconut bowls from Chiang Mai. Some people subscribe to certain “rules” about weights, volumes, backpack sizes, etc. Some people say 10 kilos. I think that this is a personal choice, and depends on the length of your trip, the variety of climates you’re visiting and your propensity for shoes and fashion. Less, however, is certainly more. My pack varied between 15 and 20 kg. Most international flights have a 20 kg baggage allowance, so this should be your upper limit. It’s also quite heavy to lug around. However, please avoid the lure of a roll-y suitcase. While these may seem uber-practical in our flat, level, first-world pragmatism, they fail in the muddy, cracked sidewalk third-world reality. But what about in airports, you ask? I have yet to encounter an airport where a trolley was unavailable, though some places may require a (refundable) deposit. Plus, lugging around your backpack will make you stronger, and a lot less likely to pack frivolous items. Running for that train, bus, plane and jumping on those boats is a lot easier with a backpack than a suitcase with shitty wheels flopping all over the place. Jess and I have caught a train running with our packs while a couple with a head-start missed the train with their roll-y bags. True story. Customs officials are also a lot less likely to want to rummage through a backpack than a suitcase. Food for thought.
Band-Aids: Don’t underestimate the number of Band-Aids you’ll need. I have a propensity for cutting myself on barnacles, falling on coral and stepping on sea urchins, so I may need more Band-Aids than the average traveler. They aren’t hard to find, but 50 Band-Aids weigh almost nothing and take up almost no space. And, much like a seat belt or a helmet, you don’t need them until you need them, so it’s better to be proactive. Put them in a greater first-aid kit with things like Polysporin, Afterbite and moist towelettes. A needle and thread, waterproof matches and tape come in handy as well (who knows when you’ll need to stitch yourself back together?).
Raincoat: I’m not a complete fool, I didn’t head to the wettest place on earth without a raincoat, but I did buy a new one before we left and I didn’t test it out. I thought I’d be able to trust a brand-new supposedly waterproof North Face jacket. The one I bought turned out to be quite permeable, and customer support was less than helpful while we were away. Having spent quite a bit of money on it, the jacket spent the better part of six months rolled up in the bottom of my backpack, waiting to be returned. When I took it back to the store, they mentioned that it looked brand new. Sure does. It didn’t get worn because it didn’t work. This is not an indictment of all North Face gear. Jess’s jacket (the ladies version of mine) worked great. It kept her dry. Annoyingly so. The take home message here is to test out your gear. Check your batteries, make sure your Band-Aids stick, walk around in your (fully-loaded) backpack and tighten the screws in your sunglasses.
Camera: A camera is probably the second-most important thing to bring, after your passport. Some people have a point-and-shoot, some people simply use their cell phone and some people have a high-test DSLR with five different lenses. Whatever your jam, make sure that you know how to use it, that you’re happy with the picture quality, that battery life is adequate and memory is plentiful. We took a Canon Rebel T3 DSLR with an 18-55 mm lens. We packed some neutral density filters and a remote (aka shutter release cable). We also took a lightweight, compact tabletop tripod (the Ultrapod II). The ND filters aren’t too helpful for your everyday photog, but I like to try and capture silky waterfalls. The shutter release is mostly useful for advanced skills like star trails, light trails and timelapses. The tripod is indispensable, especially if you’re not very steady or shooting in low-light conditions. The selfie stick is a divisive item, and one that I am vehemently opposed to. The amount of egotism in today’s society would make Narcissus blush, and the world doesn’t need another photo of you pursing your lips in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal or the Harbour Bridge. Take a photo, enjoy the moment, and if you don’t have someone to take your photo, make friends with other travelers and trade favours.
The above four items are obvious, but having just returned from six months abroad, we’ve developed our own little list of things we’re glad we brought, things we wished we hadn’t and things we either bought or wished we’d brought.
Things we’re glad we brought:
- Headlamps. We take streetlights and 24 h electricity for granted in the western world. Maybe it’s because I’ve always lived in the city, but there’s always been enough ambient light to guide my way. This is most certainly not the case in Bolivia’s altiplano, Costa Rica`s beach roads, Bali`s rural rice fields or the remote caves in Laos. We were so happy to have brought these lights with us.
Swiss Army Knife. I have a beautiful wooden Wenger knife that was a birthday gift from my traveling partner-in-crime , and it has opened wine, cut off hangnails and been generally indispensable. It even shocked a Swiss traveler when he saw that I, a mere Canadian, possessed a knife from his homeland that was capable of opening a bottle of chocolate milk for him.
- Power Bars, Cliff Bars and Shot Blocks. Triathlon training introduced us to the world of protein, calorie and electrolyte supplements. Those hot bus trips are seemingly always over lunch, and quite often your only choice is a Coke and some Pringles. These are two brands that have penetrated the world market, but they don`t always fill the need, and we were glad to have alternative snacks with us. Cliff bars aren`t easy to find abroad, so stock up when you can find them.
- iPad with an SD card reader dongle. Maybe it`s because I like the word dongle, but it doesn`t have to be an Apple product. Some sort of tablet with ample memory and a way to transfer pictures, write emails, blog, post your epic photos to Instragram and facetime with your family is a must-have. Wifi is everywhere now, and the internet cafes of yesteryear have gone the way of the dodo. Writing on your phone is a pain, and laptops are too bulky, so we found an iPad mini was just right (Goldilocks would be proud). We also found a bluetooth keyboard that doubled as an iPad case, which was amazing, especially since typing on a touchscreen isn’t so amazing.
- Giant ziplock bags. On the order of 10 L, these bags were great for compressing clothes as well as segregating dirty, smelly socks, t-shirts and runners. If you’ve just left the beach and are getting on a bus, this is a great place to cram your damp towel and keep other clothes fresh and dry.
- Reusable water bottles. Again, this was a great idea in theory. In practice, however, it was a waste of time, money and space. We sent Jess’s water bottle home from Australia, and mine home from Vietnam. They also leaked, and if we hadn’t wanted to get some money back from MEC, we definitely would have just thrown them out. Most places we visited didn’t have potable water anyway, so you’re buying plastic bottles. Unless you’re staying somewhere more than three days, buying a 4 L bottle is pretty impractical, rendering a refillable bottle useless. Also, in 40 degree heat, ducking in to an artic chilled 7-11 to buy a bottle of ice-cold water is pretty much necessary.
- A spare pair of flip flops. I notoriously tear (literally tear) through flip flops at least once a year. I figured that starting with a used pair and spending six months chasing summer that I was bound to wreck at least one pair, so I packed a spare pair. I lugged them everywhere, until I finally sent them home from Vietnam. There are 250 million people in Indonesia, and 60 some-odd million in Vietnam, and none of them, NONE, even the construction workers, wear shoes. They all wear flip flops, so it isn’t that terribly difficult to find some more if you wreck yours. Don’t bother bringing spares.
- A big bottle of Pepto Bismol. There are some things that we were worried about being able to find overseas, such as allergy medicine that I’m not allergic to (oh, the irony), and liquid gel ibuprofen. We needn’t have worried about Pepto Bismol, and we lugged 250 mL of the pink slime around for 6 months and never used it. We saw it available in plenty of pharmacies though. This may seem trivial, but 250 grams here and there adds up quickly.
- So many clothes. All of my clothes got worn at least once, but some of them only got worn once. I’m not a huge fan of elephant pants, Bintang singlets or t-shirts with nonsense written on them, so I didn’t buy too many clothes while traveling. But make sure that the clothes you do bring are versatile. Running shorts that can double as swim trunks and triple as walking shorts are great. Three pairs of shorts is less great. Pants will not get worn in Asia other than to visit temples, so choose wisely.
- Cough drops. With 40 degree temperatures and 100 % humidity, your Vicks and Halls start to dissolve. Then the ants find the sugar. Then your air conditioned room solidifies your Vicks and Halls again, and trap the ants like mosquitoes in Jurassic Park. Just buy some when you need some.
- Paper guide books. I was less than impressed with the Lonely Planet by the end of our trip, and was even more annoyed by lugging around all of those books. It’s a shame I’m such a Luddite, but I’m working on it. Kindle versions would have been better.
- Untested running socks. I have a favourite brand of synthetic running socks that effectively eliminated blisters from my life (Wigwam Ironmans), and I got a couple pairs of different running socks as a Christmas gift. I brought these along untested, and got some lovely mega-blisters after my first run. They were promptly binned, but I then had two fewer pairs of useful socks, and finding Wigwams in Peru isn’t easy. See my above comments about testing your gear.
Things we bought:
- A waterproof bag. I don’t mean ziplock bags, folks, although those have their place, and we definitely brought some of these, both big and small (see above). I mean one of those serious roll-up, throw in the water with your camera, for-kayakers, waterproof bags. The one we bought came tubing in Vang Vieng and water-sliding in Nha Trang and kept our camera dry.
- A rain cover for Jess’s big backpack. My pack had one built in, but we hadn’t really thought about Jess until the first torrential downpour. We rigged up some garbage bags until we could find an outdoor store that sold a proper one.
- A screwdriver for my glasses. Six months of abuse for prescription glasses or sunglasses, and a screw is bound to come loose (in your glasses). Six months of travel will loosen some other screws too, but that’s a whole other post. I had a bunch of these tiny screwdrivers at home, but neglected to bring one. Thankfully, I found an optometrist who sold them, but if you’re like me, you’re nowhere without your glasses so save yourself the hassle and bring a screwdriver.
- A second small backpack (day pack). At the outset of our trip, we thought we’d minimize, and share one small backpack. In theory this is great, traveling light and all that. In practice though, it leads to disagreements about how much to bring with you each day, how much water to carry, and who’s turn it is to have a sweaty back. We ended up buying a second one in Thailand, but it had pretty much fallen apart by the end of the trip.
- A small umbrella. We got caught in more than one downpour, and with a non-waterproof waterproof jacket, we ended up buying an umbrella at a wildlife refuge gift shop just outside Sydney. The plus side is that is totally practical, adorned with Tasmanian devils, kangaroos and koalas.
Things we wish we’d brought
- A GoPro. We swam, sailed, and surfed. We boogie-boarded, canoed, tubed, cliff-jumped, rock-climbed and scuba dived (scuba dove?). We definitely lived the “Be a Hero” mantra, but didn’t have the waterproof camera gear to capture every moment.
- More Passport photos. We brought 2 photos each, for our Cambodian visa, but other countries have ever-changing visa requirements, and the Lonely Planet is hugely unreliable for this type of information. If you get your PADI open-water certification, you’ll need 2 passport photos as well. Better to come prepared than get gouged at the border or dive shop for a simple photo.
- A kindle. Combined, we read between 15 and 20 books. Paper books. Heavy, expensive, paper books. Combined with the guidebooks, this was a lot of weight. And since we weren’t always staying in hostels, we had a hard time finding book exchanges that had anything worth reading. You can download books to the iPad, and we did this a bit, but it seemed as though whenever one person wanted to read on the tablet, the other wanted to make people jealous with photos on Instagram. You can’t beat paper books on a bus or at the beach, but a kindle-type thing would eliminate the weight, make the books a bit cheaper, and I’d be a lot more likely to read it at the beach than the iPad.
Hopefully this advice is useful. If you’re reading this and have some of your own input, leave a comment. It will help us the next time!