Guys, you’re going to hear it a million times – when packing for a backpacking trip you should pack what you think is the absolute minimum then throw away half of it.
This advice is bullshit.
If you pack what you think you need, you’re going to end up dragging a bunch of stuff you don’t need around the world. Even if you halve it.
After a week or so, your standards of cleanliness will drop. If you only wear a shirt for a day at home, you’ll soon find that you’re stretching them two or three days – cycling through clothing throughout the day so that no one garment gets too dirty.
The different segments of your wardrobe will merge into a single, mutated look – those comfortable jeans you own? Those will become your every-second-of-the-day jeans. That smart shirt? Roll up the sleeves and wear it every other night. Those shoes that look nice but are a little uncomfortable? They’re destined to be banished to the bottom of your bag, then thrown away in a hungover packing panic.
It doesn’t matter how many times you hear it, you’ll pack too much; you’ll realise it quickly and begin desperately trying to give things away, finally leaving them in a dorm.
Because I’m a mind-reader, I’ve already had the below conversation with you about what to pack and have published it here for the world to see (and judge)
Do I need hiking boots for backpacking?
God no. I have never understood why people buy hiking boots when they’ll primarily be walking around cities and hanging out in bars.
but I’ll be different – I’m thinking about hiking when I’m in X!
No you’re not.
Even if you are, you’re plans will change a hundred times before you even reach X. It’s true, you will be doing a lot of walking around cities to sightsee, but this will quickly tail off into small manageable walks – you’ll decide that actually you don’t need to see your 15th gothic-style cathedral, and that tower is probably just as good from the bottom of the stairs. If you actually do go to a region where there’s lots of hiking, you’ll be able to (a) pick up some good hiking boots for cheap; or (b) get them free from the hostel as hundreds of backpackers abandon them after their hike.
Shoes you should be taking – anything you wear at home. If you’re comfortable in leather shoes, rock them. If you’re a fan of sandals, jandals, flip-flops or thongs, then it was meant to be. If you have a pair of sneakers which you’ve loved for the past five years, then they’re loved enough to join you on your big trip. Unless you’re hiking through the amazon or climbing kilimanjaro, you’re not going to need to go out and buy anything special.
Good point. So what guidebook should I take travelling?
Have you even read anything I’ve ever written? The guidebook you should take is NO FUCKING GUIDEBOOK. At best, they’re endearing in their recommendations – allowing you to explore a city while you head somewhere which closed down years ago. At worst, they’ll send you to a hostel which has become so popular since they were featured in the guide that they’re now overrun with backpackers, their standards have dropped, and their beds are infested with bugs.
But how will I find out about the place I’m in?
You could learn about it while you’re there, or from the internet, or from backpackers who have been there for a little while. Every hostel in the world has a guidebook graveyard – remnants of backpackers who learned too late about the truth of guidebooks (so worst case scenario, you could pick up one of those for free).
A small Lonely Planet graveyard at a backpackers hostel in India
Well what guide should I be taking on my backpacking trip?
The best alternative is an Android/iOS app called WikiSherpa, which downloads the WikiVoyage data to your phone – allowing you to quickly get all of the useful bits from a guidebook from your phone – it even allows you to download maps and navigate with your GPS while offline. If you have an internet connection handy, use WikiTravel
Okay, no boots. No guidebook. What else?
A student card. If you’re not a student, pick up a fake one at a street market – these will get you discounts in most parts of the world – at the very least, you’ll get in to museums and major sights cheaper (or free); at best, you’ll be able to blag your way in to a local student night.
What should I take to lock up my bag?
If you’re thinking about taking a padlock or bag lock to secure your valuables, you’re taking too many valuables. Other than your passport, cash and smartphone (all of which can be left in the hostel safe), why would you want to take anything that you’re not willing to lose?
What other essentials?
The two things I would absolutely never leave home without – a toothbrush and a small bottle of cologne – this may seem a luxury after I’ve been so harsh on all of the “essentials” you thought of, but this is an absolute necessity. Because sex.
Always because sex.
Cover image courtesy Keith Parker