When it comes to backpacking (and traveling in general), the lighter and more multi-purpose the better. We always want to bring that extra outfit, a full bottle of our favorite hair product or that pair of running shoes we know we won’t end up wearing – because we plan to work out but never do. Those extra bits in our bags always seem like a good idea at the time, until we’re responsible for lugging our packs or suitcases around through overnight trains, matchbox-sized busses and tuk tuks. Then we regret putting in all those little extras…
Somehow I can pack everything I need for six months abroad in an 85L backpack, but when taking a weekend road trip to Washington, D.C., the backseat of the car is piled high with outfit options for every season and an unnecessary amount of shoes.
Throughout my travels and years of globetrotting, there have been times where I’ve packed way too much, or I haven’t packed nearly enough; I’ve packed twice my weight allowance, and (many times) have packed after having a few ‘goodbye’ drinks with friends…meaning I’m not entirely sure what I packed. Sometimes I open my backpack on the first night of the trip and realize what important element I’ve forgotten, like a phone or camera charger. Other times it takes a few weeks and an influx of mosquitos for me to realize favorite first-aid remedy is still on the shelf at home.
When reading “what-to-pack” lists, the most common suggestions are pretty basic: plug/outlet converters, compression bags, a combination lock, hand sanitizer, headphones, and copies of your passport, among many other items that are helpful and fairly important, but certainly don’t help us out with our weight limit.
After a few dozen discoveries of missing necessities, I began to write down the things that have helped me most throughout my travels. So here’s my list (beyond sunscreen and copies of travel documents) of items I suggest packing. These things will make your travel life much easier and since many of them have different uses, they’ll lighten your load at the same time!
1. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap
You might think it’s an exaggeration naming this “magic soap,” but it actually is magic. Like, really. This soap is 100% organic and Fair Trade and as stated on the label, has 18 different uses. No matter what the situation, most likely Dr. Bronner’s can solve it. Ran out of shampoo? Left your toothpaste at the last hostel? Don’t have any more body wash? Need to do a sink-load of laundry? Feeling sick? Choose from eight different scents for body care, shaving needs, clothing care, household cleaning, or even to keep ants out of your kitchen! Seriously, Dr. B’s takes care of it all. It comes in bar soap and liquid soap in 2, 4, 8, 16, 32oz and 1 gallon sizes. And it lasts forever. I bought a 8oz bottle about a year and a half ago and I’m still working my way through it…
(Tea Tree, Rose, Peppermint, Lavender, Eucalyptus, Citrus, Unscented Baby-Mild, Almond)
2. Quick-dry towel
After you’ve washed your dirty self down with Dr. Bronner’s, dry off with a quick-dry/ultralight travel towel. Even if your favorite one from home is super soft, or has a picture of your cat, you can part with if for a little while and you’ll be happy you decided to bring one that’s a fraction of the space and weight. It’s going to get grubby along the road anyways, and you’d probably be pretty upset if the fuzzy face of Tiger got worn off. He’ll be waiting for you when you get home.
(This can be found at most outdoor/camping stores. $21.50 from REI )
3. Rain jacket
This seems fairly obvious, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve forgotten to pack one – and learned my lesson when I didn’t think I needed one. When packing to move to the outback of Australia, the last thing I thought about bringing was a raincoat because the town I was moving to has over 320 days of sunshine. Two weeks into living there and it rained, no, down-poured, steadily for three days straight. The rain was so hard I literally couldn’t leave the house without a rain jacket.
With waterproof zippers and an inside pocket, this rain jacket from The North Face has saved many cameras and cell phones from drowning. It’s also extremely lightweight and easy to scrunch up (or wrap stuff in) and stick in your day pack.
($90-$110 from various sports shops)
4. Rainbow Sandals
I have been praising Rainbow sandals for years now. They are, without a doubt, the best flip flop in the world. Most of their benefits can be read in this photo, but what’s not listed is that these bad boys have a lifetime guarantee for the sole of the shoe. Within about a week of wearing them, they mold to your feet, giving comfort (and personalization) to your new kicks – and will stay that way for years to come. The molding is actually so good that you’ll know when you put on a pair that aren’t yours. Rainbows are made for men, women, and children, and come in thick, thin, braided and (apparently now) crystalized straps with the option of a few different colors for every style. My rainbows have been through all sorts of weather and terrain over the past six years and they’re far from giving up.
5. Sea to Summit Dry Sacks
These waterproof bags come in a variety of sizes from 8-35 liters, and are another ‘save-the-day’ accessory to have. They fold up super flat (think of a small handful of pencils) and can easily be stored in side pockets, camelback pockets, shoes, etc. They are great to throw in a day pack or use on their own to protect electronics, clothes, and anything else you don’t want to get wet. Simply put whatever is to-be-protected in the bag, flatten out the air, line up the top rims, fold over a few times and clip together to keep out water/rain/mud/snow or even sand. We all know the irreversible damage and awful scratching sound of sand in the camera…
Sea to Summit also makes all kinds of protective accessories and travel-friendly towels, blankets, etc.
6. Compression Stuff Sack
These stuff sacks replace ziploc compression bags, and for good reason! After filling these with anywhere from 6-21 liters of clothes, cinch the drawstring closure and pull down tightly on the straps, evenly expelling air and compressing everything to about half the size it was before. These are crazy lightweight (the 21L sack only weights 3.5oz), won’t get holes, and are much less disturbing for your hungover hostel dorm mates than crinkly plastic breaking wind when you’re packing at 7am for an early flight.
(This is an REI brand, found here starting at $20.50)
Oh, how I love carabiners. I actually left the States with my favorite carabiner still on my water bottle at home and I have yet to find one in all of London! Don’t get me wrong, they exist here, but I don’t need one that actually functions to save lives, so I’m not going to pay £17 (or $28) for one that does. I use these mostly to hang my Nalgene water bottle, a pair of shoes, a snack bag (I like to eat), etc. from my backpack, saving me room on in the inside and allowing easy access from the outside. If not using a legit rock-climbing carabiner, make sure to find one that can hold a kilo or two. You can hang pretty much anything from them! I usually bring a few with me. Except this time. Ugh.
Neosporin is my answer to all medical problems. It’s like the Dr. Bronner’s of your first aid kit. Have a pimple? Got mosquito bites? Forgot your chap stick? Don’t want last night’s drunken fall to scar? Neosporin (often paired with a bandaid) can quickly solve all these issues. Example: The first time I went to Thailand I had a crazy weird reaction to the mosquitos. Every time I got a bite, it felt like that area was on fire – I couldn’t stop scratching them and I couldn’t even sleep because they itched so bad! Unfortunately for me, that was a time I had forgotten Neosporin, so due to how badly I scratched the bites, I now have scars around my ankles. I thought it was an allergic reaction, but even taking antibiotics and using anti-inflammatories didn’t help. Fast forward two years when I return to Thailand with Neosporin. I had the same reaction as I did years ago and they still itched just as badly, but after putting the initial hydrocortisone on them, I simply added Neosporin and a bandaid and didn’t get one scar. Sold.
Oh yeah, and it will last forever.
(Found at most pharmacies and supermarkets in the States.)
9. Multi-purpose tool
This might be the most handy item you’ll bring with you. Need a bottle opener? Cutting up fruit? Zipper stuck? A multi-purpose tool can take care of all your cutting, prying, opening, and slicing needs. This one is Gerber Bear Grylls and has a fine-edge knife, serrated knife, saw, Phillips screwdriver, small and medium flat screwdrivers, wire cutter, scissors, a bottle opener, and a can opener – and collapses to be about 2×4 inches. All problems solved right there. Just remember to put it in your checked bag or the FAA might make sure you miss your flight!
(This one is currently on sale here at REI for $34.95)
10. USB Charger, multi-port
This is a recent discovery for me, as I was given one for Christmas last year. I actually opened it and thought, “why have I never bothered using one of these before?” Almost all small electronics charge by USB port now, so instead of bringing chargers for everything (and plug converters for each one), just bring this guy. With four USB ports (some have up to eight), bring one converter, then leave your phone, a friend’s phone, an ipad/ipod, and GoPro to charge all at once. Instead of using every open plug in the hostel’s surge protector while people wait around for an open socket, it’s a much more friendly and less time consuming way to charge everything you want to bring on tomorrow’s adventure.
So there you have it. My ten favorite products for lighter and more convenient traveling! As you’ve read, most of these you can get from Amazon and REI. I love both of these retailers – I mean, who can go wrong with free two-day shipping? And even if you don’t have an REI near you to spend hours at, there’s probably a Dick’s, Kathmandu, Decathlon or Quechua close by.
Until next time, travelers!
Cheers from London,
The Wandering Photographer 🙂
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