The title of this article is slightly misleading. In fact “the perfect backpack” is a definition that changes according to the kind of trip we’re going to do and to the person who’s actually carrying the back pack. Here there are several basic rules that I’ve learned by experience, and honed through years and many partially successful attempts. I found very useful writing down on a piece of paper a list of things I needed, as soon as they come to my mind. I organize such list in groups: clothes, documents, electronics… and start compiling it 1 or 2 weeks in advance so that the actual process of packing requires not more than 30 minutes and doesn’t require any concentration.
What to carry with you
Let’s start with the very basics, those that you can read on any decent travel website:
The Big Four (no, not the heavy metal bands)
- Passport (with a paper copy, just in case)
- Money – credit/debit cards
- Phone / tablet / camera charger
- Tickets and reservations
With these 4 you can go pretty much anywhere, but I’d recommend not to stop the list here…
I usually take with me a smaller rucksack, ideally a 20-30 litres that can be rolled and packed in a small size. This is because, once touched base at the hostel, you don’t to walk around town with your travel backpack, which can stay unpacked and safely locked in your room. The best would be combining it with a travel purse, one of those bags to hang on your neck, big enough to store passport and money and small enough to be concealed under your clothes.
The backpack cover is another essential object: keeps the backpack dry under the rain, safer when boarded on a plane and give you some extra room for stuff that won’t fit the backpack anymore.
The padlock is such an obvious item that I forgot to write it on the first version of this article and, consequently, I forgot it during my last on the road trip. It’s a very useful little object, as many hostel rooms provide lockers but not the padlock, which normally comes quite costly. It can also be used to secure the backpack cover when boarding your luggage.
Maybe you have a cupboard full of these things at home, but if there is one thing you will never find when needed is a plastic bag for your dirty laundry. Easily folded in a compact form can be used for carrying your garbage, and mainly not to mix your dirty socks with the few clean t-shirts left. Remember that you should fold also the dirty clothes, in order to save space.
Another fundamental item is a toilet paper roll. Useful not only for the toilet duties, it’s easy to carry, lasts longer and takes less space than napkins. There’s also lots of weather related equipment that need to be considered. A good sun screen is important, regardless the destination, and a swim suit is small enough to be packed in even if you are not going to the seaside… you never know what happens while travelling! It’s always a good habit to pack in a waterproof poncho, can be packed up in a compact size and will cover you and your backpack while walking in the rain. If the trip includes trekking on high mountains or other activities in potentially extreme weather conditions it’s important to carefully consider what can be needed. I always bring with me biscuits and teabags, occasionally instant coffee, but for a longer trip you might want to check out our food list.
You don’t need to be a journalist or a poet to bring with you notepad and pen. Good for notes, phone numbers, sketches.
Hygiene and Medicines
Together with toothbrush and contact lenses I always pack a bar of soap. Useful for washing yourself but also for laundry, lasts longer than a shower gel and there’s no risk of it leaking all over your clothes and guide books. Also an antibacterial hand gel is always with me, not for being fussy but I’d rather not touch my sandwich after having wiped the grease off a London tube pole with my hands! Plus it works without water, which is always handy. My medical purse always contains the following medicines:
- Paracetamol; good for everything, from flu symptoms to hangover.
- Gaviscon or similar; for not regretting trying that traditional spicy goulash.
- Antihistaminic; because damn you mother nature!
- Anti-diarrheals; because your guts might not be as brave as you.
- Plasters; for cuts, scratches or just to look cool.
The next item is something I regularly forget, hence my huge collection of flip-flops. They don’t take up much space in a backpack, and they are a great relief from the walking shoes. Plus they are fundamental when taking a shower, and their natural alternative -socks- are not quite as comfortable. Most of the times you won’t need towels as many hostels provide them for free or for a small fee; worst case scenario you can always use the bedsheets. Anyway I always take with me a small size one or a bigger microfiber towel wich is the perfect travel towel: very absorbent, very compact, and quick to dry. And, yes, utterly umpleasant to use! If sleeping with one person snoring next to you can prove a hard task, try that with 9 more snoring people. If you don’t fancy an all-night growling symphony, then ear plugs is your best ally. For a peaceful sleep in a dorm room eye mask is also highly recommended, to avoid getting woken up by people who regardlessly switch the lights on when coming back late or leaving early.
Nowadays is difficult to go through a day without using anything that requires electric charge. Make sure that you bring all the chargers you need, as they might difficult to find and expensive to buy, and bring some travel adaptor. These are expensive in touristic areas and hard to find in non touristic areas (and very expensive as well: it costed me €39 to plug my mac back at my parents’ in Italy!). A usb stick can always get handy to store files and pictures, and if you are a photographer you might have to remember one or more spare memory cards, both for extra storage and for having a duplicate of your photos.
Female travellers will also have to consider some more important things to carry with them:
- Sanitary Towels
- Comb / Brush
- Portable travel hairdryer
- Hair rubber band
How to pack
Once the list of things you need to carry with you is done, the next challenge is how to make it all fit in the backpack. You’ll have to carry it on your shoulder for several days, perhaps even for several hours a day, so it doesn’t have to be too heavy. However you don’t want to miss out stuff that you’ll have to buy at the destination. The word for this is balance, probably the most difficult and most important phase of packing. The variables to consider are:
- Heaviest stuff at the bottom and closer to the back, this will help keeping the backpack balanced and easier to carry.
- Easy access to things that you might need any time, other stuff that you will only need
- Keep it organised so you roughly know where you put what
- Put big bulky things first and fill the gaps with socks, underwear, and smaller object
- Roll your clothes
Rolling clothes is my favourite tips of all. Rolled clothes are more compact, get less wrinkled, and are much easier to pull out of the bag. I even do it at home: my t-shirts are rolled and sorted chromatically… nerdtastic!