An essential backpacking checklist

  • | by Dave Jenkins

Backpacking doesn’t have to mean an entire year gallivanting across the planet. Neither is it the sole preserve of lucky youngsters. But whether you’re 18 or 80, planning three weeks in South Africa or three months in South America, there are plenty of universal items to pack and points to consider before you set off... 

Know your destination

Take your pick of the innumerable travel books available and be sure to exploit the virtues of online travelling communities such as or What’s the political situation like? What are the laws, customs and Visa requirements? Do you need jabs? Head to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office for the low-down. Any civil unrest will be listed alongside all known dangerous diseases.

Get your jabs

Cholera, diphtheria, polio and tetanus, hepatitis A, meningitis C and typhoid jabs are free. Others, such as rabies, yellow fever or malaria tablets have to be paid for. It’s all here and it’s all essential reading.

Get insured

Compare the policy benefits, and don’t be alarmed by the amount of coverage; the best policies are in excess of £5-10 million…getting sick or injured overseas isn’t cheap!

Check the excess and coverage, especially if you’re planning any adventurous activities. Claims for medical expenses in excess of a million are rare, but they do occur. It’s best to have plenty of margin when dealing with the unexpected. Bungee jumping, trekking or scuba diving are often (but not always) included. Other activities such as rock climbing, micro-lighting or kite surfing may involve an upgrade in cover. If there’s a likelihood of you doing any of these make sure you inform your insurers in advance: time zones often hamper you altering your policy once your trip is underway.

Pack wisely

“You’ll end up hating every extra gram you didn’t need,” warns Lonely Planet guide writer Joe Blindloss. He’s right; not only will you be carrying your rucksack, possibly for miles a day if you head to the hills, but the best backpacking destinations involve enduring bus, train or overland truck journeys where the very notion of a luggage rack is laughable.

“Lay out everything you’ve got and think ‘what do I really need?’” suggests Phoebe Smith, experienced backpacker and features editor at Trail Magazine. “There are very few places in the world where you can’t buy the stuff you need. Everyone wants their own home comforts but you’ll quickly realise you won’t want them when you’re there.”

Mind your threads

Try to get by with as few clothes as you can, and avoid leather or denim: choose material that dries easily and or consider breathable cotton or moisture wicking fabric.

“It’s best to spend a little more on good quality kit and carry less, but not always,” explains Blindloss. “You can pay £40 for a brand name fleece in the UK but you can find someone in Kathmandu to make a top with the same fleeced material for about 50p which is just as good! It will save you a fortune and you won’t have to carry so much for flying.”

Whether you buy your clothes there, or bring them with you, try to make sure as many pockets zip or fasten, and always wear a secure money belt for your passport, cash and credit cards underneath it all.

Safety first

“If you travel to more ropey places then a good idea is a small wallet with a little bit of cash and an old card,” says Phoebe. “If the worst happens then you can give that to anyone who wants to take it and it won’t matter.”

Ensure no valuables are kept in any of the outer compartments of your bags. Many travellers use these pockets for dirty washing. If a thief is operating in your area, they’ll be in for a big surprise.

It’s also wise to keep photocopies of your documents just in case the worse should happen. The same, however, can’t be done for your valuable possessions. If you choose to take them.

“Valuables will only ever be covered if they are with the backpacker at the time or stolen from a locked safe/safety deposit box,” explain Citybond Insurance. “The best advice is to act as if uninsured at all times, if you are careless with your property then insurers will not pay a claim.” BUT… Do you really need to be taking lots of valuable equipment anyway?

We have the technology

“Technology has made things a lot easier,” says Blindloss. “When I first went trekking I had a Walkman and a box of tapes! Now an iPod does all that for you. I’ve also seen people use Kindles instead of books. But be careful with your camera stuff; do you need 10 lenses and a tripod? Be sensible, you don’t want it to take over your whole trip.”

It’s the sin of most travellers; chasing the perfect picture defeats the object of you being there.

Final essentials

If you’ve followed the above with the diligence of a pro traveller then you’ll still have plenty of space. A small first aid kit with painkillers and Imodium is advisable, as is a needle and thread, head torch and water purification tablets, a versatile ball of string, and zip-lock bags for keeping things organised and easy to find in your bag.

On arrival

It’s wise to treat yourself to a pre-booked night in a hotel for the first night to acclimatise to your new surroundings and freshen up.

Secondly, don’t panic when your cash card doesn’t work! Unless you’re in mainland Europe, this is pretty much guaranteed to happen. Even with advance warning your bank is wary about irregular use and will block your card. Don’t call them from your mobile phone. Ring them using the international call facilities; it will save you hundreds on your phone bill!

Finally, have fun! Even when things inevitably go a little awry...“The best stories are the ones where things go wrong,” laughs Phoebe. “So if something bad happens then just keep thinking ‘this will make a great story when I tell the friends back home!’”

Backpack to the future: all the essentials in one easy list

- Rucksack (Your life will be in it so choose wisely. Try not to go for anything with too many compartments and unnecessary dangly bits.

- Passport, flight tickets and insurance documents with photocopies of each

- Clothes (As few as you can manage with. Roll, don't fold!)

- US Dollars (The dollar is currently the most recognised tender and will be accepted in Africa, Asia and South America at a marked-up price)

- Sun tan cream

- Hand sanitising lotion

- Toiletries

- A small first aid kit

- Needle & thread

- A torch

- Water purification tablets

- Water bottle

- String

- Notepad and biro

- Destination guide book

- Language book (this is very important!)

- Something to read and listen to

- Solar chargers

- Plug adapter

- Ear plugs

- If you’re trekking or camping then a lightweight tent, a sleeping bag and climbing pole are also essential.

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