The ultimate backpacker’s packing guide

Tent in sunset

So you want to travel abroad, but are stuck on packing? This has happened to us plenty of times. How are we supposed to know what to bring to a country we have never been?

This packing guide was perfected over years of trial and error. We’ve tested all sorts of backpacking gear, and compiled the ultimate backpacker’s packing list for almost anywhere. You’ll add some extras depending on the place you go, but we’ll give you the basics we have found useful everywhere.

With over a decade of outdoor guiding experience, Dereck has tried literally a ton of gear, both through his personal buys and through companies giving him gear to try out. He spends more time shopping for the perfect shoes than anyone else I know!

You may see a lot of repeat brands in our article, but it’s because those companies simply make really great gear and have proved to be extremely reliable to us.

Part packing guide and part packing list, we’ve built this article keeping in mind several aspects important to the backpacker, namely weight, features, and cost. While some backpackers have a bit more money than others, some are, like us, on a tight budget. However, a cheap set of backpacking gear is useless if it doesn’t pack the features you need. Moreover, if it’s heavy and bulky, how are you going to carry it around in your travel?

We know, some of these items are not even close to cheap. So why do we encourage packing them? Because the gear we use is quality, durable, and withstands a lot of abuse! It may cost a lot up front, but it will last years, saving us money in the long run.

Regardless if it’s your first long term travel or if you’re a seasoned backpacking veteran, read on for all our tips and tricks.

What clothes should I bring backpacking?

Having the right clothing for your environment is essential. This could mean having the right gear to keep you warm and dry in tricky weather, but it can also mean dressing appropriately for the culture you are surrounded by. Despite Egypt’s heat, shorts and tank tops are not a good idea for women. We advise bringing layers, to give yourself the most options.

Regardless of where you go, remember that you will have to haul this heavy backpack with you, sometimes for hours at a time. Dereck’s advice on this: better carry a little bit of everything than too much of one thing. Don’t let your heavy backpack weigh down your adventure and don’t forget that one piece of gear that will keep you from achieving your goal.

Our philosophy is simple: being efficient with what we pack allows us to pack everything we need to fully enjoy our trip.

Top half

1 cap : highly suggested if you’re going to be exposed to a lot of sun, a good sun hat is harder to choose than it seems. While we’re all used to a good ol‘ baseball cap, it can turn pretty useless as soon as it rains. They’re also bulky and heavy. Instead, a nylon or polyester cap is much easier to carry and some particular models are even made to fold into your pocket.

2 synthetic quick dry t-shirts: whether you’re in a cold or warm region, you are going to sweat, and having a shirt that wicks away moisture is necessary for staying comfortable. It acts as a good layer in the cold, and a cool top in the heat. I go toward REI women’s shirts, and Dereck leans toward Outdoor Research merino blend shirts. Equally important, they dry very quickly when you wash them in the sink. Here’s to smelling good on cramped chicken bus rides!

1 synthetic long sleeve quick dry shirt: regardless of the country, there’s almost always a place where you need long sleeves. Think the Andes mountains in Bolivia, Mount Saint-Katherine in Egypt or even the Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala.

3 cotton shirts: simply because cotton is generally more comfortable in your day to day and, admittedly, slightly more fashionable. This way, you have enough clean, hot weather shirts to go for 5 days without doing laundry on the road but you’re still lightweight enough.

1 rain jacket
: hopefully, you won’t need it too much. But anywhere you go, heavy wind gusts are possible and a good rain jacket is also an excellent wind shell. Forget your big yellow PVC jacket, however. It’s way too heavy and doesn’t breathe, leaving you covered in sweat at the slightest effort. Instead, we recommend going with a highly packable, waterproof-breathable jacket. The sort that you will forget you’re even carrying in your day pack.

We found a great Helly Hansen rain jacket called LOKE that comes in men and women’s styles. True and tested, Dereck has been using this model for years. And when his original got ripped apart in a Prius vs. semi truck crash during some epic United States west coast road trip, he was quick to collect his travel insurance money to order exactly the same model again. Talk about luck!

1 fleece: each of us has a fleece that we have brought on every trip we’ve taken. They are almost bullet proof, quick to dry, and can be layered easily. They serve as a great all purpose jacket in temperate weather and are sure to keep you warm. We prefer the ones with pockets that zip down the front, like models REI Co-op and Helly Hansen make, but I wore my REI Outlet pullover fleece for years with no problem. Plus, the pullover takes up less space.

Laguna Glaciar, Bolivia
Properly equipped for Laguna Glaciar, Bolivia

1 down jacket: But I’m going to Egypt! Ok, this may sound excessive in warm countries but remember, down is highly compressible and super warm. I prefer the Ghost Whisperer by Mountain Hardwear. It compacts small, is lightweight and acts as a warm insulating layer under a windbreaker or light jacket. I don’t advise wearing it as an outer layer, though, because this jacket is made to be ultra lightweight, and the material is fragile to ripping.

Dereck instead favors a discontinued Outdoor Research puffy down jacket. Packed, it’s smaller than a Nalgene bottle. Unpacked, it can withstand temperatures around -30 degrees. Ideal if you want to climb a mountain and make up for your 3-seasons sleeping bag you brought, or if you find your hotel’s pillow to be simply disgusting.

Winter gloves: this goes along with the down jacket. Will you need them regularly? Probably not. Should you keep yourself from summiting the Andes for just $100? In this case, you have many options but as a rule of thumb, their heat rating is always grossly exaggerated and you should probably always head for the warmest possible model from the manufacturer. This way, when you’re camping in far below freezing conditions you’ll actually enjoy it instead of fearing for your (fingers’) life.

Fleece hat: for the same reason, a small fleece hat can do wonders around base camp. Combined to the hoodie of your puffy down jacket, you’ll enjoy that summit beer in comfort while the others shiver.

Bottom half

2 pairs of pants: we recommend non-cotton hiking lightweight pants with large pockets. The pockets and the lightweight fabric are key. We always recommend keeping your money on you, and zippered pockets are a must for this. Sometimes it’s hard to find large pockets in pants for women, but it’s worth it if you can fit your passport, phone, or money comfortably inside. When I travel, I prefer a pair of general outdoor pants and a pair of quality cargo pants with zippered pockets on the legs. Kuhl Kliffside Convertible pants are a great option for women with their deep pockets and durable fabric, and Columbia makes decent all-around outdoor pants.

Dereck highly suggests Outdoor Research Ferrosi soft shell pants. As an outdoors guide, his pants get plenty of wear and exposure, and this model has held up well. Regardless, the reason he loves Outdoor Research is because they offer a complete, end-to-end lifetime warranty, a very rare feat in today’s ready-to-trash clothing industry.

1 pair of fleece pants: about the same as wearing a wood stove, fleece pants are usually neglected by most travelers. According to Dereck’s experience, they are more often than not the weak point in people’s clothing. Having guided dog sledding rides for 9 years in Quebec’s harsh winter, where temperatures regularly hit -40, he’s a bit more wary of cold weather than I, but I suppose it can’t hurt to have warm leggings.

Being from Oregon, I’m of the opinion that rain pants are frivolous and unnecessary, but hey, I can compromise on this packing list; it’s not the end of the world if he wants them in the essentials section of this article. If you’re waterphobic like Dereck, sure, bring them along and enjoy the extra dryness.

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1 fanny bag money belt: Seriously, drop the fanny. Everybody knows the trick. Instead, we have found Dereck’s Pacsafe money belt to be really helpful. Simple enough, it’s an actual belt. Black, completely anonymous, it has a small amount of space to stash a ridiculous amount of large money bills. How many? Once you learn the trick, about 25. Enough to get you by for a couple of months in many countries.

5 pairs of underwear: I have been using the travel quick dry underwear for years when I go abroad, and they are so handy! If you really want, you can just bring two pairs on your entire trip and wash one on the day you’re wearing the other. ExOfficio makes these for women and men. They perform best when you wash them with liquid soap or shampoo, rather than bar soap. Otherwise, favor synthetic materials as they dry much faster than cotton.

4 pairs of socks: I bring two pairs of thicker warm socks and two pairs of everyday ankle socks. Of all brands, I favor merino wool Darn Tough socks. They make them for men and women, and they have an awesome lifetime warranty.

The pair I’m currently using have walked the entire Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, plus spent 5 months adventuring in Guatemala, and haven’t gotten a single hole yet, despite almost constant use. Talk about bang for your buck! If you’re prone to blisters, consider polypropylene liner socks. They weigh nothing and will save you discomfort in the long run.

1 pair of waterproof pants (optional): what good are waterproof jackets and boots if you don’t have waterproof pants? Equally windproof, the main features to look for are adequate ventilation and ease of use. Ease of use? Totally! You’re wearing carefully laced trekking boots and a shower strikes.

Do you really want to unlace your boots and wet your socks to get your legs covered? If you answered no, then OR’s Foray pants are exactly what you need. Side zippers allow you to put the pants on without taking your boots off, doubling as more than sufficient ventilation.

1 pair of shoes: I’ve traveled in just Converse for entire trips, but Dereck’s reminding me that by the end of the trip he can usually see my socks through the soles that are separating from the top. Lately, I’ve worn more practical hiking shoes. Keen’s Women’s Targhee II waterproof hiking shoes are currently my shoe of choice, and they make a men’s version, too. This style doesn’t provide a lot of ankle support, but they have great grip, are durable, and have the protective rubber toe I’ve found is necessary.

Dereck prefers a heavier, more protective boot in the form of Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX. Durable, comfortable, and almost zero percent chance of spraining your ankles. They are breathable enough to keep you comfortable in the scorching desert sun but waterproof enough to keep you comfortable in the snow.

1 pair of shower flip flops: cheap, simple flip flops to use in public bathrooms or while lounging around. Any brand is fine; don’t spend extra money on these. I got mine used at Goodwill and they’ve lasted me years.

What gear should I bring traveling?

If clothes are the obvious first question we ask before leaving on a long-term trip across the world, truth is they only represent a part of your eventual comfort and the proper gear will help you achieve more freedom and travel for cheaper.

My trusty backpacks I take almost every time I go abroad.

Backpack: there are so many backpacks to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start. I bought my Gregory Amber 60 for its brain, rainfly, extra day bag, and external pockets. It has worked great for me and had enough space, but next time I’ll go for something lighter. When traveling (versus backpacking) I also bring a smaller 22L Flash day pack by REI Co-op. This acts as a great pack to bring during day time adventures while leaving the rest of our stuff behind.

For men’s packs, Dereck uses the MEC Supercontinent 75. It’s a 60 L pack, but has a detachable 15 L baby bag that works great as a day pack. It also has a front opening feature, good for retrieving an item at the bottom without having to unpack everything. It’s proved durable but not overly comfortable on longer hikes. If you’re looking for something closer to an ultra-light pack, try Osprey Exos 58. For its price and warranty, plus strength despite its light weight, it’s a great deal.

Water bottle: my Nalgene is boss. Look around in the outdoor industry and you’ll see most professionals rely on them. Are they the best? Truth is in the last couple years many other manufacturers have stood up to try to reinvent the wheel. Regardless, the Nalgene remains queen and is durable like none. I have a wide mouth 32 oz bottle. The width makes washing it easier, which she tries to do once every couple months.

Camelbak: Is this one absolutely necessary? No one but you can tell. But Dereck always brings a water pouch. It’s especially useful when we want extra autonomy like when going on hikes where we know water will be scarce. I find that it adds unnecessary weight, but it’s worth a try to see. Some people swear by Camelbaks.

Micro-Fiber travel towel: these towels used to have a bad rap because they get smelly really quickly, but in the last couple years they have been adding a coating that keeps odor at bay. They still smell eventually, but no one can argue with how small they compact. Sea to Summit Drylite is my favorite travel towel brand, and Dereck thinks his PackTowl Personal is impressively odorless. Both brands make towels in various sizes. Honestly, it doesn’t take much to dry off, so if you are unsure about the size opt for smaller.

Sleeping bag: beyond a shorter packing list, we have discovered little hacks to utilize the space you have to its max. Take sleeping bags for instance. Are you going to a cold country where you’ll need a winter sleeping bag? Staying warm is vital, but that huge bag is going to take up half the space in your pack. Instead, try bringing a compressible down jacket and a 3 season sleeping bag. We’ve found the Mountain Hardwear Lamina Z-Flame 22 sleeping bag is a great choice.

Sleeping mattress: if I bring my sleeping bag, I’ll bring my mattress. My Therm-a-Rest women’s NeoAir XLite mattress has never let me down and compacts small. Dereck loves his Therm-a-Rest All Season standard cut because according to him, the ultra-light version is awkward to sleep on. Avoid the old style, blue foam ones. They’re extremely bulky and uncomfortable.

Bivy: If you want the ultimate freedom in your budget trip around parts unknown, you need a shelter. In our case, unless we are going on a trip where we really want to camp, we’ll carry a bivy. Keep in mind this solution might not be for everybody as comfort is rudimentary. However, given the 17 oz weight of Outdoor Research’s Helium Bivy compared to the 36 ounces each we would have to carry with a MSR Hubba Hubba tent, we consider it a good choice.

Tent: there are so many tents out there to choose from, but I’m loving my current tent, the Hubba Hubba by MSR. It is free standing, easy to set up and has ample vestibules space on each side. This tent comfortably sleeps two people with our large backpacks within the vestibules. At 4.5 lbs, it’s not as light as a bivy, but is one of the lighter free standing tents available, making it great for camping-oriented travel.

Compression sacks: these are SO useful for those who want to fit as much as possible in a small space. I use mine for my sleeping bag and outer layers, but Dereck uses them for all his clothes. He even has a tiny one to make his down jacket even smaller. REI makes good, affordable compression sacks, and Outdoor Research compression sacks will last you forever.

Waterproof stuff sack: this is really useful for washing clothes and storing dirty laundry. It is waterproof, so you can use it as a mini washing machine along with your all-purpose soap. The best we’ve tried are the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil 13L and the Outdoor Research durable stuff sack, 10L sized. Choose according to your interest in durability versus weight.

Head-lamp: Dereck would have put this in the essentials list, but I don’t always bring one. That said, I’ve had to borrow Dereck’s a couple times, and if you’re planning on camping, definitely bring one. It’s pretty hard to set up a tent in the dark without one. Unless you’re a gear junkie, a $20 Petzl LED land will fulfill all your needs for years to go.

Clothesline: for hanging clothes. I’ve never brought this but Dereck always does and it has proved quite useful when trying to dry clothes inside a hotel room.

Sunglasses: This one is a personal choice, Cass almost never wears them and Dereck almost wears them, even at night.

Electronics and other random but useful objects

Microsoft Surface tablet
A tablet is light and doesn’t take up much space.
  • Passport and other important documents
  • Smart phone: my requisites are a long-lasting battery and a good camera. I also put a Lifeproof case on mine. This has saved my phone’s life countless times from water, mud, high drops, and even Dereck driving a sedan over it. Setting up the proper travel apps make it an ideal 21st-century adventure companion.
  • Waterproof envelope: One of Dereck’s favorite, you can put money, papers, passport, phone and tablet in this waterproof see-through container. The fabric is also touch-sensitive so you can use your phone in the rain and keep your valuables safe.
  • Guide book: usually Lonely Planet but varies by country. Always a good reference to have when WiFi is scarce and you can’t access Dirt Cheap Travel Guide.
  • Tablet: because a laptop is too big and heavy but a small 8-10” tablet is ideal for Netflix abroad!
  • Pens: We always seem to need these. I also bring a journal along but Dereck doesn’t and it’s not essential.
  • Adapters or converters if necessary for the country you’re headed to.
  • Earbuds: useful as airlines often charge for them, if they don’t outright forget to offer!

First Aid and protective products to bring traveling

Pepto-Bismol has been an unexpected lifesaver many times for us.
  • Pepto-Bismol: this has proven more useful that we could have ever imagined.
  • Insect repellent: especially if, like me, you have type O positive blood and mosquitoes love you.
  • Sunscreen: unless you travel to Alaska in the winter.
  • Altitude sickness medication: such as acetazolamide if you’re going at altitudes above 3000m.
  • Anti-Malarial: if you’re traveling in a risk area.
  • No-Jet-Lag : natural tablets for long haul trips. I used these on a trip to India (10 hours ahead) and felt NO jet lag for the first time ever, it was crazy!
  • Water sanitation: Aquatabs for quick sanitation of water. For a legit filter, try the Sawyer line of water filters. We personally prefer the Sawyer MINI for its effectiveness and light weight (only 2 oz).
  • Other basic first aid kit items like Polysporin and Aspirin.
  • Patches: for fixing your gear.
  • Ear plugs: only if you actually enjoy sleeping.

Basic toiletries

Campsuds soap
Campsuds is a concentrated soap that lasts ages and works on almost everything.
  • Extra Toilet Paper: always handy.
  • Extra plastic bags for rubbish and for your wet shower flip flops.
  • Liquid multipurpose biodegradable soap: We use Campsuds. This hyper-concentrated soap can be used for laundry, dishes and the body. I always bring an extra face soap bar, anyway, but this stuff works well on its own. Note: Campsuds often comes in 4 oz bottles, which is larger than what most airlines allow in carry-on baggage so you may have to put some in a smaller container.
  • Bar soap? Dr. Broner’s All Purpose Castile Soap is great, literally all purpose and smells good, too! Consider a plastic case to carry it around.
  • Extra hairbands, if needed.
  • Compactable travel brush: Mine is a brandless plastic brush I got as a stocking-stuffer one Christmas. I think it is meant for purses, but I use it on my travels because it is so conveniently small.
  • Tooth brush and travel sized toothpaste and floss, basically any brand.
  • Deodorant and whatever else you may need to keep yourself feeling clean and happy.
  • Razor and extra blades if you’re the type.

How to deal with airlines weight restrictions

When packing for traveling abroad, we want to be space-efficient as possible. Not only can you get through airports quicker when you don’t check your bags, but you can also get around more easily once you’re at your destination. Packing smaller bags makes it easier to keep track of your belongings. Actually, we’ve found that less stuff makes things simpler in all aspects of life, but particularly travel.

That said, we disagree with the current trend stating you should always travel with only a carry-on and our packing guide reflects that. You’re spending a weekend in Las Vegas? Fine, the 7kg weight restriction imposed by some carriers such as Interjet may be sufficient. But if you’re really setting out to adventure, you need more than that and the ”wear all your clothes before your board the plane” tip gets old pretty quickly.

For a 2-months trip and regardless of our itinerary, our checked bags are generally close to the 17kg range. Light enough to carry around but too heavy for many low-cost carriers, it’s the compromise we make to enjoy our trip.

Packing your backpack for your trip

At this point, you have everything ready. All of your gear is laying in a totally (dis)orderly fashion on the floor of your room and it’s time to fit all of it in your bag. How? You wonder.

Our first rule is generally to organize our items outside of the bag by categories, to get an overview. This is our final quality check. Any item that seems useless, redundant, or too heavy does not get to come on the trip.

Once that selection is made, fill your carry-on or personal item with your valuables and essentials, anything you can’t afford to lose or see delayed. Phone, charger, medicine, passport (obviously) as well as a fleece and necessary clothes to be comfortable on the plane. Be sure to use it to its maximum potential.

Next, if you followed our advice and got yourself some compression sacks, your job just got much easier. Put all of your clothes except the ones you will wear on departure date into one bag and compress it. Organize the rest of your kit in other compression sacks the same way.

Ensure the heaviest things are at the bottom of your bag and lightest at the top. This means sleeping bag, bivy, and clothes bag are fighting for the bottom part. Fit the rest as you can towards the top and you should have plenty of space left.

After this, tighten the compression straps, try your bag and adjust it. Feels good? You’re ready for your next epic adventure.

Time to go!

That was a long one! We hope this backpacking packing guide was helpful to you. Your turn now! What are your travel essentials? Is there something you never leave home without? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to share this with your friends!

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The ultimate backpackers packing guide

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