Packing for a backpacking trip can be a complicated endeavour, but my handy backpacking packing list will walk you through the absolute essentials to invest in for any destination, plus how to pick and pack the right backpacking backpack for your adventures.
What to pack for a backpacking adventure: my essential backpacking packing list
How to pick the perfect backpack
The clue’s in the name – backpacking requires a good backpack. They’re simply more versatile than suitcases, easier to carry over uneven ground and take with you when you’re moving accommodation every few days. The size of a backpack is measured by the capacity it can hold in litres, and big travel and backpacking bags usually hold 65 litres and over, allowing space for plenty of belongings (as opposed to daysacks, usually under 35l and designed for single-day use).
Your backpack needs to be able to withstand bad weather. Most backpack models aren’t fully waterproof, and are usually showerproof or water resistant instead, meaning that their outer layer will stand up to light rain. It’s therefore worth picking a bag with a stashed rain cover you can whip out in a storm. A tough outer material offers protection against knocks and scrapes, and a rucksack with both a top opening and a side zip is very useful, as it makes it easy to access your stuff. You’ll even see big backpacking bags with small, unzippable daysacks on the front, a good way to carry a small bag with you when you leave the backpack where you’re staying.
Ideally, try on rucksacks in person to check they fit your back well, and look for fully adjustable straps so you can get a good fit for you. Brands increasingly offer male and female versions of the same bag – if you have a smaller back it’s worth trying female-specific designs, but you might find unisex bags fit you just as well. Fit is very important for comfort on long trips, especially if you’re planning to walk around with your bag on – looks for a backpack that sits comfortably against your back (a mesh panel is good for breathability), with hip straps and chest straps to help distribute the weight and wide, padded shoulder straps for comfort.
Just as important as having a good rucksack is knowing how to pack it well –this gets easier with each trip! Make sure you balance the weight from the bottom up, with big bulky items at the bottom and anything you’ll need to grab quickly at the top. Fill gaps between bigger items with clothes. The lid of your pack is useful for stashing snacks, sun cream and a small first aid kit. If you’ve packed your bag well, it should stand up on its own. It’s also useful to pack clothing in zippable fabric bags or dry bags, keeping dirty clothes or underwear, for example, separate and easy to locate without having to unpack everything.
Found your dream pack? Stuff it full of everything else from my backpacking packing list…
Buy a waterproof wash bag and fill with essentials -travel-sized toiletries are easier to pack, and you can even get mini hairbrushes and toothbrushes if you’re really space-conscious. These are all easy to buy on the road if you forget something, though – the important thing to pack at home is a supply of any medicines you take, as they can be hard to get abroad. Pack your prescription, too, in case you do need to replace medicines. Other items such as tampons can be hard to get hold of in certain countries, so it’s worth packing as much as you’ll need during your trip. A small medical kit is a big help for dealing with cuts, sprains and bug bites, especially if you’re venturing far from civilization. Look for a small travel-specific one.
A camera is a must for documenting your travels, but bigger D-SLRs can be bulky – try a hybrid camera such as the Nikon 1 to save space. If you’re a keen photographer or videographer itching to shoot the amazing landscapes you’re about to discover, you’re probably wondering if you can justify sneaking your hefty tripod into your backpack. Resist the urge, and instead pack a small, flexible and foldable mini tripod like a Gorillapod, from £14.95 from Joby, to save space – it’ll work with your phone, too.
Don’t forget chargers and travel adapters. A universal travel adapter is more expensive but worth it in the long run as it’ll charge your devices anywhere in the world.
A nifty head torch like the Petzl Tikkina, £21.99 from Ellis Brigham, will always come in handy if you’re staying somewhere rural or want to read late into the night. Pick a battery-powered one with a comfy strap.
One of the most important things you can take backpacking if you’re heading off the beaten track or want to go hiking on your travels. Pick waterproof and breathable boots. Fabric is best in hot climates, and leather is better for cooler countries and winter walking.
A down or insulated jacket is warm, lightweight and often packs down so small you can pack them into their own pocket, making them the backpacker’s clothing mecca. Pick one with a hood and pockets for versatility, and try to wash yours sparingly to keep its insulation fluffy.
A waterproof shell jacket you can pop on in a storm is an absolute must for adventurous backpackers. Look for one treated with waterproofing technology such as Gore-Tex. If you’re headed somewhere cold, pick a warmer insulated jacket such as a ski jacket.
If you’re planning to camp along the way, pack a sleeping bag rated for the lowest temperatures you’ll be facing. Just staying in hostels and hotels? A sleeping bag liner adds comfort and warmth, and takes up little space.
To quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” A micro towel, small, absorbent and quick to dry, is even more useful. Pack two.
Versatility is key when it comes to the items you do take, especially regarding clothing. Be sensible – if you’re headed for the Amazon, you probably don’t need three jumpers. If you’re city-hopping in Europe, a few smarter options such as shirts and dresses will be useful. Layers in neutral colours are best, as you can layer up to keep warm and they’ll match each other. Dark colours are also a good shout, as they’ll look clean for longer. Travel-specific clothing that is wrinkle free or treated with mosquito repellent is useful, but not an essential buy if you’re on a budget, and remember that you only need to pack one week’s worth of clothing and underwear. Technical outdoor clothing such as down jackets and fleeces are easy to wear anywhere and good for cold climates
Comfortable trainers and hiking boots are the most useful items to take, along with good sandals – pick sensible fabric or leather walking sandals with decent ankle straps and you’ll be able to wear them from the airport to the beach.
Happy backpacking! Ticked off my backpacking packing list?
Find more of my handy packing lists here