Here are our top three packing tips:
Tip 1: avoid check-in luggage
Unless you are carrying heavy sports equipments (e.g. scuba or ski gear), you can make do with carry on. We went to Antarctica with all our camera gear with carry on only!
Tip 2: buy an Eagle Creek double-sided packing cube
This is how you fit everything into a carry on size bag. You will never travel without one again.
Tip 3: follow the 80/20 rule
Pack to cover what you will be doing 80% of the time, for the rest you can buy, rent or just make a plan.
In general we like to travel with only carry on luggage, especially for long trips with many flights (and therefore many opportunities for your baggage to get lost). Having a small light backpack also makes bus travel a lot easier, as well as when you need to walk around with your bag. The main rule for deciding what to bring is that you need to be certain you are going to use each item fairly regularly. For everything else you have a credit card. We’ve gone just over the common 7kg maximum for carry-on luggage but haven’t had any problems.
- 4 – 5 pairs of underwear – Ex-Officio are the kings of travel underwear – light, very durable and very quick drying.
- 2 – 3 pairs of socks, suitable for walking & hiking – we really like the Rohan socks, especially the hiking socks for warm climates. Their light socks can also be used as liners for colder weather
- 1 – 2 pairs of trousers – We both have Craghopper travel pants (all the pockets are zippered) and Dave has Rohan travel jeans (not the most stylish, but they are much lighter than normal jeans, durable, quick drying and have a few hidden security pockets). Anne usually brings a pair of loose yoga pants from Lululemon. You could get a pair of convertible trousers (which serve as long pants and shorts) and drop the shorts below.
- 1 pair of shorts – we’ve got Craghopper shorts with lots of zippered pockets. Note that in many countries, women are expected to cover their knees and shoulders, and you will feel much more comfortable if you dress conservatively. Anne generally carries 3/4 length pants instead of shorts for this reason.
- 1 swimming costume – Dave found a pair of Billabong shorts with zippered pockets, so these double up as both swimming shorts and normal shorts. Anne has a Prana bikini which is designed for activities like SUPing.
- 4 – 5 t-shirts – We’ve got a combination of normal cotton t-shirts and more technical lightweight, quick drying and wicking t-shirts. We prefer to avoid cotton t-shirts as they are heavy, slow drying and are horrible in hot humid conditions. Try to get the lightest cotton you can find. Icebreaker do some really nice merino wool t-shirts which are great for travelling, but these are very expensive.
- Little black dress – Anne found a Columbia one made from quick drying fabric that even has a hidden zippy pocket. LBD plus scarf plus slops will get you in anywhere, no need for carrying going out clothes.
- 1 long sleeved shirt – We avoid the heavy cotton shirts (see above) and rather go for the more technical shirts (with UV protection). There are quite a large variety of makes, most of them checked. For cooler destinations, a thin vest is a useful add on, and some t-shirts can be swapped for another long-sleeved shirt.
- 1 hoodie fleece – the hoodie means you don’t need to bring a beanie, and we prefer something that zips open completely in the front, which makes it more versatile for different weather conditions. Icebreaker make some great (and expensive) merino wool hoodies which are light and warm, and don’t look like travel clothes. Dave prefers a thin fleece, whereas Anne goes for a slightly thicker one.
- 1 thin waterproof windproof shell jacket – as you will need to use this in both warm and cold conditions I prefer a waterproof jacket with no insulation, as you can always layer it with your fleece. You can spend a huge amount of money on these jackets, but we found our cheap Cape Storm jackets worked perfectly (I even used it in Antartica). More recently we have replaced these with Craghopper ones that pack very small.
- 1 cap – We have very light and durable Nike Featherlight Dri-Fit caps / peaks
- 1 buff/scarf – Dave has a very light buff which was useful for the colder places we went to. For warmer trips we’d normally leave this at home. For Anne, a scarf is essential, for protection from the sun and cold, to use as a sarong, to dress up for an evening out and to cover yourself up in more conservative places and churches etc – silk/wool blend for a bit of extra warmth, silk is good for warmer places. Scarves are great souvenir options, so take an old one along that you can replace along the way.
- 1 pair of flip flops – a simple pair of Havianas will do or you can buy slightly more technical ones with a bit of grip. We have experimented with hiking sandals, and they can be very useful especially if you’re doing a lot of walking in hot places but it is hard to find decent looking ones and they are not as convenient to pack and put on and off as flip flops.
- 1 pair light hiking / walking shoes – many people like to take big waterproof hiking boots together with a pair of walking sandals. Our experience has been that you can replace both of these with a good pair of cool, quick drying, lightweight walking shoes (unless you are planning on doing some really hectic hiking). Waterproof boots are generally very hot, heavy and very bulky, which means you end up carrying them around a lot instead of wearing them. We’ve been in very few situations where waterproofing has been essential, and in most cases the water gets in from the top of the shoe or boot, making the waterproofing pointless. Waterproofing also tends to make the shoes or boots very expensive. A pair of trail running shoes have grip as good as hiking boots, but are much cooler and lighter, which does away with the need for sandals. We have been really happy with Ecco shoes (e.g. Ecco Biom Ultra). They are very light and airy, have good soles for hiking, have been very durable and don’t look like trainers. Other brands of trail shoes work well (e.g. Anne has worn out more than one pair of Asics on our travels), but tend to come in stupid colours.
- 1 travel towel – we went for small ones, as we find that almost everywhere provides you with a towel (unless you are staying in dorms). This also doubles up as a beach towel.
- 1 silk sleeping sack – Many people bring a full sleeping bag along, but we find that the number of times you need one (Dave’s calculated around 10 nights out of about 500 days of backpacking) makes them unnecessary and very bulky. A silk sleeping sack (which packs down very small) is much more useful, especially when you are worried about the cleanliness of the sheets.
- 1* small medical kit (plasters, anti-fungal cream, anthisan cream for insect bites, mosquito repellent, sun block, Imodium, antihistamine tablets, a general antibiotic and malaria treatment) – there are very few places where you can’t easily find basic medical treatment, so rather focus of stuff that you use fairly often, or is difficult to get. For prescription medicine such as the antibiotics and malaria treatment, consult your doctor. As we were spending a lot of time in potential malaria areas, taking malaria tablets for a long time was not ideal, hence us carrying the treatment.
- Basic personal toiletries – as we were aiming for carry-on, we had to restrict the size of any liquids to 100ml containers and enough to fill a one litre ziplock bag (this also applies to the medical kit). As it is difficult to find some things in 100ml containers we have some empty refillable airtight containers which we filled up with shampoo and liquid soap when necessary. It has been easy to find toiletries everywhere we’ve been, so you really don’t need large containers.
- 1* pegless washing line – if you are planning on doing any washing of clothes yourself then this is really useful. It consists on a length of braided thin rubber tubing with connectors on either end. By putting you clothes through the braiding you don’t need pegs. Seatosummit do a really nice one with suction cups, clips, rings and Velcro straps on each end, so you will always be able to hang it up.
- 1 Battery operated travel shaver – Dave uses a cheap Philips travel shaver that uses two AA batteries.
- 1 pack wet wipes / moist towelettes – also useful for a shower isn’t available
- 1 pocket pack of tissues (you can generally buy these everywhere, but you do want a pack on you at all times (especially the ladies))
- 1* small roll of toilet paper
- 1* waterless hand sanitiser
- 1 Eagle Creek 2 sided packing cube – this is a must if you want to carry a small backpack. We’ve have been using them for over 12 years now and we never travel without one. It is a very strong, light zip up cube (actually a rectangular prism according to Anne) that allows you to fit an amazing amount of clothes into a very small space. We can fit pretty much all the clothes above into one packing cube which takes up around 15L of space in a backpack. It also makes packing and unpacking your backpack quick and easy. The double side cube is really useful keeping dirty and clean clothes separate.
- 1 Eagle Creek half packing cube – half the size of the packing cube above, we use this to keep all our non-clothes items together, which makes packing and unpacking much easier, plus finding things in your backpack is much easier.
- 1 electrical plug adapter – we found an excellent compact Skross adapter which has slide out pins to cover 99% of plugs around the world. It also has two USB ports with a total output of 2.1A, which means you can charge either 1 iPad or two other devices, and you can leave your normal USB chargers at home. It also has a European / UK socket for any devices with a full plug. By far the best solution we’ve come across for dealing with the need to charge things.
- 1* iPad mini – this is optional if you have a smartphone, but we found this really useful for typing up this blog, editing photos, and watching movies and TV shows on long journeys. We prefer the mini over the full iPad because of the size and weight.
- 1 Kindle Paperwhite – another essential travel companion wherever we go. The battery lasts forever, you can read it in the sun and in the dark, your beautiful eyes don’t get tired, it stores hundreds of books, it is light, and you can buy books along the way.
- 1 iPhone – we use this for phoning, accessing the Internet, as our map, email server, guidebook, camera, music player, podcast player, watch, alarm clock, travel organiser, emergency torch, game player, etc. etc. The only problem is the battery life and storage limits – we use Mophie covers for our phones which carry a full extra charge and can be charged at the same time as charging the phone itself. Dave has tried out the version which has extra storage space but has found it a bit buggy. The portable battery below also helps address the battery issue.
- We use a roaming service called knowroaming which is a sticker which you stick directly onto your SIM card. It automatically switches over to the knowroaming partner when you’re out of your home country but doesn’t impact your phone at home (unless you make an international call, where you can also get preferential rates). Rates are much better than the South African providers’ roaming rates and Whatsapp is free. The service is very convenient for short stays and emergency situations but if you are in a country for a few weeks, it will still make sense to get a local SIM from a cost perspective. We have occasionally had problems connecting (mostly in the east) but their support is good.
- In-ear noise reduction earphones – the noise reduction is great for airplanes and noisy busses, and while in-ear headphones don’t block out noise as well as a good pair of over-ear headphones, the small size more than compensates for this. We use the AKG K391 NC headphones which have a long battery life and are relatively good value. They can also be used with noise cancelling turned off.
- 1 airplane headphone adapter – this converts a single headphone jack into the double used in many airplanes. No more using the crappy headsets they hand out.
- 1* headphone splitter – this allows two sets of headphones to connect to a single headphone socket – very useful if you are travelling with someone.
- 1* portable charger – this is a small rechargeable battery with one or more USB sockets which can charge your devices when you are away from a plug. Try get one that can charge a phone several times (6000 – 12000mA) and make sure it has at least 2.1A output so that it can charge an iPad.
- 1* 3G wifi hotspot – this is a pocket-sized battery powered device that uses a mobile phone data SIM card to created a wifi data network (hotspot). You can connect between 5 and 10 devices to the hotspot at once, which means you only need to get one SIM card for you and all your travel companions to have access to the Internet. In most countries data SIM cards are fairly cheap and easy to get hold of. One thing to watch out for is that data SIM cards that offer unlimited data cannot normally be shared in this fashion, and so won’t work with this device. It is much cheaper than data roaming and gives you access to the Internet pretty much everywhere. We’ve been using the Huwaei R208 (also sold as the Vodafone R208) which has a 12 hour battery life. A cheaper alternative is to put the SIM card into your smart phone or tablet and create a wifi hotspot from that device. However this will mean either removing (and possibly) losing your normal SIM card, and needing to have the device turned on all the time to access the Internet on other devices. The only issue we’ve had using a wifi hotspot is that in certain countries the SIM card needs to be activated and recharged using USSD, which is only available on handsets. We’ve always found someone to help us with this (although language can be tricky), otherwise you can carry a cheap handset.
- 1 small head torch
- Small cables for electrical devices – depending what your devices need. Try get fairly short, high capacity cables.
- International Drivers Licence – we haven’t needed to use this yet, but it is worth having it just in case.
- Yellow Fever and other vaccinations certificate – ditto
- 1* metal pencil case – several countries are very fussy about the state of US dollar and Euro notes and won’t accept torn, dog eared or heavily creased notes. We use a metal pencil case to store any notes that we keep as backup currency.
- 1 soft pencil case – this is useful to keeping all you small odds and ends together, such as your drivers licence and vaccination certificate.
- 1 pair of sunglasses – these will get damaged or lost at least once during your travels so don’t bring your most expensive pair.
- 1 35 – 44 litre backpack – this is generally the maximum size that meets the carry-on maximum size specifications. We prefer one that is very light and as simple as possible with no fancy extra pockets or features, as these just add to the weight. We don’t like top loading backpacks as you need to unpack them completely every time you want to getting something out that has been packed at the bottom. Rather go for a pack that opens completely. Also make sure that the zip/s are lockable. We haven’t found a need for a full backpack harness with a thick waistband, given how small and light our packs are. We started with Thule Crossover 40L Duffel Pack backpacks which were great – light durable and easy to access. More recently we have switched to CabinZero 44L backpacks which are even lighter and are designed to be the maximum possible volume allowable as hand luggage. We love them…
- 1* compact 12 – 15 litre daypack – we use a Seatosummit dry bag daypack which is very light and compact and rolls up into a tiny ball for when not being used. Note that you might need one of these each if you are doing a lot of hiking.
- Anne has a small Pacsafe handbag which she like because: it doesn’t look too much like a tourist bag; it clips closed and has mesh in the sides and strap to foil pickpockets and bag snatchers; it has a clip which allows you to clip it onto, for example; and it fits our kindles plus the various other bits and pieces you typically walk around with.
- 1 combination locks – with combination locks you don’t have to worry about losing your key. We use ones with a metal cable instead of a solid metal locking arm, as we find this is more flexible when using it to lock a backpack or a hotel door etc. Also make sure the lock is TSA compatible if you are travelling to places where bags may need to be opened by airport security. If you are doing a lot of overnight train travel, consider bringing a longer cable lock for locking your backpack to something.
- 1 or 2 plastic shopping bags – these are useful for carrying dirty shoes, your laundry, electronic goods etc.
- 2 – 3 ziplock bags – ditto for small items.
- 1 set of foam earplugs
- 1 inflatable travel pillow
- 1 eye mask
- 1 spork – this is a combination spoon, fork and knife in one, and is great for when you are self catering or find yourself needing to eat something like pot noodles on the run
- 1* duct tape – we have a thin flat roll of duct tape. We’ve never had to use this but it can be used to fix most things in an emergency (like a broken strap on your backpack or a broken zip).
- 1 pen – for filling in arrival forms
- 1* doorstop, for extra security if you are feeling uncomfortable (we seldom use this)
- Several passport photos – for visas etc.
- Optional: 1 dedicated camera – often we alternate between only using an iPhone, using a rugged waterproof Olympus TG-5 or compact camera and using a DSLR camera, depending on the circumstances. The Olympus TG-5 is a fairly standard point and shoot camera with limited manual controls, but with one very important feature – it is waterproof to 18m, which made it a great tiny travel camera for diving, and so it makes a great alternative to a bulky external underwater housing when you have limited space. The DSLR was used by Anne for the India / Sri Lanka / Ethiopia stage when we were planning on seeing some wildlife where a bigger zoom was needed. She used the tiny Canon 100D with two small pancake prime lenses (24mm and 40mm) plus a compact 70-300mm DO zoom lens. As an alternative, a small SD card reader for the iPad is useful. For our serious wildlife travels, Dave uses a Canon 5D mark 2 with a 100-400mm L mark 1 lens. We also took our Canon image stabilizer binoculars for our Africa travels but these are too bulky for general backpacking.
Some useful travel Apps and websites for your smartphone / tablet
- TripIt: this a travel organiser App which you email your flight tickets and hotel bookings to and it automatically captures the details and puts together an itinerary. You can also manually add items and share your trips with others. Great for long and short trips.
- Maps.me: you can download maps of cities etc. and then use your GPS feature to navigate around places without needing to use data. Google Maps does something similar but maps.me is far superior for off-line use.
- Tripadvisor: Although not perfect, both the App and website are useful for finding good hotels and in some cases nearby restaurants. They link to the main booking sites which is also useful when trying to get the best deal. Make sure you treat the reviews with caution, as some are fraudulent.
- Zomato: A restaurant review App and website which is a good place to find restaurants recommended by locals. Unfortunately only in a limited number of cities.
- Culture Trip: A website with good articles on food in a wide variety of cities.
- Wikitravel: a useful website for finding out how to get to different places, how to get into a city from the airport, and what to see and do in and around the city. It’s accommodation and restaurant recommendations are sometimes out of date, as are some of the costs, but still generally the first place we look.
- Seat61.com: A fabulous website with very detailed information on train travel in pretty much every country where it is possible.
- Skyscanner: An app that searches for the lowest airfare between two places. Generally very accurate.
- Airbnb: An app and website for generally cheaper alternative accommodation in local’s houses (rent either a room or the whole house).