The ultimate packing list: what should you take?

Starting out on your travels and not sure what to pack? Been around the globe a few times and trying to cut down on what you carry? Here’s how to do it with just the right amount of gear and the ultimate packing list.

It’s so easy to overpack, no matter how experienced a traveller you are. This is especially true if you are travelling for a longer time or visiting different climates along the way. When I first started travelling, I used a 70L backpack, day pack and an extra hold-all for the days I couldn’t be bothered to pack properly. I crossed South America over 4 months, and my reasoning was that I needed everything from bikinis to snow hiking gear.

Fast-forward a couple of years and on my second long-term trip I had cut down to a (not crammed) 70L backpack and small day pack. By this time, I was carrying my laptop with me – having become a digital nomad my office came with me! That time it was a 7-month trip through Southeast Asia. Less cold weather gear, more battery packs.

I have since gone to a 50L backpack. If I’m going away for a weekend, I barely need half my day pack space. How is it done? With a little planning and the right clothing and backpack.

This is my ultimate packing list and has been put together from my own travel experience. It is based on travelling for more than 2 weeks when you can find laundry facilities and clean your clothes as you go. Anything less than that, and I take enough clothes to see me through and wash them when I get home.  

Remember, just because you’re travelling doesn’t mean you need to leave your usual style back home. Adapt if necessary but be you! After all, this will become your ultimate packing list,too.

The essentials

Whether you’re going to cold or hot weather destinations, hiking or lounging on a beach, there are a few essentials that you need. They include:

  • Underwear. 10 pairs, fewer if you have the quick-drying ones that you can wash and dry overnight.
  • Socks. 2 ankle pairs for trainers and 2 thicker pairs for hiking boots. If you’re on a longer, overnight hiking trip add an extra pair. You may need to double up, use them to sleep in or are just away for a while.
  • Flip-flops. Even if you don’t wear them all day every day, they’re perfect for the beach, pools, and shared bathrooms.
  • I use a microfibre towel on the beach or when camping, and you’ll be thankful for it if your hotel or hostel doesn’t offer towels.
  • My sleeping gear consists of shorts or leggings and a T-shirt. They can also double-up as outdoors clothes as well.
  • My bikini comes with me wherever I go. Apart from beaches and pools, there are rivers, lakes, waterfalls and hot springs that call for one!
  • Hiking boots/shoes if you are going to be doing any substantial walking or hiking. Keep your pack weight down by wearing them on travel days. Avoid hanging them on your pack as they could easily be stolen!
  • A sleeping bag liner is useful if you’re in hostels or camping and like your own sheets. I find mine keeps me extra warm, too.
  • My scarf is one of my travel staples. Use it when you’re cold, to cover hair or shoulders in churches and temples, as an emergency towel. It also makes an excellent pillow for travelling.
  • A sarong is another staple of mine. I can use it as a skirt, sheet, beach mat, towel, or extra layer to ward off the cold. Its uses are endless!

Tropics, hot deserts, jungles and hot climates

It’s easier to pack for hotter climates, there’s less to take and it takes up less space! For very hot or humid climates, you may find you need more than one change of clothes each day. This list has you covered for all eventualities.

  • Shorts/skirts. Take 2-3 pairs of different lengths to give you greater variety between beach lounging and exploring towns and cities. A longer skirt can also come in handy if you need to be more modestly dressed.
  • Tops and T-shirts. I take 5 or 6 with me that work well with my trousers, shorts, and skirts so that I can mix and match. Tank tops, spaghetti straps, long or short sleeves give you options to deal with hot days, cold air conditioning or cooler evenings. Make one a fancier top for those nicer restaurants or invitations to local events and parties.
  • Trousers and/or yoga leggings. Steer clear or jeans as they are heavy and take forever to dry, especially in humid climates. Take only one pair if you’re also packing hiking trousers.
  • Hiking trousers if you are likely to be hiking. Mine are so comfortable I use them on travel days too, and they dry quickly.
  • Dresses. If that’s more your style than T-shirts and shorts, take 1-2 dresses instead. I usually have one in my backpack for those impromptu fancier nights out. I was glad I did when I got invited to attend a Vietnamese wedding<link to Vietnamese wedding blog>!
  • Shoes. Pack your hiking shoes if you’re going to be using them. I wear mine on travel days to cut down on space and weight. Take a pair of sandals for daytime (or use your flip-flops if you prefer) and lightweight shoes/trainers for walking around. I live in these when I’m travelling.

Don’t forget your sunscreen, hat, insect repellent and sunglasses. I have an old pair of sunglasses that I travel with so if I lose or scratch them, it’s no big deal. My sunscreen is always biodegradable as I like swimming and diving and want to avoid damage to marine life if I can help it.

Mountains, cold deserts, glaciers and cold climates

Cold-weather gear may take up more space, but the beauty of layering means you don’t have to take much. Lightweight wool and wicking layers are your best friends. I learned my lesson in South America and have reduced what I need substantially. It now includes:

  • 4-5 long-sleeve T-shirts that you can layer over each other or over a short-sleeve one. If you feel the cold or are going to a particularly cold climate or hiking up mountains, make sure that at least 1 if not 2 are thermal layers.
  • 2 pairs of trousers/hiking pants. You want them to be slightly thicker to help ward off the cold or have enough room to layer over leggings. 
  • A couple of pairs of leggings/yoga pants. For very cold climates make one thermal. They can be the same ones you use for sleeping to cut down on what you’re carrying.
  • Synthetic down jacket that you can compress into a small bag or corner of your backpack. Synthetic fibres dry faster and are more easily compressible than real ones.
  • Gloves with touchscreen fingertips.
  • Neck warmer if your scarf is too light. You can always layer the two or use the neck warmer to cover your ears if you don’t like hats.
  • A beanie hat.

You may want to take some extra pairs of socks, or a thicker pair if you’re going to be camping or doing lots of hiking.

Toiletries and make-up

While not all of us wear make-up, we do all have a basic skincare and hygiene regime. You can typically find most things in towns and cities along the way, but if you’re like me, there will be a couple of things that you don’t compromise on. After years of trial and error, this is on my ultimate packing list:

  • An organic facial soap for mornings and evenings. It could double-up as a body wash too.
  • Facial moisturiser. I’m particular about what I use so I tend to have enough to see me through my trip. However, most brands are available internationally.
  • Body moisturiser. Take a 100ml bottle and buy more as you need it.
  • Shampoo soap. Helps to cut down on plastic use.
  • Deodorant.
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss.
  • Menstrual cup. Alternatively, you may prefer pads or tampons, although you may not be able to find tampons everywhere. Menstrual cups are more hygienic than tampons and create less waste, a consideration in some developing countries with limited infrastructure. Even in the most basic toilets, a splash of hand sanitiser and a bottle of water and you’re back on the road in no time.
  • Razor. You can find refills everywhere and they create less waste than disposable razors.
  • Tweezers.
  • Nail file and clippers. Take them with you to salons if you are at all worried about hygiene and fancy a mani/pedi.  
  • SPF 30 biodegradable sunscreen, higher if you have sensitive or light skin or are in hotter climates or at high altitude.
  • Insect repellent. Avoid DEET if you can, it kills everything in sight!
  • A basic make-up kit of concealer, translucent powder (to combat shine and keep make-up on!), eye shadow, bronzer and brushes, and eyeliner. Lip gloss or Vaseline for your lips.  

Only taking carry-on?

Remember! If you are travelling with carry-on only, then you need to make sure that your liquids are in containers that are 100ml or less (around 3 ounces) and that in total they are not over the limit of what you can carry. You will be able to replace them as you travel through towns and cities.

Medication and first aid

If you are on any medication or using birth control, take enough to see you through your trip. Take a copy of your doctor’s prescription with you and keep all mediations in their original boxes. What you can buy over the counter in your country may be prescription only or even banned in others, and you don’t want to have anything confiscated on entry.

Everyone should have a first aid kit, even a basic one. I got used to travelling with one that included syringes and a scalpel after a trip to the bush in Mozambique, but unless you are going to be in a very remote area, you probably don’t need that. You can either buy ready-made first aid kits or create your own, to include:

  • Alcohol
  • Betadine
  • Insect sting cream
  • Plasters
  • Gauze and tape
  • Small bandage for sprains
  • Cotton buds
  • Ibuprofen (anti-inflammatory)
  • Paracetamol (good for headaches)
  • Antihistamines
  • Thrush medication – this is one for the ladies. I found out the hard way that you can’t buy this over the counter everywhere, so I never travel without it now.
  • Rehydration sachets. For those days when you have a dodgy gut or hangover. They were a lifesaver when I got mild food poisoning in Thailand.  

The same goes for contact lenses. Take enough of a supply to see you through or make arrangements to have replacements sent to you along the way. A prescription is useful here too in case you need to order replacements as you travel. Don’t forget to take your glasses too!

And that’s it. You’ve got the ultimate packing list and are all set to hit the road!

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