When I was in Colombia a very sweet woman leading a hike in Monguí asked me: “what’s the one thing that all backpackers have in common – something that I can see just by looking at them?” I immediately had the image in my mind. Someone who’s wearing two backpacks – one on their back about the size of their torso and a smaller one in front. And in these two small receptacles is everything they find valuable and necessary for the duration of their wandering.
I’ll be the first to say that packing for 3 months in two small bags can be very daunting at first. Everything you need? In a backpack?!? But once you accept the fact that humans do not need as many things as we are lead to believe, and that it is okay to wear the same clothes multiple days in a row (come on, everybody’s doing it!), you come to realize that you really don’t need that much stuff to survive.
So what’s in my little green backpack anyway? The contents varied slightly between my two trips, based a little bit on culture but mostly on climate. In South America I started on the hot and humid Caribbean coast of Colombia where I basically spent two weeks in a bathing suit and a pair of shorts. By the end of the trip I was south of the equator, in the high altitude dessert and mountains, during the winter. Which means I was wearing multiple layers and still had to buy Alpaca wool gloves, hats, and scarves. Packing for Southeast Asia proved a bit easier because I’m only going to be experiencing one climate – hot and humid, although there will be cooler nights in the more mountainous regions in northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. As I write this, however, it’s currently 93 degrees with 68% humidity in Bangkok.
So here is a list of everything that I currently have in my favorite green backpack for 3 months in Southeast Asia. May it inspire you to downsize your wardrobe and pack your own backpack for an unforgettable adventure!
Bottom right: 48 liter Osprey Kestrel backpack – my main squeeze
Top right: 20 liter Osprey Tempest daypack – perfect for short overnight trips
Bottom middle: 8 liter Patagonia Atom Slim Bag – I affectionately refer to this bag as the magic backpack because everytime I think it’s full I somehow manage to squeeze something else in there. It’s perfect for city life and can easily fit anything I need for an afternoon out (including a 1 liter Nalgene water bottle)
Bottom left: “Pack-It Compression Bag” by Eagle Creek – this is a vacuum sealed bag that helps store heavier clothes and takes up less space (fits the two small piles shown in the top left corner)
REI Expandable Packing Cubes: these are absolutely essential for backpack organization. I also recommend small pouches to keep your electronics (chargers, headphones) and extras organized.
- 1 maxi skirt
- 1 maxi dress
- 1 pair of leggings (for chilly overnight bus rides and the crisp mountain air)
- 1 pair of yoga capris
- 2 pairs of athletic shorts
- 1 lightweight long sleeve
- 1 SmartWool long sleeve pullover
- 1 Patagonia sweatshirt
- 2 short sleeve shirts
- 4 tank tops
- 1 Buff (www.buffwear.com)
- 1 Bathing suit
- 1 Rain coat
- 4 pairs of socks (2 hiking socks and 2 regular)
- Underwear/bras: quantity depends on personal preference and how often you want to pay for laundry
*It’s important to consider cultural factors for the regions of the world you’ll be visiting. Many Asian countries tend to require more modest dress, especially when entering temples and sacred sites. For females this means covering your knees, ankles, and shoulders out of respect for the culture. This definitely influenced what made the cut for my wardrobe on this trip (hence the maxi skirt and dress). In South America, I substituted these items for a pair of jeans and a pair of jean shorts, which occupied the same amount of space in my bag.
- Hiking sneakers: I highly recommend trail runners. They’re lightweight and very durable, and also don’t look super hiker-y when walking through a city. The one downside to my Saucony Trail Runners is that they’re not waterproof (though they do dry unexpectedly quickly).
- Chacos: although not the most attractive shoe, they’re very practical for cities, mountains, and beaches as they dry quickly and offer lots of support for long days of walking.
- Flip flops: for showering and beachwear
- Sanuk flip flops (not pictured): a last minute purchase before leaving the US, and a very comfortable/cute option for nighttime and city life
Toiletries: Keep in mind that you can purchase whatever you need in the places you visit. From clothing to shampoo, soap, and toothpaste, anything and everything you can imagine is also available wherever you may find yourself, so bring just enough to get you through the first few days. In Asia, for example, you can find a 7-Eleven on just about every street corner. With that being said, if you absolutely, without question, must havea particular brand of something, you may want to bring a sufficient amount (for me, my one necessity is my face wash and moisturizer).
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Face wash and moisturizer
- Contact solution (and 3 months of contacts)
- Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
- Chapstick (with SPF!)
Med Kit: It’s definitely important to have some essentials with you just in case, but as similarly stated above, everything you could imagine ever needing is available to you during your travels.
- Vaccination list: if you ever need to visit a doctor abroad, they’ll probably ask you for this in order to illuminate certain causes for potential illness
- Hydrocortisone (for mosquito bites) and mosquito repellant
- Anti-histamine: if you’re like me, you never know when allergies may strike
- Traveler’s diarrhea meds: it’s a real and common thing, be prepared!
- Antibacterial gel
- Tissues/ toilet paper: you won’t find it everywhere
- Portable charger
- Chargers (and adapters depending on where you’re going)
- Headphones and headphone splitters (great for making friends on long bus rides)
- Passport and photocopies
- Extra passport photos (sometimes needed for visas issued on arrival to certain countries)
- Printed address of your first accommodation (to show immigration and to easily ask for help finding it)
- Proof of Traveler’s Health Insurance: I prefer to use the GeoBlue Voyager Essential plan whenever I travel – it’s comprehensive and affordable
- Local currency for your first destination (equivalent to approximately $100USD). I highly recommend trying to purchase some from your bank before you leave home as exchange rates at the airport and other currency exchange points can be very high. Keep in mind it sometimes takes a week or so for your bank to order foreign currency.
- Yoga mat: mine is the Manduka Eko Superlite – very lightweight and travel friendly
- Towel: I love my Turkish towel, it drys very fast and is quite compact
- 1 liter Nalgene
- TSA Approved locks (for hostel lockers, and they’re also very useful for your small bag on overnight buses)
- Sea to Summit Waterproof Bag for electronics
- Spork (I’ve rarely used it but when camping or on an overnight bus it comes in handy)
- RFID Wallet: prevents your cards and identification form being scanned
- Neck pillow: an absolute must for overnight buses and long plane rides
- Ear plugs: a backpacker’s best friend in a 10 person hostel dorm
- Ziplock bags (large and small): their uses are numerous and their value is priceless
- Playing cards: it’s amazing how much fun international card games over beers can be!
- Notebook and pens: call me old fashioned, but sometimes you just need to write things down
Keeping things organized in your backpack is my #1 piece of advice. Believe me – if it’s the middle of the night or early in the morning and you need something from your bag, the last thing you want to do is be moving all your crap around trying to find your toothbrush while your dorm mates are sleeping. I’ve been the person looking and the person awoken by someone else and trust me, neither is fun. This is why I love packing cubes and smaller compartments so much.
It’s also important not to pack your bag to the brim. Keep in mind you have to carry this everywhere, so extra ounces add up quick. It’s also nice to have a little space for things you pick up along the way, and to be able to bring home some souvenirs.