After staying in more than 50 hostels over the past year and half, I’m sharing my list of essential items for backpackers.
(hint: this is too much stuff!)
My Frenchman and I have decided to take a last-minute trip next week before all the end-of-year craziness sets in.
We couldn’t decide between San Sebastian, Spain and Edinburgh, Scotland, so we decided to flip a coin.
The fates decided for us, and now we have flights booked to Edinburgh for next week!
Beer, cold weather, warm food, whiskey, English-speakers (sort of), and plenty of Harry Potter nostalgia… I’m so damn excited to go back to Scotland!
We will be staying in a hostel dormitory, which got me thinking about packing up the good ol’ backpack and preparing to re-enter the hostel scene.
I haven’t slept in a hostel since last November in Iceland (not counting the night we booked a hostel for our last night in Tbilisi, Georgia and then stayed up all night hanging out with people in the common room).
Staying in hostels is one of my favorite ways to travel, mostly because it is cheap and and a great way to meet people.
I’d never slept in a hostel dormitory until just a year and a half ago, and since that time I’ve stayed in more than 50.
I’ve learned a thing or two about back-packer life, and today I’m sharing with all of you the things that every budget traveler should have in their bag.
Essential Items for Backpackers
First, let me point out how important it is to choose the right bag.
My first backpack was purchased at a sporting goods shop back in Portland, and it had a hole in it just one month after I started using it. The design of the bag was also quite flawed — the entire bag zipped closed, meaning that every time I moved to a new hostel, I had to play a painstaking game of backpack Tetris to fit all my crap back in my bag *just so* or the whole thing wouldn’t zip.
That bag was eventually stolen in Sweden, so I bought a cheap replacement in Germany. That bag was also a piece of shit, not because of the zipper, but because it had zero back support. I ditched it within two weeks when I found my current bag in a random shop in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Here’s a photo of my bag:
My particular bag is 48 liters, which works perfect for my purposes. I’m pretty practiced at traveling light nowadays, so I could get by with a smaller bag for backpacking if I needed to.
Here’s the bag I packed for our week-long Tanzanian safari earlier this year (um, ignore the cat hair):
I’d like to pack this light all the time but we love to camp, so often times I need to fit a sleeping bag, mattress pad, food, supplies, etc. into my bag.
Since I’m also a digital-nomad type, I need space for my camera, tablet, and other electronic gear.
My current bag allows me the flexibility to pack for any occasion.
If you’re into backpack camping, I recommend this article to get an idea of what size bag is best for your purposes.
Also, don’t forget that the outside of your bag also provides lots of options for gear storage. Just make sure you don’t try to check a bag like this on an airplane. They really don’t like it.
For picking the perfect travel backpack, I recommend reading this article from Nomadic Matt. He’s really covered everything you need to know!
(The only point on which I disagree with Matt is the necessity of a front-loading bag. My current bag has access from the top and bottom and this works perfectly for me. With the addition of packing cubes [see below], you won’t have any trouble accessing the contents of your bag. I’m not saying that front-loading bags are bad [they’re great!], but I want to point out that you don’t have to rule out a bag that is perfect for you in every other way, just because it is top-loading.)
For the actual list, I’m going to focus on the specific things I brought with me that made my life easier while traveling.
Because I love and use these products, I’ve included affiliate links which means I may receive a small commission if you buy something I recommend – at no extra cost to you. Thank you for continuing to support this site!
Okay, on to the actual list!
What’s in My Bag?
If you have a top-loading backpack, this organizer will save your sanity.
The entire thing just slides right into your bag, allowing you to organize and access your belongings without tearing apart your pack every time you need something. The hanging hooks are super handy!
Travelbug Compression Packing Cubes
If you have a front-loading bag, or just want to flexibility to organize things more discretely, compression cubes are where it’s at. I use these all the time now because I can utilize them in both backpacks and suitcases. I recommend buying smaller size ones if you want to fit them in your backpack.
Pencil Bag Organizers
Having a few small bags on hand will really help you out for organizing your pack as well as your day-bag.
One of the best things I did while backpacking was to put together a little “good-night” kit in one of these bags. Inside, I put my favorite eye-mask, ear plugs, melatonin tablets, and some OTC painkillers.
I used this bag not only in hostels, but also on trains, buses, and planes. It was so convenient to have everything I might need to rest or get some shut-eye all put together in one organized kit.
This also made a lot of difference on nights when I arrived at a hostel after the rest of the room was asleep. I just needed to grab one little bag out of the top of my pack and I was ready for bed.
Trtl Neck Pillow
Speaking of sleeping on trains, buses, and planes, I don’t know where I would be without my Trtl Pillow.
I know some people can sleep anywhere, but I’m one of those weirdos who can’t sleep without proper neck support. This pillow comes with me on all of my adventures!
My Favorite Eye Mask
I couldn’t mention it without giving you a link!
I love, love, love this eye-mask because it actually contours to your face and blocks out all the light. You can see why I never leave home without it!
My Favorite Ear Plugs
These are affordable and work really well.
Don’t try sleeping in a hostel without bringing ear plugs.
Silk Sleep Sack
Another way I make sure I always get a good night’s sleep is by traveling with a sleep sack. These aren’t nearly as bulky as a sleeping bag, but they offer a lot to a backpacker.
I used mine as an extra layer when I was cold, as an only layer when it was too hot for blankets, and as a barrier for times when I just didn’t trust the cleanliness of the bedding.
My favorite one is made of silk, but there are also cotton varieties that are much more affordable.
This is, of course, only for people who like to read. I read a lot at home, but when I travel I go through books like crazy.
I love being able to have access to a practically unlimited number of books (in English!) no matter where I am in the world. An absolutely necessity!
Smartphone / Tablet Stand
Trust me, there will be days when you
are hungover don’t feel like doing anything and just want to watch some Netflix from bed. A kick-stand makes this a lot easier! Also great for trains, planes, and buses.
Wireless Bluetooth Headphones
Lots of people get by with in-ear buds, but those things hurt my ears so I like to travel with over-the-ear headphones.
I spent a lot of time watching movies and listening to podcasts on long bus drives, so I was really happy I had them!
Extra Long USB Cable
On the topic of electronics, one of the best things I brought on my entire trip was an extra-long USB charging cable.
There were so many times when I had to sleep on a top bunk and the power outlet was way out of reach.
Bringing a long charging cable allowed me to charge my phone at night while keeping it with me in bed. Great for security, but also for Netflix-watching.
Universal Travel Adapter
Of course, bringing the right charging cable won’t help you if you can’t plug it in.
Don’t leave the country without a universal adapter!
Rubber Sink Stopper
If you’re away from home for more than a week, you’ll likely need to wash your clothes.
This is a handy gadget to have in your bag so you can make any tub, sink, or (deep) shower stall into a wash basin.
Awesome not only for drying your clothes, but for providing you some make-shift (and necessary) privacy.
Use it along with your towel to create a curtain in for your bottom bunk. You can thank me later.
SUCH a necessity. They dry fast, weight next to nothing, and can be used in a variety of ways.
Hanging Toiletries Bag
Lots of hostel bathrooms don’t have counter space to place your items. It’s great to have a bag that hangs!
I use this guy as my full-time toiletries organizer. It’s just easier than unpacking every time I come home.
It’s very durable and has contained a few leaks for me over the years.
Silicone Travel Bottles
Once you’ve had a leak or two, you’ll understand the importance of quality travel bottles.
I bought these silicone squeeze bottles a few years ago and I LOVE them.
Lena Menstrual Cup
Speaking of leaks (ahem), this one is for the ladies.
Seriously, if you’re not using a cup yet you don’t know what you’re missing! It is so much more convenient in every conceivable way.
I spent a lot of time looking for a good pair of comfy walking shoes.
I found these two years ago and I love them! I’m on my second pair now because the first pair got sacrificed to La Tomatina last September.
No one should leave home without travel insurance, and for me it’s always going to be World Nomads.
With that in mind, I’m off to pack my bag for Scotland!
See you on the road,