Making plans to travel the world for an undetermined period of time with only a 70 litre backpack is a little, well, daunting.
My first approach was to spend a lot of time trying to work out every possible situation in which I could find myself, and then deciding what I needed to take with me for each of those eventualities. As a result, of course, I completely overpacked, and ended up shipping stuff home only a couple of months into the trip.
However with failure comes success, so they say, and I also learnt what items were absolutely invaluable along the way.
So here’s my list of the top ten items that I wouldn’t go travelling without.
1. Water Bottle
A water bottle is an absolute travel essential for everyone, whether you’re going on a weekend break or a much longer adventure. In warmer climates it’s absolutely essential to remain hydrated to avoid heatstroke and other related maladies, and carrying your own water bottle is not only a million times better for the environment but also much cheaper than relying on single use plastics.
We each have a “Lifestraw Go” water bottle. Aside from being sturdy and easy to clip onto your bag, these bottles also come with a removable straw that filters out over 99% of bacteria, parasites and microplastics, as well as chlorine and organic chemical matter. It’s designed to filter water from a stream, river or tap and make it safe to drink.
2. Scrubba Bag
It’s incredibly likely that at some point during your adventures you’ll be staying somewhere without access to a washing machine, or at least without access to a cheap washing machine.
The Scrubba is basically a portable, hand operated, washing machine. You fill the bag with your dirty clothes, water and a bit of soap, close it up, squeeze out the air and get to it. The inside of the bag has some little plastic nubbins on that act a little like a washboard and give your clothes a good, well, scrubbing, once you apply some good elbow grease. You then dump everything out and rinse, either using the bag a second time without soap, or just using a shower or tap. The bag is on the small side, so you can’t wash a whole lot in one go, but it’s perfect for when you’re in a bind.
3. Clothes Line
This one’s obvious if you’ve already got a Scrubba or are doing your own laundry, but we’ve stayed in a fair few places where we’ve had access to a washing machine but a dryer’s either been prohibitively expensive or non existent. Clothes lines are cheap and pack up super small so there’s no excuse for not having one. This one can be tied around things, hooked on, or stuck to tiles or glass and you don’t need pegs; just thread your clothes through the twisted elastic.
4. A Travel Soap Dish
Shampoo and shower gels take up a lot of space in luggage, so we’ve been travelling with solid shampoos and soap bars for a long time now. I used to carry them around in old jars but because I’m a clumsy so and so I’d invariably drop them on the bathroom floor and get glass everywhere. So we upgraded to soap dishes, particularly these excellent ones which are plastic free and include a coconut coir mat to stop your soaps from melting in a pool of water.
5. Cross Body/Bum Bag
For the odd trip to the shops or excursion into town or the market, you can’t beat a small cross body or bum bag. You manage to avoid the inevitable back sweat caused by a backpack, and I also really like the security of being able to hold my belongings securely in front of me easily in crowds or on public transport. Getting access to your stuff is also a whole lot easier, so when I’m switching between my camera or phone it just makes everything a lot less cumbersome.
I recently invested in this bag from Baggu. It’s the perfect size; I can easily fit my mirrorless camera plus a spare lens in the rear pouch, with my phone, wallet and sunglasses in the front. Steve has a Patagonia black hole bum bag that he loves, and it’s got a million different pockets for all his bits and bobs.
These aren’t big enough to keep your water bottle in, but we just clip ours on to the straps. Easy!
6. Packable Tote
Shopping is just something that we all do a lot of. If we’re self catering (which we usually are) then we’ll need to buy groceries, however on any day we’ll usually pick up a few bits and bobs of goodness knows what. And that’s a whole lot of potential plastic bags. So we have a small collection of packable totes. Aside from a small canvas tote that folds up incredibly small and can fit into our day bags, bum bags or even a pocket, we also have a couple of larger totes that pack up into their own little pouches. We’ll always have at least one of them on us if we’re out and about.
7. Packing Cubes
I think back to my life before packing cubes and wonder how I survived.
One of the tricks with long term travel is to organise your belongings. Because you have to pack for so many eventualities and climates it’s incredibly likely that you may not use some of your belongings for months at a time. And if you’re moving to a new place every 2-3 days the last thing you want to do is to have to unpack and repack every time. Which is why you need packing cubes.
I have a number of different packing cubes that I use
This one which is my “long term storage” cube. It’s a compression bag so it’s a great way to store things away that I don’t need immediate access to. I use it for my beach wear when I’m in a city, or my cool weather clothes when I’m at the beach.
This set which I use for my current “in rotation” clothes, the smaller bag for my camera, go pro and other tech stuff, and the shoe bag, well, for my shoes. I also have smaller pouches for my underwear.
8. Cotton Hammam/Turkish Towel
This item has been top of my travel list for goodness knows how long. I bought my pink cotton hammam towel at a market in Paris a few years ago which makes me feel oh so chic and use it pretty much everyday. It’s the ultimate multi purpose piece of kit – towel, beach mat, blanket for overnight transport, wrap to keep the sun off, cover up for religious/holy places… It’s super light and packs away small so is easy to take everywhere with you, which you will.
9. Food Canister
My Klean Kanteen Food Canister was a total last minute addition to my suitcase but boy, am I glad I brought it with me. I knew we’d be self catering for most of the time, and I also knew that we’d often be sharing a kitchen with other people. So having something we can put our leftovers in is really important.
It’s also a great little snack receptacle, and it’s totally leak proof so we frequently use it to put lunches in for day trips. It’s also been used as a wine glass and a cocktail shaker. So an absolute lifesaver then.
10. E-Reader and Library Membership
Granted, this one’s probably a bit more of a luxury item but if, like me, you’re someone who reads a lot on holiday, then the last thing you want to do is lug books around with you. So what if I said you could have access to as many e-books as you want, all for free?
Many public libraries, including all the ones in London, offer e-books for loan. My library (Hackney) offers them through Overdrive. It basically means you can borrow books for free, though you can only store each one on your e-reader for a set period of time (usually 21 days, though you can renew loans as with normal books). You’ll need a laptop with some software to give you access to download the books and copy them to your e-reader, but it’s an incredibly easy system.
A note of caution – there are some restrictions on what types of file you can access through Overdrive and most of them are not compatible with most Kindles unless you find a way to get sneaky. If you’re starting out from scratch, for that reason I would recommend investing in a Kobo or one of the other brands instead of a Kindle.
Bonus Item: What Suitcase to Take
I invested in a brand new Fairview 70 Travel Pack from Osprey a few years ago. With a total capacity of 70 litres, split between a 57 litre main pack and a 13 litre day pack, it fits the perfect amount of stuff for long term travel. I like that the day pack is detachable for hikes or shorter excursions, and also that the two are pretty snug and secure when attached together.
Having travelled with backpacks before, the best thing that I like about this pack is that it zips open like a standard suitcase, meaning you can easily access your stuff (especially if you’re using packing cubes) and don’t need to unpack everything to find that one thing you accidentally shoved right at the bottom of your bag.