By Sue Bedford
Backpacking RTW requires a certain skill set, like how to politely point out that your tuk-tuk driver has been circling the block to rack up the meter charge without shouting and “losing face” in Southeast Asia, for example, or how to run full speed through an airport while carrying a 14-kilogram bag and wearing flip-flops to catch a departing flight. Most of these proficiencies can be acquired on the road; however, you will have to know how to warp the constructs of space before you leave home.
By that I mean learn how to pack your backpack. While 70 litres may seem enormous when you’re in the store, it is guaranteed to inexplicably shrink by the time you get back to your house. As you will spend a significant amount of time wandering in search of the train station/bus depot/metro line/cheapest guesthouse while toting everything you own, it is crucial you bring only the bare necessities on your trip.
Although your hair straightener may seem like an unrelinquishable item now, it will quickly become an insufferable burden that you will cast into a burping volcano or over a serrated cliff (or just abandon in your room for guesthouse staff to claim) along with your preoccupation with frizzy tresses.
When purchasing luggage, be sure to select a backpack (a bag that you pack from the top downwards) as opposed to a travel bag (a bag which has straps like a backpack but which unzips akin to a duffel bag or suitcase) as it is more conducive to being worn while walking.
A quality backpack can last decades so don’t hesitate to spend a little extra for a product that is comfortable and durable, such as MEC’s Serratus 85 Backpack. Procure your backpack from a reputable outdoors retailer (like MEC) as knowledgeable staff will assist you in selecting a model that is best suited for your needs and adjustable to fit your body.
There are a myriad of day bag styles available, and everybody has their own preference.
Shoulder sling bags are simple to wear in conjuncture with a backpack and can be held close in defense of pick-pockets while meandering through bustling markets. However, they are cumbersome to use while hiking as they throw off your balance and drag you down.
If you are partial to a sling bag, consider also buying a foldable backpack that will compress into a sack half the size of a sock.
Knapsacks are much better for outdoor excursions but should be worn on your chest while in crowds and the straps may slide when used together with your backpack. My favourite are knapsacks with one strap across the chest as they can be slid into a sling bag position and will not interfere with your backpack.
Most clothing (such as the Thai fisherman pants or Ali Baba pants that are ubiquitous among backpackers) can be purchased cheaply on route.
With the exception of trekking gear or base layers to keep you cozy, do not bring your finest garments as they will probably not survive the ordeal. Be aware of which countries require modest dress and pack loose clothing that fully covers your knees, shoulders and chest for these occasions. If you are travelling to India and hoping to blend in (as much as possible, anyway), you can have custom clothing tailor-made at an affordable rate.
Swimsuit, underwear, socks (a thick pair if you are sensitive to overly air-conditioned planes), t-shirts, long-sleeved t-shirts for layering, sweatshirt, shorts, pants that are favourable to hiking (not jeans), sleep shorts or pajama pants, raincoat, running or hiking shoes, flip-flops if you are travelling to a sunny climate, any warm items you may require such as a toque or mittens
Deodorant, lip balm with sunscreen, toothbrush with travel case and toothpaste, razor and blades, small container of moisturizer (especially if you will be at altitude or in the desert), bar of two-in-one hair and body soap in a travel case (liquids are prone to spontaneous explosion), sunscreen, nail clippers, condoms, Diva Cup or similar for women (tampons can be difficult to find in certain regions)
As you will probably not use entire packages of medication, and as your supplies can be replenished as needed in most towns, save space by storing your tablets in travel-sized pill boxes.
Band-Aids, spray bandage if you intend to spend most of your time by the water, anti-diarrhea medication, ibuprofen, anti-nausea medication for buses and boats, antihistamines if you are prone to allergic reactions, altitude pills if applicable, mole skin if you will be hiking, antiseptic cream, water purification tablets if you will be trekking to remote areas (otherwise, bottled water is readily available), bug spray if you will be in the jungle, any prescription medication you may require
Eye mask and ear plugs, combination lock for hostel lockers, travel-sized tissue packs, sunglasses, headlamp and batteries, camera and charger, extra memory cards, plug converters, phone and charger, headphones, novel (most hostels have book exchanges) or e-reader and charger, money belt, sleeping bag in a compression sack, journal and pens, guidebook and phrasebook, sarong (it folds smaller, dries quicker and is more multi-purpose than a towel), mesh laundry bag, foreign money, emergency US money, passport, copy of your health insurance, bank card, credit card(s), yellow fever card if required, extra passport photos, inflatable neck pillow if you have difficulty falling asleep on planes, water bottle if you intend to hike, day bag. [Editor’s note/2020: Face mask, face mask, face mask! In multiple.]
Wearing your home on your back: becoming the hermit crab
Organization is extremely important as you will be packing and unpacking on a regular basis—perhaps blindly in the dark as not to wake your snoring dorm-mates or frantically at the airport while searching for your misplaced passport.
Everybody has a system and you will, over time, develop your own.
Personally, I find it easiest to compartmentalize everything. My clean laundry is in one mesh bag separate from my dirty clothes bag; everything I don’t use on a regular basis (e.g. nail clippers, medication) is in a makeup bag; my daily toiletries are in a large pencil case; and my extra shoes and seasonal wear that I do not immediately need are in a less-accessible zippered pocket of my backpack. Be sure to store your headlamp and guidebook in easy to reach places, and keep tissues as well as a couple of anti-diarrhea, anti-nausea and ibuprofen pills in your day bag.
There are mixed opinions when it comes to stowing your valuables. Some people retain their passports with them at all times (which can be handy as they might be required when entering national sites or purchasing transportation tickets) while others believe they are safer buried in their backpack at the guesthouse. To cover your bases, divvy up your emergency US money and a certain amount of local currency between your day bag and your backpack just in case one of them sprouts legs and wanders away.
Practice packing and unpacking your backpack a week before you are set to depart to give yourself enough time to acquire anything you may have forgotten. Remember that dirty clothes take up more space than clean ones—ideally due to being crumpled as opposed to being that burdened with filth—so if your bag is bursting at the seams while still on your bedroom floor, then you may want to rethink a few items. If worse comes to worst and you do forget something, most things can be replaced while on the road.
The final installment in this series on How to Plan a ’Round the World Trip will be entitled Part Five: Last Minute Tips and will be coming soon!
- Sue Bedford is an indie traveller who’s been to over 50 countries. She wrote a series on indie travel for Outpost online, and was chosen as a host for Outpost’s Tan Your Mind Thailand Series 1. Check out the blog and video series here.