What’s inside my backpack? After 30-plus-years of long-term travel, I’m sharing with you my ultimate packing guide and throwing in tips on choosing a backpack.
The question of what I pack for long-term travel is asked too often for me to ignore this any longer.
Warning: I’m not a minimalist when travelling. And, have no idea how travellers stay out for a year or longer with just a carry-on. I haven’t yet learnt this valuable skill.
A little background
Catching the travel bug when first leaving Australia in 1985 on a twelve-month solo-backpacking trip around the world, I’ve streamlined my backpack since then but still think I pack too much. It can be tricky knowing what to pack for long-term travel and across all seasons.
Typically, it doesn’t take me too long to pack. No, I don’t have packing cubes, which seem to be all the craze these days.
Packing for long-term travel is a different beast than for a short jaunt. Don’t despair as we can walk through this together…
What’s inside my backpack?
Together with my day pack, my backpack holds everything I possibly need for indefinite travel as I never really know when I’m returning to Australia. One year becomes two, three, then quickly, I’m on the road for six years – check out my post for the 4th anniversary.
On to my list…
- 1 very warm jacket (NorthFace jacket is -15C)
- 1 light jacket
- 1 rain jacket
- 1 cape – invaluable for covering you and your gear
- 1 fleece
- 1 thermal base layer (top and bottom)
- 2 pairs leggings
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 pair of jeans or trekking trousers
- 1 pair of smart trousers
- 1-2 evening tops – can’t always look like a scruffy backpacker
- 1 light long-sleeved shirt
- 3 light-weight sweater tops
- 4 T-shirts (long and short sleeves)
- 3 singlet tops – great for layering
- 1 pair of thermal gloves
- 1 dressy scarf
- 1 beanie
- 1 wide-brimmed hat
- 4 pairs of socks (2 thick, 2 normal)
- 1 bathing suit
- 1 neck gaiter
- 12 (or more) undies – never skimp on these
- 4-5 bras
- 1 Microfiber fibre towel XL
- 1 pair of trekking boots
- 1 pair of hiking boots
- 1 pair of flip-flops (great for communal showers)
- 1 pair of smart shoes/sandals
- 1 belt (my leather money belt with hidden zipper cash pocket perished in less than a year travelling through Asia)
- 1 Mini Maglite torch – bought the excellent Varga head torch for my partner, which he recommends as it’s hands-free
- 4 TSA locks
- Travel adapter
- Small Swiss Army Knife
- Feather down -18C sleeping bag
- Take lighter layers that you can mix and match to create different looks
- I never pack white as it’s too hard to wash, becomes a lighter shade of grey, and always spill something on it within ten minutes
- Pack a lot of darker colours and brighten these with accessories – scarves, hats, gloves – also great across seasons
- Don’t take expensive jewellery (gold, diamonds, precious stones) or watch. You don’t want to be a target for theft or depending on the country, a target at knife or gunpoint
- Wear trekking boots when flying as although a pain to take off at customs, they’re bulky and take up too much space in a backpack
- Wear heaviest layers and any coats/jackets on the plane to save space and weight in your luggage
- Don’t overfill your backpack – you only shed clothes along the way as you always buy something new
- Roll don’t fold – clothes are less-creased when rolled and also take up less room
- Use every available ’empty’ space – stuff socks and torch in shoes
- Carry a separate light-weight laundry bag
- Roll charging cables in separate hanks and store together in a zip-lock bag
- Carry a couple of recycled plastic bags to pop shoes into before packing in your backpack
Inside my toiletry bag
Seriously, I always pack too much in my Caribee toiletry bag. I’ve owned this bag for over a decade now – it’s tough, durable, and washable.
- Shampoo and tiny conditioner
- Face moisturiser, cleanser, scrub, a couple of serums
- SPF 50+ Sunscreen
- 3 hair dyes – I’ve had disasters trying to match my colour – remove boxes and stuff bottles in empty spaces but in small zip-lock bags
- 50ml Chanel perfume
- Tampons (very expensive in many countries)
- Brush and comb
- 1 nail polish, emery board
- Earbuds, cotton face pads
Small netted Kathmandu towel bag inside my daypack as I’ve recycled this for a makeup pouch.
- Tighten screw-top bottles before packing
- For clip-top bottles, run cellophane tape over the top and down on both sides – stops from popping open
- Place toiletry bag in another non-porous bag in case of explosion/leakage whilst in transit
Inside my day pack
I used to use this pack as my everyday pack although now it’s when travelling from A to B or on treks. If I’m stationed somewhere for a few weeks, I unzip my backpack’s smaller pack and use that for every day, or steal my partner’s Crumpler Camera bag.
- MacBook Air and charging lead
- 1 Seagate 2TB External drive
- 1 Seagate 4TB External drive
- Flash drives
- 3-port USB Hub
- Reusable 1L water bottle – fill up before airport, drink before customs, the flight attendant can fill during flight or find the on-board tap and re-fill yourself – excellent for long-haul flights.
- Mobile phone
- iPad Mini 2
- iPod (old tech now so take your preferred musical device)
- Sudoku (paper copy)
- Small Notepad, pocket-size year diary (for budgeting), pencil, and pen (to complete entry/exit cards)
- Polarised sunglasses
- Neck pouch for a passport (and copies), cards, cash, valuables
- Small bottle hand sanitiser
- Day pack cover
Inside my First Aid Kit
Depending on the country you’re in, first aid items can be very expensive and hard to find.
- Eye drops, eyewash
- Ear plugs
- Plasters and wound pads
- Savlon antiseptic cream or antiseptic powder
- Anti-bacterial powder – for chafe and also trekking boots get very smelly
- Paracetamol, Ibuprofen
- Rehydration salts – read about my partner’s awful experience in Lima
- Water purifying tablets
- Foil blanket
- Rid mosquito repellent
Backpack vs. Rolling luggage
Never owning rolling luggage before, these are my observations over the years when helping travellers, friends, and family.
I’ve seen travellers dragging these over cobbled stones, through sand, over rough terrain, and up or down stairways – the latter can be dangerous. It’s funny to watch and think to myself, why would you?
You can’t take rolling luggage on treks so sooner or later you need some sort of backpack in addition to a rolling suitcase.
Maybe a rolling suitcase is better for people with back issues. Although I do suffer from a back problem but still find a backpack comfortable if it’s well-fitted.
For me, the cons of using a backpack are few. It’s only tough when walking two kilometres with twenty kilos on my back and a ten-kilo-daypack at my front.
My problem is that The Beast (my camera) weighs three kilograms, which usually lives in my daypack with my laptop, cables, and stuff – weighing ten kilograms.
Choosing a backpack
Remember, the bigger the backpack, the more stuff you’ll pack, so the more to lug around.
My favourite backpack for decades is a 65-litre Caribee. I’ve owned two of these as this pack ticks all the boxes. The last Caribee I inherited from my sister lasted almost 15 years of not-so-delicate travelling. My current Caribee is six years old and still looks pretty decent.
Not in any order, these tips are what to look for when choosing a backpack:
- Choose one that you know you can carry but also hoist on and off your back on your own, when fully ladened
- Choose the right backpack for your body length and make sure an adjustable height for your body is included
- Padded adjustable straps for shoulders, chest, and waist belt (sits on your hips, not waist)
- Durable material
- Side opening – I’m not a big fan of the top-opening hiking packs as everything falls to the bottom so you need to take everything out to find anything
- Separate bottom compartment for shoes, dirty clothes, or heavy items
- Strong zippers with locking points – don’t use a key lock as too easy to pick – read my story on robbed in Peru – always use a combination TSA lock
- In-built rain cover
- In-built harness/strap cover – avoids snagging on other luggage or airport luggage conveyor belts
- Removable zippered day pack
- Top and side grab handles – easier to manoeuvre on transport
Choosing a day pack
If your backpack doesn’t come with a removable day pack, then these are a few tips for you:
- Padded adjustable straps for shoulders, chest, and waist belt
- Durable material
- Separate bottom and top compartments (if you carry camera gear)
- Strong zippers with locking points
- In-built rain cover or buy a separate cover
- Top grab handle
- Side pockets for a water bottle and other bits
- Inside pockets
I carry a large camera, heavy zoom lens, plus a MacBookAir so quite weighty. Throw in an iPod, phone, iPad, cables, a few extras, and it’s not long before you reach ten kilograms. I always carry spare underwear when flying in case my backpack is lost, which did happen from Morocco to Argentina.
My Mountainsmith camera backpack is 35-litres and don’t have a problem filling this pack. Although these days, I tend to carry a little less in the pack as airlines are becoming stricter on size and weight.
This is also the second day pack of this type as my first was covered with human excrement during a scam in Quito, Ecuador. The faeces smell just wouldn’t go away – revolting.
What are you waiting for?
Note: Never before have I put together a list of what’s inside my packs. I’m surprised that I carry so much stuff – time to minimise?
Whether you decide to buy a backpack or go for rolling luggage, the best tip that I can share with you is to buy something that’s slightly under what you think you’ll need.
Don’t go too big as you’ll always overpack and have issues – trust me, I’ve learnt the hard way.
I’m eager to hear your pros and cons for using a backpack vs. rolling suitcase. What are the packing must-haves that you simply can’t go without?
Leave me your comments below as I’d love to start a discussion.
If you decide to buy something from any of the links below or inside my post, then I may receive a small commission (for which I’m grateful) at no extra cost to you. These are items I’ve purchased.