As I pack my backpack for the last time this year, wondering why I’ve bought so much fresh coffee to take home, and what on earth I need to throw away in order to fit it into my bag, it occurs to me that after two years of travelling, there is very little in my backpack that isn’t a travel essential…which only serves to make my packing predicament more difficult.
While I sit contemplating taking all 15kg (33lb) of my belongings on a boozy night out (experience tells me that’s how I’m best able to part company with my possessions), I thought I’d share with you the 10 travel essentials I find most useful* when I travel.
1. Small Padlock
This is the one item that I use every day and truly is a travel essential. Whether I’m putting it on a dorm locker or leashing two zips together on my daypack, my padlock has the most important job out of all of my traveling gear – keep thieves from my valuable items (laptop, iPad, passport, chocolate). Having been relieved of my iPhone after not securing it in my locker in Laos, I can testify that sadly things do get stolen from hostels and while many hostels do supply lockers, they almost never provide locks. Of course, the more opportunistic hostel businesses will gladly sell you one for an inflated charge, but it’s far better (read: cheaper) to pack your own.
If your backpack can be locked and you plan on going anywhere near the USA, I’d recommend getting a TSA compliant padlock, which allows the American security folk to rummage through your belongings without having to snip through your lock.
I actually pack two TSA compliant padlocks – one for my dorm locker and another for when I take my daypack out in a busy city. I’ve had many other travelers tell me that my method just attracts people to my bag and I can see their point as my lock is lurid pink, but it tucks nicely out of sight, I feel like it provides at least a deterrent for lazy thieves, and, perhaps more importantly, I’ve have not had any problems yet.
On the same theme, I also pack a small, ultra-lightweight cable lock that is handy when a locker isn’t available, (common in some locations such as Hawaii and is also useful on sleeper trains). I use the cable to secure my bag to my bunk or other hard to move object and padlock it closed. Of course, this system isn’t failsafe either – if someone wants to get into my bag it’s nothing a good knife can’t solve, but the same principle applies to my kidneys, and I’ve not had either taken – yet.
Although my Nan was right – I’m not made of sugar, that doesn’t meant to say that I shouldn’t pack a raincoat. While you’ll hope not to use this item very often (especially if you’re chasing summer around the globe) when you do need to use it, you’ll be glad you packed this travel essential. As well as sheltering you from the worst of any monsoon season you stumble into, it will come in handy during trekking when you might find yourself cutting through cloud forests or hitting altitude, which can be both damp and cold. The alternative is disposable ponchos, but in my experience they seem to be more effective at collecting water than draining it and if it’s too big (they’re usually one size fits all with ‘all’ often being sumo wrestler) you’re likely to end up with a gaping neckline, which won’t be effective anyway. Add to the fact they are rarely good for more than one wear and a raincoat seems the better option all round.
I used to pack a more expensive wind proof jacket but after losing it to the laundry thieves in Guatemala, my lovely brother under instructions of a strict budget picked up a cheaper one for me and although it fits in lovely with my irrepressible pink color theme, I regret not spending more to get better wind resistance and a thicker inner layer so I will be going for an upgrade next time round.
3. Swiss Army Knife
Swiss Army Knives are not the preserve of the mountaineering folk, they’re a travel essential for anyone undertaking any form of long-term travel. I use mine at least once a week to open wine. Obviously, it is very handy if you’re doing anything in the great outdoors, too, but even if you’re not, a penknife is a good all-round option for travellers because it can pack a lot of function into a small space. The tools I find most useful are the long knife (used for cutting steak, spreading peanut butter and, once, deterring two men from attacking me); the scissors (perfect for cutting nails and turning jeans into shorts); the saw (good for hacking through French baguette and particularly difficult toenails if it comes to it); tweezers (eyebrow plucking, splinters, extracting a stuck bank card from an ATM); the corkscrew (already mentioned); and the bottle opener (when I’m not in the mood for wine – I’ve not yet mastered the pop the top off with a lighter trick and I don’t carry a lighter anyway). All-in-all, a pretty useful tool.
I’m onto my second Victoria Knox Huntsman (the first one I carelessly abandoned in a hostel in Guadalajara after too much Tequila, but that’s a whole different blog).
4. Packing cubes
If you’ve got a top loading backpack like I have, these are going to be a huge time saving travel essential. I stuff one with my clothes, one with my beachwear, another with my electrical cables/chargers and another for underwear. I used to travel without them and Sod’s Law would dictate that the item I wanted would always be at the bottom of my bag…unless I went into my bag via the bottom zip, in which case the elusive item would work its way right to the middle. LPPC (Life Post Packing Cubes) is much simpler – now, when I arrive in a new place I pull out the cubes, get what I want and have easier access to all the other stuff (bulkier clothing, books) that is packed loosely into my bag. Completely unscientifically, I suspect I have saved days by not having to root around for my things. And it makes repacking easier, too.
I have bought two sets of the Design Go cubes. The first set lasted over a year and is still going strong – I only replaced them because I bought white and they started to look grubby. The larger bag on the second purchase split at the seam where it meets the plastic, but was easy enough to sew together and I’m overall still happy with the product.
I recently checked into a hostel in San Francisco that had free ear plugs at the desk, which is always a screaming sign that you’ve arrived in a party hostel. However, this freebie doesn’t come with all accommodation, so take your own because you are most likely to realise you need them some time in the middle of the night when all of the pharmacies are closed and you’ll be left appreciating the true value of this travel essential by its absence. From drunken debauchery to garbage trucks, to heavy-duty-furniture-shifting snorers to being woken at 3 a.m. by some drunk girl screaming out the time of her life in the bathroom with the guy she just met in the hostel bar (yes, this happened just last week in my hostel, but fortunately isn’t too common), you’re going to want earplugs, and several pairs of them.
Courtesy of a good friend who shall remain nameless, but has a partner with award-winning snoring skills, she has tested every brand going and has concluded that 3M are the best. I’ve tried them in many a hostel and couldn’t agree more. But, frankly, any brand that can take the edge off the late night noise is going to be sleep saving.
6. Travel Towel
Packing a full size bath towel is a serious no-go for travelers – they are hard to dry, will take up around half of your backpack, and after as little as a week will start to smell like you’re packing a wet, stray dog. However, unless you plan on giving up on showering as you travel (plea: please reconsider if you are – you will come to smell like aforementioned wet, stray dog), you will need something to dry off with and a microfiber travel towel is the perfect alternative and travel essential. No, it won’t feel as nice Egyptian cotton, but it will pack small and dry quick. I try to change mine every six to nine months as the anti-bacterial coating does diminish with regular use and my propensity for pink has me purchasing the most impractical colour which can look grimy quickly (especially after I decided in the middle of my trip to India to dye my hair black). After my third pink version, I’ll be opting for a darker shade next time round.
There is an alternative, which is to hire towels as you go. The problem is that most hostels charge at least $1 for the privilege. On a one year trip moving rooms every fourth night, that’s going to come out at over $90, so packing your own is going to be more cost effective. I swear by Lifeventure. They’re a UK brand that distributes internationally , but alternative brands exist in the USA, such as Sea to Summit.
7. Head torch
Head torches aren’t just for midnight treks or caving. You’ll surprisingly come to use this item more than you might imagine – when you arrive at your dorm late at night or need to leave early and consequently have to do everything in the dark, including crack your padlock code, find stuff at the bottom of your bag or make it to the bathroom without breaking your neck on the dozen other backpacks scattered around. It will equally come in handy for moving around on night buses and trains, reading when the lights are out, getting around during unexpected blackouts (I found this particularly useful in Latin America where power was intermittent), walking down dark roads at night and, if you have the functionality, livening up any hostel party with strobe-effect red lights. And then, of course, there is the primary function of head torches – cave exploring, night hiking and seeing the detail in dark temples (I found mine helpful in China’s Longman Grottos).
When you’re shopping for this travel essential, I suggest getting one that is waterproof, has a strap for going around your head (you might think you look stupid, but in reality you’re the one shining your light in someone else’s eyes) and is small, light and powerful. Mine also has a whistle on it, which is good for extra personal security/use at a rave…though in practice, the head band may throw off your otherwise cool clubbing look.
I currently pack a Petzl eLight, but, to be honest, while it has served me well for a year, it’s not as powerful as I’d like, so I’m in the market for another one if you have any suggestions.
A sarong is another travel essential thanks to the fact that it folds small and has a large number of potential functions: beach towel, body towel on the days you put your microfiber in the laundry just before you went on a sweaty hike, something to cover your shoulders or legs when you visit temples or religious sites, skirt, dress, bed sheet, blanket, window/toilet door cover (yes, there are some ‘see through’ facilities), neck scarf, picnic blanket and, if fashioned correctly, a bag. The list could surely go on with imagination greater than mine, but the more important point to address is gender – guys, sarongs are not the preserve of girls. Dark colours and patterns can easily make a sarong unisex, so this useful multi-function slip of cotton can be your travel friend too.
If you don’t have one already, they are pretty cheap to pick up on the road (possibly cheaper than buying it at home). My last one was bought in Mexico for a mere $5 (haggling required) and has served its time well – it’s just recently been retired to Sarong Heaven thanks to too many holes and rip at the bottom courtesy of overuse and it will be the first thing I replenish when I hit the road again.
Before I set off on my adventures around the world I did plenty of research on what other people considered travel essentials and I recall reading a post on one forum by a guy who went to great lengths to mock spork users – in his view it was the fastest way to spot an inexperienced traveller. Consequently, as a virgin backpacker I suffered real paranoia every time I used my spork when I was first on the road. However, two years on and I will go so far as to say that I love my spork! In fact, when TSA recently assaulted, ahem, checked, my bag, their meat hook hands broke my blessed spork and it sent me into a fit of rage. Of course, there is little I can do about it apart from put a replacement spork on my Christmas list. From hostels that don’t have cutlery (it does happen) to camping to eating pretty much anywhere on the road, a spork is a very handy item to have. Yes, you can try to grab plastic forks or chopsticks as you go, but they are not always available and in any case a spork is reusable, robust (provided the TSA don’t go near it) and multi-function. To the spork-mocker, it is I who laughs at you as you try to eat your noodles at the bus station with nothing more than your fingers and tongue.
10. Foot File
Foot callouses and cracked heals are not a pretty subject (or sight), but if you’re wearing flip-flops (thongs for you Aussies) 90% of your travelling time, your feet are going to feel the strain. Hard, dry and ultimately cracked soles can be painful as well as ugly as day to day street dirt has an uncanny talent for locking itself onto your dry skin giving you that homeless look. Solution: pack a foot file and make it a part of your shower ritual. I’m not promising the same effect you’d receive from a $50 pedicure, but it should keep the cracks at bay.
I bought mine for under $5 up in a pharmacy in South America. There are plenty on the market to choose from. Ideally what you’re looking for in this travel essential is a file that is small (definitely a theme here), lightweight, plastic handled (wood will not wear as well) and ideally foldable so the course side doesn’t grate stuff in your wash bag.
If there are travel essentials that you wouldn’t travel about, let me know in the comments below. In the meantime, I best get off on that possession reliving bar crawl. I really do need to get those twenty bags of coffee home.
* by most useful I mean most useful beyond the most obvious – just because soap and clean underwear aren’t on the list, doesn’t mean I’ve turned feral.