The Backpacking Essentials: The Things We Couldn't Travel Without

It's been many, many years since we took our first backpacking trips. And whilst we've definitely gotten much better at it, there are some things that we still hate doing.

This includes quadruple-checking we've got the right flight date before booking and, of course, packing.

Sure, we know exactly what should go in our bags, have put together the most wonderful backpacking packing lists and can now leave the kitchen sink at home, but that doesn't mean we're not still scurrying around at 1 a.m. when we have to catch a flight five hours later.

Are you like us? Then this post is for you. Full of our hard-earned wisdom, it's a list of items that you actually need when travelling on a small-scale budget - the things we wouldn't go on an adventure without - so make sure you add these essentials to your backpacking packing list!


 

KEEPING US FULLY CHARGED

Do you know how many times before she met Andrew that Emily would forget to pack an international adapter? Yeah, she spent a lot of money on plugs in airports... Needing little explanation, if you're heading to a different country than that where your electronics were purchased, you need one of these!

We still have a cupboard full of them, but we now take a single plug which can be used in any country. If you have a lot of electrical products, then it may make sense to take a surge-proof extension lead which will allow you to charge multiple devices safely from a single socket.

 
 
 

BACKING UP OUR PHOTOS

 

Although we don't always travel with multiple laptops, we do always make sure that we have the facilities to take more photos, back up the ones we already have and transfer data (seriously, you'd be amazed at how many hostels/hotels don't have printing facilities and you're forced to run around the neighbourhood with a USB).

 
 
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After a bad experience with a popular brand of hard drive, we changed to Transcend's 1TB military tested hard drive and haven't looked back. So far they have resisted getting dropped, chomped on by an adorable Frenchie and thrown around in airplanes. The memory cards we use are Sandisk or nothing (preferably at least 95 MB/s so that we can use them for video too), and USB sticks, well, honestly it tends to be whichever have been given to us by various tourism boards! 

 

KEEPING OUR PHONES ALIVE

 

Whilst as bloggers we may use our phones and gadgets a little more than the average traveller, there is no denying that smartphones can be incredibly power hungry. And there is nothing more annoying that spending the entire day out exploring, only to discover that your phone's battery simply cannot make it that far. 

That's why we'll never leave for a trip without triple-checking that our power bank is along for the ride as well. 

 

 
 
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There are loads available in the £10-15 range - like the lipstick-sized PowerCore+ mini. However, if you want to spend a bit more, the Anker PowerCore is a beast which can charge two devices at the same time and has enough juice to charge an iPhone seven times, whilst staying portable and lightweight - it also comes with an 18-month guarantee. 

 

KEEPING US WELL

 

Given that one half of Along Dusty Roads is a qualified doctor, you can probably imagine the size of our first aid kit - we even had bags of IV saline at one point in Latin America! However, even for those less medically inclined, having a basic first aid pack with you is really important, especially if you head off on hikes or away from large cities.

If you simply don't know where to start, head over to this article or begin with an all-in-one like this.

 

 

KEEPING OUR VALUABLES SECURE

Staying in a dormitory without the option to lock up your stuff is a sure fire way to end up having your stuff nicked - it's why we make a point of only staying in hostels where security lockers are par for the course.

 
 
 
 

It helps then, to actually have something to secure said locker with - this beast of a combination padlock has served us very well over the last 4 years. Removing the need to always keep a key handy, it's also much more hardy than the standard luggage padlocks.

For those times when smaller is better (and as a back-up), we opt for this one instead.

Looking for more great hostel tips like this? Check out our beginner's guide to hostels.

 

 

CLEANING OUR CLOTHES

We've done it at the beach. We've done it in the city. We've done it in the middle of jungle. And we've even done it whilst other travellers were watching.

Take your mind out of the gutter - we're talking about hand washing our clothes.

Although on long term trips we'll occasionally cave and hand our dirty clothes into a launderette, hand washing has been a regular feature on our travels. Many hostels offer facilities for this, but even if they don't, most don't really mind if you respectfully take advantage of the bathroom sink. There are however, a couple of things that make the process a little easier.

Firstly, we've found that plugs in budget hostels are pretty much non-existent, so we carry our own (this handy little one from Life Venture) which turns any sink or tub into your own personal washing machine.

 
 

Secondly, in our AirBnb apartment in Buenos Aires, we had fantastic facilities, including our very own washing machine. This meant we could catch up on all our laundry in bulk and try to remove some of the stains that had proved just too stubborn for our hand scrubbing.

The only catch? We had nowhere to hang out clothes out to dry. It was a relief that we had each packed a compact travel clothes line. It comes with the option to use suction cups or hooks so, wherever you're staying, you'll be able to string up a sturdy washing line.

It's also handy as a method to store/hang your clothes if you're in a cheap hostel room with limited space.

Another essential that other travellers swear by is the 'Scrubba'. This luminous green bag converts into your very own washing machine! Still require a bit of elbow-grease but gets more dirt out than our mere hands can usually manage.

 

 

PREPARING FOR THE JUST-IN-CASE

We always have 4 spare passport photos with us.

Probably less of a concern if you're off to Paris for the weekend, but incredibly useful if you're about to embark on an open-ended worldwide trip and have no idea which countries you may end up in. Simple photo booths that can be found all over the western world are far less common in many developing countries, and should you need to urgently apply for a visa the last thing you'll want to do is run around the city trying to find a printer that can help!

 

 

KEEPING OUR BACKPACK ORGANISED

We have freely admitted in the past that we are in no way 'minimalist packers'. Our philosophy can rather be summed up as 'cram as much in until you can't carry any more'.

These two cheap items do however help us pack more in a more organised way. 

Before our trip, we bought a multi-pack of these vaccum seal storage bags, not really knowing whether they'd even be used.  Well, what a great decision that turned out to be! Not only are they a fantastic way to keep our smelly, dirty clothes separate (and keep the smell locked in) but they've also proven to be very useful when switching between cold and warm climates, when you simply don't need access to jumpers and thermals. Hand-rolling it shut expels enough air to reduce the load by about 1/3, giving us a bit more space in our backpacks and keeping the laundry out of the way.

 
 
 
 

Packing cubes (we're big fans of these Pro Packing Cubes), on the other hand, actually take up a little more space but provide you with a way to make things make more sense.

In Latin America, we used them mainly to keep our medical supplies and our spare cables and camera equipment in one convenient place, with certain items of clothing also kept there until we needed them. Alternatively,  they can be used to structure the bottom or top-third of your backpack into easily identifiable ‘grab bags’, with each holding certain day-to-day items of clothing.

Discover more about our long-term packing packing method in this post.

 

 

LIGHTING UP OUR TRAVELS

If you're backpacking through countries which have erratic electricity supplies, then you can't leave without a head-torch. We've lost count of the number of times we've had to cook under its light but these were also a must-have for a night-time trek up Central America's highest volcano and nights of camping or sleeping on the beach in hammocks.

If you're in a dorm and want to read at night without disturbing others, these also act as great reading light - and stop you being the dick that turns on all the lights to find your bag in at 2 a.m!

 
 
 
 

Although there are cheaper ones on the market, Petzl is a brand worth shelling out a little extra for (it's widely recognised as one of the best out there), and this particular style continues to serve us well, three and a half years later.

 

 

DOLLARS FOR ALL EVENTUALITIES

Although it is imperative that you carry legal tender for whichever country you visit, there is one currency that you can almost always use in a jam - US dollars. Of course, we'd never recommend relying on it solely (you'll potentially end up paying a higher conversion rate and getting change can be a little tricky), but it is really useful to have a supply of $100 or so snaffled away somewhere in your bag to cover you for all eventualities!

More advice on how to mange your money when you're travelling here.

 


 

KEEPING US DRY

Most budget backpacker hostels don't offer complimentary towels with your room. A few of them will loan you one for a fee, but the majority may leave you facing a drip-dry or having to use clothing to dry off. The solution? An extra-large quick dry travel towel - we took two of these XL towels on our two-year Latin America trip, and they lasted the distance. 

 
 
 
 

Travel towels are in no way better than a fluffy white one but they do a decent job and are an essential piece of kit to carry. Thankfully, they're also very compact and dry quite quickly after you've used them, so are easy to store in your backpack. For longevity, you're better off buying a dark colour. 

 

 

HELPING US TO SLEEP

Again, choosing to sleep in cheaper accommodation around the world means you have to sacrifice certain small luxuries. Whether it's due to Enrique Iglesias being played until 4 a.m. down the street, a particularly boisterous cockerel unaware that people don't get up at 5 a.m. or a overly amorous couple in the room next door or bunk on top, you are guaranteed to have a better chance of sleeping with a set of ear plugs in.

 
 
 
 

Silicons ones are way more effective than synthetic alternatives and also much more malleable so you can mould it perfectly to fit your ear and block out the world around - we use these ones. We've also used them a lot on overnight bus journeys, given the propensity to be seated next to snorers.

For the very best sleep, consider an eye mask as well. We felt a little ridiculous to begin with, but it really helps, especially in dorms when lights are repeatedly being turned on and off.

 

 

SO WE CAN ALWAYS STAY IN TOUCH

Having a smartphone on the road is pretty much an essential these days. However, not all phone suppliers have caught on to the fact that you may go travelling for long periods of time in areas where you don't want to be tied to your contract (either that or they're well aware of this and want to make you pay for as long as absolutely possible).

Having an unlocked phone, and being able to take advantage of local sim plans, just makes things that much easier. Some smartphones now come with a 'dual sim' functionality, which is great for using overseas with local sim cards.

 

 

THE PERFECT MULTI-USE BAG

We remember on our trip to the Philippines, we saw a lot of travellers with these and, like a good little consumer, Andrew immediately wanted one.

 
 
 
 

Waterproof, durable and secure, it's perfect for having on the beach, taking out on the kayak or on a boat tour. It's also doubled up as our shopping bag and day-bag around towns and cities. We opted for the 20 litre version but most people will probably do fine with a 10L or 15L one. 

These bags also roll down or fold into a pretty compact size, so you can store it in your rucksack when it's not being used. Check out the range available here.

 

 

OUR GO-TO GADGET

This is a mainstay in Andrew's pocket. It has served as our only kitchen knife for a number of weeks, bottle opener at the beach, wine-opener in a hostel, Emily's manicure-set, Andrew's occasional moustache trimmer, make jeans-into-shorts and t-shirts into vests thingmibobber, walking stick maker when hiking in the Andes, imaginary saviour if our travels ever start to resemble a Liam Neeson movie and all round indispensable travel companion. It's not just for Bear Grylls wanna-bes in the woods but essential for every type of long-term budget traveller. 

 
 
 
 

Cheaper brands exist but we used and recommend the original and best version by Victorinox. Just make sure you remember to take it out of your hand luggage BEFORE you reach the airport!

 

 

GIVING US ALL THE INFO - EVEN WHEN WE'RE NOT ONLINE

We'd be lying if we didn't say that most of our trip research is done online. However, there's always one hard-copy that we'll take wherever we happen to be travelling - a Lonely Planet

 
 

Useful for those days when you turn up in a new town but have no idea where to sleep, need a map but your phone's dead, are looking for inspiration when on a long bus journey or seeking specific details like where the bus station happens to be.

We also like the fact that we're slowly building up quite the shelf of Lonely Planet guides. It's like a visual reminder of epic trips and even though several may now be missing covers, it's a collection we'll keep forever.

 

 

HELPING US KEEP THE PEACE

Hostels can create all sorts of annoyances, but one of our least favourites is the backpacker who decides that the entire room should listen to their Skype conversation, awful playlist or movie night simply because they've neglected to buy a pair of headphones.

But what do you do if two people are travelling together with only one computer (as we do quite frequently on short trips)? You invest in a headphone splitter - a cheap and effective piece of kit for every travelling couple. It allows you to watch the same programmes in a hostel or on a long bus journey or video chat with friends together without annoying those around you and keeping at least one side of the conversation private.

 

 

KEEPING US SINGING

Phones are all well and good for listening to music via a pair of headphones, but when we're hanging out with new friends in a hostel, having an impromptu beach party or just want to sing to some dreadfully cheesy anthems with each other, having a mini speaker is soooo much better than the tinny noise that comes out of the bottom of our mobile. 

 
 
 
 

The Nude Portable Speaker has been all over Latin America, to Africa, seen plenty of Europe and will certainly accompany us for many trips to come. 

 

 

HELPING US STAY GREEN

It makes us feel physically sick to think of how many plastic bottles of water we've gotten through over the years. Yet, the simple fact remains that in large swathes of the world, you simply can't drink tap water. Thankfully, we've invested in a couple of items that will ease our conscience - a re-usable glass bottle and and a steripen.

 
 
 
 

The bottle means that when the water's safe to drink, we can fill up straight from the tap and the steripen allows us to quickly and safely sterilise water anywhere in the world. To cut down on plastic bags? We always have a canvas/cloth bag  

It's one of the methods we use to try and be more sustainable, ethical travellers - read more about it in this post.

 

This is what we can't backpack without - what about you? Is there anything that we've missed out which you think is absolutely essential to an adventure?

Let us know in the comments. 

 

READ NEXT: WHAT'S IN OUR CAMERA BAG


 

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