Before you head off on your next adventure abroad, it pays to prepare properly at home!
It’s easy to overlook important things before you go backpacking. It’s also easy to freak out, worry too much about what you’ve packed, and totally overpack for your trip.
But fret not, as I’ve put together this backpacking checklist to remind you of the most important things. (This is based on backpacking in places all over the world over the past 5 years).
1. Remember the most important items
I’m sure you’re not an idiot, but just to be sure…
Always pack these things:
- Your passport (duh!)
- Your bank- or credit cards
- Your driving license, if you have one
I know, you’re not a dum-dum and you’ve got this covered. But I’m mentioning this first for a reason: all other things truly pale in comparison to your ability to pay for things or cross borders. Your IDs and money are truly your superpowers. Store them securely!
It’s also a good idea to bring some emergency cash, just in case. Maybe stash some Euros if you’re going backpacking in Europe, or preferably US Dollars if travelling anywhere else in the world. USD is always easy to exchange anywhere.
2. Leave all the crap you don’t need!
If you’re feeling even slightly nervous about your upcoming trip, then you might find yourself pouring over tons of packing lists and obsessing over your gear.
But try to keep a cool head.
Most packing lists on the internet try to be the most complete but end up listing all sorts of stuff you might not actually need. Some lists are intended for luxury travel, or for road trips, or for wilderness hiking or camping. That won’t help you much if you’ll just be staying in hostels or guesthouses. Don’t make the mistake of packing a giant backpack filled with a whole army’s worth of gear.
Chances are, you won’t need half the gear you think you’ll need. Always try to pack as light as you can. Everything becomes so much easier on the road when you’re not travelling like a mule. For an example of how you can pack efficiently, read my ultimate guide to packing light. It’s a super detailed guide and it’s sure to give you a few ideas on how to simplify your travel gear. Consider getting a smaller (e.g. carry-on size) travel backpack.
Below is an example of what I pack for a backpacking trip (summer or tropical destinations).
3. Get your vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis
If you’re just going to Belgium then congratulations, you can skip this section! I don’t think you’ll be getting malaria in Belgium. Phew.
But if you’re going to, let’s say, Borneo, then you might need to pay attention here.
For any tropical destination or developing country, it may be wise to get vaccinations or malaria medication. This includes a lot of countries in Southeast Asia and South America. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is also required to enter some countries, particularly in Latin America. Ideally, you should go to your general practitioner well ahead of time (like 4-6 weeks).
Don’t worry about this too much though. I often notice first-time travellers getting scared about diseases, but the chances of catching something are in reality very low, apart from some very remote areas. It’s just one thing to tick off your checklist, and then not to think about again.
4. Get a debit card with free ATM withdrawals
ATMs abroad are real sonsabitches.
They will add foreign transaction fees, and often currency exchange fees as well. You can end up losing a ton of money this way.
If you travel regularly or for a longer period, it’s worth getting a debit card with Transferwise or Revolut. These internet-based banks don’t charge ATM fees and let you save a ton of money on currency conversion. They also have apps that let you monitor any withdrawals and freeze the card with one tap. This is great for travel as it lets you keep an eye on any scams or swiping, which does unfortunately still happen in developing countries. And if you lose your card, these companies are really cool with sending you a replacement card while you’re still on the road.
I’ve struggled enormously with legacy banks when travelling, but these new startups online banks are fantastic. I should mention the fee-less withdrawals are only up to a certain amount per month on the free debit card. Otherwise, you need to pay some fees, or upgrade to a paid account. But if you get both Transferwise and Revolut card, you can already get quite a lot of money out every month without any fees.
Will you be backpacking in Europe? A little tip: avoid ATMs from Euronet, which are often installed in convenience stores and such. They always charge extra fees, even with a Revolut card. It’s best to go with ATMs of commercial banks.
5. Get travel insurance
You’ll mainly want this for the medical and liability coverage (but things like theft coverage are nice to have too).
World Nomads is a popular provider of travel insurance specifically for backpackers and round-the-world travellers, offering more flexibility as well as more coverage for adventure activities and sports. You can get a quote with them using the form below.
If you’re going backpacking for a while, then any existing travel insurance you have might not be enough. Most annual travel insurance packages limit individual trips to 30 days, for instance. Your medical insurance back home will also be of no sure abroad. There are many different travel insurers so it doesn’t hurt to shop around, though World Nomads is my preferred partner and I’ve used them myself. They can cover you for up to a year and are specialized in ensuring backpackers.
See also: Why it’s wise to get travel insurance.
6. Get a good backpack
Now is the perfect to invest in a good quality backpack. I’ve brought shitty backpacks on trips before that tore up or gave me lots of shoulder pain, which really isn’t what you want. If you’ll be away from home for a while, your luggage will basically become your only possession, so you’ll notice the difference if it’s actually comfortable and has plenty of storage spaces.
I recommend travelling with a smaller or medium-size bag (e.g. around 40 liters) as this gives more flexibility and mobility. My favorite backpacks are the Osprey Farpoint 40 and the Tortuga Setout, but you can also check out my full list of recommended backpacks.
7. Request any visas you need
A.k.a. “can you actually legally enter the country you’re going to?”.
Often it’s possible to get a visa-on-arrival at the destination airport, but there are many exceptions. It depends hugely on the country you’re going, and what nationality you have.
The easiest place to check this is VisaHQ.com. You can get a visa yourself at the appropriate embassy, or you can get VisaHQ to sort this all out for you. If you intend to work abroad at all, this usually requires a different visa (even for temporary work), so make sure you’ve got the right one.
Don’t confuse travel visas with a “Visa® credit card”, as some people do. These are totally different things. One is a credit card, the other is the legal permission you need to enter a country as a tourist. It might seem silly to mention, but I’ve had a few questions about this!
8. Prepare to take better photos
You’ll probably want to have some great photos to remember your trip. But do you often find yourself feeling disappointed by the photos you took or having to add little disclaimers when showing them off, like “it looked way more impressive in person”?
Contrary to what most people think it doesn’t take better gear to take better photos! It’s mostly about using the gear you have to the best possible effect. Even if you are only using a smartphone camera, you can dramatically improve the quality of your images by getting more creative and applying a few best practices.
Be sure to read these 7 things you can do right now to improve your travel photography now. If you use these tips before you go, you’ll benefit throughout your trip.
9. Set up a back-up service
OK, chances are that you’re not going to do this. And chances are, you’re going to kick yourself for this one day.
I know this is boring to do, but it is super important! Trust me on this one.
I’m totally sick of hearing any more sob stories from travellers who lost all their photos due to theft or accident. A camera can be replaced but your photos can’t! Even if you think nothing will get stolen, keep in mind that cameras can overheat, or fall into the ocean, or corrupt their memory, or you can even press the Delete All button by accident. I have met multiple travellers who lost months of data because of some stupid error.
Set up a cloud storage service before you go, or figure out some other way to keep frequent backups. Your device might already have a backup service, so enable it in your settings. Or check out Dropbox, Microsoft’s One Drive, Google Drive or iCloud Drive, just to name a few.
If you don’t want to upload your files to a cloud service, or if you think WiFi will be too slow where you’re going, be sure to at least buy some additional SD cards or a portable hard drive to create manual backups from time to time.
10. Secure your valuables
It’s always a good idea to have a secret place to stash some money, credit card, or other valuables or emergency items.
Some people swear by a money pouch, though I think they can be quite bulky and irritating, and probably overkill. Nowadays I use a small leather pocket that can clip onto a belt, where I keep some folded up bills. There are plenty of other methods though. Read this post: 6 ways to keep your belongings secure.
11. Research the local customs and language
Check if there are any cultural quirks to be aware of in your destination, and learn some useful phrases in the local language. This can save you a bit of embarrassment and make your trip go a lot smoother. It’s easier to learn these things during your idle time now than during your travels.
12. Make a record of emergency details
Keep your emergency details somewhere; things like emergency contacts at home, travel insurance details and your bank’s 24-hour helpline number in case of a stolen card. Write this down or email the details to yourself.
Take a good photo of your passport and e-mail it to yourself, or store it on a cloud drive. You might be asked for this by tour companies or rental agencies, so it’s always nice to have this ready.
13. Download travel apps for your phone
If you’ll be bringing a smartphone on your trip, it’s a good idea to load up these useful apps.
If you download just one app, make sure it’s MAPS.ME. It has fantastic maps that are much better for travel than Google Maps or Apple Maps, and you can also use them offline. Many travellers swear by it! If you stay in hostels, you’ll soon notice that a lot of people have MAPS.ME on their phones.
14. Get the right plug adaptor(s)
Different countries use different types of electrical sockets.
It’s often not too difficult to pick up a cheap converter at a market or electronics shop somewhere at your destination. You could also pack a universal all-in-one plug adaptor, so that you don’t need to worry about being able to charge your electronics anywhere in the world.
15. Get yourself a travel diary
Keeping a journal is awesome and something you’ll probably thank yourself for later. Even if you think it’s lame, do it anyway! The longer your trip the more details you are bound to forget. After a while, everything just starts to blur together. But even keeping some very simple notes can help you recall a lot of things later.
16. Prepare a travel soundtrack
You might have to deal with some long bus or train journeys, so get some playlists ready to keep yourself entertained. Think of some music that will get you in the travelling mood; you’ll create some powerful associations with your travel soundtrack that you’re sure to remember forever. (Whenever I hear Alt-J’s first album, I think of Thailand!).
If you use streaming platforms like Spotify, then it might be worth downloading your favorite tunes to your device. You might not always have an internet connection abroad.
17. Budget properly
While I mention this last, it’s something the more impulsive travellers might actually forget to do. I’ve met a few backpackers who ended up stuck in a place with no money, waiting for family to buy their return ticket, or just stuck working in a bar to make enough money to head onwards. Whoops!
It’s easy to underestimate your expenses, so do look into it while you’re still a home. You don’t need to work out some giant Excel spreadsheet (it’s impossible to predict all your expenses anyway), but it’s a good idea to have some rough estimates. Be sure to give yourself a bit of margin for error. You can make use of a travel expenses app or just good old pen-and-paper to keep track during your journey.
While this quick backpacking checklist ensures you’ll be ready to travel, I have a lot of more detailed travel advice in my book, Travel the World Without Worries. It covers the whole trip planning process from A to Z, gives you my expert travel hacking tips, and I’ll share with you some of the trials and tribulations that you might face as a backpacker — and how you can deal with some of the common problems and unexpected bumps in the road.
Note: this post contains some affiliate links. I get a small percentage fee of purchases made through them (at no extra cost to you), which helps keep my blog free. More info on this here.