Backpacking Checklist: 17 Things You Shouldn’t Forget

January 21, 2016

Travel guides and backpacking checklist

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.

Really.

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.

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. 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.

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. Set up a VPN

This won’t be equally important for everyone. If you’re going on a short trip, then you can ignore this. If you’re a backpacker without any business online, you probably also don’t need a VPN.

But if it’s essential that you have access to all your usual sites and services while abroad, then having a VPN makes everything this much easier as well as more secure.

A VPN service will give your internet connection extra protection while you’re abroad. It will also let you unblock sites that are unavailable in certain countries (like Hulu outside of the US) or make websites believe you’re actually still in your own country. In places like China, where the internet is tightly regulated, a VPN can still help you access your usual online services. Do read reviews ahead of time though as some countries do block certain VPNs as well.

Read This: Why You Need a VPN & How to Set it Up

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 starts to blur together. But even keeping some very simple notes can help you recall a lot of things later.

Read This: How To Keep A Travel Journal (Even If You’re Not A Writer)

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.

13 comments

  1. Laidanian Reply November 2, 2018 at 5:11 pm

    Leave the stuff you don’t need is so true, you see some people with 100 pound packs on their back…. they probably end up regretting it

  2. Iain b Reply November 19, 2017 at 10:18 am

    Hi Marek. I’m leaving it a little late before my trip, but which visas would you recommend getting before traveling to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia?. I’m planning on getting a Thai visa asap as I’ll need the multi entry version because I’ll start and end my trip there. Do you think the rest are ok to do on the border?

    Thanks, Iain

  3. Patrick Reply March 6, 2017 at 11:08 am

    What an informative article. Easy to read too and very helpful to first-time backpackers. Thanks!

  4. Dan Elson Reply May 3, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Really useful tips here. This is EXACTLY what I was trying to find when prepping for my 6 months backpacking trip in 2015!

    Cos i couldn’t find it before I wrote a smiliar post on “What is in my backpack”. Maybe your readers might be more helpful tips on the items that would be useful for backpackers too! http://iamdanelson.com/what-is-in-my-backpack/

    🙂

  5. Jon Goodson Reply April 18, 2016 at 9:30 pm

    Hi Marek, I’m currently starting my travel plans hopefully to set off in January, starting Australia new Zealand and then onto Indonesia and up through Asia. I was just wondering what your view on the rabies vaccination and malaria tablets is? I know for certain islands in Indonesia such as bali it isn’t necessary to take them but it is when going across the water to lombok. And the same when travelling up the coast of Vietnam.
    What would your suggestions be for taking them and are they good to purchase while on the road?

    • Marek Reply April 19, 2016 at 9:45 am

      Hey Jon. Many people do travel around SE asia without taking anti-malarials. For much of Southeast Asia the risk is low, and I personally wouldn’t worry too much about malaria prophylaxis unless venturing far off the beaten track (e.g. Borneo, New Guinea, or remote Laos). Places like coastal Vietnam or Lombok have a low malaria risk. It’s something to speak to your health advisor about though.

      Rabies vaccination could be a good idea if you plan to go caving or trekking in remote areas. It can buy you some valuable time to get to a hospital in the very unlikely event. If you happen to be from the US, you probably shouldn’t bother with a rabies vaccination as it’s ridiculously expensive there (I’ve heard of prices upwards of $750 – though I may be wrong on this). My UK health advisor has never advised me to get a rabies shot based on any of my travel plans.

  6. john Reply April 4, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    Take photos of all your credit cards passport numbers etc. e-mail to self. Create folder with trip name. You can also e-mail links to useful websites this way.

  7. Brandon Reply March 11, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    Great idea with the emergency details! I keep a memo in the Evernote App which has all my bank phone numbers, emergency contacts, etc. Good thing with Evernote is you can access your notes while offline.

  8. Carmen Everywhere Reply February 24, 2016 at 6:55 am

    It is great to learn from the post. Great advise to make travelers prepared for the journey. You learn these things on your own through trial and error. But it is better way to learn like this to avoid mistakes.

  9. Rachel Reply February 16, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    I like to be “Ms Prepared” when travelling. This is a great list to help me even more. Love the tips on apps!

  10. Anne Betts Reply January 4, 2016 at 9:35 pm

    Hello Marek. Top notch. I wanted to try my hand at a “how to” post encouraging travellers to create their own customized pre-travel checklists. I went looking for examples readers could use for inspiration and liked yours so much I provided a link in my post. So thank you.

  11. Grant Reply December 12, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    All of these essentials for long term backpacking really start to add up in weight. I try to be as minimalistic as possible. It just seems like no matter what I do my pack keeps getting heavier. What is the ideal pack weight for traveling for an indefinite amount of time without breaking your back while still having everything that you will need?

    • Marek Reply December 13, 2015 at 10:56 am

      Good question, as the ideal packing weight will probably be different for everyone. For me, somewhere around 10kg is my max for a number of reasons (don’t want to carry more than that on my back, fits within carry-on allowances, etc.). There’s a bit more about packing light here: http://www.indietraveller.co/how-to-pack-light/

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