Wondering what to pack on you trip? Below is our detailed packing list for international travel (although this will work just as well for local adventures). While it was written with the solo traveler in mind, the recommendations don’t change much if you’re traveling in a couple or with a group.
This is information that we have distilled from hours of research, testing, and actual travel. Where possible, we have included specific brand and equipment recommendations.
Our international travel packing list is broken down into:
(Click on any of the above to jump to the relevant sub-section)
- Your passport (assuming you’re going abroad). Make sure it’s valid for at least six months after your planned return date, and that you have all the necessary visas (you can check entry requirements at VisaHQ).
- Identification (preferably issued by a government – e.g. driver’s license). You will likely need to prove your identity somewhere, so it’s good to have on you at all times. If someone asks for ID, offer this first before revealing the passport.
- Photocopies of the above. Bring copies of all your important documents, to show in the event of loss/theft (and to expedite getting replacements through the local bank/consulate). It may also make sense to keep digital scans of these in the cloud (e.g. in a Dropbox folder).
- A credit and/or debit card. Make sure to call your financial institution before you take off to give them a heads up of your expected whereabouts (this way, your cards won’t be frozen for suspicious activity).
- Any personal medicines or hard to find toiletries. While most things can be found at your destination, make sure you have a good supply of anything you simply can’t live without. This includes prescription medicine/pills, hearing aids, and so on.
- Cash. Before you leave, make sure you have at least a decent amount of cash (US $200) in the destination currency. If you know there will be ATMs upon arrival, that works too (especially if you can avoid withdrawal fees). ATMs often will have the best exchange rates – try to avoid international currency exchange booths at airports and transport hubs.
Armed with just the above, you could conceivably travel for as long as you want – provided you have enough funds in the bank. Anything extra could simply be purchased on arrival (that includes your travel bag).
- A travel bag (e.g. suitcase and/or backpack). While plenty of folks obsess over this, my personal opinion is that most of the travel bags out there today will get the job done for general travel. However, I have also done my fair share of research and testing in this department, so if you’d like a complete answer scroll down to the Travel Backpack section of this page.
- Comfortable walking shoes. If you’re buying new ones, make sure to try them on before you set off – you should feel comfortable walking in them for hours at a time. Popular brands include Merrell and Vivobarefoot. Don’t forget a quality pair of insoles (recommendation: Superfeet). Given all the sightseeing and exploring you’ll be doing, this is one of the most important gear purchases.
- Quick-dry shorts. A must for tropical climates. I personally go for shorts that double as swimming trunks (this is a bit extreme, but allows me to save a lot of luggage space). If you’re looking for a new pair, Patagonia is a good place to start (mine are the Outlier New Way Shorts).
- Packing cubes. Invaluable for keeping stuff organized in your main bag, and for keeping dirty/wet clothes separate. Eagle Creek is the clear winner here, with their famous Pack-it Specter series.
- An unlocked, quad-band smartphone. Aside from keeping you connected, a decent phone can serve as a replacement for a camera, map, flashlight, notepad, alarm clock, watch, book, music player, entertainment system, and more. Make sure you get one that’s unlocked (not tied to a specific carrier) so that you can pick up local SIM cards anywhere you go. Motorola’s Moto G is a good all-around choice (I like the fact that’s water resistant).
- Immunization card. Bring it along as a record of your medical information.
- Travel insurance. Better safe than sorry. Make sure that it is valid in the area(s) you’re visiting, and that coverage at least $100,000 USD (emergency operations and surgeries can be very expensive).
- Universal travel adapter. There’s a popular choice here: the compact Kikkerland Travel Adapter.
- An e-reader. Great for airplane and bedtime reading, and doesn’t strain the eyes. The Kindle Paperwhite E-reader is an excellent choice.
- Ear plugs. These can mean the difference between a rage-inducing plane ride and a bearable one. Hearos makes good ones.
- Quick-drying, odor-resistant underwear and socks (ideally made of wool). Leave the cotton undergarments at home – cotton takes a long time to dry, and starts smelling after just a few hours of wear. For guys: try ExOfficio boxers or Uniqlo’s Airism series. For socks, the easy choices are Smartwool or Darn Tough.
- A collared shirt (or equivalent in women’s formal wear). It’s not all hiking and canoeing – eventually, you will be invited to a party or a formal event. Bring at least one “dressy” top.
If you bring everything listed above (along with a change of clothing and a toothbrush), you will be good to go just about anywhere in the world. Whenever possible, save yourself the hassle of lugging around extra stuff: just buy it there.
Non-essential for general travel, but still very useful on the road.
- Laptop. If you’re of the “digital nomad” variety (i.e. plan to get some work done while on the road), I recommend going with the smallest/lightest laptop possible. For me, that’s a Macbook Air 13′‘ (perhaps soon to be a regular Macbook). Others may need the processing power of the Macbook Pro line, or opt for a Microsoft Surface instead (if you need to run native Windows programs). I also hear a lot of travelers rave about the new Thinkpads and the Dell XPS 13.
- Camera. This is a subject of much debate, and there entire websites dedicated to recommending a travel camera. I take thousands of pictures on each trip, and these are my personal opinions:
- Most people: a smartphone is all you need. If you’re just going to be updating Instagram (or a basic travel blog), any decent phone camera will get the job done. I actually think the limitations of a phone camera (e.g. no zoom) are a good thing – they force you to focus more on the subject matter and composition. High-end models even come with OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), which makes a big difference.
- Enthusiasts: get a compact camera with a decent sized sensor (e.g. Sony RX100 series, Ricoh GR, or Panasonic LX100) and learn to use it well. If you absolutely need foreground/background separation and interchangeable lenses, look into one of the latest mirrorless offerings from Olympus or Fuji.
- Enthusiasts on a “once-in-a-lifetime trip”: going to the Galapagos? Perhaps the Antarctic? On a safari, or into the Siberian wilderness? You may as well bring a DSLR with at least 1 versatile travel zoom lens, like a 24-120mm. A possible two lens solution is a wide (e.g. 16-35mm) and a long (70-200mm). There’s a great package deal available from Nikon: the Nikon D750 with 24-120mm f/4G ED VR.
- For professionals (<1% of travelers): you already know who you are, so this won’t be an open question. Make sure you insure your equipment.
- Quick-drying, odor-resistant undershirts and t-shirts (“base layers”). Just as with underwear, try to bring at least one quick-drying bottom layer. Icebreaker and Minus33 are the natural choices here. Alternatively, you could just buy cheap cotton tees at the destination (and discard/donate upon departure). You could even bring some of your oldest t-shirts, and wash/discard them as you go to save on space.
- Pants. Lightweight, breathable hiking pants. Denim is no good: it’s bulky, heavy, and takes a long time to dry (exception: wool blend jeans, which are notoriously hard to find). For pants, try Prana (the Zion or Brion), Bluffworks, or Outlier (Slim Dungarees, New OGs).
- Flip-flops. Great for tropical destinations (but you could always buy them there for cheap, right on the beach or at any 7/11).
- Compact towel. Leave bulky towels at home. Instead, go for the small, quick drying, ultra-packable type (e.g. by Packtowl or Sea to Summit). Some travelers swear by linen (you can make your own, or ask a local fabric store to cut you an appropriately sized piece).
- Daypack. You may also want to bring along a smaller pack to use around town. The clear winner in this category is the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Daypack (weighs almost nothing, and collapses to fit in any pocket). These are great for carrying groceries, lunch, Kindle, etc. I personally use the Osprey Daylite.
- Cold weather gear. The trick here is to layer clothing (for weight savings and flexibility):
- Bottom layer: a base layer. Ideally, made of merino wool (it will keep you cool in summer and warm in winter).
- Middle layer: a thin fleece. When it starts getting chilly, put on a light zip-up sweater or fleece. Once again, Patagonia has some great options.
- Top layer: an ultralight, packable down jacket. Example: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisper. Other reputable brands include Uniqlo and Montbell.
- Rain gear. Getting drenched is no fun! Seasoned travelers may opt to just buy a cheap rain jacket at their destination. If you want to be prepared, there’s probably no better choice than the Outdoor Research Helium II jacket (available in Men’s and Women’s versions). It weighs almost nothing, and packs down to the size of a closed fist.
- Lock. Pickpockets are everywhere, no matter where you go. For peace of mind, grab a couple of small, TSA-compliant combination locks (e.g. Lewis N. Clark locks). These are great for securing the zippers of your backpack’s main compartment. To prevent theft of the entire bag (e.g. on a long bus ride), seasoned travelers bring a screw-lock carabiner (just about any climbing carabiner will do – such as this one by Black Diamond).
- Flashlight. While a smartphone can probably light your way in a dark room, it won’t be sufficient (or weather-proof enough) for the outdoors. Adventure travelers prefer head lamps to regular flashlights, as it keeps both hands free. Popular models include the Petzl Tikka and Black Diamond Spot.
- Headphones. I recommend earphones (earbuds) for space/weight savings. Sennheiser makes great, affordable ones (like the CX 300 II). Audiophiles will want to consult Head-Fi for in-depth reviews and genre-based recommendations.
- An icebreaker. No, not a hatchet 🙂 I mean anything that sparks conversations and facilitates social interaction. Some ideas: a deck of funny playing cards, portable chess/checkers, unique attire from your country, or a fun patch/flag on your backpack.
- Travel-size liquid bottles. Useful for storing travel-sized amounts of shampoo, liquid soap, gel, etc. Can also be used to store valuables and easy-to-lose items. GoToob is the top choice. Make sure they are 100mL (3.4 oz) or under.
- Buff. Last but not least, the wool buff is practically the traveler’s secret weapon. A merino wool buff (like this one) is ideal: wear it around your neck stay cool or warm, and to reduce moisture from sweat. You can also wear it as a bandana, or as an improvised face mask. There are all sorts of creative ways to use these.
For most types of travel, I recommend getting a sturdy, comfortable, water-resistant (or waterproof) backpack. A word of caution: the choice of backpack is a subject of much debate, and it’s easy to get lost in the arguments for one brand vs. another. Here’s what to look for in a good travel pack:
- Make sure it’s actually a backpack (or can be worn as one). Don’t get tempted into buying a duffel or tote – you should be able to walk around with both hands free. Also, resist the urge to bring a roller suitcase – it will not only limit your mobility, but also slow you down considerably if anything breaks (see how long spinner wheels last on cobblestone).
- Get something lightweight. Ideally, the pack should weigh less than 1 kg (2.2 lbs). Don’t make it hard on yourself (or your shoulders). When you’re carrying around a pack for extended periods of time, every gram counts. We’re lucky to live in an age of high tech, light materials – there are plenty of quality packs that weigh next to nothing.
- Good organizational features, and easy access to the main compartment. Chances are, you will have a bunch of smaller items – pockets and dividers ensure that your bag doesn’t become a “gypsy camp” (disorganized mess). Helps if the pack has a hidden inner pocket, too (for your passport and other valuables).
- Weather resistance. Get a pack that is built to withstand the elements (either with waterproof materials or a built-in rain cover that can be quickly and easily deployed). Nothing worse than showing up somewhere with all your clothing and electronics soaked.
- Comfort. This is probably the most important part – make sure you will be comfortable carrying it for hours on end. The best way is to go to a local sports equipment store (e.g. REI in the USA, or MEC in Canada) and try on a few loaded packs. Go with the one that feels right – and doesn’t restrict your hand/leg movement.
- Compact size. Get a backpack that meets airline carry-on size regulations (22” x 14” x 8”). Ideally, you should not be checking in bags when you travel (checked luggage slows you down, limits your mobility, leads to extra fees, and has a tendency to get lost). You can usually tell how long a person has been traveling by the size of their backpack – unless they are carrying specialized gear, seasoned travelers typically have a pack that’s 40 Liters or less (in volume). Resist the urge to buy a big pack!
- Low-profile. The idea is to blend in, and not attract any unnecessary attention. I suggest sticking to dark colors (ideally, black or grey). No designer logos, and minimal straps.
To make things easier, I have created an online spreadsheet to make the bag selection process a bit easier. Take a look: “One Bag” Travel Backpack Comparison.
Bags that I consider to be excellent choices for the minimalist solo traveler: Tom Bihn Synapse 25 and Aeronaut 30, GORUCK GR1, Tortuga Air. There are, of course, many others that may suit you just fine – with so many choices, it will often come down to personal preference (and emotional appeal). Many seasoned backpackers swear by Osprey, while rock climbers prefer the specialized offerings from Arc’teryx.
Still not sure which bag is best? Here’s a flowchart to help you out:
Of course, there’s no “one size fits all” solution. When in doubt, try a bag on before you commit to buying something that you you’ll end up hauling all over the world!
To summarize: when choosing what to take, opt for versatility and compactness. The more functions a single item performs, the more useful it will be on the road.
At the end of the day, choosing one brand or another isn’t going to make a big difference to your overall travel experience. Try not to spend too much money on equipment – put it towards the cost of a trip instead.