It doesn’t have to be an agonizing decision on what to bring if you don’t mind donating or trying to sell the stuff that you mistakenly brought. You can get just about anything anywhere (lithium ion batteries, peanut butter, Hello Kitty chopsticks, dysentery) with some exceptions being contact lens solution, bacterial ointment, and feminine hygiene products of which I am blissfully ignorant about. I used to bring a harmonica on every trip as a joke to myself that I would learn to play the blues in lonely hitchhiking spots, but in that case I am too busy screaming obscenities to the world and since then I have stopped trying to humor myself.
     I’m a nuts and bolts kind of guy. I like to know as much minutia as possible. Instead of telling me, “bring two pairs of pants”, I want to know what kind/material/color the pants should be–but this website is too obese as it is.
     Two websites that go into more detail and where you can glean some useful philosophy are Rick Steves (forgive him for his insistence on money belts; when it is 5000 degrees outside do you want something tight around your mid-section?) and (not meant for the backpacker, per se, but his in-depth analysis of zippers is fantastic.)

     Yes, I will admit it, this is all mine, but I was flying home after a Japanese shopping spree and there was a sale on sushi.

     I don’t like money belts or money pouches, I don’t like things hanging from me–freedom, baby, freedom! So here’s what I do and it’s a wee bit of genius: my shorts and pants have one front pocket extended and with a velcro strip across the top, bristly side down so you don’t scratch the tops of your hands.

     Only once has this backfired on me and it was my fault; I didn’t take proper care to make sure the velcro on my pocket was closed securely and at a Galatasaray soccer game in Istanbul I got pickpocketed in a heaving, tight crowd of people. At the time my shorts also didn’t have the extended pocket. I was young.

If demand is enormous (i.e. if more than five people ask) I will expand these main points:
     Again, these tips are predicated on a rambling trip in warm weather places. This is a dissection of my backpack from a recent trip.
     –For a purely tropical trip, I always consider the method of my college roommate, Pat: 10 t-shirts, 10 pairs of underwear, some shorts, and you’re good to go. We’re from California. Our official state uniform is t-shirt/shorts/flip flops. To wear long pants and shoes at the same time is suffering on an unimaginable scale. The problem with tropical countries is that they tend to worship air conditioning, so you’ll need one set of cold weather clothes for frigid bus and train rides or at least some thin long pants for mosquitoes at dusk.
     –Without looking slovenly, bring clothes you don’t mind losing/ruining/giving away. I suspect I might still be traveling with someone else’s underwear from a Bangkok laundry mix-up, but what the heck.
     –Here are some fightin’ words: jeans are a bad idea. They’re too heavy and take too long to dry. Some people are jeans people and wear them every day and tell themselves that they’re going to wear them every day in, say, Southeast Asia. OK, but they don’t live in the tropics every day. You will sweat to death, and then the sweat makes the jeans heavier. It’s a lose-lose situation.
     –Bring all-purpose shorts that can function as something to sleep, swim and play sports.
     –Don’t bring a pocket knife. It’s too heavy. How often would you use it? Probably not enough to justify it. I get a regular flimsy steak knife to cut fruit and wrap it in a napkin.
     –Don’t bring a big honking bottle of shampoo or lotion or toothpaste. Bring small empty bottles and refill them along the way.
     –I have big wide elephant feet and can’t always find my size of footwear so I keep an extra pair of the lightest flip flops I can find as a backup as well as for grotty showers. Quality hiking boots, too, are part of the exception to you-can-get-everything-everywhere, but think two or three times about bringing such bulk and weight. Is it a short trip and hiking is one of the main things you are doing? Fine. But if it is a small part of a longer trip, do you really want to drag around heavy, smelly, dirty shoes you are only using 5% of the time? Lugging around dead weight taking up so much precious backpack space is almost criminal. (Side question: can someone tell me how to get the smell out of Teva sandals? I can confirm they are notorious for their foul odor, but have yet to find a lasting solution.)
     –I bring one very small lock with at least two keys. Some travelers lock every single zipper on their bag, but again, those little locks’ weights add up. It won’t save you from someone slashing your bag, but it’s still a mild deterrent. I never leave valuable stuff laying around in the open of my hotel room or hostel and I even lock my bag inside my room while away for the day depending on the feel of the place. (A group of us were staying in a hotel in Bangkok and we realized that everyone’s keys worked for everyone’s rooms.) To go along with the idea of bringing too little, if you decide that life sucks with only one lock, and you curse the idea that you ever listened to, you can always buy more wherever you are and help the local economy.
     –I very rarely leave my passport in a hotel or hostel (Brazil being the exception or if I am going to the beach alone) and almost never use hostel safes. I don’t want to itemize every single bit of currency every day with the manager. I don’t know if I am in the minority about this, because when I ask other travelers, “Where do you keep all your money?” they look at me funny and clam up.
     –Lastly, please bring a journal book. Don’t simply dump a ton of caption-less photos on Facebook or Flickr. It sounds like a pain, sounds like work, but down the road you’ll realize its worth. Either document your trip or sketch stuff or, at a minimum, take notes for later. You will not remember everything you think you will. Traveling is sensory overload and the new stuff shoves the old stuff out of the brain.

     When I am hitchhiking or I meet locals who I want to give a little something, I always keep a few postcards from home for this purpose, but a lot can get heavy. I also bring some special latex clown balloons and make a few animals, but I have a limited repertoire and sometimes they pop, freaking kids out. My favorite thing to bring is baseball cards. (I also bring old Panini soccer cards/stickers if I have them.)
     If you are going to a country where baseball is played, bring American baseball cards of their players from their days in the major leagues. 1980s and 1990s cards especially have very little value and can be had cheaply from baseball cards stores–if they carry them–or keep your eyes open for deals on eBay, or better yet, Craigslist. In Nicaragua every single time it was greeted with genuine pleasure when I presented someone with a Dennis Martinez card, a true local hero. In Japan it works both ways. This Bobby Valentine baseball card is a big hit since he was a God in Japan .
     The exception to this is Holland; I’ve been a zillion times and I’ve never met anyone who cares about their great “honkbal” team. Shame.


Packing — 24 Comments

  1. So where do you leave your valuables, cash, pp etc when your staying in a realative shithole and want to go swimming or to the beach etc?

  2. Damn, someone is calling me on this. It’s a good question, but you may not like my answer. I actually size up the other people on the beach and pick the best candidate (usually an older couple) and ask them to watch my stuff. If i keep it in my hostel, which would be very rare, I at least would bury it in my bag and lock the zipper to something in the room.

  3. I’ve been reading a lot of your entries, and some have even been useful 😛 I am planning a trip through SE Asia; BKK – HCMC, overland, with detours to Phuket, Angkor Wat, and…places yet undecided. Once I reach HCMC I will be looking to teach English (I just graduated with my BA in June) but will be going north up the coast to explore towards Hoi An and maybe Nha Trang before I start looking for work back in HCMC…

    Mostly curious about storing my passport, etc. when at hostels. It seems most of the ones I’ve looked at have lockers or some sort of lockable storage if I bring my own padlock. How safe are these really? It seems like the locker rooms at gyms and high schools are really not that safe here in WA, so are the lockers in hostels in the developing world any safer?

    Thanks! Your somewhat different travel philosophy has given me some things to consider for sure.

  4. Wow, loads of info and fast responses to questions, what an anomaly!


    With your extended pockets on your shorts, did you sew in a zipper or velcro on the extension also?

  5. how to get the smell out of Teva sandals?

    I take them into the shower, apply some shampoo or soap and brush them with a brush if I have one or my fingers if not. However, after some time (say a week) this procedure needs to be repeated.

    Travelling to a hot and dry country (say Egypt) you can get away with a really small bag the size of a large woman’s handbag and wash your stuff every evening in the shower – don’t worry it will be dry in the morning. Actually a female friend of mine used to travel with only her handbag and she was fine.

    “Washing your stuff – won’t this take forever?” you might ask. Well, no if you don’t take much. Two T-Shirts (wear one, one in bag), three pairs of underwear (wear one, two in bag), one pair of pants (wear), baseball hat against the sun (wear), sandals (therefore no socks to get dirty). Add some sunscreen, a toothbrush, dental floss, camera, sunglasses and the warm long sleeve against the pesky air condition and you are done.

    When you get to your ho(s)tel in the evening you will be sweaty anyway therefore you shower. Washing the one pair of underwear and the sole dirty T-Shirt takes a minute or two and they will be dry the next morning.

    Taking so little has the beauty of being able to leave the ho(s)tel in the morning with all your stuff on your person, grab breakfast, take a bus to some temple, look at the temple, take bus to next destination/town, look effortlessly for the best place to stay in town, check in, take shower (wash smelly T-Shirt), rinse and repeat. Taking as little as possible makes travel soo much easier.

    However, this is more difficult in a climate that is not constantly hot & dry because in Europe you must be prepared for rain, cold and heat etc. therefore this approach doesn’t work as well in more temperate climates. Also it takes much longer for stuff to dry if it is raining and/or foggy. If you travel in winter to a really cold place (say New York in January) this approach also works rather well because it will be so cold that you will be wearing all your stuff all the time anyway therefore it doesn’t take away much space(and weight) in your daypack-sized backpack.

  6. “Jeans are a bad idea”
    Amen, brother!
    How about a list of things you see people lugging that you don’t think are necessary, and why you think so?
    Do you really carry 10 t-shirts? :-0

  7. love this site…..

    i have this theory of making my backpack look old and shabby with no international flags especially American(makes people think you have money to spend) instead of new and shiny
    because the latter version attracts unwanted attention and it makes thieves think i don’t have much to offer

    also the smaller the pack the less you are likely to bring more useless stuff
    as a girl this can be very tempting… i have often noticed other women travelers and the amount of useless things they bring, it boggles the mind.. and then they complain that their pack is to heavy

    i also use safety pins to lock up the zippers and sometimes i wrap a thin camera strap around my pack because i am able to hang my thin airplane blanket/towel or jacket from it.

    i used my brother’s old school back pack on a 5 month trip from Ireland -London- Amsterdam – Turkey-Egypt- Morocco- France

    it finally broke at the seams on my next adventure to India/Nepal/Thailand but luckily I had that camera strap keeping it together …….aah good times

  8. Jay asked: “So where do you leave your valuables, cash, pp etc when your staying in a realative shithole and want to go swimming or to the beach etc?”

    There actually is a waterproof moneybelt from Ortlieb (the German company known for waterproof bicycle panniers) and yes it works just as advertised. I personally used it a few times on the beach – even snorkelling and passport etc was bone dry afterwards.

    However it is not really that comfortable to use as your primary money belt because it is plastic – but may be the thing to get if your are planning a solo beach trip. For the odd beach trip on a longer trip I do what the Dromomaniac does – ask someone who looks reliable to watch my stuff.

    The waterproof Ortlieb money belt:

    Louis asked: “Mostly curious about storing my passport, etc. when at hostels.”

    I always have it on or very near to my person. When I go to bed my really valuable valuables (passport, money, plastic money) go to bed with me, whenever I go to the shower they go with me to the shower too. When I get up at night to go to the loo they go with me too. Those other not as valuable valuables (say the digital camera) would be a bummer to lose but not devastating so they go into the locker but when I leave the hostel I usually take them with me because I need the camera to take pictures anyway.

    Otherwise it is a really good idea not to take anything that you can’t afford to and are not prepared to lose and that you don’t necessarily need. (Example: Passport yes, expensive jewellery no). Taking less has the added benefit of shlepping less and travelling lighter.

  9. hi!! great website!!!
    did you take just a basic digital cam??i really wanted to take a slr camera but they are pricey and i think that i would worry to much about it!! but i really want some amazing piks?? what do you think?

  10. Hi Kent, Great site!

    When I travel I don’t worry too much about cash, I hide it in my bag and look the main zipper. Here are some of my favorite spots to hide some dollars bills: empty lipstick, toilet paper (un-roll 2 meters put your bills and roll it back again – nobody wants to steal your toilet paper!)

    I’m more concerned about my passport and laptop. I’m thinking about getting those laptop lockers (long chain that I can also use to lock the bag to something in the room). Any idea for the passport?

    About the digital camera, I take a shock/waterproof one and keep it in my pocket 😉

  11. Great ideas, Nicolas. I can only think that they might back off with surprise when they see you traveling with lipstick!
    I have a laptop now that I only lock inside my backpack, which isn’t a great solution but I can’t think of another, and I always have my passport with me. If I go swimming I lock that inside, too, and then lock the whole thing to the bed frame of anything just to slow someone down.

  12. Thanks for all the great tips. To get the smell out of your shoes- trying putting your shoes in a plastic bag and putting in the freezer for a few days when you get home. Kills all the bacteria and smell should go away. It worked for me.

  13. I’m a girl and like to travel on my own. I keep daily cash in my backpack and for cash that I don’t want to leave in hotels/hostels, I tend to roll it up and place in my built-in zipper pockets of my running or biking shorts. Pockets are large enough to securely fit small wallets, keys, cell phone… so if you just roll up your extra cash, it fits without feeling bulky. Then I just wear a day dress over it – perfect for the SE Asia weather.

  14. Fantastic article! Have been practicing the art of light travel for a long time now and recoil at the thought of returning to lugging a 74liter sack, desperately looking for the closest place to dump it. For pants, my partner usually buys the cheapest kind we can get in China which is surprisingly, mens suit pants. Sounds crazy, but here in China, people wear suit pants to farm in, do manual labour, play sports etc. They are light, cost less than USD$1 and you can find them anywhere. He usually chops of the legs to make shorts – travellers always give him funny looks when we go hiking commenting on the apparent “ironed crease” on the pants, but then here all the locals do it. For money, he has a “crotch pouch” where he sews a silk square (or the extra fabric from the chopped off pants) on the outside of every pair of underwear. The money goes in a plastic bag then in the pouch. For me, I either slit the inside of my bra and tuck money in there, or I have a small cloth bag that I safety pin to my bra strap then tuck into the bra.

    The best story I heard about storing money belts/passports in a hotel room was from Ted Simon who wrote “Jupiter’s Travels” when he motorcycled around the world in the 1970’s. He was imprisoned in Africa (cannot remember which country) under a false charge and when he was taken, he left everything in his room. Luckily for him, he had hidden his passport/belt under a hanging towel on a line. No body really wants to touch someone elses used towel – especially if it looks shabby. Another was was from journalist working in China who used to hide film in ziplock bags then in the back cistern of toilets – might not have to be that extreme for your everyday traveller, but if your in a tight situation?

  15. Those are great tips, thanks. I’m going to start wearing a bra just so I have a good place to hide my money.
    I heard about the cistern idea, but that’s pretty risky in case it slips!

  16. Ski Locks are great for securing your bags in hostel/etc… You can run the cord through a thousand loops/zipper pulls of the frame on your bag and then around anything that’s bolted down. I’m sure it could be cut with a leatherman, but it prevents nogoodnicks from a quick swipe. Best part is, they weigh next to nothing and automatically coil back up into themselves making for easy storage.


  17. Love the site. Regarding packs, if you end up in an established area you should be able to pick up a used pack cheap. Picked up a used Haglof in Bangkok on a side street of Khao San road. Only problem was it was olive drab and everyone pegged me for army.

  18. Thanks! I’ve seen some of those people who have the “I buy anything” signs around Khao san. I didn’t think of them for backpacks. I need a solid daypack right now like nobody’s business, but am a little far from BKK right now. Thanks for the tip!

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