It’s been a month or so since we started backpacking and it has been quite the adventure so far! We spent 1.5 weeks in San Francisco first and arrived in New Zealand at the start of December. Since then, we’ve been travelling around the country on public transport, carrying all our belongings on our back. We rarely stay at a place for more than 4-5 days so our packing requirements and daily essentials have had to be refined a lot. We’ve had to change our items as we travel and I’m hoping these posts will help anyone else thinking of backpacking long term.
As mentioned in an earlier post, I am carrying around a 60+20L rucksack (leaving the 20L empty/flat as an emergency overflow or smaller day bag). I also have a more padded 30L day bag which is my go-to bag for carrying my photography gear, laptop and daily essentials/valuables. I won’t go into too much detail on the bags themselves in this post as that was already outlined in detail before. I will cover the contents of my bag though, with notes on changes I’ve made and things I’ve used most/least since leaving the UK.
Items I’ve Replaced Or Upgraded
My trainers – I’ve had a very good pair of Nike trainers for a few years which I bought for running on roads/paths. These served me well in the past, but here I’m finding they don’t have enough grip on trails and slopes when hiking. I often found myself slipping and feeling nervous wearing them so I’ve treated myself to a pair of Adidas trail running shoes instead. These specifically have a lot of grip in both uphill and downhill trails so I am able to hike much more confidently on uneven and sloping ground.
Socks – I packed a few pairs of generic cotton socks originally. These have proven to be a bad choice. They get too warm and don’t fit well so slide down when wearing hiking boots. They are also long so I look like a dork when wearing them with trainers and shorts. I’ve since switched to two pairs of merino wool fitted long socks for hiking in, and three pairs of short sports socks to wear with trainers for hikes and runs. These work much better. Make sure when you pack, you think carefully about everything, even items as simple as socks, as they can be expensive to buy in specialist stores as you travel.
Coat – I wrote about this previously, but my original coat turned out to not be waterproof at all. I have since upgraded to a very compact and lightweight completely waterproof shell from North Face. It has zipped pockets for added security, ventilation zips and even an elasticated cord around the hood to help keep you comfortable in windy/rainy conditions. Also, being just a shell, I can layer it accordingly for both hot and cold weather. Something to definitely bear in mind when choosing your travel coat.
New Items I’ve bought
A 2015 pocket diary – Relying on an online calendar doesn’t work so well when have irregular wifi internet access. I bought a diary a couple of days ago and already it’s proving to be VERY useful. It has a week view on the left page and a page for general notes opposite. I feel a little old fashioned using it but it’s making it much easier to plan our days. I also carry a handy 4-in-1 pen which has 4 colours (red, blue, green, black). Using this I tend to write accommodation for each night in red, transport plans in green and misc stuff like day events in blue/black. It may sound a little over-organised, but it means that at a glance I can quickly see when we need to book accommodation or travel. I’ve also taken to looking up the weather in advance (when I do have wifi) and noting that down for each day (20C+rain, 25C+sun) to help us plan indoor/outdoor activities. Something that this is also proving useful is that it’s a local NZ/Aus diary so it has the public holidays and information relevant to the next few months at least. It also has a few pages of handy conversion charts, timezone maps etc which is very helpful when travelling.
Tripod – I am a game developer by trade, but while travelling, I’m working on building up my photography portfolio and trying to create some pretty images of our travels. I still do code from time-to-time but most of my life is spent outdoors so photography suits my current lifestyle better. Back in the UK I had a trusty old tripod from Jessops that I bought with my first DSLR in 2007. It’s bulky and cumbersome, but it works and isn’t too heavy. Since it wasn’t perfect and would be difficult to work with I made the tough decision when leaving the UK to not bring it travelling despite my love of landscape/night/HDR photography. Since then, I’ve missed my tripod. There have been so many occasions where I’ve had to lean my camera on something to keep it steady and miss the perfect framing, or hand hold and not get it quite sharp enough. I’m getting better at hand held exposures but really, I need a tripod for my current setup. Last week, I decided to buy a Manfrotto tripod. It weights just 1kg, has a super-flexible ball-head and could be extended to be taller than my eye-level if I so wished. It’s compact, lightweight and comes with a carry bag. I’m not sure how I ever did photography without it.
A Cap – I knew I’d want a hat of some sort to keep my head from being burnt on day trips, but here’s my problem: I’m not a hat person. They just don’t suit me, with the exception of basic caps or beanies. I figured I could buy one easily as we travel but it proved quite difficult. Every cap here is either one of those trendy ones that is WAY too big for your head and just looks silly, or it has a map of New Zealand on it or a giant kiwi. I mean, a map of the country could come in handy, but I don’t really want one emblazoned across my forehead screaming “LOOK! TOURIST!”. After weeks of searching, I found a good, nondescript black cap in a surf shop in Christchurch. My advice to fellow fair-skinned people seeking non-logo’d headgear: perhaps buy this at home before you start your travels!
Merino Wool – My merino wool tops from Ice Breaker have been great so far, although they do tend to bobble/wear a LOT faster than I expected. I’ve also had one rip, although the store was great and replaced it immediately. Despite a few hiccups, merino wool is by far the most comfortable fabric I have worn and is great for both outdoors hiking and travelling/lazy days.
Lounge/Harem Pants – When we first arrived in our hostel in Auckland, I saw a couple of girls wearing these very baggy, light, linen trousers that go just below the knee. I found a store in Auckland which sold them and decided to invest in a pair. They’ve become my most-worn item of clothing. I wear them to lounge in the hostel or sleep in. I wear them for walks around town or to go shopping. I love them. If you’re regularly travelling somewhere warm, make sure you have something lightweight and comfortable to lounge in.
What I’ve sent home
I recently sent home a box containing some items I’d been carrying around but no longer needed:
My old trainers – Light enough and in good enough condition to warrant sending home. I was only replacing them as I found the great trail running shoes which were much more practical and safe for long hikes up dusty/rocky mountains.
My passport cover – Sounds silly, I know. It was always on my passport, but I found that it bulked out the size quite significantly. With the cover on, I couldn’t fit my passport in my coat pocket or waist security pack. I also had to remove it every time someone from customs etc wanted to check it. It was more hassle than it’s worth.
Denim shorts – They really were too short to be practical! Also, heavy.
My wool dress – This was previously in my list of must haves. It’s nice to have something you can wear out or to look good in and my dress was great for that in San Francisco. Here in NZ it’s too warm for the dress and from here on we’ll be heading to warmer climates. I chose to send it home as it was fairly bulky and cost enough to warrant the postage fee.
Tickets, gifts and mementos – While sending home a parcel of items, it’s nice to put in a few treats for loved ones and tickets/leaflets to keep as a memento. My family are kind and let me store things in my bedroom at home, so I’m able to send back things I’d like to keep. It will be fascinating to go through all the little packages whenever I return to the Shire in England!
Temporary Items I Carry Between Accommodation
Food. Forever trying to save money, I loathe throwing things away. Some things (like fruit) don’t travel well so I tend to leave them in the free food boxes in hostels when we leave. Long life or lightweight items I tend to keep hold of between places. This includes items such as cereal bars, coffee or small packs of microwave rice & instant soup (good when you’re in a rush or if kitchens aren’t as clean as you’d like). Whenever I leave a place, if I can pack my leftover food, it goes in my little 20L pack on the outside of my larger backpack. Having that extra 20L of space is very useful for this kind of thing.
Things I wish I’d packed more of before we left the UK/US
Benadryl/Antihistamines – My hayfever has been terrible since I arrived in New Zealand. It’s spring/summer in a new country so I’ve suddenly been exposed to a lot of new pollens that are affecting my allergies. Having not had bad hayfever in the UK for a few years, I didn’t think this would be an issue, but I was wrong. I should have stocked up on good antihistamines before leaving home as they’re harder to find here.
Note: a lot of medicines that are common in the UK/US are easy to find in New Zealand. They have a lot of common brands like Lemsip. They even stock Fishermen’s Friends menthol sweets which is convenient when you have a cold! This means you don’t have to pack everything for every eventuality – just make sure you have enough of the essentials that may be harder to find in an emergency.
Things I’m currently not using much
My hiking boots – It’s not that they aren’t comfortable – they’re like super fluffy waterproof slippers, but they’re warm. Really warm. I’ve used them a couple of times when we’ve had torrential rain, but mostly, I’ve worn them when moving between places as they take up a lot of space in my bag and it’s easier to not pack them. Also, the weather here is so nice I tend to wear my flip flops a lot, which has the added bonus of not needing to wash socks so often! I’m keeping my boots for now since I have room for them and we’re likely to do a lot of hiking and visit a glacier soon.
My hand-wash laundry gel – I’m sure this will come in very handy at some point and it’s light/compact so easy to keep hold of, but for now, I’m not using it. Every hostel we’ve stayed in so far has had good laundry facilities. A wash costs on average $2, with an extra $4 or so if you want to use a tumble dryer. I often line-dry things in the room and have been careful to pack things of the same colours/darkness so it can all be washed together. This saves a lot of money and means I’ve avoided the manual labour of hand washing things.
Silk sleeping bag liner & travel towel – Everywhere we’ve stayed has provided towels (either free, or for hire at only $1) and clean bedding. I’ve actually been very surprised with the cleanliness of the hostels. Both these items are light and compact so they are worth keeping hold of for future locations, but for now, they aren’t being used. Perhaps bear this in mind if you’re only backpacking through NZ/Aus and staying at fairly well reviewed accommodation.
My ever-changing list of essentials
This started as a “top 5” in my previous post, but as I travel, the items I find essential are growing and changing. From now on I’ll just have a list of things that I feel are essential without limiting it to an arbitrary number!
A cap – Helps prevent sunburn and squinting! Also handy for keeping you dry in the rain, keeping your hair out of your face in the wind or covering up scruffy hair when you’ve spent all night on a bus!
A paper diary and a pen/pencil – As mentioned earlier, these are great for keeping you organised when online calendars/notes aren’t always available.
Headphones – Good for drowning out background noise. You’ll also want them to listen to audio-narration on scenic journeys (the KiwiRail scenic routes have an audio guide explaining the sights out the window).
Ear plugs – Noisy neighbours, snoring partners or for sleeping on transport. These are essential if you are a light sleeper.
Waterproof flip flops/sandals – I wear my flip flops more than any other footwear: to the beach; around the hostel; around town; while travelling; but most importantly – in the shower. Sometimes if you’re late to use the shower they aren’t as clean as you might like. Having a pair of waterproof flip flops means you can step in the shower wearing them, protecting your feet from whatever lurks in the shower basin and they’ll dry super fast too.
Medication – Not everything, but enough to cover emergencies, e.g. Neosporen, band aids, painkillers and strong antihistamines (if you ever need them). I didn’t even think about the latter since we left the UK in winter and my hayfever hasn’t been bad in recent years. A bit of forethought would have told me that we’re arriving in the southern hemisphere in spring/summer and I’ve not been exposed to a lot of the pollen here before. Don’t make the same mistake I did if you are travelling somewhere new and occasionally get bad hayfever – stock up on good antihistamines before you leave home!
Spork – Used often, while out and about, but also in the hostel if we’re far from the kitchen and I want a late night snack and can’t be bothered to get dressed and head to the communal areas.
A multi-tool – Chris has one of these with scissors, screwdriver, bottle opener, pen, light and even a 32GB usb drive. We’ve used most of these regularly and it’s very compact.
Multi-plug extension cable with USB slots – The one Chris bought for us has 4 usb slots and 2 universal plug inputs. This means we can both use it to charge our devices (I have UK gadgets, he has US ones). This comes in particularly useful when you’re in a hostel/cafe with only one available outlet.
Playing cards – keeps me entertained when waiting for things or on transport. Doesn’t require power or wifi and won’t drain my vital phone battery. Also good for impromptu games with your travel friends! I might do a write up at some point of our favourite single/multi-player card games if that sort of thing would be of interest?!
A watch – I used to use my phone to check the time, but when you don’t have a local sim card or regular wifi, I tend to find that I don’t refer to my phone that often and it’s usually somewhere at the bottom of my bag. I also run out of battery fairly often. A watch, ideally one with the day/date on it is very useful. Life on the road minus a 9-6 work week means you often forget what day of the week it is!
Hand sanitiser – We take this everywhere. There have been a lot of occasions where bathrooms are either dirty, had no soap/sink, or a dirty shared towel to try your hands on. Also useful when you’re somewhere you can’t wash your hands, like on a hike or at the beach.
Epilator – Not something for everyone but it’s more cost effective than waxing, lasts weeks, and means I no longer have to waste time shaving in showers on a daily basis.
Vacuum bags – Essential for compressing/organising your clothing into compact blocks.
It seems the key to backpacking is to do the obvious: plan ahead and keep your bag contents flexible. I’m slowly refining what I carry but it’s still a big learning process. Everyone’s packing needs are different but as long as you plan ahead and take the essentials, you should be fine. I recommend starting out in a country where it’s easy to purchase/change your items before you head to the more remote locations.
I’d be interested to hear what other people consider to be essentials when travelling. Perhaps there’s something we’ve not considered yet? Thoughts and feedback are, as always, welcome in the comment section below!
Happy new year to you all and happy and safe travels wherever you may be! 🙂