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15 Essential Items for Any Traveler’s Backpack

Grace Lower | Nov 21, 2017


No matter where you are in the world, you’re bound to run into a backpacker or two. You’ll usually see them in small, disheveled-looking groups, waiting anxiously for their train or shuffling zombie-like through hostel lobbies. I’ve never backpacked long-term myself, but I know it takes equal parts stamina and resourcefulness. And when it comes to preparing for travel of any kind, there are plenty of lessons to take from our backpacking counterparts.

Whether you’re using it as a carry-on, or living out of it for weeks on end, your backpack is a valuable travel tool. Like Hermione Granger’s magical handbag, your backpack can hold much more than you’d think, as long as you pack it wisely. Here are a few must-haves to help you get started:

1. Tissues

It’s allergy season here in Pennsylvania, and my tissue box is never far. As inconvenient as a runny nose can be, it’s even worse when you’re on the road. A mini pack of tissues is an absolute godsend (especially if you’re on public transportation and don’t want to alarm your fellow passengers with your sniffles). As an added bonus, tissues can double as toilet paper and paper towels for any understocked bathrooms you might encounter.

2. Freezer bags

While we’re on the topic of tissues, a quick PSA: don’t be gross. Chances are, you won’t always have easy access to a trashcan while you’re traveling, so you’ll be stuck with your used tissues. Not to worry: if you have the foresight to bring plastic freezer bags with you, they make excellent garbage bags. Plastic bags are also ideal for storing snacks, organizing small items, and keeping liquids/wet clothes from touching the rest of your belongings. Despite their many uses, plastic bags have a major drawback: they’re terrible for the environment. Use them sparingly!

3. Hand Sanitizer

If you want to take my “don’t be gross” advice to heart, remember: hand sanitizer is your friend. While you certainly shouldn’t use it excessively, hand sanitizer is perfect for use in public transportation, outside of street vendors, and in understocked restrooms. If you really want to treat yourself, go for a sanitizer in a bright color or a fun scent.

4. Extra Toothbrush/Toothpaste

After a few unfortunate incidents involving lost luggage and toilet bowls, I am a huge proponent of the emergency toothbrush. Whether you’ve got a dry mouth on a red-eye flight, or if you’ve just left your original toothbrush at your last hotel, an extra toothbrush (and mini toothpaste) makes a huge difference.

5. Snacks

I’ve talked about the value of snacks in previous posts, like this one and this one. But guys, if you’re relying on cafes and airport food courts for all your travel sustenance, brace yourself for some crazy-looking receipts. Instead, curb your cravings by bringing sweet, savory, and hearty snacks in your backpack. Save that hard-earned spending money for a proper meal out!

6. Notebook and pen

Writing is a normal part of my routine, so I’m always sure to keep a notebook somewhere in my backpack. But even if you’re not much of a wordsmith, a pen and paper can be a valuable set of travel tools. You can get a game of Pictionary started to pass the time, or write down directions and important addresses if your phone is low on battery life. Speaking of which…

7. Spare charger (and adapters)

Don’t test fate with just one charger. Keep a spare in an easy-to-reach part of your backpack, and make sure you have the appropriate adapters, if needed.

8. Mini flashlight

You’re sorely mistaken if you think flashlights are intended strictly for camping and slumber parties.  My mini flashlight has come in handy more times than I can count, whether I’m trying to find my bunk in a dark hostel room, searching for keys that I dropped on a dark sidewalk, or trying to read during a massive power outage.

9. Umbrella

I have a terrible habit of losing umbrellas. No matter how often I’m forced to buy new ones, though, I never regret having a pocket-sized umbrella on hand. Compact umbrellas might look a little dorky, but trust me, traveling in damp clothes is miserable. With a mini umbrella in tow, you can stay dry without having to lug a raincoat around.

10. Reusable water bottle

Unfortunately, not all countries have ample public water fountains like we do here in the States. Save yourself from overpriced bottled water by packing a reusable water bottle. I’m pretty shameless when it comes to filling up at hotels and in restaurants. But hey, it beats dehydration any day!

11. A change of clothes

Depending on your backpack’s size, you might not be able to fit an entire second outfit in a compartment. No matter your space limitations, be sure to bring an extra pair of socks and an extra set of underwear. If you’re stuck on a long train ride or caught without your luggage, you’ll understand.

12. Comb

This should be another no-brainer, but if your hair is longer than a few inches, try to keep a comb on hand. No one looks their best after sleeping on a plane or walking through a windy city corridor. In my experience, a quick brush of the hair is the first step to feeling like myself again.

13. Lotion

The air that circulates through vehicles—whether it’s on a tram, a train, a plane, or a boat—is always incredibly dry. Pair that with excessive hand sanitizing, and you’ve got yourself some seriously dry skin. Try keeping a pocket-sized lotion (or Vaseline) in your backpack. While it’s not as high priority as other toiletries, a mini lotion can go a long way in keeping your travels comfortable.

14. Travel Locks

Having very nearly been pickpocketed last time I was in France, I dutifully lock up my backpack’s zippers whenever I’m abroad. It might feel a little excessive, but a few minutes of fumbling with keys and codes beats the endless calls you’ll have to make after your wallet (or worse—your passport) has been stolen. Trust me on this. Keep your valuables under lock and key.

15. Band-Aids

Accidents happen, and occasionally, they involve a scraped knee, a stubbed toe, or an angry blister. Make sure to keep a variety pack of Band-Aids in your backpack for when this inevitably happens. You get bonus points if you buy the ones with cute patterns or cartoons!

Think about your backpack as a collection of items you absolutely cannot live without during your travels. While the list above only scratches the surface, it should give you an idea of what to prioritize when deciding on your “essentials.” It helps to be prepared for the unexpected. While your travel insurance should cover any major setbacks, a well-stocked backpack is sure to get you far.

About the Author

Grace Lower

Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.

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