Backpacking Packing List (Especially for long-term travelers)

“You’re carrying such a big pack!” People often exclaim, when they see me schlepping my 50 pound backpack home around on my back, which carries all of my worldly possessions of the traveling moment, which has been my life for much of the past eight years. After I explain, people change their tune to, “That’s it?”

How does one be a long-term traveler? How does one live life out of a backpack? What’s in there? What do you bring?

After enough questions aimed in this direction, it’s time for this article. I hope that this article is helpful for you who are preparing for a long journey, you who are preparing for a short journey, you who are just curious, and you who are already well-traveled. This article is for... you.

I’m no longer in the always-on-the-road-and-ready-for-anything phase of my life... Well, sometimes I am. Like, right now. But it doesn’t feel like this-is-forever, any more. I’m just coming out of it. I think. I just got a car again, and am looking into grad schools. Times are a-changin’. But, I will still write this article in present tense, just to keep things active. Because, even though I’m becoming more stable in my life, I am still a wild ol’ nomad, in my heart.

When traveling long term and carrying my life on my back, I try to minimize my life down to the essentials. Some call us “ounce-cutters.” I agree. But, it’s more like “micro-ounce-cutters.” I like to cut the tags off of all of my clothing, take off stickers... I go to extremes to lighten my pack. I traveled for a while with a tarp pack, instead of an actual backpack, to reduce the weight of even having a backpack. How comfortable do you need to be? How comfortable do you want to be?

Even in my most “extreme” times, I still carried my leather journal. Leather is durable and wonderful... but, heavy. And, my home-made journals are 120 pages. The whole thing fits in the palm of my hand, but is extra weight. As is my pouch of special stones, my books, earrings, an extra pretty thing or too that I don’t really need, but really like... and thus choose to travel with, for a small degree of comfort. What are you willing to live without? What can’t you live without? What do you absolutely need?

I’ve experimented with a variety of ways of doing things. I used to be much more “hardcore” than I am now. As I get older, I tend to value comfort more. I carry a larger towel than I used to, by a few inches. Those few inches of cotton comfort make me so much happier after a shower, even though it’s a few more ounces of weight. As is the ease of carrying a pack: ergonomic comfort, pockets, accessibility, etc. It’s heavier than a tarp pack, but by now, I don’t mind.

I pack differently for different circumstances. What form of transportation are you taking? Where are you going? Are you staying urban? Are you going into the back-country? Are you doing both? When are you traveling? What are the weather conditions? I’ve mostly hitchhiked and taken public transport, and am prepared to go between both urban and wild environments, as I don’t know exactly where I am going, much of the time. I resupply once a year, if I’m lucky. So, I’m prepared for anything. Regardless of within the USA or abroad, I am always prepared to camp with a few basic items:

Camping equipment: basics
- Sleeping bag (temperature rating to match wherever you are going. I didn’t know where I was going, so I brought the warmest bag that was as light as possible: a 0 F down bag)
- Tarp and rope (This is in case it rains. Know how to rig up a tarp shelter, in a variety of ways. There are ultralight tarps, and your general tarp. Ultralight tarps are handy for quick emergencies, but not conducive to multi-day usage. I prefer the general tarp.)
- Sleeping pad (I prefer the solid foam pad, instead of the blow-up sleeping pads. The blow-up pads take up less room and are more comfortable, but can pop, depending on where you are traveling. I often land in more rugged desert-type environments, thus the inclination towards a non-inflatable pad.)
- Stove (Optional. I still don’t own a backpacking stove, since I usually make cooking fires. A lightweight stove can be expensive, but very handy to have, especially in areas where fires are not allowed.)
- Matches or a lighter, in a plastic ziplock sack
- Water purifier (water pump, or iodine tablets)
- Water bottle or water bag
- Metal container to cook food and water in (I love lightweight and durable titanium cookwear.)
- Eating utensils (I carry around 1 titanium spork and 1 pair of bamboo chopsticks)
- Knife (I carry a pocket-knife on my hip, at all times. Just make sure that you dress yourself appropriately, before boarding airplanes, as airport security frowns upon knife-laden hips.)

What clothes you bring depends on the type of environment you are in. I like layers for all environments. What you bring also depends on how long you plan to be “out” for. I will list my suggestions for long-term travelers. I bring my favorite clothing, which is comfortable, aesthetic, usually natural fibers, and can be used in many ways. I travel with my favorite clothes, as I know I will wear them over and over again. I like to have different colors, patterns, and textures, so I can mix and match, to make life more interesting. (The same clothes all the time gets boring, after a while.) I love darker earth tone colors, so things can get dirty without looking dirty, and I can easily blend into a natural environment. You can buy synthetic lightweight quick-drying clothes, but I find those to be noisy, uncomfortable, and get sweaty and stinky easily. I prefer natural clothing, even though they’re generally more heavy.

If I have the opportunity to resupply, then I will pack what I need seasonally. Asking friends for their extra clothing that they would otherwise donate, digging around in free boxes and thrift stores, and leaving behind what I don’t need, in exchange for what I do need, works well, if I can’t resupply.

For colder climates, I love wool for its insular ability, even when wet. Synthetic fleece is wonderful for its warmth and lightweight nature, but melts if you get too close to your campfire.

Warmer climates vary. The desert has cool nights, so I prepare for that. The tropics are hot and muggy, and feel unbearable in the summer seasons. If resupplying, I would bring nothing but just a sheet, and the lightest cotton clothing that I have, for those kinds of conditions. Ask the locals what to prepare, and notice how they dress! If in a foreign country, it’s good to dress like those around you, anyhow.

Instead of making two different lists for warmer or colder climates, I just made one list. Adjust as you need, via the clothing material, and quantity (more and heavier for cold weather, less and lighter for warm weather. Layers, always). I wash my clothes by hand, more often if it’s hot, and less often if it’s cold.

Here’s some clothing ideas/ possibilities:

Clothes list
- 2-3 pairs of underwear (cotton’s great, but dries slowly, and chafes if you’re sweaty. I invest in more expensive synthetic traveler undies, to expedite the daily washing and drying process. I’d like to try hemp or bamboo undies, next.)
- 2-3 tank tops (or other base layer cotton/ natural fiber shirt)
- 1-2 inner long-sleeve shirts (cotton for warm weather, wool for cold weather)
- Lightweight outer jacket
- Rain jacket (doubles as a windbreaker. Make sure that it’s waterproof, not just water resistant, if you will actually be in a wet environment)
- 2-3 pairs of socks (wool for cold weather, cotton for warm)
- Leggings
- 1-2 skirts and/ or 1-2 pairs of pants (light yet durable cotton, or other natural breathable material for summer. Wool for winter)
- Long-johns (1 pair for warmer places, 2 pairs for colder places. Wool, always.)
- Hat (sun hat for sunny environment, wool cap for cold environment)
- Sunglasses (optional, for snow or sun)
- Other cold weather gear (down jacket, gloves/ mittens, scarf, etc)
- Other warm weather gear (swimming suit if you need it... and not much else at all. Mosquito net, perhaps)
- Shoes (sandals and moccasins for warm weather, just boots for cool weather. I travel with sandals and boots, to be prepared for any weather)

I tend to carry around too much food, as past travel partners can attest to, with cringes on their faces. Instead of storing food in my backpack, I tend to carry it around in an external “food bag,” because it’s too heavy and bulky to backpack with. I dumpster-dove for many years for food, instead of purchasing it from the store, which made procured food more valuable. Thus, schlepping it around. These days, I am more picky with my eating habits. I eat mostly organic, so carry around healthy foods, and foods that I like. This food list is more for the back-country connoisseur, rather than the urban traveler, who can easily resupply. I bring food that lasts for a long time, even without refrigeration. I prefer storing food in paper or cloth sacks, so that they can breathe, instead of plastic bags, where they can get damp then moldy, from their own sweat. I usually don’t carry all of these foods. It really depends. If you really want to get fancy, you can dehydrate everything ahead of time. But, I prefer fresh. Here’s some suggestions:

My food list
- Onions
- Purple cabbage
- Carrots
- Garlic
- Ginger
- Broccoli
- Sweet potato
- Fruit (ie Apples, oranges, pears, dried fruits)
- Spices (ie. Salt, pepper, curry powder, cayenne)
- Grains (ie. bread, oats, quinoa)
- Protein (ie. nuts, seeds, beans)
- Oil (I don’t usually backpack with oil, but it’s really lovely to have around.)

The sundries list
- Money (and money/ passport belt, if in an area where folks often get mugged)
- Pepper spray (optional. I used to carry this, while hitchhiking, just in case.)
- Extra bags (I carry extra cotton bags for collecting plants, foods, etc. I carry extra plastic bags for trash, waterproofing needs, etc.)
- Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, soap if you need it, menstruation equipment, etc)
- Small towel (I prefer cotton, instead of the quick-dry synthetic stuff. Cotton just feels and smells better, after a while.)
- Any medicines you may need (I tend to just carry a Tiger Balm style first aid salve that has mint, menthol, and other aromatics that are helpful for everything from aches and sprains, to minor cuts, to bug bites and nauseousness. I also carry Chapparal salve for sun protection and general skin nourishment, and always chapstick.)
- Sewing kit (just 1 ball of string, and 1-3 needles)
- Extra rope, rubber bands, tape (and scissors, if you’re really fancy. I like to carry hemp or jute rope for its durability, compostability, and potential to shred into small pieces to make a tinder bundle nest, for fire-starting)

I carry my large pack on my back, and my smaller grab bag on my front. My grab bag is usually a shoulder bag, but is sometimes a backpack. I put all of my valuables and immediate-usage items in the grab bag. When traveling in public areas, I sometimes ask a stranger to watch my large pack while I go elsewhere. But, I never leave my grab bag. I sleep with my grab bag next to my head, to this day. The grab bag can sometimes get bulky on long trips, especially wilderness backpacking journeys. If I don’t have a grab bag, then I’ll make sure that I have a strong cotton bag that I can easily sling over my shoulder, to use as a grab bag, if needed. A friend gave me a roll-up synthetic ultralight backpack that rolls into the size of a large wallet, that fits at the top of my pack. I carry it around as an emergency grab bag, when I’m not carrying one. When on multi-day backpacking trips, I like to set up a base camp. I leave all of my stuff at camp, unroll my emergency grab bag, and turn it into a daypack. Some backpacks have a detachable “brain” at the top. I’ve seen fellow travelers store grab bag type items in their backpack brain, and detach it as a fanny-pack, when they’re on the move. Fanny-packs seem ergonomically friendly, though I’ve never used one for long, before. I like hip pouches too (just more stylish than fanny packs, and hanging on the side, instead of protruding from the belly), which are like mini grab bags that stay put.

What’s in my grab bag
- Headlamp
- Knife
- Journal
- Camera
- Matches/ lighter
- Money/ passport/ ID
- Snacks
- Phone
- Spork/ chopsticks
- First aid salve
- Chapstick
- 1-3 lightweight cloth/ plastic bags, rolled up

Now with my car, I have a diversity of travel choices/ possibilities. Ensconced within my packed car, I have a smaller backpacking pack for shorter trips, and a large one for longer trips. I have a small suitcase with wheels, with the same carrying capacity as my large backpacking pack, but the convenience of being able to open my suitcase to view its contents, instead of digging through my pack. And, the wheels help to save my aging spine, for more urbane adventures. I have a small day pack, for day hikes. And finally, my grab bag forms my day-to-day purse-like sack, that still comes with me everywhere, and guards my dreams at night.

I’d like to finish this article with one of my favorite quotes, that my best friend in college, and instigator for what has turned into a lifetime of travelsome adventures, once shared with me. I tape this quote onto my wall when I have walls, write it in my journal, and travel with it in my heart. May it inspire you on your journey, as well. And, may you prepare well, pack simply, trust yourself and this beautiful massive world, and... enjoy.

“Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you -- beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”
- Edward Abbey

~ Addendum ~
Here's some extra insights/ experiential suggestions from my friend and fellow traveler on a similar journey of a different style, Marvin Warren: 

Tarp: You can take my ultralight backpacking tarp from my cold, dead hands. I used to have an 8x10 silnylon job that took me from Georgia to Maine in 2001--still have it, in fact--but now I have a slightly smaller tarp made of spinnaker fabric, which sails are often made of. It's lighter and at least as durable as the silnylon. Cost more, but I've had it for 8 years now and it shows no sign of wearing out, even with a small hole burned in it by a careless neighbor camping in Tennessee some years ago. Anyway, it weighs about 8 ounces; there's no way I'm going back to the enormous and heavy standard tarps of my youth. Also, this means I can use lightweight cord for guylines, saving even more weight (though not so useful for tying up kinky friends and errant children). My sleeping bag, tarp,  lines, pad and ground cloth all together weigh just about 2 pounds. It's hard to get a sleeping bag as light as the quilt I made, but I've seen ones right around 2 lbs/10° that looked very nice.

Stove: I made my 1/4-ounce alcohol-burning stove out of two soda cans and some aluminum tape from an auto parts store. Cost: the tape, a few bucks. I could show you how in under an hour. Fuel is denatured alcohol, available at any hardware store, though I can only seem to find quart-sized and above these days, no more pints. You can burn everclear, too, but why would you? ;-)
I've also used what people call a hobo stove, which is simply a coffee can or some such with some notches cut in it to allow for some air flow. More efficient than an open fire, and easier to rest a pot on. Weighs a little more than the alcohol stove, but if you're confident that you'll have fuel (bits of wood), you don't have to carry any. Both work great, though there's no 'simmer' option, at least on the alcohol.

I put everything in ziplock bags. This is probably less needful in the desert--though it still helps keep things organized--but on the wet sides of the country, it's invaluable. In particularly wet weather, I line the inside of my pack with a trash bag as well.

Clothes: Less of them, all quick-drying except for wool/synthetic socks, of which 3 pair is a minimum, and usually just the right amount. I will never go to sleep in wet socks again. No no no no no.
I invested in silk long-johns, and find them more comfortable and lighter than wool. It's my hands that tend to get cold, though, so I'm less worried about my legs. Might change if I wore skirts outdoors in winter. (Extra socks double as gloves, too, of course)
No cotton, except on car-trips. Synthetic, silk, wool, bamboo fibre, but no cotton.