So you’ve got your tickets and your Visas for your international backpacking trip, but you’re still not sure what to bring? As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Balkans, I became a pro at packing light, while still having everything I needed. Whether you’re trekking the globe in six days or six weeks, here are my top packing hacks for your multi-country adventure.
What to Pack
Yes, this one seems obvious. Grab your passport, driver’s license or other ID, credit/debit card, prescriptions, banking information, and any other documents you’ll need. Documents come first because this is really the only category that’s an absolute must on a multi-country trip. Nearly everything else can be bought during your travels, or done without.
Be sure to bring information about any allergies or health conditions you have, even if it seems unlikely you’ll need it. Make several copies of your passport photo page, and label the inside of your luggage and anything valuable with your home address, just in case.
Zipper Bags for Everything
When you’re on the road, you’ll want all your items easily accessible and organized. In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to have too many plastic resealable bags. For bigger items, lightweight zipper bags are indispensable. Once your stuff is all zipped up, throw a few extra empty bags in your luggage, for gifts or new items you pick up along the way.
You might be thinking, huh? But trust me. A Turkish towel—sometimes called a peshtemal—always ends up being the most-used item in my backpack on an international trip. These traditional towels are thin and extremely lightweight, so they dry quickly and are easy to carry. You only need one: as long as you can find sunny places to hang it up regularly, it will stay surprisingly fresh between washings. So why do I recommend a Turkish towel over one of those quick-dry microfiber towels? Turkish towels are just as light and functional as microfiber towels, but much more attractive, so they double as a clothing item that you can wear practically anywhere on your trip. You can ball your peshtemal up to use as a pillow on busses and trains, use it as a beach cover-up, or even a light blanket in a pinch.
Shoes That Aren’t Sneakers
Unless you’re going to spend the entire trip in the wilderness, invest in some comfortable shoes that don’t look like they belong in gym class. Why? Along with shorts, athletic shoes are one of the most derided—and easiest to spot—fashion choices of tourists from the USA. There’s no quicker way to look like an “ugly American” than hitting a museum or restaurant in a pair of dingy sneakers.
When you’re pounding the pavement, opt for a dark pair of shoes that at least look like leather, and of course, make sure they’re broken in and can withstand lots of walking. Like the shoes, your travel clothes should be dark, neutral colors that easily coordinate. It might seem minor, but particularly in Western Europe, a versatile, grown-up pair of shoes will help you blend in. This could get you more polite service, and throw pickpockets off your trail.
Small Gifts for New Friends
Fill one of your zipper bags with small gifts, like souvenir keychains, magnets, or candy from your home state. Many countries have more stringent gift-giving expectations than the US. In many places, for example, it’s customary to bring someone a gift if they invite you into their home. Potential gift-recipients can be tour guides, guest house workers, cleaners, or even simply someone friendly who helps you along your way.
It might seem insignificant, but consider that you may meet people who will never have the opportunity to travel to your home country. For them, even a small souvenir could mean the world.
What to Skip
Jewelry and Other Valuables
Basically, the rule of thumb is to leave at home anything that’s absolutely irreplaceable. If you can’t stand the thought of losing your prize watch, or your favorite necklace, leave it at home. You should also keep in mind that wearing expensive-looking jewelry could make you a target for thieves or con artists.
When I do bring a piece of jewelry while traveling, like my wedding band, my rule for keeping it safe is to never take it off, not even in the shower.
Travel Pillows or Other “Travel” Gadgets
The exception to this rule is chargers and adapters that you will absolutely need while traveling. Otherwise, you don’t need a “travel” pillow, travel hair dryer, or most other items that you wouldn’t need or use at home. Airplanes generally offer pillows and blankets to use, and if you need to nap on the run, use a balled-up sweatshirt (or your Turkish towel!) as a cushion.
One possible exception is a sleep mask, which is extremely small and can work wonders if you need to catch some shut-eye when it isn’t dark. But don’t bother buying one; you can usually get one from a flight attendant or hotel along the way.
What to Pick Up (or Give Away) On Your Trip
Unless it’s a special product you absolutely can’t live without, most toiletries you should plan to buy, or use, along the way. Taking liquids on international flights is a pain, so don’t bother with anything you can simply get at your destination. Most hostels or guest houses will have shampoo, soap, and towels you can use, and small items like nail clippers or razors can be found in local pharmacies. When I set out on a trip, I bring deodorant, a toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste, and some moisturizer with sunscreen. Anything else, I grab along the way.
If you’re going on a multi-country backpacking trip, you’ll have to dress for whatever the climate, and culture, requires in each country. If you know that you’ll be visiting somewhere cold, or somewhere with special clothing requirements, you have a few options. You can opt to buy the items in-country (I recommend secondhand!), or, buy them secondhand before you depart, and plan to leave them behind. This is an especially nice gesture if you’re visiting somewhere cold, where your hand-me-down jacket or gloves could be very useful to someone in need.
Another benefit of packing clothing you intend to give away, is that you’ll be freeing up space in your luggage for something new.
Do you have any packing tips for multi-country travel? Share them in the comments below.