As I unpack my bag from South America and begin repacking for Japan, I can’t help but reflect on essential travel items and the art of packing. This is an art for which I have little to no skill. That is, despite a lifetime of travel, the struggle continues to be real. Most of us start with good intentions, having learned from past mistakes and absorbing advice from other travel-savvy gurus. You roll your clothes thinking you’ll continue to do this throughout your trip (nope). Throw in a pair of high heels thinking you’ll wear them to a fancy dinner (nope). Put plastic wrap over your liquid toiletries to prevent them from leaking, thinking you’ll remember to throw the wrap back on after your first shower (nope!).
Yet I know I’ve come a long way in some regards. When I went on my first lengthy trip abroad with Semester at Sea, I have vivid memories of dragging an old-timey suitcase to through the shipyard. One without wheels. One that my grama gave me out of pity. I went through a love affair with Space Bags— a former contender for the essential travel items list— but then realized you can’t vacuum seal your bags if there ain’t no vacuum around. I’ve packed too little. And too much. Then came to accept the fact that there’s no way in hell I could possibly look as cute as those travel bloggers miraculously achieve.
So this isn’t a blog about how to fine tune your folding. Or what go-to outfits to cart along (epic fail). Or what appropriate quantities to squeeze into squeezie bottles. This is a simple list of essential travel items to pack that work for any backpacking/ vacation experience. Not matter the time length. Most of which took me my lifetime of traveling to stumble upon, without the aid of travel blogs. The travel mileage had to lead to some street smarts (check out this list on traveling with your partner).
1. Industrial strength earplugs
I am a pathetically light sleeper. If a home intruder decided to murder me in my sleep, I would be armed at the door, waiting for him. When he was still two blocks away. So when I moved into an apartment hovering on top of a train station in Japan, I knew I was royally f*&#ed. I decided to go on a scientific experiment with myself via Amazon— purchasing “America’s #1 selling and #1 doctor recommended ear plugs” Mack’s. They’re silicone putty ones that block out noises up to 22 decibels. Which doesn’t sound like much (haha) until you’ve slept in a shitty dorm with a bunch of drunken 20 year-olds on their own personal Spring Break. Considering how much sleep deprivation can affect travel, ear plugs make for a nice insurance plan.
2. Ditto on the eye mask
To further my scientific experiment, I needed an eye mask. Something that blocked out every perceptible light wave but didn’t piss me off at the same time. I found Alaska Bear. While it’s not made from our actual fuzzy friends, the 100% silk is a close second. Super soft, super dark. There have been zero nights where I tear the thing off because it itches or is too tight. Though recently, my sleeping body has begun to ween itself off it. A sleep mask adds to the insurance plan, especially if you are on an irregular sleep cycle or in a place that forgoes nighttime (dance clubs, a place where Alaskan bears maybe reside).
3. A zip-around backpack
For my first 10 years of backpacking—after the Semester at Sea debacle— I had a top-loading backpack. She got me through plenty a trip… in the utterly frustrating way that top-loading bags do. Know that raincoat you packed at the bottom because it wasn’t suppose to rain quite yet? Welp, you need it. Have fun emptying out the entire contents of your bag to find it, sucker. It was only recently that I gave in, said sayonara to my faithful top-loader, and got myself a zip-around. The Osprey Porter. While Osprey is my new favorite brand as of late (even if the thing makes me look like a Ninja Turtle), I whole-heartedly support any backpack that allows you to access all your shit at the same time. Just good luck finding them in stores.
4. Packing cubes
Miniature drawers in your backpack. That’s how I see packing cubes. Basically, they are breathable, zip-around bags to put inside your larger one for organizational purposes. How the hell did I travel before these things?! My Bago ones sure ain’t perfect— the mesh has ripped at one or two corners— but the OCD side of me is pacified. They’re cheap. Colorful. And just like food on a plate, the weird things don’t have to touch each other.
5. Shoe bags
Shoes are gross. Think about all the stuff you step in when you travel— mud, animal poop, shower scum. Good times. So why would you want your shoes touching your clothes? Or even your bag? Shoe bags are just a fancier take on plastic bags except less likely to tear and not as sad looking. They have been a life savior for my hiking shoes and sneakers, especially after a particularly muddy trek. Throw them in a bag and confine the smells and disgust until you get home and discover the mini eco-system now living inside.
Headlamps aren’t just for camping. At the best hostel in Cusco, Peru, the electricity went out right around dinnertime. Those of us with headlamps were like, “No problemo.” Those without fell down flights of stairs. The point here is that this kind of shit happens more than you would think. And a headlamp circumnavigates all potential hazards. Power outages. 3 a.m. hiking. Reading your book in a dorm room. Peeing outside your desert tent in Morocco, fearful of the tarantulas waiting to pounce.
7. Foldable eco-friendly water bottle
There’s no need for me to go on an environmental tirade to profess how destructive plastic bottles are to the world. To your health. To cute sharks. If you already have a Nalgene or the like, lovely. But in traveling, they can become a nuisance to cart around. Falling out of your bag. Impossible to squash down. Solution: get a travel bottle— specifically, one that folds up. My Vapur isn’t perfect (doesn’t hold as much water as my normal bottle) but has yet to tear. Even if you’re in countries where the tap isn’t drinkable, you usually have the option of buying a gigantic water bottle to empty into your own smaller one.
8. Peanut butter
I’ll embrace the American stereotype. But just the same as many Aussies can’t live without their Vegemite— god knows why— I can’t without my peanut butter. I have made it a habit to lug a jar of the good stuff around with me when I travel, allotting one jar per month. It makes an appearance in many a travel meals: smoothies, yogurt, sandwiches, curries. Doing so adds flavor to flavorless hostel breakfasts and healthy fat nutrition in countries lacking nuts or avocado. But best of all, see how easily you can make friends or lovers by whipping it out. The peanut butter, that is.
What are some essential travel items that you cannot function without? If you already have a fulfilling list of essential travel items, perhaps it’s time to attempt high-risk packing skills such as the ones discussed on Helene in Between. Or Travel Fashion Girl and Happy to Wander… shit those sites even has a printable list. With their own versions of essential travel items.