How To Pack A Backpack For Your Gap Year

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If you’re planning a year of travelling – then you’ll have to learn how to pack. Like the snail and the tortoise, you’ll be carrying everything you need to survive.

Where do you even start? Fortunately for you, we’ve been around the block (world) a few times and in our travels have formulated the ultimate packing list. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you pack for a year abroad in just two bags.

You may be carrying a bit too much there... (Photo by Mike Burns used under a Creative Commons license)

You may be carrying a bit too much there… (Photo by Mike Burns used under a Creative Commons license)

Choose your Bags

Your main bag is for anything you don’t immediately need. Most long term travelers choose a back-pack, because you never know when you’re going to have to carry all your worldly good from one place to another. Suitcases are far too heavy and cumbersome. You may not need as big a bag as you expected though… a 45-50 litre back-pack is probably all you need – keeping in mind that you’ll be strapping a sleeping bag to the top.

Try not to buy your bag online – you’ll need to make sure it’s solidly made, has enough pockets for and – of course – it fits comfortably. Waterproofing is essential.

And a word about sleeping bags even though this piece is called “how to pack for a year abroad in just two bags”. Spend a decent amount on getting a lightweight, well insulated sleeping bag. Cheapo, bulky old sleeping bags will not cut it. You’ll thank us later.

Your second bag we’ll call your “breakout bag”. This is where you put all the stuff you need ready access to – and that will change, day to day. A shoulder bag is best, satchel or messenger style – at about 15 or 20 litre capacity. Go over that and you may risk having to stow your bag in the hold on some flights. Again, go for robust rather than pretty – this bag will need to go through a lot with you.

Pump Down the Volume

When rucksacks can go up to 80 litres, these bag sizes may seem modest. We say, travel smart – not hard. Follow these tips to keep our packing down to a minimum:

Use vacuum bags. These are readily available online and from hardware stores now. They’re plastic bags you pack your clothes into. Fold everything neatly, put them in all in a vacuum bag, suck the air out. You’ve saved yourself tons of space.

Wash every night. Your clothes that is. Try to confine your packing to three full changes. One on, one drying and one in reserve.

Ditch your excess. You’ll pick up extra bits and pieces as you travel. Every time you acquire a new t-shirt, ditch one from home. Give them away as gifts to your new mates.

Always have water. Wherever you are, wherever you’re going – make sure you have at least half a litre of drinkable water in your breakout bag.

Renew your list. Below, you’ll find our list of things we think you need to pack for a year’s travel. Try to keep this inventory constant. That means, replenishing it when it runs out and refreshing items (especially clothes) as they wear out or you get fed up of them.

Vacuum packing your clothes will save lots of valuable packing space. (Photo by  Jackson Boyle used under a Creative Commons license)

Vacuum packing your clothes will save lots of valuable packing space. (Photo by Jackson Boyle used under a Creative Commons license)

The List

This is our travel list, hard won and road-tested. Some will be amazed at how little we’re taking. Hardcore travellers will see it as excessive… We think we’ve reached a happy medium – or at least, a good place to start.

Clothes

Most of the list is clothes – and most of these will stay vacuum packed in your bag until you need them. What this list doesn’t include is what you’re wearing (so you can add another pair of socks, pants, a t-shirt, a day shirt and a pair of jeans to the list).

What about a coat? We’ll advise buying a waterproof, waist-length jacket from an outdoor store. If you can get one with a tough exterior and a removable lining, even better.

One purchase you might think superfluous are the flip-flops. You’ve clearly never shared a shower with other back- packers… And even if you’re goign somewhere hot, don’t forget what your Mum said. Always take a jumper.

  • 1 pair thermal underwear (top and bottom)
  • 2 pairs of underpants
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 2 vests
  • 1 dress shirt, smart top or dress
  • 1 day shirt
  • 1 sweater/hoodie
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 1 pair linen/cotton trousers
  • 1 pair jogging bottoms
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • 3 pairs of heavy socks
  • 3 pairs of trainer socks
  • 1 pair of black dress socks
  • 1 pair of tough trainers
  • 1 pair of dress shoes
  • 1 pair flip flops
  • 1 medium sized towel
  • 1 hat (preferably waterproof)

Toiletries

Make sure you have a big enough, waterproof bag to stuff all your toiletries into. Nothing fancy or bully either. A big leather shaving kit might look nice in GQ, but it won’t last two minutes in the shared bathroom at the Phuket Happy-Time Hostel.

Keep toiletries down to a minimum and go for compact packaging. Use shaving oil instead of foam, for example. A few drops goes a long way. Take a deodorant, but get a compact roll on. Make sure you always have sun-block in your toilet bag, and chuck it into your break-out bag if you’re going out for the day. A bad sunburn could take days off your trip…

  • 1 toothbrush
  • 1 tube of toothpaste
  • 1 safety razor
  • Shaving oil
  • 2 replacement blades
  • 1 small bottle of shower gel
  • 1 flannel
  • Deodorant
  • Sun block
  • Plain moisturiser

Medical

Your medical needs will vary depending on any pre-existing conditions you may have – but there’s a minimal kit you should take with you. Sticking plasters are fine for minor cuts and grazes, but deeper cuts may need washing out and bandaging until you can get treatment. That’s why there’s a bottle of clean water in the medical pack, soldier.

Alongside conventional medical remedies, you’ll notice some essential oils in our med kit. These don’t take up any room and provide effective natural remedies to all kinds of issues. Clove oil numbs the pain of toothache. Tea tree is antibacterial and can be used on spots, cuts or added to a bath. It’s even good for athlete’s foot. Lavender’s also antibacterial, but smells nicer – use a combination of the two. Lavender added to a base cream (like a plain moisturiser) makes a good, impromptu after-sun cream. Lemon oil, diluted in water or a carrier oil, can be spread on the arms and legs to discourage insect bites.

As for peppermint tea bags? It may sometimes be difficult to stay hydrated when you’re travelling. Peppermint tea kills two birds with a single rock projectile. The water you drink will be boiled and peppermint settles the stomach.

  • Plasters
  • Gauze pads
  • Bandage
  • 1 bottle washing water
  • Ibuprofen/Paracetamol
  • Bottle of witch hazel
  • Clove oil
  • Tea tree oil
  • Lavender oil
  • Lemon oil
  • Peppermint tea bags
  • Antibacterial cream
  • Antibacterial gel
  • Full supply of any prescribed medication
  • Menstrual supplies

Tech

Smartphones are amazing aren’t they? They do everything; take photos, connect to the web, download emails, play your music, get you stabbed in an alleyway in Bangkok… Oh.

See, while smartphones are amazing, they’re also very desirable, expensive and easy to lose. We’d advise selling the iPhone and downgrading to a collection of more modest tech. You may be carrying more around in total, but here’s the thing – you won’t need all these items all the time. And none of these things will cost the earth to replace.

For example, pick up a basic mobile when you begin your travels. You know, one that just makes calls. Before that, get onto eBay a pick up a used Kindle or Kobo eReader. It’ll set you back between 30 and 40 quid. As for music? Dig out your old iPod. It’s amazing how well they’ve kept their value – and they’re ideal for the beach.

Need a laptop to check emails or update your diary? Go for a Chromebook. Official prices start at £199, but you may find cheaper on eBay or Tesco. They’re lightweight too.

One final bit of tech you may not have thought about; external batteries. Everyone remembers (or should remember) to back their chargers, but an external back-up battery could save your life when you’re stuck in the sticks with no juice on your phone or iPod.

  • Basic mobile phone
  • 2nd hand Kindle
  • 2nd hand iPod
  • Chromebook
  • Power converters
  • USB leads
  • Dual USB wall charger
  • External battery pack
  • Padlocks

Comfort

Your comfort requirements will vary, but here’s our take on what’s essential packing for the long haul.

Zip-lock bags could save your life. They have a hundred uses, from saving food from the breakfast buffet to keeping a wet flannel from soaking your bag. You can use them to squirrel away some washing powder, carry around a smaller med kit for a walk or to pack them full of complimentary tea bags.

Similarly, a lightweight waterproof sack or “dry bag” will be ideal for the beach or as a place to stick your valuables as you investigate the local area. A couple of energy bars and a bottle of drinking water are essential for your break-out bag, anywhere you go. Sometimes a bus trip the guide told you would take a couple of hours may go on for quite a bit longer… Moist toilet tissue may seem like a luxurious addition, but they’re for much more than just wiping your bum. You can use them for freshening up on long journeys, wiping your face or mopping up spills too. They’re tougher then normal tissues too.

Everyone recommends earplugs for hostel stays and resort hotels. One night in any of those will tell you why. An eye mask is a good idea too – and one most people forget. You’ll sleep through anything. Don’t bother with electric grooming items of any kind. Say goodbye to straighteners and hair dryers. This is back-packing, not Magaluf.

  • Zip-lock bags
  • Waterproof sack
  • Disposable tissues
  • Moist toilet tissue
  • Chocolate/Sweets/Energy bars
  • 1 bottle drinking water
  • Travel wash laundry liquid
  • Earplugs
  • Eye mask

Documents

Though you can access most of your order info, tickets and booking details online, it’s a good idea to have print outs of everything. If you booked tickets using a special pass (as a student or young person, for example) make ssure you have those too. Keep them all in a folder – or in your dry bag.

  • Tickets
  • Bookings
  • Papers
  • Passes
  • Passport and other ID
  • Printed itinerary

That’s it. All packed and ready to adventure around the world. Just remember – don’t go mad on buying souvenirs…

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