I’ve been travelling constantly since summer 2005. And from that time onwards all my belongings never took much more space than one backpack. Gradually its size became much smaller than in the beginning and contents were tested live: now I’m carrying almost nothing I would not use, and I have most things that are really needed.
Note: Article is dated september 2007, new version would come in april 2009 once I buy new bag as the one pictured is almost broken now.
Some time ago I was astonished by fact that actual buddhist monks could own only 7 things. It’s clear that in less hospitable climate than indian it will be hard to get along with only one piece of cloth as a dress. Also possibility of working and properly keeping in touch with the world would require even more devices with a paper notebook on top of the list and a laptop and mobile phone at its end. It’s also understood that the minimal set for plain survival and minimal set for comfortable life will be dramatically different, and here it’s very important to keep balance between what can really lighten your life on the road and what only makes your bag heavier.
Also, as you can imagine, set of things for Iran can be quite different from Goa’s set. What you possibly could not survive without in Russia would be of no use in Tibet. And some of the necessary things do not have to be carried along all the time as you can buy them upon arrival.
This photograph shows the content of my bag on the way from Europe to Asia: what I would call optimum set of belongings for travelling in all those not quite rich and clean asian countries.
And, of course, boy backpackers can replace some items with whatever would be useful for men.
It’s extremely important to have a high quality backpack. Its solidity, capaciousness and handiness influences a lot in your travels. Simply imagine how many times during your trip you will have to pack and unpack it and you will understand everything. Clothes and sleeping bag go into lower part, laptop goes into special pocket by back, everything else goes as it fits. After a number of shifts you will most probably develop most convenient order of placing things. But please remember that no matter how few things you have and how big your bag is it will be anyway totally full. Knowing it choose the bag of the size that you can carry easily. The things that would not fit into it will give you one more occasion to review what you really need and what not.
Your backpack stays in the hotel and you go for a walk in the city. Accordingly your second bag should be big enough to accomodate a purse, camera, warm jacket or shawl, possibly a vacuum flask with some tea and sometimes laptop if you still don’t get internet from your mobile phone and have to go for sending mails and uploading pictures into the nearest cyber-cafe.
You will need it for late autumn, winter and early spring in mountains and not quite tropical countries. I’m doing my best not to be high over sea-level in cold time of the year as most of houses there lack heating and good windows which makes living conditions extremely non-pleasant. Still it’s not necessary to bring warm jacket all the way from home, in Nepal, for example, some nice jackets can be bought for $20. Heading to the sea you can give it to local beggars or monks (if its color gets into the yellow-red range they usually wear) or, alternatively, pack into a compression bag and use as a meditation cushion. During late spring, summer and autumn you can just drop it from the list completely.
Indispansable thing for cold season in mountains but almost useless in very hot countries as there it is much more pleasant to use a sheet and light shawl instead. Sleeping bag though handy still gives some sense of a trip while a sheet with shawl reminds you somewhat of home and its comfort which can become quite important after few months of travelling. If your budget allows you to stay in mid-range hotels you can skip your own bedding. But one thing is for sure: if you buy a sleeping bag don’t try to save. It’s second important thing after a backpack which you will use constantly and its faults if any will become extremely irritating after a while.
No need to question this point if you’re practicing yoga. But if not then you have to know that you will not need it in hotels, maximum use you would think of is a carpet for extra comfort. You will need a sleeping mat only if you’re often staying in friends’ houses where there is no other place but on the floor. Sometimes it’s also nice to have half or even quater of a thin mat to carry it with you all the time so that you could sit comfortably even in dirtiest places.
You will not need your own towel in better hotels but in cheap ones it will be totally absent, not even a choice between their not so good one and yours. Many people use thin sari or even a sheet, but I personally prefer traditional bath towel which is another detail of a home far away from home. It only has to be thin to take less space, weight less and dry faster. The latter is especially important during cold time of year and monsoon because due to high humidity thickiest things plainly cannot dry. There are special thin and quick-drying travel towels which are also a good option.
If only your hair is not curly or your skin is not hyper-sensitive then you can buy everything wherever you are. Shampoos and toothpaste in India are sold in small, sometimes even tiny packges which could be not so saving as 2 liter bucket (30% free!) but obviously much more convinient for traveling. Girls should not carry along too many cremes and masks, I would suggest that just one good cleansing tonic is enough.
The only thing which is truly necessary is lip balm and everything else most probably you will not require. However, if you have strong habit of putting on make up it’s better to take some with you as depriving yourself of everything that you’re used to can be quite frustrating. Later you will understand yourself if it’s really necessary to put 3 colour eye-shadows in the morning just going around the stupa.
Common popular model is the best as this way it will be much easier to configure gprs to get online or to buy new charger instead of one lost or broken. The longer battery stayes on the better. I personally don’t like Nokia brand but have to admit that they are best for travelling.
I never needed phone cable supplied with my laptop. Even if somewhere was dialup possible to use without registration there still was no phone line. But wi-fi and network card are the must. Card-reader can be skipped as most of photo labs and cyber cafes have them.
Somebody has a whobe bag of lenses, flashes and profeccional films and somebody is satisfied with digital camera slightly bigger than a credit card. If you’re not ready for a profeccional Nikon or Canon with big detachable lenses then some all-in-one advanced digital camera like Sony CoolPix is very good choice. You should decide yourself what is more convenient but the only thing which is for sure: if you’re going to countries like China, Singapore, Taiwan or Malaysia then it’s much cheaper to buy your new camera there.
If you camera or mp3 player uses batteries then you’re not likely to skip re-chargeble batteries and charger. I would advice 2 sets so that you could always replace the used ones with fully charged and continue taking pictures or listening to music. For usb-charged devices I would advice buying an adapter to charge them from normal electric sockets. Motorola V3 (or similar mobile) charger can work as it has mini-usb slot.
Optimum size is 12”. If you can allow buying Panasonic Toughbook - don’t hazitate. This way you’re going to save a lot of nerve cells jolting hard on indian and nepalese roads. If you can’t allow it then choose something simply sound and reliable. I have Samsung Q35, which is very nice and their newer models are even better. Better don’t buy ultraportable laptop without DVD as you can regret its absense many times. Also pay special attention to battery’s capacity as third world countries have power cuts very often.
It’s a must to have all the necessary CDs for system recovery with you and back-up of most used proprams. No need to mention anti-virus - 90% of all cyber-cafes and digital photo labs would have viruses that can infect you pen-drives, memory cards and your computer later on.
All your pasports, bank cards and whatever necessary pieces of paper you might have. Some people choose to buy travelcheques with their name. This way you’re paying extra on exchange rate but in return you can be sure that your money cannot be lost or stolen. I use bank card (which have been losing 3 times a year until made 3 ones for same account in advance) and cash. I would insist on keeping card and most of cash in some other place, separately from money you have with you everyday.
Swiss knife (knife, scissors, nailfile, pincers, toothstick), gel pens of different colours and size, ruler, paper glue, paper knife, torch, SD and sim-cards of different countries, needles and threads, whatever little things you might need while travelling.
Moleskine for some thoughtful notes and drawings using all the arsenal from last point and noname notebook for quick notes, especially for attempts of explaining to chinese in simple and popular way that I would prefer vegetarian, not meet dumplings. Treating moleskine with less adoration you can have one instead of two.
In most cases a good software with world map or even better a gps (not gprs) navigator would be enough. But sometimes it can be pleasant to look through a paper book. Especially if it fits perfectly into one of pockets.
I prefer information in digital format and reading from computer screen is not a problem to me since many years. My eye-sight stays same (though same low) which assures me not to use paper books wherever it’s possible. It’s useful to carry along constantly only phrase-books and guides, all the other kinds of literature can be sold or exchanged for something else in some backpacker’s guest houses’ libraries. If you don’t want to give away your books then you still can send them home by regular post. It will take few months to arrive but still can come home much earlier than you.
Malas, pictures of favourite teachers and Buddhas, meditation texts… If you’re not a practicing buddhist then you don’t need it. If you are then you know it all.
Maximum set is snickers, sandals and plastic or waterproof slippers for taking shower. Minimal set is plastic sandals which you can wear both in shower and on the street and even accompanied by socks for colder places. The more waterproof everything is the better. If you’re going to stay a week or more in a big clean city then girls can nurture themselves with some high-heels but in all other cases footwear has to be as comfortable as possible.
Or troucers and troucers. Or skirt and skirt. Now when you buzz for 15 minites before open doors of your wardrobe trying to choose what you’re going to wear today it’s hard even plainly imagine that one day you can get along with 2 things only. But it’s indeed true and not so hard. Only single set of clothes can be unconvenient as clothes has to be washed from time to time and sitting on your hotel’s balcony while troucers are drying is some extreme that nobody needs. One change saves you from that and what you can add there is some light home or sports troucers for the day to spend sipping tea on the balcony overlooking himalayas. They can be also handy as one more change when you travel long time without any laundry around.
Here you can also use pair rule: while one thing is being washed you wear the other. Also it’s very convenient to choose things which can be worn one over another combining into multiple-layered style, some lighter version of japaneese "fruits". For this, of course, everything has to match well in colour and texture. And, of course, you will most probably want to buy all these funny t-shirts, skirts and trousers sold everywhere you go to.
I emphasize that: lace. As expensive and beautiful as possible. The thing is that you’re going to stay long time in very simple conditions, dress very simply, avoid putting on too much make up and not really care about your hair-do and manicure. Concervative muslim and hindu countries are not the best places to wear open feminite clothes as attention from males to a lone-travelling european girl as already to much even if you’re wearing most decent clothes. So you can imagine what’s going to happen if you wear something extremely attractive. The only way to avoid unnecessary attention from locals and still feel yourself as beautiful and attractive woman is the underwear. Hidden underneath simple t-shirts, visible to those only you want to make it visible to, you will know about it and feel accordingly. And when it comes to comfort high quality lace underwear is no worse than simple cotton.
You can buy new socks wherever you are once needed. Kapron tights and stockings are some hard to imagine nightmare for travels but a girl can keep some (together with high-heels) for staying few days in a big city: it’s nice to feel yourself not a respectable person instead of a hippy tramp at least once a month.
It’s very comfortable and in some way irreplaceable thing for East. It can be extremely hot in the day but evening can become cold very fast, some cafes and shops can be over air-conditioned. It’s all when light and warm pashmina shawl becomes very handy. I’m so much used to wearing shawls that almost lost the habit of having regular warm jackets.
Everything that you would require to make yourself some tea or coffee at home. I still haven’t found best combination: you cannot boil water in thermos straightaway and thermo flasks don’t close tight enough to carry filled one in your bag. In Tibet, Nepal and mountain part of India hot water is avaliable everywhere in thermoses in hotels and cafes, and you’re not likely to be refused if you just ask to refill your own thermos. It’s convenient to have your own cup for boiling water though you can ask for a glass from every hotel where you stay. Just remember that you should never put new portion of cold water into still hot glass as it breaks immediately. Eventhough India is considered tea country it’s better to take your own tea bought from a supermarket there. In Nepal and, of course, China this problem does not occur.
During moonsoon you’re always under risk to get wet. Nice umbrellas are sold everywhere very cheaply but it’s also nice to have a small raincoat in your bag always thus not depending on anything.
I’m not trying to say that you cannot travel without your own caleidoscope and a tie. Generally, I don’t even know how and why these two objects slipped into my bag and this photograph. Caleidoscope was later given away as a gift and tie worn only once for a funny portrait. But it doesn’t mean that I’m regretting their presense in my traveller’s set. These are the small beloved things surving without which is very easy but not so joyful. Everybody has something of that kind for oneself. And if you truly madly deeply want to take with you something totally senseless: a transparent dress, an old plush toy or family ring with a big stone then you should definately take it. And you are not going to regret it as much as you would miss having it.