It’s the last job before you set off – cramming everything you think you’ll need for the next however-long into a bag you must be able to carry without doing yourself a mischief nor embarrassing yourself at the luggage carousel. Everyone’s different but our rough guide, specifically geared toward the climate and activities common to a South East Asia backpacking trip, will start you off:
Bag a bag!
The main three things you need to consider when choosing your bag are type, size and cost. If you’re going trekking you’ll probably want to take a rucksack, although you can usually hire the necessary gear locally should the need arise. Otherwise, a bag on wheels (if you can endure your mates’ ribbing!) could save you a lot of shoulder massages! You may also wish to check out other types of bags such as snowboarding packs. Whichever type of bag you go for, it’s helpful to have several sections and pockets so it’s easier to find what you need without unpacking everything. You’ll also find it invaluable to have a bag that unzips all the way around rather than a top-loader, as it’s a pain pulling everything out to get to the stuff at the bottom. A bag with straps on the outside allows you to attach your sleeping bag, yoga mat, camping gear and whatever else to the outside. Bear in mind that, whatever size bag you have, you’ll fill it to the max and then you’ll have to carry it, so keep it as small as you can get away with. If cash is an issue, have a look for a second hand bag or ask around your friends and family if they have one you can use.
Having been there, we know it’s hard to know where to begin as there’s no correct way to pack – but whether you’re the full-on girly-girl complete with ceramic hair straighteners and accessories to match every outfit, or you’re the guy with barely more than the clothes he stands up in, it’s all about efficiency. Our strong advice is to keep it to the minimum as you won’t end up using half of what you take anyway.
It’s hot and humid in South East Asia – you won’t need as many clothes as you think you will – and, as your clothes will mainly be small and light, they’re quick to wash and dry. Don’t bring jeans as they’re heavy and impractical in a tropical climate. If you’re unsure, take a couple of changes of lightweight clothing and, if you don’t have enough when you get there, you can buy the rest locally cheaply and suited to the climate. (Note to the girls, though: underwear is near-impossible to buy in Western sizes in S.E.A so take what you need, in cotton, as it’s more comfortable in the humidity.) Put together what fashionistas call a “capsule wardrobe” – which basically means every item of your clothing can be mixed and matched or even have multiple uses (such as a sarong – see below), giving you more outfit options using the fewest items. And don’t bring anything too clingy – it being stuck to you with sweat will drive you insane. You may wish to invest in a trekking top to hide sweat patches!
Where possible, pack miniatures – smaller toothbrush, small travel towel, smaller versions of make-up and toiletries – unless you’re brand-loyal there’s nothing you can’t get at least a half-decent version of in South East Asia so you needn’t worry about running out of anything.
Multi-purpose items are the backpacker’s best friend! All-purpose soap, a bandana or hair band doubling up as a sleep-mask, a sarong (with endless uses such as a cover-up in the sun and in religious temples, a bed sheet, a window-blind, dish cloth, bathtowel…), a mobile device with WIFI ability can be used to read read books, listen to music, email, skype, get maps, download dictionaries, look up reviews etc. and fits in your pocket.
You will need no more than two pairs of shoes – flip flops, and some suitable for other activities such as trekking, although trekking shoes can often be hired or bought locally.
Put it away, love!
Rolling everything up tightly can take up a lot less room than layering (or just “stuffing”!) and makes it so much easier to find things than layering – you can remove items in “sausages” and put them straight back! Stuff underwear into shoes and into any gaps. Girls, knickers stuffed in bras will help keep their shape. The organised among us may wish to use packing cubes, or a far cheaper and lighter version – put similar items in different coloured carrier bags to save you rummaging. Buy a small padlock (nothing too heavy) and with a combination (so you don’t have to take care of a key) to give your bag a bit of extra security.
Anything considered an essential that’s difficult or expensive to replace goes in your day pack which never leaves you, including cash, credit/debit cards, passport, driving license and any expensive items (camera, phone, etc).
If you have the room, to make life easier, you may wish to consider taking the following: a few copies of your passport and passport photos for visas, a small maglight torch or a headlamp, insect repellent, a compass, an e-reader (such as the Amazon Kindle), sunblock, a travel kettle, bottle opener and, of course, until you’ve learned how to get by without it (and yes that will happen)… toilet paper!