Showing off your travel gear is a bit of a thing at the moment so I thought I’d add my own collection and show you what's in my backpack. I’ve been travelling for 20 years on and off and I’ve gone through phases of minimalist to fully-prepared and everything in between. Right now I like to think I am not extreme in my views, but simply practical. These travel accessories and essentials are reliable and perform very well.
For me the most important things to get right in the packing list are:
- Everything fits into a carry-on bag and a checked bag of similar size (or 10-20% more capacity)
- Includes equipment I need for work (Macbook, external hard drive, etc)
- Includes sports apparel and equipment. I have to be able to run, hit the gym, swim, perform mobility exercises, and do yoga.
Things to note about the list:
- I don’t take everything on this list on every trip.
- There are better, cheaper, faster, and sexier products on the market but I go for practicality above all else. Spending 2 weeks looking for a backpack that saves me 100g is not a good use of my time or energy.
- I recommend the items on this list to my friends but I’m not trying to sway anyone’s opinion on, say Mac vs PC laptops, or Sony vs Sennheiser headphones. I’ve tried hundreds of different headphones, backpacks, and other products for use on the road. These are the ones I currently use.
- I haven't listed things like toothbrushes, socks, and nail clippers. The exact quantity of toothpaste I travel with is not that interesting to anyone (or is it? let me know please) so I only detail the stuff that's different/important/interesting.
- I use, vouch for, and endorse, all of these products. There are no paid reviews in this article (or anywhere on this website). Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you click on the links and order the products. This does not increase the cost to you in any way.
The list changes depending on the journey, of course, but for any trip over a couple of weeks, this is my go-to travel-packing list.
The quest to find the best carry-on bag is a never ending one among travellers. Digital nomads and professional vagabonds are often quite passionate about choosing the right backpack or carry-on bag for the job. The goal, much of the time, is to pack everything you need into one bag and avoid having to deal with a checked bag.
The advantages are financial and practical. Nobody wants to pay extra luggage fees and standing at the luggage carousel is boring and tedious. I don’t subscribe to the one-bag-only rule but sometimes it’s nice to travel light.
My carry-on bag these days is a black North Face Overhaul 40. This 40-kg capacity bag isn’t the hippest looking but it’s extremely well built, with no weak points and has plenty of space, organised into several compartments.
A nicely snug sleeve at the back works well for laptops and the zip pockets and sectioned spaces in the front zipped area are perfect for small devices, passports, and snacks.
Sidenote: Many digital nomads use the Tortuga backpack, which was designed by long-term travellers from the ground up as the ideal carry-on bag. The bag’s selling points are around the fact that it has a front opening and packs like a suitcase. The Tortuga also offers plenty of packing space, yet fits within the dimensions of every air line's carry-on bag rules.
I’ve seen the bag and had a good rummage around inside it but haven’t used it myself on the road. From what I can see it’s a very sturdy piece of kit and the person who showed it to me raved about the bag as if it made his entire trip a breeze.
One area where I disagree with the professional travelling masses (at least on long trips) is on checked baggage. Unless I am spending a weekend somewhere I need a bigger bag. There’s no point in trying to stuff everything into a little carry-on bag that will break from being pushed to it’s limits constantly. Most long-haul flights give you free baggage allowance.
I know that many people will also be taking short-haul trips as well but the extra $20 for this is always worth it, as far as I am concerned.
Many travellers will tell you that the things you sacrifice for space can be found everywhere in the world. That may be so, but do I want to spend more money (often more than the luggage fees) and countless hours finding, travelling to, and walking around stores, markets, and malls looking for these items.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love wandering around markets (not so much malls) but it’s hard to find razor blades and specific toiletries in a market in Istanbul. Try finding power plug adaptors in some parts of Africa!
I’d rather arrive, safe in the knowledge that all my time is spent enjoying the trip and being productive.
There’s also the worry of losing your small backpack or carry on. If you’re stuck on a packed bus and you have to give up your carry-on bag to be stored somewhere you’re putting your belongings for the entire trip at risk. At least with two bags the risk is divided. Small things matter.
My checked bag these days is the Timberland Jay Peak. It’s similar to my backpack but has roller wheels. I like this bag as it’s small enough that I can carry it in my arms and it’s a very sturdy piece of kit. I’ve been around the world a couple of times with this baby and am always happy to travel with it. I put my sports equipment, 90% of my clothes, all footwear, toiletries, and laptop stand in this bag.
Another bag, you say! Yep, but one that adds almost nothing to the weight. Foldable backpacks are packs with no solid structural parts. They are made almost entirely of material and can be compressed down to the size of a fist. There are a few different products out there based on the same concept and I have two of them.
I mostly use the Jack Wolfskin Stowaway pack 18, which unfortunately appears to be no longer manufactured. The pack 14 is a pretty close copy of it though and that might work for you. The total weight is less than half a pound (less than 200g) so it won't break the scales. The Stowaway is a great little pack to use for wandering around a city, heading to the beach, the gym, or for sightseeing.
The Vinsic Classic 5000mah power bank recharges my iPhone and iPad whenever I’m on a long-distance bus or flight with no USB charger. I’ve tried a few of these power banks but this one is the most reliable.
It’s not the fastest charging device (for recharging itself and for supplying power to other devices) but if super-fast speed is not required then this unit will work for you.
It’s light (important), durable (hard plastic that feels rubbery), and slim (so you can stick it in a pocket or backpack sleeve).
External Hard Drive
The Western Digital (WD) My Passport Ultra is a stylish (not that this matters) little unit. I’ve owned 3 of these at various stages. One I dropped from a height (R.I.P.), one is a backup of a backup and the last is my main external drive.
I’m not 100% sure when I bought this drive but it’s been around for ages and I’ve experienced zero problems with it.
I won’t get into the details of storage capacities as this really depends on your own needs. Photographers and musicians will need tons of space so go for the biggest you can get.
With the staggering quantity of photos we collectively take every day a 500GB drive might not be enough to meet our individual photo backup requirements, especially if you keep high-quality backups. This drive comes in 1TB, 2TB and 500GB capacities.
Of course, you can always store your photos and other data in the cloud. But what happens if you need to backup your data in some off-the-beaten-track location with no wifi, or a simply bad wifi connection? And cloud storage comes with a yearly recurring cost.
The best coffee maker on the market also happens to be the lightest and the cheapest. That's music to the ears of travelling coffee addicts. I bought my AeroPress about a year ago and I'm wondering why I didn't before.
For the cost of 8-10 coffees in Starbucks, you can buy your own coffee press which produces a fine tasting elixir, unlike that produced by the aforementioned chain of cafes.
The Aeropress builds on the notion that the pressure applied to the hot water as it passes through the coffee grains is what produces the best tasting coffee. The most expensive part of a coffee machine is the pump. Your own arm strength is a pretty good source of pump power. All you need then is hot water and some plastic to hold the liquid. Thus was born the Aeropress. Get one today and never be without a delicious cup of Joe ever again.
The advantage that a USB key like the data traveller from Kingston is that it’s tiny, really tiny. It’s also lightweight, durable (metal casing) and cheap. It’s a lifesaver when you need to transfer data and the wifi it out, or you can’t use your external hard drive.
Handy for carrying small amounts of data like documents or a photo collection when you’re travelling. The 16GB Kingston DTSE9 is available on Amazon for less than $10.
I use a Canon EOS M. It’s not the fanciest camera and the first models came out quite a few years ago now. But it’s a great camera for non-professionals.
I’m no camera expert so I won’t even try to give advice on this topic except to say that for most of my needs this camera and my iPhone work fine for me.
Most of the photos in this article were taken with the Canon EOS. I didn’t use any special lighting or alter the images after they were taken. I used basic (dumb) settings to take each photo.
I must have bought 50 pairs of headphones in my life. Every few months I either lose a pair or they break. The hair-width thin cable is so thin and easily damaged that I used to wonder if it was an oversight on the designer’s part. Now I think it’s a case of the manufacturers making sure the headphones have built-in planned obsolescence.
The headphones I currently use are the Sony MDR-EX37 and happen to be the ones that have lasted the longest. They are not my favourite headphones (and certainly not the highest quality) but they are the most durable I've come across. I’m not really sure why this is but they are still working almost 2 years on.
Unfortunately, they are out of production now so possibly not the best model to go for. The nearest model I can find is the mdr-xb50 which appears to be the next generation of these headphones.
They aren’t expensive at all. I’m a bit of a music buff so I love good audio, but I’m quite happy to go with these. However, if I want the real experience then I will use some monitoring headphones, which offer a flat response, as I like to hear the original production of a track free from any colouring or equalisation from headphones. Don’t use these on a plane though!
I’m big into ergonomics and improving my posture. If you work all day on a computer, as many of us do now, you might relate to shoulder and neck soreness, back pain, and eye-strain. These are all symptoms of the modern lifestyle. 12+ hours a day sitting will ruin your body. I use a standing desk at home and an adjustable height monitor.
What are the options for a more ergonomic workspace when travelling?
Unless you find a coworking office with standing desks and monitors you will need to devise your own ergonomic workspace.
Here are two solutions that I’ve used.
The Roost Stand. I ordered a Roost stand when it was still in it’s Kickstarter funding phase. After a long delay, the extremely lightweight and sturdy laptop stand arrived. It's a really nicely designed piece of kit and surprisingly solid considering it's low weight.
One problem with using a stand like the Roost is that although it helps you keep a neutral neck position and better posture overall, you will need a keyboard (via bluetooth) to type on. Typing directly on your laptop is extremely difficult and not recommended unless you don’t mind a serious case of RSI in your wrists.
The other glaring issue is that fact that this doesn’t solve the ’sitting’ problem. Unless you find something to put on top of a desk, or find a surface high enough you will still need to sit.
Because of this I usually travel with a stand designed for DJs. The Stanton Uberstand sits on top of a normal desk or tabletop and allows you to stand while working. You will still need to look slightly down at the screen but I prefer to do this than to sit.
One could always use both stands and interchange them. The Roost weighs so little that it’s useful to pack away and use when needed.
The roost has increased in price considerably but there are alternatives on Amazon that have very good reviews and might be worth considering. I can’t personally vouch for the quality of construction.
If you don't know what a Macbook is then welcome back from your cave or planet. For the rest of you, I won’t spend too much time on it. I prefer the Pro version of any macbook as you get a lot more power for a small trade off in size and weight.
My main computer is the 13’’ Macbook Pro but I’d urge anyone who uses graphics software, large excel spreadsheets, and web-design tools to go for the 15’’ model. The extra screen real estate is worth the price increase.
The retina version is also worth getting to save your poor eyes from strain. Oh, and PCs are definitely starting to match Macs in quality again so there might be a PC laptop here for the next update.
OK, I admit this one is a little odd. However, it’s also a very important one for me. If you suffer from SAD, which stands for Seasonally Adjusted Syndrome, you’ll know all about the winter blues. I use the Philips GoLite in winter to not only wake myself up in the morning but to trick my body into thinking there is more natural light available than there really is. It helps stimulate the feel-good hormones.
But getting back to why this is a useful travel tool. If your travel through several time zones and your body clock is out of sync with the local time-zone the GoLite can help with readjusting your waking and sleeping cycles. Set the light on your desk and leave it on for 20 minutes while you read or work first thing in the morning, or when you want to be awake. This works particularly well if you travel to countries, such as Sweden, where nighttime is very long in winter. It’s hard to adjust to the correct ‘waking hours’ if you arrive jet lagged in a Swedish winter with a couple of hours of daylight every day.
This is almost a luxury item (along with the GoLite) but it takes up a tiny amount of space in my pack and weighs only 0.7 lb (300g). I use the iPad Mini as a type of Kindle reader. I put all my books on it to save weight so it pays for itself. It's also a pretty good option for watching movies.
Clothes packing Cube
The reason you'd want a packing cube is to keep your backpack/luggage compartmentalised. Looking for something in your bag? Take out each packing cube and search the one where you’ve most likely put the item. Saves you taking every single t-shirt out and unravelling your expertly packed backpack just to find that one item.
I will admit that I’ve only used one brand of packing cube, Eagle Creek. However, it’s a high-quality product so I’ve never needed to replace the 3 cubes I own. Packing cubes are a lightweight and practical addition to any travellers kit.
Exercise is not just important, it’s essential. And I include everyone in this. The human body was designed for movement, not sitting on aeroplanes and lounging in cafes. After a long flight, a spot of yoga or simple stretching is just the thing for reviving tired bodies and stretching out muscles that have been stuck in one position for too long.
Carrying a full-size yoga mat is not an option so I sometimes bring a travel mat from the Manduka company. The Eko Superlite Travel Mat is a good quality super-light mat that packs away in your case. I used one of these every day on the dusty sweaty floor of my apartment in Buenos Aires in the heat of summer.
I used one of these every day on the dusty sweaty floor of my apartment in Buenos Aires in the heat of summer.
At first, I thought ExOfficio was a bit of a joke, that the marketing team were really doing a great job convincing us to buy something faddish.
I was wrong. I talk with many long-term travellers and I always ask them about their clothing preferences. Inevitably, the list of t-shirts, short pants and fleece jumper comes up. But more and more I hear people mentioning breathable, quick-drying underwear. OK, so it is trendy to wear this stuff, but the technology didn't exist a few years ago so this is the first wave of these types of products.
I think ExOfficio has the market covered in this particular area so I must try some other brands. But at this price range ($20-$30 for boxers) and the quality level I am not ready to change yet. I find that the boxer briefs work well. There’s enough room to breathe and they are comfortable on long trips. There are options for the ladies too, but I can’t say I’ve tried them!
What's In Your Backpack?
So there you have it. A list of items that I choose from every time I take a trip. In most cases, I will take 90% of these things with me. What's in your packing list?