At the request of some of my readers, I’m sharing my ultralight backpacking (with style!) list. Since I tend to use my gear for a long time, I choose my gear carefully, so most what I actually use is specifically listed here. I’m also using affiliate links – I could use your support for my continued work! Finally, I’ll do my best to keep updating this page over time. If you have comments, please leave them on the original post.
I actually use a different assortment of cameras, tripods, and accessories depending on my trip style, but I don’t want to overload this page with camera gear most people wouldn’t carry, but show what I use when going ultralight. I’ll try to post my camera gear in another post.
- Good compact camera. I sometimes travel with an SLR because of my video work, but when I don’t have to, I feel so much more free just carrying a high end compact. The Canon S1xx and the Panasonic LX series cameras are great choices. They have fast lenses, a good wide angle, and take great high-definition video. I carry a Panasonic LX series camera because it’s really good in low light, though for most users, I recommend the Canon S110 a bit more because it can be pocketed, and that it has a self-timer feature that takes 10 photos. If you’re not a huge photophile but want to take great pictures still, or want to save some money, the older Panasonic LX -5 or older Canon S100 are good choices. Surprisingly, the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy smartphones also have excellent built-in cameras.
- Compact tripod. If you use one of the compact cameras or smartphones above, then the Tiltpod is hands down the best. It’s so tiny and pocketable, and I actually keep it on my compact camera’s handstrap all the time. If you have a heavier camera or light SLR setup, then go with the Ultrapod.
- Kindle or other ebook reader. A Kindle is nice because it’s under $70 and allows me to buy books pretty much anywhere. I’m not forced to buy the tourist-targeted books in local bookstores such as 7 years in Tibet in Nepal, The Motorcycle Diaries in South America, The Beach in Thailand, etc. I put some guidebooks in my Kindle too. The catch is that it’s harder to flip around than a paper guidebook, and the maps are frustratingly difficult to navigate to the point of being useless; I just pick up a free tourist map upon arrival. Also, the Kindle is really, really light – it weights less than 1/3 of most of my books.
- A tablet instead of an e-book reader. If you’re planning on using digital guidebooks and/or want more security when doing your email abroad, then a tablet is a really good idea. To be honest, I never use internet cafe PC’s anymore other than to tap their wi-fi. They’re really insecure – I know, because used to install various virus/malware detecting software before using them. My top choices are the Samsung Galaxy Tab (7-inch) and the Google Nexus 7, or the Kindle Fire. My favorite is the Samsung Galaxy Tab (7-inch) because it has an micro-SDHC expansion slot, since you can’t really on always having cloud storage when you’re on the road. The Google Nexus 7, however, is faster and you can get more storage via an external card reader. Unlike the other two, the Kindle Fire doesn’t have a SIM card slot and is slower, but it’s sole advantage really is its price. I wasn’t a huge fan of tablets previously, mostly because you can put a lot of time-wasting apps on them, but if you can stay clear of Angry Birds and use a tablet strictly for getting things done, then by all means take one along. Tablets are light, have a lot of functionality, and also great for sharing pictures and videos with other travellers and people along the way.
- iPod. Mine is 6 years old and running great still! If you put an application named SharePod on it, you can put music you find abroad on it using any PC without iTunes. The iPod Touch is nice because you can put language dictionary apps on it, and also use it to check email. The headphones that come with the iPod aren’t great for isolating sound though, so I’ve gone with the good valued Creative EP-630 ear buds, Sennheiser CX-300 II ear buds, or the Koss Portapro folding headphones, which is more comfortable since I often do sound/video editing work on the road.
- Unlocked smart phone (optional). This is not necessary for everyone, but I travel solo, so I like to make friends abroad, get phone numbers, and hang out with people. The GPS is also useful when I get lost, and internet access helps me do some on-the-fly searching for bus schedules, prices, recommendations, hours of operation, etc. I also like putting my photos and sharing them with people I meet or adding people to my Facebook on the fly. Smart phones also can hold many electronic dictionaries, phrase books, etc. – In fact, I’ve learned Japanese Hiragana on a smart phone app while waiting in lines over the past few months. In most countries (except for Japan), you can get a cheap pay-as-you-go SIM card with data. Make sure you back up your phone before you go, because a phone is something that’s easily lost or stolen when you’re travelling.
- A small USB flash drive. For sharing photos, transferring files, putting a mobile browser on to protect your passwords if you’re planning on going to Internet cafes. These can be found anywhere. Also, if you plan on using Internet cafes, you can put a portable browser with your passwords on the USB drive.
I like to travel in style, so besides features, I look for style and most importantly, fit. Different brands have different fits. I go with brands that have a slim fit, and you should find the one that fits you best too. I won’t make too many hard recommendations here, since although my outer layers are technical clothing, everything else I either pick up at cheap markets abroad or in a thrift store.
- For hot weather, one collared shirt, either button up or polo, one quick dry tank top, and one graphic t-shirt (usually purchased abroad). Collared shirts are good for the city and going out. Button up collared shirts are better in hot weather because the material is typically thinner and they feel more airy. For colder weather, I take out the tank top, wear polo styled shirts instead of button up, and bring 2 polo shirts instead of one. Style tip: Avoid buying T-shirts with local beer manufacturer logos abroad.
- One light-coloured, long sleeve button up shirt. Believe it or not, a long sleeve shirt is great in hot weather because it protects you from the sun. Unlike a beer t-shirt, it looks smart and makes you feel like a classy traveller, even though you’re backpacking. Like I mentioned above, the most important element is fit if you plan on travelling with style! The shoulders on the shirt shouldn’t droop, and it should hug your body. If you’re not sure, go to a tailor. A shirt alteration doesn’t cost much.
- (All weather) A lightweight sweater, either fleece or wool. I have a black thin-wool crewneck, which doubles as a base layer in colder weather. In hot weather, you’ll need it for cool nights or higher altitudes, freezing cold air-conditioned Asian malls and buses, or on the airplane. The crewneck, as opposed to the v-neck, zip neck, or turtle neck, is also the most useful since it layers well with the above collared shirts and looks stylish and less like a base layer.
- (Cool weather) An insulated softshell hoodie or jacket. Softshells are nice because they repel water a little and are comfy. It should have a reasonably warm fleece insulation. I find many softshells are too thin and thus are not useful for travelling. If you have extra money to spend, a wind resistant one is even better. Many softshells for some reason also don’t have waist pockets. In cool weather, I just love warming my hands in my pockets, so I look for this feature or I go to the tailor.
- (Cold weather) An insulated soft shell jacket, or hard shell jacket to go with the above soft shell. Hard shells are better for wet weather while soft shells are more comfortable. I wear a hardshell because I bought my jacket 7 years ago before softshells became popular, and it’s still in great condition.
- Two pairs of lightweight pants/trousers or long shorts, depending on the weather. I can’t really make any recommendations on any specific brand of pants here since mine aren’t really branded, but I can say that I like to travel with style. If I’m travelling in cool weather or passing through many cities, I prefer jeans, which is usually a faux-pas for travellers. Otherwise, I choose my pants carefully. I don’t like the tacky looking zip-off pants or anything khaki/beige/tan/shades of green. For non-jeans, I prefer something that’s a polyester blend, dark grey, and bootcut or relaxed in style. I also sometimes bring my pants to a tailor to have them altered and fitted better, since I usually wear my pants until they develop holes in unsightly places. Hint: If the pants only come in S/M/L sizes and not numeric sizes, then there’s a good chance it won’t have a great fit. For hot weather, however, I like long climbing shorts and S/M/L sizing is OK for these.
- Exofficio boxer briefs. Four pairs. They’re comfortable, breathable, and dry quickly after washing. I like boxer briefs because you can get away with swimming and doing yoga in them without being an eyesore. If you happen to go to Southeast Asia, I think the knockoff $3 lycra/polyester blend underwears in the markets generally work just as well.
- Shoes. Teva sandals for hot weather. Salmon GTX low top trail runners for colder weather. I like these trail running shoes because they work well in hiking conditions and don’t look like hiking shoes if I’m in the city. The Gore-tex is particularly useful, because wet shoes are brutal to deal with when travelling. Beach flip flops can be purchased cheaply abroad.
- Small pocket multi-tool. I use a small Leatherman with the scissors a lot; I don’t like the one with the pliers end because they work poorly as scissors, and the pliers are too small to be useful. Make sure you check it in with your check-in bag though! I’ve lost 3 good pocket knives because I’ve forgotten to check them in, and security took them away. Ironically, I sometimes buy airport-confiscated pocket knives on eBay. The Leatherman Micra on eBay is a good one that’s under $10 and seems to be in abundance. If you don’t plan on checking in any bags, then you’ll have to pick one up upon arrival. Cheap ones will do the job for the duration of the trip, but I recommend buying a good one for the long run.
- Money belt. Get a cotton or silk one. Don’t get the nylon ones unless you want sweat to collect down below. I didn’t use one at all in my last trip through Southeast Asia though – it was so hot that I didn’t even want a money belt cooking me more.
- Keychain LED flashlight – the tiny, single LED ones that used to cost a small fortune but now can be found in a dollar store. Try to get one with an on/off switch. I keep one accessible in my backpack, and one on my keychain.
- My own chopsticks and spork, for the environment. Reusable wood chopsticks cost five pairs for a dollar in Asia, and if you do the math, you can save a small tree in one trip through Asia by using them.
- Silk sleep sack (optional). Makes hot weather travel more comfy as well as if you’re in dirtier accommodations. Not critical, but a creature comfort that’s nice to have. Cotton sleep sacks are not uncomfortable in humid weather – best to avoid them.
- Umbrella. You can buy one at your destination. Unless hiking, I prefer an umbrella over a rain jacket because it keeps your pack dry, is more comfortable and convenient, and you don’t stand out as much.
- A few strips of duct tape. I always find myself using it, either making little repairs and patches to my equipment, or little fixes wherever I stay. A roll is too heavy. You can make your own storage sheets by placing strips of duct tape on wax paper and putting the pair in an envelope. Or, you can get it online or some hardware stores.
- Sunglasses. Polarized if possible or a cheap one since you might lose it. And a semi-hard case. I’ve crushed my sunglasses so many times while storing them in transit.
- Stuff sacks and/or compression sacks – for sorting out your dirty laundry and making clothing more compact in your backpack. I use a pillow case stuff sack that doubles as a pillow.
- Passport protector. You know those plastic sleeves that hold trade convention passes? I just use that. I once delayed an entire ship in Greece because my passport was so beaten up and the passport control officers thought I had a fake, so it’s a good idea to protect it. Dollar stores tend to carry passport protectors too. If all else fails, here’s one online.
- Photopies of your passport, a few passport photos for visas, and take a photo for your passport and email it to yourself.
- A small notepad. Jotting down information, contacts, etc, since
- Bug Spray. Just a small bottle, if you’re going into mosquito regions. You can buy it there too, but if you don’t like DEET, it’s better to buy it beforehand.
- Sunscreen 🙂 The one I wear on a daily basis is this one because of the ones I tried, it doesn’t feel oily.
- Toiletry. You can buy most of it at the destination. This might be different for women who are particular about personal hygiene products.
- A few Ziploc zipping freezer bags – the ones with the plastic tab zipper. It’s useful for isolating wet or really dirty laundry in your pack… or storing food.
- A few energy bars if there’s a transit at an airport, so I don’ t have to change money, be stuck with heavy change I won’t use for the rest of my trip. Alternatively, use your credit card or raid the in-flight snacks.
- Hat. As you’ve probably seen in my videos, I like wearing cowboy hats in hot or cool weather and an oversized beanie for cold weather. A baseball cap is also great for hot, sunny conditions.
- Travel insurance. The only one I found that offers a reasonable rate for long term travel is World Nomads. If you go on multiple trips that are less than 30 days per trip, then UK residents should go for the annual policy with World Nomads. Canadian residents also have a similar policy with CAA. I’m not sure about other countries, but I know some credit cards also offer the 30-day annual policy for cardholders. Just be careful with the credit card stipulations.
If you stick to the above list, you won’t need an expedition backpack, and a regular backpack will suffice! Because backpacks last a long time, I choose the ones I use carefully. Here are the ones I use:
- Osprey Talon 22. It’s good for travelling because it has water bottle holders, a vented back area, and comfortable hip belts, so you can put heavy things or a hydration pack in it without tiring out your back. Unfortunately, it’s not big enough to hold everything I’ve mentioned above comfortably in a longer trip, but it makes a great daypack for small trips or to compliment an expedition pack. If you plan on going ultralight and having only one travel backpack, then The Osprey Talon 33 or Talon 44 (note: has heavier internal frame) would be better choices then.
- The North Face Recon. I use this one as my day-to-day workhorse backpack, but have travelled with it for trips where I bring my work with me. I like it because it has an organizer and a protective laptop sleeve, and is hydration pack compatible. And of course, it has bottle holders while the outer mesh pocket is great for overflow, miscellaneous items, or garbage. It’s disadvantage over the Osprey is that it doesn’t have hip belts or a back ventilation system, so it’s not as good for a whole day out or hot weather.
If you need a larger, expedition backpack for an adventure trip, you’ll definitely need to try and test them out for size and comfort. I have a Gregory one I got on sale, but the Osprey expedition packs are popular because they can be molded to your back – many travellers I’ve met were satisfied with the Ospreys. Both companies have a lifetime warranty and will fix your backpack for free, no questions asked. I’m stating this from experience.
Again, expedition backpacks last a very long time, so make sure it’s comfortable and has the features you want. Some things to consider include: hip belts, trekking pole holders, organization compartments, water bottle holders, security pockets, hydration pack holder, molded back, vented back, rain cover, capacity, water resistance, internal frame, customizable hip belt.