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A to Z of Backpacking Essentials

The ultimate gap year packing list


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Written by: Will Jones

Congratulations! You’ve just found the definitive list of packing essentials for your gap year, from antimalarials to zip lock bags and everything in between.




How do you solve a problem like malaria? This lethal mosquito-borne disease, prevalent in tropical areas all over the world, kills over one million people a year – that’s about two lives per minute – and at the time of writing no vaccine exists. The most effective way to prevent it (for those fortunate enough to have access to Western medicine) is by taking antimalarial drugs, which need to be prescribed before you leave home. Use repellent and a mozzie net too for added protection.
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The obvious one. But also one of the hardest to get right. This cavernous sack is going to act as your wardrobe, bedside drawer and bathroom cabinet for the next year, so you need to make sure you’re friends with it from the outset. The classic mistake is to choose one that is too big, pack it too full, and then spend the next few months wondering if it would been kinder on your spinal column to piggyback a dead horse around the world instead.
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It’s all too tempting to assume you’ll remember every moment of your gap year in vivid detail, but you won’t. Your memory simply can’t cope with the constant barrage of new environments, experiences and people, so you’ll need some sort of device to capture as much as you possibly can. A camera does the job pretty nicely, and could even lead to a new hobby: few things complement each other like travel and photography.
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Unless your preferred method of transport is a lilo, you won’t get far without your documents. The most important is your passport, and while you’re probably feeling slightly patronised that we’d even mention such an obvious thing, have you checked that it’s in date and will remain so for the duration of your trip and for some time (usually three months) after your return date? A surprising number of eager backpackers forget about this and return home extremely red-faced – not from sunburn. Other essentials are your insurance details, driver’s license and a photocopy of your passport.
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Ear plugs

You could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at these unassuming nuggets of memory foam, but they are ridiculously effective and can provide instantaneous tranquillity. Sleeping in a dorm with a load of strangers is initially rather exciting, but once you’ve spent a few nights with a scabby pillow wrapped around your head trying to drown out snores, sex grunts and rustling bags, the novelty wears off with alarming rapidity. If silence is a commodity, ear plugs are its currency.
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First aid kit

Having some basic medical supplies to hand is wise, especially if you’ll be in tropical climates, where infections from wounds set in easier. You don’t need to go overboard and start stuffing defibrillators and surgical apparatuses into your side pockets. Just make sure you have the essentials: plasters and bandages, anti-septic wipes, painkillers and rehydration salts for when you get the dreaded (and unfortunately inevitable) travellers’ diarrhoea.



The most shameless plug ever? Probably. Anyway, we’re pretty helpful over here at GYC, as evidenced by this very article (and the countless others strewn across the site).  For the last 15 years this site has followed one simple rule: it’s written by backpackers, for backpackers. We have everything from country guides to backpacker job listings, and the message boards cover pretty much any backpacking topic you can imagine.
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Head torch

There are countless travel-related gadgets on the market, very few of which we would deem ‘essential’, but the mighty head torch is a must. Forget images of orange mining hats with gigantic yellow lanterns; the backpacker head torch consists of a simple elasticated strap with a small but powerful torch in the centre. They are invaluable for pretty much any activity suffixed with ‘in the middle of the night’ — going to the toilet, packing, showing dingoes on Fraser Island who’s boss etc.



As you will no doubt know, the experience of diarrhoea is akin to a plug being pulled on your innards. Suddenly everything must drain and there is very little you can do about it, other than squirm and generally feel sorry for yourself. If you experience it within hobbling distance of a lavatory, you’re one of the lucky ones; if it hits you in the middle of the night on a bus with no toilet in a developing country, you’re not. Thankfully, Imodium acts as a very effective emergency plug.
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Flick to the health pages in a guidebook for any remotely exotic country and you’ll be quickly appalled at the butt-clenching menu of diseases and parasites that could infiltrate you. Now, unclench your butt cheeks and breath. With the right precautions – and a generous dollop of common sense – it is highly unlikely anything really bad is going to get you. One of the more crucial precautions is to have the right jabs before you go away.
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One of the first things that will strike you on your gap year is that you suddenly have an enormous amount of free time (there are only so many hours you can spend sightseeing, bungee jumping and partying). And because watching TV when you’re travelling just seems wrong somehow, you’re going to need something to read. Kindles – or any e-readers for that matter – are incredibly practical: they are light, they don’t take up any room and you can store entire libraries on them.
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Let’s face it: even if the locks on your backpack outnumber those found on the vault at Fort Knox, all it takes is a sharp knife to get through the material. If thieves are intent on getting into your bag, they will do so. The reason it’s a good idea to have a lock is that it can work as a deterrent to the opportunistic thief, especially if there’s an unlocked bag right next to yours. Make sure you keep any real valuables in your hand luggage to ensure that the only treasure the backpacker bandits will find is noxious socks and pants. It’s what they deserve.



Probably the most essential of the lot. Obviously no one is going to leave home without a penny to their name, but once you’re on the road and all those exciting opportunities are being flung your way, it can be frighteningly easy to blow the budget in a very short space of time. Keep a close eye on what you’re spending and have an emergency account to dip into if the situation presents itself. Hitchhiking home from Australia is not for the fainthearted.
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If you’re going to be doing any sort of word-processing on your gap year — i.e. blogging — a netbook is a really handy little tool to have. Smaller and lighter than a laptop and easier to use for typing than a tablet (not to mention considerably less valuable than both), netbooks form a much-needed halfway house between the two. It will also allow you to Skype in peace to friends and family back home; nothing like a rowdy Internet café to spoil a conversation.



Ever tried to open a corked bottle of wine without a corkscrew? How about a tin without a tin opener? What about any sort of plastic packaging without a pair of scissors? It’s amazing how quickly we can descend back down the evolutionary tree when faced with quandaries like this, especially if hungry or in desperate need of a drink. A corkscrew, tin opener and pair of scissors are the only tools you need. Three words: Swiss Army knife.



Sounds like the comic book version of Michael Palin, but this is actually a company which specialises in portable chargers for all types of electronic devices. Don’t worry, they haven’t bribed us for a mention (neither have Kindle for that matter) – we just think their products are awesome. The PowerMonkey is the most widely used: the latest version can charge itself using solar energy and has ten ‘tips’ which fit all the mainstream electronic devices, including iPods, mobiles and even handheld game consoles.



Not the money kind, rather the “world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” kind. You know, those incredibly insightful words of wisdom, usually uttered by some Chinese philosopher 3,000 years ago, which have resonated through the centuries causing a collective ‘oooo’ in countless generations of human beings. Your fellow travellers will be well impressed if you have a few inspirational words up your sleeve for various occasions. Someone moaning about walking down to the local 7-Eleven? Hit ‘em with: ‘Well, Nathan, as Lao Tzu once mused: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”’



Specifically, insect repellent, and even more specifically, mosquito repellent. (For human repellent simply boast loudly about how awesome you are and remind everyone at every opportunity that your stories will always be better than theirs.) Anyway, apart from carrying malaria, and a whole host of other nasty parasitic diseases, mosquitos deliver extraordinarily itchy bites and sound a bit like Joe Pasquale humming after a lungful of helium. Very annoying.


Sleeping bag

There will be times on your gap year when you stay in rooms so grotesque they could pass for Saw film sets. It’s all part of the fun. Character building and all that. On these rare occasions you will be so relieved and happy to have some emergency bedding you might find yourself literally dry humping it in delight. So sure, you might unravel your sleeping bag only two or three times, but the protection it will give your mind and body more than justifies its inclusion on this list.



Unless, of course, you’re planning on spending a significant number of nights camping, in which case the sleeping bag will get proper usage. As will the tent. But be wary here: a tent is only essential if you are absolutely sure you will spend significant time camping. Don’t attach the extra weight to your backpack with some vague idea that it may come in handy if there’s no room at the inn. There’s always room at the inn. And if there’s not, you can always hire a tent for the night. One night.
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Some underwear is essential. 27 pairs of matching socks and pants is not. Not only does excessive underwear take up vital space in your backpack, but the more you have the less frequently you will wash it. And this can only mean one thing: an odour so repugnant emanating from your backpack it will repel fellow humans even quicker than the method mentioned above.



Like dubious beards, flip flops and boardies, vests are just part and parcel of the backpacker look. If you are of the slighter build, fellas, it may be the one time in your life you can wear one without being the subject of prolonged teasing. We can’t guarantee this. Many vests will have the national beer of whatever country you are in plastered across the front – and will be as cheap as they look – so consider this packing essential one to complete en route.


Water filter

Anyone who watches Bear Grylls: Born Survivor may recall an episode in which he grabs a steaming pile of elephant dung, raises it above his face and squeezes the juice into his mouth. What follows is the customary expression of surprised disgust (like he was expecting it to taste like strawberries) and then some vague comment on staying hydrated. The moral of the story: if you find yourself stranded in an extreme environment – unlikely, but certainly not unheard of – you will be very glad you have your trusty water filter.


XL condoms

We were struggling a bit on X. Of course, for a certain proportion (so to speak) of the male demographic this is precisely what you’ll need, but more generally speaking, just normal contraception will suffice. You know what they say about people losing their inhibitions when they’re abroad? Well, it’s true. But just because you’re travelling you don’t suddenly become immune to STDs and you certainly don’t become infertile. All the usual rules apply.
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Not one to pack before you leave, more of a spontaneous purchase as and when nature calls. It’s great for calming an unhappy stomach. And it tastes nice. Win.


Zip lock bags

An ingeniously simple and cheap way to keep things like mobile phones and compact cameras splash proof yet still accessible when kayaking and such like. For more extreme expeditions – we’re thinking white-water river crossings, swimming across the Atlantic – you’ll need a proper waterproof bag to ensure your things don’t get ruined.

Well, that’s it folks. 

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