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Packing for Your Gap Year

Travel checklist for backpacking

A first-time traveller will always go through several stages of packing for their trip. The first is panic – do I have everything? What if I forget something really important?! The second is piling up everything you own and wondering how the heck you’ll ever compress it into your shiny new backpack. The third involves actually packing, working out what is absolutely essential and what can stay at home. That’s where we can really help.

The kind of backpack you’ll need and what you’ll need to put inside it will depend on where you’re going and for how long. It’s an important decision, as you need to be comfortable lugging it around for the entire trip. A general rule is to gather what you think you need and then half it. Clothes can be washed along the way, and toiletries can be bought once you’ve arrived. Do you need a phone, laptop, tablet, and camera, or one device that can do a bit of everything? (We know this might feel a bit like Sophie’s Choice, but it’s time to make tough decisions!) Most backpacking essentials are your important documents, all accounted for and tucked away somewhere safe.

We’ve packed countless times for countless trips, so you can trust that we’ll make sure you have everything you need.

Articles about travel kit and what to pack


Choosing a backpack

Before you can pack anything you’ll need something to pack it into, and for the vast majority of gappers this something comes in the form of a backpack. A backpack is essentially the same invention as a rucksack, only approximately seven times bigger, seven times heavier and with seven times more compartments.

Choosing one can quickly turn into a mystifying process; there are just so many different types on the market. The best thing is to keep these key points in mind:

  • Comfort. This is the most important factor when choosing a backpack. Be sure to try it on in the shop with heavy items inside (screwed up paper is not a good substitute for the actual weight you’ll be carrying when on the road).
  • Size. It’s very important to choose a size which will suit your trip. There is no point in buying the largest on the market if you’re going interrailing for a fortnight; to the contrary, if you’re off on a three month expedition through the jungles of Borneo a petite backpack will not suffice. For the average gapper, a 65 litre size is about right.
  • Quality. Sounds obvious, but a poorly made backpack is almost certainly going to reveal its ineptitude and fall to pieces at a highly inconvenient time – that’s just the way of the world. You get what you pay for.

For detailed advice on this check out our guide to getting the most out your backpack and for lifting the darn thing have a browse of our guide on how to wear a backpack. Need more? No problem: this is a guide on how to pack a backpack. That last one is something of a science – well worth a read.

What clothes to bring?

Okay, an obvious one: most gappers don’t venture to the airport in their birthday suits. But it’s all about knowing your limits. You do not need 17 pairs of socks, you do not need five pairs of flip flops and you do ­not ­need your prom outfit.

Be as sparing as you can possibly bear, and keep in mind the climate of the parts of the world you’ll be travelling to. You may be leaving Heathrow in -3 degree bitterness, but if you’re heading to Thailand, that winter coat probably isn’t going to be very helpful beyond the departure gate.

Also research the cultures of the places you will be visiting: many religious sites around the world, for example, require both men and women to have shoulders and legs covered. Pack accordingly.

Susan Heller once said: “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”

She’s a wise lady.

Important travel documents to pack

Make sure you don’t forget to pack these travel documents.

  • Passport. You can have the most awesome backpack in the world – and kit to match – but your face will burning redder than a tropical sunset if you forget the most important thing of all: your passport. Yeah, we know what you’re thinking – spare me the obvious­! – but with all the excitement of going away basic things like this can be frighteningly easy to overlook. Oh, and make sure it’s in date.
  • Birth certificate. Make a photocopy of your birth certificate and stuff it into the very bottom of your pack; it shouldn’t be removed unless in an emergency. An emergency in this instance could be having your passport stolen. Although the local UK embassy will be able to help you out with this in any situation, having a birth certificate to hand will speed up the process considerably.
  • Travel insurance documents. Again, if you have bought travel insurance (and we hope you have!) it’s a good idea to have the relevant documents with you. Many hospitals abroad will not provide any treatment until they have proof of your insurance. It’s a good idea to have your policy number to hand to save precious time.
  • Student card. If you have a student card it’s well worth bringing, even if it’s out of date. You’d be amazed at the amount of tourist attractions around the world which offer discounts to students, and often the expiry date isn’t even checked.

Optional travel accessories

If you have any room left (and hopefully you have a bit!) you could consider adding these, even to your day bag.

Medical kit

This is only optional in the sense of packing before you leave; sooner or later you’re going to need some basic supplies, whether you buy them from your high street chemist or a street cart in Vietnam. Don’t go overboard, you don’t need enough to put the local hospital out of business, just make sure you have:

  • Plaster, bandages and medical tape
  • Antiseptic wipes, antiseptic cream and antiseptic handwash
  • Antidiarrheals (imodium)
  • Rehydration salts


Don’t make the mistake of packing a year’s worth of shampoo and toothpaste; just make sure you have enough bits and bobs to get you through the flight (which is a good 24 hours+ if you’re heading somewhere like Australia) and enough to see you through the first few days. Toiletries can be found everywhere, just buy as and when you need. Having said that, it can be hard finding decent insect repellent in developing countries, so perhaps stock up on that back home.


Now we get to the fun stuff, though sadly most of it is obsolete in most situations. If you’re a gadget person you’ll feel positively giddy at the sheer magnitude of funky little travel accessories on the market. These are what we think are the most useful (as opposed to the ‘coolest’), though keep in mind they are just the tip of an enormous iceberg:

  • Camera and memory card
  • USB memory stick
  • Multi-country adaptor
  • Netbook
  • Kindle
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