Overall, I did a pretty decent job of anticipating what I would need in my backpack by relying on my previous travel experience, country research, and consulting fellow travel bloggers’ listicles.
This trip was what I would call a “pure” backpacking experience not only in the literal sense of living out of a backpack but in the sense that very little planning was involved. Yes, I had done my research (as always) and kept a general route in mind, but all other details were filled in spontaneously as I went along.
In the end, there were only a few items I didn’t end up using at all (e.g., sleeping bag, some medical supplies), but I think it’s always wise to dedicate a bit of space to “just in case” items. This is a survey of particular items I’m grateful for packing and what I really could have used in hindsight.
Things I’m Glad I Brought
Power bank – Although they can add some weight to your bag depending on their power capacity, these babies are necessary in Africa if you’re toting tech around. Don’t ever rely on having electricity––spontaneous power cuts lasting for minutes, hours, or even days happen routinely, and not every accommodation or institution has a generator.
Headlamp – I brought a super compact and lightweight retractable headlamp that helped me find my way to the toilet or read during nighttime power outages. A mini flashlight would work just as well, but it’s nice to have something hands-free.
Shower sandals – A handful of places I stayed actually supplied waterproof sandals for the bathroom, but if the idea of putting your bare feet into communal shoes turns you off (I’m actually okay with it), bring a pair of flip-flops for this purpose (and for lounging around your room). It’s good to have footwear that’s lightweight and takes only a second to slip on.
Travel guide(s) – Thanks to Bradt and Lonely Planet, I could plan each upcoming leg of my trip without the internet. Books add a bit of bulk on the road but are well worth the convenience, in my opinion.
A small, flat notebook and good-quality pen – Old-school, nifty items for jotting down names, phone numbers, directions, random thoughts and observations, etc. I’m not a fan of constantly pulling out my phone and flashing it around, and again, I don’t like to rely only on tech for accessing and recording info.
A small, adjustable crossbody bag – Although fanny packs are super practical, and technically you can wear them like a crossbody and not around your waist like a pro garage-sale goer, I can’t help it––I’m just not a fanny pack person. The crossbody purse (preferably with only one or two compartments) is the next best thing. Keep all your most important things in here (i.e., cash, phone, passport, ID/banking cards) and adjust it so that it conforms closely to your body and can be worn in front of you without shifting back behind you while you’re navigating a crowd. Even better if it’s water-resistant, and I prefer a small, inconspicuous one.
48-hour deodorant/antiperspirant – Good for those times you just can’t be bothered. Mine is an all-natural, aluminum-free product from Korres. It’s expensive for deodorant, but it works, and in theory you would use it less. I might have been dirty and sweaty for most of my trip, but I never once smelled rank (as far as I could tell). Money damn well spent (no, this is not a promotion).
(Nutritious) snacks – In case you don’t have easy access to supermarkets and/or restaurants on some legs of your journey (or in my case, you get hangry in the early morning hours when restaurants are not yet open––more of an issue in Africa/Asia, when shops open late compared to in the West), stash some non-perishable or easily transportable food in your bag. I’m a health nut, so I keep a reserve of healthy snacks on hand. In Addis I found delicious, organic (and locally made) granola bars from an upmarket grocery store, and I had also brought a container of walnuts from Germany. In smaller towns, fresh bread from small bakeries and bananas sold on the roadside are easy to find and are safe bets, sanitation-wise.
Things I Wish I Brought
More socks – Changing socks daily, after they’ve been worn in sneakers in the heat all day, is obviously preferable. So, given that they take up so little room in your bag, pack enough for two-thirds of your trip in case you don’t have many opportunities to wash and dry clothes. It’s not too difficult to hand-wash and hang a few pairs of socks in the bathroom, but it’s nice to not worry about it. Ditto for underwear.
A portable clothesline – Although I was able to wash and dry clothes via a laundry service at several of my accommodations, I ended up washing socks in my bathroom sink a few times due to a shortage, drying them over random objects in the room. It worked out fine, but a clothesline would’ve been handy, especially given how little space it requires in a bag.
More contact lens solution – Because I wear contact lenses nearly every day on a trip (so that I can wear sunglasses outdoors), I had to be stingy with the 200 mL I brought with me (I usually pack monthly lenses instead of dailies on a long trip). I had packed a 500 mL bottle for my three-week trip to India, which proved to be ideal, but I somehow forgot this fact this time around. Luckily, I brought four pairs of daily disposable lenses as backup (I find these are much better if you’re prone to dry eyes, like me), which just barely stretched me to the end of the trip (of course, I also had my glasses with me and could wear them at any point in time).
More antibiotics/tinidazole – Although antibiotics won’t rid you of amoebic dysentery, they helped to suppress the (ahem) uncomfortable symptoms until I received the proper treatment (tinidazole). I wish I had brought enough antibiotics for a full week instead of a few days, and next time will ideally will fill a prescription for tinidazole (now that I recognize the symptoms) before I go, if possible.
Screwdriver – I encountered loose bathroom fixtures more than once, so this would have come in handy.
An extra pair of earplugs – I ended up losing mine at some point and resorted to using my earbuds to block out noise when I slept. It worked, but they were less comfortable than my spongy earplugs.
Plug-in mosquito-repelling device – These units plug into a wall socket and emit either insect repellent or ultrasound frequencies to keep mosquitoes at bay. Although there is some debate about how safe the chemical versions are and how effective the ultrasonic devices are, either could potentially work as a backup in case you don’t have a mosquito net on hand (my first choice). Aiming a fan directly over you while you sleep or turning the air-con on low (if available) are other anti-mosquito hacks I’ve used in my room.
A larger mosquito net – My net was unfortunately too small to fit over the one bed that didn’t already have one in place. My hack in this situation is to “seal the perimeter” of my room with insect repellent, which involves spraying it along crevices (under doors and in cracks around windows) that insects could crawl or fly through. It’s not foolproof, but it should help keep some fraction of the insects out.
Look on the bright side of a shitty or uncomfortable situation.
You’re bound to encounter a few of these on a backpacking journey, so might as well frame the scenario in an optimistic way (obviously, some things are just not worth tolerating, so use your own judgement). I applied this strategy a few times on my trip: (Non-poisonous) spiders in my bathroom? At least they kill mosquitoes! No hot water? Cold showers boost immunity and mood (by prompting your nervous system to release endorphins)!
Backpacking is hard work.
Despite the epic sense of fulfilment I derive from the experience, navigating a foreign land on your own can be exhausting both mentally and physically, especially when you have a limited amount of time (due to work constraints) and feel pressure (even if the pressure is self-imposed) to move quickly in order to maximize the breadth and number of sights and sounds you take in.
Given this, in my mind, three weeks is not enough time for a proper backpacking experience in a new country. Even the best-laid plans can quickly go to shit if you get sick, and the most exotic location you will see on some days will be your bathroom. I really could have used a week of “staycation” when I made it back to my own bed!