Packing Your Bag for Adventure

by Emmanuel Marshall.

 
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It’s time to go. 

Pack your bag. Slam the door. Hit the road!

But what do I take?   How much can I cram into this bag?   Can I still walk with all this shit on my back..?  

These are the questions that plague the mind of the traveler, late at night on the eve of a journey.

 

(Below: travel light, travel far – this is me hitchhiking in the Sahara Desert.)

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What Do I Really Need?

A light bag is always a good thing. I’m a low budget adventurer, so I do a lot of walking. The less stuff I carry, the better. But some things are essential.
When I started traveling I lugged an 80 litre bag around.  I had lots of unnecessary, bulky gear, and I was always tired.
Now, everything I carry weighs less than 12 kg, and it all fits in a 30 litre bag.

It took me years to get smart, so I want to save you a lot of time and foot-soreness.

Every traveler does a lot of walking, so buy the lightest, best quality gear you can afford. 

I have a fair bit of stuff compared to some 5 star minimalist travelers, but I camp out a lot in my tent, so I need to be pretty self sufficient.

Remember, what you spend now on efficient, light camping gear, you will save a thousand times over by not having to stay in hostels!

Don’t take stuff you don’t really need.  The bag that feels fine in your living room is gonna feel a whole lot heavier when you have carried it 5 or 10 km!

(Photo below: my bag is 30 litres, and weights 11 kg. It still feels too heavy some days! The folding scooter is awesome! I hang my backpack on the handlebars and that way I don’t have to carry the weight on my shoulders. Check it out here!)

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My Gear:

What I carry varies a bit, depending on where I am. If I’m in the tropics – Thailand, Malaysia etc. – I don’t keep a fleece vest with me. If I’m in a cold area like northern Europe I will add a ski thermal to my kit. The trick is to have good basic gear, and then add or subtract stuff as you go.

Footwear:
– hiking boots
– cotton tradesman’s gators (to protect socks from burrs)
– sandals (for swimming in rivers that may have sharp objects on the bottom)

Bags:
– backpack
– go bag (small and light for daily use)
– bum bag / money belt
– plastic garbage-bin bags (to keep stuff dry in heavy rain)

Money and I.D.:
– cash (local currency, plus some US$ for emergencies)
– cards: debit; credit; etc (try to get cards that don’t charge international currency exchange fees)
– passport

Shelter:
– 2 person hiking tent
– hiking air mat
– ultra-light sleeping bag
– silk sleeping bag liner (I have modified this by adding 500mm of mosquito mesh at the top, to cover my face)

Clothing:
– sun hat
– head sock
– small nylon tarpaulin (multi purpose rain cape, ground sheet, etc.)
– swim shorts
– light cotton scarf
– 3x underpants
– 2x sleeveless tops
– 3x pairs bamboo blend socks
– crushable down vest
– nylon zip-off pants (convert into shorts)
– light cotton sarong (used as towel)
– utility gloves

Gadgets:
– Android phone – loaded with free maps
– wall plug USB charger
– car plug USB charger
– USB powerbank
– mini water filter
– head-lamp torch / flashlight

Miscellaneous:
– folding scooter
– water (usually about 1 litre)
– swiss army knife
– spoon
– fork
first-aid kit
– needle and thread
– super glue
– plastic bags of various sizes (so useful and light)
– 10 m light weight cord to use as clothes line
– 10 m of light rope
– DEET mosquito repellent (tube, not spray – spray cans are heavier and bulkier)
– small bundle of toilet paper
– tooth brush and half tube of paste
– SPF 50+ sunscreen
– roll-on deodorant
– cigarette lighter (to light camp fires)
– pencil and notebook (pencil doesn’t smudge if it gets wet and doesn’t leak in your pocket)
– sunglasses
– nail clippers
– 3 bandanas
– black marker (to make hitchhiking signs)
– instant coffee (just add to your bottle of cold water and shake)
– sugar sachets (courtesy of fast food restaurants)
– harmonicas x7

 

(Below: this amazing place is Kuang Si Waterfall, in Laos. Buy this photo as a greeting card, poster, or phone case at the Raw Safari Print Shop.)

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Footwear.

Your boots are on your feet of course, so you don’t need to carry them.
Buy good waterproof hiking boots, and make sure they are the right shape for your feet.  A good outdoor store will train the staff to help you find the right ones.  It’ll be the best dollars you ever spent.

I have a pair of very simple, cheap, cotton gators, like tradesmen use.  They are elasticised at the top, and cover my socks to keep burrs from sticking when I’m going cross-country.

I always have a pair of cheap sandals with me.  They hug your feet really tightly, so they are perfect for swimming and boating, and they let sand and mud drain out.  Some places I’ve swum, there was broken glass, really sharp sticks and stuff like that.   When you do as much walking as I do, you really can’t afford foot injuries.   Wearing sandals, I can wade into water confidently, even if I can’t see the bottom.

(Below: in 2013 I hitchhiked around western Europe and Morocco.  This is Ait Ben Haddou.)

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Bags.

I have three bags of different sizes, that can fit inside each other.  A backpack, a small, light go-bag and a bum-bag pouch for my wallet and passport etc.  I only carry the backpack when I’m going long distances.  Once I reach a destination, I find a campsite, and leave the backpack there.  For daily use, shopping, sightseeing, whatever, I take the go-bag.

When you choose your backpack, get it from a real hiking store, and try it on with some weight in it.  It should have good quality zippers, an adjustable harness, a waist belt and a chest strap.
Top loading draw string type bags are better than ones with big zippers, because you can really crush your stuff in quickly and efficiently.
I have a 30 litre “Tatonka” bag.  It’s camouflage green.  I choose dark colours and khaki for all my kit because I do a lot of urban camping.  When I am sleeping in a public park, or beside the road, I don’t really want to attract attention.

Every bit of weight counts, so my go-bag is an ultra-light nylon one.
I have a ChicoBag 15 litre travel pack. About $35. Almost 100% recycled materials. It’s made from PET, recycled bottles, like polar fleece. I’ve patched it up a few times but it’s as tough as nails.

I use a bum-bag instead of a money belt for my wallet and passport. I don’t like having a money belt right next to my skin. I wear the bum bag slung across my shoulder so the bag rests under my left armpit.

Plastic garbage-bin bags are great cheap waterproofing. If you get caught on the side of the road in a heavy downpour, they will keep the stuff in your backpack dry, and they weigh next to nothing. They are also useful if you don’t have room in your tent for your backpack. I put my sleeping bag inside a plastic bag, when I stuff it in my pack. I hate spending the night in a damp sleeping bag. No need to pay a lot of money for fancy waterproof sacks in a camping store. I also have smaller plastic bags for stuff like my passport, my phone, and my other gadgets.

(Below: my go-bag is always with me. It’s got all the essentials in it: sunscreen, bug repellant, hat, harmonicas…)

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(Above: a Buddhist vigil I was lucky enough to experience in Vientiane, Laos.)

 

Money and I.D.

I have three cards: a VISA debit with my Australian bank; a Mastercard; and a ’28 Degrees’ travel credit card.

I get cash from ATMs with the debit card. I try to make withdrawals as infrequently as possible, because every transaction attracts a fee, and a currency exchange tariff.

The Mastercard is a backup. I seldom use it, but I did once lose my debit card in Thailand, and I was pretty happy I had an alternative source of cash.

The 28 Degrees credit card is only for large purchases. It is special, because it doesn’t attract any exchange fees. It is not very useful in developing countries, but great in places like Europe, Australia, the US and UK, where you can buy almost everything with plastic. This card is not available everywhere, but there are similar traveller friendly products in most countries. Ask your bank.

It’s always a good idea to have a bit of cash handy for emergencies. I keep about US$100.00 in small bills with me at all times, just in case. Like they say, money talks. US currency is accepted almost everywhere in the world, and you just never know… There are plenty of places in the world where there are no banks, and they don’t accept cards.

Keep your passport and credit cards in a bum bag or money belt and never let it out of your sight.

It’s a good idea to do scans of important personal documents like passport, credit cards etc, and send them as JPGs to your own online email account or Mega. That way, if you lose the originals, at least you have something to show to the consulate guys when you are trying to prove who you are.

(Below: Angkor Wat, Cambodia. I hitchhiked here in 2014.)

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Shelter.

Q: If you don’t want to spend money on hostels, and you camp out a lot, how do you stay warm and dry?
A: A hard core sleeping bag, and a 2 person hiking tent.

A tent, a sleeping bag, and a hiking air mat will make the difference between a good nights rest, and bags under the eyes. If you sleep poorly every night, you will quickly lose energy and morale. Long term low budget travel is only sustainable if you get adequate rest.

On the money side, the truth is, with tents and sleeping bags, you get what you pay for. Strong, light materials are expensive.
Look at it this way: if you can avoid spending money on hostels, you will quickly recoup the money you spend on good camping gear.

A tent is as much for protection from insects as it is for weather protection. Mosquitoes and ants are the traveler’s worst enemies.
I’ve used quite a few different tents over the years, most of them quite cheap.
At the moment I am living in a tent that is worth US$120.00. This tent is a good compromise between weight, price and comfort.
There are lighter tents out there, but they have smaller internal dimensions, and I am 195cm tall, so I like a bit of head room. Some comparable products cost as much as US$400.00. That’s a bit steep, to save 300 grams. The other factor is that really ultralight tents are not designed for everyday use. The materials are thin and fragile. That’s fine if you are going on a one week trek, but when you use a tent every day, you need it to be a bit rugged.
You can get away with a $50 tent, (I did for years) but it will be very heavy to carry, and probably will need a lot of maintenance.
The things to look for in a tent are:
– 2 layers
– minimum weight (under 2.5 kg)
– alloy or carbon poles
– sealed seams
– nylon floor

>> Want to learn more about urban camping? Read my Free Accomodation page!

(Below: even a basic tent can be good value. This one is a fifty dollar cheapy I got in Tasmania. With a few simple modifications I was very comfortable in it for months.)

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In a temperate climate, like Europe or southern Australia, the nights can be very chilly, and your sleeping bag will be your most prized possession. Even in deserts, night time temperatures can be very low. In some places you will not need a sleeping bag at all. In tropical climates such as Southeast Asia, all you need is a mosquito net, or sleeping bag liner.
The only sleeping bags worth having are made with down (feather) filling material. Down is very light, very warm, and can be crushed into a very small bundle. Be aware, though, that it is very important to allow a down sleeping bag to ‘breathe’ every 24 – 48 hours. If the feathers are crushed for too long they can lose their ‘lofting’ capacity, and will not be as warm.
The things to look for in a sleeping bag are:
– temperature rating
– filling material
– weight (under 1 kg)
– lofting ratio (how much the bag can be compressed, then re-expand)

Inside my sleeping bag I use a silk sleeping bag liner, which I have improved with a simple mosquito-proof face veil. The liner protects the sleeping bag fabric, keeping it cleaner and prolonging it’s life. The liner is good to use on it’s own as well, just for protection from insects. Read more about it here.
 

For sleeping comfort, and warmth, I have a half length hiking air mat. A half length air mat provides support to the shoulders, hips and knees. It also makes a very effective thermal barrier between your sleeping bag and the ground. The mat I have weighs in slightly under half a kilo, and rolls up into a bundle about the size of a 1 ltr water bottle. The fabric is prone to getting small holes in it, but running repairs are easy if you know how.

There are some other shelter options aside from tents.
A bivvy sack and tarp, is a cheap and light alternative to a tent. A bivvy sack is basically a waterproof outer shell for your sleeping bag.   It has a single zipper, and a panel of water resistant fly mesh for ventilation.   You only get inside your bivvy sack in wet weather.  Normally you just lay it flat and use it as a ground sheet under your sleeping bag.
The hikers fly, or tarp, is the ultimate in shelter versatility.   It is a flat rectangle of lightweight nylon with ropes at each corner.   Pitch it diagonally, with one corner tied to a tree at shoulder height, and the others pegged to the ground in a triangular shape.  It provides shade, shelter, and is very well ventilated unlike a compact tent.   It is khaki, of course, so it camouflages. 
A tarp provides no insect protection, so a simple cloth mosquito net is essential.
The greatest advantage of a hikers fly over a tent is that it gives you plenty of room to spread out and is more versatile for the same weight.

 
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(Above: my bivvy/tarp setup in the back blocks of Mers-Les-Baines, France.)

I used a tarp and bivvy combo when I was camping in Europe in 2013. It was very effective, even in the Spanish autumn.

Many travelers use hammocks of various sorts. There is a wide variety available, some with built in rain shelters and mosquito nets. They are not my preferred shelter type for one good reason: fucking in a hammock is pretty much impossible. Hammocks can be comfortable though, especially in hot, humid climates, where tents and bivvy bags can be suffocatingly hot. Hammocks are also perfect for use in places where the ground is very uneven or muddy. A basic hammock can be very cheap, especially if bought in Asia, so they are well worth a try (if you are a normal height). The best hammocks are made of nylon, which is very strong, but also light and compact.

>> Check out my rookie guide to Urban Camping, for more info on free accommodation.

 
(Below: when you camp out, you have to be prepared for all kinds of weather. A good tent and sleeping bag are a must in places like Mont-Blanc, France.)

 

Clothing.

Clothing can be heavy and bulky, especially if you’re 6’4″, like me. Choosing what you put in your bag is very personal, but I try to strike a balance between comfort and weight.
In general, avoid thick cotton clothing, especially denim jeans. Cotton holds moisture like a sponge, and dries slowly. It is also heavy.

Sleeveless tops are better than t-shirts. No sleeves means no sweaty armpits. You can wear a sleeveless top for a week before you have to wash it. Did I say a week? I meant a month.

(Below: when it comes to travel-wear, less is more. Shannon exploring Barratta Creek.)

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Woolen or bamboo socks are a must. Wool and bamboo fabrics wick moisture away from your feet and keep them cool and dry, preventing odour and blisters.

Less is more with clothing. You can always pick up a new t-shirt in a second hand shop, or get a cheap fleece jumper at short notice. There is no point carrying a lot of extra stuff, in case the weather changes suddenly.

A light, crushable sun hat, or cap is important to avoid sun burn. I like to have a head sock type beanie as well. very comfortable, and a good way to keep your ears warm in a cold wind.

Some sport shirts are made with very light, breathable synthetic. They are great in hot climates, and don’t retain sweat like cotton shirts do.

Cheap clothing is best. It’s easy to replace, and you can give it away when you don’t need it any more.

The only item of clothing I have that was a bit expensive is my zip-off cargo pants. They are made out of a very high quality synthetic, which is insulating, light, quick drying and fire retardant.  They zip off at the knee to become shorts.  They weight next to nothing.  They dry in 5 minutes when I wash them.  They are cool in the heat, and warm in cold weather.   Genius. Well worth US$70.00.

A small nylon tarpaulin is a must. Sometimes, when you are on the road, you will get caught in the rain. A jacket is warmer, so better for cold or temperate climates, but a tarpaulin is more versatile. The biggest advantage of a tarp over a jacket, is you can just tie it on like a cape and drape it over your backpack when you are walking. A cape ventilates better than a jacket and doubles as a ground sheet to sit on. The tarp I have is about 2 x 1.6 metres.

Even in hot climates, it can get cold sometimes, especially at night, so it’s good to have a basic upper body garment to maintain your core temperature.
At the moment I have a nylon / down vest which I got in a department store in Thailand. It is super light and crushable, but really warm. Down vests are really expensive in hiking shops, but China is producing crushable vests like this, stuffed with goose down, very cheaply.
A synthetic fleece jumper or vest is good – very warm and inexpensive. They can be bulky though. Woollen ski thermals can be a better option, although they tend to get smelly. Cotton jumpers are a total waste of space – too bulky and heavy, and not very warm.

Scarves are the only exception to the cotton rule. A cotton scarf is an amazingly comfortable, versatile, and compact bit of gear. It’s a towel. It’s a hat. It’s a mosquito veil – a sweat wiper – a rope – a bag..!
In the heat a cotton scarf keeps your face out of the sun. You can wet it and drape it round your neck to keep cool. If it’s cold and windy, you wind it tightly to keep warm. It looks trendy, and feels soft on your face when you are sleeping on the ground.  I got mine in Morocco. It’s a traditional Berber scarf, and I love it. You can tell the design has been perfected through thousands of years of use. Standing beside the road in inland Australia I’ve draped it over my head to keep the flies out of my mouth. Because it’s transparent, I could still see cars approaching and whip it off before they got close so I didn’t look like a terrorist ;-)

A cotton sarong is also a fantastic thing to have. They are very light, dry much more quickly than a towel, and crush down to nothing when packed. The longer you have them the softer they get. I bought one in Thailand in 2007, and it is still going strong, and as soft as silk.

Utility gloves can keep your hands warm, but mostly they are fantastic for climbing, getting through brambles, breaking up firewood and handling hot cooking stuff.  They are hiking boots for your hands.  Very useful.  The tight fitting ones with rubberised palms are the best.   Very comfortable and don’t make you clumsy.  Showa make the best ones.

(Below: Cordoba, Spain. Camping in Spain was sometimes a challenge. The nights were cold. I often woke up and shook ice off my tarp!)

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Gadgets.

I take thousands of photographs, and write this blog as I travel. 

I used to have a notebook computer and a camera, once upon a time, but I’m always looking for ways to travel lighter, so now I’m down to just one pocket size device.
For writing this blog, and shooting and processing my photos, I use a small and cheap Motorola Android phone which I bought on Ebay, for about US$100.00. It’s an el-cheapo, but it works beautifully, and because it was so inexpensive, I never worry about losing it or dropping it in the toilet.
As well as doing all my photography and blogging, I use the free GPS maps on my phone every day when I’m hitchhiking and finding my way around unfamiliar cities.

If you have a smart phone or tablet, load it up with cool apps to make your travel experience easier and cheaper. 
Check out my travel app top 5.

Download yourself a copy of my free e-book ‘The Travel Hackers Handbook’, and keep it on your device. I’ve written it as a quick-start guide for low-budget adventure. It’s full of useful info to save you money so you can keep traveling longer. Get it here.

I’ve got a wall plug USB charger, and a car plug USB charger, so I can keep my phone charged up as I hitchhike. You can get a car USB plug on Ebay for under US$2.00.

Because I’m often out in the woods for days at a time, I keep a 3200 mAh USB power bank charged up, so I can top up my phone in an emergency. It’s basically an external phone battery. I bought it on special for US$10.00. It fully charges my phone’s battery twice.

(Below: I took this photo in the Australian desert, with my US$100.00 phone.)

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You have to have water handy when you travel.  You can dehydrate fast in hot weather.  Refill your bottle whenever you get a chance and always leave a small amount in reserve in case you get stranded.
Beware of streams and rivers (and taps in most countries!). Clean, bacteria free water is rare. Drinking dirty water causes gastroenteritis, and can lead to severe sickness and dehydration.
The best drinking water solution I’ve found is a mini water filter. The one I’ve got is made by Sawyer, an American company. You can buy one for about US$20.00, and it will filter more than 100,000 gallons of water! It takes only 100 seconds to do a litre, and you can screw it straight onto your bottle, so there’s no waiting around. Genius. Check out my review of the Mini Filter for more info.

 

Miscellaneous Stuff.

My folding scooter is one of the best investments I’ve ever made. It’s so handy for getting around and even when I’m not riding it it’s an awesome luggage trolley. I wish I’d got one of these ten years ago when I started backpacking. Worth it’s weight in gold. Check out the video I made about it here.

By a process of elimination, I’ve put together a light and efficient first-aid kit. There’s a detailed discussion of first-aid equipment and techniques on the Emergency page.

The ‘Energizer’ head torch, or flashlight, is cheap, widely available, and awesome value for money.  I’ve had mine for 4 years, and its still going strong.  It has a red light feature too, which is fantastic, because it doesn’t affect your night vision, and it saves power!  The red light is also good when you are in stealth mode, urban camping.

Some days you are gonna need to take a dump in a bush.  That’s just a fact of life.  Keep a stash of toilet paper in a plastic bag for this purpose.

Don’t forget deodorant!  You want your ride to pick up hitchers again, so leave them with a nice impression, not a stinky car seat!

 

How Do I Stash This Stuff?

The way you put your gear in your backpack is really important, if you want to keep your kit compact. Read my top tips on how to pack your bag efficiently, here.

 

Have I Missed Something?

I’m always looking for ways to improve my kit, make it lighter and more efficient.
What are your “must have” items of gear?  Post ’em in the comments, or email me and let me know.

It’s go time!  See you on the road :-)

 
(Below: hitchhiking in Australia.  You don’t want a heavy bag in heat like this!)

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Hi! Manny here, the guy who makes this blog.
Want to start an adventure of your own?
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  • Though those places needs to be walked on many days. still what waits ahead is indeed great and very inspiring place to be visit with.

    • Emmanuel Marshall

      Thanks for reading ezycamps! I hope your bag is light and your roads are all downhill! :-)

  • You don’t mention anything about cooking gear. I find a couple of nested camping pots are good to have fitted inside a hobo stove. Sometimes I just take food that doesn’t need cooking, but I would always choose a light metal pot rather than a plastic bowl so that I can cook if necessary. Interesting advice on tents, personally I am thoroughly fed up of dome tents, there are loads of them around that are POS, sold to customers who are expected to only use them once or twice in summer. Old fashioned ridge tents tend to be a bit heavier, but at least the poles don’t snap (and if they do, you can replace them), the fabric doesn’t disintegrate in sunlight or tear in strong winds, and they don’t need a sheet of plastic over the roof to keep them dry. I’m sure there are good ones out there, but the market has been flooded with garbage. For weight I am tending more and more to go for bivouacs in summer. Making your own tent (and other gear) is not a bad option. I used for many years a single pole, single sheet tent with optional groundsheet which my mother made in the 1960’s. Kind of like an elongated tipi, surprisingly light. It has finally reached the end of its usable life (45 years, longer than most modern tents), but I would like to copy the design. I usually take chunky wax crayons as well as marker pens when hitching. Crayons are much cheaper than marker pens, and don’t run out unexpectedly. I usually outline the letters in pen, and block them in with crayon, but crayons alone can be used at a pinch

    • Emmanuel Marshall

      Hi Pignut, thanks for your comment!

      I dont carry any cooking stuff, to save weight. I cook on a fire, which is basic, but very easy and simple, and not much washing up!! spear it on a stick or drop it on the coals is my policy! LOL. I am a very lazy eater.
      >> http://rawsafari.com/blog/free-food-3/

      The tent market is certainly mixed. It is usually a case of “get what u pay for” I think. I chose my current tent because it is kind of a good compromise between sturdiness, comfort and weight. Ultralight tents really dont suit full time use, because as you said, they arent designed for long term travel, are they?
      I used to love my bivouac too! but lack of walls has its down side (forgive the pun) . for the extra 500grams i like to be bug and wind free. hamocks and bivvies are awesome tho, i agree!

      I love the crayon Idea. gonna give that a go, because i AM sick of buying marker pens.
      nice tip, pignut, thx!

      where in the planet are u now?

      • I’m in China, settled in a job for now, but hoping to get some hitching done in my vacation time.