One of my earliest memories of Europe involves the words ‘fuck this’.
I was attempting to wrestle my huge purple monster of a wheelie up the steps of the Paris metro, locks of sweaty hair plastered to my face.
I hadn’t anticipated how many steps and cobblestone-lined streets there were in Europe; twelve days of ungainly bumping, weightlifting and painful collisions ensued. I’ve never used a wheelie again since.
Before my next Eurotrip – to Switzerland and Italy this time – I purchased an Osprey Farpoint 55: a reasonably-sized bag that wouldn’t tip me over with its weight, was loaded from the front and not the top, and had lockable zippers. It cost about as much as a budget flight to Bangkok, and is now my indispensable travel companion.
Travelling with just the essentials on your back isn’t as tough as you’d think. You’ll find yourself easily climbing hills, running to catch trains, or exploring side streets without having to worry about a cumbersome wheelie. When you live with less, you free yourself of mental clutter.
These are the top five essentials that I carry, after much downsizing.
These little curved metal hooks are the bomb (I always take great care when I tell people what these are, because opening your mouth any more than necessary when enunciating the ’S’ will result in people thinking you’re an anal fetishist).
S-hooks are cheap, available at your local provision store, and can be used in many backpacking situations.
I’ve been in many grotty hostel bathrooms, and the hooks provided are tiny, or worse, nonexistent. This isn’t a problem if you tote S-hooks around. Just slip them over the door and you’re good to go: no more towels dropped on gross wet floors.
If you’re on the top bunk, these let you utilise vertical space to hang your towel, clothes, washbag, etc. If you’re on the lower bunk and want some privacy, put up a makeshift screen with these and a towel. Need to hang a plastic bag of shoes or wet clothes from your backpack while you’re on the go? Tie them onto your S-hook.
Keep in mind: Some airplanes don’t like ‘em. Put them in an easily accessible pocket if you’re carrying them on the plane, so you can take them out and explain that they aren’t torture devices.
2. PACKING CUBES
Contrary to popular belief, these aren’t just for the OCD-inclined. If anything, these are the physical manifestation of common sense.
Packing, unpacking and repacking is going to happen every day on the road and packing cubes will make that a breeze. I’m not gonna lie: Things are always nice and dandy when you’re packing at home, but those carefully-arranged clothes are going to start flying when you’re wrestling everything into your backpack in a rush to catch the next train.
Keep in mind: When you shop for packing cubes, get good ones; Eagle Creek does cubes that have double zips, a little pull-handle, and weigh next to nothing. You’ll only need three: one for tops, one for bottoms, and one for what they refer to as ‘smallclothes’ in Game of Thrones. There’s also an optional garment folder, for keeping your crisp shirts and dresses nice and uncreased.
3. A GOOD, SOLID POWER BANK
I can’t emphasise this enough: it’s the one thing that’s given me peace of mind when travelling. Working, available power sockets are as rare and precious as unicorns when on the road. You might fail to get that coveted seat next to an outlet in the airport lounge; the electricity might be wonky in your Airbnb room; there might be only two sockets and six snarling girls in your dorm [Ed’s note: may the odds be ever in your favour].
My Anker Astro E5 has a capacity of about 16,000mAh. That’s about seven full charges on an iPhone 5S. To date, I’ve never used it all up, even while backpacking for two weeks at a time. If you do happen to deplete it, a half-day charge will have it all juiced up for the next leg of your journey.
Keep in Mind: To make it even easier, get the shortest USB cable you can, and attach it to the battery to form a neat, self-sufficient charging station.
4. SHAWL OR TURKISH TOWEL
Another useful multipurpose item: I’ve used mine to towel off after getting caught in a light rain in London, as a sarong on a beach or as a blanket on the plane. Lightweight cotton is also preferable, because it absorbs moisture easily, and if you do get it dirty or lose it (which could be quite likely) you won’t mourn its loss too much.
The latest addition to my arsenal is a blue-and-white striped Turkish towel, which opens out huge – enough to cover a single-sized mattress – but folds up smaller and lighter than the average pair of jeans. It’ll do everything a shawl does, but also function as a proper towel, a picnic blanket, and even a makeshift beach bag when tied up. For more information, click here.
Keep in mind: This doubles up as a privacy screen if you’re in the lower bunk of a hostel, but remember to get an opaque shawl.
This may seem like a luxury, but a good night’s sleep is essential for maximising energy during travel.
A sleep sack is basically a very thin version of a sleeping bag that provides a barrier between your skin and the sheets. The most common ones are made of either silk or cotton, but I prefer the former.
No matter how ratty the room is, or how dubious the stains on the sheets are, at night you’ll always be climbing in to a clean, cool bag that protects you while you sleep. No stray ankles will be poking out for mosquitoes to feast on, no worry of whether you’ll be too hot or too cold. If you’re concerned about bedbugs, some brands also make sleep sacks infused with repellent.
When I was in a Sydney hostel, I never had to use the suffocating blanket — the sleep sack made me feel unencumbered, yet safe. It also folds up as tiny as your hand and barely takes up any space in your backpack.
Keep in Mind: A silk sleep sack will keep you both warm in colder temperatures and cool on hot nights.
One last thing: tea bags, for a soothing brew that tastes of home when you’re alone in a foreign country, and also as unique gifts for friends made on the road. Get chamomile ones for a good night’s sleep while overseas.