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To be completely honest, I am pretty minimalist when it comes to travel packing. I usually pack my bag a day or two before a trip, and a lot of the stuff I bring and wear is the same stuff I use at home. I can’t be bothered with most travel gadgets.
Still, there are some essential items I would never go on a trip without. I’ve narrowed it down to this list after more than 20 years of traveling. Usually once I find something I like, I keep using it trip after trip.
So here are my must-have items for travel, starting with some of the most obvious and important ones. If you’re shopping for a friend, you can also see this more comprehensive list of gift ideas for men who love to travel.
I love this backpack. To be clear, the Vanguard Alta Rise 48 is not a huge backpack meant for long backpacking trips. It’s carry-on size and perfect for long-weekend trips, but I’ve even taken it on trips of up to two weeks. For longer trips, I use this bag to hold all of our essentials and things we need on the bus, plane, etc., while all of our clothing goes into our bigger luggage.
This backpack is designed for photographers. It has a dedicated laptop pouch that is semi-hidden, a tripod strap, and my camera bag (see #4 below) fits perfectly into the camera compartment at the top of the backpack, where I can quickly access it when necessary.
Finally, it’s very comfortable, with waist and chest straps, and it comes with a full rain cover. Clearly Vanguard knows what they are doing when it comes to camera packs, as they’ve make some of the best camera backpacks on the market.
Nowadays, you can get WiFi in many places, but nothing beats having a portable hotspot like this one. I can forget about buying local SIM cards, downloading maps onto your phone, or searching around for free WiFi. This beautiful little device gives me unlimited WiFi everywhere I go, from the moment I step foot in a new country.
The way it works is that you first buy or rent the device (they mail it to you), and then you pay for WiFi online, by the day or by the month. For me, I just keep the device, and then buy time for it every time I go traveling. It even works for multiple devices. The only downside is that not every country in the world is covered yet.
It goes without saying that everyone travels with a camera, and for me, a smartphone camera won’t cut it. My weapon of choice is the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. You can also see my more detailed article covering exactly why I love this camera and who it is good for.
This is a mirrorless camera; if you haven’t heard of them, they are significantly smaller and lighter than DSLRs (perfect for travel!), but in my opinion, the photo quality is just as good. I absolutely do not miss carrying my huge DSLR around! The features are capabilities it comes with are pretty insane, and the lenses are so small, cute, and affordable that it’s addictive buying them.
I did loads of research before I decided on this camera. It had all the features I wanted: weatherproof, flip-out touchscreen, built-in WiFi, and I love the old-time camera look. Getting this camera really made me fall in love with photography again, because it became so much easier to take it around.
Note that there is now a newer model, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III, but the Mark II is still available and is a few hundred dollars cheaper.
If you prefer something smaller and more easily portable, here’s a guide to the best GoPros and cycling cameras.
I can’t understate the importance of having a day bag when traveling. The Crumpler Camera Bag is the day bag I carry around all the time and which contains all my valuables. Many people use a small backpack, but for me, my camera bag serves as my day bag. That way all my valuables are together, on me at all times, and easy to reach quickly as a side bag.
That’s why I’ve spent a little more money (there are certainly cheaper ones) to get this high quality and comfortable shoulder camera bag made by the Australian company Crumpler. This camera bag checks all the right boxes for me: big enough for my mirrorless camera & 3 lenses with extra room to spare, zippered pocked at the back for my wallet and smartphone, front pouch for memory cards & batteries, easy/quick to open, and tripod strap on the side.
Last but not least, I can squeeze the whole bag (just barely) into the camera compartment at the top of my Vanguard backpack (see #1). Note that the image above is the most recent model of the bag. I bought an older version several years ago, but it looks very similar.
While I would prefer to travel with a full-sized tripod, it’s not always convenient to do so, especially when traveling with kids or with no check-in bag (tripods often aren’t allowed on board). That’s where the Joby Gorilla Pod comes in!
This handy tripod comes with flexible legs that can be adjusted to stand on virtually any surface. I can even wrap them around a pole, fence, tree branch, etc. It’s also good for taking selfies with my camera, as I can hold the camera that much further away from me and curve it to point at me, sort of like a selfie stick.
The Gorilla Pod is also light enough that I sometimes even leave the tripod on my camera, for example while hiking, while my camera is hanging around my neck, so that I can place the camera on whatever surface for added stability without taking the tipod on and off every time.
This is embarrassing to admit, but I’ve even propped this tripod up on my gut to get added stability for taking hand-held photos!
Call me old-school, but I seriously miss the days before smartphones when we backpackers carried around Lonely Planet guidebooks to find our way around and figured out what to do. OK, so it wasn’t always very practical, like when I had half a dozen of the huge books stashed in my backpack on longer trips…
Anyway, even though you can find all that information for free online now, I still buy “the book” (as we used to call it while on the road) like this Taiwan Lonely Planet for almost every country I go to. It’s just that now, I usually get the digital version, and often I only need to pay a few bucks for individual chapters that I need instead of the whole book.
But I still find these books extremely valuable, especially in the early stages of planning out a trip. Some travelers prefer spontaneity on trips, but not me. I’m a big-time planner. I also like being able to highlight and take notes in them.
Blogs have their value, too, but they can be really hit-or-miss with information, while a Lonely Planet is super comprehensive and has everything nicely organized between two covers, easily accessible, and researched and written by trusted experts.
Even before you-know-what screwed up the whole world of travel, I’ve always carried around small bottles of sanitizer like these ones. Sometimes toilets don’t have sinks or running water, sometimes I want to take out my contact lenses but I can’t wash my hands first, and sometimes, hands just need to be sanitized. Post-2019, well, I don’t need to explain all that to you.
I like these ones because they come with little straps for attaching them to whatever. They are also a nice small travel size (remember you can’t take more than 100ml of any liquid onto a plane).
If you’ve never used packing cubes in your luggage, you don’t know what you are missing. These are great for keeping your clothing, toiletries, and other things organized, for example, separating dirty clothes from clean ones.
We find them especially useful when traveling with kids because we often have our whole family’s clothing in one large suitcase. That can easily become a disaster without some organization. This set of 6 comes in various colors and they are even waterproof.
One of ways I try to minimize my impact while traveling is to carry a reusable water bottle instead of buying numerous plastic water bottles every day. I bought a set of Platypus water bottles years ago and we still use them on every trip.
The great thing about these is that when they’re empty, I can roll them up so that only take up a tiny amount of space (and weight). We fill them up in our hotel, restaurant, or wherever we can get free potable water, and each one holds up to 2L. They are great for hiking as well.
A sarong has got to be one of the most versatile items you I take on most of my trips. Besides wearing it, I’ve used a sarong as a beach mat, towel, curtain, blanket (in hot, tropical countries), scarf (for women, it could also be a headscarf for entering mosques/temples) and to cover my shoulders after I’ve got a sunburn.
Another great thing about sarongs is that they are super thin and light, so they hardly take up any space in my pack. If you’re going to a beachy place, chances are you can buy a sarong there, but if you aren’t sure, you can pick up the above one from Amazon.
Essentially the same thing but a little smaller, a pashmina can serve as a fashionable scarf or headscarf, as well as pretty much all the same functions as a sarong. That’s why I suggest you pack a pashmina for travel!
11. Travel Pillow
Personally, I don’t like those round pillows that people wrap around their necks on planes. They aren’t comfortable to me, and they are kind of useless for the rest of the trip.
For years, I’ve used one just like this. It has bits of memory foam inside, so I can squeeze and roll it up to reduce its size, but it expands once I unroll it. I find it useful for leaning my head against the wall on buses or planes, and I especially like them as an extra small pillow in hotels for cuddling, putting between my knees (I’m a side sleeper), and as a replacement pillow when the hotel one sucks.
In fact, after traveling with mine for so long, I even continued using it on my own bed once I got back home!
12. Ear Plugs
Are you a super light sleeper like me? Then seriously, do yourself a favor and get some ear plugs like these for your next trip. They are great for the airplane, hostels, noisy hotels, and sleeping with family members who snore. I prefer these classic, foamy ones…The hard plastic ones hurt my ears because I sleep on my side.
I don’t only use these while traveling; I use them to go to sleep every night.
If you’re traveling somewhere cool or super cold, one difficulty is that winter clothes take up a lot of space. But for me, the most important layer is the underwear. I absolutely love these super thin thermal shirt and long johns. It’s amazing how warm they keep me, yet they breathe really well I never get too hot or sweaty. I even use them as pajamas, when needed.
These are always the base layer of my winter outfits, then I just add more layers as necessary. They are also great for winter sports like skiing. The best part is that they take up hardly any space in my pack.
Here’s a similar version for women.
Depending on where exactly you are going to, adapters for plugging in your devices may be necessary. I used to buy the individual ones I needed before I every trip, but nowadays I just go for a couple of these universal adapters so I don’t have to worry about it, especially for multi-country trips.
One thing I’ve learned on the road is that in many places, sunscreen is either really crappy, really expensive, or impossible to find. I always save the trouble and just bring it from home. I find this one non-greasy, it’s reef-friendly, and it’s the perfect size for travel.
Well, that sums up my personal list of must-have travel items. There are loads of other travel gear and gadgets out there, and I’m sure some people find them useful. But for me, these are the only essentials. Toss in some clothes, a wallet, and passport, and I’m ready to go!