9 BACKPACKING GAME CHANGERS TO PACK FOR YOUR NEXT TRIP
Whether you’re a veteran backpacker or about to set off on your first big adventure, choosing the right gear is a big decision. It can mean the difference between a smooth running trip and a daily headache when it comes to packing, organising and getting around. We’ve been backpacking for years, and while there are a few trusty items that have been around the world with us, we knew it was time to up our game when preparing to return to a life of full time travel.
Technology improves, designs are enhanced and new products are created, all helping to make the life of a backpacker easier and more enjoyable. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past year researching and investing in new gear. Having now thoroughly tested it all out, we present you with the nine biggest backpacking game changers for us.
We’ve fallen hard for our Eagle Creek compression packing cubes. To the point where we have no idea how we ever managed without them. While we could possibly fit more clothes in our backpacks by stuffing them in every nook and cranny, the disorganised mess that resulted from such a haphazard packing approach was a nightmare. Now, we have all our clothes in one place, rolled up and neatly packaged in our cubes, ready to grab at any given time.
We use varying sizes, making it easy to slot them into our bags. I organise all my hiking and outdoor gear in one big one, all my city clothes in another, and all my underwear, socks and bits and bobs in a long tube. Del sorts his stuff into a couple of half cubes and one large one, with all the air being compressed out of them to save space.
The other thing I love about our packing cubes is the control factor they give me. We all know you should only take half the clothes you first lay out, but if you have little discipline like me then a packing cube is the perfect regulator. If I can’t fit it in, it’s not coming. No more squeezing an extra T-shirt in here and there, to no doubt be worn once cause I didn’t even need it in the first place.
Those nice clean clothes, so lovingly arranged in our packing cubes, seem to get filthy far too soon. There’s always washing to be done, and taking advantage of the hostel laundry service can quickly eat up our backpacker budget. In the past we carried a universal sink plug with us and spent way too long hanging out in the bathroom, elbow deep in manky water. But not these days. Now we have a Scrubba, and it’s made washing on the go so much easier.
Never heard of it?
Well, it looks like a dry bag, but with a valve for squeezing out excess air and a knobbly washboard section inside. You can pop your dirty clothes in, add water and suds, then roll down and fasten the top just like a dry sack. Squeeze out the air and rub, roll and shake away for a few minutes. All the water stays inside and the clothes get a really good clean compared to sloshing them around in the hostel sink. When you’re done just open the bag, pour out the dirty water and add some fresh water to rinse. Then wring out your things and hang them up to dry. Genius.
And the wonder doesn’t stop there. It was only after we bought it that we realised the Scrubba doubles up as the perfect laundry bag. Not only can you contain the stink, but you can compress all the air out like a vacuum sealed bag. It’s the perfect space saver.
Stick your dirty clothes in the Scrubba and squeeze out all the air to compress it down
We’ve found the Scrubba invaluable when trekking, camping and travelling through remote areas. Often a river or well are the only sources of water and it’s not appropriate to pollute it with soap. Thankfully the Scrubba makes it easy to collect water, wash, and rinse our clothes away from the source. I’ve even found myself using it at home for my hand-wash only items. It’s truly versatile and it’s made a dreaded backpacking chore far less painful.
This one is for the coffee lovers out there. While there are plenty of portable coffee makers, aeropresses, Bialettis and what not out there, for a space and weight saving backpacker nothing can beat the X-Brew. We came across this while researching our new camping cook set and it’s been our best friend ever since. It’s been used day in, day out to make our much needed morning coffee, from hostels to wild camps and everywhere in between.
It’s a super simple silicone design that squishes down flat and has a mesh filter in the bottom. Just sit the X-Brew on top of a cup, put ground coffee in and pour hot water over. The coffee drips through and it’s easy to clean when you’re done.
From Mongolia to Tajikistan we’ve picked up quality coffee at the supermarket and enjoyed a great brew any time we like. In a land of chai and instant coffee, this has been much appreciated! In more expensive countries like Australia, the ability to make our own coffee has helped us keep costs down. We all know that daily trip to the local roastery quickly adds up!
When you’re travelling you can’t always count on reliable power. But one thing that is almost guaranteed is the sun. If you’re the kind of person who likes to go AWOL for a bit, exploring remote areas or trekking for a few days, a solar panel is the best way to keep your electronics charged.
Between our Steripen, InReach, Del’s Garmin watch, and all our phone, camera and GoPro batteries, we have a lot of gear we need to keep charged. Our Anker solar panel has been invaluable on multi-day treks and off-the-grid adventures. It has two USB ports and works great in direct sun, decent enough in patchy sun. When we’re not using it, it folds up flat and takes up barely any room in our bag.
Our solar panel at work on top of a ger in the Gobi, Mongolia
From the Gobi Desert to the Fann Mountains, our solar panel has kept us filming, photographing and sterilising our water. We’d be lost without it these days!
OSPREY BACKPACK WITH AG BACK SYSTEM
We’ve been huge fans of Osprey backpacks for years. They’re durable, conveniently designed and comfortable to wear. Osprey are constantly evolving and improving their designs and their latest Anti-Gravity (AG) back suspension system is quite frankly amazing.
They’ve completely revolutionised the way the back support works, using one piece of flexible mesh from the top right through to the hip belt. The mesh moves with your body and hugs it perfectly. It’s also incredibly breathable, with none of that horrible sweaty back issue that makes lugging your bag around in the heat even more painful.
But the best thing is how the AG system seems to magically minimise the weight on your back. I’ve never had a backpack that feels so light on my shoulders even when fully loaded. In the past I’d dread a 15 minute walk with my pack to the bus station, but with my Aura 50 I’ve been trekking for days on end carrying about 15kg and barely had a shoulder ache.
I never thought I’d be setting off on multi-day hikes with my full size backpack, but the Osprey AG back system makes it incredibly comfortable – Kyrgyzstan mountains in the snow? No problem!
Whether you’re picking up your very first backpack or it’s just time to make a change, we can’t recommend Osprey AG backpacks highly enough. It’ll make the actual backpacking part of your travels so much more enjoyable and stress free.
The all-in-one AG mesh back system makes a HUGE difference in comfort when humphing your backpack around
Osprey have loads of different packs, including specific designs for men and women. Be sure to check the sizing before buying as it’s vital to fit it properly to your body, ideally in person in a shop. If you’re buying online, make sure you try it out around the house fully loaded and leave enough time before your trip starts to swap it for a different size if it’s not right. The manuals on the Osprey site are also really useful for getting to know all the features of your backpack and explain exactly how to size it correctly.
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Let’s be clear from the start, I’m not talking about those mini bumbag type things you strap to your waist and try to hide under your clothes. We’ve never found those practical or overly useful. I’m talking about an actual belt that you can hide money in. One that will hold up your trousers and keep hundreds of dollars completely hidden at the same time. Genius.
It’s always a headache trying to figure out the best place to stash your cash, especially if you’re having to carry a lot of it. We’ve been in that situation when travelling to Myanmar, Iran and various other places. We’ve never really felt confident about any solution until now. Having our precious $$ around our waists at all times feels secure, completely inconspicuous and strangely comforting. Plus, I needed a belt anyway!
You’d never know we were wandering around the mountains with $3000 around our waists…
We got two different ones and are happy with both, although mine can fit more notes in it. The design is similar in that there’s a zip on the inside and you can fold bills and slot them in. We’ve found the ideal number of notes to be six, stacked on top of each other, then folded in half length-ways, then half again. Del can slot two stacks in his, so $1200, and I can fit three, so $1800.
Fold your notes and hide them like so!
The belts are canvas with a plastic buckle, so you shouldn’t have to take it off at airport security. They look casual and bog standard, exactly the kind of thing that will fly under the radar of would be thieves.
STERIPEN, FILTER & WATER BOTTLE
Buying bottled water is an absolute last resort for us these days, and the more fellow backpackers who follow suit the better. I’m disgusted when I think about how many bottles I must have gone through on my travels and the waste this has produced.
Our solution is to carry a Steripen, filter and our own water bottles with us everywhere we go. Whether we’re in hostels or wild camping, we fill up from the local supply, filtering and sterilising the water to ensure it’s safe to drink.
While the initial cost of the Steripen is relatively high at around £100, the average backpacker will make this back in just a few months with the money saved on buying water.
We’ve been using ours for over two years now and love it. It takes 90 seconds to sterilise 1 litre of water, killing all bacteria using UV light. We use it in conjunction with the Steripen filter to ensure there’s no weird floating things in our water. The Steripen comes with a rechargeable battery via USB cable and the display shows you how much life you have left so it’s never a guessing game. Each bulb sterilises 8000 litres before needing to be replaced, which the company will do free of charge. It’s so quick and easy to use, with no leftover taste like some purification tablets
Our Steripen and Nalgene in action
Our water bottle of choice is a Nalgene Wide Mouth Tritan and I’ve become unnaturally fond of it. It’s such a simple design yet perfect in every way (well, apart from when trying to drink in a bumpy vehicle!). It has measurements up the side so it’s simple to see exactly how much water you have. The cap twists on and off with ease and the little loop attaching the cap to the bottle makes it easy to carry. It’s durable and lightweight and a doddle to clean given the wide mouth. The Steripen filter kit comes with a large filter that fits the nalgene perfectly, as well as a narrow nozzle. Alternatively, you can use a nalgene specific filter that screws right onto the bottle.
Looking for more travel tips?
Since downloading the Maps.Me app a few months ago I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve exclaimed, “This is amazing!” or, “What did I do before this?!” On a daily basis at least. If you’re travelling with a smartphone, you need this in your pocket.
Just download the app, then the map for whatever country or region you’re travelling to, and you can use it offline. I’ve been amazed at how much detail and information it provides, kicking Google Maps’ arse a lot of the time. It’s literally been invaluable to us when travelling in Central Asia and beyond. We’ve relied on it to get us back on track when hiking in remote areas, pinpointed everything from accommodation to restaurants, and been able to navigate through little travelled areas of the Pamirs, where even our driver didn’t know the way. The GPS position arrow points in the direction you’re holding your phone, which makes it quick and easy to tell if you’re heading the right way or not. Great for someone with a terrible sense of direction like me!
Guiding our driver through Zorkul Nature Reserve in the Pamirs thanks to Maps.Me
Another feature I love is how I can drop a pin wherever I want and edit the info for later. We’ve used this when planning out routes in advance, or sharing tips with other travellers. You can navigate routes from A to B, tap on a place for more info eg. phone numbers and opening hours, check distances and even elevation.
My personalised Almaty map, bookmarked and annotated with everything I wanted to see and do. Available offline so I could access the info anywhere!
Maps.Me is an open source mapping system, meaning you and I can add reviews, mark points of interest, accommodation, restaurants, banks, bus stops, whatever! It’s like having a personal guide from other travellers. Just register with OpenStreetMap and you can contribute publicly.
As much as I love a good old fashioned paper map, Maps.Me has made travelling so much easier. Never will I face-plant a flower bed while reading a giant map on the streets of Paris again! Whether we’re in a city or the arse end of nowhere, we can find our way as quickly as it takes to unlock our screen.
If saving space is the aim of the game, compression sacks are the answer to successful packing. They’re perfect for bulky items like sleeping bags, down jackets or fleeces. Our favourite is Sea to Summit’s dry bag compression sacks which are still going strong after our cheaper alternative broke and literally ripped apart. We manage to save about 40-50% extra space by packing our Rab down sleeping bags into a 6L compression sack instead of the standard sack that came with the bags. That makes a huge difference when trying to squeeze everything else into our backpacks!
The bag that came with our Rab down sleeping bags on the left, the same sleeping bag in our Sea to Summit compression sack, and a Nalgene for scale.
We’ll be investing in another one to replace the cheap casualty as soon as we can to compress our down jackets. If you’ve got bulky stuff to pack we highly recommend you do too!
All of these things have made our backpacking lives so much easier and more enjoyable, while minimising our impact on the environment around us.
Could they do the same for you?
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Gravl water filter bottle. Any reviews?
We haven’t used it I’m afraid!
Great tips! I bought a Steri Pen because of this article. It arrived today. Can’t wait to use it. Got a four day canoe/backpack camping trip coming up with my son (not quite as long as your trips) and the Steri Pen will be ideal.
That’s great to hear, Art! Hope it works out well for you and have a fantastic time on your trip : ) Cheers, Kim
I carry an SOL grommeted tarp. It has 50% reflectivity. If I know it’s going to be cold it’s one more layer. I put it down inside the tent under my mattress.
S.O.L. Survive Outdoors Longer S.O.L Windproof All Season Blanket, 5 x 7 ft
Great tip, thank you! Looks like a good multi-use item, too.
This was a great blog to read! Thank you. Often I find I am reading tips that I know and use, but this brought new brilliant ideas to light. I had no idea about the Scrubba wash bag. I’ll be picking one of those up really soon.
Thanks, Sarah! And glad you found it useful. We LOVE our Scrubba, definitely recommend it!
Feathered Friends half sleeping bag that comes up to your armpits, weighs about half a kilo. When it’s cold you wear a down jacket to top it of. Works for me even in snow.
Wow, haven’t come across that before. Sounds ideal for minimal backpacking!
Great tips! Very helpfull. My best backpacking tip is the Matador Travel mat. Super small but still gibes you a dry place to sit.
Thanks Marcella! We’ll need to check it out, could be useful on our next camping trip.