9 Useless Things Travelers Tend to Pack

Packing for an upcoming trip is part of the whole travelling experience, people tend to create huge packing lists and then take lots of time to prepare their bags. Everything has its own place, and every backpacker seems to have an own packing strategy. Seeing all your stuff together should bring you already in some kind of backpacking atmosphere where you feel like your journey has already started.

Well, not me! I hate packing!

Packing is something that happens when I really really don’t have anything else left to do. After I cleaned the kitchen, went shopping, watched some TV, googled my own name, read the newspaper and watched some more TV, I might start to think about packing.

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The next fifteen to twenty minutes you will see me running around the house, from room to room taking everything I think I need and putting it all on the table in the living room. The next phase is a revision of what’s on the table, where – without exception – my favorite clothes are missing because they are still in the laundry. When about everything seems to be there, I start putting stuff into my backpack, from the bottom up, where the things you need last go on the bottom – I never put the extra pair of jeans on the bottom, but it’s always the last thing I need.

Even though I’m a very light packer – also known as a smelly backpacker – I still tend to take more than I need. With the years it’s getting better, every time I take a little less and I’m waiting for the moment that I will think: “Damn, I wish I did pack that extra pair of boxers”. But up to now, never happened.

I often wonder what other people take with them while travelling and to find an answer to that I started reading some packing lists which are available everywhere on the internet. Now what seems, my backpack is like the common denominator of those lists. Everybody seems to pack the basics – some socks, some underwear, a couple of T-shirts, a guidebook, a knife … – but almost everyone also packs some very specific things like a big picture of mom, a teddy bear, half a liter fuel and – this one I really found hilarious – candles. Someone takes candles because you can use them to give light, but also to make stuff waterproof. Come on! Ever heard of waterproof bags? Jackass!

What you pack is mostly influenced by where you’re going, but I can’t think of a single place where you will need one of the following items.

1. Sleeping bag

While travelling, I’m always amazed by the amount of people I see carrying a sleeping bag and I can’t stop wondering why the hell they need it. I have never thought: “Gee, I wish I took my sleeping bag” – or maybe once, but that had more to do with the person next to me. What makes people think they need a sleeping bag? In every hostel I have ever stayed there were sheets on the bed, or at least you could rent them for a little more than nothing.

Maybe people are afraid that the local sheets won’t protect them against the cold?

Now here’s a rule of thumb, you never have to be afraid of this when travelling through a country at a time that it has its average temperature, because people are used to protect themselves against this. However, what might be a problem is travelling to a country where it’s normally hot but at this time of the year extremely cold, but even then it’s no big deal to ask for a second, third or fourth sheet.

Another reason might be because of the cleanliness of hostel sheets.

Everybody has his own hygiene standard and I have to admit that – only while travelling of course – mine can be a little low. I can imagine that my theory that fleas have never killed anyone and that you can’t get an STD from dried sperm does not sound very alluring to everyone, but again, if you ask new sheets or a room upgrade you will more than likely get it.

If you’re taking a tent with you, you might want to consider to also take a sleeping bag.

2. Guitar

Why are people still bringing guitars while travelling?

Don’t understand me wrong, I love guitar music but we live in a digital age. Every traveler has an iPod and every hostel has a TV with about thousand channels of which certainly ten play music at any given moment of the day.

There are two reasons I can think of to bring a guitar, first one is to impress people. But please be aware of the fact that the only ones you’ll impress are little kids, first time travelers and a drunk Aussie who wants to sing along.

The second reason builds further on the first one, you bring a guitar to get laid. Seriously, if you are willing to drag the damn thing every day with you only to get some occasional sex, how sad is that? And again, who will you attract? Indeed, kids and drunk Aussies.

On the other hand, I once met a guy who did bring a guitar and he could play about every song we could think of and we had a great night, but that was a rare occasion. And not forgetting to mention he was travelling by car, which makes carrying bulky items a lot easier.

If you’re Keith Richards, please take your guitar with you.

3. Expensive camera gear

This counts for lots of expensive stuff, just don’t take it. How you look has everything to do with what the odds are that you get mugged.

As I think about this, this could make a good video game. At the start your character is naked, and during the game you have to go through several levels where you have to put items on him, but the wrong combination of items will have him mugged. For example, level one is to give your character pants before the cops put him to jail for streaking. You have the choice between Armani jeans or scruffy worn pants. The Armani raises your chance to get mugged by 15%, the other pants only by 2%.

Thinking about it again, this will make a very dull game. But did you get my point? Your expensive camera raises the odds by at least 25%, where the compact camera only raises them by 10%.

If you’re a photographer, please do take your camera stuff, but try not to wear it around your neck the whole time, and don’t take a special camera bag but put it in a regular daypack.

4. Makeup

In general, I don’t like people who wear a lot of makeup, and while travelling, I don’t think you should wear makeup at all. Who do you have to do it for? We’re all backpackers, we all look scruffy.

If you’re really ugly, please do us all a favor and bring makeup.

5. Hiking shoes

When walking into a dorm room I can always tell if there are people inside with hiking shoes. Either the room smells like feet that didn’t get any air for a whole day or like some kind of chemical product that prevents shoes from smelling bad. Both cases, it STINKS!

What do you need them for? Are your feet that fragile they can’t handle a walk in the woods in regular shoes? I guess not! The first days of my travels, my feet are always full of blisters, that’s normal. On a regular day, I’m used to walk to my car, walk from my car to my office, walk to the cafeteria, walk back to my office, walk back to my car and walk back from my car to my house. Sometimes in the evening I walk to a bar and back, or to the car if my bar of choice is outside walking distance.

Of course I get sore feet if I walk a whole day, but that’s not the fault of my shoes, it’s because my feet are not used to that. But it gets better after a couple of days.

If you’re planning to do tough hikes in the mountains, please take hiking shoes.

6. Umbrellas and hats

For some reason people tend to wear hats on holiday, when you come to think about it, it’s really a strange phenomena. At home they laugh with people wearing hats, but when on holiday they suddenly wear them themselves.

I have only one thing to say about this: If you look stupid with something at home, why would you look any different with it in another country?

The same thing counts for umbrellas. Normally, I never use them. If it rains I don’t walk outside, period. Unless I really have to, but then the longest distance is to my car or from my car to the place where I have to be. If I’m walking somewhere and it starts to rain, I look for a hideout and until I find one, I get wet.

I don’t have a neat coiffure or makeup that I need to protect – see some paragraphs before – so generally I don’t care about a couple of drops on my head.

While travelling, you normally have time enough to wait until the rain is over and if you’re travelling in a country with monsoon, people are selling umbrellas everywhere.

Last but certainly not least: Sandals. Never think you look less like Jesus when wearing sandals in another country.

If you have some kind of disease where your head can’t touch water or direct sunlight, please take an umbrella or hat, but there is never a good reason for wearing sandals.

7. Presents for the locals

Here I have to point the difference. If you’re planning to stay with local people, through Couchsurfing for example, I think you have to take presents so the people you meet have some kind of souvenir. In my opinion, what works best are post cards of your home town.

The presents I like to mention here are the pens, soap and candy travel agencies advise you to take to developing countries.

On my first intercontinental holiday I went to Cuba, I was young and inexperienced and I got about the whole of the trip organized upfront. The company I travelled with told me that the Cubans really appreciate pens, so I bought a whole box of them, intended to make a lot of new friends.

I’m still using those pens at home and I probably will keep using them for another long time. First of all, I found it really humiliating to give a pen to an adult, if I felt any compassion with someone I preferred giving them money, so they could buy a pen. Or something else if they already owned a pen.

Secondly, I’m quite sure that Cuba has an underground pen business. One day – I kid you not – I saw a child receiving a pen from a tourist. The child then walked to an adult, handing over the pen and receiving money in return. Probably the adult exports pens into other parts of the country, or uses them to transport drugs in, who knows!

If you’re Santa, please don’t forget to bring presents.

8. Cash

Getting cash in foreign countries has never been easier, there are ATMs everywhere and they accept several kinds of credit cards and even your local bankcard if it has the Maestro or Cirrus sign on it.

The time that you had to bring loads of cash and traveler cheques is long gone, but still people tend to take cash because “you never know”. They might have a point, what if your credit cards fails – broken chip or so? Well, then I still have my regular bankcard with Maestro function.

“Now”, the smartass will say, “but what if your wallet gets stolen? Eh eh eh”. If I’m stupid enough to put both my cards in the same wallet, where do you think my spare money will be?

If you do carry cash with you, try to spread it.

Oh and waist bags, they score a 50% raise in the try-not-to-get-mugged-game.

9. Zip off pants

I’m not sure about this one.

In the past I followed the theory about long pants and short pants, no combination.

Also, zip off pants were dull, they were for the nineteenth century biologist discovering the Amazon forest but not for the general backpacker whose main intentions are getting drunk or laid or preferably both, climb a volcano now and then and see a bit of the world if there’s some time left.

Lately, however, I was looking at some zip offs on the internet, and I have to admit that they looked quite okay. I’m not yet in the phase of actually buying them, but I notice that I’m starting to make less fun of people wearing them.

If you’re a nineteenth century biologist, no offence.

For more on packing do’s and don’ts, check out:

Traveler Article

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Older comments on 9 Useless Things Travelers Tend to Pack

11 January 2010

Good list. But those zip off pants make life a lot easier in Italy and other places that have restrictions of getting onto churches and other places with shorts.

Sean Keener
11 January 2010

I love this article cuz it gets me thinking. I agree with the idea – we take too much crap with!

Ann marie
11 January 2010

I disagree about the umbrellas. For those of us NOT staying in the same location for the majority of our trip, an umbrella can be a godsend. ((And yes, they *do* make cheap, lightweight ones that fold up to the size of… well, certainly less than a sleeping bag.))
But I’m speaking as a whirlwind traveler… I once had only 18 hours to spend in Prague before boarding a flight back to the U.S., and it began pouring as soon as I managed to find a hostel and drop my stuff off. Like hell I was going to let any weather stop me! Once I got into the part of the city where I wanted to be, the rain stopped and I enjoyed a full night, full of espresso, in Prague.
Fin. πŸ™‚

11 January 2010

Interesting article… it started off good but I have to disagree with some of these. Hiking boots? hats? Seriously? If I didn’t wear a hat while in the desert in Egypt my face would have burned off. And don’t lots of backpackers do a fair amount of hiking? I agree that the shoes can smell sometimse. But backpackers in general tend to smell!! πŸ™‚

I totally agree about makeup though… I never understood girls who brought hairdryers, makeup, etc. Who has room for that stuff!!!

11 January 2010

I’m a light packer … working on the idea anything I pack I have to carry on my back! and yes you can get things as needed.. a backpacker YES , smelly NO. my goal is everything as carry on luggage ( ie 7kg)

11 January 2010

I very much enjoyed the list.
I liked the reasoning behind the only good use for a sleeping bag. Also, I think that zip off pants are really not needed. Ok, bring a pair of pants and a pair of shorts. There you go!
Ms Traveling Pants

11 January 2010

As a longtime backpacker and traveler, have to disagree strongly on some of these. It sounds like you spend a lot of time in Europe in the summer. A hat is definitely needed in cold weather places in the winter and in hot places where you’d get sunburned. Zip-off pants are key in countries where you culturally need to wear pants outside but can unzip them in the hotel/hostel, or when you’re hiking the Inca Trail and the weather changes 30 degrees from dawn to mid-day. You’ll need those hiking boots too for the Andes, the Himalayas, or the ever-popular volcano hike.

I used a sleeping bag on three trips around the world and used it a LOT. Cold cheap hotels in multiple countries, cold overnight buses, hiking trips, and doubling as a cushion on Indian trains with ultra-hard benches.

11 January 2010

I’ll second many of Globetrots comments.

This list is a fabrication of a very typical backpacker. Zip-off pants, hiking shoes, and hats are basic items on my packing list; however, I do tend to spend more time outside than the typical backpacker, choose hiking and exploring over the pub, and don’t shy away from locations like Patagonia, where a winter’s hat is often needed to block chilling winds throughout the summer and winter.

As for photography equipment, I am a travel photographer and have, knock on wood, not been ripped off because of my gear. Its pretty easy to take steps to avoid being robbed while carrying the required photo kit.

And lastly, cash. You’re right, ATM’s are located throughout the world. However, in Argentina, to withdraw cash from an ATM is expensive for foreigners. The Argentine banks charge $10 per transaction on top of your banks rats, plus they limit you to withdrawing $120. So, as i do not like to give away nearly 10% of my money – I’d take the cash with me…

Nicolas De Corte
11 January 2010

First of all, I’m very pleased to read all of your comments! I love it that I created such a discussion πŸ™‚
Secondly, I’d like to give some comments on your comments…
At Those who think my list is ok: thank you, thank you very much!
About the hat, maybe I didn’t explain that part very well. I was talking cowboy hats and sombreros here, you know, the ones nobody wears at home but while traveling you notice them quite frequently.
About the shoes, if you’re planning to walk the Inca trail or hike the Himalayas you must be a fool not to take hiking shoes, but let’s face it, the medium backpacker only does small walks and the occasionally volcano they climb can easily be done with regular shoes.
About the sleeping bag, I’ve also had cold nights on buses, but those rare occasions are not enough for me to drag a sleeping bag around. Getting close to the person next to you while you pretend to be asleep often helps a lot.
About the cash, it indeed happens that you need cash, but again, rare occasions.
I’m glad nobody commented on the guitar or the sandals!

11 January 2010

I think people could take a sleep sack as opposed to a sleeping bag. The difference being the sleep sack is thinner, and just enough of a shield if the cleanliness of your bed sheets is in question.

Zip off AKA travel pants can actually be useful to cut down on how much you carry. Go from shorts in the day to long pants at night. My pair on my RTW trip was pretty useful.

Eric Bayne
11 January 2010

I wear sandals and they are hot. Beautiful women and smart children throng to my sandals. Wise elders smile knowingly at my sandals. Jealous men snarl at my sandals. Sandals sandals sandals!

12 January 2010

No umbrella wtf? I take it you have never been to England then.

15 January 2010

Even though I disagree with much of what Nicolas lists, I think the general idea is good. BRING LESS! I say this because it really isn’t hard to buy thing on the road, especially if you’re traveling for more than a week and visiting a country less expensive than your own.

If you’re “backpacking it”, then I find it a fun little side quest to go and buy warm pants.. a hat.. or whatever. I just think it is insane to be backpacking around central america with thermals that you’re not going to use until you get to the Andes 3 months later in your trip.

I travel by motorcycle and could bring a crapton of stuff, but it is much easier to just buy it. Plus, you’re supporting the local economy!

J Sizemore
17 January 2010

You might want to check your facts on the statement “fleas have never killed anyone.”

Fleas nearly destroyed Western Civilization from 1300-1600 by spreading Bubonic plague a.k.a. The Black Death.

Nicolas De Corte
17 January 2010

Thanks for the info, J Sizemore. I guess I did quite a lazy research…

19 January 2010

expensive camera gear? cash? ATMs?
I’m afraid I have to disagree with some of the points listed above – the article, in general, is dominated by personal opinions and experiences – doesn’t work for me at all

02 February 2010

I disagree with hats and hiking boots. People wear hats when traveling because they’re spending lots of time outdoors and don’t want their faces burnt off. They walk greater distances, including off-road treks, and good hiking shoes prevent any blisters at all. Zip-offs allow you to pack less, so I’m surprised you’d consider this useless.

Mark H
02 February 2010

Don’t agree with several of these. In Australia, they have major campaigns to make people wear hats because of the intense sunshine and they hardly take much space to pack. It depends on how you travel – if you take lots of photos, take a decent camera; if you hike a lot – take decent walking shoes; and planning your money and holding cash depends on where you travel. Much of Africa doesn’t have ATMs still for example.

14 June 2010

I really loved the article, even though I personally take along some of those items. The article made me think about why I take things and whether one always should. I often find that in the middle of my trip, I will think to myself, “why did I bother to pack this umbrella?” and “why the heck did I leave out my walking/dress sandals?” Or sometimes, visa versa. During a recent trip to Europe in the spring I couldn’t believe how cold it was and how I needed heavier clothes, but I hated to spend the money in Denmark to buy anything at those prices! It really depends on one’s goals for the trip and what unexpected events or detours happen (like the evil weather). In any case, I liked the reasons to bring/not bring items. Good article and great following discussion.

Matt Kinch
15 March 2011

expedition packs, seriously how many of you are actually going out into the elements on a long expedition, get a smaller pack and do laundry a bit more often.

15 March 2011

Apparently you have never been camping or hiking. If you do so in any location that gets even a little cool in the evening, you *will* need a sleeping bag of some description. Either that or a set of sheets and/or blanket… the sleeping bag takes up significantly less space.

Expensive camera gear… why is everyone so paranoid that they are more likely to get mugged overseas than at home? I would happily walk through Sydney with an expensive camera, so I don’t see why I should be worried about doing the same thing walking through Paris. Obviously there are places that are more and less appropriate for this sort of thing, but that’s just it – there are places appropriate for it. There is no reason to put a blanket “no” on it. Plus, think about the people who are not only professional (as you rightly note), but the semi-pro/hobbyists… you might be taking away half the reason they are actually travelling!

Makeup… I intend to take a little when I go overseas next year, and I take it when I go travelling at home too. I’d rather look a little more like a normal person than a dead-obvious “backpacker”, especially if we decide to go out to dinner once or twice, and taking 2 or 3 items of makeup really doesn’t take up much space at all. Besides, you’re a bloke πŸ˜›

Hats… obviously you have never been to Australia. If you come to Australia and go outside for a long period of time and DON’T wear a hat, everyone will laugh at you for being an idiot when you get hopelessly sunburnt. I am sure there are other places in the world where the sun is just as harsh. Apparently, you also live in a place where it hardly rains. Here, it rains too much during the wet season for people to not have umbrellas. If you were to find a place to “wait it out” you could be waiting for over an hour. Most people keep one in their car for ease of access. Umbrellas and hats are totally normal ‘at home’ things here so aren’t such stupid ideas to take when travelling. (I wouldn’t take an umbrella travelling due to space it’d take up, but I’d understand if someone else might).

Hiking boots… while I have never owned a pair in my life and agree that normally the most you need is a pair of sneakers, I would find it perfectly acceptable for someone to take a pair of hiking boots if they were intending to do a multi-day trek over awkward terrain during their trip.

Zip-off pants… again, while I do not own a pair, I think they would be extremely convenient for people hiking in locations where the temperature may vary significantly throughout the day.

This list is a list of things *you* don’t need on *your* specific trips. These things can be very useful to people making other types of trips to different locations. In fact, I’d say some of these items are *essential* for travelling in certain parts of the world.

16 March 2011

I spent two months in Spain last winter – wore my hicking boots everyday, if you walk a great deal they are well worth it – I had light weight Salomons- A Rain hat and or umbrella are a must, because it does rain, sometimes a great deal – if you need something while travelling there are thrift shops everywhere

Jesse Olund
01 April 2011

I mostly agree with you, but no sandals? Really? In warm climates thats basically the only footwear I use, unless I’m hiking. And almost every other backpacker I meet is wearing sandals/flip flops as well. I wear them in questionable showers too, you never know what kind of fungus might be lurking there.
And I’m assuming you’ve never been to Vancouver. You can’t wait out the rain. You’d be waiting all day. Or several days. A compact umbrella is a necessity all year round here

Melanie Ehler
01 April 2011

Love the author’s humorous style of writing! My only real objection is to #4. Say I want to take mascara, eyeliner, and lip gloss when I travel? That’s roughly equivalent to the size and weight of 3 pencils. Big deal. And, quite frankly, why the h. should I, or anyone other woman, care about the author’s personal preferences about our style? Just sayin’.

Mashitah Hanafiah
01 April 2011

i just love your article..i think i bring most of the useless stuff too..but hiking boot is compulsary i guess..i easly get tired if i just wear sandle..BTW..now i have the reasons not to bring all the useless things as u mention..hehe hv a gud day..

Jessie Beck
08 April 2011

I’ve heard the sleeping bag comment a bunch before, but honestly how useful these things are totally depend on where/what sort of travel you’re doing. I end up sleeping in some weird places when I travel (airport benches, floors, beaches, my tent…) and a sleeping bag is pretty great to have in those circumstances.

Colleen Dawson
01 May 2011

This is the stupidest travel article i’ve ever read. I’m all for not bringing a guitar or camera gear but no sandals? Sandals are a staple.

The writing is bad too.

And as a backpacker that ends up going to festivals and events where I’ve spent nights in empty warehouses and like others, AIRPORTS, sleepng bags are perfect.

16 May 2011

Nicolas, I enjoyed your article, a very amusing read. Some people just don’t have a sense of humour.

18 May 2011

I both agree and disagree with pretty much every one of these pointers. Remember: what you take with you depends on myriad factors. Where you’re traveling, your travel style, how long, what you want to do, etc.

I’ve read all the comments posted here, and there is some really good advice.

Sleeping bag: good for outdoorsy camping and really cold weather. I have never needed a full sleeping bag, but a sleeping bag LINER has been a boon. They can be used as a blanket, pillow, laundry bag, money-hider and body condom. Bed bugs are itchy and you never know.

Guitar: Personal choice, but yeah, you can probably leave that at home. (Though mine did save my butt once or twice, and it’s a great way to meet people.)

Camera gear: Up to you. A cheaper point-and-shoot makes for some nice photographic memories, and something to show grandma back home. Besides, kids loooove to get their photo taken. πŸ™‚

Make up: I’m a guy, so not for me, but this is a personal choice.

Hiking boots: Depends on your sitch, but in most cases I’d say they’re essential. If you’re going hiking in Norway, without a good pair of boots you will spend more time lamenting your moribund feet than enjoying the fjords. But if you’re on a bus trip through the Paraguayan Chaco, your rubber flip-flops will be your best friend. I’d actually always recommend bringing flip-flops; they’re small, lightweight and easy to pack, and much more comfortable than your sweaty shoes. (Hint: bring a small bottle of baby-powder with you in a zip-lock. A sprinkle in your shoes now and then will really cut down on swamp and stink.)

Umbrella and hats: I always carry a small fold-up umbrella. You can almost always buy a hat locally as needed, and they’re kind of cool, as long as you don’t look like a tourist kitsch-monger. In most places you’re typical brimmed hat is pretty innocuous, and will keep your neck/face safe from sunburn.

Presents for locals: Hmmmm, that’s a point of debate. Hand-outs are typically bad, but bringing small gifts (postcards are a good) are nice for thanking people you meet who have really helped you out with something. I gave my Michigan State baseball cap to my host brother in Paraguay, and he really liked it. But the best present for locals is going to be your company. Listen and interact with an open mind, and that is usually gift enough.

Cash: Yes, you should bring at least some. Stash it throughout your luggage and on your person, and it can really help you out in a jam. Travelers checks are good too for longer trips. ATM’s are the best, ’cause you’ll usually get the best exchange rates, but to RELY on always being able to find an ATM is foolish. Besides, not all ATMs will work with your card. Trust me on this one. Bring cash.

Zip-off pants: I love ’em. I take my Mountain HardWear’s everywhere. Super useful.