Janisa loves traveling and has been exploring Latin America since 2018. Here she shares some tips with fellow travelers.
Backpacking and Hitchhiking for First-timers
When I was getting ready for my first-ever backpacking trip, where I would get around by hitchhiking, I had no clue what to expect. I knew that there were some obvious things that I'd need to bring, but that was about it.
Things never go as planned and of course, my first trip was far from perfect. It took me around half a day to realize that I didn't pack an essential item that I didn't even think to pack. Some may argue that all forgotten items can easily be bought during the trip, but in South America, for example, finding 'common' items in stores can be quite a challenge.
The Problem With 'Minimalist' Packing Lists
Minimalist packing lists are lists compiled by experienced travelers and contain items that are essential for a certain trip. However, the problem with such lists is the fact that they were compiled by experienced travelers. These people have been traveling for many years and have most likely learned to go without many items that beginner travelers consider to be important.
I tried to follow one such list for my first trip, but it didn't even mention packing toilet paper! I did throw in a roll, thanks to my common sense. Most of these packing lists assume that you've traveled before and can easily go without 'luxuries' such as food. Or that you're bringing lots of cash to spend on it. Although there are good reasons to only pack the bare basics—so that you won't have to carry a ton of weight—first-time travelers prefer to have a bit more comfort when setting out on their very first adventure. Besides, if you pack smart and leave the really useless items behind, your back won't kill you after a few minutes of walking.
Compiling the Perfect Packing List
What makes a packing list 'perfect'? For me, it needs to be something that contains all the items that I will be thankful I took on a trip. Packing hand sanitizer didn't cross my mind prior to my first trip. However, after visiting a bathroom at a gas station that had no running water, I really wished I had packed one. This list probably won't be considered very 'minimalist' by those veteran travelers, but it sure is minimalist for me. This is the list that allows me to pack light without sacrificing my comfort and needs during my trip. I even use a slightly modified version of this list when packing for a plane trip.
I have used every item that I placed on this list numerous times on every trip I've gone on, so I am sure that it is a list that will be of use to others when packing for a hitchhiking backpacking trip or even just a plain backpacking trip.
Of course, everyone's needs are different, so you may find that you need to add another item or two that's special to you, but I hope that following this packing list will help everyone have fulfilling trips without any of those unwanted "I really wish I packed ____" moments.
This packing list is split up into sections to facilitate the packing process. Some items are obvious and those that require some clarification are explained. Items that can be substituted or that are optional are explained as well.
Before You Begin...
Prior to beginning packing, you'll need to figure out where you're going to put everything.
The worst thing you can bring on a hitchhiking trip is a suitcase. Hitchhiking requires a lot of walking and you won't always find asphalt. And I'm sure that you don't want to look like a casual tourist, rolling your suitcase around everywhere. Some people use duffel bags, but these aren't the perfect choice either. These occupy your hands and will easily tire out your back.
The best choice for a backpacking trip is, as the name implies, a backpack. Think of your hitchhiking trip as a backpacking trip, where you will be spending time walking carrying your belongings on your back.
Choose a pack with many compartments so that you'll be able to organize your belongings. Don't buy one that's too small or you won't be able to fit many things into it. Having a backpack that's too big will tempt you to fill it up, which will result in a lot of dead weight, caused by items you threw in there just to fill space. I travel with a 65-liter backpack and I find that this is the perfect size for me. It's big enough to fit all the things I need and small enough to fit in the trunks of smaller cars.
Also, you need to make sure that your backpack is comfortable to wear prior to buying it. It won't make a difference if an empty backpack doesn't fit properly, but it's a whole different story when it comes to a full backpack and an hour of walking. Having a backpack designed for traveling that fits well will save your back and will make you more comfortable when walking.
The Important Stuff
These are things that you definitely shouldn't leave your house without and forgetting one or two of these is definitely an acceptable reason for panicking.
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Things that you should definitely pack:
- Money — Bring more than you will need since you never know what could happen. The money should be kept in a money belt and ideally, this is one that goes in between your underwear and your pants and isn't visible to others. Don't keep all your money in one place, even if you're using a money belt. Keep some small bills in your pocket for everyday purchases (food, water, maybe a snack). It's not a good idea to take money out of your money belt in public. The rest of your money (maybe a few larger bills) should be kept elsewhere in your bag.
- Documents — Your passport if you're traveling abroad, an ID card if you have one, your health card, and perhaps an immunization record. You may also consider bringing a debit/credit card for emergencies. If you're taking a flight/bus/train/ferry to the place where you'll begin your hitchhiking trip, then you really can't afford to forget your boarding pass.
- Water bottles — Use plastic bottles or lightweight reusable bottles. Make sure that you fill at least one or two of them before you go. Depending on where you're traveling, drinking water may be hard to come across. Unless you know the region and know that you'll be able to easily refill your water bottles, take as much water as you can, as long as it doesn't weigh you down too much. Otherwise, you will be forced to either spend money on bottled water or drink tap water in places where it isn't very advisable. I usually take two or three bottles and a small thermos.
- Maps/Information about the destination — No one really uses maps and guide books anymore; everything is just a few taps away on our phones. However, you should learn to expect the unexpected when traveling. Your phone may die at the most inconvenient moment or you may find yourself lost in an area without phone coverage. It's a good idea to have a hard copy of some important information about your route and destination. You may want to print out a few Google Maps screenshots of the area(s) you'll be traveling through just in case.
- Pen and Notebook — Pack it, even if you absolutely hate writing. While some people like to keep a journal while traveling, a notebook is also useful for taking important notes and writing down information you receive during your trip. It can also be used to plan alternate routes or just write down interesting things. Don't rely on your mobile device for this as you may not always be able to charge it. Also, it is less risky to take out a notebook in a public place than a cellphone. I usually also note down my expenses during the trip in order to better plan future trips and know how much money I have left to spend on "fun".
- Ziploc Bags — These are much more useful than you may think and unfortunately are practically impossible to find in South America. I've reused mine more than 10 times and thankfully they still do their job. A Ziploc bag provides a cheap waterproof case for your phone, airpods, and documents. Larger Ziploc bags can also provide protection for other devices, such as tablets and laptops, as well as books. They are also good for not losing small objects and keeping your mini first aid kit organized.
- Permanent Marker and Poster for writing your first destination — Cardboard can always be found along the way to write new destinations, but you need something to help you get out of your home city. Don't write your final destination on your cardboard as soon as you leave home. Write the nearest large city as you'll find more people going there. Some people argue against using destination posters and they may hinder your chance to get a shorter ride. On the other hand, if you are in a place where there are a lot of highway intersections near, having a poster will prevent people who are going in completely different directions from stopping. It is also much easier to find someone to give you a lift in a big city than in a small town.
- Phone, charger, and adapter — Find out if you need an adapter for your destination in advance! It is very hard to find places that sell them in South America, even in larger cities. In addition, most people don't understand what you mean by "adapter" and will try to sell you full phone chargers. While that is definitely better than nothing, I'd rather not spend more money than I have to while traveling.
Other Useful Things
The items listed below are useful and will make your trip more enjoyable, but you will be able to survive without them.
- Computer/ Tablet with Portable keyboard — Especially useful for those that do freelance work and want to continue earning a bit of money while traveling. You may also consider taking a computer with you if you have a travel blog or plan to start one. Most gas stations and cafés/restaurants have internet, so there'll be many opportunities to get things done.
- Something to amuse yourself — This can be a book or some crossword puzzles or a deck of cards. Take something that you know will keep you entertained during your trip. I like to bring a book in the language of my destination in order to get some extra practice and a crossword puzzle magazine.
- Hand sanitizer — Almost everyone carries some around nowadays in our post-pandemic world, so may this item doesn't even need to be mentioned. A small travel bottle is enough. Depending on where you go, there won't be running water everywhere. Free public bathrooms are horribly maintained in some areas. You may also find yourself in the middle of nowhere when it begins to get dark and will need to camp out in the wild.
- Scissors and Tape — I wouldn't say that these items are essential, but I have found a use for them on every trip I've been on. Scissors are useful if you have a broken nail (these can be very annoying) or need to open a package of food. Tape helps to reclose open snack bags and others. If you use enough of it, it can also temporarily fix a hole in your shoe.
- Cutlery and other utensils — I assume that you won't always go out to eat. Even in areas with affordable restaurant prices, food is much cheaper to buy at grocery stores. You may decide to go out to have a complete meal once a day or two and buy food for other meals at grocery stores. Not all foods can be eaten with your hands and if they can (such as snacks and cookies), then they probably aren't real foods. Bringing along a couple of spoons, forks, and knives will greatly simplify your life. If you have a travel bowl or plate, bring that along as well. Just make sure that it's compact. A cup isn't necessary if you're bringing a thermos along. You can also just drink from your water bottles.
- Camera — This is especially useful if you're planning to start a travel blog. You'll need high-quality photos to keep your readers engaged. However, if you're just starting out and have a low budget, your phone will get the job done just as well.
- A day bag — This can be a small backpack or a cloth bag. It can also be used to carry items that you'll need during the day when traveling. A day bag will be useful when you arrive at your destination and have time to explore, provided that you have a safe place to keep your other stuff!
There are minimalist lists that say that only 2 pairs of socks and underwear are required, so I am left wondering if they also carry around a portable washing machine. From my experiences, it is often challenging to find a place to wash your stuff at the destination and practically impossible while traveling. Washing clothes by hand often isn't an option either. For this reason, I suggest bringing a bit more of the things that tend to get dirty quickly in order to guarantee your comfort and good smell during your trip. However, keep in mind, that clothes don't need to be changed every day especially if it isn't too hot where you are and you aren't sweating too much.
- 5 pairs of underwear — You don't really need more since underwear is easy to wash by hand and usually dries overnight.
- 5-7 pairs of socks — These will protect your feet from the cold and from unwanted blisters.
- 3-4 T-shirts
- 1 long sleeve shirt
- 1 sweater — If it's cold where you are, then wear one when you leave home and pack another one in your bag.
- 1 jacket — Wear it or wrap it around your waist if it's too hot.
- Something for the rain — This can be your jacket if it's waterproof or a poncho. I'd recommend investing in one of good quality if you're going to be traveling somewhere where rain is expected regularly.
- 2 pairs of pants — Wear one and pack the other one.
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 sun hat (or baseball cap) — Bring it unless you are 100% certain that there won't be sun.
- Warm hat, scarf, gloves — Pack these even if you're expecting hot weather. Weather forecasts may change and so will your needs. Nights also tend to be colder, so keep that in mind.
- Travel shoes — You can use hiking shoes, but I prefer lightweight sneakers with a good grip. Make sure your shoes are in good condition before going on your trip.
- Light shoes to walk around and explore — You could totally use your sneaker for this, but sometimes you just want something a little lighter. Sandals are good for this and you can also use them instead of your travel shoes if it gets too hot.
- Flip flops — These are useful on so many occasions. After a long day of walking, you probably won't be able to stand your travel shoes anymore. For this reason, it is always good to have some flip flops to change into once you've found a place to crash for the night. You also definitely don't want to take a shower at a gas station barefoot!
- Towel — You may want to consider investing in a compact fast-drying towel. These occupy very little space, dry quickly, and weigh little. I also take a smaller hand/face towel with me since public bathrooms tend not to have paper towels in most places I visit.
- Something to swim in — You never know when you'll find yourself near a nice lake or river after hours of walking under the scorching hot sun. Swimming naked is always an option, but not when there are others around. For this reason, bringing a lightweight swimsuit or just an extra pair of shorts and a T-shirt is necessary. An extra T-shirt isn't mandatory if you're already planning on bringing one that is lightweight and dries fast. There may also be opportunities to swim at your destination, so it's better to arrive prepared.
- Something to sleep in — Not as necessary while you traveling, since it's much easier to just sleep in your clothes. However, once you arrive at your destination, you'll probably want something clean and comfy to sleep in at night.
- OPTIONAL: something nice to walk around in at your destination — It really all depends on where you're going. If you're planning to spend some time volunteering in a city, you'll have free time to discover the surrounding area and may want to have something to wear that doesn't make you look like a traveler. You'll also be able to take some pretty touristy photos this way!
Believe it or not, but you really don't need much. Even if you use 10 products when washing your hair at home, you won't need a single one of them when traveling. You won't even be able to spend hours caring for your hair. Paid showers provide you with 10 minutes of running water at most, just saying. And if you really are obsessed with your hair, then maybe you shouldn't travel, or at least take a plane and stay at a hotel if you do.
The necessary toiletries are:
- Toilet paper — DON'T expect to find it in public bathrooms. And don't always expect to find a bathroom. You may find yourself in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a ride for hours on end. You never know.
- Toothbrush, floss, toothpaste — These are self-explanatory. Try to keep them in a special pouch or ziploc bag.
- Soap — I advise against bringing a bar of soap since it gets very messy after you open it and use it a few times. Only bring bar soap if you have a special container for it as well. Liquid soap works best, both for washing your hands and body. It's convenient and easy to use and doesn't leave a mess in your bag. Try to buy smaller bottles so it doesn't weigh you down. Liquid soap can even be used instead of shampoo, but of course, some people are pickier than others. In my experience, shower gel is quite convenient, too.
- Personal higiene items
- Shampoo — Only if you are sure you can't live without it. Otherwise, use your liquid soap.
Spending the Night
Even if you have enough money and are only planning to spend the night at hostels, you never know how your trip will go. You have no way of predicting how far you'll go each day if you're traveling by hitchhiking. You may end up at a highway intersection with the nearest gas station 100 kilometers away. Or you may end up in a small town where the local population doesn't even know what a hostel is. For these reasons, you always need to be prepared.
You will need to pack:
- Tent — The size depends on the number of people you're traveling with. A 2-person tent is more than enough if you're traveling solo. It gets a bit crowded if you have two people, but it's much lighter than a three-person tent. Don't buy something too huge, or in addition to having to carry it around everywhere, you'll have a harder time finding places for it at gas stations. Your tents need to have some kind of waterproof roof or cover or you just may end up with rain falling on your face.
- Sleeping bag — Or blankets. Depending on your sleeping bag, it may be very bulky and take up most of your backpack. Of course, it is a much better choice if you're traveling in a cold region. However, if you know it's going to be hot, then just pack a couple of blankets that don't take up much space. You don't need a pillow since you can always use a sweater to 'make' one. You may want to bring a pillowcase to have something clean to lay your head on.
- Travel mat — It will make your sleep a tad bit comfier. Mats are especially helpful when you're forced to pitch your tent on a rough terrain, such as a place with a ton of tiny rocks. These weigh almost nothing and can easily be attached to the outside of your backpack.
- Flashlight — Unnecessary when spending the night at gas stations, but more than welcome when you're in the wild.
This is probably one of the main differences between my list and a minimalist packing guide. They believe that travelers don't need to eat to survive. I don't agree. A light snack is more than welcome after you spend a couple of hours walking and can't get a ride. Having food with you will also save you time since you can just eat something quick and continue waiting for a ride. Of course, you shouldn't only rely on the food you bring and don't bring too much. A fresh hot meal is always great to warm you up on a cold day and will fill you with energy.
The following are great to bring along:
- Thermos with tea or coffee — You'll have many opportunities to refill it during your trip and coffee/tea is a great way to accompany a snack and to wake you up in the morning. The thermos can also be filled up with juice or other drinks you may buy during your trip. Maybe even wine, if you find something good and cheap!
- Teabags/instant coffee — Depends on your preference. While you will commonly find hot water for free or for sale, teabags and coffee are more rare. Most places will try to sell these items to you, for the price of a full cup of coffee or tea.
- Snack bars — A few chocolate bars are okay, but you're going to want something with a few more nutrients and proteins. Keep in mind that you may end up eating these as 'meal replacements' when there's nothing nearby. Energy bars are good as well.
- Cookies/crackers — Just something to snack on. Crackers can also be eaten with cheese or meat or some kind of spread instead of bread.
- Nuts — These occupy little space and last a long time. Nuts are a great way to get some energy when you can't eat a full meal.
- Fruits — Bring a few fruits to eat during the first few days. Fruits that are easy to eat (bananas, pears, apples, oranges, plums) are much better since they don't make a mess.
- Something for the first day — I consider it stupid to spend money on food on the day I leave home. The only exceptions are exotic snacks if I'm somewhere I haven't been to before. You can easily prepare yourself a few travel meals the day before your trip. Yogurt is a good choice for breakfast and you can make sandwiches to eat for lunch and dinner.
Other Items you may Consider Bringing
The items below are in no way necessary, but I find them to be very useful. I can leave all of these behind and still have a nice trip, but I find that these make my life a whole lot easier when traveling.
- Emergency cash — I've only had to use it once, but other times just knowing I had it made me feel more secure. Keep this money in a hard-to-reach place that is different from where you keep your other money. An inner pocket of your backpack is a good idea.
- Dictionary — You obviously don't need one if you're traveling to a neighboring state. However, if you're going to another country, bringing a dictionary along is a good idea, unless you're fluent in that country's language.
- Some Source of Income — Not required, but it's nice to have a way to make some extra pocket cash while traveling. You can bring something to resell (a container of packages of sweets that doesn't weigh too much) or maybe craft supplies if you're a creative person.
- Plastic bags — You can always get them at grocery stores. However, some places may want to charge you. An extra bag or two weighs nothing and can be used to separate your dirty clothes or to hold your shower stuff so that you don't have to throw it on the disgusting floor.
- A small clock or watch — I like to know what time it is when I wake up or when I've been walking for a while without having to turn on my phone for it. It's also better to save your phone's battery for more important things.
- Garbage bags — Another item with multiple uses. You can craft a poncho out of them and use them to cover your backpack if it begins raining.
- Portable Charger — An essential item for those of us that rely on technology. You will rarely have time to charge your phone while traveling. Power outlets are available at gas stations, but you surely won't want to leave your precious phone unattended overnight to charge.
These are the items that I take with me when traveling and these are enough for me. However, if you think that there is an "essential" item that is missing from my list, feel free to let me know and explain why it's essential. I wish all new travelers luck with their first trips and hope that you enjoy your trip as much as I enjoyed mine!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Janisa
Liz Westwood from UK on August 11, 2018:
It was expensive at the time. But it has proved to be a good value investment.
Janisa (author) from Earth on August 11, 2018:
@eurofile That must be a very durable backpack since it lasted so long! Thanks for reading!
Liz Westwood from UK on August 11, 2018:
This is a comprehensive and extremely useful article for any backpacker. I agree with your point about investing in a good quality backpack. I bought one 36 years ago for a train trip to Germany. We still have it and it has been used by several family members since.
Janisa (author) from Earth on August 10, 2018:
Rachel Leigh, Thanks for reading!
Rachel Hezel from Georgia on August 10, 2018:
Very thorough! Nice!