Here are ten travel essentials I never leave home without. From waterproofing to a friendly smile, these items are a must for every backpacker.
1. Waterproofing – stuff sacks and electronics
Trekking across Scotland is the best way to learn about waterproofing. In Scotland, it rains. You can have a good run and believe me I was having a good run but eventually, in Scotland, it rains. And after six days of glorious sunshine, on the final day of an eight-mile trek out of the Highlands, it started to rain. Really rain. We didn’t make it out the Highlands that day – the going was too slow and too miserable that by mid-afternoon we called it a day and set up our tents in the downpour.
My sleeping bag was soaked through. My camera, by some miracle had survived the drenching. It was a cold and damp night’s sleep that night. Before I travelled or trekked again, I bought some waterproof stuff sacks in a range of sizes for my sleeping bag, clothing and electronics, which have been invaluable. Aquapac have some great little products for all manner of devices.
2. Water bottle (or mug)
A water bottle is always handy anywhere. However, as a bit of a nostalgic so I often carry a mug. Whether it’s for a cuppa tea round the campfire or to brush your teeth with in the evening, an enamel mug is one thing I never travel without. They’re pretty durable and easy to clean. I’ve taken mine up to strangers on a platform and asked for a drop of water when I’ve been desperate.
The pity in their eyes was pretty demoralising, but I was thirsty and it was better than just cupping my hands! Anyway, you’re probably thinking that a water bottle will do all this and more, and comes with a lid. You’re right. Ignore my nostalgia and take a canteen or water bottle!
3. Travel towel
It does feel like you’re drying yourself with the leather shammy that you use to wax the car with at the weekend, but it does the job and it’s light and packs away easily. We got our latest ones from Jack Wolfskin and they come with a handy little stuff sack and carabiner to clip onto your luggage.
Whether you like it or not, the US dollar is the currency of the world. My friend Marcus once told me he used to roll up a $100 bill and hide it in the lining of his backpack whenever he went travelling. He never needed it but said he always felt better knowing it was there “just in case”.
Unfortunately for him, the only time it would have come in handy was when his entire backpack was stolen on a bus in Columbia. “I bet the bastards never even found it,” he told me. I guess some things you can never really plan for.
5. A British accent
“Ah! You’re British,” the hotel owner in some remote village in Rajasthan will exclaim. “My brother knows a man in Birmingham: Steve – do you know Steve from Birmingham?”
“Yes, yes I do,” I lied.
For some reason, completely unbeknown to me – especially considering the untold misery the Empire has at some point or another unleashed upon the world – the British accent goes a long way (unless you’re in France). I won’t make suggestions why this is the case. What I will say is that if you are British, use the accent to your advantage – and if not, give it a crack anyway… what’s the worse that could happen?
Me: “When will the train arrive?”
Indian: “Maybe today. If not… then… maybe tomorrow.”
Well, what can you say to that? Just smile and be grateful he didn’t say “next week!” Things do not always go to plan and, you know what, that’s okay. Life would be pretty dull (or Swiss) if it did! When travelling, always be prepared to spend twice as long as you planned to. Expect the unexpected and be prepared to wait. It’s not going to be a problem as long as you’ve got your mug!
7. A photo of your loved ones
A photo acts as a talking point. Something that anyone, anywhere, and in any language can relate to. Now that I travel with Kia it’s not as relevant as it used to be, but in the past when I was usually alone, a photo of my family was always a good icebreaker.
It really doesn’t matter if you can’t understand a word the other person is saying. Pull out a photo of your nieces and nephews – whether it’s on your phone or in your wallet – and tell them their names and their ages by counting on your fingers. Chances are, the other person will do the same. People are not so different…
8. Walking shoes / hiking boots
Whether you’re planning to scale mountains and trek highlands is irrelevant – take a pair of strong-soled walking shoes or hiking boots, ideally with plenty of support for the ankles. These will pretty much cover all situations at the more active end of the travel spectrum, unless you’re destination is the north face of a certain mountain in Nepal.
Whether your trip is one of action and adrenaline or tranquility and meandering, it will almost certainly not be carpeted throughout, and carrying a 15 kilo backpack in flip flops during monsoon season in Cambodia is an accident waiting to happen. You’ll feel the benefit of some supportive footwear even on city walking tours and day trips so pack some decent footwear and thick socks with your flip flops. After years of trialling different brands of hiking boots, I’ve finally settled on Anatom.
We arrived in Bergen, Norway, after a lengthy flight delay, in the rain. We then took a bus, which broke down, to the neighbourhood where our accommodation was for the night. There were no streetlights and our phones which had our directions were out of battery and there was no moon in the sky to cap it off. We were looking for a house with blue door – every house had a bloody blue door in that light!
Luckily, I had my mini-flashlight in pocket. I hadn’t meant to pack it; it was just left in the pocket of my waterproof jacket which I’d taken camping recently. It was far from ideal, but after wandering up to various houses and shining my torch on the front doors we eventually found our host for the night. When camping I usually have a head torch with me.
10. Mosquito net and repellent
I’d had a few too many drinks at a beach bar in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, so when I arrived back at my accommodation for the night I threw caution to the wind. I figured that being on the 10th floor of my dingy hostel with a flimsy fly screen at the window would sufficiently keep the mozzies at bay for the night, so I just dived into bed and pulled my sheets over me. Half way through the night the itching woke me.
Twenty one bites on my back alone, I counted. Lesson learnt. Every night from then on, I made sure that I had plenty of mozzie spray and a mosquito net to throw up over my bed. Luckily, I had been taking my malaria tablets throughout my trip so itchiness, spots and foolishness were the only symptoms I suffered.