Rubber Band Ball (closeup)

10 Surprisingly Useful Things for Your Backpack

When you start planning a backpacking trip, you can easily get obsessive about packing all the travel gadgets you read about online. I remember having a weird elasticized washing line, given to me by a friend, that I thought would be really useful — I never used it. Same goes for a number of other gadgets that I ditched along the way.

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In my experience, a bunch of simple, everyday objects can often turn out to be the most useful things for our backpack. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of some of my most utilized travel objects:

#1: Plastic Bags

I know that it’s not cool to accept plastic bags from the supermarket when you go grocery shopping (and that in some parts of the world they don’t even offer them). But if you can, save up a few and scrunch them into a corner of your backpack. They take up little space but can be so handy.

I’ve used them for wet clothes after a swim or a rain shower; for separating my dirty washing from the clean clothes; for packing suspect items like shampoo, drinks and even half-drunk bottles of wine so that they don’t leak over the rest of my stuff; I’ve even used them as an umbrella substitute!

Rubber Band Ball (closeup)
© Riley Kaminer

#2: Elastic Bands

Substitute hair elastics here if you’re long-haired as they then serve a double purpose, otherwise regular stationery elastic bands will do the trick. They’re easy to slip around something — clothes, even, if you’re rolling them to pack, or around containers or bottles — and handy to use. For me the most common use is for half-eaten packets of food.

#3: Plastic Containers

Two handy things about small plastic boxes: in the first place, you can pack stuff in them that tends to disappear easily in a backpack, like socks or jewellery or other small objects. Then on the road, use them for food leftovers, snacks in your day backpack, or for packing delicate souvenirs.

#4: Zip Lock Bags

Obviously these perform several of the functions of plastic bags, but are especially great for smaller, flatter things like books and notepads (or Kindles or smart phones) — they keep them dry and make them easier to find. I always zip-lock my phone into a bag when I’m at the beach or out hiking — it stops sand and dust creeping in.

The first word is the hardest
© Alex Murphy

#5: Notepad + Pen

This may be the digital age and I do admit I use this less than I used to, but there is still plenty of reason to include a notepad and pen in your backpack. You may use them for this old-fashioned procedure of making notes, or something more social: getting a stranger to draw you a mud-map of how to get to a certain place, or playing games like noughts and crosses or hangman when you’re waiting around in an airport or bus station.

#6: Large, Sturdy Envelopes

If you are travelling for more than a few weeks, and you’re anything like me, you will inevitably collect some things along the way that you want to keep but don’t actually need to carry around on your trip with you. Send them home! Keeping a few envelopes in your backpack — they’re flat, light and don’t take up much space — makes this a much more likely option.

Otherwise the messing around required to send home a book or two, some tickets or brochures, or whatever, becomes too much hassle and you end up just lugging around the unneeded items for the rest of your trip.

#7: Scarf/Light Towel/Sarong

Some kind of large piece of cloth material, be it a scarf, a towel or a sarong, or something similar, is inevitably useful as it can perform many different functions. It can become a picnic blanket on damp ground at a park, or a tablecloth over a particularly dirty table, it can keep you warm or dry you off and it can cover you or your things from the sun. Just to name a few of its uses!

#8: Combination Lock

A padlock, preferably combination so you don’t have to keep track of where the key is (as long as you’re good at remembering the combination!) can come in very handy. I usually just lock my backpack with a couple of them and then during the trip I use them for various other purposes, like on a locker at a hostel or left luggage place.

Day 90: There is duct tape on my foot
Bandaid: One of Many Uses for Duct Tape © Adam / madmolecule

#9: Cellotape or Duct Tape

Some kind of tape — down here in Australia we simply call it “sticky tape” — is a must. Something relatively strong is the best because too much is better than too little.

You don’t know whether your tape will be called upon to stick back a page into a book or a ripped ticket, or to tape together the corner of your backpack which has burst after one too many airport baggage handlers dropped it.

#10: Snacks

And last but very far from least, I always pack a few kinds of snacks in various parts of my backpack. You never know when you’re going to be starving and not able to buy food — you end up at a train station late at night after all the kiosks have closed, or you don’t have any cash in the local currency to stop at a local shop.

Things like small packs of trail mix, muesli bars and even two-minute noodles (for a hostel or hotel room late at night) have saved my sanity — I hate being hungry! I don’t make them too tasty — no chocolate bars, for example — or I’ll eat them just because I want to — better to have something that I’ll save for when I really need it.

  1. I love this post, you’re so right about the plastic and ziplock baggies… Ever since I was little, I remember my mom packing a “Baggie of baggies” no matter where we were going or for how long. :) I still do it today, and she teases me that “she was right!” Anyway, great post and I love your blog!

  2. Some really useful, down to earth tips. I hadn’t thought about taking large sturdy envelopes and tape with me before, but you’re so right – very useful and great timesavers. One more thing to add perhaps? I’d always put in a safety pin and needle and cotton.

  3. Great tips. I’m not sure sticky tape would do much more than stick pages back into books though To repair packs or shoes you’d definitely need a duct tape or a gaffer tape!! Hope I never have to find out!!!

  4. Totally agree on the plastic bags! I always use it for my dirty worn clothes so that they dont mix with my fresh clothes in the bag.

  5. I should buy stock in ziplock bags. Always have plastic garbage bags too…’s a use not posted yet; I use one to line the bathroom trash can because I travel with underwear and socks that are ready to be discarded, then toss at the end of the day. I feel a little better discarding such personal items if the housekeepers don’t have to see them.

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