Backpack essentials

23Jul07

As published in the star weekender (14 July 2007), the star online travel & lifestyle (14 July 2007), clovetwo playground (14 July 2007), the malaysian life (15 July 2007), and asia one travel (19 July 2007).

With the rash of cheap flights on offer, backpacking is becoming increasingly popular. But before you hit the road, know what you need to pack.

By MAJIDAH HASHIM

Prepping your backpack, I always say, is an art. When you consider that your backpack is your entire home (somewhat like a tortoise shell!), it truly is an art.

Like a tortoise’s shell, the backpack holds everything you might need for your weeks on the road. That’s right, everything has got to fit into the 40-litre space of a standard backpack and still be light enough for you to lug around.

I’ve prepped my backpack a hundred times, and yet I’m always finding new ways to utilise space. The trick is mostly to double up the purpose of the items that you bring and to leave everything unnecessary at home.

In preparing for my trek across mainland Indochina, I spent an afternoon with Wong Wye Yim from Nomad Adventures at the Summit USJ, and discovered some nifty ways to save on storage space.

1: Clothes

When deciding what kind of clothes to bring, consider micro-fibres. Micro-fibres are not only strong and durable, but also dry really quickly. They are also light and comfortable. What makes micro-fibre particularly outstanding is that it remains virtually wrinkle-free despite everything.

Bring a light jacket, which can double up as a raincoat. Look out for jackets with a polyurethane coating (waterproof). Consider also drawstring pants and trousers that can be converted into shorts when you need to.

Remember the Rule of Half: Take everything that you plan on bringing with you and lay them out on your bed. Now pack just half of the items.

2: Copy of travel documents

Carry a photocopy of your most important travel documents with you. This should include the details page of your passport, travel insurance and credit cards. Ensuing that these documents are kept neatly is tricky. There are a number of document holders in the market that can do this.

A homemade remedy, on the other hand, is to seal the documents in a kitchen zip lock bag. Flatten and roll this package up and pop it into a diploma scroll holder. This method prevents the documents from being crumpled and is easy to store.

3: First aid kit

A first-aid kit is worthless unless you know how to use it, so get to know your kit. A standard first-aid kit can be purchased at any pharmacy. Be sure to understand how everything works.

If you have any doubt at all, get your doctor or pharmacist to go through the items with you. The contents should include plasters, bandages, gauzes (get to know the difference!), paracetamol, iodine and antiseptic.

I personally find it useful to add to the kit according to my paranoia. Always carry some Vitamin C and a few slabs of lozenges. Bring along some dehydration salts and indigestion salts. And, of course, being Malaysian, you’ll need Minyak Cap Kapak and Tiger Balm.

If you suffer from any sort of allergies, be sure to bring your medication and a prescription from your physician.

4: Food

You can usually tell if you meet a Malaysian on the trail. The Malaysian will be the one carrying 12 packs of instant noodles, a tub of sambal ikan bilis, and a bucket of dodol in a very big backpack.

Is it advisable to bring perishables with you?

The answer is yes and no. Rule of thumb here: less is more. What is the point of travelling to a foreign country if you are not going to try their food? You will discover on the road that the flavours of the world lie not just in the food but in the dining experience as well.

If you absolutely must, then carry instant noodles that are pre-packed in a cup or a bowl. Leave the sambal and dodol at home, substituting perhaps with small, individually packed biscuits and a bar of chocolate (or two).

5: Footwear

Footwear is one of the most overlooked aspects of packing, sometimes to one’s detriment. Your feet are supposed to carry you on your journey, so they deserve attention.

Contrary to popular belief, the best way to get around most of South-East Asia is on flat sandals. Bring also a pair of worn-out running shoes, as you may engage in some sports activities.

You can’t go too far off with this combination. If you’re travelling long distance overland, wear shoes with comfortable socks. Consider choosing technical socks over ordinary cotton socks. Technical socks, found at most pro-shops, are specially designed to wick moisture, keeping your feet dry and preventing them from smelling.

Leave the heels at home, ladies.

6: A sarong

Travellers, women and men, from all around the world vouch for the usefulness of the sarong. It is light, hardly takes up any space, and is extremely useful. Besides defining you as an Asian, it doubles up as funky beachwear, towel and blanket. Travellers have used them as curtains on trains and mats for picnics. too.

I have used my sarong as a sheet to sleep on more than once.

7: Toiletries

I have met some backpackers for whom toiletries take up half the baggage. Because of the personal nature of toiletries, I am inclined to say that you really are the best judge of how much supplies you will need. But the two most essential items that you should bring are the toothbrush and comb. Next, get a tube of toothpaste.

Soap is debatable. If you are staying at a nice hotel, soap will be provided. Carrying a melting bar in your pack can be disgusting. The solution is to carry a bottle of body wash that can also double up as shampoo.

Throw in a bottle of talcum and shaver, and you will have the barest toiletry kit for the hardcore backpacker. For a bit of luxury, throw in a small bottle of moisturiser.

8: Maps

If you know where you are going, it would be great to have maps of your destinations. If you are traversing several countries, it is important that you know where your border crossings are and the visa requirements.

Travel guidebooks are a useful investment if you plan to visit more than one city in your destination country. As a safety precaution, take note of the address and telephone number of the Malaysian embassy, as well as its location on the map.

9: Camera

This seems to be the generation where EVERYONE has a digital camera, doesn’t it? I am often asked if one should bring a DSLR or just a simple point-and-shoot camera on travels. The answer is simple: it depends on how rough you plan on travelling.

If you plan on hopping from train to bus to tuk-tuk, the risk of damaging the DSLR is greater. If you do decide to bring your DSLR, remember to bring padding for it.

One tip that I’ve learnt from travelling photographers is to use black electrical tape to cover the brand name to discourage thefts. If you do not mind the bulk, WXTEX makes incredible camera drybags that are suitable for DSLRs.

The last thing you want to do is be at the mercy of your camera and worry about it being damaged or stolen. Travelling is supposed to be fun.

10: Others

All of these should fit in your very small ice cream tub: a flashlight, extra batteries and a nail clipper.

Make sure you have a rain-cover for your backpack. Also carry about 1m of 3mm climbing cord. You can find this at most adventure gear shops. The cord comes in handy when you need to fix things like a broken shoelace, or when you need to attach things to the outside of your backpack.

Wide-mouth polycarbonate water bottles have found their way into just about every backpacker’s list of essential items. Besides holding drinks, the bottle also doubles up as a container for first-aid material and food items that you want to keep dry.

Ladies may want to consider carrying pepper spray as precaution. Personally, I find it relatively safe to backpack within South-East Asia as long as you keep your dressing modest and stay away from dark alleys.

Responsible tourism

Do your homework. Read up on the countries you will be visiting and understand a little about their culture before visiting.

Generally, you should not visit places of worship in shorts, short skirts and sleeveless shirts. Respect local customs and keep in mind that you are the outsider and this is their way of life.

Wherever you can, support local communities by buying souvenirs straight from the locals instead of second parties.

Photographers should keep in mind that people are not museum exhibits. ALWAYS ASK before taking photos of people and their property, and respect their wishes if they decline to be photographed.

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3 Responses to “Backpack essentials”

  1. 1 Ranga

    This is good advise, I will be goin to Laos in Nov. Did you use a simple digital camera for those pics or DSLR?

  2. 2 Ranga

    Nice pictures, these the type I want to take for my travels.


  1. 1 PressPosts / User / Vancouver2010 / Submitted

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