Man wearing an eye mask on a plane

Photo by Stanley Wood

There are a lot of things you could take with you on vacation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. I know some people feel that if they pack everything but the kitchen sink, they’ll be prepared for any eventuality. The truth is, you can get by with a lot less than you realize.

My philosophy towards packing is to focus on what I absolutely can’t live without, rather than what I think I’ll need. Here are my seven must-haves for backpacking:

1. Ear plugs, eye mask and inflatable neck pillow. These items will make trying to sleep on a cramped plane/train/bus mildly tolerable. Earplugs and an eye mask are also indispensable when you’re sharing a hostel room with loud roommates or party-goers who return at 3am, flick on the lights and get into a drunken wrestling match with their own clothes. And, if you’re traveling through the Middle East, earplugs will quickly become your best friend – unless you want to be woken by the call to prayer. At the crack of dawn. Every. Single. Morning.

2. Flip-flops. Shared bathrooms can be nasty places and shower floors are a prime place for picking up a foot disease. Save yourself the icky-ness by packing a pair of flip-flops or waterproof sandals.

3. Various locks. Most travel theft tends to be opportunistic. Make yourself a harder target by locking up your things. Carry a small padlock for your bag and a larger one for hostel lockers. Sure, someone could slash your backpack with a knife to get at items inside, but more often than not, thieves just take the entire bag. Prevent this by using a bicycle lock to chain your bag to an immovable object when you’re on a train, or anyplace that you need to leave your belongings unattended. For example, you can chain your bag to the frame of your hostel bed while you’re out sightseeing. Choose locks that use combinations so you don’t have to worry about carrying (and possibly losing) keys.

4. Sleep sheet or sarong. Bed bugs, fleas…who knows what’s living in your hostel linens. A sleep sheet will put a protective barrier between you and the questionable bedding. Sleep sheets made of silk are lightweight and can provide added warmth. But if you don’t want to carry one, consider a sarong. They can function as a sheet, but also a picnic blanket, beach towel, skirt and much more.

5. Compass. A map isn’t much use when you don’t know which way is which, and emerging from a subway in a crowded city can be disorienting. Worse yet, many streets are not signposted and in the souks of Morocco, it’s easy to get hopelessly lost. Carrying a small compass can save you from a lot of needless wandering.

6. Money Belt. Even if you lose all your belongings, as long as you’ve safely stashed away your passport and credit cards, your trip can go on. Just remember to keep your money belt hidden: wear it under your clothes and don’t dig into it in public.

7. Tissues. You would be amazed how many bathrooms around the world don’t provide toilet paper. Enough said.