5 things in my backpack (that you might not expect)

Backpacking and long-term travel is a constant battle of “stuff”. Managing your backpack/suitcase [no judgment] can feel like a full-time job. In general, less is more.

Current Jessica to past Jessica:
No, you don’t need 7 tank tops. Honestly, you’re just going to wear that black one 7 days in a row because it doesn’t show your boob sweat. Ditch 5 of them and keep one as a backup for laundry day.

How do you whittle down your packing list? Take yourself through the following questions:

  • What do I want? [a whole lot of stuff]
  • What do I need? [way less stuff]
  • What am I willing to carry? [ugh, I have to lift it and carry it around in 95-degree weather? get rid of half]
  • What am I willing to pay an airline to “let” me carry? [baggage fees are the WORST, but if they help me keep my bag weight down, I guess they aren’t pure evil]

Notice that by the time you’re at the last question, the list gets smaller and smaller (yay!). Now with that whole prologue in mind, there are some things that I have in my pack that you may not expect, but I think you should consider for your next trip.

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A sewing kit

This is just super practical. I’m garbage at sewing, but sometimes you just need to make it work. I have fixed small holes in shirts and pants, as well as broken backpack straps. Carrying this tiny, almost zero-weight, item has saved me the cost and trouble of finding someone to make these fixes for me or buying new stuff. Even a cheap, small one like this one is worth having around.


A flashlight (actually a few)

I had already packed a small light that I could use in hostels for reading, etc. when my friend Kelly’s sweet daughter Savannah brought me a care package to send me off. Awesome because not only were there candies in it, but also two tiny flashlights. These have been so crucial! I keep one in my bigger pack and one in my day pack or purse, depending on the situation. At a minimum, you should have a flashlight app on your phone to save you from stubbing your toes and waking everyone in the hostel dorm up when you’re trying to find your bed at night. But having an actual flashlight is even better, and even was critical in getting me out of a super-scary situation.

Nail polish

When I left, I did not have nail polish in my bag. It seemed too high-maintenance for traveling. And it didn’t scream ‘bad-ass solo travel chick.” After all, it meant not only having it, but using it. And having remover. But after the first two months of travel, my feet looked like I had been kicking bowling balls and it was a real bummer to me. So I picked up a nail polish and a tiny container of nail polish remover pads and both have lasted me over 6 months. I usually only paint my toenails, but it feels like a nice treat to make sure I have my feet looking right, and on the rare occasion I paint my fingernails, the pictures of me holding ice cream basically everywhere are that much better.

The other night in the hostel a girl came in and said, “is someone painting their nails?” I apologized, not realizing it was so smelly and offered to go outside. She ran over and said, “no, no, I wasn’t complaining! I miss painting my nails so bad, I want to feel like a girl!” I, of course, let her use mine and together our red nails will take over Vietnam.

A scarf or sarong (even if only going to hot places)

A scarf is 100% the most practical item that should be in your bag and should never even be considered on the cut list. Even if you are going to hot places. Why? Sorry, Douglas Adams. You were on to something in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the towel, but the scarf is just as versatile, and lighter.

Why bring a scarf? You will use it constantly and for so many different things. Scarf. Headscarf. Swimsuit cover-up. Skirt. Blanket. Towel. Curtain. Pillow. Tied up into a satchel for the market. Sheet to sit on at the beach. Tablecloth for the table on the train that is too slick to play cards on. Shoot, you could even use it as a sling if you hurt yourself.

Tip: be sure to pack one that is big enough, light enough of a fabric and in a pattern that works for all of these uses.


I’ve found that most resources online will tell you not to pack jeans. They’re bulky and they take forever to dry (in the event you get them wet or are air-drying your laundry). These two things are true.

But you know what? I like jeans. I like to wear jeans. So I have jeans with me.

Plot twist: mine are actually closer to jeggings. This is a travel win for three reasons: they are smaller and roll up nicely, they dry quickly and I can wear them on long train/plane/bus rides much more comfortably.
(bonus: made for an easy Halloween costume)

What else is a must-pack for you that others say to avoid?

Travelers, what do you swear by having in your backpack? What did you think you needed and then ditched? Until I have a personal baggage butler, I am going to have to keep playing this game of “stuff” and will always take all of the help I can get!



Founder of How Dare She, Jessica is on a mission to visit every country in the world, and bring you along with through photos, video and stories. 6 continents and 104 countries in. She has a BA in journalism and Master's in innovation and change, but her real skill is plugging in a USB in 2 or less tries (most of the time). She believes daring isn't about being fearless, but choosing to opt in, in spite of fear. She dares to see, taste, experience and meet the world as she goes.

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