The essentials of being a backpacker

There are a lot of gadgets out there being peddled as “essential” for travel. Just go into any backpacker store and you’ll find wall after wall, rack after rack of stuff you’d be quite happy to buy, stuff in your backpack and then never think about again.

To be honest, there are very few true essentials for travel – just a few sets of clothes and a ticket will do it.

But there are products out there that will enhance your travel experience should you be able to find a spot in the backpack for them.

This is what I’ll be travelling with in 2011.

A good backpack
For years I had a Mountain Designs pack that wasn’t that comfortable, but just refused to show any signs of wear and tear. I’ve recently opted for a new pack though – Explore’s Torino 65L – and it’s been a revelation. It’s got all the things I was missing: comfy straps, a large day pack, and plenty of little zippers and pockets to store my junk in.

A smartphone
Aside from the obvious – being able to call people – a smartphone, with the right apps downloaded, can be invaluable. Don’t bother lugging around guidebooks or phrasebooks – load them onto your phone. Plus you’ve got a GPS for avoidance of road-borne arguments, and access to Google Goggles, a nifty program that will recognise things you take pictures of (buildings, beer labels), and Google up all the info you need on them.

A UV water purifier
Plastic bottles of purified water are easy to come by, but the discarded plastic isn’t exactly good for the environment, and can be a major problem, especially in developing countries. Avoid this by buying yourself a sturdy metal bottle and one of these, which will purify the H20 in a flash.

Pocket HD video camera
You can combine one of these with a point-and-shoot still camera, but if you want HD footage that you can later edit down into a cool little DVD of your trip, you’re best having a dedicated camcorder. And you’re much more likely to use it if it fits in your pocket. I’ve been using a JVC Picsio, which has the added bonus of being waterproof for any water- or alcohol-related mishaps.

Noise-cancelling headphones
Don’t fly without them. Not only is the sound quality of the music better, but they also block out the monotonous drone of aeroplane engines and screaming children. Even if you’re not listening to music, just flick the noise-cancelling switch and nod off.

A solution to money exchange
Money exchange has changed dramatically since ATMs began spreading around the world like English backpackers. Traveller’s cheques are a great idea if you’re planning a trip to 1985, but otherwise not of much use. Instead, you can use one of the many travel cards that banks offer, or go with the 28 Degrees credit card – to my knowledge, the only one that offers no international transaction charges or currency conversion fees.

Me No Speak book
The ultimate accessory for the lazy traveller, Me No Speak books are to phrasebooks what Pictionary is to Trivial Pursuit. Just flip through the book for a picture of what you’re looking for or asking about, and jab your finger at it. The probably unimpressed locals will now know what you’re on about.

iPod speakers
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been sitting around a hostel playing cards, or just hanging out having a beer, and thought, “Man I wish I could play some music”. Now I’ve bought a "Moshi Bass Burger" - a portable, hamburger-shaped speaker - and I can stop counting.

A good raincoat
You look at the Gore-Tex numbers on the rack and you think to yourself, “$400? For a jacket? No chance.” But trust me, it’s one of the best purchases you'll ever make. Mine works just as well as a light jacket and as a raincoat, plus it packs down to the size of two Coke cans on top of each other. Priceless when it inevitably starts pelting down.

Small gifts for local kids
It’s cheesy, but you watch the looks on kids’ faces when you have a little gift to give them after hanging out for a while. Granted, you don’t go chucking them out to everyone like you’re Oprah, but you can be sure when you travel that people will show you some amazing kindness, and it’s nice to be able to return a tiny bit of it with a present. My favourites are those little clip-on koalas – always a hit.

What are your travel essentials for 2011?

Help a Queenslander!
I know everyone’s been giving madly, but as an expat Queenslander and sometime author, this is close to my heart. Help the flood victims up north by getting involved with Writers On Rafts, a fundraising initiative organised by authors offering a whole heap of literary prizes for those prepared to give. The launch is on Friday, so stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter here, check out my website here, or email me on bengroundwater@gmail.com

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