Packing Guide for Hostel Backpackers

Those of us here at Hostelz.com have done a lot of travelling and we have a lot of opinions about the best stuff to bring on a hostelling trip. There are a lot of books and websites with packing advice that all pretty much tell you the same things (wear comfortable shoes, don't forget your toothbrush, etc.). So we'll skip the most obvious stuff and tell you about a few things you maybe haven't thought of. Keep scrolling for more info!

Stuff You Definitely Should Pack - The Hostel Packing List

1. Earplugs

With eight people sleeping in your hostel dorm room, there's a pretty good chance one of them snores. So unless that one is you, you'll want earplugs, and preferably the kind with the little string attached so you don't lose them as easily (unfortunately we didn't have the extra $0.50 in our budget to get the string ones for the photo...). Although they don't have a string attached, many people swear by earplugs as the best earplugs to get because they're especially comfortable and do a great job of blocking out sound.

Update: Even better, bring earbud headphones and get a "white noise" app for your phone. I personally prefer an app that makes a "waterfall" sound. This miracle combination can drown out almost any snorer. If earbuds are too uncomfortable for you to sleep with, sleep headphones are comfortable even if you sleep on your side, and work almost as well to block out sound with white noise.

2. LED Flashlight

Once you get one of these for your keychain you'll wonder how you ever lived without it, whether your travelling or not. But they're especially handy for reading a map at night or digging through your backpack in a dark hostel room late at night (don't be ones of those people who turn the room lights on while people are sleeping to find a toothbrush). Get a keychain flashlight with a "white LED" bulb. They're tiny, bright, never burn out, and they're super efficient so the one tiny battery will last you almost forever. They're available in many stores, or you can also get one of these online.

Update: You may not need a flashlight if you have a phone that already has one, but since phones tend to run out of battery and the LED flashlights do not, it is always a good idea to keep one on your keychain, just in case.

3. Hand Towel

It's a good idea to bring a towel because some hostels don't offer towels (and the ones that do often charge a fee). But here's the thing, there's no need to carry a full size towel with you. All you need is a small hand towel. Just remember to shake off a little before you start towel drying and it'll work just fine. Or, if you prefer you can get an actual travel towel.

4. Quick Dry Travel Towel

A quick-dry travel towel will save you tons of space in your bag. They’re lightweight and very convenient. You definitely don’t want to stuff a wet, heavy towel into your bag after you take a shower in the morning at the hostel right before you need to check out. A quick-dry towel does what it says it does—it dries quickly. Check out the Rainleaf microfiber towel here. It’s cheap and does its job.

5. Playing Cards

Sitting down to a game of cards and a beer or three is always a great way to have fun and get to know new people at a hostel. And while many hostels keep a stack of games and cards on a shelf somewhere, I’ve been in many that didn’t. A deck of playing cards takes up barely any space in your bag, and makes for a great way to spend some time at the hostel before going out and exploring.

NOTE: I would suggest bringing waterproof cards that won’t deteriorate if they get wet or battered over the course of your journey. You can find a cheap, waterproof deck here.

6. Powerbank

Although most good hostels have outlets near the beds for you to plug in your phone or tablet or laptop, some don't.

And even if they do, a powerbank will for sure come in handy if you plan on wandering around outside the hostel for any extended period of time, or if you have a long bus ride on a bus without outlets.

And while losing the charge on your phone isn't the end of the world, it’s still nice to have maps to figure out where you are and how to get to where you’re going. Although, when I’m wandering around a city, I do like doing it the old-fashioned way, with a paper map and friendly questions for strangers.

That said, here is a good, reliable powerbank that is compact enough and has a high charging capacity, two qualities to look for when buying one.

7. Head Lamp

Although not as practical for hostel stays, nor as space saving as a little LED light, a head lamp is one thing I ALWAYS pack, because I love camping and doing multi-day hikes. A headlamp is perfect for camping, frees your arms up while you’re gathering firewood in the dark, and can also be useful for reading a book in your hostel dorm. Just be sure to choose one with multiple settings so you can use the dimmer light in your dorm so you don’t annoy the hell out of your fellow hostellers. Here’s one I swear by.

8. Compression Packing Cubes

These little miracles will both save space in your bag and help you separate your used, smelly clothes from your clean ones. While a garbage bag manages to take care of the latter (although not as well), packing cubes are a super useful and more durable way to free up some extra room in your pack. You can find a good one here.

9. Small Garbage Bag

If you wear your socks a couple days while you museum hop, then put them in your backpack after you change, pretty soon everything in your bag will smell like feet. So bring a small plastic garbage bag for your dirty laundry, or maybe even some large ziplock bags to be extra safe.

10. Padlocks

Hostels don't always offer lockers, but when they do, usually you have to pay for them, so bring one with you.

But just as importantly, you need a lock that can fit through the holes in your backpack's zipper pulls so that you can lock your backpack.

Why?

Well it may not keep someone out of your pack for long, but it will discourage pickpockets from taking stuff out of the back of your pack while you're wearing it... which does happen (particularly frequently in Barcelona)! So if your big lock doesn't fit through your zipper pulls, then also get a smaller one that will. Combination locks are probably best since there's no key to lose.

This one is one of our favorite locks.

11. Hostelling International Membership Card

Not all hostels belong to Hostelling International (HI), but a whole lot of them do, so you'll probably be staying in HI hostels during your trip. And a valid HI membership card is required to stay at HI hostels. Some HI hostels allow non-members, but an extra fee will apply.

12. Sleepsheet

Years ago people staying in hostels were expected to bring their own bed-sheet to sleep in. Today all hostels provide sheets, but a few hostels may still charge an extra fee for sheets. So even though it isn't necessary, some people still like to have their own nice sleep-sheet to sleep in every night. (Sleeping bags are usually not allowed by the way.) So what's a sleep-sheet? It's basically a regular bed-sheet folded in half, and it's usually sewn part way up the side. You can make your own, or buy a nice silk one online.

13. ATM Card / VISA Checkcard

ATM machines are everywhere and they're a good way to get local currency without paying high exchange rates. Get a card that's also a VISA Checkcard so you can use it like a credit card (which is probably a better idea than using a regular credit card because most credit cards charge an extra fee for purchases in a foreign currency, but a checkcard usually doesn't). And if the magnetic strip is nearing the end of its life, get a new card before your trip. And one more thing, before your trip, memorize the credit card number and expiration date of one of your credit cards (preferably one that you're not taking with you). Even if everything you own is lost or stolen, there's a lot you can do with a memorized credit card number in your head, including making phone calls.

14. Sandals (flip-flops)

Some hostel showers have floors that are even dirtier than your feet. And even if they look clean, you still might end up getting athlete's foot. Get a cheap pair of light-weight flip-flop sandals and shower without worry.

Stuff You Might Want to Pack

15. Travel Tissue Packs

A valuable multi-use item that works well not just as facial tissue, but also comes in handy as a substitute for toilet paper, which can be a rare item in some areas, especially when you need it most.

16. Travel Pillow

Ok, this is something you could live without, but a small inflatable pillow takes up only a little room once it's deflated, and it's so nice on those long train and plane trips. And it's probably more comfortable than the lumps that pass for pillows in most hostels.

Update: Thanks to a suggestion from our users, we've ditched the inflatable pillow and now prefer a nice real foldable travel pillow. It curls up into a small bundle, and it's very comfortable.

17. Wet Wipes

Convenient for sticky hands after eating, not to mention useful for before eating if you like to avoid getting sick. You can get generic wet wipes, or the original classic "Wet Ones".

18. Fanny Pack / Hip Pack (no, seriously)

These belt packs have become so "uncool" that few young travels would dare wear them in public, but they can be very useful for a different purpose while travelling. Use it to hold your toiletries (toothbrush, hairbrush, etc.) They're just the right size for storing that stuff, but the best advantage is that if the hostel bathroom sink has no counter space or is dirty, you can clip the pack around your waist and still have easy access to everything you need when getting ready in the morning or at night.

Other suggestions from Hostelz.com readers: sleep mask, money belt, hand sanitizer, 2 photo copies of your passport and plane ticket (leave one copy with someone at home), "mole skin" or blister patches for your feet, important phone numbers (embassy, consulate, relatives at home and in the country visited, credit card companies, etc.), sun block, a sarong (multiple uses including a towel, blanket, bag, or clothing), sink stopper plug for washing clothes in a sink, string for hang drying clothes.

Stuff NOT to Bring

Wheeled Luggage

Wheeled luggage might seem like a good idea, until you find that you can't go more than 10 feet in most countries without hitting steps or some kind of bump that you have to lift it over. Not to mention that the people behind you are always tripping over it. You'll soon find it's more trouble than it's worth and you'd be better off with a backpack. The only possible exception might be for travel within the US, since the country's strict laws to help the disabled have made much of the country wheeled-luggage-accessible.

See our backpack recommendations below.

Big, Bulky Maps

As mentioned earlier, a map can be super useful in a city. You don’t have to worry about whether your phone has service or will die soon, and you can stimulate your brain a bit more by actually having to think a bit more critically about where your next moves will be. As also mentioned above, if you do get lost, it’s a good way to have some interaction with the locals. BUT most good hostels provide pretty useful maps about the downtown area of whatever city you’re staying in, so try to avoid big guidebooks with maps in them, or too-big maps that will get ripped and crumbled in your bag.

Heavy Books

Don’t bring your hard cover copy of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; it’ll be a 1,000+ page brick that you’ll immediately regret bringing. Sure a small novella or a small book of poetry would make sense, but if you’re travelling for more than a few days, you’ll most likely be out of stuff to read pretty quickly. A Kindle or tablet is super practical for a backpacker, and gives you nearly unlimited access to whatever you want to read while you’re on the train or plane or bus.

Cooking Stuff

Just don’t. Unless you also plan on camping, in which case you can bring this small pot and portable burner. But if you only plan on staying in hostels, any cooking stuff is a pretty unnecessary waist of space in your bag. Most decent hostels will have a shared kitchen and stuff to cook with.

Canned Food

Another no-go when it comes to packing your bag. Just buy your groceries in whatever city or town you’re in after you check in to your hostel.

Personal note: My on my very first multi-day hike in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, USA, I made the terribly amateur mistake of bringing a couple cans of beans and vegetables. After climbing up a switchback trail almost 1,000 meters with a pack much heavier than it should’ve been, I couldn’t differentiate the sweat from the tears, and have cursed cans ever since. Don’t be me. While cans may be great for doomsday prepping, they are

Board Games

Like I said earlier, lots of hostels provide board games or chessboards or whatever, so don’t pack your full-sized Monopoly box because you think it’s a good idea to have a marathon of a game that lasts into the morning and ends with some hosteller you barely know flipping the board over in exasperation because they lost Park Avenue.

The Goldfish

Umm... bad idea.

Don't over pack!

The most important thing: DON'T OVER PACK.

Almost every inexperienced traveler takes way too much stuff on their first big overseas trip. But almost no traveler complains later than they wish they had brought more stuff. You can buy almost anything you need in almost any country in the world if you realize later you needed something.

I've traveled overseas for 3 months with only a small backpack.

I felt as free as a bird as I easily moved from place to place. I could even spend some time exploring a city without even needing to drop off my luggage at the hostel first. I've seen plenty of travellers in airports and train stations almost in tears because they're exhausted and stressed out over lugging a huge backpack or suitcase everywhere they go. Overpacking be the difference between a carefree vacation and a stressful nightmare.

Ideally, your backpack should just barely fit within the size limits for carry-on baggage on your flight (and it's great not to have to worry about your check-in luggage showing up!). And if you're travelling by train and your bag is small enough, you can stow it on the floor or above your seat rather than the luggage racks at the back of the train car where it can easily be stolen.

How is this possible to do?

The might sound crazy to some of you, but for clothing this is all you need for even the longest overseas trip:

  • three shirts
  • one pair of long pants ("slacks") or jeans
  • one pair of comfortable shoes
  • one pair of shorts (guys can use them as swimtrunks too, girls should also bring a bathing suit if needed)
  • a few pairs of socks
  • a few pairs of underwear (and for the girls, one bra if needed)
  • and a light sweatshirt or jacket (depending on the climate).

That's it! Seriously!

Everything should be dark colored everything should go with everything else.

You can wear each thing at least a couple days (everyone does while backpacking, it's ok), and then you wash your clothes about once a week (wear the shorts while doing the laundry, or try the popular technique of washing your clothes while you're wearing them in the shower... it works!).

Lots of backpackers have done it this way, and you can too.

If you decide later you can't live without some extra clothing, you can always buy something during your trip.

Backpack Recommendations

These are the key things we look for in a good travelling backpack:

  • Small enough to carry-on the plane, and preferably small enough to fit under the seat.
  • A good padded waste belt to take most of the weight off of your shoulders.
  • Enough pockets to keep your stuff organized.

That's really all there is to it. Here are some of our current favorite backpacks...

JanSport Odyssey Backpack

  • Good: Reasonable number of pockets, inexpensive, fits under the seat in front of you on planes.
  • Bad: Ideally it could be a bit larger to fit more stuff, shoulder straps not as padded as they could be.

eBags Mother Lode TLS Weekender Convertible

  • Good: Good size, lots of pockets, reasonable price, and the "convertible" design is very convenient.
  • Bad: The hip belt isn't padded.

Tortuga Travel Backpack

  • Good: Plenty of pockets including some very convenient ones on the hip belt and sides, quality materials, very comfortable, good design.
  • Bad: More expensive than many backpacks, too wide to fit under the seat in front of you on planes.

Osprey Backpack:

  • By far the most popular travel backpack is the Osprey. It comes in different colors and sizes. We recommend the backpack ith 45liters.

Deuter Backpack:

  • Deuter makes really great, durable backpacks perfect for both hiking and hosteling. Check out their 40-45L backpacks, which are super comfortable and make carrying heavy things much more bearable.

A Note About Booking Hostels

By the way, if you aren't using Hostelz.com to book your hostels, you're probably paying too much and you're probably missing out on the best hostels.

Other websites only include the hostels they happen to work with and each booking website only has availability information for some of each hostel's beds. But Hostelz.com is the only website that lists all hostels worldwide. And it searches all of the major hostel booking websites for you to find even the very last available bed, and tells you where to book it to get the lowest price.

Hostelz.com also shows you how each hostel is rated on all the booking sites, plus it has exclusive reviewer photos and detailed reviews so you can find out exactly what the hostel is really like. There a reason why we say it's the only hostel website you'll ever need. Give it a try.



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