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Pack the Perfect Gap Year Backpack

Written by Alice McLeod on 12 / 06 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

There's a never-ending stream of information online about what to pack for your gap year travels. Everyone has their ride or die products, items, and creature comforts. It can definitely feel overwhelming if your gap year is the first time you've gone backpacking. Fear not, we're here to help. With 25 years of experience sending gappers away, we're pretty confident we know what's worth packing and what can be left at home. The most common mistake people make is taking too much with them, just remember that you really don't need to pack your entire wardrobe, we promise you won't end up wearing half of it.

1. Essential gap year kit

Backpacks are the norm, side loaders are better - recommended size – 80 litres (ish) . Whilst you don't need the most expensive all-singing all-dancing one, you do need to consider how long you'll be travelling for, how heavy of a packer you are, how much time you'll spend with it physically on your back (if you're doing one of our team programmes then you won't be expected to carry it for long periods), and how many souvenirs you're likely to buy.

Day backpacks Go for a 25-litre size, so you can use it for overnight hikes etc. This really does want to be comfortable as you'll probably spend more time with it on your back day-to-day than your main backpack.

Passport You're not going to get very far without it! Make sure you have plenty at least six months on it before it expires, and if you do need to renew it make sure you do it in plenty of time as sometimes the wait can be long.

Packing cubes You can squirrel away all your belongings into colour-coded cubes and at any time grab whatever you need without emptying your rucksack all over the floor. You'll never rummage around for a pair of pants again.

Clear zip lock bags or a small dry bag - really useful for valuables on beach/boat days and leaky toiletries.

Sunglasses Take 2 pairs, one always gets lost or broken. Do not pack your designer shades, cheap and cheerful will do.

Earplugs & eye mask Unless you think you’ll be able to sleep through half of your hostel dorm stumbling in at 3am when you have an early flight the next day? Didn't think so.

Travel pillow If your travel routes are going to involve a lot of flying then invest in a decent travel neck pillow. Top tip: get an inflatable one that can then be squashed down again when you're not using it.

Money belt/bum bag The sexiest of the travel accessories. Whilst perhaps not the most fashionable item, it will soon become a firm favourite when you see how easy it is to keep your money and valuables safe on your person as you travel.

Padlock Preferably one with a steel, flexi cable to give you more flexibility when securing your rucksack to something and a smaller one for your day bag.

Lightweight travel towel They take up much less room and dry a lot quicker than ordinary towels.

Refillable water bottle E.g a Chilly bottle/Super Sparrow or a water purification bottle. Double benefits here - save plastic (always good) and if you get a water purification bottle it guarantees you always have clean, safe water wherever you end up travelling on your gap year. They come in all shapes and sizes, but start with taking a look at LifeStraw – not only are they high quality, removing 99.99% of waterborne bacteria, but for every item purchased LifeStraw will ensure a child in need receives clean water for a whole school year.

Sleeping bag liner If you don't want to buy one, a single duvet cover works well too. Climb in, button up and kiss those bed bugs and creepy crawlies goodbye. Perfect for those long overnight buses too. They don't take up much space but also protect you from grubby looking sheets.

2. Optional ideas

Short washing line

Mozzie net (location dependent)


Hanging wash bag / cosmetic bags so it doesn’t have to go on bathroom floors

Lightweight raincoat

Warm puffer coat (if going to chilly places)

3. Shoes

Beach-friendly option A pair of flip-flops, Crocs, or Birkenstocks

Sturdy trainers Ditch the massive walking boots and go for a sturdy pair of trainers for all those hikes you will be signing up on your gap year. The Saloman speed cross are excellent.

Going out trainers/shoes

4. Electricals

Universal plug adaptor

Music speakers and splitters Perfect when it comes to creating the perfect campfire moment or helping day dream your way through a long bus journey. When it comes to the speaker, definitely get a waterproof one so you can take it to the beach and won't panic over a spilled beer. Splitters – help share the love of tunes or a movie on the go.

Phone And take a cheap backup one in case you main one gets lost/nicked


Portable phone charger - Essential

Head torch There will come a time when one-handed packing in the dark just doesn’t cut it.

5. Toiletries

In addition to your basics remember, try to reduce single-use plastic.

Body bar (soap and shampoo in one) and a tin to keep it in

Travel wash

Reef-friendly suncream (check ingredients and avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate, common in chemical sunscreens. Mineral versions use tiny minerals that shield against the sun’s rays without harming aquatic life)

6. Medical pack for your gap year

I can guarantee that if you don’t take one, you’ll end up wishing you had. So get this right. Pro tip: remove everything from its packaging to save space, but keep the instructions for medication. Make sure you bring:

Insect repellent Make sure you are not allergic to it before you go as some are really strong.

An assortment of plasters & bandages From covering blisters or a stubbed toe (which will definitely happen by the way, as you’ll be living in flip flops) to keeping the sterile patch over your latest drunken injury.

Sterile patches They keep wounds clean and stop bandages from sticking.

Antiseptic wipes/spray & hand sanitizer Total must-haves to make sure that graze doesn't become infected & for all those times when bathrooms have no soap.

Medical tape

Germolene (or antiseptic cream) A godsend for any cut, scrape, or seriously itchy mozzie bite.

Pain killers

Imodium It's a hard pill to swallow, but at some point on your travels you will get an upset tummy, make sure you pack plenty of Imodium.

Diocalm and rehydration salts For the morning after that dodgy street food.

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You can never be too organised for your gap year

We promise you the effort you put in beforehand will reap rewards when you are out on your gap year. You can be the traveller who can access anything in a nano second, have light when the generator breaks, hang up wet clothes in the middle of the jungle and sleep in the middle of a rave with your earplugs wedged in.

Finally, remember the simplest packing rule of all: lay everything out that you want to take... and then take half.


Should I take a backpack or suitcase when I go gap year travelling? Backpack always! You'll quickly grow bored of lugging your suitcase down uneven roads and up flights of stairs. A suitcase is also more liable to getting damaged as you bundle it in and out of tuk tuks, onto boats, and through multiple baggage reclaims.

How early do I have to buy my gear for gap year travelling? You definitely don't need to start buying all your kit years in advance, but you could certainly start asking for some of the big ticket items (backpacks, day bags, packing cubes etc) for Christmas and birthdays. There also might be some stuff you don't have to buy new, ask around and someone might have a spare bum bag knocking around that you can borrow.

What apps should I download on my phone before I go travelling? You can read some of our recommendations here.

Want more gap year tips and tricks?

Join our independent travel hub for more insider travel knowledge

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Need inspiration and direction?

Get in contact with the gap year travel specialists.

Here at The Leap we can help both team traveller through our programmes and/or the backpacker.

Jot a message below or call us on +44 1672 519 9222

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Yes please, let's keep life simple.