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Pack the Perfect Gap Year Backpack

Written by Jenny McWhirter on 10 / 02 / 2022

Gap Year Advice

It’s never too early to start preparing your gap year backpack.

Remember the old adage 'failing to prepare is preparing to fail'? Well it happens to the best of us...

Zimbabwe, July 1998 – my first 'green travelling' experience. Wrongly assuming we were entering a hot, dusty climate requiring nothing more than a tee, shorts and flip flops, you can imagine my disappointment when we arrived in the middle of a freezing, dark night. Needless to say, it was an expensive shopping day that followed.

So allow yourself to learn from my mistakes. Here lies my top tips to prevent yourself from having to sleep with pants on your head or use socks as gloves – it’s not a good look.

Research Your Destination

Before you start think carefully about your general itinerary and planned activities. For example, if you're heading to Kenya and planning a safari and a stint on at the coast, you will need hot and cold clothes.

Digging a little deeper, a backpack going on safari to the Serengeti will require different clothing than one going to the Ngorongoro Crater. Why? Well, the highlight of the Ngorongoro Crater trip usually requires a night's camping on the Crater rim and it is freezing.

So you catch my drift here: research your route and dig into the detail, looking at climate and terrain. Spare a thought for local culture too – do you need to cover your knees, shoulders or face?

Backpack or suitcase for your gap year?

Forget a suitcase - it’s useless on the go and you will want to throw it out by day 2. The crucial question here should be: 'top-loader or side-loader?' Trust me - always opt for the side loader. One access point means you have to take everything out to find that one item at the bottom. You don’t want to end up endlessly delving into your bag like Mary Poppins, do you?

Also, make sure it has a waterproof cover. In many places, the grand promise of an 'overhead compartment' simply means on the roof. What might seem like a pointless extra is actually a total life saver - soggy clothes is not the one.

What to pack for your gap year

1. Clothing

If you’re travelling on an organised gap year programme, they should have a kit list. Ours is available in your my leap (you need to be booked on one of our leap programs to get a password) so you can read it anytime, anywhere.

The kit list you receive might look long and scary, but don’t panic. You’ll find you already have most of the stuff recommended in your wardrobe, whilst some other stuff can be bought cheaply once you arrive at your destination.

Again, consider what you’ll be doing and the different occasions you’ll find yourself in. You may need to consider everything from beachwear and trekking pants to evening attire. Try and pack items that can be doubled up for different outfits and that always go with something else. Gym leggings and t-shirts can also be great as they are breathable while you are getting hot and also pack up super small, not only that but they dry quickly when you wash them. Win win.

You’ll likely be doing your own laundry when you’re away and may not have the luxury of separating your colours, so consider this too when packing your favourite white t-shirt (sun cream stains so be careful). Most backpackers try to do laundry once a week, so packing a week's worth of clothing (and maybe one emergency outfit) should be sufficient.

2. Essential gap year packing

You’ll find that it’s the odds and ends you pack that will actually make the biggest difference to you when you’re away on your gap year.

Duct tape Can be used for literally anything. From taping together a patch on your rucksack, to holding together an annoying rattling window on a night bus, to holding together someone’s thumb when you forgot to pack your medical tape.

Clear zip lock bags Great for leaky toiletries, keeping electronics out of the sand, keeping small, loose items together or keeping that crucial map dry in the latest downpour.

Bin bags Useful for laundry, waterproof covers (for you and your rucksack) or if times get really hard, fill it with something soft for a mattress/pillow.

Earplugs Unless you think you’ll be able to sleep through half of your dorm stumbling in at 3am when you have an early flight the next day? No? Didn't think so.

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

Inflatable pillow Perhaps one of the most underrated items ever. Guaranteed to make the overnight bus journeys, or airport floors, that little more bearable.

Money belt Useful for when you’re walking around dangerous cities or you when you want to keep money safe on overnight travel.

Padlock Preferably one with a steel 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.

Packing cubes Sort your belongings into groups and use clear packing bags/cubes to organise them (e.g. your underwear in one and swimwear in another).

Re-fillable water bottle e.g chilli bottle

Universal plus adaptor

Phone and take a back up one

Mozzie net

Universal plus adaptor

Photocopies of all documents and leave an extra copy at home

25 litre day ruck sack

Small waterproof bag for beach days

Music speakers and splitters

Duvet cover Less of a gadget but you will never look back…pack a single duvet cover – preferably one with superman or wonder women on the front, then climb in, button up and kiss those bed bugs and creepy crawlies goodbye. You will be the envy of every other traveller trying to squeeze into a ‘sleeping liner” which are never big enough.

Sturdy trainers Ditch the 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.

Check out our gap year programs

We have award winning 'planet saving' programs across Africa, Asia, South and Central America.

Reducing plastic in our oceans, protecting turtles and saving the rhino is just the tip of the melting iceberg.

All experiences include a mix of projects and adventures, travelling with a team and, of course, are risk assessed.

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3. 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:

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

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

You can never be to organised for your gap year

I promise you the effort you put in beforehand will reap reward 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.

Think about where you are going on your gap year,write a list and make the most of every birthday and Christmas.

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

Check out our gap year programs

We have award winning 'planet saving' programs across Africa, Asia, South and Central America.

Reducing plastic in our oceans, protecting turtles and saving the rhino is just the tip of the melting iceberg.

All experiences include a mix of projects and adventures, travelling with a team and, of course, are risk assessed.

Show me more

Get in contact

With the covid travel experts

Worried about how to travel and plan your gap year through this pandemic?

We can help. We have sent lots of gappers away through the last 12 months and can confidently call ourselves Covid Travel Experts. Get in contact to start the ball rolling.


Or give us a call on +44 1672 519 922

And chat with one of our friendly and knowledgeable team

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