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How to Pack the Perfect Gap Year Backpack

Written by Jenny McWhirter on 10 / 03 / 2016

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.

Backpack or Suitcase?

Forget a suitcase - it’s useless on the go. 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.

If you still aren't sure, The Independent recently published a whole article on the 10 Best Rucksacks for Backpackers which is definitely worth a look.

Research Your Destination

This was my first error. Think carefully about your general itinerary and planned activities. For example, if you're heading to Tanzania and planning a safari and a stint on Zanzibar, your backpack itself will have different requirements than if you were planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

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?

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What to Pack

So you've chosen your backpack and you've done your weather research but now we reach the 3 big questions.

1. Sleeping Bag or Sleeping Sheet?


This all depends on your research. For example, Africa may be hot during the day but it’s freezing at night (even in the summer). Visiting the Andes? It’s chilly. Sleeping sheets are always good and I find an old duvet cover will do the job as many sleeping sheets seem to be designed for very small people.

Also, the poppers on the duvet cover will come in handy - stick your head out, pop yourself up on either side, and kiss the mozzies goodbye.

2. Walking Boots or Trainers?

This all depends on what you’re doing. Any serious treks like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya will require a good ankle support boot. But if you're just messing about in the Thai jungle on a day’s hike then trainers will do.

I recently came across an excellent new company called Ridgemont, who are successfully putting the cool back into outdoor clothing. Have a look at their shoes - the ones with ankle support would be brilliant to get you up any non-technical mountain whilst the others would look good on any roadside.

3. Clothing

If you’re travelling on an organised programme, they should have a kit list. Ours is available in My Leap (you need to be booked on one of our 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.

There's a reason why everyone wears loose baggy, thin cotton trousers in Cambodia. No-one wants to see your legs and they are super cool - in more ways than one!

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.

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. 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.

7 Steps to the Perfect Medical Pack

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:

  • 1. 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.
  • 2. Sterile patches They keep wounds clean and stop bandages from sticking.
  • 3. 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.
  • 4. Medical tape
  • 5. Germolene (or antiseptic cream) A godsend for any cut, scrape or seriously itchy mozzie bite.
  • 6. Pain killers
  • 7. Diocalm and rehydration salts For the morning after that dodgy street kebab...


The NHS have a comprehensive guide to their suggested Travel Health Kit which is also worth a look.

Life Savers You Mustn't Leave Home Without

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. Here are my top 10:

  • 1. 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.
  • 2. 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.
  • 3. 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.
  • 4. 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.
  • 5. Head torch There will come a time when one-handed packing in the dark just doesn’t cut it.
  • 6. Inflatable pillow Perhaps one of the most underrated items ever. Guaranteed to make the overnight bus journeys, or airport floors, that little more bearable.
  • 7. Money belt Useful for when you’re walking around dangerous cities or you when you want to keep money safe on overnight travel. The Gap Year Travel Store has a selection of money belts and body wallets to suit all tastes and budgets.
  • 8. 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.
  • 9. Passport photos Some embassies require them for arrival visas, and you’ll need them if you lose your passport and require a new one.
  • 10. Lightweight travel towel They take up much less room and dry a lot quicker than ordinary towels.


You might also want to take a look at my previous post 15 Essential iPhone Apps, to make sure your phone is packed too!

5 Packing Rules to Live By

You’ll want to make the task of finding items as easy as possible. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re ready to throw your backpack out of the closest window after only two days.

Pack like a pro from First Image on Vimeo.

  • 1. 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). Most people will opt for a waterproof liner inside their backpack, but sometimes this can take up too much room, so if your individual packing bags are waterproof, you won’t need to worry about having a liner.
  • 2. Leave space The chances are high that you are going to want to come away from your destination with some locally-found goodies. So make sure you leave room in your rucksack to accommodate for this. Plus, it’s never fun when you have to sit on your rucksack each morning to be able to close it.
  • 3. Reverse order Make sure the last thing in your backpack is the first thing you’ll need the next day.
  • 4. Utilise space Pack small items into shoes and the corners of your backpack to make the most of the space.
  • 5. Spares Always keep spare essentials in your hand luggage, just in case anything happens to your main backpack (think small toiletries and underwear).


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

Anything I've Missed?

And there you have it – all the top tips to packing for your gap year like a pro. Is there an essential item or clever tip you think I've missed? Let us know in the comments below.

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