If you’re doing any long-term backpacking, learning to be self-reliant is a must. Stores and pharmacies abroad generally stock most things that you can find at home, but their products can be at times of woefully inadequate quality, unfairly high price, or just plain hard to find. As a result, every traveler should be equipped with a small kit of useful items to help him or her out in any eventuality. I present to you my essentials list:
- Swiss Army knife—of obvious utility. Opening wine bottles on the street? Cracking open a beer with new friends? Defending yourself against wild animals? Sure, you don’t really know what half of the tools on there are for, but the ones you will use are necessary on an everyday basis.
- First aid bag—easy to go overboard here. Bandaids, small bandages, Neosporin or another antibiotic cream, any prescription medications you take, some OTC painkillers and anti-diarrheals, and possibly one course of oral antibiotics (these can be controversial, I recommend you do some up-to-date research and make your own decision) are enough for everything but the most extreme of journeys. If you’re bleeding that badly, go to a hospital or local clinic.
- Small padlock or combination lock—invaluable in hostels, buses, and cheap hotels. Lock your bag, lock your room, lock your stuff to something while you sleep on the train in third class. While some believe that a locked back is more of a target for theft than an unlocked one as it implies contents of greater value, I’m generally inclined to think that someone stealing your bag already knows that you’re a foreigner, and are therefore more likely to have a camera, iPod, laptop, passport, mint condition stamp collection, or other valuable thing in there. However, padlocks leave the possibility of lost keys, and combination locks leave the possibility of a very, very bored person solving them by trial and error given enough time (hotel staff at a place in Pokhara, Nepal got my lock open in under 30 minutes after I accidentally changed the combination). Choose carefully.
- Headlamp—power cuts, darkened streets, late arrivals at hostels, sunrise treks up mountains. You’ll need a light at some point, guaranteed.
- Scissors—you have no idea how often I need these and am glad to have a little pair in my pack.
- Tampons—obviously a gender-specific necessity. Seriously though ladies, these are shockingly hard to find outside of the west. Keep a stock on hand.
- Hand sanitizer—entirely essential, especially if you have high standards of cleanliness. Street food, dirty buses, and most terrifying of all: the “left hand method.” I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that there are many cultures around the world that don’t rely on or publicly supply toilet paper (make sure you have some of that, too).
When put together, these items should add up to very little weight. For the amount that they will come in handy, they are worth that half kilo and much more. Don’t overburden yourself with stuff that you’ll only use once in a great while, but recognize the value of having the tools for the job immediately on hand. You’ll be prepared for anything.