The Things She Carried: The 15 best things in my backpack this year

“What the heck do you pack for a round the world adventure?”

That seems to be everyone’s favorite question since my return. (That and “What was your favorite country?” But I’ll answer that one later.)

You could agonize forever on what to pack, but the key is to have a few essentials and fine-tune along the way. You can always get rid of things you don’t need, give them away or send them home. You’ll have plenty of chances to buy what you need as you go.


The Pack Itself

My backpack was the 40-liter REI Vagabond. I loved that it carried like a backpack and was (almost) small enough for carry-on. Technically it’s two inches too long, but I took it on board several flights and no one stopped me. It’s panel-loading, which means I could pack it up more like a suitcase and access everything by zipping it open, instead of pulling everything out from the top.


1. Goretex Trail Runners from Brooks

blog_brooks gortex

Waterproof, inconspicuous, and perfect for running and hiking. They didn’t give me blisters and held up ALL YEAR, which is impressive considering they were basically my only pair of shoes. Other shoes: black ballet flats, flip flops.

2. Eagle Creek Packing Cubes

blog_eagle creek cubesIncredibly handy. ALL the clothes I carried fit into these three zip-up sacks which acted like my dresser drawers. It saved me from folding and refolding my clothes each time I packed, which was sometimes as often as every few days.

3. Icebreaker hoodie


Merino wool clothing: deceptively thin, light-weight, warm and stylish. Unlike most technical clothing, in these you won’t look like you got lost in Paris on your way to the alps. I set out with a black hoodie and a 260-weight tech top, and added a lighter top and long johns later. Icebreakers are pricey, but they wear really well. And like the claim on the tag, they don’t stink after multiple wears. You can live in these an entire week at a time, not that I did, ahem.


4. ExOfficio Undies

Not your grandma’s travel panties! Comfy, stylish, and quick dry. I could wash these by hand, wring them out in a towel, and they’d be dry in two hours. Amazing.


5. Yoga Paws


Like wearing yoga mats on your hands and feet. Sturdy and non-slip. I tried out a few kinds before deciding these were the best. These little things made yoga portable and gave me an easy way to work out anywhere, especially indoors in small spaces. They come in multiple sizes which means they even fit my super tiny hands!


6. Headlamp


Nothing fancy. Just a basic 20-buck headlamp. I kept it in my handbag and it worked great as a flashlight on dark streets. I used it in my hostel room so as not to wake everyone up if I came in late, and of course to light my way in caves, on night time hikes, and during power outages.

7. First Aid

Don’t go overboard here, since most things like bandaids and aspirin are widely available almost anywhere. But do take prescriptions and a few basics. I filled a small ziplock bag and had more than enough to get me through the year. I had inhalers with me for the super-polluted air in China and they were very necessary, even though I’ve never used them regularly in the US.


8. A Good Book

blog_unbearable lightness

A few favorites I found along the way:

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Meredith Maran

I bought a Kindle off some friends at Christmastime thinking I’d use it all year, but I missed the feel of a good old-fashioned book. Even in foreign countries you can find an English language book if you look hard enough. I stocked up at English bookstores in Thailand and Hong Kong, book swaps in hostels, and at flea markets in Europe.

9. Toilet Paper

blog_toilet paper

Do I have to explain this one? You’d be surprised how often it’s not provided. In some countries you just have a hose or a bucket of water to clean up with, so carrying your own pooper paper is highly recommended.

To save space, remove cardboard center roll and squish into ziplock bag.

10. Scarf

blog_scarf nap

Napping with scarf as blanket, in Laos.

Doubled as an eye mask, blanket, pillow, handkerchief (ew but true), shoulder/head cover in mosques and temples, towel… you get the picture. A good scarf goes a long way. Mine was this eco-friendly bamboo one, but any will do. For the fashion conscious you might want to have two or three. I was pretty sick of the same green scarf after 12 months.


11. iPod



My 8G ipod wasn’t just for music listening. It was a handy way to use the internet without taking my whole laptop out. It also held lots of information in a small space. I downloaded free aps for wherever I was: subway maps, city maps, dictionaries, survival phrase podcasts, currency rates, etc. and got rid of them when I didn’t. (I know I say I don’t usually carry maps, but they’re good to have on hand.) I’m a tech minimalist as well, so keeping the memory down to 8G minimized digital clutter.

12. Earplugs

blog_ear plugs

These are essential in hostels. How else are you supposed to sleep in a room with nine other people in the room, three of whom snore and/or stumble in drunk at 4 a.m.?


13.Sleep Sack

blog_sleep sack

Can you tell I like to sleep? Some people say you don’t need a sleep sheet, but I used mine all the time. It’s like a flat bed sheet folded in half and sewed into a sack. It was great when the sheets where I was sleeping weren’t so clean or were rough textured. Hey, I’m sensitive to texture! Used it on trains, planes, and buses. Pulled it over my head to protect from mosquitoes.


14. Sunscreen


Take care of your skin. It’s a no brainer. I swear by Neutrogena (and you can’t get it everywhere) so I stocked up when I found some even if I hadn’t run out yet.


15. Rash Guard

blog_rash guard

Sunscreen is bad for corals and the ocean in general, and I didn’t want to slather it on every inch of me every time I got in the water, so this rash guard worked great. Also, I lived on a fairly conservative island in Thailand for a couple months and felt self conscious being in a bikini around the locals, so the rash guard helped cover up.



There are my favorites! I  used each one. Actually, I’m  wearing the hoodie right now. It’s full of holes but after a year together it’s going to be hard to part from this dear friend.

tas_mona trampolineblog_with deerhawk on my armTasmania, New Zealand, and China. Same hoodie (and scarf) every time.

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    We came thisclose to taking the REI Vagabond on our trip with us; it really is a great bag and if I hadn’t found an Eagle Creek pack that I liked slightly more (and that my parents agreed to buy as a graduation gift!), I have no doubt I would have been very happy with it.

    Great list! I don’t use absolutely everything that you’ve got on it (no fancy icebreaker hoodie for me… when necessary I rock the $5 microfleece I picked up in Nepal), but most of what you have on here, I whole-heartedly endorse as well.

    LOVE the idea of those portable yoga paws… I’m trying to incorporate yoga into my daily routine and now I REALLY want those!

    • ColleenGetsLost

      Before I set out I drove myself nuts trying to figure out the perfect everything to take with me. Drove myself nuts! Not worth it. It all really comes down to personal taste and that’s what I wanted to show people. Other RTWers say you don’t need an ipod or sleep sack, others say you absolutely need a doorstop and whistle (I had both and thankfully never had to use them). Sometimes you just don’t know what will suit you until you hit the road. I also carried two to three pairs of jeans, which some say not to but a) travel pants are NOT my aesthetic and b) I was in cold climates and in cities for most of the year, so I wanted to blend in. I’ve seen other long-term travelers wearing leather jackets and fancy boots. It all depends on where you go and what kind of traveler you are.

      Yay for you and yoga! I LOVE the yoga paws too. The perfect way to get your down dog on safely without a mat. I tried another brand that were essentially cotton mitts and socks with a few sticky dots on the bottom but they had very little grip.

  • Alissa

    I love the Unbearable Lightness of Being!

  • Alissa

    P.S. This was a very fun, informative post.

  • Angela

    YES to earplugs, head light, scarf, sunscreen and Ipod. I used my Iphone for music and reading. Very essential for me: a hanging toiletry bag and socks. Even in tropical weather, I like to wear socks every now and then.

Post Navigation