This is the first thing on the list because it is ESSENTIAL above all else. You’re backpacking because you want to have the experience of a lifetime but how can you enjoy your experiences if you haven’t slept in days? And what’s the one thing all aspiring-sleepers hate more than anything else? Snorers. Hostels are full of snorers. There is always at least one who can make the walls vibrate with their chainsaw snoring. In the moment it can be frustrating as hell, but some of the best friends I’ve made while traveling were either the snorers who I teased mercilessly the next morning or other backpackers who I’ve bonded with while comparing our worst snorer encounters. It’s all part of the experience, but to reiterate, you need to get a good night’s sleep (at least one every few days, between benders) to really make the most of your experience. Don’t let snorers ruin your trip. Invest in a few sets of earplugs (because you’ll lose them pretty easily) and rest well! Do yourself a favor and splurge a bit on good quality earplugs. You can get a pack of silicone earplugs that will form to your ear to block out more sound and they’re generally more comfortable than the cheapo foam ones. If earplugs aren’t your thing, headphones can work just as well, with the small inconvenience of risking strangulation in your sleep. When I need to block out noise, I use earbuds and ASMR YouTube videos.
Pro tip: If there isn’t a snorer in your room, it’s probably you. You might want to go out and get some anti-snoring nasal strips just in case.
Snoring isn’t the only thing that can impair sleep. When you’re living in a hostel, you’ll be sharing your room with at least two other people but on average 11-13 other people. (I once stayed in a room with 24 beds. That was excessive.) Of those, there will almost always be That Person who comes in drunk at 4am and turns on all the lights. Everyone wakes up and groans and mutters curse words at That Person (who is generally too blitzed to care) but pair your earplugs with an eye mask and you won’t notice a thing!
Pro tip: Eye masks can also come in super handy on busses, trains, and planes! Get some shut eye whenever you can. Traveling can be exhausting. (In the best possible way.) Also the combination of your earplugs and eye mask can save your life during night busses. For some reason, they always blast a movie over the speakers until 1am. But don’t let that discourage you from night bus travel! It gets you where you’re going and saves you the cost of a night in a hostel. Take advantage of those saving opportunities when you can.
In nearly every single hostel I’ve ever stayed in, there has been lockers in the room to keep your valuables stowed away in. However, most of these hostels do not provide locks. Occasionally the locker will have a designated key for it, but generally you need to provide your own form of security. You should absolutely have your own padlock (with more than one key – it’s so easy to lose things while traveling!) And don’t just use it sporadically or when you’re leaving the room for hours at a time. Lock up your $1000 camera and laptop every time you go the bathroom or to brush your teeth. I love hostels and I love backpackers, but you really have to be on your guard at all times and don’t trust anyone 100%. I’ve never had anything stolen from me but I know tons of people who haven’t been so lucky. I’ve heard stories of stolen iPads, cell phones, and even passports, all while they were refilling their water bottle in the bathroom or grabbing a bag of chips from the vending machine.
Pro tip: Keep your multiple keys in different places in your bag. If you keep them all together, it’s much easier to lose all of them. Also be sure not to lock the keys inside the locker! I know it sounds like a rookie mistake, but I’m a pretty seasoned traveler and did it just a few weeks ago in a hostel in Poland. Fortunately, I had the other key safely packed away in my bag.
As any interstellar hitchhiker will know, a towel is the most massively useful thing to have. It’s a rare day that a hostel will include a towel. Not impossible, but rare. Even in hostels where linens are included, a towel will likely cost you a dollar or two. This doesn’t sound like much but think about renting a towel at each hostel you stay in. It adds up. Definitely pack one with you. It’ll come in handy in more situations than just showering. Cold on a long bus ride and already wearing the two sweatshirts you brought with you? Wrap the towel around you. Want to have a picnic but the grass is too prickly to sit on? Good thing you have your towel. Spilled a beer in the common room and there’s no paper towels? No worries, you have a towel!
Pro tip: Microfiber towels are the best way to go. They’re lightweight, and take up the least amount of room when folded compared to normal terrycloth towels. And the best part is they’re quick-drying so if you need to rush to catch a bus after your shower, you won’t have to shove a sopping wet towel into your bag.
You were probably reading the last section and thinking “gross, why would I use the towel I’m gonna shower with to mop up beer?” That’s where laundry comes in. But doing laundry while traveling isn’t quite as easy as bringing it home for your mom to take care of. Some hostels will have laundry facilities and the ones that don’t can usually point you in the direction of a laundromat. Finding the machines is generally pretty easy, but detergent is almost never provided. Some places will sell single-use packets at exorbitant prices. About half the time there will be a 7-Eleven type store somewhere nearby where you can pick up detergent and softener, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone into a shop to find they only sell huge bottles. Sometimes I couldn’t even find any at all, especially if I was doing laundry late at night or in small villages. It’s incredibly useful to bring some single-use packets of detergent and softener and never have to face that moment of “I guess I can just wear my underwear inside out…”
Pro tip: Keep a plastic or drawstring bag in your main backpack to put your dirty clothes in so you don’t have to unpack everything to find the dirty socks balled up at the bottom.
No one wants athlete’s foot and wearing flip flops in the shower is the best way to avoid it. (This goes for people who already have athlete’s foot too. The easiest way to not get something is if there’s nothing to get. Do your part in not spreading the fungus.) If you ever went to summer camp or showered in public bathrooms at school or in the gym, this is probably something you’re familiar with. Any sort of rubber shoes will do fine and generally dry pretty quickly.
Pro tip: Make your shower shoes the same flip flops you wear to the beach. The 2-in-1 saves lots of space in your bag.
Tea tree oil
Experienced travelers will probably read this one and go “huh?” It’s not a very common thing backpackers will carry, but it can be very beneficial. Tea tree oil has antibacterial properties so carrying a small spray bottle full of it to spritz over your bed before laying down might make you feel a bit better when thinking about the thousands of people who slept there before you. Its antibacterial properties are also great for treating pimples and other blemishes. Hate to break it ya, but if you’re anything like me you’ll break out A LOT while backpacking. The combination of excessive alcohol consumption and sometimes not being able to shower for days at a time will do that to you. Tea tree oil also has antifungal properties, which can be a lifesaver should you choose not to invest in shower shoes.
Pro tip: Some backpackers will bring an air freshener or Febreeze spray with them, but I find things like that to be overpowering and risks making someone in the room uncomfortable. Tea tree oil can be mixed with many different scents and, when sprayed, is much more subtle than chemical air fresheners. The spray bottles tea tree oil generally come in don’t have much of a range so you can freshen your immediate area without offending anyone else. Tea tree oil is affordable and easy to find at most health food stores.
You might be thinking, “there’s no way I’m paying to stay in a hostel without toilet paper.” And for the most part, you’d be right to think that. However, sometimes you come back from the bars at 3am and there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom and no one is on duty at reception and (if you’re a girl) you really don’t want to have to drip dry right before bed. Also, in many countries around the world, toilet paper can’t be flushed down the pipes because they have more fragile plumbing. This leads to toilet paper not being provided in most public restrooms, even in hostels. However, most of the bathrooms will have bins so if you do bring your own toilet paper, be sure to throw it in the trash instead of flushing it!
Pro tip: Carry packets of tissues in your day bag. When I was living in Southeast Asia, I always had tissues in my bag because there was NEVER toilet paper in the public bathrooms. You can get packets of tissues in most convenient stores for pretty cheap and you’ll always be glad you have them. It might also be useful to carry a small plastic bag for the used tissues in case there aren’t any bins in the public stalls.
Deck of cards
Every great night I’ve ever had at a hostel started with playing Kings (i.e. King’s Cup, Ring of Fire, etc.) with people from all over the world. But to play Kings, you need a deck of cards. A lot of the time no one has any cards and the decks provided by the hostel are often old, sticky, and generally pretty disgusting. If someone in your group does have a deck of cards, they are lauded as the savior of the night and usually someone will buy them drinks. (That’s not exactly true, but I’m hoping this subliminal messaging will get me a few free drinks someday.)
Pro tip: Take the time to learn and practice a few cool ways to shuffle. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things but it will make you look awesome.
Power bank/power strip
Some hostels won’t have enough power outlets in each room so you’ll often be fighting with your roommates over who gets to charge their phone overnight and who has to pray theirs charges between breakfast and whenever they head out for the day. If you bring a power strip and let other people in the room use your open outlets, you’ll pretty much be seen as a god and everyone will leave offerings on your bed. However, if that sort of thing freaks you out, you can also rely on a power bank. (Just make sure you get that fully charged every few days or it won’t do you much good.) Having a power bank is incredibly convenient because you can use it to charge your devices while in bed and not have to worry about the cord reaching when you want to fall asleep binge-watching Friends. It’s also a great thing to have when you’re out and about for the day. Your phone can die ridiculously fast when using it to take photos of all your awesome adventures so having a charger right in your pocket is incredibly convenient.
Pro tip: Don’t forget your adaptors!!! I have a universal adaptor that has every plug from around the world and it’s so useful. Saves me the moment of panic when I’m not sure if my plugs will fit in any given country. Also, it’s a good idea to have a converter. These days most chargers (computer, phone, camera, etc.) have converters built in but other electronics, like shavers and straighteners, usually require a converter to work.
Bonus: What You Don’t Need
Don’t pack linens or a sleeping bag. Some travelers swear by them, but it’s just my personal preference not to bring them along. Linens take up so much space in your luggage and sleeping bags are unnecessarily bulky. There are a lot of hostels that require you to rent linens, which is why a lot of people will travel with them. My course of action to avoid those added fees is narrowing my hostel search to only places that have linens included. You save money, it’s more convenient, and you don’t have to lug around entire sheet sets.
Pro tip: Third-party accommodation websites are amazing for finding the perfect hostel for you with tons of valuable reviews and a detailed method of scoring each place, but once you find the perfect hostel, book your bed through their direct site. The third-party sites tend to cost more because of their fee.
Author’s BIO: Sarah Jake Fishman is an American writer and traveler, currently pursuing her graduate degree while living in Dublin, Ireland. She is aiming to visit 75 countries before she’s 30. You can follow her adventures on Instagram (@sarahjakethejew) and her website (www.sarahjakethejew.com).