The Points & Miles Backpacker: 6 Items You Should Always Pack

Aug 6, 2018

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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

None of these items were in my pack on my first backpacking adventure — a pack that was far too heavy and had two wheels too many. Over the years, I’ve downsized considerably, but I’ve also picked up a few essentials that only add minimal weight and space. In some cases, I don’t know how I ever traveled without them.

Silk Travel Liner ($80)

I spend most nights traveling wrapped up in silk. What I love most about this liner though is its versatility. In a hot hostel dormitory, the thin cool silk layer is all I use to get me through the night. In sub-freezing temperatures in a tent high up on a mountain trek, the liner adds a very important extra layer within my sleeping bag. I also use it for pretty much every temperature in between, as well as on planes, buses, trains or anywhere I’d rather not have direct contact with the surface. Best of all, these things pack down to about the size of George Costanza’s wallet.

The Sea To Summit Premium Silk Travel Liner. Pictured is the Mummy model, but I prefer the Traveller. Image courtesy of Sea to Summit website.
The Sea To Summit Premium Silk Travel Liner. Pictured is the Mummy model, but I prefer the Traveller. Image courtesy of Sea to Summit website.

I hate to even mention bed bugs, but they are the arch-nemesis of backpackers. A sleeping bag liner will protect the vast majority of your body from those nasty bugs — but beware that they can be found in places where you would not expect them, like airplanes.

Where to Buy

I’ve used the Sea to Summit Premium Silk Travel Liner for years. I recommend the “Traveller with Pillow Insert” model over the “Mummy,” which I find too restrictive. This is the only item on the list that costs more than a few dollars, so get it at a place like REI which has a generous return policy.

Retractable Cable Lock ($11)

Standard luggage locks are essential for keeping a pack secure and using lockers in hostels. Additionally though, a small cable lock has been useful in keeping my entire pack from wandering off at times. On a beach, I can lock my bag to a sign or lifeguard stand. On an overnight train, I can lock it to the luggage rack. It’s really just a deterrent because a luggage strap could easily be cut with scissors or a knife. But sometimes that first level of protection is enough to keep someone from choosing my bag to snatch and take off with.

It's not Fort Knox, but it may be enough to keep someone from wandering off with your bag. Image of Lewis N. Clark cable lock courtesy of Amazon.
It’s not Fort Knox, but it may be just enough to keep my bag safe. Image of Lewis N. Clark cable lock courtesy of Amazon.

Where to Buy

Amazon has plenty of options, and I’ve been satisfied with my Lewis N. Clark model. Make sure it’s small and lightweight; ideally you’d like about three feet of cable length.

Discraft 175g Ultimate Flying Disc ($10)

This multi-purpose plastic saucer, which I originally brought along for its obvious use of throwing it around on a beach, now gets just as much use as a plate or bowl. The long flat disc surface makes it less awkward to pack than a bowl, yet the rim is enough to let it function as one. And I still have my staple item for the beach or park.

The Discraft Ultra-Star 175g Ultimate Disc. This is the one you want. Image courtesy of Amazon.
The Discraft Ultra-Star 175g Ultimate Disc. This is the one you want. Image courtesy of Amazon.

Where to Buy

You’ve probably most often heard this item called a “Frisbee,” which is actually a registered trademark of Wham-O Inc. Discraft makes a better disc which is approved by the USA Ultimate Organization. You can pick up a Discraft disc online or at any Ultimate tournament. And to go along with the plate or bowl function of this disc, grab one of these sporks.

Belt with Hidden Money Pocket ($14)

These are different than the standard money belt where you keep your passport, money and other valuables to keep them safe from drops or pickpockets. Those are still functional and necessary, but they may not protect you if you are mugged because thieves often know to look for them. The other belt I’m recommending has a small zipper compartment on the inside that will hold a few folded bills. I always have the equivalent of $20 – $50 stashed here, or I put my big bills here if I’m walking home from a bank after using the ATM.

Luckily, it has never come into play, but it’s added peace of mind knowing that if I’m ever robbed of everything I have on me, I’ll still have enough money to get me to help. If you’re going to travel with a belt, you might as well use one that has a secret money stash. Now let’s hope no professional muggers are readers of this website.

That little zipper pouch is the safest spot for your big bills. Image courtesy of Amazon.
That little zipper pouch is the safest spot for your big bills. Image courtesy of Amazon.

Where to Buy

I got my first belt from Magellan, but Amazon has various ones as well.

Packing Cubes ($23)

I used to think of packing cubes as unnecessary additional packing material, but I finally gave them a try and now I’m a fan. Somehow, any time I ended up somewhere for more than a day, my backpack would look like something detonated inside of it. Now with some strategic packing, I can find what I need more easily without leaving my pack and belongings in shambles.

What my backpack usually looked like before I used packing cubes. Image courtesy of US Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons.

Where to Buy

Amazon and eBags have a variety of these. I got a set of several different sized ones. Don’t make the mistake I made, though — pick a different color from your backpack.

Get a set with multiple sizes - not every category or your clothes takes up the same amount of space. Image courtesy of Amazon.
Get a set with multiple sizes – not every category or your clothes takes up the same amount of space. Image courtesy of Amazon.

Mini Plastic Soap Container ($2)

I’ve accumulated plenty of mini soap bars from hotels over the years, and I’ve been amazed at how hard it is to find a travel soap dish that isn’t obnoxious in size. It seems the plastic soap dish manufacturers always want us to travel with a full size Dove bar.

Where to Buy

Amazon has nothing, but the perfectly sized leak-free travel soap container does exist. MUJI, a Japanese minimalist retailer, carries it and calls it a “PP Portable Case.” Unfortunately, the only US locations are in New York, LA and San Francisco, but it’s available online. I pick up a few cases at the MUJI To Go in JFK Terminal 5 whenever I pass though because these things are very easy to leave behind when traveling.

I practice what I preach.
I practice what I preach.

Price Protection Reminder

I do all of my retail shopping with my Citi Prestige card because of Citi Price Rewind — available for several Citi cards — although the silk liner is the only item here that will run you more than a few dollars. If you do buy it at REI, which usually charges retail, you could get REI’s warranty with a discount online retailer’s price. Keep in mind with all of your shopping that Chase is getting rid of price protection, but Citi is keeping theirs despite a few decreases to limits. There are apps that will search and submit price protection claims for you, but these all take a cut.

Are you looking to back that pack up and could use some guidance? Send your questions to !

Cover photo courtesy of the author.

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