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Essential backpacking gear the travel books don’t mention

Two years ago I set off on a backpacking trip through South America. The best advice I was given beforehand was this: don’t pack a single thing you’re not prepared to lose.
After my tent was flooded two months in, along with all my belongings, I appreciated the wisdom of such advice, and I can almost guarantee during your travels you’ll encounter situations that will lead you to such an epiphany.
Beyond leaving my most valued possessions at home, there were some things I learned were essential to have while living like a vagabond.

Lots of paperbacks

Bring twice as many books as you think you’re capable of reading. Not only will they prove invaluable on 15-hour bus rides, and will be a source of cheap entertainment on evenings late in the trip, but they’re also a main currency at many hostels. A good book can go a long way when trading your way to meals, local guidebooks, and, most importantly, beer.

Packs of cards

Leave your dictionaries at home. The best tool to translate the many languages of people you’ll meet is a pack of playing cards. It may seem superfluous, but they were a huge part of my trip and the easiest way of finding commonalities with people from all around the world. However, if you’re a big cribbage fan like me, put that passion on hiatus during your travels. I didn’t meet anyone outside of Canada who knew what to do with the pegging board I brought.

Little notebooks

It seems like every day on my trip I was told of a new must-see little town or must-try restaurant, and the only way you’re going to benefit from any such advice is by writing it all down. Basic, I know, but it’s a really important thing that will help you beyond belief. After all, writing down directions becomes much more important when Google Maps isn’t an option.

Small laptop or netbook

Don’t hesitate for a second on this one. Just go to the store, spend $200 on a laptop you’re OK with losing, and treat it as an expense no less essential than your plane tickets. Simply put, waiting in line for crappy hostel computers or visiting grungy, overpriced internet cafés is not worth your time. Rely on nothing except your own computer to keep on top of planning your trip, booking your hostels, writing your blog, using Skype, and watching movies. Keep it small, light, cheap, and nothing that anyone would think of pinching from you. My travel laptop was hot pink with a half-functional, cracked screen. It was something that seemed useless to its previous owner — my mother — but invaluable to me on my trip.