Deciding what to bring with you on your travels is a skill all on its own. You need to take into account how long you will be travelling for, the different environments and weather conditions you’ll be travelling through, how you will eat and sleep, and how much you are physically able to carry.
This section is going to assume you will be making a trip over several days and that you’re planning to cook and sleep outdoors for free. If you’re hitching for less than a day you can skip this advice – all you really need is a mobile phone for emergencies, some water, and a packed lunch.
As a general rule I try to carry as little, and as little of value, as possible. Despite this, I always find myself throwing or giving away things when I move on during long term travel. Here is a list of the gear that has remained with me throughout:
Your rucksack should be appropriate for hiking and have straps for your waist. 60-70 litres is a good size, but you can get away with a lot less if you invest in smaller equipment.
Carrying 4-5 waterproof bags of different sizes can help keep everything separate, organised, and dry within the rucksack. When you're staying in accommodation the bags can be taken out of your rucksack, allowing you easy access to your possessions without having to spread them all around the room.
Take as little as possible and keep it practical for your climate. Remember that you aren’t going to change your shirt, underwear, or socks as much as you would at home. Keep your dirty clothing separate from your clean clothing to prevent everything starting to smell.
Basic hygiene & first aid items
Toothbrush, shampoo, and whatever else you need to keep yourself looking presentable. Don’t bother carrying first aid items that you don’t know how to use. The most useful over-the-counter medicines to carry are non-drowsy allergy pills, anti-inflammatory painkillers, insect anti-itch cream, and anti-diarrhoea pills.
Wet weather gear
This is absolutely vital. People don’t tend to welcome wet hitchhikers into their vehicles and it can be hard to dry clothing on the road. Wet weather gear also helps prevent illness and discomfort on the road.
Bivi bag or Tent
A bivi bag (essentially a large waterproof bag that you sleep inside) is more uncomfortable and slightly colder, but nearly as waterproof as a tent and much more discreet. It is faster to set up and take down, doesn’t require soft ground for pegs, and is smaller and lighter to carry. You also maintain a far better awareness of your surroundings in a bivi bag. A tent, however, will keep your gear dry and you get a bit more privacy.
Make sure it’s appropriate for the temperatures you’ll be sleeping in. Synthetic filling is cheaper, but less insulating and doesn’t compact as well. Down filling is warm and compacts well, but when it gets wet it’s hellish to sleep in and requires warm weather to dry.
Inflatable roll mat
These tend to take up a lot of space, but they make a huge difference to comfort (the earth won’t suck all the warmth out of you while you sleep) and are worth having. Get the smallest one possible. If you buy a cheaper foam mat, you can cut it to the size of your body to avoid wasting space.
Ear plugs / eye mask
Bit of a luxury, but these take up no room and make a big difference when you find yourself trying to sleep in bright and noisy conditions next to a road.
Go for small, lightweight, and fast-drying, but make sure you keep it separate from clothing – camping towels start to smell really bad after a while.
One roll is enough. Keep it in a waterproof bag if you want it stay useful.
There are lots of different ways to eat on the road. At a minimum you’ll need a small portable stove, fuel, camping cookware, a spork, and a sharp knife.
A screw on cap is less likely to leak water all over the stuff inside your bag. A metal canteen can be thrown on a camp-fire to boil and sanitise water (let it cool down again before you try to pick it up). Pouches with drinking tubes take up less room when empty and are easier to drink from when hiking. Try to have the capacity to carry about 2 litres, you can always fill up less.
Thick black marker pen
Handy for making signs from scavenged cardboard or drawing moustaches on your partner while they sleep.
Books make for an easy way to pass the time without having to covertly charge a device in fast food restaurants. Bring a couple and trade them with other travellers as you go.
This is a large sheet of soft patterned material that is surprisingly versatile when travelling. I use it as a picnic blanket, a scarf, a poncho, a bedsheet, a sleeping bag liner, a carrier bag/hobo bindle, and for room decoration. With all the practical gear, sometimes it’s nice to have something beautiful too.
Carrying a weapon
Should you carry a weapon? Most people will advise you to carry a knife, but you should consider carefully whether or not to actually do so. I suspect that a knife doesn't offer much more than psychological protection and that attempting to use one as a weapon will only cause an already bad situation to escalate into heavy violence. If something goes wrong and you take out a knife, your opponent will likely react far more extremely than if you had chosen to flee or call for help; they now may legitimately fear for their lives. All you've really done is caused them to receive a big boost of adrenaline, increasing their ability to cause you harm.
Given your probable lack of experience with using a knife as a weapon (and hopefully your hesitance to hurt someone badly) you will be unlikely to be better at defending yourself than if you had no weapon at all. Bear in mind that carrying a knife in some situations may also be illegal and you may face tougher consequences if you do have trouble with the police. Finally, consciously choosing to carry a weapon puts you into a fear mind-set instead of a friend-making one, which doesn’t make for much of a fun adventure.
That said, I have always carried a knife in my pocket when hitchhiking. Its main use is for cooking and I do not really consider it a weapon to be resorted to if things go wrong. For a while when camping outdoors in the USA I carried bear spray, and if anything desperately untoward had taken place then maybe I would have tried to make use of that. The fact is, however, that I have never felt my safety deliberately threatened at any point in any of my travelling. In fact I’ve had many rides with people I might have felt threatened by in different circumstances and they were often the ones who helped me out the most.
The art of packing
To pack your rucksack, lay everything out on the floor in the order you think you are going to use it. Then, starting with the items you think you will need to take out of the bag last, try to fit everything in as tightly as possible. The items you use the most should go in the outer pockets for easy access. If you can, try to place waterproof, durable items right at the bottom, and heavier items close to your back to reduce the force they apply relative to your body. Place hard irregularly-shaped items away from your back so they don’t dig in while you walk. Items you use frequently should go in the outer pockets for easy access.
If your bag is too heavy to walk a few miles with, take some less important items out until it is light enough for you to carry. Remember, you’ll have to walk to find good hitching spots and being able to comfortably carry your bag will make for a much more enjoyable journey.