By Cara Tejpal

In late 2010, I realized two things. One, I am not cut out for structured academia, and two, if you want to travel, stop waiting around for someone to come with you. With these realizations dawning on me, I found a new avatar for myself- ‘College Opt-out and Solo Traveler.’

Around the same time, my parents realized that their little princess was not a little princess. And slowly the dresses, perfumes and jewelry that they regularly presented me with, turned to sleeping bags, hunting knives and hiking boots.  Two years down the road and I have an impressive array of equipment to tide me through every kind of mad adventure I undertake.

Good gear and basic packing skills are essential to any traveller.  Last year when I found myself alone in the pouring rain, without cellphone network, and that too in a non-descript village in Himachal Pradesh with absolutely no clue to finding the people I was to meet up with, the lesson was learnt. And I have a basic list of travel gear I always carry.

This one’s for the gritty wanderer. The one who take trains and buses, stays at grimy guest houses, occasionally camps in the wilderness, dines with strangers and is intent on seeing the world in all its different colors.

# 1 The Right Backpack:

This is your ultimate essential; don’t buy one in a hurry. I did that the first time and landed up with a bulky, inconvenient rucksack that I’ve long since given up on.  Your best bet would be a 35 liter. Though they’re usually marketed as day-packs, I’ve lived comfortably out of mine for 10 days. Make sure the one you choose fits comfortably, has multiple pockets and straps and comes with a rain cover. Rain cover is crucial if you’re traversing the Himalayas.  The bonus is that it’s small enough to take as cabin baggage on flights.

{ Our 61 year old guide Alex charges ahead. This is from the Andaman’s }

# 2 The Swiss Army Knife:

Non-negotiable purchase! If you asked me to choose between my backpack full of clothes and my Swiss knife, there’s a good chance I would choose the knife.  I’ve used mine to cut soap, peel potatoes, hammer in tent pegs, take out thorns and open beer bottles.  If you’re flying, remember to check the knife in! I’ve lost two to security checkpoints in different countries.

The Shawl:

If you don’t want to invest in a sleeping bag, a large shawl/stole can be a lifesaver.  Choose one that comfortably covers the length of your body.  It doubles up as a bed sheet, blanket, headscarf, towel, sling and anything else you can think of.

# 4 Walking/ Hiking Boots :

In my opinion, there are only two forms of footwear you need when you travel. Hiking boots and flip-flops. Ankle high boots with a good grip will allow you to walk longer and further. If you’re ready to spend the money, invest in a waterproof pair. They’ll last you for years. Flip-flops will save you from the grime of shared bathrooms and dirty bedrooms.

# 5 Flashlight:

I know it’s beginning to feel like you’re packing for a camping trip, but a torch can save you a lot of trouble. Power cuts are a reality for most Indians and it’s doubtful that your shoestring budget guesthouse has a generator.  I personally know someone who has eaten a cockroach that got onto her plate when the lights blew! See, if she had a flashlight she would have seen that cockroach, and dropped the plate instead. Now, don’t even ask me about the Andaman snake stories…Point noted?

# 6 A Water bottle: 

For two reasons. One, I like to avoid commercial, bottled water (seriously, are they going to make us pay for oxygen next?). Two, if you’re hiking or have a long journey it’s essential to stay hydrated. Even a 500ml bottle will do. Just make sure to fill it from reliable sources, and keep some chlorine tablets on you just in case.

# 7 First- aid kit:

It doesn’t have to be cluttered or bulky. Just be sure to have a couple of band-aids, some antiseptic cream, mosquito repellent, a mild antibiotic, Pudinhara and a small crepe bandage.

# 8 Camera:

Take pictures! If you don’t, you will live to regret it.  Whether a point and shoot or an SLR, have a camera on your person and record the details of your trip. One pointer- you don’t need ten pictures of the same sunset! Photograph the people around you instead. It makes for better memories.  Also, remember to pack the charger.

{ From my trek to the Valley of Flowers }

#9 Travel Book: 

A small, unobtrusive diary to take notes. This isn’t just for the creative types. If you aren’t comfortable writing about how you feel, just record what you do. A few years down the line, you’ll be able to relive your trip through the notes you made. Travel tip : Write with a ball point pen. I lost one weeks worth of notes, because I was stranded in the rain, my book got wet and the ink ran.

# 10 IPod: 

Do not leave your house without one.  Have ready playlists and full battery charge. Tune out the annoying neighbor, blaring horns and crying toddlers that are an inevitable part of road journeys.  Travel time definitely feels less when you’re plugged in.

# 11 Chocolate:

Late train, screaming kids, crappy food, splitting headache? Chocolate makes everything better. My personal favorite is Crackle, but hey, whatever floats your boat.

There’s nothing quite as exciting as going somewhere new, but if you don’t have the right equipment it can be a pain! Admittedly, I am an impulsive traveller, but if you like to keep a check-list handy, it’s probably a smart idea to make note of the following:

–       Nearest hospital to your destination

–       Recommended cafes and dhabas.

–       NGO’s working in the area

–       Accessibility to an ATM

–       Emergency contact numbers.

Pack smart but light, keep some positive ID on you, check weather conditions before you head out and never be too proud to ask for help.  Meanwhile, start creating your own detailed checklist and whittle it down till it’s perfect for your style of travelling.

{ A scene from one of my trips around Himachal Pradesh }

Those of you looking to buy adventure/travel equipment in Delhi, there are two stores to choose from:

Adventure 18 in Satya Niketan and Adventure Point in Defence Colony. Both stores stock an admirable, array of gear from leading brands. Unfortunately, good equipment comes at a heavy price so make sure you have your account stocked with moolah.

Safe travels!

About the Author | Cara Tejpal is a student of nature, a wildlife conservationist, and a compulsive traveller based out of New Delhi.