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August 30, 2010 8:34 PM   Subscribe

What's the most useful item you own that would easily fit into a backpack?

I just got an unexpected bonus at work, so I have some extra cash. I'm leaving for Europe next week, and want to know if there's anything I should buy that would make my next year a little easier/more comfortable/more fun.

I'm going to be travelling most of the time, so furniture suggestions and the like are probably not as helpful. Budget is around 50 dollars, but if there's something you swear by that's more (or less) the suggestion is appreciated.

posted by karminai to Shopping (38 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Get a good knife -- Swiss Army or Leatherman.
posted by coppermoss at 8:38 PM on August 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

You have about enough for a Leatherman Wave.
posted by signal at 8:38 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

A phone card.
posted by inturnaround at 8:39 PM on August 30, 2010

Fluxx, if you'll be around English speakers.

A notebook/sketchpad/something that has pages you don't mind tearing off. (I have a Japanese dayplanner with subway maps in the back and little perforated tabs so you can share information with people, and even though I have an iPod Touch now, I'm thinking about getting another one of those next year.)

A Gorillapod.
posted by wintersweet at 8:46 PM on August 30, 2010

I was going to suggest a utility knife but you would have trouble getting though security at train stations and airports during your travels.

So I vote for a small LED flashlight.
Or keep the money and use it for a cheap cell phone one you get to Europe- maybe you can find one that you can buy SIM cards/recharge in different coutries? It would be handy for meeting people and whatnot.
posted by emd3737 at 8:47 PM on August 30, 2010

I keep a Surefire G2 in my bag whether I am in Europe or home in the US.
posted by mlis at 8:47 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Down boots. They weigh very little, fold up small. Warm feet while sleeping. Gotta have 'em.
posted by effluvia at 8:48 PM on August 30, 2010

I find my little halogen flashlight useful in a variety of situations. Headlamp is good too. A compass, if you don't have one.

(If you do get a knife, don't try to bring it in your carry-on. I'm not even sure if you're supposed to put it in a checked bag, but you're more likely to get away with it at least.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:49 PM on August 30, 2010

A headlamp. (This one packs smaller than ones with thick straps.)
posted by salvia at 8:49 PM on August 30, 2010

Nthing a Leatherman. This little guy has been my constant companion for close to 10 years now.

I also don't go anywhere without my mini nalgene bottle.

I just realized both of these things are tiny and adorable. And incredibly useful!
posted by phunniemee at 8:50 PM on August 30, 2010

a towel
posted by p1nkdaisy at 8:50 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Leathermans or Swiss Ary Knives are great, and I do hate raining on parades, but will you have a checked bag to put it in while flying? I have seen similar/same items removed from carryon luggage when going through security checks as little as six months ago.
posted by kellyblah at 8:59 PM on August 30, 2010

Decent looking and comfortable sunglasses, in a hard case.
posted by zephyr_words at 9:01 PM on August 30, 2010

A parachute nylon hammock + slap straps. Instant bed that folds down to the size of a softball.
posted by knowles at 9:02 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's what got me through the middle of nowhere, Africa:

Large, multi-purpose knife (for slicing / spreading food, mostly).
2 pair of socks and a bar of soap. Wear pair #1 on one day, and wash pair #2. Wear pair #2 the next day, and wash pair #1. Rinse, repeat. Don't take more, they'll just weigh you down.
Water bottle.
A nice pair of sunglasses.

I'm sure Europe is a bit different (don't know if you'll be able to travel with a knife, for instance), but these were lifesavers for me in the Karoo.
posted by chicago2penn at 9:17 PM on August 30, 2010

This USB based battery bank multi-device charger. It has a clever little adapter which is worth the price alone -- it will fit almost any lithium ion battery such as the ones used in cameras.
posted by stp123 at 9:18 PM on August 30, 2010

Oh, also, get a good power converter. Not one of the cheap ones for sale in the airport, but a good sturdy one. Like this.

I was totally boned by a really crappy one. The european ones were the worst, in my experience.
posted by chicago2penn at 9:24 PM on August 30, 2010

Headlamp for sure. Always useful. I've left more than a few with people in remote areas of the world that have never seen them before - nothing amazes them more!
posted by kcm at 9:28 PM on August 30, 2010

Came here to suggest the Gorillapod and Leatherman Wave. I am about to embark on an extended trip I and have been thinking about this too. I also like to have a cork screw/bottle opener for picnics and have been considering this camera as a way to bring back high def video.
posted by nestor_makhno at 9:28 PM on August 30, 2010

Some kind of crushable/foldable hat for sun or chilly temperatures.
posted by corey flood at 9:30 PM on August 30, 2010

Good small sketchbook, and some good pencils. Can use them to draw the scenery, and/or make notes of where you've been, jot down addresses and other info you want to keep, etc.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:38 PM on August 30, 2010

Dr. Scholl's blister pads. Really. These things are awesome. Don't get the Band Aid brand look-alikes, only Dr. Scholl's. I've successfully cured myself, family members, co-workers, you name it of blister-wannabe hot spots. These things are awesome. And sterile too so you can put them over anything for a potential hot spot to a ruptured blister. At ~$5 for 5 they won't break the bank and their tiny size should fit in your backpack.

I might also consider a small fuzzy blanket or at least some luxurious travel sheets to make foreign beds feel like home.

Let us know what you pick!
posted by ticketmaster10 at 10:03 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing a Leatherman! The pliers are ridiculously useful - though as some people have mentioned above, depending on where you go/security measures, etc, you might get it taken away from you.

I *think* Leatherman made a TSA-approved multi-tool (no knife, only screwdriver bits, pliers, scissors, etc), but I'm not sure if it's still being made, and I think I read somewhere it's a TSA agent's personal call to take it away anyway, so YMMV. Don't know about Europe in particular.

This is going to sound kind of silly, but what got me through travel was three really good pairs of lightweight, stink-resistant and quick-dry underpants. Ex Officio are awesome, they're easy to wash and hold up well. Worth the investment.
posted by zennish at 10:29 PM on August 30, 2010

I don't travel without this one windbreak/rain jacket I've got, folds up into it's pouch pocket, almost weightless, absolutely worth what little room it takes.

I no longer take a knife but instead buy a razor knife at a cheapo store for a buck or two when I get where I'm going. Again, almost weightless, and sharp as, well, a razor.

Try to find a doc who you can't even communicate with to write you a scrip for pain pills. Hardy har. Forget it. So I take enough alieve to get me by for most stuff, and I take 6-8 hydrocodone tabs from a scrip when I injured myself, badly. Then if I *need* to move from one place to another but I'm debilitated by pain, well, hey, no problem. It's really comforting to know I have it if I'm *way* out in the sticks and no docs around. It's a controlled substance but it's my name on the bottle.

(Thank god for this one pharmacist in Paris who set me up with a needed medication without a scrip when I stayed WAY longer than I'd expected -- I hope his life is good.)

And yeah, get a headlamp and don't go cheap on it, spend the bread to get a good one, w/variable light strengths and *REAL GODDAMN BRIGHT* if you want it, or need it. I've not traveled with one, not yet, but I've worked with one now and they just rock, it was/is surprising to me how nice it is to have hands free bright light.

I hope you have a great trip!
posted by dancestoblue at 10:54 PM on August 30, 2010

Depending on what languages you (don't) speak : point it
posted by benzenedream at 11:08 PM on August 30, 2010

Nthing the LED headlamp. Also the small rain jacket.
I've never found Leatherman-type tools to be worth it, personally.
The U.S. Army poncho liner has saved me on many, many occasions.
posted by atchafalaya at 12:35 AM on August 31, 2010

Duct/gaffer tape.
posted by taff at 1:29 AM on August 31, 2010

Travel towel, hands down. I backpacked with a regular cotton one and then discovered a lightweight travel towel. Tossed the cotton one and my pack was so much lighter.

And a Leatherman is truly useful if you're out and about, especially for cutting up food you buy--bread, fruit, cheese.
posted by zardoz at 3:36 AM on August 31, 2010

I don't go anywhere without a first aid kit with antibiotic ointment, bandaids, gauze pads, ace bandage, Tylenol, calomine lotion, Benadryl, Nyquil in pill form, Pepto-Pismal tabs, Tums, Dramamine. As may be inferred from my response, I've been injured a few times when away from home, and gotten sick when I didn't have handy transport too.
posted by galadriel at 6:04 AM on August 31, 2010

Travel towel is indispensable.

Depending on how you're travelling a travel pillow (not the round the neck type, but an actual pillow that compresses down) can be very helpful.

Also, I don't go anywhere without my Solar iPod Charger.
posted by jontyjago at 6:10 AM on August 31, 2010

Solar charger.
posted by orme at 7:01 AM on August 31, 2010

Guyot Designs MicroBites Utensils, a spork that nests inside a spatula (with an edge for cutting apples,etc.). Mine were like $5 at REI.

Get a couple of small LED lights, like a Photon Freedom Micro light (I have red and white ones, and the clips allow me to hang them from my jammies' collar at night), though any other similar lights would be great.

First aid kit, washcloth, and deck of cards. Sewing kit. The current edition of the Pocket Ref.

A length (ten feet? twenty?) of thin cord (paracord), plus a couple of small spring clamps for sealing curtains, stringing up a temporary laundry line, rigging your rain coat over your luggage, etc., etc. Example: Irwin 2" spring clamp, item #222601 I have a few of these tippe din latex and I am always glad I bought them -- to Disney, to campouts, to the lake cabin, and everywhere else.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:19 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

A compass. It's analog, lightweight and not ever, ever going to need recharging. Having a compass and some basic orienting skills have gotten me un-lost on several occasions. That said being mildly lost and somewhat out-of-place are one of the joys of travel. One thing ... just be sure your maps have cardinal directions on them -- the top of the page is not always north.
posted by cheez-it at 7:20 AM on August 31, 2010

Very slightly above your price range, but look into the Dream Sack. It's a silk sleeping bag that packs up to about the size of your fist. Instant bedding, great for an extra layer if it's cold or for peace of mind if you find yourself in hostels, houses, or what-have-you where the cleanliness of the bedding might be... questionable.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 9:04 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing a Leatherman. I had a pocket knife on me all through Europe and never had a problem. Worst case scenario is that you put it in check-in luggage if security requires.

You can get a cheap functioning compass for a couple of bucks - it's a useful thing to have.

LED torches are super cheap these days too.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:57 AM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so much, ya'll. I ended up getting a nice sleep sack and travel towel. For reference, the sleep sack is here. It feels soft and lovely. When I get to Europe, I may pick up a Leatherman/Swiss Army knife.

That hammock looks so cool, but I know I wouldn't get much use out of it in the Austrian winter-- maybe next summer, though.

Thanks again!
posted by karminai at 3:13 PM on September 5, 2010

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