Most of these links are to REI. I've had a really great experience buying from them. They have a great return policy and buying from them online is easy. I also have links to amazon.com, especially with the electronics section. Full Disclosure: I earn a (very) small referral fee if you decide to buy through my links. Don't worry if you don't, I don't mind.
Do not skimp on your backpack. This will essentially be your home while you are traveling. Everything you own must fit in it and it must be tough enough to handle the rigors of your journey. There's a few website I found advocating ultra light packing by either buying items there, or stuffing everything into a 28 liter backpack. 28 liters is small, and while I was able to fit all my gear in there, including my shoes, it leaves no room for anything you pick up traveling. You will pick up things while traveling, so make sure you leave extra room in there. This was good advice I got from startbackpacking.com.
Osprey Packs Kestrel 38 (REI) and I am very happy with it. At 38 liters you can pack lightly but still have extra room for things you pick up along the way. Plus you can take the backpack with you on most buses and planes. It has a built in rain cover which is a MUST in South East and East Asia. I've been caught in many sudden down pours and three typhoons. I'm pleased to say the rain cover keeps my pack nice and dry. There are plenty of adjustable straps and compression straps and a sleeping bag compartment. The backpack straps are adjustable for height as well which is nice so it should fit tall and short people unlike smaller backpacks.
Unless you actually want to lug all your gear with you everywhere you go you'll want a daypack to hold your water, sunscreen, maps, travel book, whatever you want. I got the REI Zip Travel Daypack. It folds up very small but becomes quite a strong little day pack. This actually has sturdy straps unlike a lot of other fold up daypacks. I love this thing because it takes up so little room once folded up.
Duffel Bag: nice to have, cheap so get it
I have found the Kiva Key Chain Duffel to be a very useful little duffel bag. It folds up so small but is strong enough to hold maybe 20 pounds. I use it a lot when I fly so I don't have to go digging through my backpack for my laptop or books, etc. You can also store laundry in here or souvenirs you picked up, whatever. It's so small and cheap that I think everyone should get one just in case. Kiva also makes a fold up backpack but I do not recommend that. Do not buy the backpack by mistake, the straps are so flimsy and can fall off your back if you have something heavy in there. The duffel bag on the other hand is great.
I bought the REI Lite X-Large MultiTowel. This is the best towel I have ever owned. It's small and light, much thinner and lighter than a regular towel but absorbs much, much more water. You can dry yourself quickly, and you can roll up your clothes in it and stomp on it to allow your clothes to dry quickly. This fast drying towel is always dry in the morning. It takes 2-4 hours to dry. It's also antibacterial so it will not smell as quickly. I got the X-Large so I could wrap it around my waist, but like I said it's small and folds up very small. The smaller sizes will not wrap around your waist. In case you are wondering I wear size 34 pants and am generally considered thin by most people.
Toiletry Kit: not quite essential but highly recommended
I purchased the Eagle Creek Koala Kit. Please trust me when I say this kit will make your life much, much easier. This is the smallest toiletry kit I was able to find which is of course great for packing light. I have been able to fit everything I need in it. It also includes a small mirror which can take a beating and not get scratched. It's got a very handy coat hanger like hook so you can hang it up in the shower.
Water Purifier: medium budget
I have a SteriPEN Classic. This is the most badass water purifier I have ever seen. It uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria in your water making it safe to drink. People from the Peace Corps in Africa use it, it's great for camping, and of course it's great for backpacking if you end up in a region where getting bottled water is difficult. There is no chemical after taste since it just uses light. Basically you just dip the pen in your water, press a button, stir the SteriPEN until the light stops and then you can drink the water. As much as I love this I have to say this is more a luxury item unless you will for sure be in a region where it's hard to get water.
Sleeping Sheets: medium budget
I bought a Sea to Summit Silk Travel Sleeping Sheet. It's more to protect me from bed bugs or dirty beds, but I have actually never needed to use it. Hostels are much cleaner than you think. Still it folds up very small, it's light, and dries fast. You want silk because it offers better protection against bed bugs than cotton -- cotton will not protect you from bugs. Silk is also much better to sleep in than cotton in East Asia and South East Asia's humid heat.
PacSafe 85: medium budget
You don't really need a PacSafe 85 Security Web, in fact all backpackers will tell you not to get one. However since this was my first time traveling I decided to get it since it folds up quite small. It's been useful on trains and boats when you have to leave your stuff and anyone can walk into your room and take it. Generally in Hostels I have not needed it, but sometimes I'll use it anyway. It's more for peace of mind. You can also have it over your pack while wearing it; this protects you from slash and grab (where a thief slashes the bottom of your back, grabs your stuff and runs) but I don't recommend using the PacSafe while wearing your backpack. It draws unnecessary attention while you're walking around.
Electrical Outlet Adapter
I saw this APC INPA Universal Plug Adapter first at Fry's Electronics but it's cheaper at amazon. This adapter is not only compact, but it fits every plug I've thrown at it. Note that this is just an adapter, not a converter. That means it will not change the voltage or current. However thanks to globalization pretty much all modern electronics are able to handle the voltage and current from any place in the world. Only the plug needs to fit, and this adapter fits everything!
You will need a flashlight for sure if you decide to go backpacking. I don't mean just for the spectacular caves you will probably visit or trek through, I also mean you'll need it when you find yourself in a hostel's dorm room. There will be time you'll need to rummage through your things or just get in and out of the room while it's pitch dark and everyone's sleeping. Don't be that jerk that turns the light on. Use a flashlight; this is the Gerber Infinity Ultra LED Flashlight. This isn't exactly the flashlight I have, but it's really close. It uses one AA battery which is a huge plus because AA batteries are sold everywhere in the world. It also uses a LED so the light is bright and won't drain your battery giving you long battery life. Did I mention it's waterproof so you can use this guy in the rain and in caves with waterfalls? It is! The clip allows you to clip it to your hat turning it into a very nice headlamp.
Eagle Creek Pack-it Compressor: highly recommended
I love the Eagle Creek Pack-it Compressor since I am able to compress all my clothes and save a ton of space in my backpack. This is really the key to saving space in your backpack. Eagle Creek makes the best compressors in my opinion. They do not let air back in and are very durable. I found some cheaper ones at Target, but those let air back in and feel cheap. I'm able to fit all my clothes in the medium sized bag, but a large, and a set are available. I use one for my clean clothes, and another for my dirty clothes. If you prefer you may also get the Eagle Creek Pack-it Compressor at Amazon.
Money Belt: essential
Nobody likes to wear a money belt but when you're in a foreign country you really don't want to lose your passport. Enter the Eagle Creek Silk Money Belt. Again I chose silk because it's the best cloth for humid areas like Southeast Asia. You can put plane tickets, credit cards, your passport, and of course money in here. Wear it under your clothes so nobody will know you have it. Use a 'mugger's wallet' for your day to day cash. You can wear it around your waist, around your stomach (above your belly button), or diagonally across your chest (my fav). You can also get it at amazon.com if you prefer.
Laundry Clothes Line: essential
I love this Flexoline Clothes Line. Be creative when you travel and you'll find a way to hang it up somewhere. The surgical tubing it uses eliminates the need for clothes pins. It's sturdy and can hold heavy wet clothing. It's been a pleasure to use.
Pick up a cheap one while you're in Asia. Unless you're in Japan you can get a compact umbrella from $3-$8. I prefer having a small one I can carry around in my daypack. Once I bought it I just took it to every other country since it was so small. I got a bigger one in Taiwan since I went through 3 typhoons there, but I tossed it when I left for Japan because it was cheap and big.
I'm not exactly a navigator but it's super handy to know which way is north. Get a compass and don't leave without one. It really doesn't matter which one you get as long as it reliably points north. If you can afford it, get a watch with a compass built in (not those dinky little bubbles on the wrist which do not work), that would be my preference.
There are two types of soap I recommend having used both. Dr Bronners Soap and Sea to Summit Pocket Soap. Dr Bronners Soap can be used to clean everything... and I mean EVERYTHING. You can wash your hands, body, hair, dishes, clothing, and dishes with this. Oh, you can also brush your teeth with it, which I tried just for the heck of it - it works. The only down side is it's a liquid... though it's possible to buy bars as well but carrying a bar around is not convenient. Sea to Summit Pocket Soap is very small and they're not liquid so there are no restrictions to carrying them. You can wash your hands, body, hair, dishes and clothes with them but I found Dr Bronners to be more effective. It's quite nice to have both because you'll be limited on how many liquids you can bring but you can load up on the pocket soap. Also available at amazon: Dr Bronners, Sea to Summit. I believe prices are cheaper at REI (the original links).
Universal Sink Stop: essential
This sink stop is small, cheap and doesn't take up much room. You'll find that in some hostels the sink stop isn't working or missing! Put this guy to use and wash your clothes.
The most important thing I can say about clothing for traveling in Asia is: No Cotton, No Cotton, No Cotton. In the heat and humidity of East and South East Asia cotton will feel like a wet sponge on your body. It will also never really feel dry after washing. You want clothing made of wool, nylon, or polyester.
I bought 2 Icebreaker Superfine 190 Tech T-shirts for my entire trip, unfortunately for you they are currently sold out. These shirts are made of merino wool. Merino wool is a very fine grade of wool which is not itchy. It resists odor, is light weight, and dries super fast. This shirt will not stink. It's that good. I love mine. Since the super fine (190) is currently sold out (at the time of this entry) you can also get the SuperFine140 or the SuperFine190 Kent Polo. Polos are great for backpacking because you can flip the collars up to help protect you from the sun. I plan to get some polos whenever I return home. There's also the Icebreaker BodyFit200 if you prefer something to show off your buff muscles.
I bought two pants, one was a Mountain Hardwear Mesa Convertible Pant, the other was a Columbia Sportswear Men's Titanium Omni-Dry Silver Ridge Cargo Pant. I got two so I could wear one while washing the other, but after traveling for a while I believe you actually could get by with just one pair of pants. They are both light weight and dry super fast! The Mountain Hardware is more expensive but actually convert into a decent pair of shorts. The Columbia pants convert into short shorts but are much cheaper and have a zipper for the back pocket to help prevent pick pockets. I'm very pleased with both pants and would highly recommend them.
Mountain Hardware from REI: 30" inseem, 32" inseem
Columbia Silver Ridge from REI: 30" inseem, 32" inseem, 34" inseem
I also you recommend you get a pair of board shorts and just use them as shorts while you travel. They double as regular shorts really well, and of course they dry quickly. If you're daring, or lazy you an go commando with them so you have less undies to wash.
Ok, everyone needs it. The best travel underwear out there is by ExOfficio. They make light weight, durable, and quick drying underwear. You can wash them every night and they'll be ready in the morning. You can also wash them by just taking them into the shower with you. It's very convenient for a traveler. You can get briefs or boxers. Note that the boxers take a significant longer time to dry than the briefs but they'll still be done in the morning. If you prefer amazon: briefs, boxers. I actually got both and while I'm a boxers guy at home I have found the briefs to be better with the heat and humidity. =)
The problem with socks is that you're always washing them. So of course they need to dry fast, and as a backpacker you'll need something that won't give you blisters. Enter the Smartwool PhD Running Ultra Lite Micro Sock and SmartWool PhD Outdoor Light Crew Sock. If you prefer amazon: micro sock, crew sock. They are made mostly of merino wool giving them the properties of those icebreaker shirts I was raving about. Like I said, NO BLISTERS with these bad boys. Get them, your feet will thank me. The reason I also listed crew socks is because when you go hiking your ankles will be a favorite spot for mosquitoes, ticks, and other vile blood sucking insects. Protect yourself and get at least 1 pair of crew socks for your jungle trekking. Trust me, I learned the hard way. Icebreaker also make some merino wool socks and I recommend them as well, but they're a little harder to find stateside. I think 3 to 5 pairs of socks is a good amount depending on how often you'll be wearing sandals or flip flops.
Do not skimp on your shoes. You will be walking all the time so a good pair of shoes is a must. I got the all weather Salomon Elios XCR Hiking Shoe. There are only two things I looked for in my traveling shoes: goretex and comfort. Comfort is obvious, as I said, you'll be walking a lot. Goretex is wonderful for Asia because it rains all the time. I deliberately walked through many 3"-4" puddles just for fun and my feet were always dry. FYI black is available but sometimes hard to get.
Just get a the cheapest pair you can find. If you don't have them by the time you get to Asia just buy some there. You want a cheap pair and not expensive Tevas because you'll need to remove your shoes when entering most places in South East Asia, including hostels. Theft does happen, so it's better to lose a cheap pair than an expensive pair.
You will need a good hat because you will probably be out in the sun a lot. It's important to protect your whole face, not just your eyes. That is why a baseball cap is not effective for sun protection, baseball caps only protect your eyes. I got the Teva Gore-Tex Boonie. It's a great boonie because it offers excellent sun protection, it's made with goretex so it will not let water through, and it folds up really small and is light weight. This boonie survived the monsoons and typhoons I've trekked through in South East Asia and so I highly recommend it.
Jacket: nice to have
You don't really need a jacket in South East Asia, but it may come in handy on airplanes, ships, or air conditioned trains. I got the Marmot PreCip Rain Jacket. I actually have an older version of this jacket and I'm very pleased with it. It kept me dry during those typhoons I had to brave in Taipei to get my meals. It also kept me warm when I was in the Xian and Chengdu China where it was much cooler. I do recommend this Jacket if you've got the money to spend on it, but if you don't it's ok. An umbrella is best in South East Asia because it's hot and humid when it rains.
Rain Pants: nice to have
I did also get some rain pants, the Sierra Designs Hurricane HP Rain Pant. Again this is a nice to have, not something you really need. I only used it in two typhoons in Taiwan. Due to the heat and humidity in SE Asia you really won't want to wear it. I knew I wouldn't use it very much so I didn't want to spend a lot of money on it. It kept me dry and it's the cheapest decent rain pant I could find.
I'm not exactly the best photographer in the world. In fact I don't know anything about photography and at the moment I don't care to learn anything about it. I just want a small camera that I can point and shoot. If that's you, then here are the cameras I think are best.
This is the Canon PowerShot SD770IS. I'm using a much older version of this Camera - SD400 no longer sold- (mine, sadly, does not have image stabilization). It's a great compact point and shoot camera. The Canon Digital Elph line has received much acclaim over the years so there's a history of quality here. The 770IS has been greatly improved since my model. The camera has a 3x optical zoom and image stabilization which will make sure shaky hands don't ruin your pictures. The camera is also quite affordable. I also like the fact that is uses SD Cards which can fit easily into the netbooks I'll cover below. It's available in black and silver, black shown here.
If you're ballin though, you need to get the Sony Cybershot DSC-T700. This is without a doubt the best compact point and shoot on the market. It has 4 gigs of memory built in so you don't have to buy a Sony Memory Card, a 4x optical zoom, and a huge screen in the back. It's also extremely thin. If you want style and substance this is the camera for you. It's available in grey, silver and pink, grey shown.
It's generally considered best not to attract attention while you're backpacking. Wearing a nice watch around is one of those ways to attract attention. So if you prefer to be discrete or if you just don't want to drop over $500 on the nice watch below here's a nice budget option. This is the Timex Expedition Digital Compass Watch. I'm a big fan of Timex and I use their watches. It uses Indiglo for the backlight so you will see everything at night, and it has a digital compass built it. Like I wrote earlier, you MUST have a compass with you when you backpack. Just knowing where north is can be a lifesaver when you're in an unfamiliar area. At the time of this entry this watch was on sale for about $35.
If you're ballin' and don't mind the extra attention get the Suunto X10M Wrist-Top GPS Computer Watch with Altimeter, Barometer, Compass, and GPS. This is the watch my dive instructor recommended (yes you can scuba dive with this) and it's the watch I wish I had. With a built in compass, GPS, barometer, altimeter, thermometer, and memory what more would you need? Oh yeah, it also tells time. This watch can charge via USB, and accept data transfers. It has software that allows it to work with Google Earth so you don't need to buy anything extra. You can read a review of the watch here.
PhoneMy take is you really don't need a cell phone while traveling. In fact, while bouncing around the world it's more fun to not have a phone where people back home can bother you. But, if a phone is what you want look no further than the Nokia E71. It is an Unlocked Cell Phone with 3.2 MP Camera, 3G, Media Player, GPS. This is the U.S. Version (Americans, do not get Asia versions, you will regret it when you come home.).
This smart phone has it all, and is pretty sleek and stylish in my opinion. It's also very thin, so it fits nicely in your pocket. What is it all? Well, it comes with a mp3 player, a video player (will play flash youtube videos too), a built in GPS, 3.2 megapixel camera, can record video, check your email and surf the web via WIFI or your data plan. It has a super nice qwerty keyboard which really makes typing emails and sending text messages very nice. I really love the keyboard, think it's totally superior than any touch screen or regular phone pad. I should also say that I am very pleased with the battery life. With normal usage, including taking pictures and using wifi, it will last me 2 days. With heavy usage I can still last the whole day before having to recharge. With minimal usage it will last me at least 3 days.
I use Gamin's Mobile Xt instead of the software built in for GPS mapping. It is vastly superior to Nokia's and great for when you are lost or just trying to get around.
For a more in-depth review go to my post on just this phone: i what? Nokia E71 please.
There's a lot of debate for backpackers on whether or not they should bring a laptop. Most people say no as there are internet cafes most places and hotels/hostels often have computers too. That said there are a few security concerns when traveling. Programs called keyloggers can record everything you type and who knows what kind of filth is on a public computer. After all, it is essentially the village bicycle.
Vagabond Vince's Pick for a Laptop: Eee PC.
Budget Pick and best overall: ASUS Eee PC 1000HA 10-Inch Netbook
Most people in the USA are not familiar with the ASUS brand, but as someone that has been using, building, repairing, or programming with computers for at least 20 years now let me assure you it's a top quality brand. ASUS is known as one of the best hardware manufactures and their products are often rebranded in the USA.
In anycase this is the Eee PC 1000HA and it's the perfect laptop for travelers. It's 10" and only 3.2 pounds (heaviest of all the netbooks but the battery life makes up for it). Despite this small size it sports a 1024x600 resolution so you can view entire webpages horizontally without scrolling, a built in camera and mic (perfect for skype), a 7 hour battery life, built in wifi 802.11b/g, ethernet, and 3 usb ports! Asus was the first company to come out with netbooks (mini notebooks) and now faces a lot of competition but the reason I made this my pick is because of the awesome battery life in addition to the comfortable keyboard, nice screen size, and hardware specs. It also doesn't hurt that the Eee PC has tons of users already so tons of support is available online.
Consider an EEE PC 901 if you want something smaller. The keyboard is very small where I think it would be hard to use for more than 15 minutes unless you have small hands. It claims 7.8 hours of battery life but you'll get around 5-6 hours which is still great. Has bluetooth and wifi 802.11N. My pick of the 2.4 pounders because of the battery life.
Just remember that netbooks do not have a CD/DVD drive. If you need one you'll have to get a usb external drive like this Samsung external slim usb drive. I don't think you'll need one though and if you really want to watch a movie you can get a digital version, or most hostels have a tv and dvd player.
Medium Budget: Averatec 1050 / Twinhead F10D
This is the actual computer I'm using on my trip. I originally intended to use my Asus Eee PC, which is the oldest/original model, the 704. I previously worked as a software engineer and I wanted to be able to tinker with my computer and possibly do some programming work while traveling. The 704 the resolution is just too small for me to comfortably do that, so I looked around and found the Averatec 1050. It's the same thing as a Twinhead F10D, but in America it's rebranded by Averatec. In any case this is an old laptop, but at 10.6" and with a 1280x768 resolution it's still pretty portable and gives me a decent resolution. It works well enough despite being quite old now and it wasn't terribly expensive. If you're interested in this computer you'll need to search around as I don't believe it's being sold in the USA now. Unless you find a good deal on it though, I'd recommend you find something a little newer. I'd still recommend the Eee PC 1000HA over this unless you need a DVD drive built in.
I'm Ballin: Lenovo IdeaPad 59-014847 U110 Series 11.1" Laptop (Intel Core 2 Duo L7500 Processor, 3 GB RAM, 120 GB Hard Drive, Vista Premium)
If money's not a huge issue I recommend the Lenovo U110R IdeaPad. Lenvo is basically IBM's old Thinkpad division. I'm a big fan of theirs as they made, in my opinion, the most reliable laptops around. This laptop is ultra compact, but has a nice and big display, with a regular sized keyboard. Unlike cheaper netbooks it does not sacrifices power for portability and has a powerful processor. Basically it's got everything you'd expect in a powerful laptop but in the size a backpacker can love. FYI it's also available in black, just change the color in the drop down box.