Packing for India can be daunting especially if it’s your first visit. Before our first big Indian adventure, I spent days sifting through online packing-lists, one telling you to bring almost nothing, the next listing everything under the sun. So what do you ACTUALLY need when packing for India? Forget the she-wees and water filtration systems. Unless you plan to get really far off the beaten path, you’re not going to need them. This list of Do’s and Don’ts when packing for India will apply to 99% of backpackers. It’s the list I WISH I HAD, before we left on our trip.
DO be conscious of cultural taboos
Girls for most of India this means packing things that will cover your shoulders, bum and knees. Wearing revealing clothing, including shorts and tight fitted pants, is not the norm in India and will get you a lot of unwanted attention. Showing a bit of belly is ok, however. You’ll be seeing lots of Indian belly so you’ll blend right in. For me, adhering to the norms meant packing ¾ length skirts, maxi dresses and parachute pants paired with a mixture of loose fitting t-shirts and crop tops. Topping the look off with a light scarf is also a good move. It will let you assess the situations as they come and cover-up further when needed. Guys, in comparison, you get it pretty easy. Shorts and t-shirts are fine, but avoid singlets that show your shoulders unless you’re on the beach.
My go-to Indian outfit
DON’T confuse Goa with the rest of India
If you aren’t planning on leaving the Goan beaches then you can basically ignore the first few point. Bikinis and beach dresses are fine on the touristy beaches where you’ll see people wearing everything (and nothing) as they parade the sands. That said, still try to be respectful of local customs. Once you leave the beach cover-up. Walking down the street in a string bikini is going to get stares and won’t make you the best ambassador for your home nation.
DO avoid the temptation to pre-holiday shop
Given you may not own a lot of long skirts and baggy pants, it can be very tempting to go on a pre-holiday spree. Do your best to avoid temptation because everything you need, and more, is available in India for way less than you’ll pay at home. There is a huge variety of cool, light-weight backpacker clothing available in every tourist hub. My advice is to head off with a near empty suitcase and pick-up items as you need. This way you’ll be sure to pick things that are weather and culturally appropriate and will help you avoid and a bunch of dead-weight in your bag in the form of things you’ll never wear.
Save your shopping for when you arrive
Technology & Toiletries
Now that you’ve taken care of clothing, you should have lots of space left for the other stuff. Unfortunately, for me it’s the rest of the junk (toiletries, books, towels) that end up taking up the most of my space. There are some things you really do need to bring from home, but most stuff you can pick-up while away. Try not to go overboard when packing for India. Here is a small list of things you should bring (IT SHOULD ALL FIT INTO A SMALL BATHROOM BAG) and a list of the bulkier items that you should leave at home.
Padlocks – a padlock comes in useful in so many ways. A small one for you bag always helps in dissuading the opportunists, and a slightly larger one is great when staying at cheaper beach huts and hotels where there’s a fairly good chance that more than one person holds a key to the lock they provided. Swap their lock for your own and you can eliminate any worry about others entering your room. That same lock will also come in useful on train journeys allowing you to chain your bag to the railing under your seat.
Pocket mirror – girls this one if for you. I always travel with a little compact mirror for those occasional times that I actually want to pluck my eyebrows or even put on a little eye liner. If you’re staying in budget rooms there often won’t be a mirror to be found and when there is, it’s normally too dark to see a thing. Your own little mirror won’t take up any space and can be a savior when you’re tired of feeling like a dirty backpacker!
Blow up pillow – This one is optional, but came in useful for us oh, so many times. There is seriously nothing worse than falling into bed after a long day to find that: a) your pillow smells horribly of mildew, b) its stuffed with itchy straw or c) it’s actually a mountain of bricks and not a pillow at all. A blow up pillow takes up no room and is awesome on a train, on a plane, on the beach … you get it.
Small torch – Street lights are pretty limited in India and power outages are frequent. A pocket torch will help you avoid the cow patties and other mysterious items as you navigate your way home.
Pocket Solar charger – Again this one depends on you. I tend to use my phone quite a lot as it doubles as my camera, laptop, alarm clock and travel guide so being able to charge it up while I’m lying on the beach, or on the train is a big bonus. Budget rooms don’t always have sockets so it’s always good to have a bit of extra juice.
Condoms and other intimate items – I won’t go into too many details here, but India is still a conservative country and picking-up some of the more intimate items can range from awkward to impossible (especially with the added language barrier). Avoid an uncomfortable situation by bringing whatever you require from home. It will save you a lot of hassle down the ling.
Socks – Even, or should I say especially, when travelling in the hottest month, keeping a pair of socks in your purse can be a life saver. Many of the holy sites and temples will require you to remove your shoes, but in 40 degree weather things can get rather hot on the tootsies. A pair of socks will allow you to enjoy the wonders without the awkward tiptoe dance.
Eye mask and ear plugs – These are a god send on every train journey, especially if you’re travelling third class and don’t have a curtain to block out the light.
Pocket board game – We always travel with a mini magnetized backgammon and cribbage board plus a set of cards. They fit into my purse, can be great way to make friends and certainly make waiting for the 4 hour delayed train more pleasant.
Take cues from the locals about what is appropriate to wear…
A towel – bringing a towel from home is heavy and cumbersome. I found 90% of the hotels we stayed in (even the most budget one’s) provided towels – although oddly enough not toilet paper. Pick up a cheap sarong for those places where a towel is not provided. It takes up way less space and dries much quicker. When on Goa’s beaches you’ll find every beach bed is lied out with a fresh towel for your use so even here you don’t need one. Beds are usually free if you buy a drink.
Sleeping sheet – again these can be cumbersome and quite expensive to pick-up. A cheaper option is one of the sarongs you can find for sale all over. They come in all shapes and sizes so it’s easy to pick up one that suits your needs.
Dress shoes – Guy or girl this is something you simply don’t need. As a women I find I can normally get into anywhere in the world with a dressed up pair of flipflops, but my hubby normally worries about needing a pair of proper shoes for restaurants and bars. However even when popping into the fanciest hotel and sky bars in Mumbai our flipflops were never questioned.
Laundry line – Laundry services are everywhere that there are travelers and they are super cheap! Don’t waste time with laundry lines and detergent. Just pay your dollar and get your entire suitcase of clothes washed.
Toiletries – Pack your toothbrush and those particular items you really want from home, but leave the big bottles of shampoo and body-wash. This stuff can be picked up easily and cheaply once you arrive and you’ll avoid the risk of leaking bottles on the plane.
A full medical kit – There are obviously going to be some meds you’ll want to bring from home, but try to avoid buying out the entire pharmacy when packing for India. I’m guilty of this and always end up lugging around remedies to every ailment under the sun and inevitably end-up using almost none of it. Bring your prescriptions and a few basics that you’re likely to use (a dose of antibiotics and a malaria emergency pack is always good if you’re getting off the beaten path) but in most places you’ll be able to find a pharmacy that has the basics so skip bringing the bandages and cold and flu tablets. You can pick these up if and when you need them.
More than one book – We’re avid readers so it’s always a challenge figuring out what reading material we’re going to bring when packing for India or any other destination that we are going to be travelling for a long while. Whatever book you decide on, just bring the one. There are book swaps available all over India, basically at every hotel, hostel or café. And with a good selection in English it’s a great way to pick up a gem that you otherwise would never have discovered.
India Guidebook– When packing for India, I succumbed to temptation and picked up a copy of my favorite guide book just before leaving home. If I’d had waited (as I knew I should!) I could have picked up a copy for a tenth of the price on arrival or even better grabbed one for free at one of the hotel book swaps.
…But maybe not from this guy