Hostels: they’re great for their social atmosphere and budget-friendly prices. Some of my favorite travel moments, from chatting over beers with rock climbers in Laos, to spontaneously joining a group of Floridian surfers on a trip to the Nicaraguan coast, happened thanks to hostels. However, having stayed at at least a hundred hostels in my life, I’ve learned they’re not so great at guaranteeing a snore-free snooze or freshly washed towels.
None of this is much of a problem if you know what to bring when staying in a hostel. Whether you’re backpacking through Europe or exploring Asia on the cheap, use this hostel packing list to take your stay from decent to delightful.
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Quick Dry Towel
Buy it: REI Co-op Multi Towel Lite Large ($19)
Some hostels provide a towel, but it’s not too common. Generally, they’ll charge you to rent one (usually about $2 for your entire visit). If you want to avoid the fee, bring your own. Quick dry towels, like those sold at outdoor stores, work best because they pack down small and won’t take up half of your backpack.
Buy it: Master Lock 141D Solid Aluminum Padlock ($6)
Since staying at a hostel generally means sharing a dorm with others, you’ll want to put your valuables (passport, backup credit card, laptop, etc.) in a locked locker. Hostels will always provide a locker for you, but you need to bring the lock. Again, you’ll be able to rent one if you forget to bring your own ($2-5 per visit) but why waste money on those fees? They add up.
Buy it: Alaska Bear Eye Mask ($10)
Sleeping in a shared space means you don’t have complete control over when or if the lights are on. Especially if you want to sleep in, bring an eye mask to help you sleep through your early-rising neighbor getting up, flipping on the switch, and starting her day.
Buy it: 3M TEKK Protection Corded Reusable Earplugs ($3)
Noise can be a problem in hostels. Whether it’s a loudly-snoring bunkmate (this also happens to be my biggest reason for staying in female only dorms — fewer ladies seem to snore) or that never-ending party downstairs, you’ll want earplugs to block it out.
Buy it: GoToob Reusable Travel Bottles ($19 for a 3-pack)
If you don’t usually pack soap and shampoo when you travel, and instead rely on what hotels give you, you’ll want to rethink that plan. Ain’t none of that free shampoo business happening in a hostel. If you want to shower with soap and shampoo, you’ve got to bring it yourself.
Buy it: Wet/Dry Bag ($49)
If you ever wanted a wet/dry bag, it’s in a hostel. Keep your damp items separate from your clean and dry ones. Use it to separate dirty laundry from the rest. Store your swimsuit and towel inside. Or toss your wet towel in there, fresh from the shower, when you’re packing to leave in a hurry.
I also use mine to store my second set of shoes away from the other stuff in my bag.
Buy it: Old Navy Flip Flops ($3)
You’re packing these for the showers, and only for the showers. I’m definitely not giving you permission to wear flip flops (thongs) outdoors, at least in Europe. However, you’ll want them for taking showers — since, like everything in a hostel, it’s a shared space.
A super cheap pair from Old Navy or Target will do.
Since you’ll be sleeping in a shared space or, at the very least, have to wander out of your private room to get to your shared bathroom, bring some PJs.
You’ll probably feel more comfortable opting for a pair of casual shorts or leggings. I know I don’t want to wander around a bunch of strangers with my booty hanging out.
Buy it: Uno Card Game ($5)
People love hostels because they make it easy to meet other travelers. Often, hostels will host their own events to get hostelers to mingle, but I’ve always had the best conversations just sitting around the common area.
Break the ice and offer to share your food (or beer if they allow). Or, break out a game or pack of cards — which is an especially good tactic if you’re dealing with language barriers.
Buy it: : Woolite Travel Laundry Kit
Hostels often have an area where you can wash your clothes (definitely ask before attempting it in their sink, some explicitly forbid it). If they have machines, they’ll usually have laundry detergent for sale, but feel free to bring your own and take advantage.
Staying in a Hostel? Don’t Bring These
Travelers used to recommend bringing your own sheets when staying at hostels. Like towels, hostels would sometimes charge for their use. However, most don’t do this any longer because they want to avoid hostel guests bringing in bed bugs. So, no need to pack sheets anymore.
No need to pack a sleeping bag at all — unless you plan on actually camping. Some hostels, particularly in Asia, Africa, and Central/South America will have an even cheaper rate if you’re willing to ditch the dorm room and instead sleep in your tent or a hammock.
Lastly, don’t bring any unnecessary valuables — which is actually a good rule of thumb for all types of travel.
Tips for Packing Your Bag for a Hostel Stay
Once you have your hostel must-haves in hand, here are a few hostel-ready tips for getting it all in your backpack:
Hostel dorms typically don’t have a ton of space. Expect to have a small locker and a corner of the room for your stuff — but not much more. Don’t be that person with the giant suitcase hogging all of the dorm room floor.
Avoid Putting Things in Plastic Bags
Okay, this is a personal pet peeve. Being awakened by a fellow dorm mate rustling through their bag full of plastic bags full of who-knows-what, for ten minutes, is the worst. If you want to organize your backpack, use packing cubes instead.
Keep Important Things Easy to Access
Pack things you use frequently, like your toothbrush and clean underwear, in an easy to reach space in your backpack so you avoid the 10-minute rummage all together.
To be considerate to other guests, I also like put my PJs, phone charger, and toiletry bag on my bed as soon as I arrive. That way, if I come back after a few people are asleep, I’ll make less noise getting ready for bed.
If you plan to stay in a hostel on your next travel adventure, you’ll likely have to adjust your packing list a little bit.
Make sure you’re bringing things like earplugs, an eyemask, PJs, and a small padlock to deal with the shared space. A towel, toiletries, and flip-flops are essential for showering in a hostel. If you want a quick way to break the ice with other travelers, throw in a deck of cards or game. However, you can leave sheets, sleeping bags, and unnecessary valuables at home.
When you’re putting it all together, remember to pack light, use packing cubes instead of plastic bags to organize things, and keep items you use frequently easy to access.