It’s been almost a month since I left India (I know because I only have six anti-malaria pills left to take!) and as I sit here by the washing machine at my Airbnb, double-washing a month’s worth of post-India laundry, it seemed like a good time to reflect on what I packed for India, what I should have packed for India, and what I seriously didn’t need to pack for India.
In this guide I’m not going to tell you to pack t-shirts and pants, because you’re a Big Girl and you can dress yourself. Not only that, but I felt that a lot of advice for foreign women about dressing in India was quite outdated or based on other women’s experiences in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Many young Indian women today wear Western-style clothing, and I saw local girls wearing shorts, crop tops, leggings and other clothing that often appears on bloggers’ “Do Not Wear in India” lists.
My only overarching advice for packing clothes would be to choose natural fibers like cotton and linen where possible, opt for clothes that can be machine washed in hotel and hostel laundry services, and think about packing more darker colors and prints that are forgiving if they get dirty. India is a big country and what works in Goa might not work in Rajasthan, so do a little research about the climate and weather in the places you plan to visit and pack accordingly.
Instead of talking clothes, I want to talk about ten things that I believe are absolutely essential for all solo females traveling to India. These are products that don’t take up very much space, that are hard (or impossible!) to shop for locally, and that I used daily, or almost-daily, during my two-month trip to India. You need to include these ten items on your India packing list, and you need to get them at home, before you arrive.
Keep reading for my list of essential things to pack for India, and if you’ve been to India already, let me know in the comments what you think about the list!
10 Things to Pack for India
#1 – Sunscreen
Although it’s possible to buy sunscreen in India, I highly recommend bringing your own sunblock from home. The sun protection sold in stores in India is often problematic for multiple reasons. First, it is often kept in the glass window at the front of the store, and long-term exposure to heat and light can degrade the product inside. Second, since few Indians wear sunscreen regularly, many bottles of sunscreen that I saw were expired or nearing their expiry date. And, perhaps most concerningly, many manufacturers add skin whitening chemicals to the sunscreen sold in India to appeal to local consumers.
Personally, I always travel with at least three sunscreen products: one for my face, one for my body and one for my lips. If (like me!) you take anti-malarial medication in India, you may be more photosensitive and prone to sunburns, so you’ll want to choose high-SPF sun protection, like those I’ve linked to.
#2 – A Menstrual Cup
Until you’ve been to India, it’s nearly impossible to understand the amount of garbage that litters the country. According to the India Times, the county generates almost 26,000 tons of plastic waste every day – that’s the equivalent of nearly 9,000 elephants! I wanted to do my part to reduce the amount of waste that would end up in India’s streets, so I chose to use a silicon menstrual cup, rather than pads or tampons, during my trip. Yes, you will end up using some bottled water to keep it clean, but you’re eliminating dozens of plastic wrappers and pads from further polluting India. Personally, I use the Diva Cup in the size recommended for my age group, and it’s been great.
(Let me know in the comments if you’d be interested in reading a whole article about traveling with a menstrual cup!)
#3 – Stick Deodorant
It can get hot and sticky in India, and personal hygiene standards are quite different than in the West. Indian consumers don’t generally use antiperspirant sticks; instead, they prefer using roll-on deodorants and body sprays (that don’t have any sweat-busting properties). I don’t think the sprays actually do anything (and they’re awful for the environment!), and I could only get the roll-on products to work if I applied the within seconds of getting out of the shower, in a room with the AC set to max, so it had time to dry before I started sweating. If you’re used to having dry armpits, you’ll want to add your own antiperspirant stick (or two) from home to your India packing list. The same goes for natural, aluminum-free deodorants: bring your favorite from home.
#4 – A Torch or Headlamp
India experiences a lot of power outages, and it seems like they always happen at the worst possible moment: when you’re squatting over the hole in the floor that serves as a toilet, or when you’re trying to pack all of your things into your bag for a 5:00 am train departure. I can’t imagine how many toilets I would have fallen into, and how many things I would have left behind in hotel rooms, if I hadn’t had a torch, flashlight or headlamp to illuminate the room. Personally, I used a mini-headlamp that I’d received as a gift, and I liked the hands-free aspect (especially in the toilets!).
#5 – A Universal Adapter
Although many Indian hotel rooms are comfortable and well-equipped (did you see my hostel in Udaipur?), many others are located in old buildings that predate the widespread use of mobile phones, digital cameras, laptop computers and charging banks. I stayed in many hotels and hostels in India where I only had access to a single electrical outlet, and it was only thanks to my universal adapter that I was able to get everything charged and ready to go for the day ahead. The model I carry has three types of prongs (including the correct shape for Indian outlets), one electrical socket (for a laptop or hair dryer) and four USB ports.
(Remember that adapters aren’t converters! Make sure that the thing you’re plugging in can handle the voltage in India, which is 220. Most electrical devices nowadays are dual voltage and should be fine. Although I had no problems using my low-powered travel hair dryer with my adapter, it would likely blow the internal fuse if you tried to use a normal, high-powered dryer.)
#6 – A Lightweight Towel
In India, hotels will provide towels for guests, but most hostels will charge a fee for travelers who didn’t bring their own towel (this is especially true in dorm rooms). Either way, though, it’s rare to find a hotel or hostel that will let you take their towels to the beach. So, if you’re heading to South India, you’ll want to pack your own lightweight towel. I gave up on microfiber travel towels years ago, and instead prefer to carry a traditional Turkish towel, or peshtemal. Made from 100% cotton, they are soft, fast-drying and natural. As a bonus, they can double as an extra layer of clothing on a bus or train where the air-conditioning is set to max. As always, I’m linking to my favorite, affordable Turkish towels from Amazon. I started by just buying one, but loved it so much that I expanded to a whole set.
#7 – Travel Laundry Detergent & A Universal Sink Plug
India is dirty. I’ve traveled throughout the developing world before, but was truly unprepared for just how dirty India would be. There is trash in the streets, there is cow poop everywhere, roads are often unpaved even in major urban centers and, oddly, I got pooped on by birds seven times in six weeks. All of this grime will do a number on your wardrobe, so you’ll want to have some travel laundry detergent on hand to keep your clothes clean. In the past I’ve recommended laundry detergent sheets, and I still do for shorter trips, but now I’m carrying a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap. Since most hotel sinks won’t have plus, bring your own universal plug as well. It hardly takes up any space and it’s so useful.
#8 – An Inflatable Travel Pillow
Indian roads are bumpy, and your neck will thank me if you pack an inflatable travel pillow for long bus, car and train rides. You might even find yourself breaking out the travel pillow at some of your cheaper accommodation, where pillows are likely to be flat or lumpy. You can also use a regular travel pillow, but I’ve always preferred the space-saving properties of the inflatable versions (more room for shopping!). Choose one with a washable exterior, and that comes with its own carrying case to keep it clean when it’s not in use.
#9 – A Retractable Cable Lock
Every time I prepared to move between cities in India, I got my retractable cable lock ready by placing it at the top of my bag. When I checked out of a room in a hostel and left my bag in the common luggage storage area, I always looped the cable through my daypack, my backpack and the luggage rack to make it more difficult for someone to grab my bag and run. Then, when I was on a train or bus with a luggage rack, I would again lock my bags to the rack to make them more difficult to steal. Since most thefts are crimes of opportunity, I wanted to make it easier to grab someone else’s bag, rather than mine (sorry other people!). Since my cable lock is quite thin, I can also loop it through the zippers on my daypack to keep the compartment with my valuables discreetly locked.
#10 – A Reusable Water Bottle
Confession: I messed up when I added this item to my personal India packing list, and I’m here to help you avoid the same mistake. You definitely want to have a reusable water bottle when you come to India, as many hotels and hostels will have huge jugs of purified water, or water purifying machines, that you can use to refill your own bottles. However, I made the mistake of bringing my favorite water bottle from home – a CamelBack Eddy with a flip-up straw – and after the first use I threw it back in my bag, never to use it again. The problem? Well, as I’ve said, India is dirty, and having an unprotected straw at the top of my bottle meant that my mouth was touching some very questionable things. When you buy a reusable water bottle for India, choose one like the Hydro Flask that doesn’t have a straw attachment, and where the lid covers any parts that will touch your mouth. You’ll thank me later.
And a Few Things You Don’t Need to Pack for India
- New clothes. Don’t spend a lot of money on clothes for your trip while you’re still back home. There is fantastic shopping in India, and if you’re open to local shops, local designers and local trends, you can really add to your wardrobe in a fun and fresh way by shopping locally. If there’s a Fabindia store in the city you’re visiting, make sure to check it out!
- Most personal care products. Aside from sunscreen and stick deodorant, Indian supermarkets and corner stores have a good selection of skincare, hair care and fragrance products.
- Those weird cup-tubes that let women pee standing up. Just no.
- Sleeping bag liner. If you’re planning on trekking, you might want one of these for your treks. Otherwise, do not carry a sleeping bag liner around from hostel to hostel with you. Every hostel and hotel I stayed in had fresh, clean sheets on the beds, and using the same liner from property to property only increases the chances of a bugs and germs hitching a ride on your trip.
- Money belt. I’ve never used one and I suspect I never will. Just carry a good purse that zips closed (and preferably that has a flap over the zip, or with a second zip inside for your most-valuables) and be aware of your surroundings. A lot of my readers like the Travelon Anti-Theft bags, and while I haven’t tried them, I can see they’re very popular and a more reasonable option (in my opinion) than what I like to call “sweaty boob money”.
Planning a trip to India? You seriously need to read Questions & Answers About Solo Female Travel in India, where I cover everything from visas to health to sacred cows.
Then, click through the full archive of India posts on Fearless Female Travels.