I Backpacked for Two Weeks at 30—Here’s Every Product That Got Me Through

Worth carrying on your actual back.

Updated 10/10/19
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Getty Images/Graphic by Cristina Cianci

When I was 25, hitting Asia with a backpack for five months seemed inconsequential. I had a remote job, and, what I now realize was a youthful complexion that I’d yet to give any serious consideration to. Sleeping in bungalows, boats, and bunks after schlepping around town in 100 percent humidity and a similar UV index was more fun than it was uncomfortable, and didn’t seem at the time like a commitment to any long-term consequences. 

Fast forward five years to today, when it’s become first nature to carefully monitor every single acne scar, forehead line, and hint of melasma on my face. Needless to say, when I prepared to hit the road in Vietnam for even just two weeks last month, living out of a backpack suddenly came with an entirely new set of considerations. And gear.

When you're carrying your belongings on your back (please remind me again why I still think that's a good idea?) every item in the bag needs to count. From the products that brought moisture to my 15-hour flights to the mists and sprays that prevented me from having to touch my face with my hands during a dirty day, here’s every product (on top of my usual routine) that earned its miniature-sized weight during my trip.

Face Tonic
Ursa Major 4-in-1 Essential Face Tonic $14
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Perhaps my favorite thing about the mini I have of Ursa Major’s 4-in-1 Essential Face Tonic ($14) is that it’s a spray—on long-haul flights when I need to address my skin at least twice, this provides the refresh I need without actually requiring me to touch my face with airplane hands. The tonic comes with a fresh, herbal scent and leaves my skin feeling like I’ve completed at least three steps of my regular routine, which is exactly the type of value I’m looking for in a middle-seat scenario.

Calming Hydro Sleeping Mask
Mamonde Calming Hydro Sleeping Mask, Calendula $25
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I keep my inflight routine pretty simple to avoid introducing germs, but this is my favorite product to slather on before passing out. The jelly-like consistency of this mask feels cool even when the actual reality is that I'm taxiing in a metal tube on top of a field of black tarmac. And, the presence of calendula petals is legitimately soothing—perfect for a moment full of both environmental and emotional stressors. 

Cucumber Eye Gel
Boots Cucumber Eye Gel $3
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I love scanning the shelves at Boots for cheap treats whenever I’m in the U.K., and this basic green tube has been in my pack for years. A little squeeze of this simple gel goes a long way, again providing a cooling and calming layer of moisture to the sensitive areas around my eyes before I close them for hopefully the entire flight, but more realistically until someone puts food in front of me again.

Micellar Makeup Remover Wipes
Simple Micellar Make-Up Remover Wipes $7
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I try to limit my use of wipes since they’re pretty bad for the planet, but in the heat, humidity, and pollution associated with travel in big cities, they’re pretty essential to my routine. I like Simple’s Micellar Make-Up Remover Wipes ($7) for makeup removal, but before I left for this recent trip, I found a pack of their Micellar wipes at Marshalls. I ripped these in half and used them whenever I needed a refresher—at lunch, on an overnight train, or during one of my husband’s regular exhibits of profuse facial sweat.

Skin perfecting serum
Caudalie Skin Perfecting Serum, 30 ml $49
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Key Ingredients

Niacinamide, Salicylic Acid

When my chin broke out furiously during three humid days in the middle of northern Vietnam’s rice fields, I tried Caudalie’s Skin Perfecting Serum ($49) for the first time and it was immediately my strongest weapon in the fight. I slathered this on twice a day to clear out my clogged pores and calm the situation down—my hormonal spots dried out more quickly than normal, cementing this product as a go-to in my monthly routine moving forward.

A-OXitive Water-Cream
Avène A-OXitive Antioxidant Water-Cream $42
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This moisturizer from French pharmacy brand Avène goes on lightly—perfect for layering with a heavier SPF for long outdoor days—without sacrificing any bounce (thanks, hyaluronic acid). But most importantly, the vitamin-C-and E-packed formula does double duty to protect against the actual pollution that comes with any day of living on this planet, but especially with a day of motorbiking or a night of drinking on the streets of Hanoi.

broad spectrum SPF
PCA Skin Weightless Protection Broad Spectrum SPF 45 $44
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Even though this SPF from science-forward PCA Skincare comes with a semi-high factor, it leaves no white residue or film on the skin, absorbs immediately, layers well with makeup (though I didn’t wear any on my trip) and stands up well to the sweat test. My face didn’t burn once during my two week trip near the Equator, and neither did my eyes.

Hoppin' Fresh Deodorant
Ursa Major Hoppin' Fresh Deodorant $12.50
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It only took me 29 years and a bout of familial breast cancer to quit using aluminum-based deodorants (there's no proven connection between aluminum and breast cancer, but I'd rather be safe than sorry!). But that change hasn’t come without its challenges. Through trial and error (and about 10 different natural products), I’ve discovered that I can’t use formulas with baking soda without breaking out in a painful rash about two weeks into regular use. So brands like Corpus and Kopari have become my regulars. But when it’s 104 degrees and humid outside, sometimes a girl needs some baking soda to keep things in check. Ursa Major’s Hoppin’ Fresh Deodorant would definitely not work for me long-term, but it’s perfect to leave in my bag for the occasional emergency application, and it comes with a minty sensation that cools down even the most serious pit situation.

calm nutrient mist
True Botanicals Calm Nutrient Mist $28
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Yes, I need a green tea, chamomile, and kombucha mist to spray during night train rides, 500-step mountain climbs, 2.5-hour boat rides and long urban walks. This spray comes with a therapeutic aroma, a cooling sensation and a touch of hydration. There’s almost no moment during a high-effort day that this mist doesn’t isn't relevant.

White Tiger Balm
Tiger Balm White Ointment $4
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My two-leg, 20-plus hour commute to Vietnam brought back a knot in my lower back that hadn’t reared its head in months, so, naturally, I booked a massage for day two of my trip. Then a tiny and deceivingly strong masseuse literally climbed on top of my back and essentially left me bruised and sore for days. Enter Tiger Balm—Asia’s favorite solve-all salve. This icy-hot white version was touted as the local product, and it works just like regular Tiger Balm to provide relief to muscular soreness and pain.

milk + rice cream
Johnson's Baby Milk + Rice Cream $2
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I bought this feeling fairly certain that it was for diaper rash, but the milk and rice combo was too good to resist. Turns out it’s actually just a really light, whipped body moisturizer with a pleasant scent. It never became slimy when I practically sweat my entire body weight during activity after application, and soothed even my driest leg skin—a result of forgetting my razor and relying on disposables provided in each of my hotel rooms. Milk + Rice is not available in the States—scan the shelves of the convenience stores of Southeast Asia (a highly recommended practice regardless of your goal) to get yours.

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