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What to Pack for Borneo: Essentials for Hiking, Swimming, and Jungle Trekking

After not finding much help online when preparing for a recent trip to the Malaysian state of Sabah, I created this list of what to pack for Borneo. My 12-day itinerary included a mountain climb to Mt. Kinabalu, snorkeling, city excursions, a jungle river cruise, and a homestay. Here’s what I packed, items I didn’t need, and things I wish I packed for a trip to Borneo when traveling at the start of the rainy season.

What to Pack for Borneo: The Suitcase

My journey to Borneo required three separate flights, so I wanted to travel with only a carry-on. I took my trusty Cotopaxi Chumpi duffel backpack that I’d taken on other adventure trips like the Galapagos and Haida Gwaii. It fit everything I needed and I didn’t have to worry about checking it. When needed, I could carry it on my back, and the outer nylon-canvas material held up in the rain. And, of course, I used my trusty packing cubes to organize everything.

What to Pack for Borneo: The Personal Item

For this trip, I brought Lifeproof’s Squamish 20L backpack as my personal item. I knew I’d need a day pack that was on the larger side for the Mt. Kinabalu trek, so this bag did double duty. I could fit my toiletries, electronics, and my tablet. Although I didn’t travel with my laptop, there is a separate laptop sleeve on the back panel of the pack.

What to Pack for Borneo: In-Flight Essentials

  • Silk eye mask: This plush silk eye mask from Yala adds a luxe element to the rather non-luxe experience that is a red-eye flight.
  • Headphones: I’m a die-hard Beats Solo-wearer for comfort (just don’t forget the aux cord!).
  • Collapsible water bottle: This model from Hydaway saves packing space when not in use.
  • Tablet: This came in handy on bus rides and my flights that didn’t have seatback entertainment.
  • Neck pillow: Nemo’s Fillo pillow isn’t embarrassing, and the memory foam cushion works wonders.
  • Snacks: I was happy to have KIND bars for my flight and hiking.
  • Rehydration tablets: When traveling for 18-plus hours it’s a good idea to pack some supplements like rehydration tablets. I was also able to use these on my climb to refuel.
  • Travel blanket: If your long-haul flight to Asia doesn’t provide a pillow or blanket, you might want to bring your own for extra comfort.

What to Pack for Borneo: Shoes

  • Waterproof hiking boots: LOWA’s Innox Evo GTX boots did the trick for me. The grippy sole was perfect for the uphill climb and muddy trails I encountered when climbing Mt. Kinabalu and my feet actually stayed dry.
  • Casual slip-ons or sneakers: This pair from Rockport was great for travel days, casual dinners, and walking around cities.
  • Water shoes: You’ll want water shoes for water activities and walking around the beaches.

What to Pack for Borneo: Jackets

A look at what I wore hiking Mt. Kinabalu:

What to Pack for Borneo: Clothing

  • Hiking pants: These were mainly what I wore in Borneo for comfort, despite the warm temperatures and humidity. I really like the stitch-knit waistband on Helly Hansen’s Hild Quick Dry pants.  I also packed other lightweight pant styles including Coalatree Trailhead Adventure Pant and prAna’s On the Road Pants.
  • Cropped and full-length leggings: Bring one pair of your favorite full-length leggings and cropped leggings for hiking and travel days.
  • Quick-dry layering tops: Due to the rain and varying activities, bring a few layering pieces like tanks, short-sleeve tees, long sleeve tees, and pullovers (only needed if you’re doing the Mt. Kinabalu summit). I packed styles from SmartWool’s Merino 150 line.
  • Sweater: Bring one lightweight sweater for travel days and to cover up if you need to.
  • Sports bras: These are a must for active days. I travel with GapFit’s medium impact styles.
  • Swimsuits and cover-up: Pick a more active-style swimsuit that is on the conservative side. Malaysian Borneo is a majority Muslim country, so it’s best to have a sarong or cover-up with you at the beach or hot springs.
  • Maxi dress or long skirt: For night’s out, casual dinners, and exploring Sabah’s cities.
  • Shawl: I always travel with a neutral-covered shawl that can double as a scarf, travel blanket, or cover-up. This came in handy when needing to cover up during a visit to a local village in the mid-day heat.

What to Pack for Borneo: Toiletries

  • O.T.C medication: You won’t be able to recognize any brand names in Borneo, so I highly recommend taking a traveler’s first-aid kit with standard medication.
  • Blister band-aids: You’ll want these if you’re trekking or climbing.
  • Basic toiletries: Depending on your accommodations, you may want to bring travel-size versions of your essentials. Properties in Borneo will vary in what they offer in terms of amenities, so to be safe and bring the basics. Dr. Bronner’s castile soap is a life-saver in Borneo.
  • Disposable shower cap: Bring some to cover your hiking boots during transit.
  • Bug spray and anti-itch cream: Mosquitos are common in Borneo, especially at dusk and dawn, so you’ll want heavy-duty spray and relief.
  • Sunscreen: Always travel with a natural and reef-friendly sunscreen.
  • Hand sanitizer: For everyday use especially on long travel days and when using public restrooms. I like to travel with cloth wipes as opposed to a gel.
  • Toilet paper/wipes: One word, squat toilets. Kleenex’s slim pack tissues are a great travel-friendly option.
  • Vaccines and medication: Check with your doctor before your trip, but I traveled with prescriptions for altitude mountain sickness, traveler’s diarrhea, and malaria.
  • Lip balm with SPF: During the mountain summit, you’ll definitely want this handy.
  • Essential oils: I traveled with Saje’s “Gutzy” oil to remedy any digestive issues. I was the only person on my group trip to not get sick from water or food.
  • Reusable plastic baggies: These are great for wet swimsuits, dirty laundry, extra toiletries, or to double as a dry bag for your phone.

What to Pack for Borneo: Gadgets

  • Backup phone charger: If you’re going to take a lot of photos and videos on your phone that will drain your battery, bring a backup charger.
  • Fitness tracker or waterproof watch: Any trip to Borneo is an active one, so you’ll want a watch to check the time as opposed to a bulky phone.
  • Camera with zoom lens: A trip to Borneo will include once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters, so you’ll want more than just your iPhone camera for this trip.
  • Adapter: Malaysia uses U.K. plugs. Travel with an adapter that also has USB ports for multi-use charging.
  • Head torch: For the Mt. Kinabalu summit and any night walks.

What to Pack for Borneo: Accessories

  • Hat: If you’re doing the Mt. Kinabalu hike, you’ll want a beanie-style hat. Otherwise, a brimmed hat is a good idea for sun protection.
  • Hiking socks: These are a must for hiking and other outdoor activities. If you’re doing the Mt. Kinabalu climb I recommend a few pairs of wool socks as well.
  • Waterproof gloves: You’ll only need these if you’re doing the Mt. Kinabalu summit.
  • Quick-dry towel: Throw this in your daypack for treks since you never know when you’ll come across a swimming hole or waterfall.
  • Headbands: To keep hair out of the way during climbing, trekking, or during rainstorms.
  • Collapsible tote bag: Pack a simple style that can double as a market tote, beach bag, or to hold your camera bag.
  • Sunglasses: Pack a sportier and affordable pair in case something happens to them.
  • Extra underwear and socks: If you don’t think you’ll be able to do laundry, pack a few more extra pairs than you think you’ll need.

What to Pack for Borneo (That I Didn’t)

  • Collapsible umbrella: I didn’t bring one and was happy with just my poncho, but some travelers in my group did use an umbrella during the climb and hikes.
  • Portable clothesline: Bring one if you’ll be doing a lot of outdoor activities or washing any articles of clothing. Due to the humid climate, clothes take longer to dry.
  • Backpack cover: To make sure your pack stays dry during the mountain climb and while jungle trekking. An empty trash bag will also do the trick!
  • Books or card games: If you don’t have a tablet, you’ll want some form of entertainment, whether it be a hard copy of the book you’re reading or playing cards for downtime.
  • Snorkel gear: If you have your own snorkel gear, weigh your options of renting vs. bringing. Gear is readily available to rent, but if you want your own fins and mask and plan on enjoying the water almost every day, you may want to bring your own.
  • Dry bag: You’ll definitely want this if you’re at the beach or on boats and island hopping around Kota Kinabalu’s islands. I used plastic baggies, but wish I brought a dry bag.
  • Binoculars: I was able to borrow my tour leader’s, but you’ll want a pair for wildlife spotting.
  • Bird watching book: If you’re headed out trekking or on a jungle river cruise, it’s handy to reference the “Birds of Borneo” book.

What Not to Pack for Borneo

  • Dressy clothing, accessories, or shoes: Unless you’re heading to Borneo for a special event, leave your valuables and special-occasion clothes at home.
  • Jeans: You don’t need these in the wet, hot, and humid climate of Borneo. They’ll just take up weight and space in your luggage.

More from SmarterTravel:

Ashley traveled to Borneo on Intrepid Travel’s Sabah Adventure tour courtesy of Intrepid Travel. Follow all of her adventures (big and small) on Instagram and Twitter.

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