11 Must-Have Items for an Athlete's Gym Bag

For anyone who goes to the gym regularly, packing a gym bag is a fairly routine procedure. Some people even keep a gym bag pre-packed in their car or bedroom so that they can just pick up and go, and some gymgoers even have multiple bags at the ready for different types of workouts.

However, when traveling or visiting a gym other than our own, it is not uncommon to forget any one of the multitudes of things we keep in our gym gear. Moreover, certain items provided free of charge at your gym, such as towels or locks, may not be free of charge elsewhere.

To prevent mishaps, here is a list of "must-haves" for every gym bag (plus a few luxury items to stow away just in case).

Gym Bag

Sport bag with jump rope and sport shoes
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Before taking the time to pack a gym bag, consider whether the bag fits your needs. It doesn't make sense to lug around a bag that is too big or to cram everything into a bag that is too small. The right-sized bag will carry all of the things you need and be mobile enough to carry onto a bus or subway if needed.

If you plan to shower at the gym, consider getting a bag with separate wet and dry compartments (including one for your cell phone or MP3 player). The shoulder strap should be adjustable and rest comfortably on your shoulder without cutting.

Opt for bags that are washable and breathable to avoid mildew and musty odors.

Gym Shoes

Sports shoes and socks on wooden background
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Gym shoes may seem like an obvious item to pack, but it's important to keep in mind the type of shoe you will need for a particular workout. For example, you don't want to show up for a spinning class to find you only have bulky running shoes.

There are certainly great all-purpose athletic shoes to wear to the gym, but you can often benefit from pairing the right shoe to the right activity. In the end, there are a variety of affordable shoes designed specifically for weightlifting, cross-training, indoor rock climbing, and indoor running.

Having different athletic shoes also allows you plenty of time to dry them out completely between workout, avoiding unpleasant foot odors. Before you head to the gym, pack the right type of shoe for your intended workout.

Workout Clothes

Men's Jogging supplies shot knolling style.
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There is nothing more aggravating than forgetting an important piece of workout gear. A missing pair of socks can turn an otherwise productive workout into an opportunity for blisters and chafing.

Depending on your workout, some important items to pack include:

  • A workout top
  • Workout bottoms, including shorts, sweatpants, or leggings
  • A fresh pair of gym socks
  • A fresh pair of underwear, including a sports bra
  • Headgear, including a headband, hair band, or cap
  • A swimsuit, swim cap, and eye goggles 

A Gym Towel

Woman with towel resting at gym
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Some gyms require you to bring a towel to the gym floor and for good reason. Even if you don't overtly sweat, any moisture left behind may be felt by the next person using the equipment. Using a gym towel is not only hygienic, but it's also good manners.

Cotton towels are usually best in the gym as the fibers are extremely absorbent and dry in a very short time. Most gyms provide clean towels to use, which can save you space in your bag. However, some people prefer to use their own towel and find microfiber towels are more convenient because they dry faster.

If you are concerned about the sweat and germs others leave behind, bring a hand sanitizer with you. Most gyms offer antibacterial sprays and towels to clean equipment before and after use.

Water Bottle

Woman holding water bottle in gym
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Nobody likes waiting in line at the water fountain, especially after a sweaty spinning class or HIIT workout. Having a reusable water bottle makes it easier to hydrate yourself, some of which can keep beverages cool for up to 24 hours.

Prices range from under $10 to well over $50. If using plastic, ensure that the bottle is made with non-toxic bisphenol A (BPA) plastic. Newer, vacuum-sealed water bottles should ideally be condensation-free.

Tunes and Earbuds

iPod on Laptop Keyboard
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Music helps people "get into the zone" and pace their workout. If you don't enjoy the piped music at your gym, be sure to bring along your cell phone (or MP3 music player) and earbuds. Be sure you have enough battery life on your device and a way to carry it securely and keep it dry while you exercise.

The same applies to your earbuds. It often pays to buy a quality pair that is both wireless and sweat-resistant. Opt for models designed for sports which tend to be more robust.

Heart Rate Monitor

Smartwatch showing pulse.
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While a heart rate monitor is not necessary for working out, it can be nice to have. It's especially useful to have when doing interval training or pushing yourself into the anaerobic zone. Wristband-style heart rate monitors are available in all price ranges, or you can go for higher-end models like the Fitbit Charge 3 which have multiple pedometer/heart/respiration tracking functions.

Personal Care Items

Refreshing deodorant for hygiene
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Hygiene is important no matter how upscale and spiffy a gym may be. Beyond freshening up after a heavy workout, you need to avoid athlete's foot and other infections common in locker rooms.

A shortlist of "must-have" personal care items include:

  • Shower sandals or flip-flops
  • A bath towel
  • A washcloth or scrubber
  • Soap or body wash
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Deodorant
  • A comb or hairbrush
  • Body and face moisturizer
  • Makeup
  • Antifungal spray or ointment
  • Tampons
  • Extra underwear
  • A blowdryer
  • Spare contact lenses and solution

If often helps to have a dedicated travel bag to accommodate all of your personal care items for the gym. You can buy travel-size portions of lotions and shampoos in most drugstores.

Gym Lock

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Many gyms have self-locking combination lockers, but some still require you to bring your own lock. This can be tricky when traveling since not all locks fit all lockers. Some of the larger padlocks may be far too big for certain catches, while tiny luggage locks can easily be broken into if a gym has poor security.

To avoid mishaps, call the gym in advance for advice. Leave as many valuables as you can at home or your hotel. If you feel that the security is lax, ask if the front desk has facilities to store your valuables or carry them to the floor with you.

Energy Bars

Woman eating cereal bar after training and holding smart phone
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You may want to keep an energy bar or two in your gym bag for a pre- or post-exercise snack. A high-carb bar is best suited before a workout if you weren't able to fuel up beforehand, while a high-protein bar helps feed the muscles after a workout if you're not going to eat anytime soon.

Your Gym Membership Card

Gym employee helping couple at front desk
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Many big-chain gyms no longer require you to present your membership card to enter the gym and instead use an app, your phone number, or a fingerprint scan. If your gym still uses a card, keep it handy in your gym bag.

Some cards are tag-shaped and can be easily secured to a keychain that you keep with your keys or clip to your bag so that you won't forget. Regular-sized cards can be stored in a gym bag pocket.

If you use different bags for workouts, swimming, or yoga class, and need a card, it may be easier to keep in your wallet so you don't forget. If you are traveling, check if there are reciprocal deals that allow you entry into another gym under the same membership.

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  1. Thakare AE, Mehrotra R, Singh A. Effect of music tempo on exercise performance and heart rate among young adults. Int J Physiol Pathophysiol Pharmacol. 2017;9(2):35-39.