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. You might keep a gym bag pre-packed in your car or bedroom that you can just pick up and go. Some gym-goers even have multiple bags at the ready for different types of workouts.

If you're traveling or visiting a gym other than your own, it is not uncommon to forget some essential piece of gym gear. Additionally, certain items provided free of charge at your gym (such as towels or locks) might not be free 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 you take 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's too big or try to cram everything into a bag that is too small.

The right-sized gym bag will carry all of the things you need and be mobile enough to carry on public transportation (like the 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 music player). The 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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Your gym shoes might seem like an obvious item to pack, but it's important to keep in mind the specific type of shoe you will need for a particular workout. You don't want to show up for a spinning class to find you only have bulky running shoes.

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

Having different athletic shoes to rotate will also allow you plenty of time to dry each pair out completely between workouts. This will help you avoid unpleasant foot odors.

Workout Clothes

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

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

  • Clean underwear and/or sports bra
  • Fresh pair of gym socks
  • Headgear (headband, hair tie or clip, or a cap)
  • Swimsuit, swim cap, and eye goggles 
  • Workout top and bottoms (shorts, sweatpants, or leggings)

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 might 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 will dry in a short amount of time. Microfiber towels can be more convenient because they dry faster.

Most gyms provide clean towels for members to use, which will save you space in your bag. However, some people prefer to use their own towels.

If you are concerned about the sweat and germs left behind by your fellow gym-goers, bring some hand sanitizer with you. You'll also find that 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 hard spinning class or HIIT workout. A reusable water bottle makes it easier to stay hydrated. Some bottles can keep beverages cool for up to 24 hours.

Prices for bottles typically range from under $10 to well over $50. If you choose a reusable plastic bottle, choose one that's 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 some people "get into the zone" and pace their workout. If you don't enjoy the piped music at your gym, bring along your cell phone or music player, Don't forget your earbuds and make sure that your device has enough battery life to last for your workout.

You'll also want to make sure you have a way to securely carry your device 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.

Look for music playing devices or accessories that are designed for sports, as they tend to be more robust.

Heart Rate Monitor

Smartwatch showing pulse.
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A heart rate monitor is not necessary for working out, but it can be nice to have. It's especially useful for interval training or when you're pushing yourself into the anaerobic zone.

Wristband-style heart rate monitors are available in all price ranges. You can also go for higher-end models such as the Fitbit Charge 3 which offers functions like a pedometer as well as heart and respiration tracking.

Personal Care Items

Refreshing deodorant for hygiene
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Hygiene is important no matter how upscale and spiffy your gym is. Beyond freshening up after a heavy workout, you also want to avoid athlete's foot and other common locker room infections.

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

  • Antifungal spray or ointment
  • Bath towel
  • Blowdryer
  • Body and face moisturizer
  • Comb or hairbrush
  • Deodorant
  • Extra underwear
  • Makeup and remover
  • Menstrual products (tampons, pads, menstrual cups)
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Shower sandals or flip-flops
  • Soap or body wash
  • Spare contact lenses and solution
  • Washcloth or scrubber

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

Lockers
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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.

Larger padlocks might be 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 to ask about locks. Leave as many valuables as you can at home or at your hotel. If you feel that the security at a gym is lax, ask if the front desk has facilities to store your valuables. If not, 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. If you didn't have a chance to fuel up beforehand, a high-carb bar is best suited before a workout.

To feed your muscles after a workout, choose a high-protein bar if you won't have a chance to eat a meal 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. Instead, many use an app, your phone number, or a fingerprint scan.

When you are traveling, check if there are reciprocal deals that allow you entry into another gym under the same membership.

If your gym still uses a card, make sure to keep it handy in your gym bag. Some cards are tag-shaped and can be easily secured to a keychain or clipped to your bag. Regular-sized cards can be stored in a gym bag pocket.

If you use different bags for workouts, swimming, or yoga class, but you need a card for all of your activities, it might be easier to keep your card in your wallet.

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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.