For some people, the concept of traveling for an extended period of time with only a backpack sounds next to impossible. Many of my friends insisted it simply could not be done. But I was determined to travel carry-on only and not have to pay those checked baggage fees for the budget airlines I’d be taking. In the end, not only did I manage to fit all of my stuff into one backpack (under a weight limit of 20 pounds), but there were actually plenty of things that in hindsight I could have skipped when packing. So for all of you looking to travel light, I’ve compiled this list of what I’m glad I brought and what I wish I’d left behind. (For a more detailed description of my original packing list, see this article.)
Stuff You Need to Pack
A really good backpack
Maybe this goes without saying, but if you’re planning to live for an entire month (or longer) out of a single backpack, that backpack had better be high-quality stuff. I borrowed my dad’s 46L Osprey Porter, which fit all of the airline size and weight requirements. Try to get one with straps so that you can compress your stuff, and be sure that the shoulder and torso straps are adjusted to fit you perfectly to avoid a sore back. If you’re planning to be moving around a lot during your travels, I would highly recommend a backpack over a rolling suitcase. In Europe, elevators are not nearly as common as in the U.S. One of my travel-mates brought a suitcase and she had a lot of trouble navigating the cobblestone streets, crowded subways, and long stair climbs up to our AirBnBs.
These things are fantastic. There’s nothing worse than trying to find that last pair of socks at the bottom of your backpack while it’s covered by a messy heap of clothes and supplies. Packing cubes are great for keeping your stuff organized and easily accessible. I’d recommend rolling your clothes to maximize the capacity.
10 days’ worth of clothes
Yes, 10 days, that’s it. You can even limit yourself to 1 week, but since I’m lazy I wanted to do laundry a bit less often. (I even went a bit longer than 10 days by re-wearing a couple of shirts that were still clean. No shame.) When selecting your clothing items, pick things that you can mix and match easily. If you’re worried about getting sick of the same few outfits, bring along a few accessories like scarves and cheap jewelry that are lightweight and easy to pack. In particular, make sure you don’t go crazy on heavier items like jeans. I brought eight shirts (plus some camis), a romper, a sundress, a cardigan, two quarter-length jackets (I’d just bring one next time), two jeans, two shorts, and plenty of socks and underwear.
A travel towel
Boy am I glad I brought this thing. A travel towel is a super-absorbent microfiber towel that packs down smaller than a water bottle. Probably my most frequent use of it was when I was doing laundry. In order to make my clothes dry faster, I’d wrap the towel around them and give it a good squeeze to absorb most of the water. You should also be sure to bring a towel if you’ll be staying in any AirBnB’s, as many do not offer a towel, or the towel may be gross (I experienced the latter in Barcelona, my towel had a big stain on it.)
These things are so cheap and so useful. Contrary to the U.S., many people in Europe do not have a clothes dryer. Most places have a balcony where you can hang your clothes to dry, but if it’s a windy day don’t be surprised if your underwear end up flying down the street. (That’s not a joke, it happened to my friend while we were in Venice.) To prevent that from happening, bring a clothesline with you. The one I bought has velcro straps or suction cups to hang it up, and the braided rubber design means you don’t need to use clothespins.
Another extremely versatile item. A sarong is basically a large piece of fabric that you can tie around yourself to use as a swimsuit cover, but it has many alternative uses as well. My sarong doubled as a beach towel, a scarf, a shawl, a blanket, and more.
A theft-proof purse
Honestly this is probably overkill, but if you’re nervous about traveling alone, a theft-proof purse can really give you some peace of mind. Its zippers lock to prevent pickpocketing and the shoulder strap has a steel wire that bag-slashers can’t cut through. When I stayed in shared bedrooms, I kept my most important items in my purse and slept with it on me.
A small water bottle
Unless you want to piddle away your money on endless disposable water bottles, or risk dehydration, you should definitely bring a water bottle on your trip. Personally, I much prefer having to fill my bottle more frequently than lugging around a big heavy bottle. Mine held 16 oz and fit perfectly in my theft-proof purse.
There are arguments for and against bringing a real, physical book on a backpacking trip. E-readers are smaller, lighter, and don’t require an external light source to use. However, I find that reading on an e-reader before bed keeps me awake. It’s also another thing you need to remember to charge, and another thing that could get stolen. I chose to bring a paperback copy of Game of Thrones, which kept me occupied for the entire month.
Before this trip, I never wore watches. My motivation for trying them out was the rationale that I didn’t want to always be taking out my phone to check the time. This was a really good call, since I ended up mostly keeping my phone in my purse to avoid pickpocketing, and it was much easier to just glance at my wrist to check the time. The one I bought was cheap, functional, and feminine all in one.
An outlet converter
I’d recommend investing in a converter that will work all over the world. That way you won’t have to buy a new one for every trip. The one I bought has two USB ports and a regular plug port, and works in most countries around the world.
A digital camera
Similarly to the watch, I didn’t want to always have to take out my phone whenever I wanted to snap a picture. I’d definitely prefer to have my camera stolen than my phone. I chose a model that was inexpensive, sturdy, and easy to pack. I used it all the time. The photos were better quality than what I could take on my phone and I also felt like I looked a bit less like a clueless tourist when I was using an actual camera. The only time I took pictures on my phone was for those obligatory selfies, which admittedly are a bit harder on a real camera. If you have a laptop with you, I’d recommend copying the pictures from your memory card as frequently as possible. I did so almost every day, so that if it got stolen at least I’d still have my pictures.
An international SIM card
If you’re going to be traveling for more than a week or so, a SIM card will be much cheaper than an international phone plan through your home provider. Your options are a bit more limited (and more expensive) if you’re going to be traveling in multiple countries. I’d recommend sticking to a data-only plan, since that’s all I ended up needing to use. You can communicate with family using WhatsApp or Skype. I bought 1GB of data, which lasted me through the month no problem as long as I used it only when necessary.
A portable battery pack
Do not forget this! If there’s anything worse than getting lost in a foreign country, it’s your phone also being dead, preventing you from using Google Maps to figure out where you are. Every time you leave your hotel, you should be sure to bring your fully-charged battery pack and phone charging cord.
A small laptop or tablet
This one will depend on your travel plans. If you’re planning to keep a blog, then you’ll definitely need something to type on. It can also be handy for things like purchasing attraction tickets, as not every website will display properly on your smartphone. Whatever you do, DO NOT bring that bulky MacBook Pro from home. Not only are full-sized laptops large and heavy, but that would be a real financial blow if it got stolen. That’s why my last Christmas gift request from my parents was a Chromebook, which was worked perfectly for me during this trip. It weighs less than a kilogram and cost around $200. As a bonus, it has a built-in memory card reader, so you don’t have to worry about bringing an extra item to get the photos off of your camera. A MacBook Air or a tablet with attachable keyboard could also work, depending on your preferences.
Rainy weather gear
To be honest, I didn’t end up using my umbrella or backpack cover at all during the trip, since I was lucky enough to have nice weather the entire time. However, that’s certainly not the case for every trip, so I’d still recommend being prepared for poor weather. At the very least, be sure to bring a good raincoat, since this is also useful for cool windy days.
An extra swimsuit
In the name of packing light, I thought that one swimsuit would be enough. However, these are small and light enough that I’d now recommend bringing a spare, especially if you’re planning to spend a lot of time at beaches. Things happen, and if your suit gets ruined, trying to find a suit that actually fits you properly in a foreign country can be a real hassle, particularly as a woman. If you do bring only one suit, make sure it’s darker in color to hide any stains if needed. I had the poor judgement of packing a white swimsuit and then getting carsick during the insanely twisty road back from the beach in Greece. You get the picture.
During my trip I was prepared for hand-washing my clothes. I brought a bar of castile soap that I used to wash my face and body, and it also doubled as a hand-washing laundry detergent. This worked well, but the process is time-consuming and doesn’t get your clothes quite as clean. A few of our AirBnB’s had washing machines, but I realized that I hadn’t brought along any machine detergent. Luckily one of my travel-mates let us use hers, but in the future I’d be sure to bring some of my own. Try to find some small packs that can work in normal or HE machines. If possible, get the kind where you can adjust the amount of detergent you use (i.e., a squeeze packet instead of a solid pod) because many of the washers in Europe are quite small.
My friend brought these with her and I thought they were great! I’m definitely going to bring a set on my next trip abroad. Just a simple fork, knife, and spoon made out of lightweight bamboo came in handy multiple times, especially during picnics.
Things to Leave Behind
These things were such a pain. I used them maybe once or twice, but despite being safely under the four-inch blade limit, I still got flagged at several airports because of them. After careful measuring they were always returned, but the hassle was pretty annoying.
Too many shoes
For women, shoes are probably one of the most difficult things to pack for backpacking. For my trip I brought four pairs of shoes: ankle booties, Converse (with insoles), walking sandals, and flip-flops. Next time I think I would skip the ankle booties. There were some days that were somewhat chilly and rainy, but for this time of year I think the hassle of lugging around these chunky things wasn’t worth the few times I used them. I also might have replaced the sandals with a pair of comfortable walking flats, since most Europeans seem not to wear open-toed shoes. The Converse and flip-flops I would probably bring again.
Too many toiletries
After shoes, toiletries would probably be the #2 most over-packed item for women. I actually thought I’d packed very light on these, especially since I had to stay within the TSA’s 3-1-1 guidelines, but in the end I had too much of a lot of stuff.
My recommendations: 2 oz sunscreen, 1 oz shampoo, 1 oz conditioner, 0.5 oz facial moisturizer, 0.5 oz facial sunscreen, 0.5 oz hair oil, 0.5 oz hand sanitizer (don’t forget that one), 1 bar of facial/body soap, 2 mini-tubes of toothpaste, 1 mini stick of deodorant, 1 small pack of floss, 1-2 tubes of lip balm
Those numbers may sound small, but for most things like facial creams, etc. you probably only use a small dollop per day. Keep in mind that these recommendations are what worked for me, a woman who showers every other day and has fairly short hair. If you want to figure out how much you should bring, one option is to allocate your various toiletries into smaller containers and see how much you use over the course of a week or so. Then multiply by the length of your trip.
Makeup and makeup remover
This of course depends on you and your preferences. I’m the type of girl who wears makeup only very sparingly for “special occasions.” Why I felt the need to bring makeup on this non-glamorous backpacking trip is beyond me. If you do wear makeup, try to keep it to a minimum for space-saving purposes.
Clothes that don’t fit
This one was pretty dumb. I brought one sundress with me on the trip, only to find out that it did not actually fit me. I finally just had to toss it, since there was no reason to carry around something I wasn’t going to wear. So to avoid a dumb mistake like me, be sure to try on everything before you pack it.
I hope you have found these tips useful! If you regret packing or not packing something on your last trip abroad, share your insight in the comments below.