So you’ve decided to take a backpacking trip. Let’s be clear, a backpacking trip is in no way similar to a luxurious vacation. But if you’re willing to rough it for a few weeks, it is way more rewarding.
This guide is based on my five-week journey across Europe last spring.
In six weeks, I travelled to six countries, 14 cities and countless hostels with just one 32-liter backpack. It was awesome and way easier to pack for than it probably sounds.
Start with a backpack
Start with a backpack, and go from there.
The right backpack is crucial. It can seriously ruin your trip if it’s too bulky or heavy. You will be tossing it around on planes, trains and taxis and, if you’re staying in hostels, will also be stuffing it in hostel lockers when you’re not in your room.
I decided on a 32-liter North Face mountaineering bag and was in love with it.
It was super small, but it had compartments for everything. Always keep in mind where you will want to keep your travel documents. The closer to your body the better. This bag had a small compartment directly against my back, which always made me feel like my travel documents were safe.
The bag also clipped at the waist and the chest, giving me extra support on the last leg of the trip when I had a million souvenirs on me. You will want souvenirs, so make sure to pick a bag that leaves you space to bring your friends and family some awesome trinkets home.
In general, you need way less than you think you do. Start with the staples and go from there.
Be mindful of the weather and do your research. I started my trip in New York City, where it was snowing, and ended my trip in Barcelona, Spain with a horrible sunburn.
You can pack for both types of weather, just bring layers and make sure to bring clothes that you can mix and match.
Here’s what I brought with me:
- 5-7 shirts that can be layered and mixed and matched. I brought two tees, multiple tank tops and a shirt or two to go out in. Take a long-sleeved as well.
- 2 pairs of jeans. Don’t bring any jeans that would upset you if they were ruined.
- 1 dress, you know, for going out and looking cute.
- 1 pair of shorts.
- 1 pair of sweats for cold nights/hostel lounging.
- Leggings for under your jeans in cold cities.
- A swim suit.
- A comfy hoodie. I took an activewear type that kept me very warm.
- A jacket. Don’t take anything bulky. The brown jacket I wore in the picture above was the only jacket I took, but it was plenty warm enough when I wore layers.
- Thick socks
- Ridiculous amounts of panties and socks. I believe I took like 15. Most hostels offer laundry services, but not all do. You can deal with not washing a shirt, but you will want clean underwear.
- I also brought a hat and a knit headband, which both came in handy.
Like clothing, you don’t need many shoes. In general, you need one pair for walking, one for normal wear and one for beach days.
I took a pair of Doc Martens, which I wouldn’t recommend, but they worked fine for me. I also took a pair of Toms and one pair of cheap sandals.
Leave your valuables at home. Do not bring anything that is or looks expensive. It makes you a target for pick-pocketers and you will be devastated if you lose them.
Just like a backpack, the right makeup bag is crucial. It can be super easy to overpack hygiene products, but you need much less than you think you do. Pick a makeup bag and only pack what fits in it. Leave the rest at home.
I went with a pretty sizable bag that folded and had numerous compartments.
You will need:
- Your favorite basic makeup. I only took eyeshadow, mascara and eyeliner.
- Chapstick for weather changes. You will need it.
- Travel-sized shampoo, conditioner and body wash.
- Toothbrush and toothpaste.
- Multiple packs of eye makeup remover. Not all hostels offer great bathrooms, so you’ll want to have those.
- Hair ties and bobby pins.
- Dry shampoo, AKA your very best friend on backpacking trips.
- Travel-size Advil, bandaids, etc. Blisters, cramps and headaches happen.
- Multiple zip-loc baggies to have on deck for travelling. Some airports are very strict about their zip-loc policy, especially in London.
Remember you can always buy more of this stuff on the road, so only take what you need for the first leg of your trip.
The Random Shit
You have to plan ahead for every scenario.
Not all hostels provide towels for free. I bought a $3 towel from Walmart, and it was one of the best purchases I made for the trip. At the end of the trip, I just tossed it.
Bring some trash bags. They come in handy for dirty clothes.
Dryer sheets are excellent for stuffing in pockets of your bag to keep it smelling nice.
Also bring some travel-sized laundry detergent. Not all hostels provide laundry services but most do. If they don’t, have soap handy for hand washing.
A solid water bottle is crucial.
Bring outlet plugs! Do your research. The plugs in Germany are different than in England. If you’re going to both places, take both.
Bring a journal to log all of your amazing adventures. You’ll love reading about them later.
When it comes to electronics, bring what you need. I took an iPad for blogging, and that was it. I took all my photos on my iPhone.
Bring a purse, but be mindful of what you take. I recommend something that goes over your shoulder and stays close to your body. Just like your backpack, it will get bulky.
Photo example of me and Jess with big purses picture in London.
Once you’ve packed everything you possibly need, take everything out of your bag and repack.
This was the best advice I ever received about packing for my trip. You will be surprised at what you realize you don’t need.
I even left my hair straightener at home.
In general, pack only what you absolutely need. When you are on the adventure of your lifetime, you won’t be thinking about the random crap you didn’t bring with you. And whatever you forget, you can pick up along the way.
Packing light also leaves you lots of room for bring trinkets home to remember your adventure.
Alison is a Portland-native who resides in Tucson, AZ… for now. She is obsessed with traveling, being outdoors and Netflix. When she’s not working in breaking news, she’s likely drinking wine, hanging out with her pup or attempting to work out. Eventually, she hopes to go to law school.