I didn’t really consider myself a backpacker before we set out on a 5 month trip around Europe, but in the end I chose a backpack over a suitcase for three reasons:
- Rolling suitcases are great for floors that are nice and smooth, such as airports. They aren’t so great over the rough surfaces and cobblestone streets you’ll spend most of your time transporting your luggage across.
- It’s easier to walk up a flight of stairs with your luggage on your back than it is to lug up a suitcase.
- Backpacks are easier to store on luggage racks on trains and buses.
A fourth reason which didn’t become apparent until we were on the road is some hostel rooms have nice big lockers for storing luggage, but even the biggest ones are unlikely to fit suitcases.
My travel bags
KATHMANDU INTERLOPER X-PAC V3 (65L)
I bought mine for something like AU$350, about 50% off at one of Kathmandu’s famous (bi-yearly?) sales. It doesn’t look like they sell this particular model any more but they’ve likely replaced it with a newer version. The 65L was the smallest option and it was plenty of space for me. Alex got the 70 or 75L because the 65L didn’t fit his back and I think it was too big; too easy to let it get too heavy – you want to travel as lightly as you can.
The great thing about Kathmandu is it was the only shop I found that had a professional fitting service where someone adjusts all the straps to make sure weight distribution is optimal to protect your back. You can even go home, pack your bag and bring it back in and they’ll readjust everything if necessary. This service is free. You could come back in 3 years time and they’d still do it for you – you can even lend your bag to a friend and they’ll readjust it to fit them.
Whatever you choose, make sure it opens from the long side as well as the top. The long side opening the main one you want (normally a big flap you can unzip and pull back) because it allows access to all parts of your bag in one go. If you only have a top opening (common to hiking packs) you’ll have to pull everything out to get to something you’ve stored at the bottom.
My large pack had three compartments: one in the lid/hood, the main one, and one at the base which I could have unzipped to combine with the main compartment. It was handy to have the base compartment separate though because I used it to keep my shoes and dirty clothes separate from my clean clothes.
SMALL KATHMANDU DAY PACK
This came with the larger pack but I wore it on my front in true backpacker style. (I tried it snapped onto the main pack once and it was way too unbalanced.) I used it to carry any stuff I wanted to access easily (eg book on the bus, chargers/adapters) but left it at the hostel with the main pack whenever we went out. (In the picture above this bag is inside my larger one – I left the one on front with a friend in the UK. Our plan was to settle in the UK after travelling around Europe and I knew this third, inbetween-sized bag would be useful for shorter trips such as weekends away.)
SMALL BLACK ACROSS-THE-BODY BAG
Also from Kathmandu. Lots of pockets, zips and flaps to hide away essentials. I took this bag with me wherever I went and never let it out of my sight (except perhaps when I was showering and Alex looked after it for me). I much prefer across-the-body bags because they keep your arms free and they’re harder for someone to snatch than a shoulder bag. I usually wore mine at the front so I could keep a hand across it, which is daggy but significantly less daggy than walking around with a single small backpack on your front or, worst of all, wearing a bumbag. :P
ZOU-BAG/BAG-BAG (FOLDABLE SHOPPING BAG)
This came in very handy for buying groceries or carrying water/snacks during the day. It’s one of those ubiquitous shopping bags that folds up into a little pouch, however this particular brand is incredibly strong (it can hold up to 30kg weight), it’s machine washable, and it can be worn over the shoulder or carried as a shopping bag (the strap is clever enough that if you want to use it as the latter it won’t hang low to the ground). I bought mine from a stall at Spitalfield Market.
What I took
For some strange reason I found it easier to pack light for a long trip than I do to pack for shorter ones. I think it’s because you don’t need to cover all your bases – if you don’t take something but it turns out you need it in a month’s time you can always just buy it.
I think my large travel pack weighed 8 or 9kg when we set out – it was only about half full. We were arriving in Europe in summer and simply didn’t take any warm, bulky clothes. I accumulated about 4kg of clothes and stuff over the course of five months and by the time we flew back to London my travel pack weighed 14kg (including another 1kg or so of last minute Christmas gifts). That felt pretty heavy: I really don’t think you’d want to carry around that much weight for an extended period of time and certainly not any more than that. I would recommend keeping your main bag under 12kg if at all possible. The less the better!
- Jeans (even though they appear on this list)
- Good walking shoes
PACKED CLOTHING (in addition to the above)
- 5x Underwear
- 5x Socks (you can wash small things in the sink on the go if you don’t have time to do a full load of laundry)
- 1x Bra
- 3x T-shirts
- 1x Long sleeve top
- 3/4 Length lightweight pants (now that I live in the UK I guess I should say “trousers” but that just sounds too formal)
- Summer pyjamas
- Hat (floppy and easily packable)
- Thin flipflops to wear in hostel showers
- Chapstick with SPF
- Body wash
- Dental floss
- Mouth ulcer gel
- Shower cap
- Small hairbrush
- Hair ties
- Spare blades
- Shaving oil (takes up much less space than gel or foam and it lasts a long time because you don’t need much – I’ve never been able to find women’s shaving oil but men’s does the same job)
- Tea tree oil (as an antiseptic for cuts, nicks or pimples)
- Cotton buds
- Nail clippers
- Nail file
- Contacts (I only wear them for swimming or when I need to wear sunglasses)
- Travel size contact liquid
- Pain killers
- Sanitary items
- Small tissue packs
- iPhone 3GS (I have to admit this was invaluable)
- Digital camera (Canon Digital IXUS 870 IS)
- USB cables and wall chargers
- UK and EU power adaptors
- Bank cards
- A little foreign money (we relied on ATMs to withdraw foreign currency on the go)
- Netbank token (for logging onto online banking)
- Driver’s license
- Luggage locks
- Lockable luggage cable (to secure bags to hostel beds when lockers weren’t available and to train luggage racks when we were out of sight – eg when using the restaurant car)
- Medium travel towel (a lot of the places we stayed at had free towels but some charged a fee so we saved some money by taking our own)
- Ziplock bags (big ones for clothes – see below – and small ones for wet/leaky toiletries)
- Plastic bags (for dirty clothes and misc other stuff)
- Important documents (itinerary, e-tickets, travel insurance, photocopies of passport/visa/cards)
- USB stick (containing PDF copies of the documents above)
- Laptop, charger and install discs (I left this with a friend in the UK – it weighs about 3kg and would have killed me to lug it around. We got by sharing Alex’s laptop which came in very handy for booking things on the go, uploading photos and watching movies – sure you don’t want to spend your whole trip watching TV but there will be times where you just want to veg out! When we eventually travel the long way back to Australia I’m seriously considering buying an 11″ MacBook Air…)
- Pocket hard drive (this carried the contents of my laptop if I needed to access anything via Alex’s. I also used it to back up photos.)
- Western Europe Lonely Planet pocket phrase book
- Eastern Europe Lonely Planet pocket phrase book
- Rough Guide to Europe (the most useful thing about this turned out to be the information it had about main train stations and airports and how to get from them to the centre of town)
- Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable Summer Edition (invaluable for working out how to get around)
- 2x fiction novels
- Spare journal (which I used!)
- Universal sink plug (for doing basic laundry in sinks)
- Travel laundry liquid
- Travel clothesline (despite the comments here the one we got from Kathmandu – yet again – worked really well even though it wasn’t made of latex and used suction caps)
- Bottle opener
- Light My Fire Spork
- Collapsible X Bowl
- LED light keyring (bright and small, handy as a mini torch for all sorts of situations)
- Small yellow spiky massage ball (to stand on and roll under sore feet to bring them back to life!)
Things I took but didn’t need to
Silk sleep sack/sleeping bag liner: Apparently some hostels require you to use one of these for health reasons but none of the ones we came across did – maybe this is more the case in South East Asia than in Europe. (The only place we used ours was in Singapore where we otherwise would have had to pay extra for bedding and it was hot enough that a thin sleep sack did the job quite well.) I doubt that it would protect you from germs or bedbugs. If you feel you do need to take one they fold up to about the size of a small paperback novel, they aren’t too heavy and you can buy one quite cheaply on eBay.
Money belt: The only place I used this was in Morocco where I happened to be carrying more cash than usual (because ATMs were harder to come by) and was more nervous about theft. I probably didn’t need to worry so much – you’re more likely to be expertly talked out of your money in Morocco than have it stolen from you. :P
Rain poncho: Even when it rained I couldn’t bring myself to wear this, so I might as well not have brought it.
Earplugs: Normally once I’m asleep I’ll sleep through almost anything, but I took these in case we stayed in any boisterous and noisy dorms, which we didn’t. I’ve also heard you shouldn’t really sleep with earplugs in because they can cause a build up of bacteria which can lead to infection, which put me off using them either way. The only time I did use some was on the overnight train from Madrid to Lisbon which was incredibly screechy for some reason – and they provided a free set anyway.
Paper toilet seat covers: I honestly don’t know how much protection this would offer you from germs and since you have to pay to get into most public toilets in Europe they’re generally pretty clean. I also forgot to take this with me anywhere so it just sat at the bottom of my travel pack.
Spare passport photos: Since we had some leftovers after getting our UK working visas and I read they could come in handy I took them along, but we didn’t need them. (Again this is possibly more for South East Asia or other parts of the world where you might need to provide a passport photo at the border for an entry visa.)
International driver’s permit: Probably handy to have just in case, but we never felt confident about driving on the right hand side of the road in Europe (and petrol is expensive, trains are more relaxing, etc) so we never hired any cars.
Point It phrase book: I love the idea of this but we never ended up using it. We got by fine just using the combination Western and Eastern Europe phrasebooks we took.
A side note on books: I took two (I was reading one and brought another to read when the first one was finished) and I actually bought another two on the road at foreign language bookshops… however now I’m the proud owner of a Kindle, so I would just take that – it would save a lot of room and weight!
Bells: This is a bit of an odd one. I can’t remember where I read the suggestion, but I took a couple of big bells and tied them to lock closing the zips for the top opening of my travel pack as a deterrent for thieves, the idea being if they were trying to get into the bag and it started making noise it would put them off and they’d choose a target that was less hassle. Not sure if it really would have helped and it was never put to the test. (If you’re wondering, the bells were quite tucked up inside an area cinched in by a drawstring so they didn’t jangle as I walked along.)
How to pack it all
These tips came from my podiastrist! Not because they have anything to do with my feet, she just loved to travel and was excited to hear about my upcoming trip so she shared some advice she’d gathered during her two big backpacking stints.
Keep clothing inside large ziplock bags, eg one for socks, one for tees, etc. Once the items are in you can squeeze out all the air by sitting or kneeling on the bag while closing the seal to save a lot of space in your bag. This makes things easier to find by keeping like items together (saves rummaging for random socks tucked away in various places) and when you need to pull anything out of your bag it slips out easily (as opposed to yanking a jumper out of a full bag and pulling half the other contents along with it).
She also recommended keeping pyjamas, toiletries and your towel all together in an easy-to-access area (ie not the bottom of your bag). This way they’re easy to grab without disturbing dorm mates with the sounds of rummaging. She was also a big advocate of showering before bed, no matter how tired you are, so that you’re always sleeping in clean pyjamas. Little things like this will keep you feeling human.
What I didn’t take
“Do not carry all the clothes you will need for the whole trip, but wear them out and replace them along the way. Do not take ‘stuff’ you *might* need, but could acquire along the way (like a set of dress-up clothes).” Round-The-World Travel FAQ
If you’re in doubt as to whether something will come in handy, don’t take it. If you do end up needing it you can buy it when you’re there, and then it becomes a kind of useful souvenir! Things that fell into this category for me were:
DIDN’T TAKE BUT ACQUIRED ALONG THE WAY
- Small fold up umbrella (which broke, so I bought another one, which also broke, so then I bought a proper full sized umbrella – strapped it to the side of my backpack when in transit – and I’m still using it now)
- Anti-diarrhoea medicine (we also ended up buying three different types of cough syrup and anti-nausea medicine when Alex became ill)
- Black permanent marker (to write your name on food in shared hostel fridges – usually a requirement)
- Summer dress
- Beach towel
- Winter coat
- Tights (worn under jeans in the snow – should have bought proper thermals!)
- Soap (better than shower gel in the end, store it in a small ziplock bag) and replenishment of other toiletries (toothpaste, etc)
- More undies and socks (in the end I found having a week’s worth was a good amount)
- More pens (I wore out about 4 or 5 writing in my journal)
- More T-shirts (this was towards the end of the trip and simply because they were cool)
DIDN’T TAKE AND DIDN’T NEED
- Bug repellent spray (only because we didn’t go anywhere with a lot of bugs – definitely take this if you are!)
- Spare camera battery (my rechargeable battery still lasts a couple of days even with constant use and I recharged it regularly so it never ran out)
- Spare memory card (maybe I was just lucky but mine never failed and I backed up overflow to Alex’s laptop and my pocket hard drive)
- Inflatable travel pillow (I find these uncomfortable anyway – a bundled up jacket is sufficient as a makeshift pillow)
DIDN’T TAKE BUT SHOULD HAVE
- Headphone splitter (would have come in very handy for the times when Alex and I were in a dorm but wanted to watch something on the laptop – we’ll definitely get one before our next long trip)