Summer is the perfect time to go traveling, but one of the hardest decisions is figuring out what to pack. I’ve gone backpacking twice in the past two years, so I’m creating this guide to help list out the essentials and any other tips/tricks when packing. Hopefully, even if you aren’t using a backpack, some of these items will be useful to you too.
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A Backpack (or suitcase) – If you are young and planning on staying in hostels or bouncing around from city to city, I am a huge promoter of backpacks over rolling suitcases. While I’ve only traveled to Europe, I know that most towns have cobblestone streets, lots of stairs, and many hostels have only stairs or tiny elevators. It is worth the investment.
Choosing a backpack is yet another hard decision, but I highly recommend front-loading backpacks (versus top-loading) because they open up like a regular suitcase or backpack, so you don’t have to unload everything from the top just to reach something. I am a huge fan of the Osprey brand, because they’re made with quality and durability, and so far nothing has broken.
I ended up getting the Osprey Farpoint 55, and I love it! It comes with a removable daypack, which I used everyday, and these packs have technical suspension, which gives them a good support systems and makes them easy to carry. I just went into an REI store to pick out my backpack, but you can buy one on Amazon here.
Daypack (or big purse) – Even if you don’t end up getting the Osprey Farpoint, I highly recommend bringing a daypack/small backpack to use while exploring the city. My daypack was used to carry my small rain jacket, a notebook, my wallet, my water bottle, snacks, etc. If you bring a purse, just make sure it’s big enough to fit everything you need, and make sure it has a zipper to prevent any easy pick-pocketing.
Packing cubes – Okay, maybe this isn’t essential to everyone (some people prefer putting their outfits into a ziplock bag), but it was essential to me. Packing cubes helped me keep my clothes and shoes organized and made it really easy to pack. I bought TravelWise packing cubes from Amazon, and I like them because they are lightweight and durable.
Sleep Sheets – If you are staying in hostels, I recommend getting a cotton sleep sheet. Most hostels did have clean sheets and pillowcases, but there are always one or two that are a little questionable. I recommend the Cocoon Cotton Sleep Sheet, which rolls up really tiny and doesn’t take up much space in your backpack. This sheet is lightweight and comfortable (it’s like a cotton sleeping bag), with a pocket to insert your pillow. Most hostels don’t blast their air conditioning, so nights were pretty warm; this sleep sheet was the perfect amount of coverage that I needed, as anything else would have been too hot.
Quick Drying Travel Towel – These towels feel a lot different than normal towels, but they dry so much faster, which is important if you have to pack quickly to move on to a new town. I bought mine here; note that these towels are much smaller than regular towels, so I recommend getting at least a large or XL.
Rain Jacket – The weather in Europe is just as unpredictable as the weather in Georgia. I found that umbrellas take up space and can break easily (yes this happened to me in Brussels), so an easy to pack lightweight rain jacket is all that you need. I bought a travel rain jacket that can fold up and fit in my tiny purse from Amazon here.
Water bottle – Okay, I guess this isn’t technically essential either, but since in some places in Europe wine is cheaper than water, a water bottle is a good investment. In many countries, the tap water from fountains is cold and safe to drink, so filling up your water bottle is easy to do. I ended up getting the Camelback Groove water bottle, which comes with a filter and makes filling up anywhere (hostel kitchens, water fountains, bathroom sinks, etc.) easy and more acceptable to do.
Locks – I recommend bringing two small TSA approved locks – one for your main luggage and one for your day bag. While I felt that most hostels were safe and their lockers were secure, I just felt much safer having a lock on my bags, especially if I kept my iPad and passport in my main bag while I was out for the day. Additionally, as I’m sure you’re aware, there are a few places in Europe that are more susceptible to pickpocketing, so in busy areas (metros, markets, tourist areas, etc.) I would use my second lock to lock up my daypack.
Shower Shoes – In most hostels, you are sharing a shower with many other people, not just the people in your room, so for sanitary reasons, shower shoes are important. I just used the $2 rubber flip flops from Old Navy.
Adapter and chargers – Make sure you bring the correct plug adapters! The UK and Europe have different ones. You can get these from Target in the travel section. And of course, don’t forget your phone charger and your fitbit charger!
Sunglasses and sunscreen – While walking around all day, you don’t realize how easy it is to get burnt! I recommend croakies for your sunglasses if you’re going to be hiking or if you’re going on a boat.
Ziplock Bags – Quart sized bags are needed for carry on liquids; gallon sized bags are useful for wet clothes/bathing suits and I always put my shower shoes in one to keep them from contaminating anything else. I also used ziplock bags to help with packing (souvenirs, dirty clothes, etc.) or to keep my passport and other travel documents from getting wet.
Other Items to Consider
Carabiner – I used a carabiner to attach my water bottle to a strap on my daypack for easy water bottle access. You can get one from Target in the travel or camping section for really cheap.
Hanging Toiletry Bag – I found that many hostels don’t have shelves to keep your items on, so a hanging toiletry bag was very useful. I usually either hung mine on the shower curtain rod or on the towel rack, but this kept me from having to put all of my toiletries on the gross floors. Additionally, at home I use this hanging toiletry bag whenever I shower at the gym. I got mine from Marshalls but there are a bunch of options on Amazon here.
Waterproof Case – We went to the Krka waterfalls in Croatia (one of the coolest things I’ve ever done! Read about it here) and having a waterproof case was essential for good pictures. I recommend the JOTO case, as it is cheap and works so well. You can still use your phone while it is in the case, and it takes good quality photos.
Beach Towel – If you decide to bring one, make sure it is a small lightweight towel. Otherwise, you can usually borrow a towel from your hostel or buy a cheap one wherever you’re going. We bought towels from Barcelona for a few euros.
Ear plugs & eye mask – If you’re a light sleeper, definitely consider bringing ear plugs and an eye mask. Depending on how many people are in your rooms in your hostels, it can get loud, especially when people are coming back from the clubs in the wee hours of the morning.
Notebook – Some people like to bring a small notebook to jot down fun facts on walking tours, or restaurants/bars that they loved, etc. But I usually end up forgetting about my notebook, and just writing everything on my phone.
Headphones/iPads – Headphones are a must for the airplanes and I use my iPad to read books or listen to podcasts while on planes, trains, or long bus rides.
Other tips and tricks
Laundry – Many packing lists suggest bringing a small laundry kit to do laundry in the sink, but I found that most hostels have a washing machine for you to use for a euro to two. For my first backpacking trip I bought a laundry kit, but I’ve never used it. If you’re going for less than two weeks, you most likely won’t need to do laundry, and if you are going for more than two weeks, you’ll probably be able to do it in a hostel.
Moneybelt – I’ve never used one of these, as they’re kind of uncomfortable and awkward when you do need to pull out cash. When you go out for the day, only carry the amount of cash that you think you’ll need to use that day, and keep the rest of your cash locked up in your suitcase or backpack. As mentioned above under ‘Locks’ I also locked up my daypack when I was in super crowded/touristy areas. Just be cognizant of your surroundings, and you won’t need a moneybelt.
Cash– You don’t need to exchange money for your trip before you arrive. You can if it makes you feel better, but you can easily withdraw cash from an ATM at the airport or train stations. I opened up a Schwab checking account because they reimburse you for all ATM fees and they have no foreign transaction fees (plus they have no annual fees, no minimum balances, and excellent customer service). Additionally, I suggest withdrawing cash from an ATM versus a currency exchange booth, because those usually offer horrible exchange rates and hidden commission fees.
Hair – Don’t bother bringing a hair dryer or hair straightener. Most hostels provide hair dryers, and most people that bring their straightener end up breaking it with the electric adapters. Either braid your hair, scrunch your hair, or go au natural (I’ve found that my hair looks a lot better abroad for some reason); but if you absolutely must use a straightener, just buy a cheap one there that has a European plug.
Lady products – Just another helpful tip — if you think it might be that time of the month for you while abroad, you might want to consider packing extra tampons. Most places in Europe, except London, only sell the ones without applicators, which can be pretty intimidating if you aren’t used to it.
Don’t overpack. It’s all about the layers. But definitely bring a chambray shirt–it acts as a great jacket and pillow on the plane.
For my last trip, I went to Budapest and Croatia, which has a wide variety of weather, and this is what I brought:
- 1 Jeans
- 1 lightweight dress
- 1 skirt (it was a mini/maxi combo)
- 3 shorts (denim, white denim, and printed knit shorts)
- 2 bathing suits
- 1 white short sleeve shirt
- 1 black knit long sleeve shirt
- 4 tanks (black, grey, white, and a chambray sleeveless top)
- Chambray top
- 1 light quarter zip jacket
- 3 Nike shorts
- 2 t-shirts for sleeping
- 1 scarf
- Chacos for walking shoes
- 1 close-toed walking shoes (Reef’s sneakers)
- 1 pair of cute casual sandals
- Shower shoes (Old Navy flip flops)
- A bunch of underwear to last the whole trip
- 2 bras and 1 sports bra
Regardless, a good general rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t fit in the packing cubes, don’t bring it!
Am I missing anything in my backpacking packing guide? Feel free to share your packing experiences and tips and tricks below!