Ah, the dreaded question all travellers hate. When I stood in front of my small 65L bag just before my first trip to Europe I had no idea where to start. I had two closets filled to the brim with clothes, stacks and stacks of shoes, drawers overflowing with bras and underwear and boxes of accessories. I loved fashion and clothes, and I had no idea how I was going to limit myself.
Below are the tips and tricks I learnt along the way to make sure you’ve got everything you need but don’t have to sit on your backpack and struggle with the zip every time.
Be Versatile and Classic — Block colours for clothes work well – plain blue T-shirt works well with black jeans, white shorts, navy skirt… Unlike that witty slogan shirt or polka dot dress that stands out in all your photos and will feel like the only thing you packed. Ideally, most of your clothes should match with each other.
Low Maintenance Clothing — Anti-wrinkle, tough material and colour proof are all ideal for travel clothes. The last thing you want is for your entire load of washing to come out pink because of that cheap red T-Shirt. As for your favourite dress or your best pair of brand name jeans, consider leaving them behind. Are you prepared to have them lost or destroyed along the way? The trick is picking clothes you adore but wouldn’t be gutted if they were ruined.
Buy Clothes As You Go — Not only is shopping often cheaper, it is also fun to buy new styles and clothes you know no one else will have. Don’t pack that amazing outfit just in case a millionaire in Monte Carlo asks you out on a date, you can always buy something if you need it. And, do yourself a favour and visit Primark. I’m not exaggerating when I say I went to a Primark store in Berlin, Madrid, Boston, Malaga, Dublin, Glasgow, and London...
Partying — I packed a ‘party’ dress which I would usually wear to go out in here in Australia, and I only wore it once through the entire year. I was amazed at how casual the party scene is in both America and Europe. Don’t worry about being the odd one out in jeans and flats at the bar – mostly everyone else is too.
Roll Roll Roll and Stuff — Sorry Mum, but there will be no folding here. Just like a sleeping bag, roll each item as tightly as possible and stuff down into the gaps of your bag including inside your shoes. You’d be surprised how much you can actually fit.
Packing Cubes – I love my packing cubes - dividing clothes and accessories into these little pockets is the absolute best way to sort through your belongings without your bag turning into a mess every day. I bought mine on eBay with several size options, and used one for socks and underwear, one for bottoms, one for tops, and one for accessories (pens, chargers etc).
Absolute must have.
So, let's dive into specifics:
Obviously this is dependant on where you are going, the expected temperature, and for how long. Below is an indicative list for a mixed temperature trip, fitting into a large backpack and for a few months or more.
Shirts x 6 — Something like; 2 x T-shirts, 2 x singlet, 1 x ‘nice’ top, & 1 x long sleeve.
Day to Night Dress x 2— Look for a lightweight dress or playsuit that can be worn casually during the day, but can also be dressed up if you go out at night. A maxi dress also works well for the day to night transition.
Winter Dress x 1 – Really only required if you're travelling during winter.
Workout Gear – If you plan to do some exercise on your trip (or are just telling yourself you will) or if you’re going to set off on some hikes, pack some gear you can get sweaty in. Think 3/4 leggings and a T.
Shorts x 1-2 – Denim short shorts and a ‘pretty’ pair of shorts for nicer occasions (especially if you're not bringing a skirt). Boys; boardshorts, jeans and cotton shorts work well.
Skirt x 1 – This one is optional. I bought a cotton, black mini skirt early in my travels and I wore it constantly. Not only was it easy to wear out to drinks or dinners, it was perfect for those in between days where I could just duck to the bathroom and throw on a pair of leggings if the temperature turned.
Jeans x 1 – I live in jeans during the colder months – even with a pair of leggings underneath if the temperature drops below 0. Perfect for everything from bar-hopping to sightseeing. Just make sure they are comfy with a bit of stretch (those croissants will catch up with you eventually..!).
Leggings x 1 – Leggings are my staple, I cannot recommend them more. Perfect for overnight trains, layering under jeans on cold days, PJs, and when you’re going out for a big dinner…
Flannelette Jacket x 1– Even more than leggings, my flanny is my absolute best friend. I don’t think I often go a day without wearing him. Even in the summer it can get cool and the flannelette material is perfect for layering or as a pillow on long bus rides. Being a jacket is ideal too, as you can button up when it’s cold or tie around your waist if it gets hot. Flanny: I love you.
Winter Coat x 1 – If you're off during winter, make sure you get a heavy duty and versatile coat, and things like water resistant, a hood, zip up, not bulky, and lined are all things to look for in a good coat. Puffy parker jackets are also amazing for not taking up too much room.
PJs x 1 – Comfortable and decent pyjamas that can double as clothes if you need. Most hostels are well heated (if anything, too hot, no matter the temperature – you’re usually sharing the room with copious amounts of bodies) so a soft T-shirt works well. For bottoms, think boxers or sweatpants depending on the season you are travelling in, and make sure they're versatile for those days you want to just go straight from bed to the breakfast table.
Underwear x 7 – If you have room, throw more in. You should take enough to get by for a week or two with just sink washing if facilities aren’t available. It goes without saying, cotton and comfy is best (and maybe one or two really nice pairs just in case…!)
Socks x 7 — Socks are just like underwear, the more the better. Take a mix of thin cotton pairs and thick woollen pairs if you’re going to encounter the winter. I believe that having high quality socks are super important. Trust me on this. Nice socks can get a little pricey, but it is a good investment for comfort, warmth and smell. Nothing worse than smelly feet in a hostel room people!!
Bras x 1 – Comfy cotton bras are best. I even swapped one for an elastic bralette for night trains and lazy days.
Shoes x 4 – sandles, boots, joggers/walking shoes, flip flops. I put my sandles and flip flops in a plastic bag together and slid them into my bag as they lie flat. I usually wear my Nikes as I travelled place to place, and tied my boots by the laces to the outside of my bag.
Sarong x1 — Optional, but a versatile accessory that can be used as a wrap, shawl, scarf, beach towel, and a picnic blanket. Ideal if you're off to more conservative countries.
Swimmers x1 – Reversible bikinis and boardshorts are a great idea to make you feel like you have more clothes than you actually do.
Hat x 1 – Not a necessity but if you can fit a cap curled up and tucked into your bag it does help on long sightseeing days in the heat. I tried travelling with my favourite wool, broad-brimmed hat but it's virtually impossible to keep it in shape and good condition.
Beanie x 1 – If you’re going to encounter winter, throw one in. Bad hair days don’t exist when you have a beanie.
Travel Wallet - Buy yourself a multi-section travel wallet that can fit your passport, phone, ID tickets and money. This has been my best way to keep everything together and sorted.
Towel — I have lost my towel so many times during my travels – it just seems to be that one thing I leave out to dry and forget when I leave. Therefore, I recommend not investing in an expensive or even a quick drying microfibre one. For most of the time I had a small, kids sized plain cotton towel which could roll up into a nice tight ball when needed. Honestly, when it came down to it, you don’t need a big thing to wrap yourself into, and many hostels provide towels of their own. Store it in a separate compartment of your bag or in a plastic bag if its still damp when moving from place to place, then air dry as soon as possible. Don't worry about bringing a beach towel - use your sarong.
Sunglasses – Nothing expensive or worth getting upset over as odds are you will lose or break them.
Ear Plugs & Eye Mask — I encountered a boy who’s snoring woke me from a deep sleep at 3am sounding like a highspeed train coming through a tunnel. Ear plugs are okay, but I prefer to keep my headphones under my pillow with some deep sleep relaxing music ready which also helps. Eye Masks are also a must for late night roomies, night trains or hostels without curtains.
Need inspo for what to play to get you back to sleep? See my post on Perfect Tunes To Sleep Through That Drunk Guy’s Snoring.
Sleeping Sheet & Pillowcase — Not a necessity, but if you plan to travel to some questionable locations or are a bit of a neat freak, this may be for you. Sometimes, you’ll get to a hostel and take one look at the supplied linen and wonder how they survived WW1. If you have room, throw in a small kids bed sheet so you can have peace of mind. Also, if you know how to sew a stitch on a sewing machine you can make your own sleeping bag sheet – just fold a sheet vertically in half and sew closed. That way you can snuggle down wrapped in your own material. I also sewed a zip onto a pre-made pillowcase to double as backup linen and extra safety – I often slept with my phone, money and passport zipped up under my head if there were no lockers supplied.
Water Bottle — I regularly bought a 1L water bottle to squish, refill and reuse along the way instead of bringing my own personal bottle to lose. Bottled water can go for as cheap as €0.15 at a grocery store. Just make sure you use it to its full potential and recycle when you’re done!
Padlock — A must have. Most hostels have lockers but you’ll need to provide your own padlocks. Also, lock your bag when moving town to town and of course when flying. The type where you can set your own combo works well so you don’t have to worry about losing the key, but make sure it is a good quality and sturdy lock.
Retractile Cable Lock — Optional, but retractable cable locks are great for locking your backpack to your bunk or luggage rack when you’re on a long haul train. Grab-and-runs happen all the time so this will give you great piece of mind.
Plastic Poncho – An umbrella is too bulky to carry, so find a nice big plastic poncho that can fold up small but also can drape over you and your bag if needed.
Sewing Kit — Even if you’re not an experienced sewer, I use my small sewing kit countless times for myself and friends. A few needles, black and white cotton, some odd buttons and safety pins is all you’ll need to be someone’s saviour when their only pair of shorts rip open!
Money Belt — Optional. It’s no secret that pickpocketing does happen, often. You will need to take precautions to avoid it happening to you, and one option is to wear a money belt. Worn under your clothes, it has enough room to keep your most important items: Passport, money and phone. I wear mine mostly when on night trains or when I know I am in a notoriously prime pickpocketing city.
Plastic Spoon, Knife and Fork — Required for food on the go and cheap grocery store dinners.
Toothbrush Cover — Forget having to balance your toothbrush carefully on the side of the sink or finding it buried in the bottom of your bag next to last week’s underwear. Clip on a cover and keep it sanitised!
Ziploc Bags & Plastic Bags — Ziploc bags and plastic bags are a God-sent along the way, stuff a handful into a pocket of your bag and you’ll thank yourself later.
Day Bag - A small side bag to use when you're out sight-seeing. This should be hard to unzip or have a satchel/fold over style clasp to prevent pick-pocketing.
Phone, Charger & Sim Card – I don’t have data when travelling, just an international sim that works wherever I am and I use it only when necessary. All other times I hunt for free wifi – trust me, it is everywhere.
Adapters – Make sure you have the right adapters for all the countries you are visiting as they suddenly become pricey when you need to buy one there in the train station!
Multi-Plug – At some hostels, you’ll be lucky if you get one power point to yourself. And then starts the juggle of what to charge first; phone, camera, laptop… You can find mini powerboards or multi USB chargers for pretty cheap on ebay.
Hair Straightener – Not a necessity but a nice to have to make you feel less like a backpacker now and then.
Camera and Charger – I travel with my Canon DSLR, Drone and GoPro.
Memory Cards & Hard Drive – If you do have a camera separate to your phone, invest in some 64gb+ memory cards for your cameras if you aren’t bringing your laptop – it can be weeks before you reach a hostel which has computers to use. I also have a 1TB hard drive to store my photos and videos, and I also back up to Google Photos just in case.
Laptop – Not a necessity; I don’t often travel with my laptop due to size and safety.
Stationary – I’m a big reader so I have a Kindle instead of carrying novels. Don’t forget your journal and pen too! Even if you’re not usually a writer you will want to jot some things down, trust me.
Toiletries can take up so much space and weight very quickly, and you actually don’t need very much at all. It’s also very easy to buy as you go, but start off with some bare necessities.
Hanging Toiletries Bag – Hostel bathrooms are notoriously small and often have little to no shelf space. Being able to hang up your bag and keep it out of water/questionable liquids is a blessing. Your bag should be filled with the following:
Small Pack of Tissues
Travel Sized Shampoo/Conditioner/Body Wash/Face Wash
Toothpaste & Toothbrush
Roll on Deodorant
Chap-Stick with Sunscreen
Female Sanitary Items