What to Pack (And Not to Pack) When Backpacking Abroad

You’ve booked your flight. You’ve mapped your route. You’ve combed through your list of must-sees. And now, the only thing standing between you and your backpacking adventure abroad is packing for your journey. “At last — the exciting task of packing!”…said no one ever. While we tend to associate this chore with a feeling of dread, fear not my friends, as I am here to assist in tackling all your packing woes.

After spending ten glorious — yet not so glamorous — weeks last summer backpacking my way across Europe, I quickly uncovered what was truly essential for the journey, along with the belongings I shoulda, coulda, woulda left behind. And because we’ve already addressed the best tips for how to pack, once we sort out what to pack, you will be well on your way to having a magical backpacking experience. Shall we get started?!


First Things First: Choosing Your Backpack!

Just as with picking out luggage, choosing which backpack is right for you is extremely important. If it’s too big, well, chances are you will overpack and then suffer through unnecessary backaches. And if it’s too small, you’ll have trouble squeezing in all your essentials. So in this case, size does matter. Since the Internet houses an endless sea of overwhelming options, I recommend making your way to a sporting goods store to get properly fitted. I went to REI and the staff was extremely helpful. Not only did a team member help me pick out a backpack that was proportionate to my body, but he also showed me the proper way to pack too. Surprisingly, it takes a bit more skill than simply shoving all your belongings in every nook and cranny. Who knew!? Just kidding — I promise I was not this naive, but I do want to emphasize the importance of learning the proper ways to pack. You know, for the sake of your own back.

A few other backpack tips:

  • Choose a backpack that can be used as carry-on luggage. This way, you won’t have to check your bag, you can zoom past baggage claim, and you can avoid the tragedy of your luggage getting lost.
  • If your backpack doesn’t come with a fitted rain-cover, I highly recommend purchasing one. I can’t tell you how many times I encountered rain on my journey, and the cover was a life-saver. The last thing you want is for all your belongings to get soaked.
  • Having a separate daypack will be extremely beneficial when it comes to daily exploring. This way, you can leave your gigantic backpack behind and only carry what you need for that given day. I used a nylon daypack, similar to this one, which was ultralight, foldable, and water resistant.  
  • Lastly, packing cubes work wonders. No really, these mesh boxes are game-changers. They keep your stuff organized, minimize wrinkles, and keep you from having to dig deep down into the bottom of what seems like an endless pit!


Now the Real Question: Looking Good vs. Packing Light?

The answer is simple: pack light. “But it’s ____ (insert your destination),” you’re probably thinking. I get it. I thought the same thing. Yet what if I told you it was possible to look good and pack light? Aha! The key is packing strategically. Let’s break it down.

  • When it comes to clothing, neutrals/dark colored items will become your new best friend. These pieces will ensure it is easy to mix and match, and will also hide unforeseen stains. If you don’t want to pack all solids, that’s okay — add in something striped or with another preferred pattern.
  • Embrace layering! Because you will experience various temperatures throughout your trip, layering is key. But leave the bulky coats behind. Instead, focus your attention to long-sleeve tees or a lightweight sweater/cardigan. These items are easy to add/subtract when needed. Scarves are also handy, not to mention fashionable too. Make sure to limit yourself to one though.
  • Overall, avoid packing items you will only wear once. This is your chance to get creative with your wardrobe. Plus, you’re traveling in pursuit of an adventure, not for Fashion Week.
  • Remember, you’re going to have to carry everything you pack, so I suggest limiting your backpack’s weight to 20 pounds. Because most of this weight will come from clothes and shoes, I cannot stress enough how important it is to only to pack what is needed. And if you find you’ve forgotten an item, don’t worry — you will come across plenty of shopping opportunities abroad.


Source: @alliemtaylor


Makeup, Cosmetics & Toiletries

Ever heard the saying “less is more?” This was my mantra when it came to my makeup routine abroad. With a little foundation, mascara, and some red lipstick, I was ready to seize the day, and thankfully, I wasn’t weighed down by my makeup bag. Just as with clothes, when it comes to makeup, only pack what is truly needed. All those extra eye-shadows, bronzers, blush palettes, and glosses — leave behind!

The same goes with your toiletries. From shampoo and conditioner, body wash, toothpaste, and everything in between, that weight can really add up, and before you know it, you have about 10 pounds of liquid on your back. Therefore, I only packed travel sizes of each essential, and whatever I happened to need more of, I bought once I was abroad.


Source: @tullitha


Making Room for Travel Accessories

Passports, visas, paperwork — no matter where your adventure takes you, make sure you pack all the proper documentation, and keep them in a secure spot throughout your journey. One of the best pieces of travel advice I received was to always have copies of important paperwork with you, and keep another copy at home with family so that if something of yours did get stolen, you’d have backup to continue onward.

Along with your personal documentation, don’t forget other necessary travel accessories. From chargers and adapters to headphones, a notebook, and even travel snacks, you’ll want to carve out room for these goodies, too!


Finally, a Peek Inside My Pack For 10 Weeks Abroad:

  • Tops & Dresses: 5 dresses, 4 tees, 2 long-sleeve shirts, 1 lightweight sweater, and 1 ultralight cardigan. I didn’t want to spend too much on these pieces so I bought them all from either Old Navy, ASOS, or Forever 21. They were all machine-washable, which made them super easy to clean and re-wear.
  • Pants: 2 pairs of shorts, 1 maxi skirt, 1 pair of jeans (I’d only advise packing one pair since jeans can be heavy), 1 pair of yoga pants, and 1 pair of running shorts
  • Shoes: 1 pair of sneakers, TOMS, Crocs rubber sandals (while I was never really a fan of Crocs, these sandals were extremely comfortable, doubled as shower shoes, and the black color matched my entire wardrobe!)
  • Jackets: 1 lightweight, rain jacket (I opted for this instead of carrying an umbrella)
  • Bathing Suit: Just 1
  • Purse: 1 small cross-body
  • Jewelry: 1 dainty, gold necklace (I was too nervous to pack anything else, in fear of the items breaking or being lost/stolen)
  • Makeup: foundation, mascara, red lipstick
  • Toiletries: travel-sized shampoo, sunscreen, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, chapstick, dry shampoo, face wipes
  • Travel documents: passport, visas, train/plane tickets, proper currency, and insurance cards
  • Travel Accessories: travel adapter, camera, phone, laptop (and chargers), headphones, notebook, pen, first aid kit, ziplock bags (to keep any liquids in), shoe bags (for when shoes got dirty), snack bars, water bottle, hand sanitizer

And there you have it! Did I miss anything? What have you found helpful to have while backpacking abroad?