10 days, and one backpack (it's easier than you think).
I've done 10+ international trips where I only pack in a backpack — it's affordable (avoiding baggage fees is my jam), easy (no roller suitcases over cobblestone streets), and always feels like a challenge.
If that sounds like you, say hello to backpacking life! I did most of my trips as an ILP volunteer serving abroad. I had where I had every weekend off, and scheduled vacation time where I packed in a ton of traveling. If you're headed out on a similar (or the same!) adventure, you're going to basically live out of your backpack for a week or longer on these trips. This blog post will help you make sure everything fits.
I spent two semesters abroad, living and traveling all around Asia + Europe as an ILP volunteer (and you can do the same).
Backpacks are so much more convenient while traveling. But I get it ... it can be a bit puzzling to figure out how to fit all of your things in one little bag, right?
Luckily for you, I've done this a bunch of times, and have all my tips and tricks in one place. Oh and one more thing? I've filled this post with my go-to travel gear via affiliate links (which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link, we earn a small commission). Just know that I'm only sharing products I use and love!
- Pick The Right Bag
- When It Comes To Your Clothes
- How I Pack It All In
- +Handy Extras and Things To Leave Behind
All Ton Of Other Packing Advice
Pick The Right Bag
What To Look For
You'll want something sturdy and big enough. I tend to pack pretty light, so a backpack in the 18L - 30L range is good. If I'm going somewhere cold, I pack heavier layers and a 35L bag is more of a better fit. If you don't want to buy multiple bags for different trips (tropical island vs Europe in the winter), I'd go with a 30-35L bag.
Make sure it's well-supported — while you may be able to fit everything into a school backpack, the straps may dig into your shoulders and hurt your back when you're carrying that many things. Anything "hiker" or "traveler" designed will have sternum straps and other supports to help the weight distribution. Comfort really is a huge factor when backpacking, so don't skimp on this.
Look for extra perks. I love backpacks that have easy-access pockets on the outside for my water bottle, umbrella and even my phone. Just something to keep in mind. I also love the bags that have compartments so I don't have to empty out my entire backpack just to get the sandals I packed at the very bottom. More on that below.
A Few Suggestions
Every traveler has their favorites, but I'm partial to the Cotopaxi Allpa. It's 35 liters and is like a Mary Poppins bag .... I can fit an amazing amount into that seemingly smallish bag. It's been a champ on two week trips around Europe, week-long getaways where I need to pack a heavy coat and boots, and every other type of trip. Plus, the straps tuck into the bag so it can convert it to be a duffel bag when you need it to be. I'm a huge fan.
I talked to a few friends and got their favorite backpacks:
When It Comes To Your Clothes
What I Pack (And Wear)
Just fitting everything inside is a challenge, so you'll really need to only pack the essentials. This is going to vary depending on the person, your itinerary, if you have access to washer/dryer, etc. but these are my guidelines.
I always fly in pants or leggings and my heaviest layer (like a sweatshirt tied around my waist or my long-sleeved t-shirt). I also wear my heaviest shoes, so typically boots (for cold weather) or tennis shoes. In my bag, I will typically have another pair of pants/shorts, a dress and a skirt, something to sleep in, and 5-8 shirts. I'll add in other essentials like socks, underwear, a rain jacket, etc.
Plan on wearing bottoms twice and tops just once. If I'm traveling somewhere warm, I can't get away with re-wearing sweaty tank tops and shorts, so I'll either pack more or plan on doing laundry.
Pack Just 2 Pairs Of Shoes
As a general rule, it's best to pack two pairs of shoes at most — comfortable tennis shoes (and/or boots for cold weather) and a pair of sandals work for most trips. You'll be wearing at least one of the pairs you are packing which will help you on space.
Here are our favorite shoes to travel with: Choose two from this list and be done. I typically wear my tennis shoes and pack my Tevas (or Birkenstocks), and that's it.
How I Pack It All In
First, I always use packing cubes, even when my bag has little compartments. The packing cubes keep everything organized which I love (here are my go to packing cubes off of Amazon).
Here's an example of how I'd pack for an 8-10 day trip:
- Two dresses
- Two pairs of shorts
- One pair of pants
- Five pairs of socks
- 10 pairs of underwear
- Seven t-shirts
- One pullover
- A rain jacket
- A Fjallraven Kanken (for day trips where I can leave my backpack at the hotel and just bring a water bottle, wallet, etc).
- A wallet
- An adapter + phone charger
- My camera
Once everything is folded and grouped together, I'll pull out my packing cubes.
I typically use 1-3 depending on what clothes I want to group together. For this trip, I put all of my t-shirts and my two dresses in a single packing cube (they can fit so much!) . Then I just had my sweatshirt and shorts/pants to fit into the bag, along with the toiletries and socks and things. See how compact things get with just using one packing cube? I'm a big fan.
Alright, now to actually pack your bag. I like the Allpa because it opens like a suitcase with a few different pockets and compartments. If you're packing in a backpack that's like one big pocket, the packing cubes help keep it all organized. First there's a picture of it all laid out, then all packed up, with the Fjallraven, my Tevas, a rain jacket, and my go-to adapter.
Zip it all up, and pack your outer pockets. I tend to put the easily accessible things on the outside (but safely). Things like my phone, wallet, camera, passport when I'm flying and will need to pull it out frequently, then things like snacks. Make sure you're stashing these essentials safely — my bag has anti-theft loops so you can't easily tug open the top zipper pouch. There are also double zipped pockets on the interior that keep things like cash safe and sound.
A Few Tips
The "rolling method" is a good way to roll your clothes to fit more. I also like the KonMari method for my shorts and t-shirts.
Put your heaviest packing cubes/layers at the bottom. In the pictures, you can see how I put my packing cube of all my shirts/dresses at the bottom of the main compartment, then my sweatshirt and toiletries. It's closest to the base of the backpack which helps with weight distribution.
Usually, my bag is about half way, or two-thirds full with clothes, and I can find find little pockets where you can stuff things like socks or your toiletries. The other half is filled up with things like your other pair of shoes, more toiletries, snacks, adapters, camera gear, etc.
Pack Travel Sized Toiletries
Go buy travel sized bottles of whatever you need, but see how much you can minimize on top of that. I usually pack a few empty contact solution cases where I can squirt a tiny amount of foundation or face lotion instead of packing up a whole 3 oz bottle.
You can also see if your hostel includes shampoo and conditioner (some do, some don't), but it can be a big space-saver if you can just plan on using what your accommodation supplies, if any. I've even planned on sharing with my travel-buddies. I'll bring the shampoo if you bring the conditioner, deal?
+Handy Extras and Things To Leave Behind
Bring a combination lock — if you are staying in a hostel, they sometimes have a locker for you to keep your bag in, but they do not provide locks. Make sure you take the time to throw a lock in your bag just to keep your items safe (get them off Amazon here).
Make room for your converter/adapter.
Bring hand sanitizer, wipes, and tissues. When you're on those long train rides, plane rides to Paris or using public bathrooms in foreign countries, you are going to wish you had some. Get these little travel packets of tissues. They really come in handy.
A deck of cards is a lifesaver when you're waiting for a plane, train, or bus.
Do Not Bring ...
A water bottle. Most times, you can't drink the water from the tap, so you are already buying plastic water bottles on your vacations.
Your laptop. Most volunteers are just fine with their smart phone on vacations. If you really need a computer, some hostels have computer access or you can find an internet cafe in many cities.
Your journal. When I travel, I keep a journal, but it's very heavy. Instead, I just write a journal entry in my phone, then copy it over once I get home. It's a personal preference, but a big space saver on vacations.
Do Not Forget To Bring A Small Purse
Once you get to your hostel/hotel, you are not going to want to bring your big backpack with you everywhere. You absolutely need a little purse of day bag. I love, love, LOVE, the Fjallraven Kanken because it fits my water bottle, camera gear, and has room for things like my phone, umbrella, passport, snacks, and other essentials. It also folds up to be roughly the size of a t-shirt, so it's easy to pack.
Some choose to pack up a small purse, just big enough to carry a phone, wallet, keys, and other essentials. Either way, you'll want to pack another bag or purse so you're not stuck carrying around your whole 35L backpack around if your pockets can't fit your everyday items.
All Ton Of Other Packing Advice
If you came looking for packing advice in a backpack, you'll probably want to know these other things, too, right?
- How to make a packing list
- How much of each clothing item should I pack?
- Can I take this through airport security?
- How do I pack my polaroid camera?
Avoiding baggage fees
- ... Or just read through our "All About Packing" guide (it answers all the questions)
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