Packing for Europe – The Hits and Misses

This post is entirely about the contents of our backpacks.  If you are planning a long-term trip to Europe, it might be useful…or, if you just enjoying reading about my clothes, you have come to the right place.

During the planning phase for the Europe leg, I read a lot of packing guidelines, backpack reviews and gadget lists.  I skewed more to the ‘pack light’ bunch than the ‘fashionista in Paris!’ lists.  For some reason, packing to look good never really occurred to me…I was more concerned with firstly, not having 40lbs of stuff to lug around and secondly, not to look like a complete USAidiot.  For those that are more fashionably minded, there are a lot of tips out there for 18 European Outfits in One Carry On! but they focused on items of clothing that the gods clearly never intended for me to wear (rompers).  Also, I see no need to lug around a pair of boots for the 7 days out of 90 that I could conceivably wear them.  I don’t think a pair of leather riding boots and a flowery scarf will make me blend with the Europeans, as the rest of me will be wearing wrinkly clothes that haven’t been washed in a week.  I guess those lists are for folks that are staying in close proximity to washers and dryers, or maybe dry-cleaning services…or maybe I am being too much of a snarky biatch and the truth of it is that I am simply too lazy to spend time putting an outfit together.  Or, to go one layer deeper into my psyche, am racked with bitter jealousy towards ladies that can waltz around looking pale, fashionable and sweat-free while I inevitably end up puffing around with too many layers, red-faced and furious.

Ultimately, we committed to carry no more than 20lbs of stuff each (including the weight of our backpacks) and take clothes we would actually wear at home, instead of donning brand new adventure gear and end up standing out like sore thumbs.  The backpacks were the first crucial purchase, which would influence how much we could take along.  John settled for a Osprey Kestral 48 pack which has a very nifty integrated rain cover, and I went with Deuter ACT Lite 45 + 10 SL Women’s pack.  The lovely folks at REI took care of us, and fitted our packs to our bodies, as well as gave us some guidance on the best way to position the straps and how to pack for good weight distribution.  My main concern was finding a pack that wouldn’t wreck my back, so an extra wide hip belt on my pack was crucial.  My pack, henceforth referred to as Bertha, held up very well…a lot of experts touted the importance of avoiding a top loading pack, as you have to get everything out to get to the bottom stuff.  I never found this to be an issue as I just put the stuff I would need next at the top…a decision that took approximately 3 seconds.  I didn’t use the extra 10 L.  We purposely went with smaller packs to avoid having extra space that we’d fill with unnecessary stuff (which REI happens to be full of).  Here’s what we filled them with:

Becci’s Pack

Clothes: Due to the swing in temperatures we would encounter from Scotland to Spain, I tried to take things to layer.  Half of this stuff I would have happily shipped back half way through when the temperatures rose about 77F.  Every time I was about to do this, we would have a cold snap and I would talk myself out of it.

  • 2 short-sleeved t-shirts – I should have taken more, and I would have felt better if they were plain colors without designs. During the trip, we were told by our new friend in Warsaw that he could always spot the Americans “because of the front of their shirts.”  After that, I felt like a tourist when I left the house wearing one of these shirts.
  • 1 3/4 sleeved t-shirts – Coulda done with one…the stripy one because I felt saucy and nautical when I wore it.
  • Three under-shirt tank-tops – These were brought along for layering and also some of the shirts were a little bit see through.  I should have punted the see-throughs and left these at home.
  • 1 3/4 sleeved sweater – Good, solid, light-weight and black.  Goes with everything, except 70F+ days.
  • 1 long-sleeved cardigan – Cardigans are my weakness, they make me feel at home.  I was talked out of bringing two, and that was probably a good thing.
  • 1 meshy sweater thing – great for slubbing around the house.  Usually put on over pyjamas.
  • 1 cotton adventure shirt from REI. – I couldn’t wear this without an undershirt, so some of the breeziness factor was compromised.  I sort of hated it, but was forced to wear it on some days.  Meh.
  • 1 pair of leggings (sleepwear) – excellent decision.  These made those middle of the night hostel toilet runs easy.
  • 1 stretchy skirt – Slubbing around clothes when it got too hot for pants.  To be fair, I never went out in this skirt, as my legs are blinding white, but good for laundry day inside.
  • 1 pair of jeans – 70% useful.  I’m glad I had them when it was cold and when I wanted to look like a normal human being.  Nightmare when hot.
  • 2 pairs of lightweight action pants – One of these guys had the ability to turn into capri pants using drawstring technology; The only down side was they were black.  The other pair was grey, but had no pockets.  If I had found some grey, capri/full-length combo pants with pockets, I would have worn them almost every day.
  • 1 NorthFace micro fleece – no complaints.
  • 1 pair of Keen walking shoes – completely necessary.
  • 1 pair of Keen sandals – Used when my other Keens fell apart on hot days.  Also, these worked when I was in capri mode.
  • 1 pair of flip-flops (shower shoes) – used 6 times, and never in the shower.
  • 5 pairs of undies – two of these were adventure style (breathable material, expensive) and I really couldn’t tell the difference.
  • 5 pairs of socks.
  • 1 sports bra – excellent for hot days and long airplane trips.
  • 1 regular bra.
  • 2 lightweight scarves.
  • 1 waterproof jacket – Not used often, but worth it.

After writing all these out, I realize that it seems like a lot…and perhaps it is, but only the sweaters seemed like ballast later on during the trip.  Central and South America may call for a different set of clothes for logistical reasons, but if I had to pack for Europe again I would take more plain short-sleeved t-shirts, pick less 2nd layer stuff and only 2 pairs of pants.  Slubbing clothes are completely necessary. My advice would be to take clothes that you are comfortable in, not clothes you like the idea and require additional clothes to complete the look.  Patterned or colored scarfs made me feel like more of a local, even if I just wore a t-shirt.

John’s Backpack

  • 4 short-sleeved t-shirts
  • 1 long-sleeved t-shirt
  • 1 cotton button up shirt
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 1 pair of action pants
  • 3 pairs of action underwear
  • 6 pairs of socks
  • 1 pair of running shoes
  • 1 pair of Merrill shoes
  • 1 pair of shower shoes
  • 1 pair of silk long-underwear
  • 1 light jacket
  • 1 waterproof
  • 1 Iron Maiden hooded jacket
  • 1 wooly hat
  • 1 baseball hat
  • 1 belt
  • 1 long-sleeved running shirt
  • 1 pair of running shorts

As you can see, he took less than me, but I could go longer without doing laundry.  Ha!

Clothes acquired on the road – Wooly hat (Becci) and gloves for both John and I.  (England in April is COLD)  3 additional t-shirts for John (Bone Church, Motorhead and Sun Ra Arkestra).

Gadgety Travel Things

  • REI Duck’s Back Rain Cover for Bertha and Clifford – Only used once, but that was only due to circumstance.  Very light-weight, doesn’t take up much room.  I would say this is a no-brainer to take along.
  • Osprey Airporter duffel bag for Bertha and Clifford – We were warned that airlines don’t like to check bags with buckle, straps and clasps all over them, so we bought duffel bags to zip our backpacks into. Our packs weren’t really lockable, so this also doubled a good safety bag.  We only used them when we flew and our bags always came out the other end.  I suppose it’s possible that this is a total scam made up by the duffel-bag people…but I have no idea.  This bag was small, folded up into itself for storage…We’ll definitely take them on the next trip.
  • Sea to Summit Silk Sleeping Sacks – I got inside mine once and John laid on top of his once.  We didn’t stay in as many hostels as we thought, and only one didn’t provide bedding.  To be honest, this felt like a waste of money for Europe.  Maybe for the next legs, these will come in handy, but I felt like we were lugging them around for nothing.  I suppose it you are planning on staying in a lot of hostels or divey places, you might feel comfortable with one.
  • PackTowls – Fast drying, compact towel that folds up into a little pouch.  Only used it about 7 times, but that’s because everywhere we stayed had towels.  If you are averse to using the towels provided, and you are thinking about taking a towel with you, take one of these instead.  Ladies with long hair…they cut down on head-swaddling time by 80%.  I may start using this thing at home.
  • Travel clothes line – Very helpful when we had no dryer (70% of the time).  Get one, they are small and useful and you can buy ones that don’t need clips to hold your clothes (magic).


  • Kindle Paperwhite Reader – If you are a reader, you can’t go wrong with one of these.  They are light and very easy on the eyes for lots of reading.  Way better than reading on the Ipad or lugging around books.  I would not recommend using travel guidebooks on the kindle, too much of a hassle to flip back and forth.
  • iPad – We didn’t want to take a laptop due to size and value, so we took an old iPad.  It was absolutely necessary for blogging and we watched a fair number of movies on it as well.  If we both wanted to read, we had the iPad as another option.  Unless you are working on the road, skip the laptop and take a tablet.  Ours was a 1st gen iPad, which was mind-numbingly slow and many of the apps were so outdated it became an exercise in frustration to use…but we would have been very unhappy without it.
  • iPhone – Just one, which we haggled over.  T-mobile is the way to go if you are traveling around the world. They have service in all the countries you need, free data and text and only 20 cents a minute for talk. You can also use it as a mi-fi hot-spot.  With all the other things you have to worry about and deal with when you arrive in a new country (often late at night) finding a store to buy a country-specific SIM card would have been a bit of a nightmare.
  • Zagg Bluetooth keyboard – We used this everyday to blog.  Light, comfortable on the wrists and sturdy.  Perfect for using with the iPad, plus the case turns into a stand for your device.  Good for both android and apple devices.
  • Powertraveller SolarMonkey Charger – Once we remembered that we had this as an option, we took it in the day pack every day.  It didn’t work with the iPad, but it would give the iPhone a full charge (only if you weren’t using the iPhone at the time).  We never used the solar-powered charging bit, as there was ample electricity wherever we were.  When you are navigating around town, a smartphone is almost critical, so the battery tended to get drained in the late afternoon.
  • Speaker Balls – Perfect for watching movies and listening to music.  We used them all the time.
  • Canon G16 – I really liked this model…good pictures and small enough to fit into my front pocket.  Manual mode and viewfinder is a big plus.
  • Headphones and splitter – not the ‘mixing an album’ kind of headphones, but the ones you shove in your ears.
  • iPod – We had filled the iPad up with movies and photos, so it couldn’t hold much music.  When we were tired on the same 2000 songs, we switched to the iPod.  John also used it for running.
  • Card reader for iPad – This was the best $12 I have ever spent.  There would be no photos on the blog if it wasn’t for this doodad.


  • NorthFace Borealis Day Pack- We went for a regular sized book-bag for our day outings.  It became a bit unwieldy to handle when we had our big packs on, but I am glad we got a real bag instead of a lightweight mesh bag.  Good shoulder and back support, lots of room for lunches, sweaters, iPad and camera.
  • Two small notebooks – Small, as in, fits in your back pocket.  Came in handy when presenting addresses to non-english speakers….most people did not like us waving our iPhone in their faces.  Doodling, taking notes, leaving notes…I am glad we took these.
  • Therm-a-Rest Lumbar Pillow – A necessary item for me and my degenerative discs.  I used this every time I sat down for an extended period of time to support my lower back.  On many occasions, when our bed were less than ideal, I used it under my back to sleep comfortably. This guy rolls up to the size of a tall-boy PBR when not in use, and due to the valve mechanism, you don’t lose a lot of air between when you stopping blowing into it and closing the valve, which is the most annoying thing to me about other inflatables.  It went with us everywhere, until we left it on top of a mountain in Slovakia by mistake.
  • Sunglasses – I lost both pairs I bought.  By them cheap and you don’t feel too bad when you leave them on the bus.  Twice.
  • Ziploc Bags in every size – There is ZERO need to buy expensive packing cubes for your backpack/suitcase.  Ziplocs are the way to go.  Get the heavy-duty ones and divide your clothes into logical categories…stuff ’em in and suck/push out the extra air.  It’s remarkably easy to vacuumed seal these things and it will free up a lot of room in your bag.  The smaller sizes are great for cooking supplies (salt, pepper, tea bags, sugar, jars of jalapenos), and any other thing that comes in multiples (cough drops, tampons, adapters, ticket stubs).
  • RFID protectors for passports and credit cards – I don’t know how real the threat is of people scanning your documents from afar, but they are not that expensive and you might as well be protected.
  • Money belts – Used NEVER.  These were glorified ziploc bags that spent the entire time stuffed down the back of our packs, full of additional credit cards and documents.  In Barcelona, the place we went that is most notorious for pick-pockets, we only took out our IDs (not passports) and one credit card.  Cash was kept in our front pockets, which we had our hands in the whole time.  Minimize the risk, don’t carry around lots of expensive stuff and just keep our hands on the valuables you can’t leave behind.
  • TSA locks – very handy for obvious reasons.  These were also used in Barcelona to secure our day pack (a bit over the top, but it made me feel better).
  • Metal cable with combination lock.  We only used this a couple of times, but I felt better about having it.  Sometimes you have to be separated a small distance from your bags on trains, or when you are staying at a hostel without lockers.  Good for piece of mind.  When we were between lodgings and didn’t want to carry around our bags, we stowed them in lockers at the train station. I was secretly hoping we would have an opportunity to use this item for a Macgyver type escape/escapade, but we didn’t need to.
  • Lincoln and Penny – These guys were kept in a lockable box, which John filled with spray-foam to protect the kids.  It was the heaviest thing in our day pack, but they went with us everywhere.  I recommend that you don’t take this along, because that would be weird.
  • Rough Guides Europe on a Budget – I removed the extra pages we didn’t need and had it rebound at kinkos.

Believe it or not, all that stuff came out to about 22lbs each (18.5 of which were our full backpacks.  At the start of the trip, this felt like quite a load, but by the end of 3 months, carrying this stuff around was like second nature.  We saw plenty of people with bigger packs, and they didn’t look too comfortable.  There’s a debate about rolling suitcases vs. backpacks, and I am glad we chose the latter…far too many cobblestone streets and stairs to deal with wheely children all the time.

I am sure this list will get revised for Central and South America, and we definitely could have survived with less…but I’m happy with how it all turned out in the end.  There’s tons of packing lists out there for you to read, and I advise you to do so if you are taking a long term trip…it’s all part of the fun of planning…but keep this in mind: you can always buy stuff there if you forget something and you can always send stuff home if you brought along a true dud.  A good piece of advise is to lay out everything you think  you need, and the divide the result in half.  Your back will thank you!

Categories: Preperation

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1 reply »

  1. OK, so I finally read this post… three days before we depart to New Zealand via San Francisco. A portable clothesline and a crapload of Ziplock bags will be procured shortly. Hope you’re having fun toolin’ around the states!

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