Since August 2013 I have been traveling, mostly around Europe, carrying nothing with me but what fits in a 40 liter backpack and a small satchel bag. I’ve had a lot of people ask me what I take with me on the road, and I can’t count the times people gasp when they see how little I have. So I’ve finally put together an inventory of everything I carry with me. Grab a pen, take notes, and please ask me any questions, especially if you’re planning on backpacking soon!
Stuff That Holds My Other Stuff
Let’s start with the basics here. I own a 40L backpack that I purchased on sale from American outdoor equipment retailer REI, and it’s been my rock. Why such a small pack? Two reasons:
1) I knew from the start that I wouldn’t be carrying much stuff, so didn’t bother buying a big pack.
2) I knew I would be flying a lot. The minimum baggage check-in fee for a flight these days is often as expensive as the airfare itself. At this point I have flown over a dozen times, and since my pack is small enough to carry-on that means I have saved around $350-$400.
It’s worth splurging a bit when you’re shopping for a pack, and mine has held up superbly to the wear and tear of travel. I also carry a small satchel bag that my best friend Deena bought for me when we visited the city of Segovia a year ago, and it’s useful for carrying a book, my laptop, and other stuff for wandering about town. Lastly, I have a carrying case for my camera. Considering that I’ve dropped my camera in its case at least five times, that might be the single most valuable possession I own.
And while I have a pretty good grasp on how to stuff everything into my backpack, not everyone does. You should consider using packing cubes to free up more space if you’re having trouble fitting it all into your pack.
Passport, Assorted Bling, and Plastic
No passport, no traveling! I have also accumulated quite the collection of foreign currency after a year and a half of travel. I was in Croatia when I took this photo so most of the bills are Croatian Kune, although I also have Israeli, Chinese, Moroccan, and Serbian currency (among others).
I also carry a debit card for withdrawing cash (usually in lump sums to minimize the number of times I am penalized with an arbitrary $5 foreign withdrawal fee–bite me, Bank of America). The credit card I carry is thankfully designed specifically for going abroad and I can use it without being hit by foreign exchange or transaction fees of any sort. I also still have my university student ID to get discounts at museums, bars, transportation, and anything else that offers student prices. Keep in mind I graduated three years ago, so if you’re still in college and reading this, DON’T THROW OUT YOUR STUDENT ID WHEN YOU GRADUATE!
Stuff That I Wear
You’re looking at every single item of clothing I own. If you’ve been following my blog for long enough you know I’m not some prissy prima donna who keeps a huge wardrobe. That’s not to say I have no taste–exhibit A is the awesome 90’s retro sweater I found in a vintage shop in Novi Sad, Serbia a few months ago, or the awesome orange pants I bought at a 2nd hand market in Ghent last summer. Since I’ve done my fair share of wilderness trekking I have a winter jacket, Icelandic wool cap (which I found by the side of the road while hitching around Iceland), and a $1 pair of gloves I bought in Kosovo. I have one pair of Lucky brand jeans, and I’ve worn them so much that I had to replace the bottom last summer. When it comes to the logistics of laundry, I have a reusable heavy duty plastic bag that I carry soiled clothing in, along with a pair of cheap leather dress shoes for nights out. Otherwise I wear my Merrell hiking shoes most of the time because they’re super comfortable and great for exploring cities, trekking wilderness trails, and everything in between. Like my pack, I splurged ($100) on my hiking shoes, because the last thing I want is to be uncomfortable walking around, and traveling means that I walk around all the time.
Random Esoteric Things That Have No Practical Value
As minimalist as I like to travel, there are some things worth keeping with me even if they don’t have quite the same utility as hiking boots. I carry books with me at all times and trade them with people I meet in hostels or while couchsurfing. On several occasions I have seen a book in a bookshop I simply couldn’t pass up and have purchased it, but mostly I come about books by swapping them. Besides books I also keep a few mementos of my travels. I have an unpaid fine from the time I was caught blackriding a tram in Ireland. I still have my credencial from walking the Camino de Santiago, and I have kept the love letter from a certain English girl who I met in Paris a year ago. These are the things that will go into a special box I keep at home in my bedroom closet, and will look back on years later and smile when I think about them.
Hygiene Implementation Products
Just because I’m not living in the same place doesn’t mean I stop taking care of myself. I brush my teeth just like everyone else, shave my face every once in a while, and even have an ankle wrap in case I aggravate an old rugby injury. I’ve got aspirin in case I’m sick (I only had to use it once, while in Morocco) and tweezers to keep my aggressively Sephardic eyebrows in check.
As for the stack of condoms, I have this to say. There are a few things you should never bring back home with you from your travels: Drugs, endangered species, and STDs (such as AIDS, herpes, and perhaps worst of all, babies). While I never trade drugs or ivory, from time to time I trade bodily fluids with the opposite sex. Personally, I’m not ready for genital warts or children in my life. Before I left home I brought 50 condoms with me, and I’ve since had to bring in reinforcements. Go me!
On a less sexy note, that small blue packet of tissues is not primarily for blowing my nose; it’s because I can’t count the times I’ve been stranded in a place with no proper toilet to shit in, or toilet paper to wipe with. And yes, I’ve tried using leaves before, but my ass itched for the rest of the day. Now I stick to real paper, or at the very least take some napkins from a cafe.
Lastly, contrary to the smelly backpacker myths you’ve heard, I keep soap with me. So I still might smell, but only because I’ve run out of clean clothing, not because I didn’t shower with soap! Big difference there 😉
When I said at the beginning of this post that these are all the possessions I carry with me, I was kind of lying. Back when I walked the Camino I also had a tent, two improvised hiking poles carved from tree branches, and a small but super reliable Opinel pocket knife. I still miss that knife. Since I no longer walk from place to place or camp outside–with the exception of last summer, when I had a tent for a few music festivals and my hitch-hiking journey around Iceland–I ditched the tent. Also, flying regulations meant I had to throw away my knife a long time ago. But my sleeping bag and self-inflating camping mattress have proven invaluable on nights when I have slept in airports or bus/train stations. Since it’s winter I have an umbrella handy (it’s been great for the Balkans) and I keep a big black felt tipped marker for drawing up hitch hiking signs.
Don’t forget to bring a towel
As Douglas Adams told readers of his Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy and South Park‘s resident stoner Towelie have forever reminded us, a towel is really, really important.
So, could you live out of a backpack like mine for 18 months? Or would you go crazy?
Also, I recently launched a website for finding cheap flights between the USA and Europe. If you’re planning a trip and are scared by the insanely high prices you see, check it out!
tags: backpacking , what to pack for a backpacking trip , how to live with just a backpack for a year , what to pack for a eurotrip , how big should my backpack be for a trip to europe