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I learned my lesson the hard way.
Let’s recap. In 2004, I set out on my first European solo trip. Lamentably, I packed a huge, heavy, wheeled suitcase! I’ll NEVER forget how awful it was dragging that suitcase around the Paris metro… Arms shaking and sweat dripping down my face, I dragged that suitcase on stairs, escalators, and bumpy pavement. I spent quite a lot of time at the excess baggage fee counter, too.
Since that ill-fated day in Paris, I’ve traveled all over the world. On each trip, I learned what to pack.
Perhaps more importantly, I learned what not to pack.
Instead of staring at unworn clothing and unopened bottles of shampoo upon return home, I felt accomplished. I had used everything in my pack, leaving unnecessary weight at home and learning to enjoy the journey.
Do you want to plan well, take only what you need, and arrive home with memories instead of unused stuff? Then, you’re in the right place!
In this women’s packing list for backpacking, I’ll review exactly what you need to bring with you based on my years of travel experience.
Let’s get started!
What is “Backpacking Europe”?
Before you start packing, let’s get clear on what a backpacking trip is.
In a typical “backpacking trip,” you’ll visit multiple countries. In order to get to these countries, you’ll travel on a variety of transport — planes, trains, buses, and more.
You’ll also likely stick to a budget. This means cheap flights, hostels or guesthouses, etc.
Because of all this travel, it’s best to take a backpack that you can carry with you at all times. You’ll save money by not having to pay excess baggage fees and minimize time in security lines or at luggage storage facilities.
Americans typically spend 10 days to 3 months backpacking in Europe. (Want to stay longer than 90 days? Check out this great article on how to stay in Europe longer, legally.)
Since you’re staying for awhile, you’ll need a variety of items. Indeed, there will be variability in terms of weather and activities. In order to comfortably thrive (not just survive) on your trip, it’s pertinent to think through what you bring ahead of time.
That’s where this women’s packing guide for backpacking comes in!
Key Considerations for Your Packing List
If you didn’t figure out out yet, you’ll be carrying your luggage on all these modes of transportation yourself. So, it’s important to pack light while bringing everything you need. And yes, it can be done! The key is to take only essential, multi-functional items. As a general rule, leave behind anything that can only be used once unless it’s a highly specialized item (Think: A waterproof camera bag for your beach day). You also want to avoid bringing any “What if?” items. Much, if not all, of what you need “if” a certain occasion occurs can easily be purchased in Europe.
Now, packing light on this backpacking trip may require some adjustments. You’ll take the same amount of clothes on a 10-day trip as a 6-week one. This is possible because you’ll do laundry in the sink (or shower), and you’ll wear the same clothes over and over, layering as needed.
As a bonus, if you love to shop like me, you’ll have plenty of room to buy new apparel and souvenirs on your journey.
I highly recommend traveling with a lightweight internal frame backpack. A frame pack boasts advantages over your typical carry-on wheeled bag. Sure, its fits a lot and you can feel like a travel pro, but most importantly, it provides freedom and flexibility of movement. You’ll be able to gracefully dodge in between tourists, run to catch a train, and arrive to the your room in a five-floor walk-up with ease. I always feel safer as well, as I have all my possessions on me at all times.
To emphasize, if you’re thinking about taking a wheeled suitcase…just don’t do it! (The exception is if your age or health prevent you from carrying a backpack. Then, by all means, choose a small, lightweight carry-on size suitcase.)
There are many different types and brands of backpacks. Osprey is widely known as one of the top brands, but it’s up to you to discover which one fits your body type (and budget). The length of time you’ll spend on your trip in addition to the activities you plan to do will determine the capacity of the bag you need. However, for most travelers, a 40-45L pack will work wonderfully. Right now I travel with my Kelty Redwing 40, but I’m also a fan of the Deuter Futura family of packs.
Learn more in related article: Coming Soon
Quality of Materials
Purchase high-quality, quick-dry, odor-resistant clothing. If it’s summer, you’ll sweat or you may happen upon swimming pool. You may find yourself showering in order to head back out after the heat of the day.
Note: It’s possible to get tired of stuff, but you may just find the simple life of less [clothing] choices is one of the most joyful parts of backpacking.
Women’s Packing List for Backpacking Europe
I like to feel my best when travelling, which basically means not sweating to death in the summer nor tending to blisters mid-day. Thus, how am I — and more importantly, you — going to make it for weeks upon weeks without a few choice pieces of apparel to your name?
Well, fellow travel lover, I’m going to give you a few keys right here.
First, commit to doing laundry in the sink as needed. You can also find a laundry mat every few weeks — and perhaps a friend to split the load.
Second, everything you bring should 1) coordinate and 2) layer in order to make multiple outfits. Decide on a neutral base color, keeping in mind black can get very hot in summer and khaki can soil easily.
Next, carefully choose all of your tops, bottoms, shoes, etc. to match and layer easily. For example, a tank top and a button down can be layered on a cool day or worn separately with any bottoms. Likewise, bring a few accessories so you don’t look the same in every picture and to dress up/down your outfits as appropriate.
Everything in the women’s packing list for backpacking list below should be considered quick-dry, comfortable, wrinkle-free, and able to be dressed up or down:
- 2-3 Shirts of varying sleeve length that can be layered. (I’ve always found Columbia tops to breathe well and dry quickly.)
- 1 Skirt or shorts (A skort works, too, but I prefer the flexibility of a skirt if I need to layer over pants for warmth)
- 1 Pair pants, linen or a quick-dry travel pant (Columbia and Athleta make stylish pants that are a good for the trail, the city, or anything in between)
- 2-3 Merino wool socks (ankle, everyday, or winter weight depending on season)
- 2-3 Underwear (budget or splurge)
- 2 Bras
- 1 Dress (quick dry and wrinkle-free)
- 1 Swimsuit
Outerwear & Accessories
Year round, you’ll need a few items to help keep you warm and to help you dress up or down as appropriate:
- 1 Lightweight packable jacket that takes up a little space when folded. (Check Costco for these!)
- 1 Scarf or sarong (link to sarong post)
- Sunglasses & case
- Sun hat (cute or functional, depending on the activity/location. Sometimes a your favorite baseball cap works, too)
- 1 pair earrings, 1 necklace (Buy more as you go!)
- Watch or Fitbit (Depending on the country, you may have to turn off phone on plane, plus its fun to keep track of your steps!)
- Buff – I never leave the house without one of these super versatile head bands!
Other items to consider depending on season:
- Rain jacket
If you take one piece of advice from this post, please, take more than one pair of shoes. Your feet will thank you.
- Good pair of walking shoes — keep in mind might get wet, muddy
- A nice pair of hiking or walking sandals, comfortable yet “nice” that can double for a night out and a day at the park
- Flip-flops for shower
Even in the “old days,” toiletries were available worldwide. These days, it’s even easier to buy travel size toiletries in brands you recognize at any grocery store. Bring a small amount, (Remember, you have to carry it!), and buy more as needed. You may even find some friends with whom you can split a bottle of shampoo.
- Toiletry Bag: Choose a waterproof or quick drying bag with a hook. When staying in hostels or even in hotels, there may be no place to set anything on the sink or shower. Take a bag that you can hang from a towel bar or over the shower door.
- Toiletries: Shampoo, conditioner, body wash, face wash, face lotion with SPF, sun-screen, contacts (2 extra pair), contact case & solution, eyeglasses & case, toothbrush & case, toothpaste, floss, deodorant, SPF chapstick can all be found at Walmart or your local drugstore.
- Grooming: small fingernail clipper, nail file, razor, folding hairbrush
- Microfiber towel: Small, lightweight, quick-dry towels dry your body and dry within minutes in the sun. They also make a great wrap for your hair — I use mine at home! Be sure to dry thoroughly as they do tend to smell if not properly dried
- Feminine hygiene items: Minimum amount needed in compact version, you can always purchase more and donate to your host. A little pouch is nice to be discreet, but not necessary.
- Makeup: Bring the minimum such as a tube of mascara and tinted sunscreen from La Roche-Posay.
- Prescription Medication and Supplements: – Take a picture of the label if you put these into another container, just in case.
- Pill organizer: Take a few pills to get your started in a small pill sorter, and buy as needed. If you’re particular about quality or take pills daily — Where are my supplement friends? — you might need a weekly sorter like I use.
- First Aid: Take a few Band-aids, buy anything else as needed at a pharmacy
- Hair: A few hair ties, clips, and bobby pins, a travel hairbrush
- Other essentials: Ear plugs and eye mask (or use a Buff as a headband and eye mask)
- Small day backpack or cross-body purse – Choose something that you can easily clutch to yourself in highly populated areas as pickpockets are commonplace and that you can wear on your front when you have your larger backpack on
- Lock, cables (for staying in hostels or leaving bags in storage). Depending on the country/pickpockets, I have also found security in locking my backpack while it’s on my body (although can easily be slashed open, it’s a deterrent)
- Travel umbrella or poncho (Goodbye to the beautiful one I left on bus…a good reminder not to spend too much money on it! If you’re in the U.S., you can usually find compact umbrellas cheaper at Marshalls or Ross.)
- A variety of packing cubes or bags – Staying organized & save time, keep dirty laundry separate from clean, wet from dry, etc. I personally love these inexpensive yet effective dry bags.
- Shoe bag – Keep your possessions clean by storing shoes separately
- Laundry line and a few packets of laundry detergent. Or find a container you already have, and re-fill it with a small amount of powdered or liquid soap. The great thing about bring a small bottle is that you can squeeze a few drops out as opposed to having to use the whole packet.
Next, it’s time to talk tech. Here are some of the necessities to make sure you bring.
- Camera, charger, extra SD card (I have had an SD card become corrupted, so I recommend bringing a backup), lenses (More on the weekend photographers’ gear here).
- Tablet w/movies downloaded (or use your phone)
- Kindle Books – Download from Prime Reading, Kindle Unlimited, or rent books from your local library for free (or a combination)
- Cell phone w/international plan or TravelWifi adaptor
- Noise cancelling headphones (I love my Bose QuietComfort headphones, but I leave them at home for international travel as I’d hate to have them stolen! Samsung galaxy buds work great!)
- Adapter w/USB ports – You’ll need to charge your electronics, and having a European plug adaptor is so much easier than bringing a big converter
- Charging Cables – one of each type needed (iPhone, USB C, Micro USB)
- Portable charging brick
- Tech case organizer – A case, pouch, or even plastic baggies will keep you organized!
- Guidebooks, maps, itinerary (digital or hard copy – tear out relevant pages, take digital notes, and/or give away as you go)
- Boarding passes/tickets – most can be stored on your phone
- Passport & vax card, if required
- Student ID card or other specialized card for discounts
- Credit card, debit card, a few dollars American cash
- Copies of your passport and credit cards emailed to yourself
Surely, there are other items you might need. Here are some suggestions:
- handful of Ziploc baggies, fork/knife, corkscrew — sharp items may get confiscated at the airport, so choose wisely (although these suggestions should be TSA compliant)
- Anything else LIGHTWEIGHT that you can’t live without
- Small notebook & pen to write down addresses, travel notes, etc. unless you have the ability to do so digitally
Last, but certainly not least, consider protecting your trip from unforeseen circumstances and injury.
- World Nomad’s travel insurance is a favorite if you’re under 70. Over 70, try getting a quote from InsureMyTrip.
To sum up, you are now ready to collect your gear and pack your luggage for your backpacking trip. If you have a travel partner, check with him/her on items you can share to conserve space. After packing, weigh the backpack either with a luggage scale or by weighing yourself with the pack (which is actually pretty accurate). Be sure to research carry-on weight restrictions and associated fees. Check my favorite resources for help planning. Of course, you’ll want to leave room for souvenirs.
Lastly, if you forget something, don’t worry! Figuring out where to purchase your item and trying a new foreign brand is part of the fun of travel!
So, that’s all. I hope you found this women’s packing list for backpacking Europe (or wherever) super useful.
Have fun backpacking Europe!