Introduction: Big Trip Small Bag: Packing Light for Europe
Last summer, I took a two week trip to Ireland, Wales, and England with my husband. We knew we would be walking around town, on busses, and through tube stations with our baggage on a regular basis, so we each packed all we needed in one backpack and one "personal item."
Step 1: Choose a Bag
The bag you choose is possibly the most important choice you'll make in this process. I cannot tell you what bag is best for you, but I can tell you to stick with 40 liters or less and try it before you buy it. I drove over an hour to my nearest REI to try on bags two times before both my husband and I chose their Vagabond 40 pack.
When trying on bags, be sure you add some weight to feel what it will actually be like to carry it full. REI has weighted sacks for this. Simply ask an employee for help. My bag likely didn't weigh more than 25 lbs. over the course of the trip.
Of course, you don't have to use REI. You may have a wonderful locally owned place or you may choose to ultimately buy online, just make sure you have good return options in case it doesn't fit well upon arrival.
What I loved about my Vagabond
- the comfortable waist belt. DO NOT buy a bag without a waist belt. If you haven't worn a bag like this before, you will be amazed at how much of a difference it makes in distributing the weight and making it an almost pleasurable experience to carry around. You will not see me carrying my bag without the waist strap fastened tightly.
- the front loaded design. It was easy to access anything in the bag without tearing apart my packing job.
- the top pocket. I kept my baggie of toiletries there for easy access when going through airport security and to hold my art supplies for a quick grab the rest of the trip.
- the built in compression straps. With my packing cubes, these straps made it easy to keep everything organized, tight, and to fit more in as we bought souvenirs along the way.
-the size. It fits easily in overhead compartments on planes, and with them on our backs as we boarded, the flight attendants didn't even consider asking us to size them. Sadly, they did not fit in the overhead on many of the smaller trains and buses we used. The overheads in those cases were microscopic and would barely hold a large purse. Just be aware that you may have to use other storage methods in these cases.
By outlining these things, I'm not trying to tell you to get the same bag. I am hoping that you may find these features in whatever bag fits you best.
Step 2: What I Brought (Clothing)
I put out a couple folding tables to decide what to bring. I used one for clothes and one for "stuff." I highly recommend laying everything out. It helps you see what might be redundant or ridiculous. First, I'll tell you what I brought and why. Then, I'll tell you about all the things I didn't use and wish i had left at home, though you may have different priorities and decide differently.
Obviously everyone is different and has different travel needs. My priorities were as follows.
I wanted to look as stylish on my trip as I would at home (which admittedly isn't all that stylish). We planned to be walking around the various towns a lot but not doing a lot of hiking or other outdoor activities. I'm a teaching artist. Which means I have elementary art students at home that I want to be able to share the experience with, and I wanted to be able to make art on the go when inspired to do so. I also would be working on a travel journal throughout the trip.
I tried to stick to about a week's worth of clothes that will make lots of different outfits. Less, and we'd likely be hitting up the launderette too often and more would negate my attempt to travel light. It also makes it easier to choose what to wear each day. You end up bringing only those outfits you really love and will want to wear and not a lot of "just in case" stuff that you end up lugging around for two weeks and never wearing.
I also recommend using packing cubes, they kept me organized and allow the compression straps in the bag to do the most good. It also makes it easy to pull just what you need from the bag and quickly put everything else back in.
And finally, the list:
- 6 light weight shirts including one tank top for sleeping or wearing under a sheer top
- 1 t-shirt (I wore this on the plane as opposed to packing it)
- 2 pairs of jeans (wear one/pack one)
- Pajama pants
- 5-7 days of moisture wicking socks and underwear
I brought two pair of these great undies and did actually wash a pair in the sink a couple times when we couldn't find a launderette when we needed one. They washed easily and dried hung on a hook overnight. I highly recommend them. If you don't mind washing your undies every night, you really could get away with bringing just two of these.
- Rain Jacket - very lightweight, with a hood, Ireland is known for it's never-ending rainy season.
- Cardigan for chilly evenings
- Swimsuit - We knew we would be on the coast for a bit. My husband brought his to wear while washing his jeans.
- Slim comfy shoes - for short evening strolls when my feet couldn't handle boots anymore.
- Flip Flops - for beach and/or hostel showers
- Scarf (large but thin)
- Handkerchief/bandana - You never know when you'll need to wipe something up. My husband ended up using my handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow while we were in London. It was unusually hot in the city.
- Hat for bad hair days (Like when you've been traveling for what seems like forever and you've fallen asleep on the train and made your hair stick up in all sorts of weird directions.) I chose a compact and uncrushable beanie style.
Step 3: What I Brought (Stuff)
The list continued
- Good walking boots
These were my primary shoes while on the trip. I bought them a few months before and got them well and broken in. They were expensive, but well worth the price. I only got one minor blister towards the end of the trip, and I'm pretty sure it was the fault of all the supremely uneven cobblestone streets and not the shoes.
- iPad, stylus, and headphones
- phone (I used it for photos and wifi on trains, but didn't have cell service while traveling. My husband bought a pay-as-you-go sim card when we got to each country in order to have cell service when we needed it.)
- extra baggies (ziplock and shopping)
- snacks for the plane, late night, or when food gets obscenely expensive
- bendy stand/tripod for camera/phone
- belt pouch for wallet/passport
- comfort shoulder strap for when my shoulder bag gets heavy
- reusable shopping bag that zips into a pouch
- business cards
You never know when you'll meet a new friend you want to keep in contact with.
- LG Pocket Photo printer and Zinc paper
Print wirelessly from your phone to 2x3 inch inkless paper
- Portable Charger (not pictured)
- Mini art supply kit
- Mini watercolor set (Check out my instructable on how to make one.)
- Mini super absorbent towel for hostels that don't provide a towel.
- Keychain flashlight for when your hostel dorm mates are asleep when you get in.
- Earplugs for when the baby is crying on the plane or your hostel dorm mates get in after you've gone to sleep.
- Toiletry lanyard
I made a lanyard with clips on it that would hold onto my shampoo bottles when hitting the hostel shower.
- Light weight collapsable backpack
We used this for my husbands "personal item" on the plane with all the snacks and his book in it.
- Padlock for hostel lockers
Step 4: The Good and the Bad
On the first two images, I marked the items I regret bringing with an "X." Assuming I can't live without my shoes or a toothbrush, I marked the items I would have sorely regretted not having with an "O."
These items were either used regularly or really came in handy on a number of occasions.
I used this for a blanket on the train, for keeping my neck warm on cool evenings, for keeping my hair from bustling around when it was windy, and for keeping my head dry-ish in a sudden rain.
- Compact backpack and Reusable Shopping Bag
These came in handy a lot. I carried the reusable shopping bag in my purse and when we stopped off for groceries or souvenirs we could pull it out and my husband would graciously carry it. (A plastic shopping bag folded up would work just as well, but I had this one handy.) The backpack was useful for more long term scenarios like carrying food on trains and planes.
- Travel Journal and Mini Art Supply Kit
Anytime we were on a plane or train or lounging in the hostel living room, I was able to recount the days events in my journal incorporating items acquired while enjoying the city.
- LG Pocket Photo Printer and Portable Charger
This was my best friend (other than my husband) on the trip. It wirelessly prints 2x3 photos from your camera to inkless sticker* paper (*if you trick it into using Polaroid PoGo printer paper). I used it to print pictures for my travel journal and stick on postcards to send home. I wouldn't have been able to use it as much as I wanted without my portable charger. It was a lifesaver for both my printer, my phone, and my iPad.
We carried a lot of snacks around for a long time without needing them, but when all the shops are closed (and most if not all closed around 5pm each night) and you're hungry, it was really nice to have them. They were also nice to have on long train rides.
I wish I hadn't lugged these items around with me. I never used them and could have either gotten them when/if they were needed or lived without.
- Rain Jacket
I had two choices, either carry this around with me everyday to use in the short sudden showers, or stand under a tree or awning for a few minutes and leave room in my purse for more important things. I could have used it, and many people were using the rain jackets they had brought with them, but I didn't want to carry it around all the time.
- Pajama Pants
I was concerned about being cold since I live in Texas and I wasn't sure what kind of covers I would have in hostels. I didn't need to worry about that. It was plenty warm. I should have brought some shorts instead. I actually wore my husband's boxer briefs to bed on a few occasions.
Way too cold to go swimming. What was I thinking?
- Slipper shoes
My shoes were so awesome that I didn't need these. I was happy to wear my boots all the time. In addition, the common cobblestone streets would have made these shoes more painful than the boots even if my feet were tired of them.
- Business Cards
Didn't use them.
- Camera Stand
My husband's long arms were all we needed to get a photo of the two of us. It, like the rain jacket, was something I didn't want to carry in my purse all the time and couldn't use if it was back at the room.
- Toiletry Lanyard
If I had chosen a lanyard with a plastic strap, I might have used this. However, I never wanted to put something wet in my bag, so I didn't use it.
I never needed these. All our roommates were considerate and the crying babies on the plane were easily drowned out by headphones.
We were always so tired that we always went to bed before our roommates. No need for a flashlight to see our way around the room in the dark.
- Additional Clothes
As I have an affinity for thrift stores, we frequented many charity shops along the way where I purchased additional items of clothing. A few were added to my regular rotation of outfits, but a couple just weren't practical, like a school uniform jumper that needed mending and a rugby jersey. These took up too much space and ended up getting packed in the one box we decided to spend an exorbitant amount to ship home. I might have been quite happy to have brought a few less clothes to begin with and bought a few more items that could have been worn along the way.
Step 5: Have Fun
Everyone has their own priorities when traveling, but the most important thing to remember is to have fun!