I did the most cliche traveling adventure for someone in their 20s: I backpacked through Europe, taking trains and plains and staying in hostels. It was incredible and an amazing adventure that began with a seemingly impossible task: fitting 11 days worth of stuff into a carry-on-sized backpack.
I actually did it! I fit everything after each city I traveled to. I never had to check anything and all my (tiny) souvenirs fit! Here’s how to do it:
1. Do your homework.
Ugh, homework. I think I could have done this one better, actually, but I appear to have gotten very lucky. My plan was to HEAVILY research the best backpack, and I pinned and pinned the best advice for backpacking (and then didn’t read very much of it at all). Obviously, work got crazy and reading dozens of Rick Steves comment threads was not my idea of a fun, after-work activity. I ended up searching on Amazon (where I buy everything) and finding 5 or so packs in my price range and picking the best one there! I did make sure to read ALL of the reviews. If a backpack had no reviews, it was eliminated. If it had less than 4 stars, same. Especially if people said the zipper quality was poor or something like that — outta here. This was the winner, btw. Such a great pack, I actually miss living out of it (weird).
Upon all this research, I realized there were a lot of different types of back packs. There’s front-loading (like a normal rolling suitcase, where you can unzip and see everything in there) or top loading (like normal backpacks). There’s different sizes (obviously) distinguished by the confusing metric system — what’s a 35 liter backpack?! How many shoes can I fit in there?! There are also just a lot of adjectives describing backpacks, like “lightweight” or “water resistant” or “day pack” (things I didn’t needed), so it was hard to decipher that. Plus, like, what color did I want?!
I also checked the airline’s size requirements for carry ons. We only flew two airlines, and miraculously, my bag was within their requirements. (I, uh, checked after I bought…. oops.)
The next thing I discovered that was if I was to buy a top-loading backpack, which was recommended, I should buy packing cubes. I then Amazon searched “packing cubes” and learned what “packing cubes” were. I did less research on this one. I picked the cheapest and bought it… oops. Again, I got lucky. These won.
A note on packing cubes: They do not magically make your clothes smaller, but they do make it so much easier to pack and unpack. I had one large cube (actually the “medium” size) and put most of by clothes in it. I had a large pouch (where I put the rest of my smaller clothes), a medium pouch (which I brought empty and put dirty clothes in), a small (where I actually kept my charging stuff and extra batteries) and a shoe pouch (which fit three pairs of my shoes, and I would wear the largest pair). They were TRUE lifesavers, but the zipper quality (which as I mentioned before, was v important), was not great and I actually broke one packing. oops.
Finally, check the weather. Weather.com has the 15-day forecast, but you can also research monthly highs and lows. Have a rainy day outfit (mine was the jacket and my booties with my thicker scarf).
2. Do your shopping.
So for me, my homework was actually shopping because I just used Amazon as a big resource. Other than my backpack and my packing cubes, I also used Amazon to buy a few other things:
- A tiny, dual-voltage, two-in-one hair curler/straightener, because apparently my curling iron is a. huge, and b. would fry my hair. Ps. Did not understand the voltage differences and am still very confused. SOS. 10/10 would recommend this though. Obvi it is small and doesn’t work as well as your Chi, but I had long-lasting curls from this thing that fit in my toiletry bag. Praise.
- An embarrassing passport pouch my mother insisted on my buying and wearing. Yeah, yeah, crime is bad for tourists in Europe and losing a passport is literally my nightmare. This one was v cheap, but kind of bulky. 6/10 recommend.
- A spare SD card I never actually used. It’s 16GB, anyone wanna buy it from me? Apparently 32GB was more than enough, even for me.
- An inflatable neck pillow with earplugs and an eye mask. Basically the 8-9 hour flight package. 10/10 recommend. OBSESSED with this neck pillow and considered using it in bed. Also extremely cheap.
- An intense adapter. I have a lot of things that need charging, and you never know how many outlets you are allowed in a hostel/hotel/Airbnb. I sprung for this LOOP one and have zero regrets. I could charge my phone and my external battery bank in the USB ports, and my camera battery or my Fitbit in the plug thing. AKA three things at a time. #Efficient.
3. Track your clothing and toiletry needs.
IDK, I might be weird, but I literally don’t know how I dress myself every day. A couple weeks before my trip, I started seeing what clothes I liked or relied on, what things go with what, and focused on comfort too. I also started seeing what products were essential (this I sort of already knew). I know this sounds like a weird step, but knowing what you use/wear regularly really helped me know what I needed to bring and what I could leave behind. Yes, I made a list… #nerdalert.
4. Practice packing.
Another nerdy/weird thing I did. Once my backpack and cubes came in and I knew what I wanted to bring, I tried fitting it all. I took some trial and error, but I fit everything in. This was the breakdown on clothes (ps. I went in September, so a fall wardrobe):
- Two jeans
- Two dresses (one long and one short sleeves)
- Three sleeveless tops
- Two short-sleeves tops
- One long-sleeves top
- One lightweight sweater
- Two leggings and one pair of athletic shorts
- Two casual tees
- Two scarves
- The appropriate amount of underwear (you do you)
- One jacket (it was not too heavy, but fleece-lined and short)
- Shoes: one pair of sandals, one pair of flats, one pair of flat-bottom tennis shoes and a pair of booties
When traveling, I always wore the jacket and the booties, so I never had to fit them in.
5. Make some cuts.
I originally had a pair of heels (lol), another shirt, and bulkier things but there was just no way. I made some cuts and some changes.
6. Never get lazy.
When traveling so much, you have to pack and then unpack then pack again a couple days later. I really had to make myself keep everything neat. Since I had practiced, like the nerd I am, I had a system. So, each time it was time to pack, it was actually kind of easy. I knew how everything fit.
7. Totes bring a tote.
Most airlines will let you bring a carry on AND a personal item. I only had one purse, and it was a small cross-body, so I packed a couple lightweight totes (like the ones you get from Free People). On travel days, I put my purse inside it and threw in my inflatable neck pillow and kindle.
8. Walk past the gate with confidence.
Luckily, this worked for me at every flight, but unfortunately my friend got caught. Her bag was BARELY larger than the requirements. Like, we’re talking by a half inch. She was forced to check it. Just don’t show any doubt and stride on by! My backpack actually would have fit under the seat in front of me, so if the overheads were full, that was my plan.
9. Enlist a helper.
You know, for moral support.