How I traveled Europe with just a backpack

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Summer travel demand has been sky-high, and I was able to jump on the trend and head to Europe for a three-week backpacking trip. On the agenda? Visits to London, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy and Switzerland. When you’re planning to cover that much ground, packing light is key.

Thankfully, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been lucky enough to take a handful of European vacations, and I’ve made my fair share of rookie mistakes. (No, bringing two giant checked bags and a carry-on bag to Italy isn’t a good idea.)

Through my travels to Europe and beyond, backpacks have become my go-to luggage as they’re easier to maneuver through narrow cobblestone streets and you can usually get away with it being a carry-on bag, depending on its size. It’s not always easy to fit everything you want in, but I’ve come to learn what’s a must-have and what can be left behind.

So, how did that work on my three-week summer trip around Europe? I was able to pack all of my travel gear in my Cotopaxi Allpa 35L backpack — and my trip was all the better for it. Here’s what I was able to fit in and what I could’ve lived without.

Packing is hard enough as is. But when you’re visiting multiple destinations that all call for different attire, it can be even more difficult. Add in trying to pare down your wardrobe so it can fit in a backpack and it becomes a real challenge. However, I’ve done it enough that I feel like I’ve finally nailed down the art of mixing and matching.

When you’re carrying all your belongings on your back, you quickly learn what you really need and being able to lighten the load becomes much easier. The odds of me wearing a different pair of pants every day is highly unlikely, for example. You really only need a few pairs that you can mix and match with different shirts — think of it as a capsule wardrobe on the go. And for my fashionistas who hate outfit repeating, consider that it can be kind of fun to see how many different outfits you can make with only a few items. Plus, you can always wash your clothes during your trip, even if it means a trip to the laundromat.

After some extensive thought and preparation, here’s what I packed for my three-week trip:

  • 8 tops
  • 1 pair of trousers
  • 2 pairs of linen pants
  • 2 pairs of linen shorts
  • 3 dresses
  • 1 lightweight sweater
  • 3 athleisure outfits
  • 3 swimsuits
  • 1 set of pajamas
  • Undergarments
  • 1 pair of white sneakers
  • 1 pair of sandals

In total, I had 14 different outfits. However, once I started mixing and matching, I had even more options to choose from. Most people will tell you to bring neutral colors, but I like color and as long as you have neutral pants, you can pair them with just about any top. I did bring a white sweater so I could easily throw it on over anything without any wild color clashes.

Above all, it’s important to consider the activities you plan to do and the destinations you’re visiting. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time by the sea, so I wasn’t too worried about running out of outfits as swimsuits were my main attire most days. Besides that, I knew it was going to be hot, so I packed a lot of lightweight clothes, which made for easier packing too.

As for travel shoes, you really only need two. I always bring a pair of white sneakers and a comfortable pair of sandals. Don’t waste space packing dress shoes or heels. Europeans are generally practical when it comes to shoewear, and you’ll understand why after a day of walking down century-old streets and sidewalks.

Clothing aside, here’s a look at the electronics and other miscellaneous items I brought with me in my backpack:

  • EU and UK travel adapters
  • Portable charger
  • 2 iPhone chargers (1 USB-A, 1 USB-C)
  • 2 pairs of headphones (wireless and wired)
  • Tripod
  • MacBook Air
  • Car charger
  • 2 TSA-approved luggage locks
  • Travel journal
  • International Drivers License
  • Passport
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Crossbody purse
  • Portable door lock
  • Headlamp (didn’t end up using it, but it has come in handy at hostels in the past)
  • Handheld mirror (didn’t end up using it, but it has come in handy in the past when there are limited mirrors in a room full of girls)
  • Laundry bag
  • Liquid IV (for staying hydrated in the hot Europe sun)
  • Tote bag
  • Toiletries

In my travels, one tip I find to be most useful is to pack your toiletry bag a few days before a trip to see what you really use on an everyday basis. I always tend to think I’ll wear a random lipstick or eyeshadow on a trip, but then I never do and it just takes up space. Plus, this will help ensure you’re not forgetting anything important.

Once you’ve established your pared-down essential travel gear for your trip, it comes time to pack it all away. There are dozens of ways experts recommend packing, from creating lists to packing in larger items first and more — packing really can be a science. But there are tools that can help make packing with less space much easier.

I’m a big fan of the rolling method as I believe it allows for your clothes to take up less space, combined with the benefit of using compression packing cubes. Over time, I’ve learned that when traveling to Europe, less is more. In general, spaces are a lot smaller, the infrastructure isn’t very suitcase friendly and if you’re backpacking, you’ll probably be flying with a lot of low-cost airlines or taking the train or a bus. All this is what makes travel backpacks the ideal packing method for a European vacation.

So, what did I use? I love my Cotopaxi Allpa 35-Liter Travel Pack. It is comfortable, roomy yet compact, durable and has great organizational compartments. Plus, I’m usually able to get by with it as a carry-on item on most low-cost carriers if I don’t overpack it. In addition to its comfortable backpack straps, it’s also got a side handle for easy carrying as well as a removable waist belt to better support your back.

My favorite feature of this backpack that makes it ideal for travel? It opens clamshell-style, meaning you can pack it like a traditional suitcase using separate compartments. There’s no adding rolled items to the bottom of a black hole like you would get in a traditional backpack, and it doesn’t sacrifice on the other features that make a great travel backpack either. You’ll still find a padded laptop and tablet sleeve, a top zippered pocket for smaller essentials and anti-theft features like durable YKK zippers.

This travel backpack is a staple in my travel wardrobe, as it can fit everything I need for a multi-week trip, has plenty of storage compartments and is available in a number of fun color combinations. With 35 liters of packing capacity and featuring a clamshell-style packing system, it’s the perfect backpack when taking a longer trip.

This year, I upgraded my packing cubes to compression cubes to help me save even more space, and they didn’t disappoint. Not only did they help me to save on space, thanks to the added zipper that compresses its contents, but they also serve the traditional packing cube purpose of keeping me organized on the go.

I used the Bagail Compression Packing Cubes on this trip, and I wasn’t disappointed. The set of four is made of smooth and soft nylon and works like a vacuum sealer to condense your contents to a smaller size, thanks to the exterior zipper.

While I used the packing cubes for clothes, for my toiletries, I ended up bringing Away’s the Large Toiletry bag. Initially, I was worried it would be too bulky and I wouldn’t be able to fit all my items in, but it was surprisingly flexible and it fit pretty well between my compression packing cubes.

Having a dedicated container for my toiletries was a huge advantage and one item I recommend taking along. Stuffing small bottles into the crevices of your belongings means a poorly organized bag — not to mention the risk of one of your shampoo or lotion bottles opening and spilling all over your clothes. No, thank you.

The travel pros at Away know a thing or two about making organizational products that are functional and stylish and will last for years to come. The Large Toiletry Bag features a centralized zipper pocket for storing all your items as well as a small exterior zip pocket. Plus, it’s made of water-resistant nylon so you don’t have to worry about spills and wet bathroom countertops.

The final item that really helped me to maximize space for this trip was my Lasbottle 4-in-1 Travel Dispenser. While the Away Toiletry Bag was perfect for things like makeup and skin care products, this travel dispenser is perfect for everything else.

The bottle is simple: It features four different refillable pumps and a rotating top that allows you to switch between pumps seamlessly. I filled the bottle with my shampoo, conditioner, facial cleanser and body wash, which was particularly handy for the few nights that we stayed in hostels with shared bathrooms.

This versatile travel tool is perfect for packing your liquid and gel essentials in one place. A great tool if you’re staying in hostels or other accommodations with a shared bathroom, it allows you to fill four separate pumps with your choice of liquid or gel — think shampoo, conditioner, face wash, moisturizer and more — and rotate between tubes seamlessly. It’s also leakproof and features a wall hook for easy storage.

Thanks to the packing cubes, toiletry bag and condensing all my larger liquids into the 4-in-1 travel bottle, I was really able to maximize my backpack’s space. Once I’ve packed up, I reserve the top pocket of my Cotopaxi for all the things I need or want easy access to, like my passport, travel wallet, chargers and so on. It comes with a security zipper, and I usually add extra protection with a travel lock if I’m walking around a new city or staying in a hostel.

As a former overpacker, I can say that I never thought I’d be able to pack three weeks’ worth of clothes and other miscellaneous items in one backpack. But all it took was one trip with too much luggage and a bunch of clothes I didn’t end up wearing to make me realize how little I actually needed.

Packing light gives you so much more flexibility and freedom while traveling, and if you’re planning a trip this summer, I highly recommend giving it a shot. Just remember: There will always be a laundromat (your accommodation might have something too!) or you can go shopping if worse comes to worst. Saving on checked bag fees, not feeling overburdened with a heavy suitcase and having the ability to pack up and go quickly make packing light a skill that I plan to use over and over again.

Looking for a new travel credit card? Check out CNN Underscored’s list of the best credit cards currently available.

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