What to pack when backpacking around Europe

What to pack when backpacking around Europe

    Your time off work is secured, your Interrail pass is booked, your route is more-or-less planned out…now all that’s left to do is pack! Condensing everything you need for a trip into the small confines of a backpack can feel pretty overwhelming. And that’s before you factor in the vast and sporadic climate of Europe.

    Well, don’t panic, we’ve all been there—no seriously, the JFC team were literally there earlier this summer as we embarked on an overland journey from London to Istanbul.

    As the JFC team divided up and branched out in all directions, we each faced the practical consequences of our own packing techniques. Of course, there were some clear favourite items, but inevitably there were also many packing regrets.

    With our Turkish tan still glowing, our mozzie bites still itchy, and our memories still fresh from the road, here’s our guide on what to take backpacking around Europe.

    The bag

    This quintessential bit of kit can ultimately make or break your travels (and your body). It doesn’t matter that you're a packing genius if you then have to lug around an awkward rucksack from place to place. Comfort and practicality are the way to go.

    Let's start with size. The average dimensions of the JFC team’s bags were around 40-42 litres. Now, that’s pretty roomy, but it’s worth bearing in mind that we all travelled with our laptops and work equipment. That being said, none of the team confessed to being short on space, so treat this size as an absolute maximum.

     In terms of design and features, this part can make all the difference. I personally found hip straps to be a real game changer. By adjusting the straps to my height, I was able to carry the majority of weight on my hips, saving my shoulders from a whole lotta pain. The 40l Venture from Mountain Warehouse seemed to work just fine for me.

    A few of the team also had bags that unzipped like a suitcase, allowing easy access to the contents. A clear winner for Allan was his 42l Allpa bag from Cotopaxi.

    If you're not sure where to start, get yourself down to your nearest Decathlon, as they have tons of options. And before setting off, it might be worth doing a little test run, carrying your packed bag around for a bit, juuuust to check it all feels good. We can’t all be as lucky as Fran, who got to make a convenient stop off at her flat in Brussels to switch bags before continuing the race. 

    Clothes

    This part is always going to be a bit subjective, but, one general rule to abide by is pack for all weathers. We set off at the beginning of August, so essentially ‘peak summer’. Did it always feel that way? NO.

    Our teams saw everything from torrential downpours, to snowy peaks, and 30+ degrees. Of course, you can kind of get a rough idea of what’s in store if you plan your route ahead. But just be warned, if you take a spontaneous detour up an Alpine cable car, there’s a good chance you’ll run into some white stuff, no matter what the season.

    In terms of the actual clothes you take, it’s best to keep things simple and comfy. The goal is to take as little as possible, so aim for universal basics that can work in different settings.

    Just to give you a better idea, here’s a loose average of what we took on the road below. But FYI, probably don’t bring more than 9 of anything. If you're travelling longer, just use laundrettes along the way.

    Item Description Amount
    Tops Mix of T-shirts/vests/light dresses Equal to amount of days + two
    Over tops Hoody/jumper/shirt/fleece Two—one that’s warmer and comfy, and one that’s lighter and more casual 
    Bottoms Jeans (or trousers) and shorts as long as they are comfy Two—one long pair and one pair of shorts
    Underwear Pretty self-explanatory Equal to the amount of days + two

    A note on modesty: The vast majority of Europe is very accustomed to seeing skin, so vest tops and shorts are perfectly acceptable on most streets. However, it is usually required or at least expected that you dress respectfully when entering places of worship. We ended our trip in Turkey, where we planned on visiting a few of the mosques. Luckily, they provided free coverings, although it might be worth taking a long sleeved top or scarf if you plan on doing the same.

    Shoes

    If you're backpacking around Europe, you already know you’re going to be on your feet a lot. And despite the sheer diversity of European cities, two things they practically all love are cobblestones and hills.

    It’s not something you’d drastically notice…with the right pair of trainers, but swap those out for kitten heels or flipflops, and you’ll likely be coming home with a broken ankle. Seriously, even my trusty Burks struggled on the charming, yet uneven, streets of Belgrade.

    Going by the consensus of the team, bringing one pair of classic comfy trainers is the way to go. Along with one pair of packable flip-flops for hostel showers and beach visits.

    Accessories

    Unsurprisingly, there’s not much in this category. You really only want to take things where their usefulness outweighs their, well, weight and size.

    Only two items seem to pass this rule with flying colours. The first one being a cap, which is super practical when the sun decides to make an appearance. Plus, you can always clip it to the outside of your bag if you're really short on room.

    The second is a swimsuit. It’s light, packable and honestly just take a look at these.

    If you're particularly bothered by the rain, then a waterproof mac or poncho might be worth considering, but only if it packs down small.

    Electronics

    We get it, you’re going backpacking. You want to be out in nature and new cities, seeing the world…not be wired up with the latest technologies. But hear us out. There are a few non-negotiable bits of kit that should not be missed off your list.

    Starting with an obvious one, an EU plug adapter. Don’t be that friend that has to borrow everyone else's—just pick one up on Amazon for cheap.  If you do need to bring a lot of tech like us however, an extension cable with an EU plug adapter built in may be quite useful.

    Next are headphones. Trust me, aimlessly looking out the window of a 7-hour cross-country train is sooo much more tolerable when you have music. Plus, who doesn’t like pretending they're in a vibey music video?!

    Moving onto an optional choice, we’ve got power banks. Despite coming across a decent amount of public power sources throughout our travels, having your own supply is always a nice safety net.

    If you're after something small and light, Andreia opted for this wireless Apple pack. Tech-whiz Richard, on the other hand, bought this monster of a pack from Anker. But we suggest you buy with caution, this literal brick may have all the juice, but it weighed a ton.

    One final item, that may have saved Tristan a lot of grief, is an air tag or tracker. He heartbreakingly misplaced his camera somewhere on the Italian railways, and it was sadly never recovered. 

    The lesson here is if you have one particularly expensive or sentimental item, it’s probably worth sticking a tag on it.

    The things you might not think you need, but you ACTUALLY DO!

    Come on, say it with me now, P.A.C.K.I.N.G. C.U.B.E.S. Yes, we can confirm the hype is real. The level of convenience that comes with organising your items into separate compartments is undeniable.

    Picture the situation: You need to quickly grab an item from your bag, only for it to be packed right at the bottom. Since most bags open from the top, this means you would have to unpack then repack everything. With packing cubes, it’s just an easy game of Tetris without the need to refold all your belongings. For real, once you know, you know.

    Don’t be fooled into thinking every hotel, hostel, and Airbnb will offer complimentary toiletries. We can confirm, they do not. Yes, all of ours did have soap, but don’t forget to pack shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel.

    On to a real life-saver item…tissues. Without going into too much detail, public toilets across Europe (or at least the ones I chose to enter) seemed to have a real aversion to toilet paper. Thus, my little pack of tissues was very, very much appreciated.

    And on to a real money-saving item…a water bottle. Forget what you’ve heard, we’re setting the record straight. The majority of tap water throughout Europe is perfectly safe to drink. So save your euros and the planet by refilling your bottle instead of buying new ones throughout the day.

    Extra tip: Starbucks will usually fill up your bottles with free chilled water if you ask nicely :-) 

    Ending on a serious note, one thing you should never skip out on is travel insurance. It’s relatively inexpensive and 100% worth it. Additionally, if you're eligible for a European healthcare card, but haven't applied yet, do it now! It’s free and grants you access to medically necessary healthcare while abroad in Europe. 

    As a cautionary tale, poor Andreia took a nasty tumble from an e-scooter in Vienna, which ended in some pretty badass looking chin stitches. Sadly, her new souvenir also came with a hefty price tag, which she now has to pay out-of-pocket due to not having the EU healthcare card.

    Moral of the story: no one can predict that they’ll be whizzing through the streets of Vienna on a scooter, so just buy the insurance and don’t ask questions. 

    The things you think you need, but you ACTUALLY DON’T!

    So, these first two are a little counterintuitive: a travel towel and a travel pillow. Just because they stick the word travel on it, doesn’t mean it’s going to be useful. Danni spent 99% of her journey with a cumbersome cushion swinging around her backpack every time she changed direction. And I can personally confirm that my travel towel wasn’t used even once—that’s one thing hotels (and hostels) never disappointed on.

    One packing regret I’m personally guilty of is thinking I needed to bring a full-face of makeup supplies on the road, you know, juuuust in case. Do I wear it usually? No. Did I wear it throughout the trip? No. Why did I bring it? I’m still asking myself. 

    On a related topic, don’t even think about bringing a hair dryer. Honestly, sacrificing that much precious bag space for something most hotels already provide is just crazy.

    Space

    Re-packing a stuffed bag every day is not fun. Plus, it becomes even trickier when you start buying souvenirs. Just like Allan, you may also feel the need to purchase a Bulgaria cap, so make sure to leave a bit of space.

    Flying Home

    Finally, even if you're planning on keeping your feet on the ground, don’t 100% exclude the possibility of catching a flight. You never know when you might miss the last connection to a country you really want to visit (*cough cough*—team DAT)

    Basically, it might just be worth keeping any liquids under 100ml and your bags within airline regulations. Just in case an aerial exit is required.

    Well, that’s about everything from us. Hopefully, the thought of filling a backpack seems slightly less daunting now we’ve broken everything down.

    To end on one final bit of advice, if you're questioning whether you really need somthing, chances are, you probably don't :-) 

    If you’re already a packing pro, firstly congrats, and secondly, please don’t gate keep your knowledge—get in touch and share your words of wisdom!