The classic idea of “backpacking through Europe” ultimately misleads you for the vast majority of the trips we actually take abroad. Unless you plan to spend a few months literally hiking through forests and trees across the continent, it’s likely you aren’t going to be wearing your back for any long period of time. As rough as some trains can get, you’re not hauling around a sleeping pad, cook stove, and a tent.
Choosing your travel bags is a personal decision: there’s no right or wrong way. These are the bags and methods that work well for me and my style of travel. I encourage you to find your own!
Main Bag: Deep Storage
Your main bag is the nexus of your stuff during the trip. It’s your deep storage, your reservoir of layers, and everything needed to live out of your bag for an indefinite time. The main criteria I look for when selecting a main bag are:
- Can hold 5 days worth of clothing without requiring any wash, but maybe not more than that
- Easy to carry by hand
- Fits in all airlines while minimizing wasted space
- Isn’t prone to being overpacked by stuffing things on the exterior
- Can be used as a backpack for up to an hour a day while still being comfortable
- All items are easily accessible in the bag, and packing/unpacking can be done quickly.
- Looking for a random object search shouldn’t necessitate unpacking everything above the entire length of the bag in order to find it.
Of course, when I started going on trips to Europe I immediately went and purchased a nice swell hiking backpack. 70L of capacity, a detachable bag, lots of straps, and plenty of pockets! It was instantly stuffed with things I didn’t need and I became a one-person wrecking ball that hit everything I saw with a bag that was ill-suited for the task at hand. Instead of being nimble and lightweight, I was carrying around dead weight just in case I needed that third sweater.
And then that large bag got stolen. Lesson learned? Well…
Next up was a 62L hiking pack. It lost a little bit of weight in the process, but there were still tons of exterior straps and loops and pockets that were easily caught on things that cities have. Not to mention the bag still encouraged overpacking, and was frequently damaged by baggage screening machines. And, being a hiking backpack, it was a top loader. Good luck finding anything useful in your bag in under 10 minutes.
Because that’s a thing. You don’t want to be the person with a huge backpack and carry it on a plane. Sure, the front desk people at the airport might let you through, they’ll sure as shit gate check it if they see how large and stuffed your bag is. And that’s a serious downer.
Then I decided to experiment with a smaller bag. Maybe a hiking pack, but instead of one built for a cross-country hike, one that’s just for a night or two?
Getting a 40L hiking pack was certainly an improvement. Clothing choices were necessarily forced to be light, and gear had to be considered carefully. Still, the bag has a lot of overhead due to its design to be carried for 8-10 hours a day with gear strapped on the outside. It’s a great bag, and I use it camping quite a bit. But it was still prone to the same issues that the larger hiking backpacks encountered when being used in a city.
My current choice is a Tortuga Travel Backpack. It doesn’t have many exterior pockets, has front loading for the main compartment, fits within all airline carry-on requirements, and the back/waist straps can be concealed to turn the pack into a handheld bag without anything for security machines to snag on.
Day Bags: Where Expensive Crap Goes
Nice! You have a main bag that you like! Now it’s time to figure out what your day bag will be. This is the thing that will hold your water bottle, a camera, guidebook, and maybe some passports. You’ll also stuff it a bit while flying to put it under the seat with all of the things you need for the 8 hours of hell ahead. What I look for in a day bag are:
- Light and compressible enough to be stuffed in the main bag, if required
- Can be easily carried in addition to the main bag when on a travel day. This can be either as a light backpack worn on the front of the chest, or a messenger bag on the side.
- Can securely hold the things I need for a typical day exploring.
Initially, I used my Mountain Hardware Fluid 26 lightweight backpack. Back when I was lugging around 70L+ bags to Europe, I could put this backpack inside my main bag and then pull it out when I needed it. It was pretty great if you ignore the fact I was carrying around far too much weight in the first place.
Then I went with a Timbuk2 Classic Messenger Bag, X-tra Small.
This wee lil’ bag can fit a jacket and book. And that’s about it.
I eventually went a custom-designed Timbuk2 Small messenger bag with lots of reflective strips and fabric built-in. It can hold the things you need for a day without encouraging you to overpack and end up with a severely pissed back.
I’m still experimenting! For my next trip, I’m planning on bringing the Tortuga bag as my main, and bringing the Fluid 26 as a day bag.
Hand Wash your clothes
If you’re going on a 3 week odyssey through Europe. Do not bring 21 pair underwear, 21 pair of socks, and 10 shirts. Bring enough supplies for 5 days and hand-wash your clothing every day or two. Every 10 days or so, go to a laundromat and give everything a nice scrub. Sure, you’ll be wearing the same shirt every third day or so, but who cares?
Figure out your favorite compression and organization scheme
I like compression bags, but other people like packing cubes. Figure out whatever you like and go with it.