How to pack for a long backpacking trip


Hello from Portugal! We arrived last week and have already fallen in love with this country. I’ve been sharing parts of our experience on my Instagram stories, and I’ll be back soon with a more in depth blog post.

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But first: I’ve had a ton of requests asking how I pack for these extended trips, what items/bags I use, how I decide what to bring, etc. Last week I shared a live demonstration on my packing process on my instagram stories, and today I’m here with a full detailed recap!

My first backpacking trip was to Southeast Asia for 3.5 months, and after some research, I decided to purchase an Osprey 46L backpack because 1) it’s small enough to use as a carry-on (for some flights) and 2) it’s a manageable size for my 5’2” frame.

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Of course, a small size comes with sacrifices—I can’t pack a full wardrobe or several pairs of shoes or a hairdryer. But you learn quickly that stuff doesn’t matter so much when traveling, it really just weighs you down. I tend to have the same minimalistic approach with my home and the rest of my belongings, so it was an easy transition.

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I considered getting a larger backpack for this current trip as it would be several months longer, but couldn’t find any that fit comfortably and decided it wasn’t worth the cost in the end. I’m really glad I stuck with my Osprey.

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Now for the fun part—wardrobe selection!

Here’s a little secret: the main reason I’m able to pack so much is because I travel to warm locations. There’s no way I’d be able to fit boots and winter jackets in this backpack, but I can squeeze in plenty of shorts and tanktops.

There are some fundamental guidelines to adhere to when choosing what to bring, and you have to be selective. Here are my requirements:

Lightweight clothing only. Each item must take up very little space when rolled. Jeans are off limits!

Color/pattern coordination. Lay out all of your clothing and see what works together. Tops and bottoms should be versatile enough to be worn with multiple pieces, not just one. You can’t go wrong with neutral colors, and I always throw in a few patterned items to mix it up.

Comfort. This is a must. You want to be able to be fully present and enjoy your experiences, and you can’t do that if your dress is itchy or your pants are cutting off your circulation. All of my clothes were comfy enough to sleep in (no room for pajamas!) and there are plenty of long travel days where comfort is essential.

Versatility. While traveling you’ll find yourself in every situation—from trekking through the jungle to lounging on an island to dressing up for a fancy night out. Make sure you’re prepared by choosing pieces that can adapt to multiple scenarios. A little black lightweight dress is one of my essentials, along with lightweight, breathable tops and bottoms.

Affordability. This is a personal choice and I’ve never been one to splurge on clothing, but you can’t have any attachment to what you bring while backpacking. Things happen, clothing gets ripped or stained or lost, and you have to be okay with sacrificing them. I also love buying new clothes along the way, so if my bag is too full I’ll end up ditching something I brought from home to make room.

Here was my wardrobe for 9 weeks in South America:

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After taking this photo I actually ended up removing a pair of pants, shorts and a light jacket since my bag was completely stuffed and I wanted at least some room for souvenirs. With those gone, I ended up with 3 pairs of pants, 3 dresses, 6 shorts, 6 tanktops, 6 t-shirts, 2 long sleeve shirts, a swim coverup and a poofy vest. Not pictured is the bag of undergarments/socks/swimsuits, and shoes (a pair of tennis shoes, walking shoes and two sandals).

There’s one standout item that has been the single best investment of this trip and one that many of you have asked about… these sandals:

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Forget the trip, these are the best shoes I’ve ever purchased, period. I’ve always struggled with finding shoes/sandals that were not only super comfortable to walk in, but gave me some height, were acceptably cute, and could be worn with everything all while being affordable. These are it.

And believe it or not… they are crocs! I found them on Amazon and after reading countless reviews claiming them to be the most comfortable shoes ever, I spent the best $40 of my life (no joke)—the price has now gone up, apparently Croc has realized how amazing they are. Still worth every penny, I’m buying another pair as soon as I return home.

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These things have been everywhere from sandy beaches to muddy hiking trails and it feels like I’m floating on a cloud with each step. I walk several miles per day in these and could have hiked Machu Picchu with them.

Anyway, enough gushing (seriously, get these shoes).

Here’s my wardrobe for 5 months in Europe:

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I’m actually bringing less than what I brought to South America: 2 longsleeve tops, 4 t-shirts, 5 tanktops, a poofy vest, a swim coverup, 3 pants, 2 shorts, a skirt, 3 dresses and a romper (not shown are the dark green pants and black tshirt I’m wearing when I took this pic, but they’re included in the total).

Most of the shorts in South America had either shrunk, gotten lost or stained and I prefer to wear dresses/skirts anyway, especially in Europe. Other than that, the lineup is pretty similar. I was also able to ditch the bulky tennis shoes—I only wore them a handful of times and my walking shoes should be plenty sufficient for any trails/hiking we do here.

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Now my bag has plenty of room left to pack with goodies from Europe—and that’s the way it should be!

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When researching the most efficient way to pack years ago, I came across something called packing cubes. Best discovery ever.

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They are these thin, zippered and somewhat flexible compartments to store and organize your belongings. There must be magic involved because this is what happens to that bed full of clothes:

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That was my cube for South America which was stuffed, but for Europe I actually have room to spare:

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Look—my undergarments take up almost as much space as my entire wardrobe. Mind blowing.

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There is a method to this though—you have to roll your clothes for maximum efficiency. And yes, wrinkles are unavoidable. Over time you become better at identifying materials that wrinkle less than others, but it’s just one of those sacrifices you learn to live with (but wrinkles happen even with folded clothes).

For toiletries, I only bring travel sizes in case I need to carry my bag on a plane, and I find that I rarely need to refill most of them. I made it through nearly 2 months with 3oz of shampoo, conditioner, facewash, body wash and lotion. Between the lack of hot water, remote locations and long travel days, showers are not a daily occurrence and hair washing is something that happens twice a week at the most. Welcome to the realities of backpacking.

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I did bring a curling iron to South America and used it once before stepping outside into the humidity and realizing what a mistake that was. It will definitely prove useful in Europe though with a dryer climate.

All of my toiletry essentials fit into a bag about the size of my packing cube, and my makeup is in a separate smaller bag.

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Once you get your packing configuration down, it takes no time at all to put everything back in a hurry.

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One thing I didn’t have with me in Asia was a special backpack for my camera gear (I carried my SLR in whatever spare bag/purse I had). For South America, we brought a steadicam and Gorilla Pod, plus an accessory bag, so I needed a larger protective pack to fit everything.

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I found this Koolertron bag on Amazon, which has a separate padded compartment at the bottom for your camera/lenses, plus a drawstring portion at the top. During travel days I was able to fit my 15” laptop in the back as well. It’s the perfect day bag and we bring it out with us everywhere we plan to shoot (which is more often than not).

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With most of our valuables inside, this bag never leaves my sight and stays with me on every plane/bus/taxi/boat ride (it comes with a waterproof cover which is nice).

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The built in camera compartment feature is what sold me (that and the fact that it’s only $40 shipped). It all fits safely and snugly at the bottom—my DSLR, two lenses, Gopro, multiple chargers and extra batteries with room for my gorilla pod and accessory bag—all just in the lower portion.

Once that is zipped up, I slide my laptop behind everything in the back.

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In the drawstring section, there’s room for the drone and my Turkish towel/blanket which has proven invaluable.

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This turkish towel is ideal for travel days as an extra layer of warmth, a pillow or sun blocker. It’s also used as a beach towel, sarong, or for drying off after a shower when there are no towels provided (this happens pretty regularly at hostels). Definitely the most multifunctional and useful item to have on any trip, backpacking or not!

Oh, and it’s only $13 on Ebay and comes in several colors/patterns. I originally bought two and used them in the cottage flip:

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After my sandals, this towel is the second best trip purchase I’ve made.

And that covers everything on my end!

Lucas has a 50L Kelty Redwing backpack, and his has even more room (maybe because he knows he’ll end up carrying all my souvenirs?)…

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He also has a smaller day bag that can be folded up and fit into his main bag if needed.

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It’s theft proof, slash proof and has a lock to secure it somewhere if we decide to walk away. It’s nice to have when we don’t want to haul the camera backpack around with us.

Here’s the entire lineup for both of us:

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After many months of traveling over the years and making adjustments along the way, we’ve got a pretty solid setup for our needs and I can’t think of anything I would change. Hopefully this is helpful for any of you who plan to take an extended trip, are trying to pack with less or are just curious about how we pull it off 🙂

On another note, last week I published a very special video that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a wedding gift I made for my sister and her husband who got married while we were in California recently, and has become my favorite video to date. I can’t help but tear up each time I watch it… I hope you enjoy their beautiful love story, click below to watch:

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Now we’re focusing on capturing our travels through Portugal, and looking forward to sharing our first video from Europe. But first, there are photos and stories to tell… coming up next! You can find me on Instagram (Lucas too) for daily updates in the meantime. Ciao!

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34 thoughts on “How to pack for a long backpacking trip

  1. I’m so glad you did this post – thank you! All the compact packing is fascinating for some reason. I pack more than this for a 7-day cruise…LOL. I hope to one day be more minimalist with packing…I think it’ll take some time but I’ve definitely gotten better over the years. Enjoy Europe! Portugal looks amazing so far, can’t wait to see more!

  2. I was thinking about how you pack and this is so smart! I do have a question (that may be TMI), but what about feminine products? That’s my biggest worry traveling for a long time. I’m sure there’s something I’m missing! 😅

      1. I’m so excited I just purchased the shoe directly from croc for $35 shipped. I have loved croc flip flops forever. I can’t wait to get them. Thanks for the tip.

  3. I’ve read many articles on packing for travel and this is by far the most informative and useful one I’ve read. I prefer warm climates for travel. This is so helpful. Thank you.

  4. Hi Jenna,
    Such a pleasure getting to read all your posts, thank you! Can you please tell me what your two other shoes are? We are all the time going on mini adventures or hikes, as many as we can with two toddlers. I find that we are in the mountains, then beach, then city so I need some good cross over shoes and clothes. We live in California and do most of our trips here. Im definitly going to try out the crocs, but I noticed you wear the black shoes quite a lot. Thanks again!

    1. The black shoes are $20 from Payless, and I actually don’t wear them often! Only in colder weather. The flip flops I think are from Thailand? I don’t remember, but they’re super old/cheap and lightweight, and only worn to the beach usually.

  5. You have such cute lightweight clothes! Do you pick them up as you find them, or do you have a reliable store you go to for shorts, dresses, pants, etc.? I love poking around thrift stores; I hate, hate poking around clothing stores.

  6. Hi Jenna – great tips, FYI I have those crocs, I bought mine in an outlet store in May (got mine 50% off since we bought two pair of crocs), seriously the most comfortable shoes I have ever owned. I have been everywhere with them! Glad to know I am not the only one who thinks they are the bomb. GO BUY THEM FOR YOURSELF! You won’t regret it!!!!

  7. The Croc sandals are currently another 30% off the sale price of Amazon. I just bought a pair. Thanks for the great suggestions!

  8. You are an amazing packer!!! I think my bra’s alone would take up half that pack, big boob problem:{ Anyway thought I would mention that Lush has this amazing shampoo and conditioner that looks like a bar of soap and lasts something like 80 washes. Maybe it will help someone on their travels, its no mess, not a liquid and small. Love seeing your travels!

    1. Hahaha! I didn’t read the comments and after I posted I saw someone else recommend the same Lush shampoo. Too funny, great minds think alike!

  9. Beautiful pictures and nice description.Thank you for the information, it is always interesting to read about how To Pack For A Long Backpacking Trip.

  10. Love your shopping sensibilities with those stores! Are the Turkish towels you bought the gray tones or the natural/light brown? Also, my son went to Europe on a music tour a couple of years ago, and said Switzerland was his favorite. They went to 7 countries, but didn’t go to Portugal and only to Venice for a day in Italy, but he even liked it better than the UK. Are you going anywhere near the Netherlands? We have a friend there, and it sounds wonderful. My kids have both been to Europe before me, that is parental sacrifice, because that is where I have always wanted to go, especially France. Keep having a glorious time, and I love to live it through you, and get to see places that other travel shows never show you. 😊

    1. Thanks Natalie! Those last two I bought were a beige/natural color. We will be in Switzerland in a couple months–can not wait for the scenery! And we’ll also be in Venice this weekend 🙂 Didn’t have time to fit northern Europe in on this trip unfortunately, but that will be a separate trip one day. Make sure France is on the top of your list when you do go to Europe!

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