I brought much of the following on my post-college, 2-month trip to Europe in 1998. Since posting the original list online upon my return home, I added a few reader suggestions. I think most of it still hold true today.
Backpack – Gregory “Chaos” (Medium, Red, 2,700 cubic inches)
I purposely bought a small backpack to help limit me in what I brought on the trip. This mentality worked very well, and I recommend it highly. When buying a pack, go to an outdoor store that specializes in camping, etc. Ask a lot of questions and shop around. Make sure your pack fits well, and be willing to return it if you have any problems packing it.
It is very important that you spend some time walking or hiking with your pack fully loaded before you leave. This will get you comfortable with how to load/unload it and how to adjust the straps for ultimate performance and comfort. I tested mine out by walking with it on a tread mill for two miles per day, the whole week before my trip. Remember that if you buy a quality backpack, you should be able to use it for more than one trip. [Author’s Note: My Chaos is now 11 years old. I’ve taken it to 29 countries, and my brother borrowed it for his own post-grad Summer in Europe. It still fits and works perfectly.]
Daypack – Jansport (Green, Standard school size)
I wasn’t quite sure of what a “daypack” was when I kept running across it in books. The term is actually a catch-all that describes whatever smaller backpack you use to carry around your things during the day, like your camera, journal, food, water, etc. I brought the backpack I used in college, and it turned out work just fine.
Clothing – see below
Pants: bring 1 pair in the Summer, 2 in the Winter. Don’t bring jeans – they take too long to dry, and they are very heavy. Do bring khaki pants. They will match all your clothes, they are lighter, and compress better in packing. I bought a pair of North Face pants for my trip. They were very expensive, and I should have just brought a normal pair of khakis. Cargo pants are helpful for their extra pockets. [Author’s Note: I used the same pairs of North Face pants and shorts on my RTW trip as I did in Europe 11 years earlier. Don’t be cheap – make the investment in a few pieces of quality gear and clothes!]
Shorts: bring 1 or 2 pair in the Summer, none in the Winter. Bring a pair of shorts that either is a bathing suit, or is light enough that it can double as one. You might not even have a need for shorts during your trip. The only time I wore my shorts was during my time in Italy and Nice. If you only plan on visiting the British Isles, you definetly do not need shorts. Check out what the averages temperatures are for the places you are going, and pack accordingly. Only bring what you need.
Shirts: 2 short sleeve, 1 long sleeve. What kind of shirts you bring really depends on where you are going and when. I think it is the biggest variable for clothing. I brought 3 short sleeve t-shirts and 2 long sleeve shirts. I ended up wearing one of my shirts (a polyester Addidas soccer shirt) for 90% of my trip. I threw out one of the long sleeve shirts and one of the short sleeve shirts. I would have gotten rid of a second short sleeve shirt, but it was one of my favorites, and I ended up having to carry it for the rest of my trip. Bring less than what you think you’ll need. And only bring shirts that you would be willing to throw away. This isn’t a fashion show, you won’t even be seeing the same person for more than a day or two anyway.
Sweatshirt or sweater: none in summer, 1 in winter. These articles of clothing really do take up a lot of space. I seriously considered bringing a hooded sweatshirt during my trip, and I’m really glad I didn’t. Even when I encountered cold weather in Ireland, I kept warm by simply layering my clothes. A t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, and windbreaker worked just as well as a sweater.
Footwear: 1 pair of all-terrain sneakers, sandals and shoes optional. Your choice of footwear is an area where you don’t want to be cheap. I bought a pair of all-terrain New Balances (801). They were expensive at $80, but unbelievably comfortable during the whole trip. Plus, I’m still using them after the trip. Don’t bring boots unless it is winter and you plan on hiking through the woods a lot. They are too bulky and heavy. Sandals are good if you are worried about the dirty showers like me. In reality, I ended up using them at the beach and during the warm weather parts of my trip, and almost never used them in the showers. Only bring dress shoes if you are interested in getting into the expensive, trendy clubs of Paris and London. Otherwise, they are a big waste of space.
During my trip, I saw an unbelievable range of footwear. I couldn’t believe some of the girls would bring 2-3 inch platform shoes with them. Others wore converse sneakers which offer no support, and fall apart quickly. Whatever you decide to bring, break them in before you leave. Trust me, if your feet are happy, you are happy.
Socks: bring 3-5 pairs. I brought 4 pairs of hiking socks with me. They were expensive at $10 a pair, but they were padded, and dried very quickly. Don’t skimp when it comes to your feet. There is no quicker way to problems, than lack of mobility. I attribute my lack of foot problems to my choice of socks and sneakers. Oddly enough, I got giant blisters on my toes, but they never hurt to walk on.
Underwear: bring 3-5 pairs. I brought 3 pairs, and ended up throwing them out for about a week, then bought 2 more pairs. Traveling commando is an effective way to cut down on clothes, as long as you are comfortable. I found that all the walking I did daily led to chaffing, and decided I was pro-underwear on the whole. But be willing to go without, on those dreaded laundry days.
Jacket: 1 windbreaker in Summer and Winter. Don’t bring heavy jackets! To stay warm, whatever the temperature, layer your clothes. Then, all you have to do is put your light jacket on to keep you dry. Make sure to bring a jacket during the summer too, in case of rain and cool nights. Bring a jacket that is packable, or compresses easily.
Hat: optional. I brought a Columbia hat with a 360 degree rim. I only wore it at the beach to help fight the sun, but even then it wasn’t necessary. No one seems to wear hats like these in Europe. For that reason, I stuck out like the biggest tourist when I would walk around a city like Rome. For that reason, I recommend sun tan lotion, and a hat only if you can’t live without it.
Sleep Sack: I don’t recommend bringing a sleep sack. About 90% of the hostels I stayed at had sheets, and you could rent sheets at the places that didn’t provide them. Even the cheapest hotels have clean sheets. One of my friends did say he used it at a campground in Greece. But, I don’t see how a sheet can provide comfort against the ground? Anyway, I thought about throwing mine out several times during the trip, and probably should have. Even when I did need to use it, I was too lazy to take it out from the bottom of my pack, and ended up just wrapping myself in the blanket provided. They are a waste of space, and a giant part of your dirty laundry.
Towel: Everyone has a different opinion when it comes to this. I bought a packtowel and cut it down to about the size of an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper. Although at times, I longed for a normal cotton towel, my approach worked just fine. The best part was that I could use it in the shower as a washcloth, then ring it out, and dry myself off. These things are amazing! If you are not as gung-ho about saving space as I am, then you’ll probably want a hand towel. Anything bigger is not really needed.
Swiss Army Knife: This is the easiest way to carry a corkscrew. Everyone drinks wine in Europe, and you’ll find yourself coming to the rescue of many people. The knife was also helpful in fixing meals, especially when it came to slicing cheese. It doesn’t pay to buy cheap imitations. My friend had one with a corkscrew that broke when we tried to uncork a bottle!
First Aid Kit: You can assemble your own kit, but I found it useful to buy a small one at an outdoor store and then supplement it with more medicine and band aids. I think the price alone was worth it for the little booklet that describes the common travel ailments and their recommended cures. You should bring a lot of band-aids since they tend to fall off (especially when on your feet). Tweezers are good for splinters.
Bring several types of over the counter medications for coughing, fever, headaches, muscle cramps, diarrhea, and general pain. Don’t bring full bottles, you only need enough to last you a day or two, thereby giving you time to find a pharmacy. I found the pharmacist I talked to in Venice to be very helpful, I just pointed to the problem areas (throat, nose and head) and he was able to recommend some medicines. You should also make sure to bring supplies of any medication you take on a normal basis.
Soap/Shampoo: I brought two small bottles of all purpose Campsuds. It worked well as shampoo and soap, but was not very helpful in doing the laundry. I also tried using it for shaving, which turned out to be a masochistic experience. When I lost my Campsuds, I was forced to buy a bar of soap, which I ended up preferring. But that meant I had to buy a bottle of shampoo too, and I could only get a bigger than I needed bottle. Whatever you bring, make sure to keep it in a ziploc bag.
Shaving Cream: One travel size bottle will last you two months, and you probably won’t even be shaving every day.
Toothpaste and Toothbrush: Bring a medium sized tube and a normal toothbrush will do. You might want to invest in one of those little protective covers if you are squeamish about your bristles getting dirty.
Tampons: For all the female readers, I doubt you’d forget this but I’ve received many e-mails to add it to the list.
Sun Tan Lotion: Bring a big bottle in the summer, and a small one in the winter (good if you are going skiing?). Of course this is an optional item for the lucky people that don’t burn (not me).
Journal: I brought an almost standard size composition book. It was a little big, and I could never just carry it in my pocket. I suggest a pocket size book with no lines. This will allow you to whip it out at any time, while at a restaurant or museum, and make a quick note of something. Remember to draw pictures! And bring a couple of pens too.
Camera w/film: I brought a mid-priced auto-zoom Minolta camera that worked just great. I brought 12 roles of 24 exposure film, and used 10 of them in 7 weeks. Don’t bring more than one role of film per week . You’ll just end up with a lot of crappy pictures. Instead, try and budget your film, and only take worthwhile pictures. Whatever you do, don’t bring a video camera. I’ve seen people’s vacation video, and I’ve talked to people that have edited them It always turns out duller than when you took it, and you’ll probably never watch it. Plus, you’d have to deal with all the voltage differences and the constant charging of batteries. [Author’s Note: Remember, this was in 1998 before the advent of cheap digital cameras. I definitely was opinionated back then.]
Back-up glasses or contacts: I brought a back-up pair of glasses, but never needed them. Still, go out and buy a cheap pair if you don’t already have one. I can’t imagine what I would do if I lost or broke my glasses, and didn’t have a second pair readily available. It would also be helpful to bring a copy of your current prescription, so you wouldn’t have to pay for a new exam.
Miscellaneous – see below
Spoon: One of the most valuable tools you can bring on your trip. There were countless times I wanted to buy yogurt, but couldn’t due to my lack of this utensil. A knife and fork are a distant second to the spoon.
Cups: Not necessary. Just drink from the bottle. In Italy they give you free Dixie cups when you buy a bottle of wine. Sometimes you need to ask for them.
Ziploc Bags: Bring a lot of these things. They were great on my trip. The gallon sized ones are great for keeping wet clothes separated in your pack. They are also good for storing food, and packing up meals for picnics. Cheeses belong in these bags. They are also handy for keeping spillable liquids like soap and detergent contained.
Walkman w/8-10 AA batteries: Bring a cheap walkman, and 2-3 110 minute mix tapes. This was one item I didn’t mind carrying around. I used it most when I was traveling between locations. My friends would listen to theirs while walking around the cities. I think that isolates you from your surroundings. You can’t fully experience a new culture like that. A bonus is your ability to receive foreign radio broadcasts, which can either be an interesting or boring experience. [Author’s Note: Remember, it was still the 90’s. These days, bring an mp3 player of course.]
Books: Don’t carry more than one small paperback at a time. There are plenty of people willing to trade books, and most major cities have large book stores. If you are reading an interesting author, it’s also a good way for strangers to start conversations with you. This happened to me more than once. I suggest “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac.
Rope and clothespins: You definitely don’t need to bring these items unless you take great pride in doing your laundry. Don’t worry, there is always something to hang your clothes from, normally it’s your bunk bed.
Sunglasses: Either you wear them or you don’t. I didn’t before I went, and I ended up not wearing the ones I brought.
Toilet Paper: Looking back, I think I took all the threats of bad toilet paper a little too seriously. The only country’s toilet paper I had a problem with was the Czech Republic. Even then, it was bearable for a few days. I ended up using the toilet paper I brought for my cold. After running out, I never had a problem since I would just steal some from a hostel or restaurant.
Multivitamins: Since you’ll be on the road for an extended period of time, you’re regular diet will most likely be interrupted. Vitamins are a good way to help make sure you stay healthy on your trip.
Condoms: Always be prepared.
Sachet: A small packet of perfumed powder used to scent clothes. Probably a good idea for girls to carry something like this to help keep their (dirty) clothes smelling good while confined to their backpacks. Available at Victoria’s Secret.