What's In My Backpack(s): Traveling Abroad for Nine Months

Ah the joys of packing for a week-long vacation, five-day work trip, month-long holiday, or something else. You think you need that extra shirt, swimsuit, pair of shoes, or stick of deodorant that's just going to take up a bit more room in your suitcase? Think again!

When I was preparing to go abroad for my first lengthy amount time (last December for three weeks to Australia) and didn't even know where to begin when it came to packing, these were my questions exactly. Three weeks is by no means a long time on the road (though for many it's tough to imagine packing for that amount of time, especially when you're combining work and leisure clothes), but I've seen my Mom pack an overflowing suitcase for a seven-day vacation and thought, "Do you really need all that stuff?" Hell, I've packed that much for a weekend trip to northern Michigan! I quickly realized that the answer is NO! You don't! 

I always thought I did, though I've since learned otherwise. As I was gearing up for nine months oversees with no expected replenishment of fresh underwear or socks I began to get quite stressed about what and how exactly I was going to pack for this trip. Fortunately, I planned my trip around two seasons of weather (fall and summer), making my packing strategy a bit more efficient and slim, but when I considered that I was packing for nine months or more of backpacking, hostel living, and potentially long walks to my next destination, packing strategy became a very important thing. After a lot of research, packing, unpacking, repacking, shopping, unpacking, packing, and unpacking again before coming to a final decision, I'm hoping I got it right. So what's in my backpack(s)? Check it out!

Clothing: Keep in mind I'm packing for two climates: one hot and humid and the other more temperate with summer and fall weather to worry about. My strategy for clothing is that I want to blend in as much as possible. Yes, Americans do dress a lot differently than Europeans, so as few logos, brand labels, and boisterous clothing as possible was my goal. Solid colors and tighter fit are a general rule of thumb I've found across Europe so that's the route I went.

  • 2 pairs of shorts (1 multipurpose swimsuit/short combo and 1 for hiking/casual wear)
  • 2 pants (wearable for going out and walking around during the day)
  • 1 lightweight rain jacket
  • 1 lightweight fleece (black Patagonia)
  • 2 long sleeve collared shirts
  • 2 short sleeve collared shirt
  • 5 t-shirts (yes, 5. Breathable, non-cotton material that is better for odor protection)
  • 5 pair underwear (yes, 5. See above for details)
  • 4 pair socks
  • 1 pair athletic shorts
  • 2 swimsuits (1 board shorts, 1 speedo...I used to swim and you never know where a lap pool might be...)
  • 1 tank top
  • 1 bandana
  • 3 pair shoes (Nike walking/running, Casual walking/going out shoes, sandals)

I looked mainly for things that would be either odor resistant or easy to wash. Underwear and socks, though they have the most potential for getting smelly quickly, are also the easiest items to hand wash with detergent in the sink and let dry over your bed. Simple and compact, yet practical. As few items as possible in my bag was key so I think I'm doing ok here.

Gear: I elected not to bring a tent due to the fact that they're bulky, heavy, and not always the most practical thing to have. Sure, it would save me a lot of money, but it'd also prevent me from getting to meet people in hostels and develop relationships with other travelers, so, I opted out of that option. Though I do love camping, a tent is just too much to lug around for nine months in a row. I don't have that much other gear though aside from a few necessities. This list may seem short, but that's because I (and presumably you) don't need that much stuff. It's just extra weight.

  • 1 North Face Premium Day Pack
  • 1 60L Jack Wolfskin backpack
  • 1 quick dry microfiber towel
  • 1 travel hammock and straps (ENO brand)

Everything I'm taking laid out before going in my bag

Toiletries and Meds: A lot of these items you can buy anywhere in the world for cheap, so I didn't bother with bringing extras of all the small items (toothpaste, shampoo, etc.). I also got several vaccinations beforehand; however, some are cheaper in pill form than in expensive, non-insured vaccine form that doesn't last more than a few months (Side note: In Asia you can get the majority of your vaccines at most clinics for MUCH cheaper than you can in the U.S. Ex: Japanese Encephalitis in the U.S. cost $600+, in Asia $15)

  • Toothbrush
  • Small toothpaste container
  • Deodorant
  • Laundry detergent
  • Malaria pills
  • Travelers diarrhea pills
  • Emergen-C
  • Benadryl
  • Ibuprofen
  • Band Aids
  • Neosporin

Electronics, accessories, and must haves: I'm not the most "techy" person, but I do like to carry a few additional gadgets and such around with me. Aside from my computer and phone, I'll always want to have backups handy in case of an emergency. So, here's what I brought.

Me with all of my belongings packed in my two bags the day before I left

  • Passport (along with 3 copies of it and 2 additional copies I left at home)
  • Journal (for non blog stuff I want to write down)
  • 1 hat
  • 1 sport/athletic watch
  • 2 travel locks
  • Laptop
  • 2 phones (1 backup and 1 regular)
  • 2 iPhone headphones
  • GoPro + accessories
  • Outlet converter

That's it! Two bags sitting on both my front and back. After two weeks abroad, all is still functioning, usable, and I don't feel like I've under or overpacked. I'm making my way south from Iceland


I initially composed this post before I left home back in July. Now that I've been gone for four-and-a-half months, here's a brief update on all that I packed, lost, gained, renewed, or otherwise altered in my bags.

It's been a while since I've left home, but for the most part everything in my pack is the same. I've acquired a new large backpack (still 60 L) due to shotty stitching in the "Made in China" Ebay bag I initially got. I also have lost (1 paid of headphones, 1 sock, quick dry towel, fleece, and sweatshirt), acquired (quick dry towel, discarded (pair of shoes that saw way too many streets in Europe, and purchased (3 tank tops in Asia, 1 long sleeve casual plaid shirt, 1 short sleeve colored shirt, numerous t-shirts, 1 pair of shorts, and a smaller day backpack).

It turns out I had more room in my backpack than I initially thought, but all-in-all I packed quite successfully. There are several things I currently have that I wish I'd left at home or somehow reworked how I brought them along (e.g. laptop vs. a tablet or iPad), but I've been mostly satisfied with all of my belongings in my 16kg life!

I've come across several other travelers who have much larger (80L) bags and much smaller (45L - though this is TINY) bags than me, but depending on how many souvenirs, clothes, or other objects you acquire or lose during your travels really determines how big of a bag you may want. In general I've tried to keep my two bags under 16kg (~35lbs) due to ease of airline travel (bag weight restrictions) and walking from hostel to hostel or bus station to train station, etc. 

Lastly, if you think that packing for nine months is any different than packing for two weeks, you're sorely mistaken. I've found that if I were traveling for just a few weeks I would have packed nearly identical to how I packed for my own multi-month trip mainly because of my need for laundry. Next time you're packing for a long trip abroad think about how much you really, truly need before throwing in that extra t-shirt, pair of socks, pants, shorts, shoes, or other non-critical item. Though it may not seem obvious, people hardly remember what you wore yesterday, let alone the t-shirt you wore four days ago that doesn't really smell and you haven't washed in a week. If I can pack under 40lbs of stuff in two bags for 9+ months abroad, you can surely pack under 50lbs in one giant suitcase for your seven-day vacation to the Caribbean!