How to Pack for 1 Year of Travel in a Backpack
Deciding what to pack for 1 year of travel can be stressful. It doesn’t have to be, though. When some people saw that I only had a 35-liter backpack and an additional small day pack, they seemed surprised by how little I brought with me for 1 year.
The reason I bought a medium-sized backpack was to force myself to bring fewer things. After a house fire destroyed most of my stuff a year before the trip I found that it was possible to get by with few possessions. One of the tests of my trip would be to get by on even less.
My travel budget and how to pack for 1 year of travel are two of the most common question I’m asked. Here I’ll show how to pack for 1 year of travel based on methods I used over the course of the last year. This isn’t to say my methods will be the best for everyone but hopefully they can give everyone some ideas about what to bring and what to leave behind. As far as my bags, I prefer having a primary medium-sized backpack and a secondary small backpack so I can carry it with me during the day. Some people prefer a larger backpack and a shoulder bag instead. There’s no right or wrong way, it’s just based on personal preference.
When needed, I could fit everything except my jacket into the medium-sized backpack but I rarely needed to do this. It was easier to have a few things in my small bag with easy access. My total bag weight averaged 23 pounds during my trip. Without a laptop and power cord it would have been around 17 pounds. Not everyone will need to travel with a laptop.
*Some items in this post are linked to my Amazon Affiliates account for which I receive a small commission from purchases. This does not cost you anything and helps me earn a small amount of $ to pay for this blog. My opinions are my own and are based on a year or more of using each item, unless stated otherwise.
3 Tips for Knowing What to Pack for 1 Year of Travel
- Pack clothing you think you’ll need for the first few months of the trip, not the entire duration.
- Head to the store or secondhand shop while traveling and pick up clothes or whatever additional items you may need.
- Understand that certain prescription medications can be difficult to get in other countries. Do your research ahead of time. You may need to bring a full supply. Things like Tylenol, inhalers, antibiotics and contact lenses are generally easy to get and may be sold over the counter in many countries.
Important Documents & Items
Make sure not to forget any of these:
- Passport – Don’t leave home without it!
- Wallet – I carried around $100-200 in local currency, my license, a copy of my passport, a rewards card and a debit card for travel. I recommend keeping an extra credit and debit card in a separate safe place as well.
- Travel Insurance – I recommend using World Nomads. They have great customer service and are recommended by every serious traveler I know. I didn’t have to use the insurance but was happy I had it in case something happened. They help cover things like medical bills, lost or stolen baggage, trip cancellation and even evacuation if an injury or sickness is serious enough.
- Documents – Have an extra copy or two of your passport and some extra passport photos which are required for visas in certain countries. A photo copy of all your credit and debit cards (front and back) is also helpful in the event you have one lost or stolen. Make sure you have screen shots of all necessary tickets and travel documents in case there is no cell reception or wifi. Also make sure to save a copy of your travel insurance.
- Flight – Make sure to get that flight booked ahead of time! For ways to get the best price, check out Finding Cheap Airfare.
- Student Card – If you have a valid student card bring this along. There are discounted student prices for activities, museums, transportation and all sorts of other stuff around the world. Discounts vary by country.
What to Wear During Flights, Buses, etc.
When catching a flight I would usually wear pants and shoes. I would take my jacket with me as well to make my checked bag as small and light as possible if there was a weight limit. I would also generally have my wallet and cell phone in one pocket and my camera in the other.
I always had my small pack with valuables and passport with me during flights, buses and train travel. I never checked my most valuable items. It’s likely you’ll need a passport and/or your saved travel documents so you may need to use electronics. Keep them with you. Though I never felt in danger or had anything stolen during my trip, I would rather be safe than sorry.
Clothes & Packing Cubes
For general clothing I recommend starting with the following:
- 5-7 shirts & tank tops
- 4-5 pair socks
- 4-7 pair underwear – I prefer boxers from ExOfficio. They’re known for extended wear time because of their breathability.
- 1 pair pants
- 1 convertible pants/shorts – These are great, especially for hiking. This pair from Columbia will be what I buy next. My pair from North Face were terrible and the tiny zippers broke after fewer than 20 uses.
- 1 pair board shorts
- 1 pair exercise shorts (optional)
- 2 packing cubes – What’s a packing cube? See below.
If you’re wondering how to organize all of these clothes, packing cubes are the best way I’ve found. They’re a huge space saver and they allow you to pack your bag with a few cubes instead of 20+ items of clothing. If you haven’t heard of packing cubes, check this out.
These are some of the most useful travel items you’ll ever own. In fact, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them. Roll or fold your clothes and pack them into these cubes that are divided in half with zippers on each side. These made packing my bag quick and easy. Also, no wads of clothing to dig around for in search of your favorite shirt. Travelers who had a mess of clothes in their bags stared in disbelief when I showed them these for the first time.
I didn’t know what this was square scarf was before reading a great article from Expert Vagabond. I’m glad I brought one as it was one of the most useful items I brought. I used it as a pillow case, small pillow, scarf, face cover when it was dusty, shaded head cover, towel and more.
Shoes & Sandals
I prefer simple tennis shoes and these sandals whenever possible. Hiking boots may be required in some places but they’re heavy to lug around. Unless hiking is your primary focus, see if you can rent or borrow some boots when needed.
This may be something that’s easy to forget but these are very useful. They make shoes much more comfortable and you’ll likely be doing a lot of walking. They can also be put into a new pair of shoes if you have to buy some during your trip.
A long-sleeve shirt and/or a sweater are good to have. A windbreaker is also useful and not to heavy. Along with my shemagh, I was able to get by with layering a shirt, sweater and windbreaker in Iceland. Depending on where you’re going and when, a heavy winter jacket may be required. I waited to buy a leather jacket when winter hit in Ukraine during my 5th month of travel.
REI Toiletry Bag – This was a great and durable bag to pack for 1 year of travel. It held up to wear and tear and was water resistant. It has a handy shower hook on the back and comes with a small mirror.
Toiletries to Pack
- Toothbrush & Toothpaste
- Shampoo & Conditioner or 2 in 1
- Body Wash
- Small Mirror
- Razors, Electric Shaver or Beard Trimmer
- Sun Block (SPF 30+)
- Insect Repellant (DEET 50+) for warm climates
- Nail Clippers
- Contraception (Be safe)
Make sure you don’t bring liquids that exceed the TSA allowable amount. These limits vary in other countries.
First Aid to Pack
- Ibuprophen (You’ll need it)
- Band-Aids & Tiny Tube of Iodine or Neosporin (Trust me)
- Antihystamines (If you’re prone to allergies)
- Antiseptic Wipes or Antibacterial Hand Wash
- Contacts – I brought my own contact lenses and bought 3 pair in Poland over the counter for $12. I brought some antibiotics as well and ended up buying more in other countries over the counter.
If your physical or mental health depends on a certain type of medication this may involve bringing a full supply. Be on the safe side. Do the research ahead of time.
Bring prescription medications you need and make sure your name is on the bottle.
Electronics & BUMB Cases
This 3-pack of padded, water-resistant cases offers changeable dividers to keep electronics organized and safe. I used the medium sized one to hold my more valuable items and kept it in my small pack. I stashed the large one in my bigger backpack and left the small one at home. The two worked great and still look good as new after a year of travel.
After a year of use, I can’t believe this little adapter still works. I spilled something on it and dropped it countless times. The new design looks even sturdier.
My brother gave this to me just before I left. I can’t even count how many times it saved me when my phone was about to die and I was far from an outlet. In the more remote areas of Iceland and New Zealand I could have gotten into some trouble without this power bank to keep my phone’s GPS going. Highly recommended.
When I was riding in a hot air balloon in Turkey and scuba diving in Thailand, I was so happy to have brought this little GoPro HERO4 Silver with me. The wide and semi-wide photo options and video allowed me to capture many of my favorite memories, whether high in the air or underwater. The LCD on the back allows for viewing photos and videos. The free app also allows you to control the camera with a phone or tablet. A majority of the travel shots from my recent promo film (on the sidebar) were shot using this GoPro HERO4 Silver.
- Batteries go quick with these little cameras so grab this charger and two spares from Wasabi.
To be on the safe side I kept all of my photos and documents backed up on this external hard drive. It’s also great for storing movies, music anything else you might need. The hard drive is rated “military grade” waterproof and shockproof to prevent damage.
I wanted a laptop that wasn’t too heavy. I also needed it for editing photos, WordPress and Microsoft Office. At around 6 pounds with the power cord it was still the heaviest item I brought with me but it allowed me to do everything I needed. It was durable and I didn’t have any problems with it. Even after dropping it from a height of about 3 feet accidentally it chipped the plastic corner but continued to work just fine. I stored it in a padded zipper case.
- If you’re a Mac person, the MacBook Air is a much lighter but more expensive alternative.
My S4 isn’t as fast as the new S7 but did a great job for general apps, maps and email. I love that they have a slot to add additional memory.
- My one complaint is that although the Samsung cameras have improved, they aren’t as good as the ones in the iPhone 6.
I used this tablet for reading books, listening to music, watching movies and wifi. The small amount of space saved me from lugging around heavier books. It was easier on my eyes than a phone but wasn’t as bulky as pulling out my laptop.
Don’t forget to bring enough memory for your devices and an extra for backup! I carried several 64GB cards in my devices to be on the safe side. The better the camera, the more memory cards you’ll need.
A majority of my photos were taken with the SX260, an earlier model of the Canon SX280. It did a good job for general snapshots, especially when there was a good amount of natural light and I could take my time to ensure it was focusing correctly. The casing held up, even after being dropped a few times. I didn’t know a lot about cameras when my trip began but I started to see its limitations. The auto-focus isn’t the best and degraded further after taking around 12,000 photos. It also doesn’t do so well in low light settings and the video function is a little choppy. I think it’s fine for beginners or someone who wants to have a pocket-sized camera.
I’ll likely upgrade soon to the Sony a6000 mirrorless camera. It’s additional manual settings, higher resolution and interchangeable lenses will add some additional weight and bulk to my bags but the photos will be of better quality. It comes down to personal preference. Each person’s needs and desire to take photos is different.
Gregory Z-35 Backpack & How to Pack
Weighing in at just under 3 pounds, this 35-liter day pack is light and looks great. Another huge selling point is that it has a zipper on the body of the bag, allowing access to the main pouch without opening the top and having to pull everything out to get to what’s at the bottom. The CrossFlo suspension design allows for ventilation to keep your back as dry as possible and prevent overheating. Additional straps on top and bottom can be used to hold a heavy jacket, such as the leather one I purchased in Ukraine. The strips on each zipper can also be used for locking together.
The waterproof cover is helpful to keep your bag covered during transit as well as to protect it from the rain and snow. I had zero problems with this backpack and absolutely love it. After a year of travel it held up so well it still looks nearly brand new. Highly recommended.
REI Flash 18 Backpack & How to Pack
Lightweight with a little bit of padding, this is a great day bag to carry whatever you need with you. This bag rarely left my sight unless it was stored safely in a locker. It would usually hold my laptop, electronics and other valuables that I didn’t want to leave in my checked baggage. After arriving at a hostel, I would lock up my valuables and take this bag with me to hold water, a jacket or whatever else I might need wandering through a new city. This bag can roll up small enough to fit in one of the two side water bottle pockets of the Z35 if needed.
- One downside is that the Flash 18 doesn’t offer any organization or padding for electronics. For my next trip I will likely upgrade to the Pacsafe Venturesafe 25L GII Anti-Theft Backpack. Its locking zippers and padlock allow it to be much more secure when walking around and it would better support my laptop while in transit. If you’re traveling solo, this is a small pack worth considering.
Anti-Theft Pacsafe Protector
This great little invention is a stainless steel mesh net used to envelope bag(s) with a metal strip that tethers to anything stationary, such as a bed frame or pole. Place your bag(s) inside the waterproof casing, wrap this around, tether to a bed frame, pole or whatever’s around and viola, your bag is safe. This will give you peace of mind in places that may not have lockers for your valuables. I didn’t have to use this everywhere but it was worth dedicating the small amount of extra space for. It wraps up into the size of two wallets and ways around a pound. I was happy to have it with me.
Besides the medium sized lock that came with the Pacsafe 85, I brought a small Master TSA padlock for locking my bag during flights or transit and a 1″ lock like this one for small lockers that wouldn’t accommodate either of the other two locks.
3 Tips When Checking a Bag
Many flights outside of the U.S. have a smaller allowable size and weight for cabin baggage. Here are 3 tips to minimize your checked bag weight.
- Wear your bulkiest shoes and clothing on the flight.
- If you have a heavy jacket, keep it with you to use as a pillow or place it in the overhead bin. This will decrease your bag weight and size and will keep your jacket safer.
- Keep your valuables in the bag you keep with you. If you decide to lock your checked bag, make sure it’s TSA approved.
Miscellaneous Items to Pack for 1 Year of Travel
- Polarized Sunglasses – Pick some up beforehand or at a market while traveling.
- Hat or Cap – Personally, I’m a big fan of hats. For the cold, I bought a beanie in Ukraine.
- Travel Towel – I lost both of my more expensive versions. This is the one I’ll purchase for my next trip.
- Ear Plugs – Highly recommended if you’re a light sleeper.
- Ear Buds – If I was in a large dorm room sometimes I would sleep with my ear buds. These are my favorite from MEE and they’re only $10.
- Eye Mask – These may look dumb but I’m a light sleeper and would consider one for my next trip.
- Duct Tape – Roll duct tape around itself or around a pen. It can be used to repair bags, clothing, shoes and all sorts of stuff. Having this can be a huge help while traveling.
- Plastic Bags – Hold on to a few for dirty laundry, wet clothes, snacks or anything extra you may need to carry.
- Journal – Don’t forget to write about your experiences!
- Pens – Preferably ones that won’t leak. Have one ready when entering a new country to fill out their forms.
- Instant Coffee or Tea Bags – If the hostel doesn’t have free coffee, this can be a cheap backup. I’m not a fan of instant coffee but drinking it saved me a ton of money over the course of a year. $1-4 per day can add up!
- Carabiner & bottle opener – This handy little tool was quite useful. It can be a clip, or more commonly, a beer bottle opener.
- Water Bottle – If the country you travel to has drinking water that’s safe, or if the hostel has filtered water, reuse a plastic water bottle until it falls apart. Bottled water can get expensive.
- Snacks – For that long flight, bus or train.
Recap of How to Pack for 1 Year of Travel in a Backpack
There you have it. This is everything I decided to pack for 1 year of travel. I lost a few things and picked up a few along the way but generally the items listed were everything I had with me.
Hopefully this list will help you to determine what is and is not needed to pack for 1 year of travel, 3 months of travel or however long you’re thinking. I hope it helps show that it’s possible to pack for 1 year in a backpack and that a huge suitcase isn’t needed. If you have any questions please let me know!
What else would you bring? Please comment below!
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