Ninja Packing Tips: Packing list for Europe with just a 30L backpack

Editor’s Note (2016): This post is from 2013. For a recent, ULTIMATE carry on packing post, check out: Packing for Long Term Travel in a Carry On

Why Pack Light?

When I traveled to Nicaragua in April of 2013, I was so proud of myself that I was able to bring just a 30L backpack and my over-the-shoulder purse for the 8-day trip.

It seemed easy enough; I have my go-to clothing for hot weather and I know what I like to wear when I travel. Not to mention that summer clothes just aren’t very big, so I could easily stuff everything I needed into that backpack. No checked bag fees, no waiting around at baggage claim, no dragging a suitcase down cobblestone streets (if you haven’t done this before, it’s quite comical- for everyone but you).

When I began to pack for my recent trip to Europe, I was confronted with a challenge. Our two-week itinerary included two separate flights on Ryanair. Ryanair is Europe’s cheap, Dublin-based airline, and they are cheap for a reason. They can get you in baggage fees, among many other things.

There is an art to flying Ryanair. At the time of publishing this post, Ryanair only allowed ONE carry-on bag; not one bag plus a purse or personal item, just ONE single carry-on, and it could only be 10kg.

Editor’s Note (2015): Ryanair Baggage Restrictions Have Eased Up

If you checked a bag, it could be 15kg and it would cost you 20 euros as long as you pay when you check in online (otherwise it’d cost you 40-60 euros at the gate – ouch).

The point of flying Ryanair is to save money and not fall victim to the hidden costs. They are avoidable if you plan ahead by packing smartly rather than paying the checked bag fees. Which, by the way, between my partner and I, we would have had to pay twice, each. So we accepted the challenge of attempting to fit everything we would bring to Europe in small enough backpacks that they would fit Ryanair’s strict baggage requirements.

packing list for europe
My two choices of backpacks: 30L or 50L


30L backpack
My choice for this trip: REI Traverse 30


Pictured above on the left are my two traveling backpacks. Instead of using my Gregory Jade 50, the red one which would be my normal go-to for a two week or longer trip, I would try to fit everything into my REI Traverse 30, the blue one. That means that I would be using the two bags on the right, which are the exact same ones I brought to Nicaragua. Eight days in hot, beachy Nicaragua is completely, 100% different from seventeen days in Europe in the fall. But, I do love a challenge…

Related: How to Choose the Perfect Travel Backpack (Video)

Related (2016): Travel Backpack Comparison: Osprey Farpoint vs Kyte
 

How to pack light for Europe in the fall

Packing Non-Clothing Items

packing for carry on
  • Small packable purse (so I don’t have to lug the big one around everywhere and pain my shoulders for days on end)
  • My “makeup” bag – which consists of mascara, hair clips, tiny scissors, tweezers, safety pins, a mirror, dry shampoo, and other small items
  • Money belt where I stash my yellow International Vaccine Card, extra credit cards, and emergency cash (not to be worn, just stashed safely in my backpack)
  • Wet wipes (great for being on the road)
  • My favorite walking shoes – Seriously, I swear by these Skechers. Notice the plastic bag- to wrap the shoes in and keep them from getting their “shoeness” all over everything else (Update 2017 – check out the shoes I carry now!)
  • Flip flops (for the showers), these will stuff easily – Havaiianas are my fave
  • Hand/Arm warmers for the cold days ahead
  • A spiral notebook, to keep track of reservation info, hotel costs, who paid what, etc.
  • My travel wallet
  • USB key, in case I have to download my photos to free up my card, or save reservations for printing, or save someone else’s photos, or really any number of things having to do with computers and saving or transferring data
  • Camera, case, and charger
  • Glasses x 2
  • Toiletries in a TSA approved case for airport security (extra tiny, I spent about $4 in order to save space)
carry on travel toiletries

 
Related: A Complete Guide to Using Your iPhone Abroad, for Dummies

*Ninja Packing Tips: You can carry nail clippers on flights, and these can double as scissors on a small scale. Also be sure to bring safety pins, attach them in a place where you can always locate them quickly. Safety pins are the number one tool for backpackers: fix clothes, glasses, bags, lock your zippers shut, and more. One more thing- you know those tiny sampler vials of perfume? They’re great for traveling light!

Packing Clothes

clothes to pack for a trip
  • Pea coat (October in Europe is cold)
  • Three light sweaters and one fleece zip-up hoodie
  • Beanie
  • Shorts and T-shirt to sleep in
  • One pair of warm tights, one pair of skinny jeans
  • Three tank tops
  • Three T-shirts
  • Three long-sleeved shirts
  • The green REI packing cube is full of socks and underwear

 
*Ninja packing tip: Use a pouch like this or a stuff sack for your socks and underwear so A) they don’t get lost all over your bag, B) they always take up the same amount of space, and C) you can find them easily. (Update 2017 – see the packing cubes I use now).

Related : Macchu Picchu and Peru Packing List

Notes:

  • Even if you can’t tell in the photo, all of these clothes are neutral-colored. This way I can mix and match most anything, making the most out of my options of outfits.
  • I did not bring a scarf, which is very unlike me. However, I knew I would buy at least one in Europe, so I opted to plan ahead and save the space.
  • The boots I brought (brown- another neutral color) are not pictured. I wore them on my flights so they wouldn’t take up extra space in my backpack.
  • Don’t bring anything that you don’t normally wear at home. Make sure your choices are items you are comfortable in and will want to wear day in and day out.

Editor’s Note (2016): This post is from 2013. For a recent, ULTIMATE carry on packing post, check out: Packing for Long Term Travel in a Carry On

How to make it all fit

The key to making it all fit is simple: don’t pack too much. Only bring what you need, not what you think you might need.

Don’t pack what you will wear while you are flying

It seems like this should go without saying, but there are some people who forget to pull out something to wear on the plane before they pack it all up. I’m sure you noticed that I decided to bring a pea coat, and perhaps you thought of the fact that pea coats are not ideal for packing. You are right; they take up a lot of space. However, that wasn’t a problem for me, because I wasn’t about to pack it.

I mentioned we were heading to Europe in October, which is during the fall. It’s not necessarily warm, and I planned to either wear my coat if it was cold enough or carry it in my arm if it wasn’t.

I also didn’t picture my boots, because I wasn’t about to pack them either. I planned to simply wear my boots in transit because they are bigger, heavier shoes that couldn’t possibly fit with everything else in my pack.

Related: Best Travel Shoes According to the Experts

The “Carry-On” or the purse/personal item

packing a carry on

Pictured above are all the items I packed in my personal item. If I were checking a bag, I would still pack all this in my carry-on. I carry with me all the things I might need for transportation (confirmations and reservation information), as well as anything I could possibly use to entertain myself while on the plane.

I also put my fleece hoodie in my purse to save the space in my backpack and use it on cold flights.

Related: BMT 34 : Ninja Packing Tips: Pack Light and Carry On

Related: BMT 62: Pack Light and Carry On for Males! Featuring Jason Moore, Travis Sherry, and Nathaniel Boyle
 

Packing Your Backpack

waste of space

Make sure there is nothing taking up space in your backpack that you won’t need. For example, I even took out the waterproof cover that comes with my backpack. I had an umbrella and simply knew I would not have use for the waterproof cover on this trip. That’s the size of a shirt! Veto.

Make good use of all the pockets that your pack offers. Mine has a pocket just about the perfect size for my toiletries case, on the outside, which is very convenient for easy access in a security line at the airport.

There are other pockets that are long, perfect for my umbrella and flip flops, and everything else I will stuff, neatly folded, in the main pocket. Some people use plastic bags to suck out extra air, some roll their clothes. I’ve never gotten into either of these habits, but to each their own.

Just remember that your pack won’t always be neatly arranged. It will get messy, and if the only way your clothes all fit is by sucking out the extra air, you’ll have to do that every time you pack up or you’ll have a problem.

Editor’s Note 2017: Now I use Packing Cubes!

Related: The Best Travel HAIR Products

backpack packed full

Success! Now I’m sure some of you are wondering how I will possibly fit in a scarf or other “souvenirs” (I pretty much just buy clothes or accessories) that I’m almost sure to buy on my trip. That is a very good point, and I knew that would happen, especially since we specifically planned to buy lederhosen and a dirndl in Munich for Oktoberfest.

With this in mind, we agreed that we would pay to check ONE bag, ONE time, and only on the way BACK (the 2nd of our two Ryanair flights). This way we could fit any new items purchased into our luggage and get away with only paying 20 euros between three of us (my brother was with us, too, and it was his bag we checked because it was expandable and could fit everything).

travelers

Perhaps you thought this already long post would be over by now, but for those of you reading all the way to the end, I didn’t think it would be complete without adding a section about how all of this actually worked out for me.

Did you have your doubts about how little I packed? Well, to be transparent, I packed too much.

There was one thing I didn’t use at all (my black t-shirt), and one thing I only used a couple of times (my jeans). My jeans were the big failure here, because they take up a lot of space. I should have brought a couple more pairs of warm tights, which pack much smaller than jeans, because that’s what I ended up wearing every day.

On that note, there is not a single thing I needed that I didn’t have with me. Yes, I could have used an extra pair or two of tights, but I made do with what I had.

My packing list may have been minimal, but it was complete.

Editor’s Note (2016): This post is from 2013. For a recent, ULTIMATE carry on packing post, check out: Packing for Long Term Travel in a Carry On

Could you do it? Could take a 17 day trip with just a 30L backpack? Here’s a good start to your packing list, is there anything you would change or add?