The Ultimate Travel Packing List: A Year in a Carry On Backpack

I realize that packing is a nightmare for some people, but I truly believe the hype around what to pack for a trip is overrated. As Gary Arndt (the most distinguished travel blogger/photographer in the industry) once told me, “Just put clothes in a bag, and go.”

I say this in attempt to ease your anxiety over narrowing your wardrobe down from one or more closets and dressers into the likes of a 50L backpack. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s possible, and you’ll survive.

Here is one example of an ultimate travel packing list:

Packed for a year
All packed for a year in carry on packs only!

I left the US in September 2015 to travel all over the world (destinations largely unknown) for the indefinite future.

This would start with a 7-day trek through Chilean Patagonia, where it was early in their spring season, and hikers must be prepared for 4 seasons in 1 day.

Immediately following, I would go to Thailand, where it was 90 degrees and humid (Jeans? No thanks). Eventually, I would make my way to Europe for the winter, and then, who knows. Follow me on Instagram to find out.

Editor’s Note: After Europe, I moved to Argentina!

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I would face every climate within the first month of my travels, but as a seasoned international traveler and carry-on packer, I embraced the challenge.

In my opinion, a trip for even two weeks with multiple climates could easily produce the same travel packing list as a trip for two years.

There is a certain amount of clothing and essential items you need to get by, but the length of trip might only mean increasing or decreasing clothing inventory by a few single items.

The bottom line:

You need underwear (plenty, in case you go without laundry for a while), and then you need clothes you are comfortable in for the various climates. Versatility and layers are key.

You will wear these clothes repeatedly (and no one cares), so make sure you love them. As long as you can get by with a few essential toiletries and carefully selected shoes, you will have what you need. If you end up without something you need, you can buy it.

Related (2016): Packing for Long Term Travel in a Carry On

General tips for packing:

  • Safety pins are the best backpacker tool, zipper lock, and fix-all
  • Shampoo can double for body wash
  • Conditioner can double for shaving cream
  • Sample vials of perfume are the perfect size for travel
  • Scarves can be used as an accessory, warm layer, blanket, sheets (pillow covers)
  • Ladies: Always, always, always, make sure your purse zips closed (don’t make it easy for pick-pocketers to steal from you)

Packing list for one year in a carry on:

Backpack(s)/Purse:

Backpack for a year

Choosing luggage is just as tricky as choosing clothing. I would need a purse that could fit my laptop and has a zipper, but I also knew I would need a bag dedicated to my mobile office (I have quite a lot of electronics as a digital nomad), and this is a pack I need to keep with me at all times during transit (no packing this one under the bus, etc.).

And then, of course, I needed a main pack for clothing.

Main backpack – Osprey Kyte 46: I used to use a 50L, but wanted to try to downsize, so I got a brand new Osprey Kyte 46 (that opens from the bottom as well) for this trip.

*If you don’t have a backpack yet, don’t buy one until you watch my video about How to Choose the Perfect Travel Backpack. It’s really important that you get the right pack for YOU (no matter what anyone else says).

Smaller pack – REI Traverse: If you aren’t planning to work on the road with a mobile office, you may not need this entire section of gadgets. The only reason I brought this pack was to carry my electronics and valuables

Purse – (My new one is a Pendleton Tote): [The purse would be packed empty, I did not plan to carry all three of these together.] This purse has a zip top and an over-the-shoulder strap to make it easy for me to carry, and it fits my laptop, which is important for me.

Editor’s Note January 2016: I switched out my Kyte 46 for a Farpoint 55, read my pack comparison here

Non-Clothing Items:

Gadgets to Pack for a year
  • iPod
  • Microphone (I’m a podcaster)
  • Laptop & charger (Macbook Air with lightweight solid case)
  • Kindle
  • Universal adapter and various chargers, backup batteries, and cords (which I bundled up cleanly) – all these small electronics got packed into that black pouch
  • Anker portable iPhone charger (lifesaver)
  • Passport and International Certificate of Vaccination
  • Glasses x2
  • Clutch/purse for money cards, coins, phone (I also packed emergency credit cards and cash in a ziploc and stashed it separately from my everyday wallet)

Related: The Best Travel HAIR Products

Results after 2 months: I actually ditched the hair dryer. It wasn’t convenient for being constantly on the go, and I kept ending up in places that had hair dryers, so I didn’t use it. I wish I didn’t bring my Kindle, I enjoy the convenience of audiobooks now. Also, I’m really glad I didn’t bring my hydration pack, water bottles when needed are much easier and more convenient.

Clothing:

Activewear:

Active clothing to pack

Results after 2 months: 100% success.

Tops:

Tops for packing for a year
  • 2 Bikinis: bring at least two, so you can have one to wear while the other dries
  • Sleepwear: I use a pair of black cotton shorts and a t-shirt, can also use my cotton leggings and long sleeve black cotton shirt in cold places
  • Scarf (sorry, this one is from Bali)
  • 5 plain cotton t-shirts (this is one thing I have found I never seem to have enough of, so tried to remedy this on this trip)
  • 5 tank tops (same same)
  • 1 cotton long sleeve t-shirt
  • *Not pictured: Another scarf (see photo at end of post)

Results after 2 months: 100% success.

Bottoms and Dress Clothes:

Bottoms for packing for a year
  • Vetoed the dress I was going to bring – happy about this as I bought a super lightweight one in Thailand that packs down to nothing and cost me about $6
  • 3 dressy tops (tank or short sleeve)
  • 1 black cotton mini skirt (to layer over leggings or wear out dancing)
  • 1 pair of jean shorts
  • Button up hoodie sweater (magic for travel, and also looks nice if I need to)
  • Cotton leggings (these somehow snuck into two photos)
  • 2 pairs skinny jeans (both from H&M)
  • 1 black maxi skirt (has been brilliant for dressing up and laundry days, packs small)

Results after 2 months: I have not used two of the three dress tops I brought, could have at least left one behind. Still glad I didn’t bring that dress.

Shoes:

Shoes to pack for travel

My strategy on the three shoes to bring if you’re packing in a carry on only:

  1. Flip flops for showers (Havaianas)
  2. Comfortable walking shoes (Toms are my new fave)
  3. Versatile boots or sandals to walk or dress up in, depending on the weather where you’re going. In my case, I’m eventually going to need both. (Target)

Beyond those three, only bring other shoes if activities on your trip demand it (i.e. hiking/running shoes, dancing shoes, wedding shoes, etc.)

Also, notice the plastic bag under the running shoes, a good idea if you want to keep your dirty shoes separated from your clothes inside your bag.

Results after 2 months: 100% success.

Related: Best Travel Shoes According to the Experts

Related (2016 after this trip): 7 Things I Wish I Packed on My RTW Trip

My plan for reinforcements and surviving the winter:

You’ll notice I didn’t pack a warm jacket or boots, and I planned to spend the winter in Europe. I had two ideas around this to make it work: one, I would buy boots when I get there (because at that point I wouldn’t need to pack them in transit, I could just wear them). And two, I would have my brother bring reinforcements, including a coat, when he comes to visit me for Christmas.

If you don’t have anyone who could possibly bring you anything from home, just buy what you need and don’t be afraid to leave it behind or give it to someone when you move on.

Additional Notes:

  • I have had to check my bigger pack only on discount carriers (AirAsia and Thai Lion Air), otherwise I got stopped one time while boarding a flight and they made me test it in the sizing bin provided. I proudly shoved it in there, got their approval to carry it on, and then made them laugh when I asked to take a picture of it:
Backpack for carry on
BOOYAH.
  • I am going to try a new pack that my brother is also bringing for me: the Osprey Farpoint 55. I’m switching to the Farpoint for two reasons: 1) it opens up like a suitcase (dealing with a top and bottom-loading pack is too frustrating for months on end); and 2) it comes with a detachable daypack, which could dissolve my need for the separate pack altogether (we will see). I plan to create a comparison review between the Farpoint 55 and the Kyte 46, so stay tuned, I will link to it here when it is published.

Note: The Osprey Farpoint is now specifically a men’s pack, whereas the Fairview is the one they created for females. I’ve used both. I love both, and now that they have the Fairview Trek version, I love that too (I use the 50).

Editor’s Note 2017: This post is good, but this ultimate guide to packing for long term travel in a carry on is better (and newer!)

For now, thanks for reading all the way to the end, feel free to ask questions in the comment section, I respond to them personally.

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