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 an 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:

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

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.

I think 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 the 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. You will have what you need if you can get by with a few essential toiletries and carefully selected shoes. If you end up without something you need, you can buy it.

Related: 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 for a year

Backpack(s)/Purse:

Choosing luggage is just as tricky as choosing clothes. 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. I only brought this pack 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

Gadgets to Pack for a year

Non-Clothing Items:

  • 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 to be constantly on the go, and I kept ending up in places with 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.

Active clothing to pack

Clothing:

Activewear:

Results after 2 months: 100% success.

Tops for packing for a year

Tops:

  • 2 Bikinis: bring at least two, so you can have one to wear while the other dries
  • Sleepwear: I wear a pair of black cotton shorts and a t-shirt, I can also wear 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 I 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 the post)

Results after 2 months: 100% success.

Bottoms for packing for a year

Bottoms and Dress Clothes:

  • 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 of 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, I could have at least left one behind. Still glad I didn’t bring that dress.

Shoes to pack for travel

Shoes:

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.

Beyond those three, only bring other shoes if activities on your trip demand them (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 PlanΒ 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: 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 only checked my bigger pack 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 will try a new pack 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!

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

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32 replies on “The Ultimate Travel Packing List: A Year in a Carry On Backpack”

i just use two pairs of footwear though, one is usually a pair of slippers and the other, something that’s semi-formal but something i can always use for uneven and rough surfaces.

Love this article! I’m planning to spend the summer in Switzerland doing neuroscience research and I hope to just bring a carry-on and backpack as you did, though it could be slightly trickier as I’ll be expected to look semi-presentable going to work at my lab every day. I’ll probably have to buy some more clothes once I’ve moved into my flat. However I think this will make me a lot more mobile if I want to do some exploring in other countries while I make my way to Switzerland!
I’m curious how you carried these two backpacks at the same time? Like did you have the large one on your back and carry the small one in your arms? And was this comfortable for you when walking around?

I did carry the small one on the front, but as you can see from the post, I switched to a different pack halfway through this trip because I didn’t like that set up. Now I carry the Osprey Farpoint 55 and a weekender shoulder bag, it’s much more comfortable. Have fun in Switzerland!

Hey Jackie! We are getting ready for our 2-3 month travels and am inspired now to go all carry on!! I am looking into getting the farpoint- the lady at REI says it is slightly too big for carry-on- what has been your experience??? I also really like the full zip open and the daypack! Your blog has been super helpful so far! Thanks!!!

Hey Jenna!! How exciting! So glad you are finding the blog helpful!! The Farpoint 55 was designed for carry on, so it is within the size limits, although if you pack it too full and fat, you may need to detach the daypack and stuff it in separately. I’ve had to do this on smaller aircrafts (but no one notices!). I’ve carried it on probably more than 15 times and I’ve never had it turned away for being too big. The Farpoint 70 is a couple inches over in every direction, so that one might be trickier to get on the plane, but I haven’t personally tried it. Let me know what you decide!

They don’t sell that skort anymore πŸ™ Which kind do you suggest? Thanks!

Wonderful post & information! Just wondering, how much of your stuff fit into the Osprey bag and what did you have in the smaller backpack/purse? Thanks so much πŸ™‚

The smaller pack was full of my electronics, my office essentially. My laptop, microphone (podcaster), backup hard drive, plugs, adapters, cords, ALL the things. Plus I always have a scarf and warm layer handy, passport, money, and anything I use often. I have a new theory that maybe the Farpoint 70 would have been the better option, because I could fit ALL my stuff into the main pack (which is a 55L), and then just use the daypack (15L) for the things I need during the day. Instead I’ve juggled things around a bit because with the Farpoint 55, the main pack is only 40L, which is a tight fit for everything. I’m down to just the 55 now, no extra purse, and it’s tight. The only thing I don’t know is if the 70 is still small enough to be carried on. Anyway, hope that helps!

Great post, Jackie! I am looking into studying abroad next spring semester in Ireland. Would you recommend I do something similar in packing for it or should I go ahead and check a bag. I plan on taking weekend trips and then in the summer backpacking across Europe. I don’t want to over pack and knowing from your other post and the podcast you are a packing ninja and studied abroad yourself, love to hear your feedback!

Hey Joslyn! For study abroad specifically, I would recommend bringing a checked suitcase, that way you can be a little more comfortable with your clothing selection for such a long time in one place. At the end of your trip, if you can send the suitcase home with someone before you head out backpacking, that would be ideal. Is anyone coming to visit you? Or perhaps you can leave it somewhere and come back to get it? This is what I would try to do, and then bring your backpack for your final backpacking trip and the weekend trips. Whatever you do, definitely go study abroad!!! You must do it, it’s the best thing ever. x

Thank you so much for your ideas Jackie! I didn’t think about possibly leaving my checked bag somewhere, which I ha ether perfect place. My aunt and uncle live in France so I could leave it at their house. My aunt studied abroad there and fell in love. Hearing her stories and yours have inspired me to study abroad! I’ll keep you posted on it.
P.S. Canada looked amazing and have fun in Seattle!

Hi Jackie! Thanks for the awesome list – I’m a huge fan of your blog and podcast!!
I have two questions for you:
1) What do you do with all your electronics if you’re staying at a hostel? I’m just now able to work and travel too, but I don’t want to have to cart my laptop around with me all the time or worry about having left it somewhere it might get taken. Any tips?
2) Were all the amazing pictures from your trip so far taken from your GoPro? Or are you using another camera that’s not listed here?

Hey Steph! Thank you thank you! I have answers for you:
1) In hostel dorms, I either lock my laptop in a locker or carry it with me. OR, if no one knows I have a laptop (as in, if they haven’t seen that I have anything of value), sometimes I’ll just leave it tucked deep in my backpack, assuming no one is going to go rooting through my stuff. Haven’t had a problem. Many hostels to have lockers, so consider bringing a small lock with you.
2) The amazing pictures (thank you!) were all either taken on my GoPro or on my iPhone! I don’t have another camera with me on this trip.

Wow, I’m impressed with all the stuff you managed to cram in your backpack! How much does it weigh? I have been travelling with an Osprey Farpoint 40 (weighing 12 kg) for almost 4 months now with another 7 months to go. I think I haven’t got half of the clothes you brought (only packed for warm weather, so for example no jeans and only one light sweater), while there’s not that much space left. I haven’t packed any dressy clothes, but wish I had brought a light dress that can be fancy too. I only have a simple “travel dress”. Loved this post btw!

Thanks! It weighed about 22 lbs. (10 kg) BUT, I just changed to a Farpoint 55 and a big purse (I ditched the 30L blue backpack), so most of my load is now in the Farpoint, and it obviously weighs a bit more. It is SO hard to pack for so long with ALL the climates! This whole thing would be so much easier if I weren’t facing cold temperatures, I really have to sacrifice a lot and wear a lot of the same thing over and over again, which is boring, but, at least the Farpoint has made accessing everything SO much easier.

That is a masterclass on packing for long-term travel. Very impressive. Love the bag that opens from the top and bottom. How many times have I had to dig through a bag or remove a bunch of items just to grab an article of clothing from the bottom of a bag? Way too many!

I know! I used to have one that opened from the side, but it didn’t give as much access as bottom open. That all being said, I’m really looking forward to trying out a pack that opens like a suitcase! (And so are my poor roughed up hands! πŸ˜‰ )

thanks for this great post! although i am not planning a trip as long as yours, this is really helpful for my month-long trip to the US in April!

What a fantastic post! I always really struggle with packing and then overdo it. We’ve just recently moved to Madrid for a year and although we’ve only been here a few weeks I already know more than a few items that could have been left behind. If only I could pack all over again…

Hey Kate! At least you are there for a year, it makes it a bit easier to overpack when you don’t have to continuously haul everything around. What items do you think you could have left behind?

Hi Jackie!
I could have definitely left behind a couple of pairs of shoes (and to think I narrowed it down to what I thought were the essentials) as well as a couple pairs of pants and skirts that veer a bit more dressy than my lifestyle is right now. But who knows, they might still come in handy yet!

You make a really good point here. As I noticed on this trip as well, I have hardly worn my dressy clothes, as my lifestyle just isn’t dressy. Who are we kidding, it’s exactly the opposite πŸ˜‰ Especially as females, we tend to think we need these items more than is realistic. Thanks for sharing!

Great list, Jackie! My husband and I just bought Farpoints and LOVE them! The detachable pack is the perfect size for the plane and I love that you can zip up the straps on the larger pack if you ever do need to check it, or just get them out of the way. We just used it for a Thanksgiving trip, but I’m confident that it will be great for our long term travels too. πŸ™‚ I will definiatly be using your lost as a resource when I get into panic pack mode for our year abroad!

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