7 countries, 1 bag: what worked, what didn’t

Ever since I went around the world for a year with nothing but a 36L backpack, I realized how much better life is if you don’t have to lug around so much stuff (that is: too lazy to unpack and repack a whole suitcase of things, too weak to carry around luggage big enough to be checked, too cheap to call a taxi to haul around suitcases).

I learned how to carry even less when I visited a friend in Knoxville for a week and flew Frontier, which charges not only for checked luggage but also carry-ons. I avoided those charges by stuffing everything into a “personal item” that went under the seat.

Doing that gave me a Tetris x Pacific Crest Trail kind of satisfaction. My next challenge: seven countries in 18 days with the following constraints:

  • Be able to walk around with the bag all day, because I may be sleeping on trains or skipping sleeping or be going from city A to city C via city B, where I’ll have a long daytime layover
  • Attend a countryside wedding in France
  • Hike in the Swiss Alps
  • Have reasonable clothing for Halloween in Berlin I ended up being myself for Halloween
  • Run a few miles for exercise
  • Stay warm while walking around from midnight to sunrise in Scandinavia
  • Sweat as little as possible while walking around all day in Turkey Istanbul in November is actually kind of cold
  • Avoid budget airlines’ carry-on fees
  • Not look too much like an embarrassing American tourist



  • Jansport Hatchet – I bought a new bag for this trip. I wanted something that looked good enough to be carried around instead of a purse but was also functional: laptop compartment, padded shoulder straps, hip belt with pockets, chest strap, organization compartments. The only bags I could find with pocketed hip belts were hardcore backpacking backpacks, but I found three that matched everything else – the Jansport Hatchet, the Thule Paramount 29L, and the Osprey Pixel. The Jansport was the lightest and cheapest and the wide mouth made it easy to get into, but I did love the way the Thule looked.
  • 1 flimsy tote bag – Even if you’re #onebag, you still need two bags. When I got to a new place, I would take my tote bag out of my backpack, and then everything else as well, and put it in the tote bag. This way, all my items were in one place by my bed and I could still use my backpack during the day. To lighten my load during my 20-hour Istanbul layover, I threw in everything I wouldn’t need and literally stapled the bag shut (the bag was one of those free ones) to check it at the airport.
  • Hefty One Zip 2-gallon bags – my biggest secret to the compact size. These are similar to vacuum packing cubes, but cheaper. Just press the air out and zip to close.



This is always my biggest problem area. Shoes are huge and heavy but they’re your most functional luggage. My shoes need to be comfortable enough to support my wide, flat feet over the 10-20 miles/day I tend to walk while traveling, but also look decent.

  • black leather boots – for warmth, and to wear for the wedding. They were heavy and needed to be worn on days that I was stashing everything in my backpack, and if I were to do this again, I’d go without. They looked nice though. 
  • black Champion tennis shoes – these $25 Nike Free dupes have a memory foam insole and I used them for walking, running, and hiking. Extremely lightweight and for the days I needed to carry everything around all day, they went in my bag. I may be deluding myself into thinking they passed on European streets, but they kind of blended into my pants. The insoles did wear through by the end of my trip, but I just tossed them out and they’re still comfortable. I liked these so much I bought another pair.
  • I didn’t bring shower flip flops. I know, gross.


  • dark everyday pants
  • leggings – for running and in case I decided to wash my pants (I did not)
  • Soffe shorts – I HATE PANTS. These were my nightly respite.
  • sheer black tights
  • 5 pairs underwear
  • four pairs socks (to be worn 2 at once for warmth and cushion)


  • short-sleeved crop top – used as an undershirt since it’s so light
  • black camisole – used as an undershirt, or just a shirt if it got hot
  • thin cotton 3/4 sleeve top
  • old, stained 50UPF bright pink long sleeved quick-dry v-neck from REI – for hiking and easy identification if I was meeting up with a stranger (Couchsurfing post to come)
  • kid’s flannel for layering
  • mid-weight mid-length mid-sleeve dress – for the wedding
  • 2 bras (and 1 sports bra for running)

Staying warm

  • black 60% wool pea coat that had lost half its buttons. I bought new buttons from eBay and sewed them on. They are crooked.
  • cashmere crewneck sweater – thanks mom for letting me borrow this!
  • turtleneck sweater – wasn’t able to be layered, so a luxury item, but it wasn’t that heavy. If I were to do this again, I’d just take this sweater instead of both. It also just really wasn’t that cold
  • leather gloves with touch fingertips
  • beanie – keeps head warm and wonderful for sleeping: can be pulled over the eyes as an additional sleep mask and over earplugged ears to help prevent earplug loss
  • scarf – scarves are so multifunctional: blanket, headwrap, picnic blanket, makeshift bag, scarf
  • fluffy earmuffs – total luxury item but they are so cute and I own two pairs and it never gets cold enough in the bay area #californianproblems


  • Macbook Air + charger
  • iPhone 5s + USB-lightning cord
  • universal adapter/converter – made a friend at the Istanbul airport when she didn’t have the right converter and needed a charge
  • headphones


  • palm-sized Moleskine (handy pocket in back for tickets) + 2 pens
  • language book – luxury/unnecessary item, but fun to read when on the train to a destination
  • collapsible 1L water bottle
  • toiletries: shampoo/conditioner, face wash, soap, lotion, floss, toothpaste, etc. I wasn’t low-maintenance enough to go with Dr Bronners only.
  • Eye mask + earplugs – absolutely necessary, but it’s likely that your cross-oceanic flight will give you some

Final thoughts

Turns out that volume was not as much of a factor as weight. It was easy to squish things down, but walking around for hours is best with less than five pounds on your back. My fitness clothing was actually the surprise heavyweight here, and I didn’t end up running that much, so I may just cut that out of future itineraries, especially when I’m switching locations every 2 days. 

I also bought an AT&T “Passport” plan with 300MB data, for communicating with Couchsurfing hosts or other friends I’d be visiting.  It made more sense than a SIM card because I’d be switching countries every few days. It cost $60 but was admittedly nice to have. 

The last five minutes of packing is pretty difficult: the lizard-brain starts freaking out and suddenly I have five additional shirts spilling out of my bag. It really helped to stop and ask myself when I would really be using the item and what need it filled that couldn’t be filled by another item, and to remind myself that I could always buy anything I didn’t pack.


3 responses to “7 countries, 1 bag: what worked, what didn’t

  1. Pingback: Sweden-Denmark-Germany-Austria-Switzerland-France-Turkey Trip 2015 | albatrossic·

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