How to Travel with a Backpack (and Still Have Everything You Need)

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When I first started traveling many years ago, I would pack a large suitcase on all my trips. No matter how long I was going to be gone, I didn’t have a packing plan and put in anything I thought I would need.

I created an outfit for every day and also included 3-4 pairs of shoes for all my outfits. I also packed towels, way too many toiletries, and extras of everything, just in case.

After becoming an avid traveler (19 countries and 25 US states, and counting!), I’ve developed a planning approach that has helped me minimize my packing list, but I can still have everything I need for my entire trip no matter how long I travel.

I’ve even gotten rid of my “just in case” mentality – this is how you can too!

If you are one to pack your whole closet with you when you travel like I was, read more to see how you can travel with a backpack and still have everything you need.

A type of backpack to use when traveling with a backpack. Make sure to pack efficiently from bottom to top.

Before we jump into what to pack, here’s the order of packing your backpack from bottom to top:

  • technology (usually in the pocket running up the back)
  • bottoms/dresses
  • shirts
  • makeup
  • toiletries
  • important documents

How to Travel with a Backpack

Let’s start off with the backpack.

To fit everything into a carry-on-sized backpack, you’ll need the right one to do the job. Carry-on sizes are 22″ long, 14″ wide, and 9″ deep for most airlines.

Pro-tip: If you are able to travel with a backpack that will fit underneath the seat in front of you, you’ll actually save yourself some stress of finding a space above and concerns about your stuff being messed with.

When searching for a backpack to buy, they will usually be advertised in their liter sizes. A 45L backpack will usually do the trick. If it is bigger than that, you’ll need to double-check the dimensions to make sure it falls within the carry-on size.

I have a 45L backpack that has traveled with me to 15ish countries (remember, I used to travel with a suitcase) and it has worked for me every single time.

Here are a couple of backpacks similar to the one I use.

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Let’s jump into what to pack!

How to Travel with a Backpack: Packing Your Clothes

Let’s tackle the biggest category first: clothes. Clothes usually take up about 80-90% of packing space.

Not gonna lie, I’m always excited to go out and buy new clothes for an upcoming trip because I want to look cute in my pictures. On top of that, I also want to pack all my current clothes that I know make me look great in photos.

Depending on the weather, you’ll also want to consider the appropriate pieces of clothing for your trip. Then when you add shoes to your luggage it seems like there is no space for anything else! So how does everything fit in a backpack?

Here’s my secret: Mini capsule wardrobe.

Mini capsule wardrobe infographic to reference when traveling with a backpack

What is a capsule wardrobe you may ask?

The basic idea is to have 25-50 pieces of swappable clothing to choose from, usually of neutral colors, classic styles that you can wear for a season, or two. If you’re curious about the idea and want to learn more, this post gives a great summary.

Now I’m not saying you need to completely re-do your closet (you can save that for another day), but you can use this idea to guide you when packing for a trip. Here’s how.

Choose 4-5 tops and 2-3 bottoms that would match in style in color. They don’t need to be classics or neutral colors; just pick clothes that you like and look cute.

You can even add a dress if you’d like.

Pro tip: When picking a dress, make sure that it also matches at least one of the tops to create a new outfit.

At the end of it all, it would make about 16-20 outfits—way more than enough for a week’s worth of travel.

Yes, you’ll be wearing your clothes more than once, but the idea is to mix and match your tops and bottoms to create new outfits every day.

Check out my mini capsule wardrobe idea page or click the infographic above. 

One common concern may be keeping clothes fresh while on the road.

You can add a fabric softener sheet to your luggage, add essential oils to a small piece of cloth (or sock) to keep it smelling fresh, or give your luggage a spray of deodorant or body spray before packing.

After wearing your clothes, make sure to hang them up or let them out to dry so that it continues to stay fresh. Also, pack a separate bag for laundry—I usually use a plastic grocery bag.

If you are traveling for more than a week, try to find accommodation that includes laundry services, possibly sometime in the middle of your trip rather than the beginning. You can wash your dirty underwear and other clothes that could use a nice rinse.

How to Travel with a Backpack: Picking Your Airport Outfit

Your airport outfit deserves its own paragraph. After you have settled on your capsule wardrobe, pick out one outfit for the airplane ride.

Here are some considerations:

  • make it comfortable–you will be on a long haul flight, and you want something that you can sit in for 5+ hours (depending on where you go)
  • make it easy to get through airport security–slip on and off shoes, easily removable layers
  • make it warm--bring a light jacket or cardigan and a pair of fuzzy socks as the cabin is always freezing!

Your airport outfit should also fit inside your backpack if you’re not wearing it during a travel day (i.e. transit from France to Italy).

Here’s my airport outfit:

Black Tshirt with 5 European cities listed from top to bottom. The perfect top to fit snugly in a backpack for travel.

Shameless plug – I love Bella+Canvas tees as they’re so soft and comfortable, and they make me look great! (Pst, check out my Etsy shop!

Sunzel leggings with pockets are perfect for your airport outfit and it travels well in a backpack too.

I have discovered Sunzel leggings, a beautiful Lululemon dupe; so soft and buttery with a nice pocket too! 

Bob's shoes are comfortable and neutral slip on and slip off shoes for airport security. They also fit well in the side pockets of backpacks for easy travel.

I always wear Bob’s shoes. They are easy slip-on and off shoes for airport security, nice for walking long distances, and I’ve even hiked in them as well (those last-minute plans). 

A long overtop is cute and will keep you warm on the plane.

And finally, I love myself a long jacket or cardigan–I can just snuggle right in. 

How to Travel with a Backpack: Packing Makeup and Toiletries

I always find it hard to pare down my makeup and toiletries, but after having traveled so many times I have found that I would always come back to the same few items even if I packed my whole bathroom cabinet.

So first tip, consider your quart-sized liquids zip lock as you go through airport security: check the size of the bottle (3.4 oz. or less), make sure you can close the zip lock bag once everything is in, and if you have to throw it out at the airport for any reason, will you be okay with it?

All the toiletries that will fit perfectly into a quart sized ziplock when you travel with a backpack.
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In terms of toiletries, I always bring shampoo, body wash, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and contact solution (only for those who need it of course). If conditioner is a part of your hair care, add that in.

Tip two: always reuse your bottles. You can buy a cute matching set or just buy the product itself and refill it before every trip.

Tip three: know your skin, know your routine, and make a decision on what you would like to take with you.

For makeup, I personally know my skin well enough to know that if I skip certain products, my skin will still be okay.

My recommendation for a bare minimum makeup list? Sunscreen, foundation, eyebrow liner, mascara, colored lip gloss, or Chapstick. For cleansers, I always bring makeup wipes as they don’t take up space in my liquids zip lock bag.

Supergoop tinted facial sunscreen. This is the perfect size for a quart-sized ziplock in your travel backpack.
Benefit eyebrow tint is small and perfect for light packing and travel with a backpack.
NYX butter gloss lip gloss is smooth and beautiful. The perfect add on to your travel with a backpack.

Since TikTok has become a huge platform, there have been several viral tricks using lipstick as eyeshadow or blush. This article is a great read if that’s something that you’d like to try out before traveling to minimize your makeup pieces.

The final list of quart-sized zip lock bagged items: shampoo, body wash, toothpaste, contact solution, sunscreen, and foundation (if it’s liquid). Some places (like London) consider mascara a liquid so this can be a potential “throw something out” time.

How to Travel with a Backpack: Packing Technology

I am very minimal when it comes to technology. Although I was the designated photographer of my group, I only carried my iPhone with me and that was sufficient to take beautiful pictures for memories.

The other piece of technology I bring is my 11-inch MacBook Air. It is slim and tiny, and it fits perfectly in the pocket running up the back of the backpack. Another option for this is an iPad (can you tell I’m an Apple user?).

Travel resources; slim laptop
Travel resources; ipad/tablet

I generally like to bring something bigger to continue researching while in-country. I’ve traveled before while enrolled in university courses as well so this helps me to stay on top of my homework while still enjoying a new city.

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The cords for everything can become tangled. To minimize this problem, put all your cords together in a small bag so they stay together neatly throughout your travel.

I use these zipper mesh bags to store all my cords, extra currency, and important documents. I love these because they’re clear so I can easily pick up the bag I need!

How to Travel with a Backpack: Packing Important Documents

Documents are probably the most important item on your packing list. Everything mentioned before is replaceable, some easier to replace than others (I know, I’ve lost an iPhone while traveling before).

A picture of two hands holding passports. These are important travel documents when traveling with your backpack.

The most important document for travel is your Passport (or ID).

You’ll need a passport to travel internationally; airport security will screen you before you can even go through to the terminals.

In most countries, you will need to show your passport to be able to stay in the accommodations.

If you get stopped on the street (which is a rare occasion), you will need to show your passport. It is not as easily replaceable.

The second most important document is your visa.

Depending on where you go, you will need to send your passport to an embassy before heading out, or you will receive a document to get your visa once you arrive in-country.

If this is a requirement for the country you are visiting, you will need your visa on hand.

Make photocopies of your documents and keep them in separate areas.

I’ll usually put a copy in my wallet so I have it available even if I’ve left my passport in a safe.

Make sure to have your visas ready as this is another important travel document.

Finally, make sure you have some money on you; this can be a credit card (which I recommend), a debit card, or cash which I would recommend getting at an ATM once you arrive.

All of these will usually go in a small pocket in your backpack that is easily within reach to make your travel as smooth as possible. You can also put it all in a zipper mesh bag to keep all your documents together as well. 

Final Thoughts on How to Travel with a Backpack and Still Have Everything You Need

And that’s everything you need to pack in your backpack and still have everything you need, even for long-haul flights. 

One final thought here is the “just in case” mentality.

I struggled with this mentality for a few trips as I was afraid I would lose something or not have it when I need it. My mindset shifted when I really did need something and didn’t have it–all I needed to do was buy it while traveling (it was a swimsuit).

Thinking about "just in case" scenarios
This is how I ponder “what if” scenarios

It’s not the most ideal as you may have several swimsuits at home, to begin with, but this mindset shift released me from packing everything just in case I might need it. 

Remember to enjoy your travels and make memories while at it. Sometimes you might find that you don’t use everything you packed. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to pack everything you might use on your trip. 

Which tip was an AHA moment to you? Anything you’d add to this list? Comment below.


Other travel tips you might find helpful or inspirational:

Or maybe you’d like some ideas for gifts to get your travel buddy (or yourself)…

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My Favorite Travel Tips + Resources

Here is a quick glance at all my go-to travel tips and resources that I use to plan every trip! For more information, check out my travel resources page.

  • Booking flights: I use Google Flights to check all routes and find the best flights. Then I compare them with Expedia (for reward points) and Skyscanner (for the lowest prices) before I book.
  • Accommodations: I love budget-friendly rentals or booking at a hotel where I can earn points. For hotels, I go through Booking.com or book directly with Marriott (for points + rewards). When I travel internationally, I’ll book through Hostelworld for very budget-friendly stays. For vacation rentals, I usually look through Airbnb, but you could also use Vrbo. Expedia also has some great bundles for hotels, flights, and car rentals altogether.
  • Transportation: For travel in the United States, I love renting through Expedia with Enterprise or Thrifty. They have been consistent and provide the best customer service. For international travel, I’ll book through Rome2Rio or Eurail for trains or bus fares.
  • Travel Credit Card: I book all my travel (flights, hotels, car rentals) through my favorite travel credit card. I also use this card for everything on my trip including dining, excursions, and souvenirs. Apart from earning 5x more points towards free travel, there are amazing benefits: no foreign transaction fees, trip cancellation/interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement (so I can book worry-free), fraud protection, emergency assistance – it’s really a great deal! Check it out here!
  • Vaccines and Medications: Check the CDC website for updates on necessary vaccines to enter a country, including updates on Covid-19 and recommended places to visit. I recommend getting all the vaccines you need before you go!
  • Tours + Experiences: I absolutely love my tours! Everything from eerie walking ghost tours to food tours, I’ll usually book something every trip either through Viator or GetYourGuide. I also love LastMinute.com for very affordable tickets to theaters and other experiences in Europe.
  • What to Pack: I almost always travel by backpack. For products I like, check out my packing guide page for all the things I take with me on different trips.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Tiffiny,
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