Hi! This is Michael.
[What?! Who is this mysterious Michael person that’s hacked into the blog and written a post?!?!]
For the past 9 months, I’ve been living out of a small backpack. And I’ve loved it. In fact, I’m actually going to be sad when I have to go back to not living out of a small backpack. I’m very, very happy with the bag itself, and with everything else I packed for the trip.
But finding the right travel gear took a ton of time, research, and scrutinization of vague reviews that either said things like “great!” or “horrible!” without any further comment. And since a bunch of folks have asked how I packed for 9 months on the road, this is my long winded answer to that question.
(A few brief notes: I’ve linked to the products in this post where possible, but the prices you see are not necessarily the prices I paid. For the vast majority of the things on this list, we waited until they were on sale, or we bought them used, or we already owned them. A few items, we received as gifts. Also, some of the links are affiliate links; if you click one and buy something, I’ll get a small cut of the sale, at no extra cost to you.)
The Bag – Osprey Porter 30
This bag is great. 30 liters doesn’t seem like a lot of space (for comparison, a basic JanSport backpack holds 25 liters), but it’s been able to fit everything I’ve needed for this trip, and I certainly wouldn’t want it to be any heavier. The small size means that it fits within the European budget airlines carry-on size limit (which is a bit smaller than what American flights allow), and in practice, it’s even been able to fit under an airplane seat when the overhead space gets full.
This bag has 2 of the must-have features for a long term travel backpack: 1) it opens like a suitcase, which makes packing and unpacking every week a million times easier, and 2) it has hip straps, which help distribute the weight and make the occasional multi-mile trek with it bearable. Even after this trip, my roll-aboard will be getting a lot less use because I’ve been enjoying this bag so much.
Clothing is definitely the hardest part of packing light. (Maybe even more so for women. I’m only going to talk about guy’s clothing in this post, but check out Bri’s recommendations for ladies here.) I had a handful of goals for picking out my clothes:
- Good looking – A lot of travel clothes look like… well, travel clothes. I want to wear stuff I feel good in (and would be happy to have in all 3459827 of our pictures from this year).
- Quick drying – With only a few things to wear, it’s necessary to do laundry pretty often. Clothes that dry quickly can be hand washed in a sink or shower, hung to dry overnight, and worn the next day. (It also turns out the majority of European Airbnbs that have washers don’t have dryers, meaning this comes in handy even with a machine wash.)
- Odor resistant – Unless I’m doing laundry every other day, clothes will get worn for a few days in between washes. Hopefully they won’t smell like it.
- Durable – Daily wear for 9 months would leave lots of clothes in pretty bad shape. I’d like for my travel clothes (that thankfully don’t look like travel clothes) to still be wearable after this trip.
- Warm and cool – We knew we were going to be in a variety of climates this year, so clothes that can be worn comfortably in 95º or 35º, rain or shine, would cut back on how much I needed to pack.
- Wrinkle-free – Everything gets rolled up and packed away at least once a week. Ideally it’s wearable as soon as it comes out of the bag, since irons and dryers aren’t always available.
Cotton, which is what most typical clothing is made out of, fails these criteria pretty badly. Merino wool on the other hand, nails nearly all of them, which is why you’ll see so much merino in the following section. Unfortunately, merino (and other performance fabrics) tend to be noticeably more expensive than cotton.
- Outlier Slim Dungarees (Bluetint gray) – This is absolutely, hands down, the best article of clothing I’ve ever worn. After trying them on for the first time, I immediately lit all of my jeans on fire. (Okay, I didn’t actually do that, but these are seriously the only pants I ever want to wear again.) The price is steep, but I’ve easily worn them on 150+ days in the first 9 months I’ve owned them, and they still look and feel brand new. They’re incredibly comfortable, even in 25º or 95º weather. (The Bluffworks Original was a close runner-up, but they neither looked nor felt as good for daily wear. However, with a tighter budget, these would have been the pants that made it into my bag.)
- Eddie Bauer Amphib shorts – These are nice. They’re lightweight, look good, have reasonable pockets, and were fairly inexpensive. I got them in a gray that seems to be discontinued (and that is close enough in color to the above pants that they both worked with all the same shirts). They’re fully synthetic and they dry very quickly, so they’ve doubled as my swimsuit.
- Woolly 190 GSM V-neck T-shirt (Black) – Probably my all time favorite T-shirt. It looks good, it feels good, and it’s traveled great. Thanks to the magic of merino wool, it doesn’t hold odor (before we left, I tested by wearing it to the gym, daily, for a full week, without washing; Bri couldn’t tell it had been worn at all). It also doesn’t wrinkle, it’s lightweight, and it dries quickly. (Update: $10 off an order of $50 or more!)
- Woolly 150 GSM T-shirt (Blue) – A more lightweight version of the above. The 190 is already light enough that this little bit doesn’t make a huge difference in comfort except on the hottest of days. However, the thinness does make it a bit more prone to damage. (I’ve had a few small tears that have needed some mending.)
- Eddie Bauer On The Go Poplin (Crimson; discontinued) – Nicer than a T-shirt, but still not too dressy. I really like this shirt, but it’s also one of the least necessary things I have. It also dries a little more slowly, holds a little more odor, and wrinkles a little bit more than all of my other shirts.
- Mizzen+Main dress shirt (A discontinued style with large gray checks) – A nice shirt to wear to a fancy dinner, mass at the Vatican, or an evening at the Vienna Opera. The style and fit of the shirt are great, but the truly wrinkle free nature (I can unroll this after it’s been packed for 2 weeks and put it on immediately) is what makes this shirt special.
- Woolly crew socks (3 pair) – These socks are great. Comfy, warm, and good looking, I’ve had a pair on my feet more often than not during the trip. These’ll be my go-to cold weather socks for years to come.
- Woolly ankle socks (2 pair) – These are much thinner than I like. They got worn out pretty quickly, didn’t provide much cushion, and don’t keep my feet particularly warm (which was fine, since they mostly were for hot summer days).
- Darn Tough no-show socks – Bri bought these and decided she didn’t like them, so I stole them from her. Unlike the above, these are super cushiony and were my go-to socks for summer days that involved lots of walking.
- Wigwam quarter socks – These are mostly for when I want to wear long pants (without showing ankle like either of the two above socks would have), but it’s too warm to wear the gray socks comfortably.
- ExOfficio boxer brief (2 pair) – Comfy, don’t hold much odor, and dry quickly.
- ExOfficio sport boxer brief – Pretty comparable to the above, but are a little bit nicer on days with lots of walking.
- [2017 update] Woolly sent me a pair of their boxer briefs, and they’re amazing. They’re definitely more comfortable (and less smelly) than the ExOfficio pairs, but they also normally come at a noticeably higher price that might not be worth it depending on how long you’re traveling.
- Woolly Hoodie – Warm, yet lightweight. Dries quickly and doesn’t hold odor. (Update: $10 off an order of $50 or more!)
- Rain jacket – The above hoodie doesn’t particularly block wind, so this gets layered on top for cold, windy, or rainy days.
- Sanuk Guide shoes – I wanted only a single pair of shoes for the trip, and these have done the trick. They’ve worked for hiking and nice dinners, and go well with both shorts and pants. Overall they’re one of my least favorite things I have with me, but I couldn’t find another pair that fit all the situations I wanted to plan for, and that was reasonably priced.
- Chaos wool beanie – Keeps my ears warm.
- Marino Ratchet Belt – I’m not a huge fan of stick-the-pokey-thing-through-the-hole style (a.k.a. “normal”) belts, and have worn military style belts for most of my life. I wanted something that looked a little bit nicer than than one of those, and I luckily discovered ratchet belts. Most ratchet belts really aren’t my style, but I’m quite happy with the one I got. It’s biggest downside is it’s weight; it’s heavier than the pair of shorts I hold up with it.
- Alpineswiss front pocket wallet – I carry only 4 credit/debit cards (and no driver’s license while traveling) and a few bills of cash. So, a small, front pocket wallet alleviates almost any concern of pickpockets.
- Agloves – These are touchscreen gloves, so they keep my hands warm while still allowing me to use my phone.
- Flip flops – For hostel showers and trips to the beach.
- Scarf – A generic black scarf, for the coldest days.
- Glasses (and case) – A relatively new addition to my life.
- Sunglasses – These keep the sun out of my eyes.
- Eagle Creek Pack-It Wallaby Toiletry Organizer – All of my toiletries go in here. This is a little overkill for me in terms of size, but the hook is quite nice in bathrooms without any counter space.
- Trimmer – For keeping my beard neat and for cutting my hair. I haven’t gotten a “real haircut” all trip and have just used this to cut my own hair.
- Comb/toothbrush/tweezers/clipper – Personal grooming is a thing.
- Dr. Bronner’s – Magic soap that can be used for anything. We typically use it as body wash, shampoo, and laundry detergent (when hand washing our clothes), but it’s also come in handy as dish soap and hand soap in under-stocked Airbnbs.
- Liquids bottles – Filled with Dr. Bronner’s.
- Laptop – For general internetting, playing games, and programming.
- Laptop case – Keeps the laptop nice and safe.
- European MacBook Duckhead – The convenience of not having to regularly use a converter is absolutely worth a couple of dollars. (One thing my bag is missing that I wish I’d had: A European USB charger.)
- Palm rests – Traveling tends to be an ergonomic disaster (Hostels and Airbnbs rarely have great beds, tables, or chairs), so a little relief for my wrists is the least I can do.
- Kindle Paperwhite – I like reading.
- iPhone – We generally haven’t had cell service this year, but between abundant WiFi and various downloadables, this has made the whole trip go much more smoothly. Google Maps and Google Translate (both free) have been life savers.
- iPhone case – I don’t normally use an iPhone case when I’m not traveling, but being out and about more often, especially in unusual situations and places, has made me more cautious. I’ve dropped my phone a few times this year, and let’s just say it’s been a worthwhile investment.
- iPhone screen protector – Ditto.
- USB Battery cylinder – On a long bus ride or an otherwise busy day, sometimes a full charge of my phone isn’t quite enough.
- iPad mini – I like reading technical books that don’t format well on a Kindle. I also paint every once in a while.
- Wacom iPad stylus – For said painting.
- GoPro and floaty backdoor – For photos on or near water.
- Outlet adapter – After buying the duckhead for my laptop adapter, this really only gets used for charging my beard trimmer. The trimmer (as well as the laptop chargers and USB chargers) all work with 110V and 220V power, so no transformer is needed.
- Headphones – I like listening to things. These have been my on-the-go headphones for years; they sound quite good, yet are cheap enough that losing or damaging them is pretty inconsequential.
- USB drive x2 – My laptop’s hard drive isn’t huge, so I use these for extra storage. They also get used for taking PDFs we need printed (e.g. boarding passes) to print shops.
Storage and organization
This section is very cobbled together: Individual cubes that someone didn’t need out of a larger set they bought, damaged goods from an REI garage sale, and bags that clothes were shipped in. If I had to start from scratch, I’d probably grab an Amazon Basics packing cube set.
- Large REI Expandable Packing Cube – All of my shirts/pants/socks/underwear fit in here.
- eBags packing cube (only the smallest in that set) – Keeps all of my miscellaneous, small things together.
- Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Cube (only the largest in that set) – My cold weather clothing goes in here.
- New Outlander 20L daypack – For carrying water and extra layers on hikes, transporting our laptops to cafes, and bringing groceries home from the store.
- Laundry bag – Dirty or wet clothes go in here on travel days when we’re in between accommodations.
- PackTowl bag – My towel (mentioned below) came in a bag that’s perfect for holding cables, batteries, and small electronics.
- Medicine – We’ve gotten sick a couple of times (due to food, germs, and pollen our bodies aren’t used to). Some basic medicine (e.g. Tylenol, DayQuil+NyQuil, Sudafed, Benadryl) has come in handy.
- First Aid Kit – Bandaids, Neosporin, and alcohol wipes.
- Bag cover – The one thing in my back I’ve been lucky enough to not use! We’ve yet to have rain on a day where we’ve been traveling, but I don’t trust the bag alone to keep out water. Fortunately, this is small and light, so the “useless” weight hasn’t been a burden.
- Pen – For writing things.
- Burt’s Bees Lip Balm – Bri doesn’t like kissing dry lips.
- Water bottle – Mostly used for day hikes. It rolls up to take up almost no space.
- Cable lock – Used in hostels to secure lockers, and on the bag itself whenever we’ve left our bags at a baggage check.
- Loksak – Holds a few things that would be really bad to get wet: backup credit cards, drivers license, and SIM cards. Occasionally gets used to hold my phone on a beach day.
- Ear plugs – Easily our most bang-for-the-buck item. Loud hostel neighbors and roommates, street noise, and nearby public transit can all detract from a solid night’s sleep, but these have done an impressively good job at blocking most of that out.
- PackTowl – A few hostels we’ve stayed at haven’t provided towels. Also useful on beach days.
- Luggage tag – Marks my territory. Get your paws off my bag.
So that’s it.
I know it may seem like a lot of stuff when it’s all written out, but everything fits snugly into my 30L bag (with a bit of room to spare). It’s been the perfect amount of gear to carry around for the better part of the year, and I think the research really paid off. Hopefully this review has been a slightly more helpful than just reading “great!” or “terrible!” But if not, I’m happy to answer any other questions you may have.