A Year of Travel, Part 1: 10 Things I Couldn’t Live Without

In the wide world of the internet today, you can find an infinite variety of suggested packing lists for long term travel from travel bloggers and Instagram influencers. My Pinterest feed (p.s. I just joined Pinterest because I love being a decade late to everything) is full of capsule wardrobes and carryon packing lists for that next trip to Santorini or South America.

But most of those “packing list for a long trip” articles are hot trash.

This is relative, of course. If you’re an aspiring Insta influencer who wants to go drink cocktails in Santorini and take the same five photos every other aspiring influencer takes there, then sure, that packing list with seven dresses and four pairs of shoes is great. It will be worth it to you to roll that massive suitcase off the ferry and down the tiny cobbled streets and steep stairs of Fira or Oia, and you’ll pay the extra baggage fee so you can bring your blow dryer and curling iron and two bags of makeup.

Whew, that makes me tired just writing it, but I do always appreciate a commitment to glamour.

Solo female traveler against the white buildings of Santorini Greece
Me, watching all the influencers struggle in Santorini.

For the rest of us, it’s less helpful. What if you care less how you look and more how you can explore the world without paying hefty airline fees or throwing your back out every time you pack your bag?

Then let’s get real.

I spent one year of travel living out of only a 35L backpack. A whole year, in that tiny space (plus a tiny Longchamp backpack) which I always carried on to planes, even on budget airlines with tight baggage restrictions. That meant only a quart bag of liquids.

I was a little extreme, maybe. But you know what? I loved it. Sure, I got tired of my three outfits quite quickly. (It’s why I developed an active fantasy life for my future outfits.) And I didn’t look like those picture-perfect girls in every photo on my Instagram. But I saved so much money by never needing to check a bag. I saved so much time by having only a few things to pack every time I moved locations. And I saved my poor back so much fuss by only carrying about 24 pounds.

So out of all the things I brought or bought or missed on my trip, what was actually worth the very limited space in my backpack? What did I truly need when packing for a year of travel? Here you go:

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Packing for a year of travel essentials

1. Packing cubes

I love packing cubes. I could write a whole blog post just on my love of packing cubes (I won’t because that’s very dull, but I could). They compressed my clothes so I could squeeze a bit more into my backpack, and they also keep me organized. This is extra important when you’re traveling for long periods of time and staying in hostels or sleeping on trains – you don’t want to have to rifle through everything you own to find that one pair of socks because overnight trains in Thailand are the temperature of Siberia.

In hostels if I had an early bus, I’d pack my clothes for the morning in the tiny cube and get everything else all packed away the night before. Then I’d roll out of my creaky bunk, swap my pjs for my clothes, shove the little cube in my bag, and off I went without waking up the whole room. Those who have been in a hostel room where someone else decides to pack their entire bag (which is seemingly full of rustling plastic bags) at 3 am will know just how important this is.

2. A thin cotton sarong

This guy was a multi-purpose lifesaver. I bought my current one in Bali, but they can be found all over the world for very cheap. They’re a towel when you’re in a hostel that charges for them, they’re a beach blanket for those Thai islands, they’re a privacy curtain when you have the bottom bunk in a hostel, they’re a head wrap when you’re sailing in the strong Greek sun.

Unlike terry cloth towels, these thin cotton sheets dry incredibly quickly and pack up tiny. Never leave home without one.

3. A silk sleeping bag liner (or pillowcase)

Is this decadent? Sure! But it will fold up to the size of an apple and make every scratchy hotel sheet or freezing hostel room much more comfortable. Silk is lightweight, warm, and breathable – perfect for bedding. If you are staying in nicer places and you won’t have a shitty sheet situation, then just a silk pillowcase is a lovely bit of luxury and it keeps your hair from getting frizzy while you sleep.

4. Good shoes

Solo female traveler in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at Batu Caves
Me and my Tevas: a love story

Traveling long-term is not the time for cute but flimsy shoes. You’re out exploring almost every day, walking around and getting lost and climbing ancient sites and steep hills and roaming the beach and getting caught in sudden Southeast Asia downpours. You don’t want your shoes to suddenly give out or give you blisters or plantar fasciitis.

Find what’s comfortable for you – I lived in my Tevas this year, which was terrible fashion-wise but amazing for my feet. I could walk 10 miles a day in them, swim in them, stride through rainstorms and sunny Scottish days and just generally do everything. Seriously, buy some Tevas. I also had a great pair of Blondo booties, which were fashionable enough to go out in Paris but also warm and waterproof to wander through Alpine villages in Austria in December.

Bonus points for good socks too: I bought a couple pairs of merino socks from Darn Tough and SmartWool and oh, they were necessary. My warm, blister-free feet were grateful.

5. Real pajamas and a bedtime routine

This one is specific to me – your needs may vary. Sure, sleeping in your clothes is fine for a short trip. Why waste valued backpack space on something unnecessary? A few very good reasons, actually. Having designated sleeping clothes means the rest of your limited clothing gets a little less worn out (and when you have three outfits, they wear out quite quickly). I didn’t have fancy pjs – just a cotton set from H&M. I did buy a silk bathrobe in Bali though because I’m bougie like that.

But just having something semi-civilized in an always-changing life left me feeling a little more normal. And I have trouble sleeping at the best of times, so being in a new bed every few nights really messed with my sleep. The nightly ritual of putting on my soft pjs, wrapping myself in my silk robe if it was cold, putting on my silk eye mask to keep any light out, and dabbing a little lavender essential oil on my silk pillowcase (noticing a theme? I am a soft, soft little person) helped me get to sleep soundly most of the time.

That bathrobe was also an actual essential – shuffling from the coed hostel bathroom after a shower, lounging on the terrace of my Croatian island Airbnb in the mornings with coffee, or just cold nights in the hostel where I needed an extra layer to sleep. Get one with pockets so you can keep your hostel key card in there when you go to brush your teeth before bed, and thank me later. You don’t need to buy a wildly printed green silk one in Asia though, I had this cheap but durable Amazon one first and it was great.

6. A door alarm

I got plenty of questions about solo female travel safety on my trip. And mostly everywhere I went was quite safe, often safer than being at home in Boston. But there were a few times when I was staying in a place that had a high number of break-ins (like Bali) or just wanted a little extra security.

Once I stayed in this crappy hotel in Vang Vieng, Laos (nice hotels were pricey and the hostels were all wild party hotspots) with a flimsy door with no interior locks at all. I’m pretty sure if you leaned hard enough on that door from the outside it would pop right open. So I jammed this little guy right under the door, ensuring it would be harder to get in if that did happen and also would alert the entire town that something was happening. That would have made for a much better night’s sleep if the neighboring hotel hadn’t been hosting some extremely drunk, extremely loud Chinese karaoke into the wee hours, but at least I was safe.

7. Locks

Another recommendation for safety when traveling alone: so many locks. I had a basic old-school combo lock I used to use at the gym for those hostel lockers. Sometimes the hostel will have a lock you can rent, but I liked having my own just in case they were out.

I also picked up a bag lock on a whim when I was browsing a Swiss department store and it was a great purchase. It meant I could leave my backpack in my hotel or hostel room, in the belly of a bus, or at the front desk of a hostel and never worry about someone reaching in to get the easy valuables. I never bought one of those giant mesh nets so many bloggers seem to like, because they’re huge and heavy. But the little bag lock kept my pockets with my extra cash and card and passport safe while I was off doing something else, and that was perfect.

8. An all-purpose bar of soap

This is very specific but one of my biggest tips: bring a bar (not a liquid, remember that tiny quart bag!) of soap that works for everything you need. I love the Dr. Bronner’s Castile bar soap for this, but I’m sure you can find a local one too.

Get one that can clean your body from the dirt and sunscreen and salt that’s caked on your from a day in the Athenian riviera, that can scrub your shoes when you slide into a muddy puddle in Thailand, and can wash out your clothes in any tiny sink you can find.

This last one is really important – get something that can clean your clothes. Normal bar soap for your body is fine short-term, but to really get them clean every time you need something more. You can buy a bar of laundry soap, which I did at first, but then you’re carrying around two soaps. You have no room for that! Get you a soap that can do both – Dr. Bronner’s for life.

9. A tiny clothesline

This was very cute but also extremely practical when you’re traveling light. If you have three outfits (hi, me, that’s me, have I mentioned it enough yet) you need to do some laundry pretty much every day if you don’t want to smell like the Parisian metro. Washing out your underwear, bra, and socks every night will keep you smelling fairly decent even when you go weeks without a washing machine.

But they need somewhere to dry, and that’s not always easy in a hostel room or tiny guesthouse. With a little laundry line, the world is your laundry room and you’re ready to roll. Deck the inside of your hostel bunk with your socks, fly your sad practical underwear like a flag on your hotel balcony, toss your clean camisoles up in your chateau bathroom. It’s a literal lifeline. I met some very (VERY) smelly backpackers this year, and I’m proud to say I was not one.

10. A giant silk scarf

solo female traveler in the Acropolis in Athens Greece
Me and my beloved.

Ah, the most useful and beautiful and treasured thing I own. I have an attachment to this scarf that rivals Tom Hanks’ attachment to that volleyball in Castaway. I don’t just love it because it’s so beautiful that people stopped me on the street in Paris to admire it, though they did and that made me die of happiness.

It (or one like it, if you cannot find this particular vintage Fendi on eBay like I did) will make your whole life cozier and warmer. It’s a blanket on a plane ride or in a chilly hostel (seriously sometimes my hostels were so cold!), it’s a picnic blanket in a Parisian park, it’s another privacy curtain in the bottom bunk of a hostel to block out the flicking on of lights at 1 am. It’s everything and it’s also just beautiful, and I needed one beautiful thing in a sea of black practical clothes.

Decide what you need and what you want

Ultimately, it all comes down to your own priorities. Notice that there’s no outdoors gear on here? Yes, because I hate hiking and the only outdoors I like is the beach. This might be different for you! Maybe your hair looks silky smooth no matter how rough your pillowcase, like my genetically gifted sister who got all the excellent hair genes.

But generally, these were the things I found most essential while traveling the world for a year. I wanted to be clean, be comfy, be safe, and have a lovely scarf, and I managed to fit it all in that little bag just fine. And judging by all the jealous comments I got from fellow travelers, they wished they packed as light as I did. If you really want more stuff, that’s fine too, but no matter how much I missed clothes I never wished I had more things on my trip.

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