Minimalist Travel Essentials: A Year With a 35L Backpack

I love clothes. Love them. It’s an obsession. So when I told my friends and family I was packing for my year of travel in a little 35 liter backpack, they were surprised (to say the least) that I’d be living out of a backpack, and a tiny one at that.

How did lil clotheshorse me fit enough clothes for long-term travel into my lil bag? Here’s how to live out of a backpack—all my best tips, tricks, and a complete packing list—to help you pack light on your travels too.

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Long term travel packing tips
The iPad mini in front is for scale: this is not a big bag.

My Minimalist Travel Packing Essentials

A couple of things helped me fit everything I needed into my 35L travel backpack (this Tortuga one is definitely the best minimalist travel backpack):

  • Packing cubes (I live and die by these guys, and have for years) are the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s gift to all travelers. They keep you super organized, which my neurotic heart loves. Also if you roll your clothes and pop them in a cube, you can fit lots more in.
  • Use loads of multi-purpose things, and buy all the packable coats Uniqlo sells. Those things are absolutely minimalist travel essentials – you can layer them easily and stow them away when they’re not needed.
  • Do laundry all the time, everywhere, every day. Learn more in my guide to glam on the road.
Packing for a long trip
Yes, I got this to zip!

What can you fit in a 35L backpack?

Also the biggest way this works for me: I had almost no clothes at all. Here’s the full list, also known as “how much can you fit in a 35l backpack”:

Minimalist travel packing for a solo female travel while living out of a backpack
Everything I owned, in one little bag.

As you can see from my pictures, I wore a variation of the same outfit every single day. #glamour (peep the Fendi!)

The pros and cons of living out of a backpack

I quickly got terribly, terribly bored of my clothes *dramatic sigh*. Especially being in Paris during fashion week, where the whole city is a glamorous catwalk and I’m sitting in the Ritz in a second-hand Athleta sweater (at least it’s cashmere!). Yes, I packed a few of my insecurities too.

But this trip wasn’t about what I was wearing. It was about having the freedom as a solo traveler to do whatever I want, whenever I want to.

Also I know myself, and general human nature as well. Your stuff will expand to fill the space you have. Buying a larger backpack because you won’t fill it is wishful thinking—you totally will! And then you’ll resent lugging everything you own around uncomfortably.

Living out of a backpack for a year is a much less stressful way of life than dragging a massive heavy suitcase over European cobblestones and up the narrow stairs in a Southeast Asian hostel.

Is a 35l backpack big enough?

Yep. Even if you’re not a minimalist, living out of a backpack makes long-term travel much easier.

Traveling this light saves me baggage fees, backaches, and those awkward moments where you can’t stuff your bag in the overhead compartment on a plane and the flight attendant glares at you like you’re going to single-handedly bring the whole thing down mid-flight.

And having more stuff just weighs you down on the road. Every time I hauled my tired, sweaty body with all my possessions strapped to it onto a small bus in rural Ireland or a packed train in Paris, I was so happy to have so little.

Update: after my year of travel was over, I created a complete list of the 10 things I couldn’t have lived without (and 5 things I didn’t need at all) to help you plan your own minimalist packing list!

And I still live out of a backpack as a digital nomad most of the time—here’s a guide to the essentials I bring with me.

More long-term travel resources

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