Nearly 10 years ago my best friend and I finished school and did what every college grad was destined to do at that time. We sat anxiously on the phone with one another, made sure we had the same flight, and held our breath as we both clicked “buy” to a London plane ticket and a Eurail pass. We traveled through seven countries in close to one month, met amazing people, took incredible pictures and re-tell unbelievable stories to this day. Looking back on what I was wearing screamed tourist, but with how minimalistic trends have been lately, this might actually be the best time to look great while traveling.

If you’re about to embark on a similar adventure, read below for what to keep in mind when putting together a backpacker’s wardrobe to keep stylish while sight-seeing.


Have An Itinerary 
Know where you’re going and how long you’re staying while abroad. Weather varies from city to city, so have a decent idea of what places you want to visit and make a plan for them. Knowing that from the get-go will ensure that you are packing the correct amount for the right weather conditions.

Less Is More
This is truly the number one rule for all backpackers. You’ll be carrying everything you own on your back, so keep that in mind when contemplating that extra pair of wedge heels (trust us, you won’t need them). If you are traveling with a companion, coordinate with them on sharing certain items like toiletries, so that you aren’t packing double items. This may also work with clothes if you are lucky enough to wear the same size — anything to lessen the load.

Create A Collection
Consider your options like a clothing line collection. You want to have at least one of everything, but in the same color story so that everything can be mix and matched. Stick to neutral colors (like grey, black, camel, navy and forest green) and keep patterns simple (black and white stripes, muted florals). White is a great bright, but usually hard to keep clean when you are in and out of hostels, hotels, cabs, trains, museums and parks, possibly eating delicious street food on the go.

Use the following as an example of what clothing items to consider:

  • Lightweight tanks, t-shirts and long sleeve tees
  • Lightweight denim
    • If the denim is too thick, it can weigh down your pack, be hot, and also take too long to air dry (if you decide they need a wash)
  • Black leggings
    • Not only are these comfortable, but they are flexible in movement and in style. Black leggings (or active-wear pants) can be dressed down for daytime travel, or dressed up for a night on the town. If they are leggings, make sure that they are thick enough and nowhere near sheer. Showing undergarments is just not cute.
  • Shorts
    • One pair of blue denim shorts, and one pair of black (denim or twill) shorts will get you everywhere. Make sure they are a good medium length, because they will ride up with your pack on (see mention of undergarments, above).
  • Lightweight dresses
    • Cotton dresses are easy to throw on at any given moment. They are cute, affordable and one whole outfit without any fuss.
    • Pack one short dress, one midi length dress and one maxi for when you need to cover your legs for modesty or wind chill.
    • One of these dresses should have sleeves in case you’ll need your shoulders covered (most traditional cathedrals, and you’ll probably be seeing a lot of these) but it’s too warm for a jacket
  • Outerwear
    • A lightweight cardigan you can wrap around your waist when it’s too warm, throw over your shoulders when it’s chilly and wear as a layering piece when it’s cold.
    • A hooded anorak or waterproof windbreaker for when the weather turns wet and windy
  • Shoes and socks
    • Shoes will be the most important thing that you pack, so be wise when choosing your most comfortable pairs. Absolutely NO NEW SHOES. They will ruin your feet, even if you think they’ll be comfortable. If you do buy new shoes, make sure they are well worn in weeks before hand.
    • One pair of athletic running shoes
    • One pair of sandals
    • One pair of shower flip flops
    • One pair of flat ankle boots if you’ll be traveling to a place with cooler/damp weather
    • Unfortunately, cotton socks keep moisture in, when you want to keep moisture out. Try wool-blend socks instead.
  • Accessories
    • A scarf can be used for many things; around the neck, around the shoulders, in the hair and around the waist as a bathing suit cover up. Pack one, or buy one once you get there.
    • A day bag is important for when you won’t be carrying your heavy backpack. Once your pack is stored in your hotel room, you’ll want a small cross-body bag to keep your smaller items in; cellphone, chapstick, maps, etc.
    • Although a bit uncomfortable, a money belt is a good thing to have just in case you feel you need one (if you’re traveling alone or in a questionable area).
    • Sunglasses, hats and sunscreen.
    • Keep your nice jewelry at home, but a watch is always good to keep track of time.


Some extra items that go a long way:

  • Ziploc bags; you’ll find so many reasons to use these.
  • Sleeping sheet; depending on where you’re staying, sometimes this is a necessity.
  • Microfiber towel; this is a must-have. It’s for showers and beaches and everything in between.
  • A lock for leaving your items in lockers or hotel rooms.
  • Flexible water bottle or hydration pouches; these items are extremely useful when on foot for long periods of time, especially during the heat.
  • Adapter/converter set for electrical outlets.
  • Travel-size everything; detergent packets, dryer sheets (they make your clothes smell good even in the bag), all toiletries.
  • Eye mask and ear plugs.
  • If planning on doing some international shopping, pack an extra small tote bag with a zipper than can be your carry-on for the flight home. If your bag gets too heavy, there is always the option of sending stuff back home through the mail.
  • Always send a copy of your passport and any visas to your email so that it is always accessible in case of emergency.
  • A total luxury, but nonetheless helpful (my friend and I definitely did not have one of these back then), a smart tablet or iPad for airplanes, trains and internet cafes.

With graduations done and summer vacations beginning, now is a great time to test out your survival skills and see how many languages and passport stamps you can pick up. Getting out in the world, experiencing and learning about other cultures is one of the only things I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. Keep your eyes and ears open, your cell phone off … and enjoy every step of the way.


Have you been backpacking in Europe? What were your essential wardrobe items?

Images via Teal Thomsen 


  1. Great post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject?
    I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further.
    Bless you!

  2. A lot of these are great tips, but my advice is to avoid wearing denim shorts anywhere in continental Europe! I live in the UK, but on a trip to Italy I made that mistake and went from being treated respectfully the day before (wearing a normal length skirt) to catcalled whilst wearing the shorts.

  3. This is a wonderfully comprehensive list for any length of travel. I am completely enamored by the concept of envisioning your own clothing line. It is essential to create a vacation wardrobe that is compose of basic pieces with small accents for color or differentiation. The smaller the luggage, the happier the traveler!

  4. Great list. I have these exact things packed for my month long european trip I leave on today. I am however 33, no 23—so have all this packed in a roller carryon. 🙂

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