Setting off on an extended tour is something I’ve always wanted to do. This winter I did it. I did it with one backpack.
If not for Covid-19 I’d still be out there, adventuring! I’m happy to do my part and stay home for a while to prevent the spread of this disease though.
In the meantime, it might be interesting to delve into what, exactly, went into my pack. Check it out!
Why just a backpack?
Why travel with just a backpack in the first place?
As an aside, If you’re already a believer or just want to see the gear without all this commentary, feel free to scroll down to the main text, I won’t be offended.
For the rest of you here are a few reasons, some of which you might find compelling and others that you might find silly. I’ll try to do them justice quickly here:
It’s Cheap, especially when flying.
Let’s face it, having only a backpack means you’re looking at no checked baggage, which is nearly always cheaper than a regular fare. I flew many places in Europe for $40 or less one-way, and that price would have been much higher if I’d been checking a bag or paying for an additional carry-on.
And that part is key. If you’re able to fit everything into a single carryon item (no tote bags, Karen) then you’re going to get the go-ahead from nearly every flight attendant out there. The only one you might run into a problem with is Norwegian, as they’re big sticklers on their weight rule (10 kg), but even that can be surmounted with some creative re-distribution of weight to your person.
If you’re going to play this game of cheapness, I suggest you be willing to get into boarding lines early. My bag technically could fit in the under-seat space… sometimes… but it would have been a massive pain in the ass. A willingness to jump into the line near the front of your boarding group maximizes the chances you’ll find an overhead bin spot prior to takeoff.
A last note on cheapness: having just one backpack also helps if you’d like to ditch your backpack into a locker or other paid storage option while adventuring in a city on a layover or other. I usually opted to keep my pack with me, and doing so I managed to walk 11+ miles in Milan without having to pay a dime. Those dimes add up.
Repacking sucks less.
If you travel a fair amount, you know the pain of seeing an empty suitcase, it’s contents barfed out all over the floor, with the knowledge that you have a flight in 3 hours and, through intense effort or black magic, all of that damn stuff is going to have to find it’s way back into that stupid suitcase.
It’s not fun.
Having just one backpack makes the unpacking and repacking process significantly less painful (especially with packing cubes, more on that later) because you simply have less stuff that you need to find a way to smash into submission.
Before you get out your pitchforks and hoist me up on the handle of your favorite Samsonite, let me explain.
Roller-bags are amazing for airports and any time you’re primarily traveling on smooth surfaces. The speed of the wheels and the ability to take the literal weight off your shoulders is a clear win.
For nearly any other circumstance, I find them to be an obtrusive pain in the ass.
Ever tried rolling one over cobblestones? Not fun. Have you sat with one in your lap on a long road trip? The rigid structure and hard outer features don’t make them the comfiest. Speaking of that structure, it also typically adds unnecessary weight, furthering the pain if you have to lug them anywhere, especially up steps or any sort of uneven incline.
A backpack, while adding some weight to your back, makes you significantly more mobile. Roller-bags suck on public transport because they’re bulky and they require one of your hands, making holding onto railings or other supports a juggling act.
Roller bags are a huge giveaway that you’re a tourist, which can single you out for attention from thieves and others who benefit from unwitting foreigners.
Since I knew I’d be walking, traversing cobblestone streets (lots of them!) and jumping on public transport, the backpack was the natural approach.
It might seem a little odd to list this as a benefit off the bat, but I think it’s appropriate. I like minimalism. It teaches you to appreciate the things that you have. It also shows you how little you really need to survive. Usually, it’s less than one-tenth of the stuff you already own.
Taking an extended trip with just a backpack can be a great way to prove this point to yourself. It might be a bit extreme, but sometimes we need to shock ourselves to prove the point.
The Backpack and Gear
Alright, enough chatter, let’s get down to the gear. I’ve tried to break this up into a few natural headings, but some stuff doesn’t fit neatly into one category, so that’s under miscellaneous.
I’ve added a bunch of commentary to explain why I brought something or a group of somethings. It’s a lot of words. I won’t blame you in the slightest if you just read the headings.
As a final note, I had a lot of this stuff already, borrowed some from friends, and bought a few things brand-new. Don’t feel like you have to go out and break the bank–80% of the benefit can usually be attained with something you already have, or something a friend is willing to borrow you.
Without further ado, let’s jump in!
This is where I spent the bulk of my money in terms of ‘new’ stuff. Since I was planning on having this as my entire life for nearly 5 months, it made sense to get some decent gear.
My everyday backpack was also on its last legs and clearly would not have survived the trip, hence all of this:
1 – Travel Backpack by Peak Design
I love this backpack, I really do. Hard not to when you live out of it for the better part of 3 months. Beyond just that, however, it’s really, really well designed, at least in my opinion.
I won’t wax too philosophic about it and waste your time, but I found this backpack to be absolutely worth the money, as well as the packing cubes and organizer you’ll read about next. If you want to learn more, just play this (admittedly long) video that does a great job of going over all the awesome features of this bad-boy.
As a final anecdote, waiting in the customs line to get home to the US (a tense, 3.5 hour ordeal) I noticed that the woman in front of me was also sporting this pack. We then proceeded to gush (at an appropriate, social-distancing conscious distance) about it for a solid 15 minutes. This thing is that good.
2 – Packing Cubes by Peak Design
If you’ve ever tried frantically to find a missing phone charger, only to discover that it had inexplicably ended up inside of a sock… you’ll understand the power of packing cubes and clothing organization.
One of the chief benefits (besides solving phone-charger mysteries) is that it makes your clothing take up significantly less space. That’s important when you’ve only got 30 liters of space to begin with.
These particular organizers are fantastic, at least for me, because they were custom-made to fit perfectly into my backpack. That’s a win for organizational efficiency. I also really ended up loving the quick tear-away tabs, which provide quick access to the entire volume of the packing cube in a literal flick of the wrist.
Another clever little feature, the fact that these cubes had a dirty-laundry compartment on the back was sheer genius and allowed me to keep my dirty stuff segregated, even while packing everything up to catch an obnoxiously early flight somewhere.
I ended up getting one in the medium size and the other in small.
Even if you don’t get these ones, a cheap set will probably serve you just fine and get you hooked on the concept of pack organization. Here’s a basic set from Amazon that many people have found useful.
As a final note on this topic, it’s easy to get carried away and let the tail wag the dog on this. Don’t get so many organizers that your bag weight becomes more organizer than organized material. Much like in dance, balance is key. Grab a couple, see how they work, and add what’s needed after that.
3 – 10 Liter Ultra-Compact Daypack by Quechua
It’s useful to have a smaller pack to use when your main bag is chilling in your hotel room or in a friend’s car prior to a hike. This little 10L beauty folds itself into a bag smaller than my fist for easy storability and carried most of my essentials whenever I needed it to. It’s not super durable, but the utility of packing down so small was worth it for me.
4 – Shoe Pouch by Peak Design
In case it’s somehow unclear, I’m a pretty big fan of Peak Design. This shoe pouch was no exception, although admittedly I could have just used a spare drawstring bag. Still, this one fit perfectly into the pack and did a great job of segregating my shoe-stink from the rest of my things.
5 – Tech Pouch by Peak Design
Yes, shocking isn’t it? I’m recommending another peak design product.
This one really deserves extraordinary mention, though. The accordion-folded pockets and top-down loading design made this a massive win for me, personally. I was able to get nearly every cord I needed (other than my laptop charger) into this little beauty.
It also fits perfectly into their travel backpack (shocking, I know) so packing efficiency was very high.
Where would we be in modern life without it? Here’s what I brought along:
1 – iPhone XS Max
*** As a note, I realize that the object in the picture is an iPhone 6 Plus. I had to use my real phone to take the picture, so the stunt-double is standing in!***
Having a nice phone allows me to use it as a navigation device, a high-quality video recorder, a camera, and a ton more. Like many, I spend a fair amount of time on my phone. See the note on the keyboard further down.
Also, I found T-Mobile’s Simple Global plan to give me all the data I really needed for navigation, which is what I used it primarily for. Everything else could be done on wifi at a cafe, hotel, or other.
I typically stored this in the quick-access pocket on the backpack.
2 – Kindle
I like reading, and having a kindle makes it significantly easier to crank through books without carrying their weight around. This is really useful for reading in dimly lit airplanes or just reading on the go.
3 – Macbook Air and Charger
It’s certainly possible that I may have been able to complete this trip without needing my Macbook (see the portable keyboard and discussion further down) but I have to admit I like having it with me. There’s something about being able to use a full screen that feels good. I’d like to upgrade to an iPad Pro soon for some of it’s drawing and design abilities, but for now, the Air is serving me quite well.
A note on the charger: I opted to bring the full charge cord instead of leaving the extension at home and going with the two-prong adapter only. I personally found this incredibly useful, as the charging cord itself is rarely long enough, especially for tough-to-reach outlets. Though it does add bulk and weight, I decided it was worth it.
The backpack I chose has a dedicated laptop sleeve, which was quite nice.
4 – Charge Block
This probably should have been left home, but it did come in handy once or twice.
5 – Apple Watch
I like my apple products, and this is no exception. As a dance coach and workshop instructor, it’s eminently useful to be able to play and pause music from your wrist while teaching. Saves a lot of running around. More time for dancing!
It also tracks my sleep and activity, both things that I find a lot of use in knowing. The sleep one, particularly, is informative. More on that in a future post about sleep, our community, and what we need to do.
6 – Bluetooth Keyboard by iClever
One of my favorite purchases of the past two years, this keyboard allows me to use my phone as a laptop for many functions, most notably writing and responding to messages and the occasional email.
It’s hard to overstate how useful this is. I use it to make my Westie Pro video reviews faster, to respond to Facebook messages and texts, and to draft articles, emails, and all sorts of other things that require some form of textual input. It even comes with a slick carrying case that makes it easy to slide into a pocket. Highly recommend.
7 – Airpod
Yes, you read that correctly. Airpod, singular.
Unfortunately I lost my normal airpods at Palm Springs NYE just before embarking on my trip. A good friend was willing to borrow me this setup, where one Airpod had been irrevocably lost. While having both would be great, having one still allows me to listen to podcasts, and audiobooks while traveling, which is the main thing I use these for.
8 – All the Cables
What is modern life without more cables than you know what to do with? Well, hopefully someday we’ll know the wireless answer to that question. For now, here’s what I brought.
- USB to MicroUSB
- 2x USB to Lightning (one as backup)
- USB to Apple Watch Charger
9 – Portable Charger
This one is old (from my first trip to Kenya) and doesn’t work well anymore. Still, it got the job done on the several occasions I really needed it. I’ll probably look to upgrade before my next big trip.
10 – Wired Headphones
I already had these lying around the house, so they were easy to throw in the bag. One for my phone, one for my laptop. It would be better if I had one that worked for both, but that will just have to wait.
11 – Universal Adapter by Mudder
While a little outdated, it really did everything I needed, with two USB outputs and a regular plug for my laptop cord. This one worked as a swiss-army knife and charged everything that I had.
I couldn’t find the exact one I used online (probably discontinued), but this one is similar enough. I typically stored this in the top of the main compartment in the backpack for easy access in airports and cafes.
12 – Pocket Tripod
This has really come to be a part of lots of the things I do. It’s basically an adjustable phone-holder that folds down to the size of two credit cards put together. It goes with me everywhere, and helps to record video reviews, makes video calling hands-free, and just generally makes life easier. Combined with the keyboard from above, I almost (almost…) don’t need my laptop!
13 – UE Boom 2 Bluetooth Speaker
Great for teaching lessons, teaching workshops when the sound system doesn’t work (yup, I’ve done it!) and just creating jam sessions wherever they’re needed. I also love it for listening to podcasts in the shower or while doing dishes. It also fits very neatly into the bottom of the front pocket of my backpack, which was nice.
14 – Air Deck Playing Cards
This one doesn’t necessarily fit into technology, but it went in the tech pouch, so we’re counting it anyway!
Basically, these are waterproof mini playing cards you can take wherever. They weigh less than traditional playing cards and are significantly easier to pack. Shuffling them is kinda a pain, and I didn’t use them that often (2 or 3 times total) but they were fun to have when I did!
15 – External Hard Drive
This one is mostly here to ensure, should my laptop be stolen or have a fatal crash, that my important documents are still backed up.
Clothing + Shoes
The clothing I decided to take on this trip was, as one might expect, somewhat limited. In general, you don’t need as much clothing as you think you do, and limiting your options makes it easier to pick versatile stuff that will work with anything. It also makes your backpack smaller and lighter.
1 – 3 Pairs of Underwear
I figure we’ll get this one out of the way first.
Yes, I know that taking only three pairs of underwear sounds ludicrous. Disgusting, even. Before you write it off, hear me out.
It’s not too hard to wash a single pair of underwear, hence the 3. You wear one, wash one in the bathroom sink, and have one pair already dry and ready to be changed into. With that rotation, you can always have a fresh pair of undies ready for you. Not too shabby.
In addition, because my running shorts have built-in underwear, I use them as my ‘laundry-day clothes’ so that all the unmentionables can get washed along with the rest. #winning
Did I sometimes go a day without changing? Sure. Sue me. It’s not that bad, and you know it. Most of the time, however, I was able to do just fine in cleaning and changing them on a rotation.
2 – 5 Pairs of Socks
I can sometimes go through multiple pairs of socks in a day (especially when doing lots of social dancing in sweaty shoes) so it made sense to take a few more pairs here.
Two pairs were Smart Wool socks, and to do it again I’d probably take these exclusively. Unfortunately, they’re a bit on the expensive side, but they tend to resist getting funky a little more than my regular socks, and their insulative properties were great on cold bus rides and long hikes.
3 – 2 Pairs of Pants
Yes, I wore my pants multiple times before washing them.
No, I’m not sorry about that in the least. I love my ABC pants from Lululemon, and I find they pretty much cover all of my bases. They’re comfortable, I can dance all night long in them, they’re pretty durable, and their pockets are unobtrusive and hold a lot. That’s a win all the way around.
I’d typically wear each pair 2-3 times between washings. They never got too funky.
Also, since I was nearly always wearing one of the pairs, the added bulk to the bag was only pair, not two.
4 – Leggings
I didn’t use these often, but their purpose was as a second layer to go under the pants for incredibly cold days, which they did work brilliantly for.
Of course, they’re Feather Three Leg Lines leggings, so go check them out!
5 – Thermal Compression Shirt
Usually doubled as my laundry day shirt, this was also intended for cold weather scenarios. It performed well in those duties, layered under a long sleeve, T-shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, and then outer shell.
6 – Dress Shirts
In retrospect, I could have easily left the blue one home and only used the black. Still, it was nice to have 2 different shirts for comps and such.
7 – 3 to 5 T-Shirts
I say 3 to 5 because I started the trip with 3, anticipating that I’d pick up one or two along the way. I was correct, and by the end of the trip, I was rocking along with 5. Given the rest of the things in the clothing packer, 5 was probably the upper limit.
8 – Workout Shorts, AKA Laundry Day Shorts
This is not to suggest that I never worked out (I did!) but I usually did so in my normal pants, not in these bad boys. I brought them along because they have built-in underwear, which makes them great for swimming pools and other situations where I’d rather not get gross in one of my only three pairs of normal underwear.
Mostly they were used while things were getting washed!
9 – Shoes
I opted to bring a total of 3 pairs of shoes with me. My every-day shoes are detailed in outerwear, but the dance shoes I brought were black Toms and Aris Allen’s.
The toms were great for nights where my feet weren’t feeling great in the Allen’s, or when the floor was so slippery that the Allen’s were a hazard. For those of you who own Toms, mine have all the fabric worn off the front from use on concrete, so they’re not as slick as when they’re new.
Aris Allen’s have become my default shoes for competing, social dancing and everything in between. I love the feel, edge control, and look out on the floor. I’m hardly the first person to lovingly wear them a ton, but it’s worth noting that they were something of a novelty in Europe, which didn’t hurt either.
This is really more of an extension on the clothing block, but it’s worth noting that none of this was really ever in my backpack, save for a few times when it was warm enough to fold my sweatshirt up and throw it on top of the big packing cube.
1 – Sweatshirt
To be perfectly honest, I found this at a friend’s house in Texas, they said it wasn’t theirs, and I’ve had it ever since. I dig the look and feel of it, and at some point we figured out that it comes from Carrie Underwood’s clothing line.
You go Carrie, that’s a comfy sweatshirt!
Admittedly it’s probably a tad small on me. I still like it though.
2 – Feather Three Beanie
Of all of the products I’ve created on Feather Three, this is by far my favorite. This beanie is warm, compact, and looks good. It’s probably the thing I get the most compliments on as well, which is kinda cool since I made it!
But seriously, it’s damn warm.
3 – Coat by Huffer
Got this as a hand-me-down from a New Zealand friend, and I really enjoy it. The thing I like best is that all 4 of the main pockets (one for each hand, one on each breast) have zippers on them! This ensures that I can secure my hat, gloves, and buff in the jacket without having worrying about them slipping out. This is massively useful, at least for me.
I also enjoy that it’s decently interesting looking without being obtrusive. There are many times when I don’t want to stand out in a crowd, and this sort of thing helps me be just another face when needed.
4 – Shoes from New Balance
Lovingly described as ‘grandpa shoes’ by more than one person, these bad-boys got me through miles of hiking, tons of city streets, and even a dance collab.
What they don’t have in beauty they make up for in versatility. They’re sturdy enough for the hiking, juuuust passable for a decent restaurant, and match the rest of my Henry Ford inspired wardrobe in terms of color coordination.
5 – Smartwool Gloves
Great gloves, not much else to say. I’ve had them forever, and, I believe, got them out of a bunch of unclaimed Dance Fest lost-and-found that I was put in charge of some years ago. They have served me incredibly well for years.
6 – Feather Three Bomber Jacket
Another one of my favorites from Feather Three, the power of this jacket, for me, is that it’s warm, it doesn’t have a hood (so it won’t add more bloat than my hoodie and coat already do) and the snap-buttons mean I can have it on and rip it off when I need to perform in a Jack and Jill or Strictly, making my warmups more effective.
I’d definitely recommend it, but I’m not biased or anything. 😉
7 – Merino Wool Buff
Man, I love this thing.
It’s incredibly versatile, going from a neck protector to an eye mask to a hoodie, to whatever else you can think to use it for! It’s basically a tube of stretchy wool, but that just scratches the surface of the utility of these things.
Pretty basic, nothing too crazy. It all fits into a 1-quart plastic bag for TSA purposes.
1 – Shaving Cream
I promise you don’t need more than this. Use a very sparing amount each time and it will last you months.
2 – Deodorant
Because nobody needs to smell that on the dance floor.
3 – Disposable Razor
I use one for a few weeks, then switch to another. I usually buy them in packs of 2-3 as I’m going, and keep them as long as they remain sharp.
4 – Flosser
Sorta like with the shaving cream, as long as you’re careful to clean it after every use, there’s not much point in getting more, one will do.
5 – Toothpaste
6 – Toothbrush
I prefer the kinds with soft bristles, but the choice is yours. No, you don’t need an electric one, as long as you’re prepared to learn how to brush effectively.
Seriously, it’s worth… brushing up on…
I see you trying not to laugh. It’s okay, let it out. Puns are therapeutic. 😂
7 – A Few Household Medications
Some acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and loratadine in a small container. I rarely ever take anything, but on the off chance I needed it, I brought some along.
8 – Chapstick
This one probably doesn’t need a description, and yet here we are. Moving on!
9 – Hand Sanitizer
In the age of Covid 19, this probably doesn’t need much explanation. I used this when needed on my way back to the US, along with plenty of hand-washing sessions. Luckily my backpack and I seem to have avoided the virus, at least so far.
Tea and Water
Yes, these are essential. No, you can’t convince me otherwise.
Leaves = life.
1 – Contigo Thermos
I love this thing. Keeps hot stuff hot, cold stuff cold, and holds a decent amount. I prefer the 20 oz version, but the 16 oz seems to be the most popular on Amazon. Works really well with the next thing on the list…
2 – Contigo Tea Infuser
Fits snugly into the top of the thermos and brews a great cup of tea. I used this for the various loose-leaf teas I tried throughout the trip.
3 – Tea!
Most of it isn’t pictured, of course, because I drank it. The loose-leaf on the right was Pu-erh tea, the first I’ve had, and I really enjoyed it!
4 – Titanium Spork
An excellent tool for eating all sorts of meals, improvised or not. Also for stirring tea, on occasion.
Notes and Books
I like books and I adore good notebooks. Despite the added weight, it seemed like a good idea to take a few along for the ride.
1 – Classic Moleskine Notebook
Call me basic, but I love a good Moleskine notebook. There’s just something about the texture of the cover and the creaminess of the pages that make me feel excited to jot down ideas. I love these things, and I’m not sorry about it.
I took two. Because why not?
2 – A Book about Phones
I’m trying to figure out how to use my devices more intentionally, with less scrolling and more making of interesting stuff. This book promises to help. To be perfectly honest I haven’t read it yet (I purchased it in the last week of my travels) but I am excited to dig in!
3 – Pens – Pilot G-2 0.38’s, to be Exact
By far my favorite pen. Some people find them too spidery, but I love them. I brought 7, in 3 colors. Why? I use them enough that I’ve run out of ink on one before, and just general breakage and loss made me nervous that I’d be stuck without my fix!
4 – Moleskin Pen Sleeve
So far I’ve been unable to locate this bad-boy online. I picked it up in the Moleskine store in the Gare de Lyon in Paris on my way to Switzerland, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. It holds all my pens right on the front of the journal, and has two pockets for cash, condoms, or whatever the heck else you could need while using your journal!
Admittedly, only one of those things have I actually put in there. The other is just wishful thinking.
5 – A Book About Big Thoughts
At times not-so-charmingly outdated and sexist, it still has some useful concepts that stand the test of time I think. I’m not done with it yet, but it’s been a good book to slow-read over the past few weeks!
These things don’t necessarily fit into one category, but they’re useful none the less.
1 – Stretch Band
This is just a basic resistance band. I use it for some easy resistance on things like push-ups and cross-pulls.
2 – Passport
This one is probably fairly self-explanatory. Can’t get in and out of countries without one! Also kinda fun to look at all the stamps every now and then.
3 – Cheap Sunglasses
No sense bringing anything expensive! I managed not to lose these, but you never know.
4 – Wallet by Saddleback Leather
This company’s tagline is ‘They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.’ and after over 8 years of flawless service, I think there’s a good chance this will be true for me!
A lot of the trendy new wallets are completely cashless, which is great in some areas, but there are still many areas of the world that focus on cash for the smaller elements of their economy. A good wallet just makes me feel good and keeps that cash at the ready.
5 – Emergency Almonds
For long layovers and other times when there is little or no food available and you need something to get you by. I like the taste of raw almonds, personally, and they have the added benefit of being a natural appetite suppressor, which is useful when you’re trying to just get a snack to tide you over until a big meal with friends later on. I almost always have a stash of these somewhere.
6 – Lacrosse Ball
I didn’t use this as much as I thought I would, and probably not as much as I should have, but these are really useful for relaxing all sorts of different muscles after the use and abuse of late-night social dancing.
7 – Hero Clip
I didn’t use this as much as I thought I would, but it was cool to have it none the less. In my previous overseas adventures doing fieldwork in Thailand and Kenya I would definitely have made use of this, but in the comparatively urbanized environment of modern Europe it wasn’t quite as useful.
Still, it’s a cool concept, and something I’ll find a use for on other adventures. If nothing else, it was great at keeping my 10L pack firmly attached to the side of my backpack.
You made it!
I believe that’s the longest post I’ve ever written. If you’re still reading this, you’re either a highly dedicated reader or likely planning your own adventure and want to learn what you can from the contents of my backpack.
I don’t know if all of the commentaries I added in were necessary, but it’s there for you if you want it. I really believe that, whenever possible, traveling with just one backpack will be my default from now on.
If you’re headed off on your own world adventure I wish you the best of luck! Let me know how it goes.