Winter Backpacking: 5 Weeks in Europe With a 40L Backpack

I recently got home from an epic adventure I didn't believe I'd ever be able to accomplish. After daydreaming for years and devouring travel blogs and websites, I finally took the plunge and bought a one-way ticket to Paris. Kyle and I spent five weeks backpacking through Western Europe, and it was unbelievable and eye-opening and stressful and amazing and chaotic and pretty much everything I imagined it would be. 

Our decision to go on this trip was pretty spontaneous. My health stabilized in January after six months of battling an intense gastroparesis flare, so I felt like it was the perfect opportunity for me to hop on a plane and satisfy my wanderlust. Gastroparesis is so unpredictable. Flares develop out of nowhere, and you never know what the next day or week or month will hold. Because of this, I felt an intense yearning to accomplish a goal, to do something for me, while I felt good. I wanted to feel alive and carefree again after six difficult and draining months. I was driving home from an appointment in late February, blasting "Come Back to Me" from Urban Cone, and it just hit me. I had to get on a plane. I had to go somewhere. And not for a week or two. For longer. That night, I booked our tickets!


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Our departure was set for the end of March, so I had one month to plan the logistics of our trip, save money, and mentally prepare myself for a strenuous (but fulfilling) journey. I started off by purchasing my backpack: the Osprey Farpoint 40. (Kyle chose the Osprey Porter 46.) I did a ton of research before choosing the Farpoint 40, and there were a few key things that made it stand out. It's front-loading, so it unzips like a suitcase. It's also within the carry-on measurements for most airlines. I took it on Wow Air, RyanAir, and Aer Lingus without any issues. This was important to me because I brought along my laptop, my Kindle, and my Canon G7X, and I didn't want to check my pack and risk losing those items. I also liked that it was only 40L. I figured the smaller size would prevent me from packing unnecessary items. The Farpoint 40 ended up being a great choice! 


I initially struggled with packing wisely and efficiently. The rule of thumb is to leave some empty space and breathing room, but I felt like it was totally stuffed when I did my test pack a few nights before our flight. There were several moments when I thought we were crazy for planning a winter backpacking trip. It would've been so much easier to throw some summer dresses, tanks, and sandals in there. Eventually, however, I figured out a method that worked. I'm here to tell you that backpacking in the winter with a 40L pack is totally doable. 

Here's a concise breakdown of everything I brought, followed by my post-trip thoughts in each category.

CLOTHING
Since the countries we planned to visit were still experiencing cold weather in March/April (and I get cold very easily), I wanted to make sure I had warm clothing. I packed...

  • 1 puffer jacket (wore on the flight)
  • 2 thick sweaters (wore one on the flight)
  • 3 long sleeve shirts (1 flannel, 1 plain tee, 1 chambray)
  • 2 thermal long sleeves
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 2 pairs of jeans
  • 1 pair of fleece-lined black leggings (wore on the flight)
  • 1 pair of yoga pants 
  • 3 beanies
  • 2 scarves
  • 1 pair of gloves
  • 3 pairs of warm socks
  • 12 pairs of underwear (I wasn't sure how often we'd be able to do laundry!)

What should I have done differently? Looking back at our trip, I would have packed one more sweater and left the t-shirts at home. I would have left the leggings at home and worn a pair of jeans on the flight. I would have packed one less beanie and one more scarf. (Worried about wearing the same outfits over and over? Accessories are your friend. When you mix up scarves and beanies, your outfit can look totally different!) I also would have packed black tights and a simple black dress, because there were times I wanted to dress up, but I didn't have the right clothes.

SHOES

  • Brown ankle boots (wore on the flight)
  • Black Nikes
  • Black flats

What should I have done differently? Next time, I'll leave the flats at home. I thought the weather would be warming up by the end of April, but I think our warmest day was 60 degrees, and that was a freak occurrence. Most days were high 40s, low 50s. I only wore my flats once (on the very last day of our trip).

ELECTRONICS

  • Macbook Pro
  • Kindle
  • Canon G7X
  • Small toiletry bag, which held my camera charger and extra battery, headphones, plug adaptors, my phone charger, and my Kindle charger 

What should I have done differently? Nothing! It would've been nice to leave my laptop at home, but I needed to bring it with me so I could work. 

TOILETRIES
I stuck to the bare minimum with toiletries. I didn't bring any makeup. I didn't bring shampoo, face wash, body wash, or anything like that because I planned on buying those things in Europe. These are the things I brought...

  • Dry shampoo
  • Toothbrush + mini toothpaste
  • Shaving razor
  • Mini deodorant
  • Small Ziploc bag with extra hair ties and bobby pins
  • Travel face wipes
  • Travel tissues
  • Travel antibacterial

What should I have done differently? The only item on this list I never used were the tissues. I thought they'd come in handy, but I didn't end up needing them. 

MEDICATION
I had to worry more about prescriptions than the average person, but I still brought very few things.

  • 3 prescription medication bottles
  • Pepto Bismol
  • Dramamine
  • Travel first aid kit
  • Small bottle of ibuprofen
  • Hard ginger candies (great for nausea, motion sickness, etc.)

What should I have done differently? We didn't use the first aid kit, but it was nice to have, just in case. (Next time, I'll probably just pack some bandaids.)

MISCELLANEOUS

  • Ziploc bags in various sizes (these were SO USEFUL)
  • Hand and shoe warmers (amazing when temps were in the 20s and 30s)
  • Sleep mask (for the plane rides) 
  • Small Moleskine notebook + black Sharpie pen (to journal)
  • Clear plastic folder with travel documents, scanned passport and ID photos, backup medication prescriptions, emergency contact information, and embassy information for each country on our itinerary
  • Large Ziploc bag with Larabars, dried fruit strips, and other snacks to have on hand while traveling
  • Foldable ultra light daypack (to carry snacks, my camera, and other things while exploring new cities, here's a similar one)

What should I have done differently? All of these items were great to have, except the sleep mask. I can't sleep on planes, but I read online that sleep masks can help you doze off in uncomfortable places. I tried it out a few times, but I never managed to sleep. I won't be bringing it with me next time. 

That's it! All of this stuff (miraculously) fit into my Farpoint 40. How, you ask?

COMPRESSION BAGS.

I started out with some packing cubes I ordered off Amazon, but my pack still felt way too full. I was shopping for some last-minute things at Marshalls, and I randomly picked up two large compression bags. They were amazing. I used one bag for shirts, sweaters, and pajamas, and I used the second bag for socks, underwear, pants, beanies, gloves, and scarves. When you zip the bags up and squeeze all the air out of them, they become flat and packable! It's awesome.

I thought I would feel limited with only a small backpack during our travels, but honestly, it felt freeing. For the past year, I've been really interested in learning about and practicing minimalism (The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up fueled this), and living out of a backpack showed me that I really don't need as much as I think I do. Would it have been nice to have more outfit options? Yes. But did it really matter while we were traveling? Not at all. I was more concerned with the experience than the clothes I was wearing. The essentials were all I needed. 

Have you been backpacking in the winter? Is there anything you're really glad you packed, or wish you had packed?