“As I go, I love to sing
My knapsack on my back.”
—"The Happy Wanderer"
Packing light for a long trip to Eastern Europe in winter: can it be done?
Here is how I did it for a three-month trip from Sweden down to Macedonia beginning in late October. I wanted to be as light and as simple as possible, and had to be brutal about what I left out and what I deigned to include.
Update: So how did I do?
This page was written before the European trip. See below for my thoughts on packing after the trip was finished.
The main points to remember are that you should be (1) warm, and you should (2) travel light. Those things might seem to be in conflict, but with some care it can be done.
I’ve taken lengthy trips before, for example across Southeast Asia, and across China. Those places were warmer when I was there than I expect, say, Slovakia in December to be, but I set myself the impossible-seeming goal of being warm while packing even lighter than I had for those trips.
I’ll be traveling with Masayo, who is not as into lightweight packing as I am. But we made a deal with each other: no carrying the other’s stuff. You’re responsible for what you take. So much for chivalry!
What I packed
First, some overall rules governed my packing choices:
- I’m not into gear and I don’t appreciate “nice” things.
- I would pay a little more to save weight, however.
- Having very little to carry is physically practical, but also psychologically and even philosophically satisfying for a long-term traveler. If I don’t want to be tied down with boring “life” stuff at home, why be tied down by bags full of junk while traveling?
- I bet Eastern Europe in winter is really cold. Multiple thin layers should fit my travel style better than a big heavy thick coat.
So with those points in mind I considered each item, weighed things on a scale to the gram, kept a nerdy little Excel chart, and made my decisions. Here is the complete list of my possessions in Europe, and why I chose each item.
- Day pack. For walking around while my big bag stays behind in a guesthouse room or a locke somewhere. Will have to hold insulin, blood sugar testing supplies, juice and cookies, and occasionally other things I pick up or need on a day out (MacBook, maps, umbrella, etc.) This is a fake North Face knock-off that Masayo bought in Vietnam.
- MacBook Pro. For maintaining 70-130.com, of course. I’m only taking the half-length power plug, and the earbuds. I’ll use the computer to store photos, blog, write code, pass time on the internet, etc. Everyone has asked me if I could get by with a phone instead; it would be nice to declutter to that degree but I still need the full computer for now. This is one of the few very heavy items I’m taking.
- Vitamin C lemon drink powder. An obscure Japanese product. I always drink this stuff (mixed with hot water) daily in winter. I don’t know how effective it really is but I haven’t had any cold or sickness in several years. It takes up as much room as a stuffed sealable plastic bag but weighs virtually nothing. As I drink it it’ll become less bulky anyway. Masayo is taking a bag full too; we should both be good for about two months. If I don’t get sick even while traveling I’ll feel vindicated for bringing this.
- Diabetes supplies. About 400 OneTouch test strips, thyroid pills for several months, emergency syringes (even though I use insulin pens), pen needles, finger-pricking needles. All wrapped up in a little plastic bag.
- Papers. Including a note from my Japanese doctor (in English) explaining that I’m diabetic and that I need the medications I have. Plus a photocopy of my passport ID page and airplane e-ticket and hotel/ferry confirmation printouts for the first few days of the trip.
- Passport. One time years ago, my sister was going to France on a school trip. She was excited for months. After flying from Atlanta to New York, she realized she didn’t have her passport with her. At the last minute at the gate, her teacher had to buy her an emergency ticket back home while the rest of her friends took off for France. It’s haunted the family ever since. Don’t forget the passport.
- Breath mints. I bought some here in Japan, then realized I already had a brand new pack I’d bought before. So I’ll take both; they weigh nothing and will go fast.
- Bluff Works travel pants. The only pair of pants I’m taking on the trip. I just ordered them and haven’t even really tried them out yet. Supposedly they dry fast, so with a little careful planning I can wash them in the evening every so often and they’ll be dry in the morning, even in cold wintery Europe. I hope. These pants cost waaay more than I usually pay for pants (about $100) but if they are as durable and quick-drying as reviews say, I think it’ll be worth it. I also bought a cheapo belt for $1 yesterday. (I wanted to get by with no belt at all but the pants are a little too loose for me.) (See my full review of Bluff Works travel pants here.)
- Flip-flops. For showers in hostels, to avoid foot fungus and unfortunate things like that. These cost $1 and say FILP FOLP on the bottom so you know they’re good. These are a little too small but were all I could find in Japan in October. If I see better ones in Europe I’ll replace them.
- Down jacket. From Uniqlo in Japan. It’s supposed to be remarkably warm but can be crushed down into a very small bag. A tad pricey but it seems like a good mix of features. This will be my outermost layer. If Europe gets too cold I’ll buy a real coat to wear over this.
- Knit hat. Masayo is a genius knitter and she made this for me a couple years ago. Nice for a big, cold, bald-ass head like mine.
- Toiletry liquids. Deodorant spray, vinegar, and two bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap – one big size (temporarily in Masayo’s checked bag) and one in a 100 ml bottle I can take on the plane. This all-natural soap can be used for showers, shaving, as toothpaste, to clean clothes, and who knows what else. Super simple, but may be hard to replace when it runs out. The good thing is that it comes in a highly concentrated form so I only need to use a little. (TMI time: The white vinegar is for a fingernail fungus I picked up at a public spa a couple years ago and have been battling ever since.)
- Electronics baggie. An extra battery for my OneTouch meter, the wire and plug for my compact camera, and a tiny, almost literally weightless LED flashlight. And a few Band-Aids, for fun.
- Razors and toothbrush. I wanted to take one razor to shave my face, then just buy more as I needed them. But this pack of eight razors was cheap in Japan (about $2.50) and pretty lightweight. (And they didn’t sell just one anyway.)
- Notebook and pens. Two pens plus some little refills. Pens may be easily replaceable but these are the erasable Frixion type that I love so much, and they weigh nothing. I like to make lists, take notes, and draw cartoons while I travel.
- Eastern Europe Phrasebook from Lonely Planet. We aren’t taking a guide book with us (it’s the internet age after all) but we did buy this, which has most of the countries we’re planning on visiting and is very small. I hope to at least learn hello, thank you, how much is this, plus the numbers, for each place we visit.
- The big backpack. Most of the stuff goes in here. This is a 20-year old North Face backpack Masayo’s sister gave me, and I’ve used it for several trips before (beginning with China in 2009). I’m sure technology has evolved a lot, and people who love gear would be nauseated by this, but it’s light and it holds everything and the waist belt feels good. It has way too many useless straps dangling everywhere and I don’t like the shape, but it’s fine for now.
- Scrubba wash bag. Laundry service, according to my research, is hard to find and expensive in Eastern Europe, so we’ll wash our clothes ourselves every few days. On past trips, we have done this in the sink, which is messy and takes forever. We splurged on this thing which is supposed to make it much easier and faster, and do a much better job. I’m not sure this will prove to have been a worthwhile purchase. But it’s very lightweight and takes up little room. (See my full Scrubba review here.)
- Thick long-sleeve outer shirts. From Uniqlo. Can be layered for warmth. These are made of cotton so they’ll dry slowly after being washed, but they feel good and I know they are well-suited for winter.
- Button-up flannel shirt. Yet another presentable and warm outer layer. From Uniqlo.
- 100% Merino wool sweater. Costly (to me, $30) but this is supposed to be very warm. Another item from Uniqlo.
- Thin “Heattech” long-sleeve undershirts. Three of them, from Uniqlo. I don’t know what Heattech is really, but Uniqlo swears that these keep you warmer than regular shirts. We’ll see. These shirts, possibly layered, will be the innermost thing I wear on my torso. They’re synthetic so should dry fast, which is good because I would like to wash them more often than the outer shirts.
- Empty Zip-loc bags. Always handy, even though they’re pretty easy to find anywhere. I just happened to have a few left over.
- Low blood sugar snacks. Three boxes of Calorie Mate (4 chocolate cookies per box; 1 box = 46 g of carbs) plus three bottles of juice (21 g each). The juice will probably be taken from me by airport security but I’m taking them anyway, just in case I get a reasonable security person. Of course these will be replaced by local snacks as I travel anyway.
- Tiny microfiber washcloth. For soaping off in the shower with the Dr. Bronner’s soap. Microfiber holds water and soap well and dries super fast.
- Swimming towel. I am pretty conflicted about this $20 purchase. It’s lightweight, packs really small, and dries quickly. I have used it for a couple weeks to get used to it before the trip starts, but it feels rubbery and hard. I hope it turns out not to be a waste of money. It’s much smaller than a regular towel, at any rate. (And why is called a swimming towel? Why would swimmers, specifically, prefer something hard and rubbery?)
- Lightweight umbrella. This actually came from a little shop in Japan that sells dainty things to old ladies. But it’s very lightweight and compact. Masayo opted for a thin travel raincoat; we’ll see who is happier when the skies open up in Europe.
- Six pairs of underpants. Regular cheap cotton ones from Uniqlo.
- Long underwear. Two pairs from Uniqlo to alternate wearing under the Bluff Works travel pants. One is Heattech, and the thicker one is Heattech Extra Warm (again, I don’t know what these are). I don’t think I’ve ever worn long underwear in my life; I mostly associate it with old men in nursery rhymes.
- Six pairs of Heattech socks. These are bulky but look warm. I’m sure there are better choices out there, but the price put me off. I’m not pleased that they’re cotton, because of the long drying time.
- Insulin pens. The most important thing I’m taking! Twenty-four Humalog pens and ten Lantus pens, which I’ve squirreled away over the past few months each time I go to the pharmacy. I’m not taking any cold pack or Frio pouch, but I will divide the pens into two Zip-loc bags which go inside foil freezer bags (one in the big backpack and one in the day pack). I probably won’t have to buy any insulin in Europe but if I do it will be a fun adventure in and of itself. The black pencil case is my daily stuff: a Lantus and a Humalog pen I’m currently using, a new backup Humalog pen, plus the OneTouch meter with a bottle of strips and the finger clicker. Never leave your room without em.
- A roll of toilet paper. With the cardboard tube removed to make it smaller. Just in case. This is kind of a bulky item and I am not sure it’s necessary.
Not pictured: A thin scarf, and the compact Olympus camera I took the above photos with.
Weighing it all up
It’s hard to say exactly what my bags will weigh because I’ll be wearing some of the clothes and some of the items will be split up differently at different times.
But the total weight of everything is around 11 kg (25 lbs), and 3.8 kg (8.4 lbs) of that will be in the day pack. I’ll be wearing ~2 kg of clothing (~4 lbs), so the big backpack should weigh around 5~6 kg (10~12 lbs).
That’s not bad at all; I think my bags for my trips to sunny Asia were heavier, but that was before I got into packing super light. Of course, the computer and the insulin pens are the heaviest items, but are acceptable (even unavoidable) trade-offs for me. Plus the insulin will gradually be depleted, as will things like the liquid soap.
I don’t know what items will prove to be unnecessary, but I hope I need all of it. I also don’t know if I’ve packed enough warm clothes; if I wear everything that’s like nine layers, so I’d hope so. I may need to buy gloves along the way, and who knows what else. But only if strictly necessary (and cheap!).
Packing light has been a fun challenge, and has also made me anticipate the trip that much more. I can’t wait to get started on a crazy backpacking trip over three months through some of the more obscure corners of Europe in winter.
And this light packing means it’s easy to carry around – and I can carry it all on the plane. No checked luggage BS. Can’t wait!
Update: After the trip
Thoughts on my packing job, now that the trip has ended.
Instead of the planned three months, we spent over four months in Europe, and at the end took an unexpected detour to northern Norway in February.
Overall I was warm the entire time on the trip. No matter how cold it got, I could add or remove layers of the shirts and long underwear above and was always ok. The blue down jacket was indeed warm, though a bit of a puffy eyesore.
Things I didn’t need
I did pack some stuff that I didn’t end up using – this stuff sat unused in the bottom of my bag the entire time:
- Swimming towel. Every place we stayed had their own towel to use.
- Eastern European phrasebook. This went totally unused. The print is too small to read anyway, and the internet provided all the info we needed.
- Toilet paper. I didn’t use the roll I packed. Still perhaps a good idea to have brought it though.
- Flip-flops. We mostly stayed in private guesthouses and hotels whose showers seemed cleaner. The once or twice I could have used these flip-flops for hostel showers, I forgot about them anyway.
- The fake North Face day pack disintegrated during the trip, so I bought a replacement from a junk shop in Budapest. It too broke a few weeks later so I bought a third bag in Serbia. It was a much smaller pouch-type bag, and lasted me the rest of the trip.
- I lost my knit hat in Slovakia (left it on a bus) so Masayo knitted me a new one. (She took knitting supplies with her. Way too heavy in my estimation, but they did come in handy.)
- The airport staff in Osaka indeed refused my bottles of juice.
- I ran out of Dr. Bronner’s soap, but managed miraculously to find a new supply at a shop in Prague called BIOOO.
- We ran out of Zip-loc bags and couldn’t find replacements anywhere. We checked every supermarket we came across in several countries. No luck.
- I ran out of Lantus in Norway and had to buy some at a pharmacy. I needed a prescription but they let me get by without one.
- The umbrella went almost unused. We almost never ran into rain heavy enough to warrant an umbrella. Even when I used it (like in Lithuania) it was so thin that water got through it anyway. Masayo gave up on her raincoat and bought an umbrella.
- We drank all the vitamin C drink, though I did get mildly sick a few days in Prague.
- My Heattech socks were ok but they got holes in them and I bought new socks at a market in Kraków, Poland.
- The Bluff Works travel pants were as good as I could have hoped for.
How do you save room while packing for long trips?
Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.
“If your blood sugar is high all day while flying around the globe, is it ok if you're back in range when you finally land? I flew from Japan to Sweden to figure it out.”