How to backpack across Europe with only a rucksack

Is it possible to globe-trot with just one rucksack? With the right gear and a ruthless attitude, 'day sacking' will change the way you travel forever

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Europe has everything from sprawling cities and quaint villages to mountains and beaches, and we think you can see it all with just one rucksack's worth of stuff.

Travelling light makes sense. No checking-in, no bag drops, and no waits at carousels. No lugging a backpack through unknown and confusing airports and train stations, taxi ranks and bus stops. 

Travelling is supposed to be about freedom and spontaneity, but if you're lugging around a suitcase with 20kg of ‘essentials’, the chances are that the actual travelling part of your trip is pure drudgery. 

If that’s you, something's gone badly wrong with the way you pack. The answer? Design a capsule wardrobe that you can take anywhere.

How to design a capsule wardrobe

Most of us pack diligently for the length of time we're going to be away, but the core value of travelling light changes all that; pack for three days. 

Other than the clothes you plan to wear on the plane, pack only one change of clothes – and, yes, that absolutely does include underwear – and be ruthless about extra footwear. No books or guidebooks, no just-in-case gadgets. No boarding passes or paper; put everything on your phone. 

Travelling light can be liberating, but to do it successfully you must adopt a very simple philosophy. Wear, wash. Repeat. 

That means three pairs of underwear (one on, two in your backpack) and a spare pair of socks. Disgusting? Not if you have the right gear, of which the finest is both crease-free and quick-drying. 

If you get hold of a couple of pairs of merino wool boxer shorts or briefs – such as the Icebreaker Anatomic, Tilley Coolmax or Smartwool NTS Micro 150 – you can rinse-out a pair while you shower. 

They dry in a hotel room in about three hours. Quick-drying socks like the Kathmandu quickDRY Travel Socks and J.B. Field's Expedition Adventure Travel Socks are just as important. 

You’ve probably already cut your luggage in half, but the rest of your wardrobe needs to be just as versatile. Some zip-off trousers are handy for doubling-up as shorts (although, not the last word in style), while a quick-drying, smart-ish long sleeve travel shirt like the Columbia Mens Silver Ridge II or Craghoppers Nosilife will make you look respectable (and also protect you from mosquitos). 

Add an odour-resistant, quick-dry merino wool t-shirt like the classic Icebreaker Tech T Lite or the Royal Robbins Merinolux Tee and you're almost done. 

Lightweight swimming shorts are another possibility, and can double as sleep-shorts. Mosquito net? Don't bother. Sleeping bag? Nope – take a sheet sleeping bag like the Lifeventure EX3

Think practical, not luxury, though bear in mind that some of the best ultralight travel gear does mean a significant outlay, so resist wearing it out between trips. 

Granted, if you're headed to slightly colder climes, you will have to make a few concessions, though even a light goose-down jacket like the Rab Continuum or Marmot Quasar pack down to incredibly small sizes. 

Other extras might include an ultra-lightweight raincoat like the Patagonia Houdini or Marmot Mica Jacket that are palm-sized when packed away, or a short hiking umbrella like the Fulton Ultralite-1 compact travel umbrella. 

Five ways to think about your capsule wardrobe

  • Think practical, not luxury
  • Pack only for a few days 
  • Resist the temptation to add to your bag just before you leave home
  • Don't buy souvenirs
  • Don't wear travel clothes between trips

Now to the bathroom. Toiletries are available the world over, so just pack the absolute basics. Keep them small; Nuage Men’s Shaving Oil is better than a forearm-sized aerosol. 

When things run out, buy local. If you're staying in a hostel or AirBnb, rather than a hotel, a micro-towel like the Sea To Summit Dry Lite Towel or Lifeventure HydroFibre Quick Dry Towel are ideal. 

They may not wrap around your body, but they'll get you dry after a shower, and they tend to come in a small net bag that can be clipped onto the outside of a backpack for on-the-go drying. 

Now we need to talk about footwear, which is wear most capsule wardrobe ambitions collapse. Most people seem to take three pairs abroad – walking boots, trainers and sandals – which is at least one pair too many, especially since they're so space-hungry. 

It’s easy to combine the first two by choosing a pair of approach or trail shoes that can just as easily get you up a mountain or a run. These certainly aren't the most attractive pieces of footwear, but they're practical.

There are loads to choose from; the Salomon Out Path GTX and Columbia Peakfreak XCRSN II EXCEL are both good examples. If you're going somewhere hot and humid, consider an all-in-one hiking sandal like the Keen Clearwater CNX Sandal or the more sandal-orientated Merrell Men's All Out Blaze Sieve Convertible Sandal.

If you do insist on a second pair of footwear, allow yourself a pair of flip-flops. No dancing shoes! 

Luxury items? Oh, go on then. Take a phone. Maybe some micro noise-cancelling earphones like the Bose QuietComfort 20/20

A big portable battery is also useful; the Techlink Recharge 12000 with built-in cables is useful, as is the Xstorm Al421 Limitless, which also contains a torch. 

Always go for minimum 1000mAh, which will keep your phone going for about three days. If you insist on a camera, keep it small, and make sure it recharges via micro USB so you don't have to pack an extra charger and cables.

Now it's time to find a backpack. It's perfectly possible to get everything you need for a long trip into a 20-litre backpack, but if you pack any bag tightly it's a pain to unpack and repack. 

So either go for a 30-litre top-loading hiking backpack like the Berghaus Freeflow 30 or suitcase-style front-opening 'travel backpack' like the InCase EO

If you insist on wheels, the Thule Crossover Rolling 23 also have backpack straps. 

Make sure your backpack of choice has a mesh pocket that can double as a toiletries section, so you can avoid having to pack a washbag. 

Less really is more when it comes to travelling, and packing light really can revolutionise how you travel. Here's a reminder of the golden rules:

10 rules of travelling light

  1. Pack only one change of clothes
  2. Have all books, guidebooks, boarding passes and tickets on your phone
  3. Wash and wear: pack two spare pairs of underwear only
  4. Use stuff sacks to crush clothes
  5. Wear zip-off trousers, a quick-dry shirt and a merino wool t-shirt
  6. Pack small toiletries only, and replace locally
  7. Take a micro trek towel
  8. Get some approach/trail shoes or hiking sandals
  9. Use a portable camera that recharges via micro USB
  10. Source a 20-30 litre backpack with mesh pockets for toiletries