How to Backpack Europe: Five Simple Tips for Traveling Safe, Light, and Affordably

How to Backpack Europe
Sean Nelson
Written by Sean Nelson

We all have dreams. Some of us want to open an animal sanctuary, some of us want to go mountain climbing in Patagonia, and some of us want to have the biggest stamp collection in the world. A lot of people, though, dream of backpacking through Europe. With new innovations in travel, gear, and communication, backpacking in a distant land is more achievable than ever – but there are still some things that can make your dream trip a nightmare.

Luckily, we’re here to help you out. In this article, we’ll prepare you to hit the road with your pack and your determination – without the major mistakes that many backpackers make. We’ll give you five tips for how to backpack Europe, from your gear to your accommodations, that will help you save time, money, and your back in all sorts of situations.

Rome Italy

So, pack your bags, buy your plane ticket, and get ready to go – let’s begin!

Travel Tip #1: Pack Light

One of the biggest mistakes that all backpackers make is overpacking. A few extra pounds may not be a problem walking around town or across your apartment, but they can cause serious problems when hiking miles over many days. This effect is even worse in trekking (or long-term backpacking), and you’ll quickly find that a few extra ounces can mean nasty blisters, worn out joints, and even long-term back problems.

If you plan to see much of Europe, you’re probably going to have all of your gear with you most of the time. You need to learn to pack smart to manage weight so that you can get the most out of your experience. The list below goes over a few of the common packing needs and some of the alternatives you can use to reduce weight.

Item: Clothing

Lightweight Idea: Minimalism is Key!

When packing clothes, it can be tempting to pack a little something for every occasion – you might meet your German soulmate at a nightclub, and you might need a formal outfit in case you run into the Queen of England! Don’t be fooled by your own imagination.

Packing Lightweight Clothing

Backpacking can bring up a lot of crazy, unique, amazing experiences – but there’s no reason you can’t experience any of them with one or two changes of clothes. Bring just the essentials: a lightweight base layer, two changes of socks and underwear, and some warm layers. Take advantage of towns and cities to do laundry, and don’t sweat if you’re sweaty – you are a backpacker, after all.

Item: Shelter

Lightweight Idea: Tarps Shelters

Tents are the tried and true backpacker shelter for most of us, and it can be hard to step out of our comfort zone. However, if you plan to travel during a relatively warm time of year, consider foregoing the tent for a lighter alternative and grabbing yourself a tarp, instead!

Tarp Shelter

Tarp shelters are light, versatile, and easy to pack, and you’ll win plenty of clout points with other hikers. They can be used outdoors in rain or shine and indoors in hostels on shared bedding. Learn a couple of shelter styles before you go, and you’ll be set for any kind of condition!

Item: Food

Lightweight Idea: Zip-bag Meals

Many backpackers make the mistake of over-packing food. If you plan on sticking close to cities and towns, consider your budget carefully to determine how much you want to carry and how much you want to buy. If you decide to carry your food, plan quick, dehydrated meals that are easy to pack.

Zip-bag meals are simple, customizable, and delicious – and you can carry enough to last weeks! There are tons of recipes for easy, delicious meals that you can pack dry and simply add water to cook. Dehydrated and freeze-dried foods cut tons of weight and retain much of their nutrition and flavor.

Zip Bag Meals

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Finally, consider shipping some meals to locations where you know you’ll be at a certain time. Post offices are often able to hold packages for weeks, so send a few boxes before you go to pick up when your resources are depleted.

Item: Camera

Lightweight Idea: Stick to the Phone

It can be tempting to bring your big, fancy DSLR with you in your pack. You’re probably going to see a lot of stuff worth taking pictures of, and of course the high-res shot would look great on your Facebook. The truth is: you don’t need it.

If you’re bringing a phone with you, stick to that for your photo needs. If you’re ditching the cell phone, consider bringing along a small, compact point-and-shoot or an even lighter disposable camera. You can mail disposable cameras to yourself in different locations to avoid stacking them up, and you’ll get the added excitement of not seeing your photos until they’re printed!

Taking Photos with Cell Phone

For the electronics, consider purchasing a solar charger. Avoid heavy, bulky portable batteries, and wall chargers that will need twenty different adapters from country to country. Small, lightweight solar panels can charge multiple devices like a phone or a camera quickly and anywhere there is sunlight – eliminating one more concern.

Item: Entertainment

Lightweight Idea: Less is More

If you’re the introverted type like this writer, it can be tempting to bring a stack of books, stationary, puzzle books, and journals with you on any backpacking trip to keep your mind occupied during those slow, sleepy nights by the fire. One thing I’ve learned is that you rarely actually use them.

Chances are, if you’re in a new country with new people and new surroundings, you’ll have plenty to do. From exploring your natural surroundings, taking touristy detours, cooking with new friends, and sharing a drink around a campfire, you’ll probably be occupied more often than not. Books and puzzles will quickly seem unnecessary.

Playing Cards

Instead, bring a small, paperback journal and a pen and a miniature deck of cards. Journaling is the perfect way to keep your memories fresh and come back to them months and years later, and you can use pages from your journal to send letters back home (your friends will forgive you if you don’t have nice paper, we promise). A small deck of cards goes a long way for personal entertainment and as a way to make friends across cultures and language barriers.

Travel Tip #2: Plan Ahead, At Least a Little

This next tip is for the more spontaneous folks among us. You know who you are – you planned to go to your friend’s cabin in Santa Rosa for the weekend and somehow or other you ended up surfing in Mexico for three weeks. Spontaneity can definitely be appealing, especially to the types of people who, say, backpack across Europe. There’s a rush that comes along with going with the flow, and it can be freeing, fun, and exciting unlike anything else.

A Touch of Spontaneity

Spontaneous excitement is part of what makes a trip like this great, and this tip is about the balance between letting go and being responsible. So, this first part is about not over-thinking it.

Don’t over-plan. Many people make the mistake of trying to cram in too many things or organizing what they want to do too tightly. Tight schedules usually underestimate the time it takes to travel and other factors like travel exhaustion and weather. Make an itinerary, but don’t plan hour-by-hour, day-by-day.

People Backpacking

Instead, block out specific dates that you want to be in certain towns, cities, or other locations. Start by dedicating chunks of time that are non-negotiable, like big festivals or national holidays, and then plan loosely around them. For instance, if you want to spend Bastille Day in Paris, plan to get there a few days before and stay a few days after. You might spend the previous week in the Swiss Alps, and the following in Northern Italy – but don’t expect to have a strict travel timetable.

Next, you never know who you are going to meet or what little treasures you are going to discover, so make sure to plan in plenty of time to explore the things you don’t know about yet, too. You might find that, while Bastille Day was great, there are lots of other things in the Alps you want to go back to instead of going to Italy. Allow yourself to be flexible.

A Little More Organization

While having a loose plan is important, you want to make sure you have enough knowledge to stay safe and travel smart. Before you leave for your trip, make sure that you have an idea of what regions and countries you want to visit. Europe is a small continent, but the differences between Italy and Sweden, Turkey and Ireland are pretty significant geographically and culturally. Do some research on the locations you want to visit, including accommodations, culture, and weather.

Colosseum in Rome

You might consider making reservations at hostels, campsites, or other accommodations in your desired locations. Even if you have to cancel, it’s usually better to have a plan in place than to end up with no safety net. If you have specific plans on specific dates, don’t assume you’ll be able to find a place to stay (for instance, during big holidays hostel and hotel slots fill up fast). Additionally, weather can be a big concern. While May in Malta may be balmy and wonderful, it can be cold and snowy in Finland. Prepare for these kinds of changes accordingly.

Cultural considerations are important to plan for, too. For instance, in regions with a dominant religious culture, you might want to plan to have modest clothing so that you can enter restaurants, public housing, and historical attractions without disrespecting others. In places where drinking is a norm, prepare to find safe routes home and learn your alcohol limits – especially if you’re traveling alone. And finally, while many European countries have many English-speaking natives, consider picking up some phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting so that you can better get along with the locals.

Safety First

Finally, smart travelers should always keep a few safety tips in mind. Keep some spare money in a savings account or in travelers checks that you keep with you all the time for emergencies. Don’t spend your emergency fund on anything except real emergencies like not having anywhere safe to stay, getting sick, or needing to get away from an unsafe situation (needing a shower or a cool pair of shoes doesn’t count).

Colosseum in Rome

Always tell someone you trust where you are – try to check in with home every couple of days with an updated itinerary and your predicted locations, as well as when you plan to check in next.

Travel Tip #3: Learn the Laws

While much of Europe is open space, there are a lot of towns, cities, and rural townships that are populated with plenty of people. These places can be just as amazing to visit as the natural areas, and offer incredible cultural and historical experiences. However, backpackers need to be prepared to cope with different accommodations and laws in different places.

When traveling in public lands, be sure to know camping and backpacking laws before you set up for the night. In many places, it’s perfectly legal to camp anywhere, while in others, it’s much more restricted. For instance, in Iceland, you can camp on all public lands, and often private land if you just ask! In much of Italy, on the other hand, you might end up in an Italian jail for the night for loitering in important historical or religious locations.

Camping in Iceland

Make sure to protect yourself from trouble, keep yourself safe, and practice ethical traveling by learning not only the laws, but cultural norms before you go to a new location. If you plan to visit religious sites, be respectful of requests like clothing requirements; if you attend festivals or cultural events, find a local guide to help you navigate.

Travel Tip #4: Find Alternative Accommodations

When we think of backpacking, we usually think of strapping on a pack, getting on the trail, and camping amongst the trees, bugs, and stars. In Europe, however, a lot of people opt for different experiences. From hostels to farm shares, there are a ton of different ways to stay.

When you start to plan your trip, think about what kind of places you want to stay. Camping every night can be a great experience, but hostels can provide friendships that span continents and a more local experience of the locations you go to. Motels and hotels every now and then can be expensive, but they can offer a much-needed shower and clean bed.

Hostel in London

Other, alternative types of accommodations can also be exciting ways to experience Europe. Farmstays and woofing are two great ways to experience rural areas, especially farms and ranches. Many farmstays function like bed and breakfasts, while woofing experiences put you to work – but both are a perfect way to immerse yourself in rural European culture.

Religious stays are popular in much of Europe as well. Spain, Italy, Turkey, as well as many other countries offer temporary housing in temples in monasteries for those who wish to have a more spiritual experience or study a particular faith. These visits can be incredible for those who are religious as well as those who are not.

Monastery in Spain

Finally, home sharing opportunities abound. Couch surfing networks offer a way to find free, temporary housing ranging from full bedrooms to a couch in the living room – but they also offer a great way to meet locals and learn about the less-touristy attractions in the areas you visit. Make sure to find home sharing through safe websites or through friends.

Travel Tip #5: Enjoy Yourself!

Our final tip is perhaps the most important. It’s really easy to get stressed out planning a big trip, and it’s even easier to get stressed out when you’re on that trip. Backpacking offers a ton of unique, amazing, and spontaneous opportunities that can be exciting, life-changing, and, of course, nerve-wracking – but don’t be afraid to have fun!

Enjoy Yourself

Enjoying yourself is the most important thing to remember when you’re trying to learn how to backpack through Europe. This experience will be difficult, sweaty, tiring, and probably have at least a few tears, but it will also be a blast, so you need to let yourself have fun. Take some chances, see some things you’ve never seen before, and make memories that will last a lifetime!

Putting it Together

You want to backpack across Europe – and you want to do it safe, cheap, and in style. We’ve just given you our five most important tips for getting the most out of your trip. From packing your essentials effectively to planning safely, and from finding your perfect place to stay to having a ton of fun – you’re ready to get going!

Have you ever backpacked in Europe? What are your favorite memories? Let us know in the comments!


Sean Nelson

Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.