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Living Out of a Backpack for a Year: The Ultimate Solo Female RTW Packing List

Every new traveler thinks they’ve cracked the code to the perfect backpack. I was no exception, but over the course of my RTW trip, I came to realize that living out of a backpack for a year is more a process than a single, simple formula. Packing for a RTW trip is so different to packing for a vacation! Depending on where you go you may need clothing for multiple climates, and no matter your destination, you’ll have ongoing needs to take into account. No one can fit a whole year’s worth of shampoo into one case! Packing needs shift and change constantly when you’re traveling for longer than a couple weeks, but everyone needs a place to start. This solo female RTW packing list is your launching pad — more than a simple checklist, I’ll walk you through how packing for a RTW trip works, why certain items make the list and others don’t, and how often you need to plan to restock during your travels. And as a bonus: it all fits in a carry-on!

How to Make a RTW Packing List

Every trip is different, so there may be things on my perfect packing list that you won’t need. Maybe you can get by with even fewer clothes than I did, in which case, I commend you! Likewise, there may be some gear you want to pack that is not on my packing list. For instance, I chose to save space by renting a sleeping bag for my two multi-day treks (the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal and the Inca Trail in Peru). If you plan to camp for a larger portion of your trip, you may prefer to pack your own tent, sleeping bag and other camping gear. I can’t pretend to be all things to all people. But what this list can do is provide all the basics for a solo female RTW trip. It takes into account travel through multiple climates and through multiple cultures. You could dress conservatively for a temple visit in Southeast Asia, stay comfortable on a long hike, or look less like a dirty backpacker for a nice dinner out in Paris. You’ll also have all the basic toiletries and go-to gear that make living out of a backpack for a year a possibility. And it will all fit in a standard size carry-on. Feel free to use this list as a jumping off point and adjust it to your needs. Whatever packing list you wind up with, however, make sure you do a test run before it’s time to leave! In preparing for my RTW trip, I did two test runs, one about six months in advance and another about two months in advance. Test runs help ensure everything fits properly, teach you hands-on how your pack will be organized, and can reveal any gaps in what you have. I had a lot of trouble paring down my original packing list until I got in the middle of a test run and saw that everything wouldn’t fit — suddenly it became obvious what I didn’t really need!

How to Choose a RTW Backpack

Honestly, I barely looked farther than the Osprey Farpoint 40L when I was shopping for a RTW backpack. It’s carry-on size for pretty much all major airlines, and they make a small version perfect for petite girls like me. But if you’re interested in comparing models, there are a few features that I consider essential for a good RTW backpack. Padding is number one. Get padding everywhere you possibly can – the straps, the back, the hip belt. I also think a front-loading backpack is a must. This is one of the biggest differences between a RTW backpack and a hiking backpack. If your trip is predominately trekking and camping, a traditional top-loading backpack might serve you well. But if you’re hopping from city to city on a RTW trip, you likely won’t be hiking during the day and setting up a campsite at night. You’ll need easier access to your stuff, so front-loading panels are essential. Finally, the more internal organization you can find, the better. As you’ll see below, I’m not a big fan of packing cubes, but built-in organization like mesh pockets and zippered pouches are definitely my cup of tea.

These were all items in my backpack about halfway through my RTW trip.
The exact items you’ll pack when you’re living out of a backpack for a long period will change over time.

Ways to Organize Your Backpack

Many people swear by packing cubes. Personally, I don’t use them. I think they work inside suitcases, but their large rectangular shapes are too bulky to fit neatly within a 40 liter backpack. Instead I use a combination of smaller bags. Two compression sacks help me cut down the bulk of my clothing. I generally divide my clothes to have cold weather items in one sack and warm weather items in another. One of my compression sacks is also a dry sack – useful for holding stuff during water sports or even doing laundry in a pinch. If I were to buy compression sacks again, I’d make them both dry sacks. A small basic camera case holds all my camera gear, while the rest of my technology uses the built-in organization of my backpack’s front pockets. If you plan on working on the road, definitely get a backpack with a padded laptop sleeve, and a day bag large enough that you can keep your computer on your person during long bus and train rides. While I don’t use a full set of packing cubes, I do use a small one to gather together all the little miscellaneous odds and ends that I don’t want to have scuttling around loose inside my backpack. I also use a couple small pouches I already had on hand to keep a few basic makeup and toiletry items together, and all my medical and first aid supplies in one place. I, of course, also have a quart-size Ziploc bag for liquids while flying. (You’ll see below, though, that I substitute as many solids for liquids as possible. For example, I travel with bar soap instead of gel body wash.) Finally, I carry a couple extra bags that aren’t always in use. My Envirosax tote folds up to nothing while I’m in transit, but in my destination it’s a great bag for picking up groceries or heading to the beach. I also carry a nylon sack for keeping dirty laundry separate from clean clothes. Being able to condense everything down to my single carry-on backpack is great, but it’s also important to have the option to spread out when you need to.

Living out of a backpack as a solo female traveler is no piece of cake.
Living out of a backpack as a solo female traveler can be intimidating. All the more reason to learn the art of light packing and stick to a carry-on size. It means having less baggage to keep track of and handle by yourself!

The Ultimate Solo Female RTW Packing List

Disclaimer: This list contains affiliate links. While there is no extra cost to you, I may earn a small commission. All opinions are my own – I only link to products I personally use and LOVE!

The Bag: Osprey Farpoint 40L Backpack

Day Bag: TravelOn Medium Crossbody Anti-Theft Bag

I love love love this day bag. Because I travel predominately in cities, I felt really strongly about finding a day bag that wasn’t a backpack. With a backpack, you have one of two choices: wear it on your back and be more vulnerable to pickpockets, or clutch it to your front like a frightened turtle. Neither option appealed to me. Instead, I found this awesome crossbody bag. It is so much less conspicuous than a backpack and it has a bunch of special anti-theft measures built in. A mesh lining and reinforced cable strap protect against your bag being slashed open on the street. There is also an RFID lining, and a small carabiner you can use to secure zippers. You’ll see I don’t include a money belt on my list. Honestly, being vigilant and carrying a crossbody bag with my hand over the zipper did just fine.  

Organization:

  • Packing cubes I only use the smallest of this set to hold loose odds and ends. The set also includes a nylon sack which I use for dirty laundry.
  • Sea to Summit compression sacks I use one for cold weather clothes and one for warm.
  • Envirosax packable tote
  • small camera case
  • 2 small toiletry bags I use one for makeup and toiletries, and the other for medical and first aid supplies.
  • quart size Ziploc bag
  • 2 RFID blocking wallets This larger RFID blocking wallet is what I use on an everyday basis, but I also carry a smaller wallet with some small bills, coins and expired credit cards to use as a decoy in case of mugging. Fortunately, I’ve never needed to use it! While we’re on the subject of money, keep an eye on the expiration date of any credit cards you’ll be traveling with and have a plan for getting your replacement card on the road. 
  • document pouch This is very handy for keeping boarding passes, visas and other paperwork in order for travel days.

Clothes and Shoes:

  • 2 tank tops One is black and one is light blue. Sticking to a limited color palette ensures you can mix and match all your clothes, making it easy to fit a year’s worth of clothing into one backpack. I actually had over 200 possible combinations in my carry-on!
  • 2 t-shirts I did replace one of my t-shirts once about halfway through my trip. Make sure you factor replacing lost or worn out clothing into your RTW budget.
  • 2 long sleeve t-shirts I started my trip with just one, but purchased a second in London. I had not planned to visit the UK in October, so I needed some more warm and presentable clothing options. 
  • 1 chunky sweater This was a short-lived addition to my backpack. I bought it at the same time as my second long sleeve tee, again for some nicer looking cold weather clothes. I used it for about two months and when my boyfriend came to visit me during my trip, sent it home with him so I wouldn’t have to lug it around Southeast Asia. Shipping things home, or sending them back with visiting friends and family, is a great way to maximize your packing space. Just make sure you plan to use up bulky or heavy items early in your itinerary.
  • 1 cardigan
  • 1 pair dark wash skinny jeans This is a huge debate on every RTW packing list. Jeans: to pack or not to pack? Some people choose to leave their jeans at home because they are bulky, heavy and take a long time to line dry. If you’re traveling in Western countries, however, you’ll get enough wear out of your jeans to make them worth the extra weight. And as for any laundry inconvenience, part of the appeal of jeans is that they do not need to be washed frequently. I do, however, recommend that solo female travelers take a close look at the actual fabric makeup of their jeans. I left with a well broken in pair of stretch denim, and within four months, they were too worn out for me to continue wearing. I wound up replacing them in London.

  • 1 pair convertible hiking pants I know, they won’t be the prettiest thing in your pack, but if you plan on doing anything athletic on your trip, these will be worth it. My pair by Prana not only zip off into shorts, but also have roll-up tabs for capris. It’s like three pairs of pants in one, which really maximizes my outfit options.
  • 1 pair shorts
  • 2 pairs leggings I started out with just one pair of capri leggings, but when my boyfriend came to visit me in Nepal, I asked him to bring an extra pair of basic black leggings. They became indispensable for layering, both in cool climates and conservative settings.
  • 1 pair elephant pants Yes, I bought a pair of elephant pants. I even bought a pair of elephant pants on Khao San Road in Bangkok. I’m not sorry. They’re conservative but lightweight, insanely comfortable, and the elastic at the ankles keeps mosquitoes from creeping up your legs. There’s a reason they’ve become the quintessential garment of backpacking in Southeast Asia. I typically used mine as pajamas or for very long bus rides. Give yourself a little wiggle room in your pack and in your budget for souvenir clothing.
  • 1 maxi skirt Conservative and lightweight, this is the perfect thing to wear to temples in Southeast Asia.
  • 3 sundresses I love dresses. I originally left with two and picked up a third in Asia. They take up next to no space and help me feel like less of a dirty backpacker. My favorite is a dress by Prana, which has moisture wicking fabric and a built-in sports bra, to say nothing of the pretty pattern.

  • 1 long sleeve dress I mostly travel in warm climates, but I do occasionally go someplace colder. For nights out in Iceland, France or Japan, this long sleeve wool dress by Prana was my go to.
  • fleece jacket
  • 1 rain jacket While I don’t travel anywhere very cold, light layers plus a fleece and this waterproof shell kept me comfortable in Iceland, Nepal and Japan.
  • 2 swimsuits One is a basic bikini, but I get more use out of a more conservative, athletic tankini top and swim skort. In a real pinch, I can even wear the tankini top as a regular shirt.
  • 5 pairs underwear ExOfficio underwear is a must-have item. They’re quick-drying so you only need a few pairs you can wash out in the sink as needed.
  • 2 pairs Thinx I save space and produce less waste by wearing these specialty period panties when it’s my time of the month. Many women swear by a menstrual cup and I definitely plan to try one in the future. But traveling with these on hand also meant having an extra pair of underwear around on laundry day.
  • 2 bras
  • 1 sports bra
  • 1 pair gloves Because I don’t travel in very cold climates, a pair of thin silk glove liners are enough for me.
  • 1 fleece headband I was surprised by just how warm this thin microfleece headband is! Using this instead of a bulkier winter hat saves space.
  • 1 pair sunglasses I started out with a pair of folding sunglasses, but all those joints make for extra weak spots. They snapped in half within a couple months. Stick to your regular everyday sunglasses!
  • sarong Scarf, blanket, towel, swimsuit cover-up, bindle… A good sarong is indispensable on a RTW trip. Get the largest, quickest drying one you can find.
  • 5 pairs socks I carry a mixture of hiking socks (Smartwool is my favorite brand), regular socks and compression socks for long flights.

  • 1 pair hiking sneakers These are the perfect middle road between walking shoes and heavy duty hiking books. My pair from Columbia have held up for several years. Because these are still my bulkiest shoes though, I wear them any time I’m in transit. They never actually go inside my backpack.
  • 1 pair folding flats I wear and love Tieks. They have thick soles so are comfortable to walk in, they look nice and don’t give me away as a dirty backpacker when I go out to dinner in Europe, and they fold up so they take less space in my pack. Plus they can handle a beating – I am not kind to my shoes! Tieks are an investment for sure, but they are totally worth it.
  • 1 pair sandals I am personally quite picky about sandals. I dislike how they look and feel on me. But I love this pair from Crocs. I love them so much that when the strap of one broke during my trip, I waited months until I could find an exact replacement. 

When you're living out of a backpack, you need to budget for restocking toiletries. No need to worry about packing enough for a full year!
Many of these toiletries did make my final packing list, but a test run helped me downsize a bit. I wound up swapping my electric razor for disposables, finding a smaller makeup palette, and using a comb instead of a full-size hairbrush.

Toiletries:

  • contacts (with case) Because this is a prescription item, I left with a full year’s stock.
  • glasses (with case)
  • saline solution A travel size bottle of contact solution will last about two to three months.
  • solid shampoo (with case) Solid shampoo from Lush is a godsend! No need to worry about a liquid allowance and you only need to restock once or twice a year.
  • dry shampoo Batiste makes the cutest little travel size cans of dry shampoo, which are really handy for long-haul travel days.
  • bar soap (with case) Plan to restock bar soap once every three months.

  • quick dry towel Invest in a special pack towel, like this one from Sea to Summit. I traveled with a small one, which was absorbent enough to dry off, but not large enough to wear. If you’re attached to wrapping a towel around you, rather than toweling off and getting dressed in the bathroom, you might opt for a large.
  • sunscreen You can get sunscreen wipes to save space in your liquid allowance on flights, or Neutrogena makes a nice sunscreen stick. If you’re using liquid sunscreen, plan to restock every three months.
  • cucumber face wipes These make any long-haul flight worth it! They’re super refreshing and you can deplane feeling like a rock star. My favorite brand (Yes to) also makes wipes in coconut and grapefruit scents.
  • mini makeup palette The all-in-one palette by e.l.f. fits in the palm of my hand and includes eyeshadow, blush, lip color, a small tube of mascara, and brushes, as well as a compact mirror on the cover. I think the quality of the makeup in the Naked on the Go palette is nicer, but the e.l.f is so much more compact.

  • toothbrush (with cover) Toothbrushes are easy and inexpensive to replace every six months. Make sure you get a cover to protect the bristles. It takes up less space than a full toothbrush case.
  • dental floss
  • toothpaste Fun fact: a full tube of toothpaste is still just 100 milliliters. If you can manage to squeeze it into your quart-size Ziploc bag, you don’t need to worry about replacing travel size tubes. Travel size tubes of toothpaste last a month or two tops. A full size tube can last almost six months.
  • tissue packet You may also want to leave some room in your pack for a roll of toilet paper, which can be hard to come by in public restrooms in Asia.
  • cotton swabs Depending on how many Q-tips you leave home with and how often you use them, you may need to replace your stock once or twice during the year.
  • hair clip and/or ties
  • comb You may prefer to pack a full or travel-size hairbrush, but a small bamboo comb is enough for my personal hair maintenance. If you’re a curly haired traveler, Wanderlustingk has an excellent round-up of curly hair care tips.

Living out of a backpack for a year requires a lot of technology, especially if you're going to work on the road.
At first I planned to take a full laptop with me, but the bulk and weight just weren’t worth it. Instead I got a transformer book – the midpoint between a tablet and a laptop.

Technology:

  • camera My camera is a Fujifilm FinePix S4300. Not as bulky or expensive as a full DSLR, this bridge model still has manual settings to make it more powerful than your basic point-and-shoot. It’s an excellent camera to learn photography on.
  • extra memory card I travel with two memory cards and switch them out regularly. That way if one gets lost or damaged, I don’t lose all of my photos with it.
  • SD card adapter My little netbook doesn’t have a full SD card slot. This adapter lets me upload photos through the USB port.

  • computer If you’re going to work on the road, a computer is  a must.  Most digital nomads swear by their MacBooks. I took a different path. The ASUS T100 Chi is pint-sized but more powerful than your average tablet, and at just over $200, if it gets broken, lost or stolen on the road, it’s not the end of my world. Cons are it doesn’t have much in the way of storage space, but I get around this by carrying a few flash drives and regularly moving files to cloud storage. At home I recently upgraded to the ASUS ZenBook, but for a year-long career break, I personally think a less expensive machine is worth it given the risks of the road.
  • earbuds Get a pair with a mic to make Skype calls from busy cafes and hostels easier.
  • smartphone Ask any long-term traveler their number one must-have travel essential and they will probably tell you it’s their smartphone. I rely pretty heavily on my Samsung Galaxy S6. (Download this free e-book to see what apps I installed for my RTW trip.)  And if you’re worried about the camera quality, you don’t need to be. All the photos on my Instagram were taken on my smartphone.
  • waterproof phone pouch
  • USB charging cables My USB charger works for both my phone and my computer, but travel puts a lot of wear and tear on charging cords. Make sure you always travel with a backup cord or two, and plan to replace the cord every three months.

  • external battery Long-haul travel days are not kind to my smartphone battery, so having an external power source is a must. This battery from Anker is about the size of a tube of lipstick and can give my phone an extra full charge.
  • travel adapter kit You may encounter a few outliers, but most countries in the world will be covered by a solid universal travel adapter, with North American, British and European style plug converters.
  • mini surge suppressor Protect your electronics or use it as a splitter, turning one outlet into three.
  • rechargeable AA batteries Better for the environment and a space saver, rechargeable batteries are worth the higher upfront cost. 
  • battery charger

White Temple | Chiang Rai Thailand | Southeast Asia Itinerary

First Aid:

  • mini pill case
  • Advil
  • Sudafed
  • Pepto Bismol tablets They might taste like chalk, but they’ll cover pretty much any low-key digestive complaint without having to carry liquid Pepto.
  • cough drops
  • vitamins I keep vitamin C and zinc on hand when I can to help nip colds in the bud.
  • birth control Because this is a prescription item, I carried a full year’s stock with me.
  • malaria pills Consult a doctor before deciding what kind of malaria pills you might need, if any. The most common types are doxycycline and malarone. If you’re concerned about side effects, ask your doctor to prescribe a small trial run to be completed before your departure. I tested malarone for about a week and found that the only real side effect for me was fatigue, but every body is different.
  • azythromycin My doctor prescribed me this as an all-purpose antibiotic. If you travel long enough, you will have traveler’s diarrhea at some point. Most cases clear up on their own within 24 hours, but if they don’t it’s good to have an antibiotic on hand.
  • altitude sickness pills There are a lot of ways to treat altitude sickness. In fact, I never actually needed to take the pills I packed, opting for more holistic local remedies like garlic soup in Nepal and coca tea in Peru. Like the azythromycin, these are here as backup.
  • Band-Aids
  • Neosporin
  • moleskin

Miscellaneous:

  • Cocoon silk sleep sheet Just in case you wind up stuck in a hostel with questionable linens, it’s nice to have a sleep sheet. (To that end I also carry a pillowcase from home.) This also works as a sleeping bag liner and can add a little warmth.
  • eye mask with ear plugs
  • inflatable pillow
  • laundry detergent I think it’s worth carrying two kinds of laundry soap. These travel soap sheets dissolve for quick washing in the sink. But nothing can truly replace a good machine wash. I always take advantage of a laundry room in the hostel when it’s available, but they rarely have soap, so I started carrying a little ziploc bag with some laundry powder.
  • sink stopper
  • paracord You can get specialty travel clotheslines, but simple paracord works just as well for drying clothes and is more versatile. 
  • SteriPen This is easily one of my top three travel items period. Several of the countries I visited on my RTW trip did not have potable water, and being able to sterilize tap water myself in a reusable bottle saved lots of money and plastic over constantly buying bottled water.
  • headlamp
  • carabiner
  • mini LED flashlight
  • whistle with compass and thermometer

  • TSA-approved multi-tool Be careful with this. Even though it is marketed as TSA-approved, airport security is always at the discretion of the individual security agent. My multi-tool was confiscated in Bali even though it did not have a knife. (The same agent in Bali also tried to confiscate tweezers from a woman in front of me.)
  • mini Sharpie
  • duct tape A full roll might be too bulky, but you can still make sure you have duct tape in your pack for emergencies. Wrap a few feet around a flat piece of cardboard to save space.
  • super glue
  • rubber door stop If you’re a solo female traveler, you need this in your pack! Putting a rubber door stop under a door with a faulty or nonexistent lock will give you major peace of mind.
  • collapsible spork

  • notepads and pens To save space, instead of a full sized journal, I stick to mini Moleskine notepads. These mostly serve to help me keep track of expenses during the day, while I diary on my computer.
  • collapsible water bottle I actually carry two – a one-liter for everyday use and a two-liter for days when I might need to go long stretches without refilling and sterilizing water. I love that they fold down flat when not in use.
  • rain cover Protect your pack from inclement weather and make would-be thieves have to deal with yet another step to getting to your stuff.
  • TSA-approved travel lock It might not stop a determined thief, but it will sure deter an opportunistic one. Not all hostels have lockers large enough to hold a full backpack, so having a lock on your pack is – pardon the pun – key.

Tips for Living Out of a Backpack

This packing list will get you started on a RTW trip, but remember it’s just a starting place. To successfully live out of a backpack for a year, you’ll need to be flexible and adaptable. Leave room in your budget for restocking toiletries and replacing items that get lost, broken, stolen or just plain worn out. Be kind to yourself and know that you’ll forget some stuff. Be ready to let go of the things you aren’t really using. And make sure you slow down at a few points during your trip. Not only is slow travel healthier, safer and more fun, having one address for a while will make it easy for friends and family to send packages with items you left at home or can’t restock properly on the road.

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20 Comments

  1. Wow, that’s super comprehensive! I’m always on the lookout for helpful packing tips, given that I take a heck lot of a time to pack (and unpack/repack/pack differently and so on) my travel bags. Does that medicine kit have an anti-allergen? It saved me this one time when I got a bad itching breakout thanks to some bug or whatever it was on my bed.

    1. Thanks Ami. I’m definitely an obsessive packer myself, especially now that I’m trying to prepare for a year’s worth of travel in one carry-on bag. I did not think of adding an anti-histamine or itch cream, as I rarely if ever need that kind of treatment at home, but I will definitely give it a second thought!

  2. I absolutely hate packing! This post is as good as I’m going to get to someone actually packing my bag for me – so so helpful! You have literally covered every detail, I will definitely reccommend it to other backpackers 🙂

  3. This is such a comprehensive and helpful packing list! There are many things that I never would have thought of (like carrying laundry detergent- so simple!). You made me realize I’m definitely not using my Osprey pack to its full potential!

    1. Thanks Janine. You’re right – there are so many little things you need for long term travel that you just never think of when you’re used to vacations. Packing for a weekend trip is actually harder for me now – I keep thinking I’m forgetting something!

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