By Brenna Holeman
“Are you sure you don’t want any of this stuff?” The German girls looked at me inquisitively. I had just handed over more than half of my backpack to them in our shared hostel room in Budapest.
“No,” I said. “Take it all.”
That was in 2006, on my first big backpacking adventure around Europe. I had just graduated university in Canada, and in planning for my trip abroad I consulted countless guidebooks. There were very few websites on packing at the time, and I certainly could have used the help from a site like this one.
Overwhelmed by generic and non-gender-specific packing lists and underwhelmed by the choices of hiking boots, I filled my bag with all the wrong things. I packed for a very outdoorsy, adventure-filled holiday, even though I sensed my time in Europe would be spent mostly in cathedrals and cafés. Worse than that, I packed clothes I didn’t feel very good in: unflattering pants, drab t-shirts, and only one skirt. As someone who wears skirts or dresses 364 days of the year, I didn’t pack effectively at all. In fact, I packed for somebody else, some vision of a backpacker I had in my mind. I went to the nearest store with a travel section and grabbed things to check off my list, without stopping to think if I actually wanted to wear them or if they fit me very well.
When I got on the plane to Amsterdam, I wasn’t myself. I had taken the backpacker image to the extreme, imagining I had to have a different style. I felt frumpy and uncomfortable. That summer, I predictably ended up ditching the clothes I hated and purchasing a new wardrobe in Prague. I bought practical travel clothes, but clothes I also felt confident in, clothes that suited my personality as well as my traveling lifestyle. I even gave away the expensive hiking boots I had brought with me, trading them in for comfortable runners more suitable for city sightseeing. As a bonus, my backpack was lighter and I had more room for souvenirs. Feeling more confident, I’m sure I also blended in to the local culture better.
In the past few years, on backpacking trips through Asia and South America, I took my time to plan the perfect wardrobe. I researched thoroughly, and packed for the kinds of trips I was taking. I still rarely wear pants or jeans, so I adapted my backpack to include harem pants and leggings; I layer the leggings under shorts while hiking, or under maxi skirts for warmth.
As I wear mostly skirts and dresses at home, I pack accordingly, always including a few of each in varying lengths. I also purchase scarves or cheap jewelry when I get a bit bored of my wardrobe, as it’s amazing how these little things can jazz up an outfit. Nobody should have to change their style when they travel, but it’s all about adapting in order to create a wardrobe that’s both functional and fun. And as all travelers know, the ability to adapt is crucial.
The biggest mistake I made in packing for that trip in 2006 was not packing for myself. Through my own mistakes and through reading sites like this one, I learned that the key to packing successfully is to bring the necessities, but to make sure the necessities fit my style. I want the clothes to be practical, of course, but I also want to feel confident and comfortable. Now, when packing, I always make sure to bring things that I would wear whether or not I was travelling. It may seem obvious, but it took a few months of feeling very insecure in my travel clothes to figure that out.
About the Author: Brenna Holeman has been travelling solo for over seven years, visiting all of the continents but one (guess which one?). She is moving to London in the autumn to start a Master’s degree in Creative Non-Fiction Writing. She loves red wine, scuba diving, and window seats. Follow her on her blog, This Battered Suitcase, or on Facebook or Twitter.