Backpacking in Europe: Winter Packing Guide


All budget travelers know that the cheapest (and least touristy) time to visit Europe is off-season. Unless you’re headed to a ski resort, that time is during the winter. Backpacking in Europe during the winter takes some problem-solving: how the heck do you fit your layers and sweaters in your backpack, AND still have room for everything else!?

If you are looking go backpacking in Europe during the winter, here are a few tips on how to approach packing so that you have everything you need.

DISCLAIMER: Much of the advice below are things that have worked for me. It may not always align with the best options for you. But, if you’re just trying to go explore and your main priority is to keep costs down, it may be helpful to read below! Take what you will.

Everything I packed is on me in this picture!

The Backpack

If you’re backpacking in Europe… this is kind of important. If you already have a good backpack, great! Use it. No need to buy a new one as long as it complies with the airline carry-on requirements (see #1 below). If you’re due for an upgrade or you need to get a new one, keep the following things in mind:

#1. The airline(s) bag allowances for your purchased ticket.

First, double-check the ticket you bought from the airline. If you’re doing this on a budget, you probably have a basic economy ticket with restrictions. This is expected and totally fine. Just do the research before packing.

Some (like American Airlines – which tends to be expensive but I have found awesome deals) allow you 1 carry-on and 1 personal item, allowing you to carry more with you for minimum fare. Some airlines are not so generous, allowing only a small carry-on and add fees to the size and weight. And, some airlines state their allowances but tend to be lenient at the gate (like RyanAir – my personal favorite airline in Europe… I love you).

If you want to avoid fees, go with the most strict airline you’re flying with (if multiple) and follow those guidelines. If the airline only allows a personal item with basic economy seats like RyanAir, the item should be *roughly* around 40cm x 20cm x 25cm to fit under the seat below you (which is small, but it is do-able). You can upgrade to priority economy to have a larger bag in the overhead bin.

Honestly, I’ve carried a backpack that is just slightly larger than the requirements and it wasn’t flagged by the gate. If you’re uncomfortable with the size or trying to get away with a larger bag (consequence is a fee at the gate), just upgrade to priority economy.

#2. Pockets

I won’t sit here and tell you which brand is best. I’ve heard great things about many brands. If you go to REI or Dicks, they can help you choose the absolute best, most durable options – which is immensely important. But, I am no expert (right now).

I will sit here and tell you that you need pockets. You need a pocket for your empty water bottle and for the trinkets you buy. You also need compartments for your delicates. Just like us ladies love pockets in dresses for the functionality, all travelers should love pockets in backpacks for the same reason.

…yes, there are packs out there with almost no pockets. What’s the use...!?

Stanley has the right idea.

The Packing

The most intimidating part! But, it doesn’t have to be. Follow these points for easy packing.

#1. Your Fluffly Winter Jacket is a Suitcase

Does your winter jacket have pockets? If you have a pocket on the inside, that’s key. No need to carry around a bag when you go explore. Keep your wallet and passport inside the jacket for maximum safety, and never leave it in your pack. As a woman, I try not to carry a bag with me if I’m out and about. If I’m backpacking in Europe, I’m trying to have the least amount of things on me.

If you run out of space in your pack for small things like gifts, a phone charger, etc., use your winter jacket’s spacious pockets as a place to store them!

In some parts of Europe during the winter, this is necessary.
#2. Roll Your Clothes

Oldest trick in the book – roll your clothes instead of folding them. Not only do more clothes fit in your pack, but you also have less wrinkles!

#3. Pack More Layers, Not More Sweaters

Let’s face it – you will be wearing your winter jacket over your wardrobe like 70% of the time. No one will remember what you were wearing the day before. You can reuse clothes… so, instead of packing a bunch of bulky sweaters, pack thin long-sleeve shirts and a few tank tops for insulation.

Thin clothing can be worn under the sweater, easily packed, and can keep the sweaters you do pack nice and fresh (aka less B.O.). When they’re ready for a wash, they’re easily cleaned in the sink with some soap.

Once it’s time to do a full-wardrobe wash, most hostels and many AirBnb’s have access to laundry rooms.

#3. What To Do with Shoes

You should bring 1-2 pairs of shoes (maybe shower sandals are a good idea, too). Where do you put them?

Well, you might as well wear the bulky pair… and the other pair can either fit in the pack (if there’s space) or hang from the backpack.

Yep, hang. The outside of the pack can be storage, too! I’ve used this trick countless times now. Just tie the shoelaces tightly to one of the backpack straps and you’re good to go.

#4. Toiletries

If I know that I’m arriving to my destination during the day, I wait to buy my toiletries until I get to a local store. Here’s what I always have to think of bringing:

  • Light make-up… Mascara will do.
  • Chapstick for plane ride & winter weather
  • Tampons and/or pads
  • Body wash and shampoo/conditioner… because the 3-in-1 isn’t always nice to my skin, and I use the body wash for my face & my cleaning delicates between washes
  • Contact lenses
  • Toothbrush and paste
  • Deodorant
  • Hair brush or comb
  • Medication

Now try to fit this list in your pack full of everything else. It’s too much! I have highlighted the items that I always pack, and they tend to be the small things. The rest, I buy travel-sized at the local store once I arrive in town. If you arrive late to your destination, best to try to pack more essentials. Plan ahead.

Note: Remember that your jacket is also a suitcase! Use pockets to store things you may need on hand, anyway… Chapstick, medication… Ladies – your mascara, maybe even a few feminine products just in case.

If only he rolled the clothes…
#5: The Clothes

Seriously, you don’t need much. Have you ever found that you pack an entire suitcase for some trips and use literally half of the clothes you packed? You’ll be surprised with how little you really need.

Winter clothes are harder to pack than summer because they do tend to be bulkier. BUT, if you pack mostly layer items, packing in a small bag is not impossible. You just have to wash your thin and delicate items by hand when you’re running low, which you can do in the shower and hang to dry overnight.

Here’s a quick list & count of clothes I pack when backpacking in Europe during the winter:

  • 3 medium-bulk sweaters max
  • 3 tank tops/camisoles
  • 2-3 long-sleeved shirts or thin sweater-material shirts
  • 4 types of pants/leggings
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 7 underwear
  • 3-4 bras total, sports and/or regular (or pack less if you’re comfortable going without a bra some days… I mean, you’re already wearing layers)
  • 2 scarves
  • 1 pair of gloves
  • 2 winter hats/earmuff
  • 2 pairs of shoes, 1 pair of shower sandals

Remember, if you need more of something, it’s not the end of the world. Just go buy it somewhere for cheap.


Have any more advice to prep for backpacking in Europe during the winter? What was helpful for you? Any questions? Comment below!


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Published by nicolejeanettetravels

Avid traveler, hiker, and explorer

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