How to Backpack in Europe

By Meg Jernigan

Trekking across Europe with your knapsack on your back

How to Backpack in Europe

Backpacking is a budget-friendly way to explore Europe, but it also satisfies the need to feel unbound by conventional travel wisdom. Whether you’ve quit your job to spend months abroad or have a beginning and end date for your adventure, a few basic preparations will ensure a fancy-free journey.

Before you leave for your European backpacking trip

Before leaving home, stop by your bank to investigate how their exchange rates compare to the rates in Europe. Exchange some dollars for the currency of your arrival country so you have money to use for incidentals. Ask if there will be additional charges for using an ATM card.

Let credit card companies know you’ll be abroad so they don’t suspect illegal activity and freeze accounts when you use them.

Ask your cellphone carrier if your data plan will work overseas. Make any necessary changes, or look into a prepaid phone.

Plan your route unless you intend to wing it, backpacking here and there. Make a list of the things you want to see, in order of importance. Take accommodations and transportation options into account when drawing out your route. Prepare to be flexible upon arrival in case you discover a sight you didn’t know about, or decide to stay an extra day in a city. If you’re clueless about where to go, check travel websites like Fodor’s that offer suggested itineraries.

Make copies of your passport, valid ID like a driver’s license and credit cards. Store them online where you can access them, but others can’t.

The right backpack and what to put in it

The fit, durability and size of your backpack are critical considerations for a successful backpacking trip. If you’ll be spending most of your time hiking, choose a backpack made of lightweight material that weighs less than a few pounds empty with padded straps and a padded hip belt. Look for high-quality zippers and convenient outside pockets.

Backpack size is measured in liters. Avoid an expedition-size backpack (70 liters or more) unless you plan to pack camping gear. The temptation to over-pack will be strong, and you’ll have to check it on most airlines, rather than use it as carry-on luggage. A better choice is a pack in the 35 to 45 liter range that fits in most overhead luggage bins and leaves enough room for the basics.

Pack basic toiletries, five or six outfits to mix and match, underwear and socks. Don't forget at least one pair of long pants and one long-sleeved shirt. Choose clothing made from wrinkle-free fabrics. Add a hat that can be worn to shade your face from the sun and protect your head in the rain. Check the weather in the countries you’re visiting, and pack a sweater or coat if needed.

Make room for a padlock so you can secure your backpack to something sturdy when spending the night on a train or bus, or in a hostel. Pack a couple of smaller locks to secure backpack zipper tabs.

Accommodations options for European backpacking

In Europe, pitching a tent or simply snuggling into a sleeping bag for the night in a field or forest is called "wild camping." While the practice is widespread, some countries prohibit it. Ask landowners for permission to set up camp, and tidy up before you leave. Remember that you’ll need to carry a tent, sleeping bag or camping hammock in your backpack.

Hostels are widespread in Europe. Travelers share accommodations in dorm-style rooms and common areas. Unlike wild camping, staying in a hostel includes access to bathrooms and showers and the chance to cook meals in a full kitchen.

You can live like a local when you couch surf. Homeowners across the continent list their spare spaces to accommodate travelers looking for an economical place to stay – from sofas in the living room to private bedrooms.

If you need to travel a long distance between countries, consider taking a night train. Sleeping in your seat is the most budget-friendly option, but you can also reserve a couchette, or sleeping bunk; a shared compartment; or, if you’re willing to splurge, a private compartment.

Necessary paperwork for a European backpacking trip

If you’ve never had a passport, or need to renew yours, start the application process at least a month in advance of departure. Passports can take six weeks to process, so err on the side of caution. Expedited passport processing takes from eight days to three weeks, depending on the option chosen. In a real pinch, private companies will provide a passport in a number of days for a steep fee. European Union countries don’t require visas from American travelers, but if you think you might visit a non-EU country, check ahead of time to see if you need one.

One of the joys of backpacking is not worrying about car rentals, but if there’s any chance you’ll need one, be aware that many European countries recognize American drivers’ licenses. The ones that don’t require an International Driving Permit, which you can get from AAA or the National Auto Club.

About the Author

Meg Jernigan has been writing for more than 30 years. She specializes in travel, cooking and interior decorating. Her offline credits include copy editing full-length books and creating marketing copy for nonprofit organizations. Jernigan attended George Washington University, majoring in speech and drama.