gear for europe
November 28, 2005 8:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm backpacking through Western Europe for six weeks during January/February. What travel gear is a "must have" for this excursion? [More details inside]

- I'm "backpack shopping"... so any suggestions for a good bag are much appreciated.

- I will be bring my laptop in order to run my business while I'm away. Any suggestions on electronic plugs I need to buy?

- Any suggestions for shoes I should buy to walk around in? I'm not planning on doing much "back woods hiking"... mainly urban sightseeing.
posted by bamassippi to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Electricity Around The World: Plugs and Sockets

You'll get along just fine using only a Type C (the two round pins) adapter as long as you stay out of Great Britain and Ireland. Type C adapters work fine in the Type E adaptors used in central Europe, too.
posted by cmonkey at 8:40 AM on November 28, 2005

Err, Type E sockets, I do mean.
posted by cmonkey at 8:40 AM on November 28, 2005

I recommend trying to get either a used backpack or a new one that looks drab. This will make your gear less attractive to thieves.

A few packing tips I've found extremely helpful for backpacking:
  • If you're staying in hostels, buy a pair of earplugs that are connected by a wire and put them somewhere easily accessible, such as a jacket pocket. 4 out of every 3 backpackers snore.
  • A squeeze led flashlight on a key chain will help you find what your looking for in your pack without turning on the lights (important for hostels and trains).
  • When in a strange city I feel conspicuous anytime I have my map out. A small compass will dramatically cut down the time you spend trying to orient the map.
For shoes, I think you can go with either sneakers or light-weight hiking boots. The most important thing is that they're well broken-in.
posted by justkevin at 8:51 AM on November 28, 2005

The well broken in shoes are critical because some shoes just never get comfortable, or they're fine for three hours, but not 8/10/16 hours of walking and standing, and vacation is not a good time to discover that you need a different pair of shoes. So wear them a lot before your trip, but don't wear them out.

The bonus of wearing your shoes before your trip goes in tandem with the used/dingy bag, makes you less of a target for theft because nothing looks ridiculously new.
posted by bilabial at 9:00 AM on November 28, 2005

Keep in mind you'll be spending a lot more time wandering around looking for things (walking to the train station, walking to a hostel, looking for a hostel, etc) and if your bag is heavy you'll regret it very quickly. Set yourself a limit--I'm a 130lb woman, & I never travel with a bag heaver than 30lbs because it makes me feel like shit at the end of the day.

Otherwise, bring: a small, lightweight satchel for carrying things during the day, and a wool turtleneck & thermal underwear for layering. I'm sure I can think of other things given a bit more time, but remember that indulging a gadget obsession on a backpacking trip--especially a first backpacking trip--is probably a bad idea. Pack for two weeks, then get rid of half the stuff you've included before you even leave your house.
posted by soviet sleepover at 9:20 AM on November 28, 2005

I second having a light load. Bring the bare minimum of clothes and use laundromats when you need to. That will give you some good "laptop" time, too.
posted by starman at 9:27 AM on November 28, 2005

Jan and Feb in places like Germany, France, and the Netherlands, can be cold and rainy and pretty miserable. I'd bring a gore-tex jacket, gore-tex shoes if possible (not necessarily hiking boots, just some rockports or nikes with the gore-tex inside), and definitely an umbrella, gloves, and winter hat.

If you're going to be living out of a backpack for a month or more, some stuff sacks will be key. These are very cheap ($3 - 5). I have packing "cubes" from eagle creek (and assorted other companies) which have a mesh top and keep my folded clothes in much better shape. Get multiple colors either way (cubes or stuff sacks) -- this will make it easy to remember and find the shit you need.

Don't take too much. If you'll be in big cities in Europe, you can buy anything and everything. I seriously second the advice given above -- pack for two weeks and then toss as much stuff as you possibly can. However lightly you pack, you'll wish you'd packed less (as long as you have a warm and rainproof coat). Assume that you'll buy cool stuff in Europe too -- Think you might need a sweater? Leave yours at home and buy one there. Can't decide between bringing 2 pairs of pants or 3?(note on this: I think that 3 is probably too much for a 6 week trip. One pair of nice dark jeans and a pair of no-wrinkle wool pants for dressier / colder days and that's that.) Leave one pair at home and pick up a pair there when you're ready.

You'll have to budget for buying clothes, but this is the traditonal advice for all long trips. Bring half of the clothes / gear you want to take and twice the money.
posted by zpousman at 9:32 AM on November 28, 2005

I like Gregory backpacks and second the idea of getting a used one. Adapters can be a pain as you often can't use them on trains etc. due to space so another solution is to replace the part of the power word that runs from the box thingy to the wall and actually plugs in. For my computer it's the same as a PlayStation cord so I just bought one of those for a few dollars and was good to go.
posted by fshgrl at 9:35 AM on November 28, 2005

Some things to keep in mind with regard to backpacks:

1) Make sure it has room for stuff you buy while you're over there as well as what you take.

2) Strongly consider a small bag for toting essentials around town while your main bag stays locked up in the hostel. Something like a one-strap messenger bag or other design that's likely to blend in reasonably well. The main bag should have room to hold the daypack. This will keep your hands free while travelling. Your daypack can double as your carry-on (assuming you're flying over there).

As for a particular bag, I used a Gregory Reality, but that model is no longer made. I'm not sure what replaced it. Anyway, I found that 4300 cubic inches was sufficient for 6 weeks of mostly staying in hostels.

Something that's useful for packing is the Universal Packing List. It does a great job of reminding you of things you might've forgotten, and it's very configurable. Along the same lines is One Bag, which is devoted to methods for travelling light, which is essential when you're backpacking.

Shoes. Two schools of thought. One is comfort at all costs, which suggests walking shoes. The other is blending in, which suggets something that doesn't look like a tennis shoe, since Europeans don't tend to wear them, except for athletic activities. I think this second school is rubbish, but if you happen to have a comfortable pair of non-white walking shoes I suppose it can't hurt.

What people have said about keeping a light load can hardly be emphasized enough. Once you've got your pack laid out, walk around with it all day long for a day or two. 30lbs gets really, really heavy after a few hours.

zpousman makes good points. I would suggest 3 pairs of pants, though, and here's why: when you're doing laundry, it is generally suggested that you continue to wear pants. If you've only got 2 pairs, that means (unless you change at the laundromat and do another load) you'll only have one pair of clean pants at a time. Absolutely second the jeans + wrinkle resistant slacks idea, though.
posted by jedicus at 9:38 AM on November 28, 2005

A pair of light sandals (I use Teva's, not slip-ons, as being more dual-purpose) for when you're able to let your feet relax, or when you want to go to the loo in the hostel in the middle of the night.
posted by anadem at 9:44 AM on November 28, 2005

Oh, forgot to answer your question about backpacks.

Good Brands
Dana Designs (way expensive, way nice)
Osprey (esp for women)
Gregory (very good)
Mountainsmith (used to be better, but still solid)

I wore out my Gregory and I carry a cheaper REI pack these days. It's comfortable and small. You will need 4,000 cu/in (55 L?) at least. I'd shoot for 5,000 (70 L ?) or so... and I would resist going bigger just for the sake of "what if..." hypothetical trips. If you're going to bag some peaks in South America, you're going to need a whole mess-a-gear and the backpack that you have will be the least of your problems. Features you might think about: side-entry zipper because top-loading gets old after a while, sleeping bag shelf because it's nice to have a divider sometimes, shovel pocket / mesh outside pocket because you'll want to put your still wet pack towel in it to go to the train station, top lid that converts into a day bag though I usually bring my own day bag also, honking mesh bottle pockets because then you can carry a 1.5 liter botte on one side and your apple / candy bar / gloves / whatever on the other.

Since you'll have a laptop, you'll want a way to lock your bag. But nearly all backpacks available in the US do not afford this (europeans have non-top-loader backpacks, but you can't find one here. Maybe in NYC in the china town / LES markets). But do get a small lock for the top compartment. And also figure out how you're going to lock the bag to the struts of train luggage racks. Many packs get snatched from trains while their owners are asleep. I'd take the computer out of the backpack and keep it in your daybag and keep the daybag on your body while on any intercity train. I would put a huge strip of duct tape across the back of my laptop's screen. This will make it look broken and less valuable. But laptops are very valuable so they are still targets for theievs no matter what.
posted by zpousman at 9:48 AM on November 28, 2005

Second the above...don't skimp on the backpack...if you can, get one that has a detachable daypack (you really will use it).

I would suggest however buying a pack for "travel" as opposed to an "outdoor/expedition" type backpack. Eagle Creek has some nice ones. Reason being, travel packs are designed for travel, and so they have more handy pockets, handles where you need them, zippers placed where they're most accessible, easier to pack/unpack, and they omit the things you don't need--like loops for your ice axe, or sleeping bag straps, etc. A good travel pack is just as comfortable, and even if you do decide to go outdoor camping or something, they work good enough, unless you're going to hike the Matterhorn.

Also, once you get the backpack, take the time to figure out what all the little adjustments do, so you can customize it to your build. It will save you a lot of strain if you align the lumbar correctly to your torso etc. (I saw a lot of guys running around Europe with nice packs that weren't adjusted properly)

Also, similar to what was discussed here, a hanging toiletry kit is a big lifesaver in hostel bathrooms, since they often don't have enough counter space to lay out your stuff. Here's one from Tumi, but you can find cheaper ones at luggage stores. Make sure it's got a hook on it.

Bring stuff for foot care, moleskin, antifungal stuff, and arch supports. I was consistently getting blisters until I put in some arch supports.
posted by Brian James at 10:24 AM on November 28, 2005

Response by poster: Where can I purchase some gore-tex shoes?
posted by bamassippi at 11:01 AM on November 28, 2005

gore-tex shoes: any outdoor store/.com should have them. I got a pair of gore-tex hiking boots from EMS and I love-love-love them. They are only a little bigger than sneakers, so I wear them all day every day. The particular model I have is the "Dry River GTX," but they come in all kinds of flavors. Same stores will have more sneaker-like varieties as well. (I also got one of their 8 oz. raincoats, and it's been great in wet weather from 30 to 90 F. If you're wearing a sweater or long-sleeve under it, you'll be comfortable.) These two are totally worth their $90 and $50ish respective costs.
posted by whatzit at 11:14 AM on November 28, 2005

And don't forget a copy of the invaluable Thomas Cook European Timetable, updated every month. The travel guides with pretty pictures you can read before you go, but take this one with you.
posted by Lanark at 11:14 AM on November 28, 2005

You can find shoes with Gore-tex at any decent sporting goods or shoe store (Dick's, REI, Cabela's, BassOutdoor, Gander Mountain, etc). If you buy your pack at a sporting goods store, they'll have shoes/boots with Gore-tex. They're not hard to find anymore. (20+ years ago, they were hard to find and fairly expensive.)

(I think Mr R got his most recent pair of Gore-tex boots at KMart, of all places. Not that he's going to wear them on a long walk, but still. I got mine from Campmor, but that only works if you know what brand and style fits your feet and the way you walk. )
posted by jlkr at 11:19 AM on November 28, 2005

The one thing I put on the top of my list after my first trip: a compass. You won't need it often, but when you do, it pays off big time. Number two: a camera. Oh, how I wish I had a camera on my first trip.

I like to carry my passport in my hip pocket in case my pack is stolen so I prefer pants that have a button-flap on the pocket. That rules out jeans, but they're too heavy anyway.

Think long and hard about whether you really want to bring your laptop. You can't swing a cat in Western Europe without hitting an internet cafe, so you'll have no trouble getting your email fix. If you want to write, bring a Moleskine. Your laptop will also make you a target for thieves and it's too damn heavy and too damn fragile. Travel weight (with adapters) is probably pushing 6 pounds. Even if you're willing to carry 40 pounds, there goes a big chunk of it on something that you'll spend more time worrying about than actually using.

Make sure you have a good guide book that covers every country you're likely to be in and several you're not likely to be in because you're guaranteed to meet someone along the way that convinces you that Morocco is more interesting than Austria.

Have a separate stuff sack for your dirty laundry. Don't plan on carrying souveniers home with you - that's what post offices are for.
posted by zanni at 12:03 PM on November 28, 2005

Regarding bag security (especially on trains)...bring along a bike lock (the chain variety, not a U-lock). It can be used to lock the zippers together, or to chain the backpack to the luggage rack while you're sleeping. Make sure and put it in your checked luggage, though, as mine was taken away at the Paris airport because it's a potential weapon.
posted by elquien at 12:36 PM on November 28, 2005

I'd say avoid the bags that only open at the top- I guarantee you'll want to get the thing right at the bottom. Everything should be accessible.

Sorry zanni, I'd say don't go overboard on guidebooks. One or two for the places you know you'll be in for a while, but it's not worth carrying around that extra weight and extra space for a city that you'll be in for a night or two, and especially not for a place that you only *might* visit. It's so easy to get around Western Europe. If you arrive at an airport without a clue or a guidebook, it's simple to find a hostel, and once you're there you'll have more ideas for places to see that you can handle.

I'd highly highly recommend packing two alligator lock straps (not sure what you call them in the US). They're long straps with little metal clips that let you tighten them as much as you need and you press the lever when you want to take them off. Absolutely essential. I don't know where you'll use them, but in six weeks you'll definitely be in a situation at one point where you need to tie something to something else. They can tie big awkward things to your bag, they can tie your bag to a rack (not completely secure, but definitely prevents opportunistic theft), they can tie around a bag so you can sling it over your shoulder, etc etc.

Similarly vital is a roll of duct tape but, before you go, cut through the cardboard in the middle, remove it, and flatten the roll. It takes up next to no space and, like the straps, you'll love it when you need it. It can fix almost anything.

And have a blast! Don't get too worried about anything... the very worst things that could possibly happen will only make for more interesting stories on your return. Enjoy it!
posted by twirlypen at 2:45 PM on November 28, 2005

BackpackFilter: I love my Gregory Palisade but there are plusses and minuses to any pack*. Proper fit is paramount if you will be putting major miles on your feet (Will you be carrying a full load on your back all the time?) or if you'll be carrying a major load (anything > 15-20% of your body weight.)

Whether you go new or used, find a store with a knowledgeable fitter first (yes, this usually means big-box stores are out) and see what they have to say about packs specific to your body and intended use.

*e.g., Gregorys fit me best and are well built, but they aren't cheap and can be heavier than similar offerings from other makers.
posted by Opposite George at 2:50 PM on November 28, 2005

Oh yeah, ziplocs and duct tape (though you can probably get each when you get there.)
posted by Opposite George at 2:52 PM on November 28, 2005

A pocketknife is always useful. Get something simple and disposable. You'll always be slicing up some food or in need of trimming something off.

Opinions vary, but I still think a moneybelt is still the key to peace of mind. All of your valuables go in there and you don't have to think about it. A separate photocopy of important documents and cards should be tucked in another bag or preferably someone else's bag.

Ditch the laptop now, otherwise you'll want to about three days into your trip.
posted by Mercaptan at 3:35 PM on November 28, 2005

Rick Steves devotes a section of his site to all of these topics.

I'd actually lean against a backpack if you're travelling from city to city (because nothing screams 'backpacker' louder than a backpack), and second the idea of having a messenger bag for the stuff you need during the day. You'll find luggage lockers in hostels and in many transit hubs. What to take? First-aid stuff. Headache pills. Travel-sickness pills.
posted by holgate at 3:36 PM on November 28, 2005

Pack as little as humanly possible. Then throw out half of it.
Guide books can be convenient, but also make your trip much more cookie-cutterish and identical to everyone else's. Seriously, trips are all about the narrative, and why would you want your story to come pre-written?
Don't be a boyscout: you don't need water purifiers, compasses, 20 maps, etc, etc. Bring a good knife, maybe a small flashlight, that's it.
If your worried about being marked as a backpacker, get normal looking shoes, as nothing screams backpacker (other than a backpack) as gore-cyber-tex-rock-climbing shoes in a downtown plaza. Whenever I wonder if somebody's a gringo, first thing I check are his/her shoes.
posted by signal at 4:30 PM on November 28, 2005

I sent this thread to a friend of mine, because we're planning a trip for January, and she had this to say:

an umbrella - in case you don't want to buy an expensive jacket and rain gear for your pack, much nicer than a big poncho - and you don't look like a tourist.

I also carried a sound alarm, the kind for joggers, when a pin gets pulled it makes a really loud abnoxious sound. My travel companion and I would attach the alarm to our bags and the shelf in trains. If ever someone tried to steal our packs while we slept they probably wouldn't see the little alarm. Kind of for the paranoid type but I could sleep on the trains without worrying about my bag.
posted by dmo at 5:42 PM on November 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

A couple of things to add:

A pocketknife is always useful. Get something simple and disposable. You'll always be slicing up some food or in need of trimming something off.

You can get arrested in some places in Europe for carrying any knife with a blade over 3", especially the UK. My English friends reacted to the penknife I carry everywhere at home as if it were a Glock. Which was ironic considering the number of knife-wielding youths lingering outside their house, but I digress.

Goretex shoes can make your feet sweat buckets indoors and they don't dry very easily so consider where you're going to be spending most of your time. Maybe waterproof socks would be better, like Sealskins with breathable shoes.

Pacsafe is probably your best bet if you do decide to bring your laptop. I'd also bring a cheapo headlamp for reading in bed and on trains.
posted by fshgrl at 6:04 PM on November 28, 2005

If you're going to be walking around a lot, I suggest brining two pairs of shoes, in contradition to the other opinions on this thread. That way when your feet are aching after a day of walking around, the enxt day you can switch shoes and the stress points on the feet will be different so you're less likely to get blisters. Also good if you're tromping around in the rain and your shoes get soaked - at least you'll have a backup. Eccos are great urban walking shoes, and on certain models the insoles come out for easy drying.

Eagle Creek Continental Journey
is a good city backpacking bag, but I don't know about accomodating laptops...
posted by daravida at 3:22 AM on December 2, 2005

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