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What to pack for a trip to Europe: Western Balkans

Working as a mountain & culture guide in the Western Balkans, I often hear from my clients they had to research what to pack for a trip to Europe, precisely Western Balkans before traveling to this region.

To help you to prepare for your trip to the Western Balkans, I have decided to write a packing checklist and answer to the FAQ. As a local living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and as a professional guide, I know what is essential to pack for each season and hiking trip in the Western Balkans. Also, I have asked my friend and blogger Eva Smeele to jump in and write what she thinks is necessary to pack for backpacking Via Dinarica trail. Eva is the first woman who has walked the whole Via Dinarica alone, and she was happy to collaborate with me on this topic. 

So now, when you know that you’re in the hands of two experts, let’s dive right in.

What to pack for each season?

Before we start to talk about what to pack for each season, it is crucial to choose the right type of luggage.

When deciding on the luggage, it’s very important to have in mind two things. Some hotels don’t have an elevator, and sometimes you need to walk a few minutes to get to your accommodation.

For instance, I have stayed in hotels that didn’t have an elevator and had to carry my luggage up the staircases. Usually, there is a bellboy or hotel staff who offers help with luggage. Have in mind that it’s customary to tip hotel staff or bellboy for the service of carrying guests’ luggage.

But, what happens if you have a duffel bag without wheels and need to walk a few minutes to your hotel? Some hotels in the Western Balkans are in the pedestrian part of town, so you need to walk from the parking lot. Also, in some countries, it’s not allowed for buses to disembark passengers in busy streets or the touristy part of town.

Thus, choose carefully what type and size of luggage you will buy for your Balkan trip. In short, pack in light, small or medium size suitcase with wheels or rolling duffel bag with a few convenient pockets for maximum packing.

Let’s now start with what is a must-to-pack for each season and go through weather conditions for each season.

Spring

Months: March, April, May

Temperature: 41°F and 60°F (5°C to 15°C)

Spring in the Western Balkans can bring sunny days and mild, comfortable temperatures. It’s a time of awakening of nature. For these reasons, it can be an ideal time to travel to this region. Although, some places will be rainy and dreary, so be ready for all weather conditions. Spring is a time of the most unpredictable weather.

Months April and May could be the best time to travel to the south and the Adriatic coast. These parts have the sunniest days, and you can take a refreshing swim in the sea. Best of all, even the most popular towns like Mostar, Dubrovnik, and Kotor aren’t busy. 

On your packing checklist, you should have rain gear- an umbrella or rain jacket. It’s crucial in Springtime! The annoying thing is that you should pack clothes for almost all weather conditions. From short sleeves, and jumpers, and medium-warm jacket, to boots, and sandals. As my mum knows to say: “Dress in layers.”A little bit of everything, but also should be light so it can fit your suitcase. 

If you’re traveling to the destinations at a higher altitude, you need warmer clothes and just a few short sleeves t-shirt

Summer

Months: June, July, August

Temperature: 60°F and 95°F (15°C to 35°C)

At the beginning of summer, temperatures are still comfortably warm. But, at the end of July and throughout August, parts of Western Balkans can endure searing heat.

With the arrival of summer, the weather is more stable and sunny. Therefore, you can pack mostly thin layers and just one or two clothing items in case of colder days. 

In the summer season, June is the lesser busy month and a great time to travel for those of you who don’t like crowds. The next two months are the peak of the season and gorgeous time to visit Western Balkans, but also a time when most tourists visit this region. 

On the must-pack list for the summer season in the Balkans is insect repellant, sunglasses, sunscreen, and sun hat. Despite an abundant number of sunny days in this region, especially Herzegovina, there is still a possibility of a short shower on warm sunny days. So be ready and bring your rain gear!

If you’re traveling into the mountains, be sure to bring something warm for much cooler nights. Also, on a rainy day, the temperature can drop quickly. Mountains are unpredictable, so be on a safe side and always have something warm with yourself.

Fall

Months: September, October, November

Temperature: 45°F and 69°F (7°C to 20°C) – In September could be few degrees higher.

Fall, similar to spring brings milder weather, but also a kaleidoscope of colors. A firework of colors explodes in autumn! Best time to visit cities with big parks and to travel into the mountains. 

However, fall is like spring unpredictable, so you should prepare yourself for some rainfall, usually drizzle, and chill. Rain gear is like during spring for sure a must-pack item! Don’t forget to pack it, and actually to take it with yourself everywhere you go. Also, pack a light jacket or ultra-light-packable down jacket and scarf to keep warm on a chilly, windy day. A lightweight windproof jacket is also a great item to have in your suitcase.

September is a great month to travel to the Western Balkans. It’s still summer according to the calendar, but temperatures are not high like in August than rather comfortable around 20°C. Usually, people think that there is no crowd in September, but times have changed. The last few years have shown this month is a quite popular time to visit Western Balkans. Especially, cities like Mostar, Dubrovnik and Kotor. 

October can sometimes surprise us with the number of sunny days and pleasant temperatures. This year, 2019, we had ideal weather in Bosnia for traveling and hiking. There were just a couple of days with a shower, and the rest was all sunny days with mild temperatures. So, who knows, maybe October 2020 will also surprise us.

Winter

Months: December, January, February

Temperature: 22°F and 41°F (-5°C to 5°C)

Every season has its stunning side, but I must say snow gives a totally different perspective of the region. Everything is covered in white and decorated for the holiday season. It’s the time of hot chocolate, mulled wine, and delicious homemade cookies.

On the Adriatic coast and in towns that have big rivers flowing through them, you can experience blustery weather in winter. The wind gives you feeling it’s even colder than it is. So, pack your warmest jacket, woolen sweaters, hat, scarf, and warm gloves. Like for spring season, it’s also smart to pack clothes that you will wear in layers in winter. You don’t want to be in extra-warm clothes and then when you enter a cafe faint because you’re too warm and can’t get any layer off.

Don’t forget to pack water-repellent and warm boots, but also they must be light on your feet, so you can stroll around for hours.

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Prepare yourself for a trip to the Western Balkans

What to pack for a day hike?

Day hikes are a great way to explore Dinaric Alps. You can choose from remote trails to more known, and popular trails. However, for even the most popular trails in the Western Balkans, I wouldn’t say they are too busy. The mountains in this region are still a lesser-known destination for hiking.

To determine what you need to pack in your backpack depends on the weather forecast, how far you plan to hike, are you going on a guided hiking trip, and how remote the location is. Having that said, you can’t completely rely on the weather forecast. You need to pack stuff for all weather conditions. Therefore, it’s crucial to have light gear.

So, let’s go through items that are essential for a day hike.

1) Hiking backpack

For a day hike, you should have a backpack between 20-40 liters. It’s crucial to think about your shoulder and backs (yes, even if you’re in your twenties), so buy a backpack that has an adjustable hip belt and good back ventilation. The hip belt is important because it will hold most of the weight of the backpack on your hips. This way you will protect your shoulders.
Also, it’s very important to bring a rain cover for your backpack. Some backpacks come with it, so make sure to check before buying rain cover.
You should pay extra attention to the arrangement of pockets on your backpack. To stay hydrated is key in the mountains, so your water bottles should always be easy to access. Or get hydration bladder if you prefer using it more than water bottles. But, backpack without hydration ports and sleeves could be a dealbreaker. So, make sure to check before buying one!
One great addition you should look for are loops to stow your hiking poles when you’re not using them.

2) First-aid kit

You need to have a personal first-aid kit, and always check before every hike do you have everything you need in it. Because maybe you will use something and then later forget to renew. There are some mandatory items every first-aid kit should have, but I will not go into details now.
But, if you’re interested to know what to put in your first aid kit, check the interview I had with my colleague and member of a mountain rescue team Eldar Fazlagic. Click here!
What I think is the best is to check what your friends and other hikers carry in their first aid kit, and then you can make your list.

3) Hiking boots

I will always recommend hiking boots over trail shoes. The reason is that I think hiking boots are more useful for the type of terrain you can find in the Dinaric Alps. It’s karst terrain, that can get quite difficult, so you need boots to provide stability and support.
Get gore-tex boots with vibram soles and good grip! Your boots should have ankle support because it’s super easy to wrist it on harshest terrain you can find in the Dinarides.

4) Down jacket & Rain jacket

A down jacket will keep you warm and they are easily packable and very light. I don’t go anywhere without mine! No matter what the weather forecast predicts, I always pack my down jacket and rain gear. A rain jacket should be gore-tex and light and have good breathability and ventilation.

5) Hiking poles

When I started to hike more frequent I thought people are using hiking poles only if they are older or have some injuries. I was young and didn’t have any problems with walking, so I didn’t even consider buying them. What can I say I didn’t have the knowledge nor experience I have now.
Later, I went on one hiking trip where I had to descend for 2 hours on a steep and muddy trail. For the first time, I experienced how hiking poles can be very useful.
You don’t need to use them all the time, but it’s good to have hiking poles with yourself just in case if you need them.

6) Warm hat & Gloves

I know it maybe sounds strange to bring a warm hat and gloves in summer, but the mountains are unpredictable. The weather can change easily in a few hours, from sunny to cold and windy. Bring a woolen hat (my recommendation is a light merino wool hat) and gloves to keep yourself warm (you can buy handmade woolen gloves in Lukomir, it’s a great souvenir and you will support locals).

7) Navigation tools

Compas & map, GPS, applications like OruxMaps, Wikiloc, Outdooractive.

I’m using two applications, OurxMaps and Wikiloc, and I always have a compass and map with me.

8) Sunglasses & Sun hat & Sunscreen

9) Food & Water

10) Knife or multi-tool

11) Extra clothes

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Packing for a day hike in the Dinaric Alps
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Eva walking Via Dinarica

What to pack for backpacking the Via Dinarica?

When you’re hiking the Via Dinarica Trail, you should prepare yourself for the extremes. It can get crazy hot, but the nights up on the mountain might be colder than you expect. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the Via Dinarica is a new trail. The development and maintenance lays on the shoulders of volunteers. Although they put a lot of effort into making it as hiker friendly as possible, there are still pretty wild sections. For those of you who are aiming to tackle the entire trail, I made a list of things to pack for hiking the Via Dinarica.

Of course, you can choose to hike shorter sections or even go on a day trip. In that case, just read through the list to see what could be useful for you, because the items I listed are things you need on a thru-hike.

Having that said, there are many different approaches when it comes to long-distance hiking. In my opinion, there’s no right or wrong. “Hike your own hike” is the cliche I’d like to use here. I will not be the one telling you, you’ll have to buy all these things before you head off. No, certainly not. And also, I won’t be the one telling what to eat, how to cook, or how often you should change your underwear because I assume you already know the basics.

Gear List for Via Dinarica

1) GPS

As I said, some sections are wild. The Via Dinarica Trail is not a red carpet. Trails are not as frequently hiked or as worn out as the hiking trails in the Alps. Therefore it might become handy to upload the GPX tracks on a GPS to make it easier navigating.

2) Camping equipment

Along the Via Dinarica Trail, there are several mountain huts and shelters where you potentially could spend the night. Unfortunately, the distance between them is often more than you can cover in one day. Besides, most mountain huts are only open at the weekend, but during the week you need to arrange the key to be able to sleep at the hut. This can be a little logistical challenge. That’s why often camping is the way to go.

Whether you bring a tent or just a tarp is up to you, as long as you can protect yourself from wind and rain, you’re good. The shelters in the Dinaric Alps are very basic, but they’re usually open all year round and free of charge. Do bring your sleeping pad and sleeping bag, because it’s not rare to find a wooden floor to sleep on. Sometimes there’s a stove or a fire pit to cook on, but if you want to be sure of a hot meal, you better bring your own stove.

3) Down jacket

Bringing a down jacket maybe sounds weird, but you’re hiking in the mountains. Weather can easily change and temperatures can drop to zero at night. Having enough warm layers is the key. This can range from thermal underwear to woolen shirts, a fleece and/or a down jacket. I prefer down over fleece because it’s light and compact, and it gives you instant warmth, but it can get sweaty if you wear while hiking. It’s up to you which layers you bring, but don’t underestimate the Dinarides.

4) Rain clothes and sunscreen

Again, you’re in the mountains and you can expect all sorts of weather. There will be rainy days, so rain clothes are in my opinion a must. Just as sunscreen is. Often the hiking trail is very exposed which means there’s often lack of shade while the sun burns fiercely. If you’re not a big fan of sunscreen you could protect your skin by wearing long sleeves and some kind of hat, but remember that it’s gonna be hot.

5) Water filter

Because the Dinaric Alps are karst mountains, there’s not a lot of surface water. Depending on the snow, you’ll find meltwater early in the summer and of course, there are a bunch of springs, rivers, and lakes, but some of them do dry out. Especially July and August can be tricky when it comes to water. A lot of the water sources along the trail are cisterns with rainwater. Also, these can run empty throughout the season, but more importantly, this water is standing still. Filtering the water avoids all sorts of nasty issues and gives you access to the less reliable sources as well. One of the most popular water filters is the Sawyer mini/squeeze because it’s small, lightweight and easy to use.

6) Hiking poles

These days it became more and more standard to equip yourself with hiking poles. There are heaps of blog posts telling you about the benefits, so if you’re not convinced you could have a read. The reason I specifically mention to bring hiking poles is that the Via Dinarica is at times very demanding when it comes to the terrain. Hiking poles can be useful for balance, but also to take off the load from your feet. Another argument could be the overgrown parts. Hiking poles are a useful tool while bushwhacking.

7) First aid

Opinions differ on what should be in your first aid or if you need to bring one at all. It’s again a personal choice, you know your body best. If you tend to easily get blisters, pack something to treat them. When you’re stomach is not as strong as you wish it to be, you might want to bring something to stop diarrhea.

8) Location beacon (especially when you’re a solo hiker)

The more crucial injuries are the tricky part because the Via Dinarica Trail runs through very remote areas where it will take you a few hours – if not a day – to get back to civilization. Don’t count on other hikers, because there aren’t many. If you think you know how to treat yourself, you can fill up your first aid kit with those lifesavers. If you don’t, it’s smart to have some kind of location beacon or Spot device that you can also use to call for an emergency.

9) Translation app

Okay, I admit this is not a necessity. You can use your hands and feet to communicate and generally you don’t meet that many people at all, but if you do, there’s a good chance English will not get you very far.

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Filtering the water

FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions about traveling to the Western Balkans

Is there pickpocketing in the Western Balkans?

Like in the rest of the world pickpocketing is unfortunately present in all capital, bigger cities in the Western Balkans. Let’s just put it like this: you need to watch your belongings wherever you go!
Especially, be careful in very touristy, crowded areas and public transportation (like trams in Sarajevo). Your belongings should be in front of you, somewhere you can see them, or better hold by hand. It’s not something that is reserved only for foreigners, it’s happening to locals as well. I was a victim of pickpocketing a few times in my home town.

Easy way to protect your cash, credit cards, important travel documents, phone, and hotel key is to conceal them into a neck wallet, or travel money belt. And the beauty of the neck wallet and travel money belt is you can easily hide it under your shirt or jacket. Also, a nice touch is that you can buy these items water-repelling.

Is it useful to buy a prepaid Europe sim card?

Yes and no. Usually, the majority of Europe SIM cards are useful if you’re only traveling to Croatia and no other countries in the Western Balkans.
Having high-speed data from the moment you get off the plane could be very important (or just a habit) for many of you, but believe me, you can survive without it. Download the offline map on your phone before starting your trip (Google offline map, maps.me), print important information about your trip (hotel reservation,etc.), and get a local cab.
In short, I would recommend buying a local operator’s prepaid SIM card in kiosks or almost any store. It is cheap and easy to get.

Is there Uber in the Western Balkans?

Uber exists only in Croatia, and the rest of the Western Balkans use local cabs. Local cabs are not expensive, for example in Sarajevo the starting price is between 0.50 – 1.00 €. Just make sure that the cab has a sign and the taxi-meter is on. Also, there is an app mojTaxi for the following cities: Sarajevo, Zagreb, Beograd, Skopje, Podgorica. Using this app you can order a cab online and pay with a card.

What to do about travel insurance for the Western Balkans?

When traveling to the Western Balkans, travel insurance is a must. Things can always go wrong, and having travel insurance when you’re on the road will give you peace-of-mind.

The travel insurance I would recommend you to use is World Nomads. Why? Because they care about responsible travel, they donate money to many causes around the world (and so could you if you purchase their travel insurance), and many of my friends are using it, and they are happy.

Besides travel insurance, you can apply to win a scholarship (photography, writing or film), read travel guides, listen to podcasts, etc.

 

Below is an affiliate link. If you buy your travel insurance through this link, you won’t pay a penny more, but I’ll get a small commission that helps me to maintain this blog. Thanks!

Is the tap water in the Western Balkans safe to drink?

You can drink tap water in most of the Western Balkans. Especially, when you’re in the mountain villages or cities surrounded by the mountains. There is nothing better than fresh mountain water!
Having said that, always ask locals is tap water drinkable, or use a filtered water bottle to be sure.
One of the examples of places where tap water isn’t safe to drink is Kotor in Montenegro. I personally had a stomach problem after drinking water in Kotor, and also a couple of my colleagues.

Do locals speak the English language?

English is the first foreign language that is taught in schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Croatia. In other words, younger generations most likely know English excellent. On the contrary, generations that went to school during Yugoslavia, when English wasn’t the first foreign language taught in schools, could have problems with understanding you.
But, you will be surprised how many people learned, at least basic English, in a couple of years while working in the tourism industry. Tourism is developing more and more in the Western Balkans, so locals who are offering accommodation, or some type of service in the mountain villages and cities are eager to learn the English language.

Is it custom to tip in restaurants, cafes, and guides?

Yes, it is! usually, in the Western Balkans, there is no option to include the tip on the bill if you’re paying with a card. The custom is to leave the tip in the restaurants, cafes, and to the guides (city guide, mountain guide, rafting skipper) if you’re satisfied with the provided service. The amount that you will tip depends on you.
I see tipping as one way of responsible travel, something that you can do to help locals. Salaries are quite low in this region, so tipping someone who did a good job is a great way to support them.

In some places on the Adriatic coast (Kotor, Budva, Dubrovnik) and heartland, it is usual to get cover/table charge for bread, water and setting up the table along with your bill. This is a fixed amount per person at the table. You will maybe hear a waiter saying ‘kuver’ (le couvert) or just added on your bill in the amount of around 2 € (which is usually what is done).

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